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 Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel

Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel. This edition, Sourcebooks Landmark: 2009.

I didn’t discover Daphne du Maurier until I was 23 or 24 years old. I have no idea why I originally brought home an old hardcover copy of Rebecca from the library but, looking back, it was one of the best book discoveries that a reader can make. I was absolutely sucked in from the first page on—the suspenseful mood, the creepy housekeeper, the old mansion, the Britishness of it all—it’s just my cup of tea. When I finished I enthusiastically told a friend about this book I had discovered (and no, I had no idea it was a movie, either) and she looked at me with very little expression and said, “Yeah? You’re just now reading that?” So don’t be like me—if you’ve never read Rebecca, go and get it, as soon as you can.

While you’re at it, get a copy of My Cousin Rachel as well. Shortly after I finished Rebecca, I started systematically buying du Maurier novels. I haven’t found copies of all of them yet, but of the ones I’ve read, My Cousin Rachel is nearly as good as Rebecca and just as much fun to read. I recently re-read MCR in a fit of post-Downton Abbey melancholy and liked it as much as I did the first time. If you like period BBC drama or mystery novels, I’m sure you’ll like these books.

My Cousin Rachel is a romantic and suspenseful tale told in the Gothic tradition (maybe light on the romance and heavy on the mystery/suspense; although I typically don’t read romance, I guess I have a weakness for the Gothic style). The first thing we see is a man, hanging, and the shadow of madness and evil that it casts over the life of our narrator, Philip Ashley, from his youth onward. And then comes the question at the heart of the novel, “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?”

Philip Ashley is twenty-four when we meet him. He has returned home to Cornwall from his years of schooling at Oxford, happy in the expectation of living a bachelor’s life with his cousin Ambrose Ashley, who raised him when he was orphaned as a small boy. Ambrose’s health, however, soon requires him to travel to a warmer climate and he settles in Florence, where he meets a widow, Rachel. Ambrose writes glowingly to Philip of his acquaintance with Rachel and then writes that he has married her. And here the Gothic elements come fast and thick—his letters become fewer and darker, filled with suspicion of Rachel and accounts of his own terrifying spells of illness. Philip determines to go to him and receives one final letter as he pulls down the drive, a plea from Ambrose for Philip’s help. When Philip arrives in Florence Ambrose is dead and Rachel has disappeared.

Philip returns home with little but hatred for Rachel. He envisions her alternately as a murdering, scheming monster and a terrible, aged hag. He vows retribution for Ambrose’s death—until the day she arrives at his home a lovely, enchanting, and mystifying young woman. Here you may guess accurately at what happens next. But you cannot foresee the conclusion of the matter, and you wouldn’t want to, anyway, and miss out on the delicious suspense.

I read somewhere, I have no idea where now, that this book reads itself. And it does—it reads so smoothly and effortlessly that it’s like floating through the words and scenes. For the ease with which it came to life, I could have been watching a film. But while the story flows along and buoys exudes hopes and happiness, we know it will ultimately turn out badly for Philip because we’ve read the first chapter in the book, with its description of the hanged man.

**Some spoilers ahead—read at your own risk**

Reading Philip’s narrative is like watching an inevitable train wreck. He’s young and arrogant and makes more than a few idiotic mistakes. Even though we’d like to grab him and stop him from making the worst mistake of all, it’s hard to doubt him or his reliability until the end. And Rachel, such a masterfully created character, never stops making us wonder. We like her. She’s tender and generous, she mourns Ambrose—but she leads Philip on, she overspends, she keeps her own council except for with the shadowy man, Rainaldi, and she hides poison in her room.

There is never a clear answer to Philips question, “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” The answer is both, and I think du Maurier wants us to live with the ambiguity. The more I think about it, the more guilt seems to be the theme of the novel. Did Rachel possess poison and use it on Ambrose and Philip? It seems to be undeniable. Did she come to the point of actually murdering Ambrose and would she have done the same to Philip? I don’t know. Did she ever love Ambrose? Or did she love Philip? Maybe she loved both. And then we have to ask, is Philip himself innocent or guilty? He’s definitely guilty of a blind infatuation that forces him to grasp for control over Rachel. And when Philip realizes how much Rachel has played him, he turns violent. In a world where men held all of the legal and financial power, Rachel could have felt threatened. Given that du Maurier makes Philip out to be Ambrose’s double, it is possible that Rachel felt the same threat from Ambrose.

