Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Last Days of Night

last days of night

Random House, 2016.

I have two favorite periods in American history: the colonial and Revolutionary era and the Gilded Age. Perhaps what fascinates me most about these two particular periods is that, in each, America is recognizable as America, but it’s also on the cusp of becoming something new, something even more familiar to a modern American. During the Gilded Age, it’s the emergence of the financial and manufacturing empires and the technological advances like the telephone and the automobile that turned America into its modern self. One of the most revolutionary of all Gilded Age advances was the switch to electric power and its use in creating light.

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore is the fictionalized retelling of the “current wars” of the blossoming electric industry and its transformation into the form familiar to us today. During the “current wars,” Thomas Edison holds the patent for the lightbulb, but George Westinghouse is making a better one—and he’s harnessed the superior A/C current. But Edison brings a series of lawsuits against Westinghouse and it looks like Edison will eventually win the years’-long war of attrition between them. Westinghouse, in a last-ditch effort to find a fresh solution to his legal troubles, hires Paul Cravath, an extremely young and inexperienced recent graduate of Columbia Law School.

Paul Cravath is someone with whom it is easy to identify. He’s smart and he’s lucky to have a good job and be selected by George Westinghouse. But he’s stuck between his humble Tennessee roots and the expectations of the glamorous New Yorkers with whom he rubs shoulders. After being personally intimidated by Edison, Paul determines to beat the manipulator at his own game. Yet he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He navigates threats and deception and makes more than a few rookie mistakes. He also falls in love, but feels unworthy of that love as a New York outsider. Paul is always striving—to stay ahead of Edison, to impress Westinghouse, to be worthy of love—but along the way he is tempted to cross the line and become the very thing he hates, a man without honor.

Paul Cravath

Paul Cravath, Wikipedia.

In the beginning, Paul sees himself in the business of telling moral stories—making a narrative from the facts, telling who was bad and who was good, “until the righteousness of his plaintiff or his defendant became overwhelming.” But in the “current wars,” it quickly becomes hard to distinguish the good from the bad. And what will become of Paul himself? Reading his story leaves me asking the question: is it possible to keep your honor, to not stoop to deception or intimidation, in trying to win battles of this scale? Making a profit and coming out ahead is not inherently a dirty business, but what do you do if you stand to lose everything when your opponent stoops to manipulation, or even violence? In the end, Paul “committed his own sins to prove that Edison’s had been greater.” Moore makes the case that it’s possible for the underdog to win in big business, but there’s inevitable collateral damage and an immense personal cost to character. There are no longer clear boundaries between good guys and bad guys.

The birth of something new is inherently painful. I think most people would agree that many of these “titans” of modern industry were also “robber barons,” but it is less likely that we think of the inventors and revolutionaries of the same era as having just as shady a past. After all, we read about them from youth upward in brightly illustrated books, observe their history displayed in museums, and think of “progress” and “The American Dream.” Reality is not often so clear-cut. The Last Days of Night dissolves our illusions about the inherent altruism of innovators and cautions us for the future.

Reading The Last Days of Night is a rich and rewarding experience. Moore brings to life the two radically different inventors, Edison and Westinghouse, the bizarre genius Nikola Tesla, the famous opera singer Agnes Huntington, and the intimidating financial baron J.P. Morgan. Paul travels from the glittering, yet still dim, streets of New York and the lush Delmonico’s restaurant, to the farms of Nashville, Tennessee, and the specialized laboratories of Westinghouse and Tesla. Under the influence of Moore’s pen, America in 1888 becomes a living, breathing place.

The Last Days of Night is perfectly well-paced and suspenseful. From the opening scene in which a lineman burns to death on an electric wire, to the first attempted execution with an electric chair, the novel is atmospheric and suspenseful. Moore captures the spirit of an era in which anything is possible, yet there is great uncertainty. The switch from gas to electric light was by no means guaranteed.

I was inspired by how Graham Moore put his interest in this historical story to use. Each of the major figures portrayed here was a historical person with a fascinating story. But because there is little scholarly research about Paul himself, Moore turned to writing fiction rather than biography. This seems like a risky business, and as I am not an expert in the subject area, I don’t know if he did the characters justice. However, there is a chapter-length section at the end of the novel that explains how he made his character and plot decisions and the changes he made in order to make the narrative flow. So, in the end, I can’t tell you if The Last Days of Night is true, but I can say it was marvelous entertainment.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Picador, 2010.

Years ago, before I ever read one of her books, I saw part of an interview with author Hilary Mantel. I didn’t know anything about her and I had no reason to continue listening, until she said something that grabbed my attention and has inspired me ever since. “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.