It has been so long since I first read MCR that I had (happily) forgotten the ending. There’s nothing much more satisfying in a suspense novel, in a backwards sort of way, than being nearly convinced of someone’s guilt and then having doubt poured all over it. Du Maurier pours loads of doubt over Rachel’s guilt at the end—so much so that Philip begins to doubt it himself. And—we’ll never know. In this way the end of the novel is pure tragedy. Is Philip responsible for Rachel’s demise? Legally, no. But he holds himself guilty of it, and this is what I think brings the novel full circle. I believe many of Rachel’s actions were motivated by guilt—whether for killing Ambrose or not loving him enough—and as the femme fatale, she has turned that guilt over to Philip.

If you’ve never read My Cousin Rachel, I hope you’ll enjoy it. If you have, what do you think of Rachel?

Book Review: I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle

St. Martin’s, 1999.

I have been tossing around the idea of a Forgotten Authors series for a while—a look at older books that aren’t necessarily old enough to be called “classics,” yet are forgotten jewels that haven’t seen a bestseller list in years, if ever. For me, there is a distinct joy in pulling an aged book off of the library shelf and finding a treasure. And particularly when I’m in a book slump, I’m always happy to be reminded that I haven’t yet read all of the good ones.

There is no better place to start reading Forgotten Authors than with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, one of the few novels I can say is “just plain fun.” Most of us are familiar with Dodie Smith, whether or not we realize it—she wrote the story of The 101 Dalmatians that Walt Disney turned into a movie in the 1960s. But her first novel was I Capture the Castle, published in 1948. I have now read it twice and, for me, it truly stands out from the crowd.

Set in a ruined English castle during the ‘30s and full of eccentric characters, I Capture the Castle is escapism at its best. Cassandra Mortmain, 17, hopes to improve her writing skills by “capturing” her home and its inhabitants. The family she sets out to capture includes her older sister, Rose, who is quite lovely, but who perhaps has been ruined by reading too many Victorian romance novels; a younger brother, Thomas, who is still a schoolboy; her exotic stepmother, Topaz, a former artists’ model who communes with nature; Stephen, their resident handyman and admirer of Cassandra; and her enigmatic father, a one-time world-famous author who now occupies himself by reading detective novels and doing crossword puzzles. The Mortmains live in near poverty because Mr. Mortmain has writer’s block, and have resorted to selling their furniture in order to eat. The status quo is upset when two wealthy bachelors, Simon and Neil Cotton, move onto a nearby estate and Rose, who is desperate to escape poverty, determines to throw herself at them until one of them marries her.

The wonder of I Capture the Castle is Cassandra. She is amazingly real, and her innocent take on the world is captivating. She has a quaint way of observing and distilling the essence of her feelings and the situations in which she finds herself. She is wonderfully descriptive, and from the opening line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” we are right there with her. We feel the beauty of everyday moments and the small hardships of living in a house full of weird people. And her humor is contagious; lines like these are typical: “Topaz was wonderfully patient—but I sometimes wonder if it is not only patience, but also a faint resemblance to cows.”

Yet as events propel her toward adulthood, Cassandra becomes more perceptive. The innocence falls away and we remember how complex life can be for young people. We remember how hard it is to understand ourselves and even the people closest to us.
In the end, Cassandra discovers herself and often writes with touching honesty: “I suddenly knew that religion, God—something beyond everyday life—was there to be found, provided one is really willing.” For all of its hilarity, I Capture the Castle becomes an intricate and passionate look at real life.

If Jane Austen had written during the 1930s, I think the results would have been similar to I Capture the Castle—more funny people and more social maneuverings to find marriage. I feel about I Capture the Castle the way I feel about Emma; it has a perfect blend of humor and seriousness that leaves me warmed and enchanted. If this sounds like your cup of tea, I hope you’ll give it try.

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.

Book Review: The Oregon Trail, Round 2

 

The Oregon Trail

Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

I was a real sucker for the new bestseller with “The Oregon Trail” blazing big and bold on its cover. I mean, I grew up deciding whether to ford or ferry the pixellated rivers of the American West and finding ways to save my supplies and hunt big game (and all too often having “John died of dysentery” pop up in front of me). This nerd was ready to relive the trail. But because I borrowed this title from the library in e-book format, I didn’t really read the cover when I clicked “borrow.” I was expecting a history of the Trail—but I ended up with much more. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is actually the story of a modern recrossing of the trail.

Rinker Buck, a worn-out, middle-aged journalist, tells of how he stumbled upon an Oregon Trail site after a trip to the west and experienced a sudden, crazy wanderlust. Then and there he decided to jump on the Trail and see for himself if it could be followed again end-to-end. So in the spring of 2011, after meticulously researching the Trail, Buck and his brother Nick bought a reproduction covered wagon, three powerful mules, and more Hormel chili than I’ll ever see in my lifetime. They hauled their stuff across the Missouri River into Kansas, hitched up the mules, and hit the road—er, Trail.

By Paul Hermans - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36739932

Scotts Bluff, NE. By Paul Hermans – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36739932

What follows is a blend of travelogue, history, and psychoanalysis. Day in, day out, Buck unfurls the landscape of the American Midwest and West along the Trail—a landscape not just of prairie, butte, and mountain, but of people, generous and hardy, that surround the Trail both today and in its history. The Buck brothers rely heavily on what Rinker calls their “Trail Family”—the men and women who welcome them into their homes and barns, advise them on their way, and show great care for the condition of the present Oregon Trail. [The Bucks travelled with no support team!] There’s no doubt Rinker relies on the ghosts of the Trail, as well, for vision and inspiration. He generously scatters pioneer accounts and the backstory of many Trail elements throughout the book. And on the deepest level, Rinker finds that traveling the Trail forces him to confront his motivations and his past, particularly his relationship with his father.

I have conflicting feelings about The Oregon Trail. Some elements just plain drove me nuts. Rinker is not always a likable narrator. Many times he’s just a grouchy, judgmental old man. He hates RVers and assumes they’re stupid (I don’t own one, but I don’t assume all the owners are stupid). He hates religion and isn’t afraid to say so. But I was most annoyed with the crudeness of his language. I DO realize that’s how a lot of people talk, but in a book like this it was excessive and unprofessional.

But there are parts of the book that are absolutely wonderful. Buck displays an appealing affection for the land, for his wagon, for his mules, and for his brother. I have just enough wanderlust in me, too, that I became addicted to the rhythm of the Trail and the magnificent, ever-changing landscape. I was ready to follow the Trail myself (in the car, of course). He also writes with honesty and raw emotion. The peak of emotion—when they reach Oregon and he realizes that he somehow has to disengage himself from his months-long adventure—I wanted to cry with him. And I never thought I’d feel sad about mules, but I hated to see him say goodbye to them, too. I was also inspired by the great number of Americans Buck met along the way who care about their heritage and have gone to great lengths to preserve and mark the Trail.

If you enjoy history, but aren’t looking for a scholarly work on the Oregon Trail, or if you’re looking for an armchair vacation in the American West, this book may be for you. I would be interested to hear your thoughts if you read it.

Dead Wake

Dead Wake

“We had all been thinking, dreaming, eating, sleeping ‘submarine’ from the hour we left New York . . .”

What is it that draws us like flies to tales of human tragedy? Why, even when we know it will end badly, can we not look away? Is it because, like horror-movie-goers, we like a good scare? Is it the need to have everything explained away, to be assured that these bad things can’t happen to us? Is it the what-if, the fascinating downward spiral of unanswered questions?

Whatever that pull is, it pulls us toward books like Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Larson, who’s known for popularizing intriguing corners of history (such as in The Devil in the White City), brings his powers of research and storytelling to the disturbing tale of the sinking of one of the last grand ocean liners and of the world on the cusp of the modern era.

Before reading Dead Wake, my knowledge of the Lusitania went only as far as the text-book—I knew when it happened and its role in catalyzing the United States’ involvement in the first World War. But Larson brings into focus the larger picture—of Britain, Germany, the reticence of the U.S.—and also humanizes the event by following some of the men and women aboard the Lusitania.

Larson weaves together varied threads in recreating the last crossing. Some are familiar—the growing animosity among the European nations, the luxury of sea travel. But then there are the lesser-known individuals and incidents that all made their mark. There are the two captains set on a collision course: William Turner of the Lusitania—taciturn, experienced, confident in the face of threats—and Walther Schweiger of U-boat 20, determined and calculating in his pursuit of the enemy while he circled the British Isles. There is Room 40, the ultra secret British intelligence agency, which held the key to decoding German dispatches. And then the passengers: Charles Lauriat, rare book-dealer, crossed the Atlantic with an original Dickens; Theodate Pope, America’s first female architect, crossed the Atlantic trying to outrun chronic depression.