Mantel repeated this idea in an interview for The Paris Review and proceeded to explain how she found herself in the midst of historical fiction:

“I’d read all the history books and novels [about the French Revolution] I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it—at least, a story about some of them—so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that.”

My mind has been captured by this idea—writing fiction to cover the territory that history leaves out—ever since. And I, too, feel as if I have missed my chance of becoming a historian. I am hours from the resources that interest me, tied to the schedule of running a house and raising children, and undoubtedly lacking the education that would make me a respectable member of the historical community. Given my love for literature, maybe I should just start using my historical imagination and write a story.

In her novels, however, Mantel proves that it’s possible to be both a good novelist and historian. There are academics out there who would debate that statement based upon the spin she puts on certain historical figures, but I think it’s safe to say she has revolutionized the way we view Tudor history. In her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which opens with Wolf Hall, Mantel takes everything she could find about Cromwell and dramatizes it, creating her “documentary fiction.” Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from near the end of his service to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey through the years in which Cromwell insinuates himself into Henry VIII’s innermost circle. He engineers the downfall of Queen Katherine and the rise of Anne Boleyn, prodding Henry away from the Church all the while. By the end of the novel, Cromwell’s rival Thomas More is dead, Anne has failed to produce a male heir, and Henry is on his way to Wolf Hall, home of Jane Seymour’s family—and it’s a little less certain who Cromwell really is.

The White Tower within the Tower of London

Cromwell is a fascinating enigma in Mantel’s hands. He is at times tender, patient, generous, and terribly cold and calculating. He serves Wolsey and then the king, yet is secretly an evangelical who despises the abuses of the Church. He is the blacksmith’s boy with a murky past, yet he rises to advise and turn the heart of the king. Cromwell hides—even from himself—behind a cloak of ambiguity. The reader is never sure what Cromwell believes. He masters the “defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne.” Early in life he adapts the motto “Choose your prince”—and then serves his prince in whatever way is expedient, becomes whatever his prince needs him to be. “That is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him.” Over and over we are left wondering, How can such a man go along with this? How can he be party to something so terrible?

We get the feeling that Cromwell orchestrates every Englishman—and Frenchman and Spaniard and Pope—to his purpose. And he loves it. “Henry says, ‘Do what you have to do. I will back you.’ It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life to hear. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.” Yet Mantel is sure to remind us what a horrifying place Tudor England is. Each man is out for himself—out to raise his family’s name and out to better his own station. Lives change overnight at the king’s whim and the world dances to stay on his good side. Cromwell, after making a last ditch effort to save the life of Sir Thomas More, receives from Henry a chilling dressing-down and reminder of the razor-thin edge between even his life and death: “‘Do I retain you for what is easy? … I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm… Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’”

This Tudor world, with its plagues and beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake, is so vivid that it’s hard to look away. Even though I know the end of Thomas Cromwell, and seeing his life unfold is something like watching a train wreck, there’s enough tenderness and humor in him that I cannot help but like him. The book is undeniably hard to read—Mantel doesn’t tell us everything, and understanding Tudor history is like unraveling a Gordian knot—but I’m looking forward to diving back in with the second volume of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

**Reading tips: Wolf Hall is not only hard to read because of the complexity of Tudor history, but also because Mantel has an annoying tendency to use the pronoun “he” all the time. Before reading the book, I was lucky enough to find a book review telling me to assume that “he” usually refers to Cromwell. It gets easier to follow as the book goes on. Also, as “documentary fiction” about a corrupt foreign world, there are some adult elements in the book.

Book Review: News of the World

news of the world

Paulette Jiles, News of the World. William Morrow: 2016.

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.”

Jefferson Kyle Kidd’s self-appointed purpose in life is to carry the news. In 1870, Captain Kidd has survived three wars and in each has found his place as a runner, courier, and printer. “He loved print, felt something right about sending out information into the world. Independent of its content.” Now, at seventy-one years, he travels the wild and violent roads of central Texas, stopping in each town and standing each evening at a lectern with newspapers from around the world spread before him, reading the best and most magical information aloud. At one point in his middle age Kidd believed, “If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms.” Learning the hard way that this is an illusion, he settles for creating escapism. “What people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information … Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

Captain Kidd’s lonely and monotonous rounds are interrupted when, to help a friend, he takes on the job of returning ten-year-old Indian captive Johanna Leonberger to distant relatives outside of San Antonio. After four years as a Kiowa captive, Johanna appears not to remember her parents, who were killed in her sight, or any German or English language. Kidd is understandably somewhat resentful of this intrusion into his life and the great risk involved to him in crossing the state of Texas with her. He mournfully repeats to himself that he has already raised two daughters. Yet he accepts the fifty dollar gold piece in payment and buys a beat-up wagon with “Curative Waters” printed on the side to carry the girl home.

Their journey south to San Antonio is a journey toward purpose and rescue as much as it is a passage through Texas. The strange Indian/English/German girl pierces Kidd’s crusty old-man exterior. His heart is tender and empathetic; he starts to see life through little Chohenna’s eyes—not all American ways make sense, just as not all Kiowa ways do. In turn, Johanna’s shell-shocked heart opens just a little and she looks on the Kep-dun as Kontah—grandfather.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles ranks with the best fiction I have read in the last few years. In its tidy 209 pages, it shows—beautifully—so much more than it tells. Its words are poetic and vivid. Many scenes—a darkened barn during a downpour, a stream-side camp under the pecan trees, a wild and raging river at night—played in bright, sparkling images across my mind. Jiles has mixed the best parts of the Western with poetry and literary fiction to create a beautiful picture lesson of rescue, a life redeemed, and human compassion.

I cannot let this review pass without also pointing out the history work that Jiles has done with News of the World. She has brought to life two very obscure pieces of the past: the circuit news-readers and the captive children who lost all sense of their Euro-American identity. These children, floating fragmented in a no-mans-land of cultures, escaped all attention—“And the newspapers, they say nothing about this at all or about the poor at all. … There are great holes in your newspapers. Nobody sees them. God sees them.” And now we see them. I could only ever hope to teach so much history in such a powerful way.

“Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

*I think you will love this book, but note that it is a Western and as such has one scene of graphic violence.

Book Review: Belgravia

Belgravia

Julian Fellowes, Belgravia. Grand Central Publishing: 2016.

Have you been missing Downton Abbey? It’s been a year since the last season aired. There hasn’t been a lack of great British television, but nothing seems to fill that Downton Abbey-shaped void.

In the intervening months the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes, hasn’t been idle. He hosted (from his armchair) a production of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne viewable on Amazon. Lord Fellowes was even spotted in the South Carolina low-country strolling the gardens of his New World counterparts at Middleton Place plantation (check it out here). Perhaps his most intriguing accomplishment was the release of a serial novel for digital download. Unbeknownst to me, Fellowes has already published several novels, but this revival of the modern interest in the serial novel is, to me, his most unique literary endeavor. It’s now available in one hardback volume as Belgravia.

The world of Belgravia is a familiar one for fans of Downton Abbey. It’s a society novel, with characters pulled from the ranks of the nobility down to the servants’ hall. Belgravia, however, is a story of London, rather than a Yorkshire estate, and takes place about seventy years earlier than Downton Abbey during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Belgravia follows two families from one of the wealthiest of London neighborhoods who are inescapably linked by a decades-old secret. Lord and Lady Brockenhurst, inhabitants of one of the grandest mansions on Belgrave Square, lead an aristocratic life but suffer the emptiness of a childless old age. Their only son and heir died years before at the Battle of Waterloo. On nearby Eaton Square in a not-quite-so-grand yet still luxurious mansion, James and Susan Trenchard live the up-and-coming lifestyle of the nouveau riche. They, too, have their share of sorrow as they continue to mourn the loss of their only daughter more than twenty years before. In 1840s London these two families, so close in proximity and lifestyle, would never have mingled, given that old money does not condescend to accept the new. But in this case, their paths cross, again and again, as both families display an immense and puzzling interest in the young entrepreneur Charles Pope. The relations and servants of the two families are left to discover just who this man is, and how his presence will affect them all.

Belgravia is reminiscent of the quintessential Victorian novel. There is a convoluted plot, extensive family connections and lost relatives, disgruntled employees, a little bit of romance, and a great deal of mystery and drama surrounding secret papers. More than once, I was reminded of a Dickens, Trollope, or Thackeray novel. But Fellowes doesn’t go as far as Dickens; Belgravia addresses the seamier side of Victorian London only in passing. And Belgravia does not have any of the long, descriptive passages typical of Victorian literature, either. It is much easier to read, if it is at times a little sluggish.

I admire Julian Fellowes’ work; I am appreciative whenever a novel or television show is able to make the past “come alive.” Fellowes says at the outset that he writes his stories to show that people living in the “foreign country” of the past are just like us in their hopes, dreams, temptations, and failures. He certainly succeeded in that aim with Downton Abbey. I am less sure that he succeeded with Belgravia. While I was not at all expecting it to be great literature, I suppose I was expecting it to have more “heart,” for what, if anything, was Downton Abbey but a dramatic emotional trip? Belgravia had all of the machinations of Downton Abbey, but it was missing something. I am convinced now that the actors made the show, putting flesh to the bones of a very good plot.

Perhaps, if you choose to read Belgravia, you should people it in your imagination with the actors from Downton Abbey and read it as a highly descriptive script. Or, imagine Julian Fellowes in his armchair reading it to you, teaching you about the Victorian period. You won’t be disappointed in the Victorian world he creates, but you may wish you could become more emotionally attached.

Book Review: The Rose Garden

rose garden

Susanna Kearsley, The Rose Garden. Sourcebooks Landmark: 2011.

Susanna Kearsley has been on my to-read radar for a while. She always appears on those “Recommended for readers of” lists on my Amazon and Goodreads accounts. The only one of her books the library had, although not her highest rated, was The Rose Garden.

I was dubious when I pulled the book off of the shelf. The cover, with it’s bare-backed female, screams romance. I try to stay far away from reading strictly romance genre novels. There are very few romance novels that make it into the “literature” category and, honestly, you can never know when the book will suddenly turn explicit. The description on the book’s back cover almost turned me away, reminding me too much of the Outlander series, which sounded like great fun but which I abandoned because it broke too many rules and tipped the “explicit meter” too much for me.

I decided to read The Rose Garden anyway, and all I can figure is that the cover and title (which doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot) are all marketing. The novel has romance elements in it, but that element wasn’t overwhelming. It is hard to categorize, though. It could settle easily in the fantasy genre, too.

In The Rose Garden, Eva travels to scenic Cornwall to scatter her sister’s ashes in a place that was significant to them both as children. She stays at the Trelowarth estate with her childhood friends, brother and sister Mark and Susan Hallett and their step-mother, Claire. She finds her friends and their flower business in financial trouble and decides to work through her grief over her sister’s death by helping them open a tea shop on the estate. Eva’s research for the business’s website leads her deep into the history of Trelowarth and Cornwall.

Not long after her arrival, however, Eva begins having strange episodes in which she is disoriented and sees an unknown man walking around Trelowarth. She soon realizes from her modern-day research into the estate that she is going back in time to the early eighteenth century. The historical inhabitants of Trelowarth house are brothers Daniel and Jack Butler and their Irish friend, Fergal. The Butlers are smugglers running between the Cornish and French coasts and are deeply involved in the Jacobite rebellion.

Eva quickly becomes attached to Daniel and Fergal and finds herself disappointed and uncomfortable when she’s thrown back to the twenty-first century. It isn’t long before her life becomes tangled up with theirs as she, too, seems to be irrevocably involved in their perilous schemes. Her historical research offers her few comforting clues as to how the Butlers’ story ends. She is forced to start asking herself hard questions. How will she manage to have a meaningful life in the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries if the time travel continues? What if her actions in the past do damage to the modern world as she knows it?

Although I rarely read romance or time-travel novels, The Rose Garden was just the right book to read over the Christmas holiday. It isn’t serious literature, and it didn’t tax my brain when I had to pick it up and put it down so frequently. It was pure escapism and proof that a gentle, “PG,” romance can be written. There were a few things that drove me nuts, like why Eva never tried to figure out what triggered the time travel or how to control it and how easily she adapted to living in the eighteenth century. History is quite a foreign place and I think it would have been far harder to adapt than Kearsley made it out to be. But I did enjoy the novel for something different and I’ll be reading Kearsley again.

Book Review: The Railwayman’s Wife

Ashley Hay, The Railwayman's Wife. Atria Books: 2016.

Ashley Hay, The Railwayman’s Wife. Atria Books: 2016.

Sometimes the written word is at its most beautiful when it recounts the hardest things in life. These things—cruelty, betrayal, the loss of something precious—call forth the deepest emotions and expose the most stubborn truths. So a tale of romance, for instance, can be a beautiful and enjoyable thing in itself, but when tension or hardship are added to the mix the story reaches an altogether different level of beauty and poignancy. When the written word reflects hard emotions and truths in honesty, we recognize ourselves in it and find in it a great beauty. A writer who does this can achieve no greater goal.

There are passages of such beauty in Ashley Hay’sThe Railwayman’s Wife, a tale of the aftermath of loss. In the shadow of World War II in 1948, three individuals in the small town of Thirroul in eastern Australia learn again how to live after experiencing tragedy. Housewife Ani Lachlan’s husband is killed in a railway accident. Roy McKinnon loses his vision for poetry and Dr. Frank Draper his compassion among the horrors of war-torn Europe. The Railwayman’s Wife is an exploration of life lived with grief—with the impressions that grief and memory leave behind and the impressions that we leave upon each other.

The novel centers on Ani, her memories of her husband, Mac, the way she experiences learning of his death, her relationship with her young daughter, Isabel, and how time moves her forward with a new job and new friendships. Ani’s chapters weave in and out with chapters about Roy and his quest to rediscover his poetry and with a few chapters of Mac’s own memories. Ani, Roy, and Frank meet occasionally, and over the space of the year following Mac’s death, change each other in small but powerful ways. Aside from a handful of consequential events, little happens in the “plot,” yet the words and chapters deeply explore the fluid life of the mind and the changes that happen there. By the end of the book, we have a layered impression of each person’s life, especially Ani’s.

The strength of The Railwayman’s Wife lies in the way Ashley Hay puts words together. The early chapters of the book sparkle with lively characterizations and with a strong sense of place in this town clinging to the Australian coast. The senses are all awake while reading—in the way that the ocean is always present, with its roar and salt-smelling spray, and the way that the railway regularly rumbles and screeches and pours out smoke—pinning the novel down to its time and place and reminding us that Ani’s life here on the coast, for good or ill, is tied up in the railroad. The most remarkable portion of the novel is where Ani learns of Mac’s death; the writing is so vivid I had to think,Yes, it would be exactly like that. From beginning to end, it is a pleasure to be immersed in the world of well-chosen words.

One of my favorite themes in the novel was the continued presence of books and libraries. The story opens with Ani reading a book, “any day, any year: call it 1935, 1938, 1945, or somewhere decades away in her future.” This theme resonates with me, and if you’re reading a blog about books, it probably will with you, too. When Mac dies, the railway offers Ani a job with the railway’s lending library. Sitting alone in the library, Ani remembers stepping into the big library in Sydney years before, her impressions of the quiet and of the measureless possibilities. The librarian there says to her, “There’s something about a room for thoughts and words . . . I’ve always wondered if paradise might not be a little like a library.” Libraries and the books within them play a part in healing Ani’s grief, and I only wish the theme had been developed even more.

“Such fascinating things, libraries. She closes her eyes. She could walk inside and step into a murder, a love story, a complete account of somebody else’s life, or mutiny on the high seas. Such potential; such adventure—there’s a shimmer of malfeasance in trying other ways of being.”

While I love the way Ashley Hay uses words in The Railwayman’s Wife, I don’t think the book is perfect. The beginning of the novel is tightly woven, several themes are introduced, relationships are formed; but, for me, the driving force fizzled out by the end and I was left with a mixed message. But I still wholeheartedly recommend the book for anyone who loves words and enjoys reading character-driven novels, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the book’s ending.

Book Review: The War That Saved My Life

Image property of the Imperial War Museum.

Evacuee children leaving London. Image property of the Imperial War Museum.

One of the key contributors to my early and ongoing love of history was good historical fiction. I started out on the American Girl stories and the Little House on the Prairie series. I read my way through Caddie Woodlawn and Mandie and Anne of Green Gables. I graduated long ago into meatier stuff, but really—is there any better door into the past for children than literature?

The War That Saved My Life

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, The War That Saved My Life. This edition, Puffin: 2016.

Literature accomplishes so much that textbooks cannot: literature focuses the historical lens onto the individual and the ripple of consequences that flowed out into real life from political, social, and religious movements. Literature makes history a real place, albeit a foreign one, where thinking and feeling people made life-changing choices. Literature teaches us about real people doing hard things.

Every once in a while I find myself interested in reading children’s fiction again. Now that I’ve got my own kids, I feel like I need to know what’s out there so that, when the time comes, I’ll have a good stack of books ready for them. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley was a 2015 Newbery Honor book and piqued my interest.

The War That Saved My Life is the story of ten-year-old Ada who is evacuated from London with her brother Jamie during World War II. While the story of the evacuated children is a somewhat familiar one, Ada’s is not. Ada, who was born with a club foot, grew up knowing nothing but abuse from her neglectful mother. She was never let her out of their flat and was often locked in a cabinet. When her younger brother is set to leave London with the evacuees, Ada determines to make her escape with him, although she cannot walk and has never been on the street. She makes it to the train, from which she sees grass and trees for the first time. She does not even know what to call them.

Ada and Jamie are placed with Susan Smith, a single woman with frequent bouts of depression and no knowledge of how to care for children. Yet Susan quickly sizes up what the children’s home situation must have been and treats them with infinite compassion. Ada’s life opens up, quite literally, and she comes to know herself as she never did before—not as a “simple” or crippled girl, but as an intelligent one worthy of love and affection.

For me, the greatest strength of this novel lies in the way that it explains how a disabled and abused person thinks. I’ve always secretly felt that children placed in foster care and adoption behaved in ways that just seemed counter-intuitive and inexplicable. Ada displays many of these behaviors, yet the inner workings of her mind are written so simply and sensitively that they just make sense. Her story of fear and anger is heartbreaking, yet is filled with the hope of a life redeemed.

The War That Saved My Life is an arresting story that I finished in a day. The characters are complex and dynamic, and the historical element is well-utilized without becoming cliched. Its similarity to another “evacuee” story is uncanny, however. Good Night, Mr. Tom, written in 1986 by Michelle Magorian, covers similar territory. I can’t help but compare the two a bit here.

Good Night, Mr. Tom

Michelle Magorian, Good Night, Mr. Tom. HarperTeen: 1986.

Good Night, Mr. Tom is the story of young William Beech, an evacuee from East London placed with gruff old Mr. Tom Oakley in the safety of the English countryside. William, like Ada, has grown up in an abusive environment and is malnourished, bruised and broken, and too afraid to speak more than a few timid words at a time. Tom is a reclusive widower of more than forty years. The next weeks and months are transformative for both William and Tom, while William learns what it is to receive abundance, both physically and relationally, and Tom remembers what it is to love another person.

Where The War That Saved My Life has a finely-honed feel, Good Night, Mr. Tom is more fleshed-out in both number of characters and “heart-warming” appeal. On the flip side, you could say that Mr. Tom has extra elements that aren’t always central to the plot. The novels are similar in more than just the basic set-up as well; both involve a return of the evil mother and an attempted rescue by the new guardian. Was The War That Saved My Life inspired by Mr. Tom? It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t.

Neither book is perfect, but either one would be a good choice for teaching young adults about the evacuee experience or learning about it yourself. Can you imagine how these thousands of children felt? Or what it cost their parents to send them away, not knowing who would care for them or how well they would do it–and not knowing if they would see each other again? It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the most unique perspectives on World War II. If you enjoy the BBC’s period dramas Foyle’s War, Home Fires, or Call the Midwife, you will enjoy these books as well. (Note that in Mr. Tom, some scenes of abuse are enough to turn my adult stomach.)

Book Review: Serena

Serena

Ron Rash, Serena. Ecco, 2008.

Southern literature has a distinct yet undefinable flavor all its own. It’s quirky and dark, contradictory and homey, but I’m happy to have acquired the taste for it, along with the shrimp and grits and pimiento cheese. I’ve worn out the standards—Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird—and I’ve made the occasional foray into Southern gothic. My first taste of Southern gothic literature was Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and I’ve honestly never quite recovered. Southern gothic tends to be a world unto itself and sucks the reader into dark and terrible places of the mind.

But it was about time to read another and when I heard an interview with Southern author Ron Rash on the radio I figured I needed to add him to my to-read list. Critics look upon Rash as one of the most exceptional contemporary writers in the Southern genre, and his specialty is Appalachia, both past and present. I’m always up for taking in a little local art and decided to start with the Southern gothic novel Serena.

Serena took me out of my comfort zone yet was compelling and satisfying in a bleak sort of way. Serena is the tale of George and Serena Pemberton, lumber barons in 1930s western North Carolina. The opening paragraph explains the story’s set-up more succinctly than I can and can’t be beat for its clarity and the punch it packs into its few words:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”

The girl’s father is dead before the Pembertons leave the station. Over the next months and years, the Pembertons leave a trail of dead bodies as they—in particular, Serena—stop at nothing to achieve their goals of stripping the mountains bare and stopping the spread of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into their territory. The true depth of Serena’s depravity surfaces as she tries to squash the threat she feels from George’s illegitimate son and his mother.

Serena and the novel sharing her name are cold, fierce, and brutal. Serena is probably the most villainous female I’ve encountered. She carries herself in such a way that we’re never sure if she has a soul. She takes advantage of the rampant superstitions of Appalachia, taming an eagle to be her companion and acquiring a crippled henchman, to the point where the working men look on her as a god instead of a woman. She yearns for power and masculinity, wearing pants (in an age when most women don’t), riding horses astride, and placing bets alongside the working men. She channels Lady Macbeth in the way she subtly and continuously turns her husband toward evil, yet she never shares Lady Macbeth’s heart for guilt.

Serena has the feel of “literature” in the fine-tuned way its story is told, the flow of its prose, and the depth and richness of its symbolism. The symbolism here appeals to the part of my nature that thrills to find order and layers of meaning. Rash also employs a “chorus” to portray Serena from the viewpoint of the working men, making use of the superstitious nature of the mountain men and playing up the hard, cruel life on the land. He holds nothing back and creates a spell in the cool, collected way he tells of brutality and atrocity. He has that talent of great writers in that he conveys a wealth of meaning in few words.

I have a couple of problems with Serena. First of all, the body count is so unnaturally high that it nearly breaks the spell that Rash works so hard to create. He comes within inches of turning Serena into a caricature. I feel that Serena could have had the same atmosphere and ending without so many dead bodies. Another big hole in this book is character development. I still have no idea who George and Serena really are. It may be one thing to leave Serena without description as a literary tool to make her more mysterious, but it didn’t work for George Pemberton. He falls flat. I want to know more about him, what his background is, what makes him the cold man that he is in the novel.

The best parts of the book are those about Rachel Harmon, the mother of George’s illegitimate son. She’s the only main character that feels in the least bit human and with her, Rash inserts hope and grace into his novel. She is the foil of Serena—she is warm, emotional, and determined to preserve her son’s life at great cost to herself. As Serena’s power grows, so does Rachel’s, over her own future.

I was not disappointed in Serena. Although it’s not my typical reading fare, I appreciate “the moral of the story.” Rash explores the full depth of human depravity, yet shows its natural consequences. He does it in a creative, literary way that appeals to me. I’ll be looking for other books by Rash in the future.

Book Review: The Lake House

The Lake House

Kate Morton, The Lake House. Atria Books: 2015.

I get this feeling about history. My first “historical” memory is of being eight years old at Colonial Williamsburg, totally immersed in a different time and place, where I looked around and saw nothing out of place aside from the gawky, t-shirted tourists around me. In the church, a tour guide led me down the aisle and asked me to take a seat in a pew to my right. He then told me that pew was George Washington’s pew. Call me weird, but there’s hardly anything more inspiring to a history nerd than sitting where George Washington sat—there’s an instant connection with someone dead and gone nearly two hundred years before. I can’t remember anything else in childhood sparking my imagination to such an extent.

The fascination with the “old-fashioned” matured into my grown-up love/passion/obsession for old houses. The history feeling that pervades an old house is more intense than the casual curiosity of museum pieces taken from their natural habitats and put in glass cases under bright lights. In an old house, it’s so easy to imagine people living—laughing, loving, making tough decisions, grieving—through the events we learn of from elementary school onward. On my last trip to Charleston, I stood in the second floor library of a house on the Battery, looking out the window toward where Fort Sumter was visible on the horizon. The docent told me that P.G.T. Beauregard watched the battle for Fort Sumter from that room. Standing where he stood, the years telescoped backward. What were the men in that room thinking during the battle? What were the women in that house thinking? In an old house, it’s far easier to imagine the drama played out in that foreign, yet familiar, place called the past.

Fort Sumter as seen from the porch of the Edmonton-Alston House in Charleston, SC. November 2015.

Fort Sumter as seen from the porch of the Edmonton-Alston House in Charleston, SC. November 2015.

So what does this have to do with book reviews? My latest read was The Lake House by Kate Morton. I think Kate Morton must be something of a kindred spirit because she, more than any other author I’ve read, has that historical feeling about houses just like I do. In The Lake House, modern-day Detective Constable Sadie Sparrow comes across a beautiful deserted estate while she’s out for her morning run in Cornwall, England. Peering through the front windows into the library, Sadie sees a life abandoned, as if the actors in a play have just walked off of the stage for a moment—a delicate teacup sitting on a side table, a pencil-sketch of a child’s face on a desk—and she has a momentary sense of foreboding, a sense that something went terribly wrong in this house. Sadie learns from the locals that the Lake House is the scene of an unsolved crime, and she picks up the cold case during her forced leave from the police department.

Sadie discovers that in the summer of 1933 the Edevane family hosted a garden party at the Lake House—and by the end of it, their eleven-month-old son was missing. Anthony and Eleanor Edevane and their older children abandoned the house after months of searching revealed no trace of the lost boy. Alice Edevane, one of the baby’s older sisters, lived with a lifetime of questions and regrets after his disappearance and when Sadie contacts her in 2003, they finally have a chance of solving the mystery together.

I love the way in which Kate Morton weaves together story lines from the past and the present. It’s the defining characteristic of her novels. This technique plays up the strong connection that the past has to our lives now; the decisions of a moment, the unguarded passions, the selfishness we justify to ourselves, all cause a ripple effect greater than we can imagine and leave behind a lifetime of pain and regret. The Lake House is probably Morton’s most intricately, richly layered past-and-present novel yet. The moments in Eleanor’s and Alice’s lives that lead to the crisis of 1933 weave in and out with Sadie’s and Alice’s present-day personal troubles and regrets and keep the book moving, peeling back layer after layer of the cold-case mystery. The book’s resolution is satisfying and inevitable.

The Lake House is perfect for losing yourself in another time and place. And although all of Morton’s novels tend toward mysteries, this is the first with a real detective and lands happily in the mystery genre. As corny as it sounds, for me there’s nothing better than a mystery with history.

Book Review: My Name is Resolute

My Name is Resolute

Nancy E. Turner, My Name is Resolute. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.

“My story is the story of other women like me, women who left no name, who will not be remembered or their deeds written . . .”

Sometimes I think we’ve sanitized our history. Just as I tend to see Bible characters in “flannelgraph” because for years I did see them in flannelgraphs, I think we have in many ways reduced our mental images of our historical forbears to the heroic, patriotic painted images of them that we find in textbooks and museums. This is oh, so dangerous, for it allows us to think that in some way their lives were glamorous, easy, or even predestined for glory. We forget that life (even in America) two and three hundred years ago was often unimaginably hard, gritty, and in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Whether we have treated history in this way because we are ashamed of it or because we have tried to make it more palatable or accessible, I’m not sure. But it leads me to appreciate even more a writer who writes historical fiction truthfully and honestly, even to the point of discomfort, and teaches us who we are as a people along the way.

Such is the accomplishment of Nancy Turner in My Name is Resolute, the epic life story of colonist Resolute Talbot. The book opens with ten-year-old Resolute living on her father’s plantation in Jamaica in the 1720s. Resolute and her siblings are captured by pirates, which sets in motion her life-long search for a home and identity. We follow her through years of nightmarish captivity and indentured servitude in the wilds of colonial North America to a settled life in Massachusetts amid the turbulence preceding the Revolution.

Strengths:

I became a fan of Turner after I picked up her first book,These Is My Words,* years ago. Turner has a talent for illuminating the spirit of a time period and creating strong female lead characters. She uses this talent well in My Name is Resolute. She doesn’t shy away from the disgusting realities of Resolute’s life in the colonies and isn’t afraid to tarnish the wholesome image of Puritanism. And as Resolute experiences the years just before the Revolution, Turner manages to capture the complexity of opinions and events and the subtle changes that turned loyal subjects into determined patriots. I believe that we take colonial patriotism for granted when we think of the Revolution, but it was often a decision fraught with uncertainty. We also forget that those who chose to become patriots committed treasonous acts and lived in fear of punishment.

The greatest strength of Resolute is its window on the female world of the colonial period. Turner uses the trade of weaving as a theme in Resolute’s life (and teaches great history while doing it!). Weaving was one of the few skilled trades open to women and was a large player in the distinct “household economy” of the eighteenth century. Resolute learns the trade in captivity, and Turner uses it to transform her character. She grows in strength and independence as she practices her trade and in the end (in my favorite moment of the book!) learns that she can wield it as a weapon of war.

“I closed my eyes and felt my hands and feet moving quick-step, brandishing the only weapon of war I could use, my whole being doing the dance of freedom, as a man with a claymore and an axe once told me to fight, wielding my loom.

Weaknesses:

Resolute could have had better editing; the plot wanders far and wide (and long), and it was only in the last third of the book that Turner began tying it all together. And even though Resolute’s experiences are grounded in history, I felt that for one person to endure capture by both pirates and Indians and enslavement by Puritans and French Canadians pushed the bounds of credulity. I also struggled to keep up with the numerous characters.

But the bottom line is—My Name is Resolute is engaging and inspiring and I’d recommend it for readers of historical fiction. It is a fearless look at the realities of eighteenth-century life and the world of colonial women. It is also a poignant reminder that millions of women lived and died, unknown to history, yet powerful in their own quiet ways.

[Be aware that there are some rough scenes and a description of married love.]


 

“Men believe that their strength is in their sinews, mastery of trade or horsemanship, and skill with a sword or pistol. Some would say their brawn is displayed in witty reasoning and conversation, while women know, be she queen or fishwife, that her greatest strength is in her heart. She lays down her life to bring forth a child, and then rises up and does it again.”

“When had I stopped being Allan Talbot’s daughter? When had I stopped being fit to sit with duchesses and peers and become a colonist? An American. We were rabble from England’s crofts and gutters, Scotland’s Highlands, Dutch outcasts, Irish and African slaves, and though some came here given grants of land, in our way we were prisoners all.”

“I am my own tapestry, then, made as I could for myself. Some holes in my fabric have been made by others, some torn by chance. Missing threads in the weave represent all those I have loved who died so long before me. . . . The strong, even places consecrate moments where love outmatched loss, and where great good came from sacrifice. When it was finished, it was not what I expected it to be. I had once imagined to live as a delicately fashioned bolt of fine silk of high and gentle quality, perfect but for a minor slub or two. The life I have lived was not a lady’s silk but a colorful, natty tapestry . . . . Many men I have known in my life will be written about and remembered for the deeds they have done these many years since the colonies loosed their bonds. My story is the story of other women like me, women who left no name, who will not be remembered or their deeds written, every one of them a restless stalk of flax who lent fiber to the making of a whole cloth, every one of them a thread, be it gold, dapple, crimson, or tarred. Let this tapestry be a record, then, that once their lived a woman, and that her name was Resolute.”


*These Is My Words is the journal of Sarah Agnes Prine, a nineteenth-century pioneer in the Old Southwest. Part adventure, part romance, part history (of course!), it is one of my favorite works of historical fiction.