The rise and downfall of this book is in the details. Bookending the real meat of this story—the Lusitania’s 7-day journey across the Atlantic—are details so thick (and maybe irrelevant) that the reader is tempted to skim. What the passengers packed, what they did (even years) before departure, the contents of the cargo hold, the love life of President Wilson (!)—it all felt like information overload. Now, I know why the details are there; Larson wants to create an immersive historical experience and an intimacy with the passengers, but he doesn’t pull it off smoothly.

But there are times when the details are perfect. The history of submarines—U20 in particular—is fascinating. Who ever thought about how bad those early submarines smelled? Or that these men were submerged without radar, having only sea-floor maps and a periscope to guide them? And when the crucial moment is reached on the sunny morning of May 7, 1915, and U20 fires its torpedo at the Lusitania, the details of all those people fighting to live are intense. Then there are the details that bring the tragedy home. The passengers included an unusually high number of children—I am still haunted by the parents who had to choose which child to save, and the boy who couldn’t find his pregnant mother, only to hear later of a woman who died trying to give birth in the water.

The sinking of the Lusitania is what we would today treat as an act of terrorism—a blatant disregard for the rules of war and for innocent life, an act designed to provoke. The questions left behind about Britain’s role are haunting, for the Germans published a warning in the New York papers, telling the passengers of the Lusitania they would be sailing into a war zone; British intelligence knew exactly where U20 was and what its goal was; the admiralty had provided a safe passage for other, military ships. Why wasn’t the Lusitania diverted? Why didn’t the admiralty protect it? Why did the British intelligence machine blame Captain Turner for the sinking of his ship, instead of blaming the Germans? Unfortunately, the truths behind warfare are so muddy we often can’t see them. In trying to imagine if something similar happened today, I’m left feeling that you can’t trust people to do the right thing, even if and maybe especially if it’s the government.

As unpleasant as parts of this book are to read, I’m still glad I read it. In memory of all those who died needlessly—I’m glad to know what they endured.

“I know you must be tempted to have most terrible imaginings; may I tell you that although it was very awful, it was not so ghastly as you are sure to imagine it. When the thing really comes, God gives to each the help he needs to live or to die. . . . They were calm, many of them quite cheerful, and everyone was trying to do the sensible thing, the men were forgetting themselves, and seeing after the women and children. They could not do much . . . but they were doing their best and playing the man.”

[On a side note: for all the details, there were no pictures in the book, at least not in the ebook edition. I love pictures, and really felt their lack. Google “interior of the Lusitania” for some fascinating illustrations.] 

Book Review: Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits With GunI’m intrigued by the stories of how famous or remarkable people find their calling. A great many of them didn’t wake up at age five and say, “I want to do ‘X’ when I grow up,” and then begin grooming themselves for it. Instead, they found their calling in an accidental encounter or some outrageously round-about fashion. This past week I heard the story of French ballerina Violette Verdy on NPR (she passed away Monday at the age of 82). In an interview conducted several years ago, she explained how she found her passion. As a child, she reacted in an abnormally strong way to music, to the point where her mother took her to the doctor. The doctor’s suggestion was hilarious—“tire her out harmoniously.” Violette ended up in ballet.

Likewise, a chance buggy accident in 1914 quite literally threw Constance Kopp onto a path toward becoming one of America’s first female sheriff’s deputies. Constance and her sisters—real, historical women—are the subjects of Amy Stewart’s novel Girl Waits With Gun, a carefully fictionalized rendering of their encounter with silk manufacturer Henry Kaufmann after he ran the family buggy down with his car in the streets of Paterson, NJ.

Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp form a charming, down-to-earth, and eccentric set; they live alone in an isolated farmhouse, hiding from the world’s dangers and protecting an intriguing family secret. Constance—unnaturally tall and strong and the eldest at 35—feels more than a bit trapped by their life and finds she has a desire to do more. Norma, on the other hand, would happily spend her days hidden at the farm, strapping her carrier pigeons with farcical newspaper headlines. And Fleurette—just as young and innocent as her name sounds—dreams of a glamorous life while flitting around the living room to the tunes on the record player.

When Kaufmann, who proves to be a thug, dogs the sisters with threats and attacks after the accident, Constance defies the retiring female role of her day and determines to fight back. She finds help in Sheriff Robert Heath, who not only does his best to defend the girls, but teaches them how to defend themselves as well. Their year-long journey to justice transforms the way Constance thinks of herself and of her life, and shows her that a single chance encounter can teach us who we are and guide us to who we should be.

I was thoroughly charmed by Girl Waits With Gun. It is a simple and gentle tale that shows understanding and compassion for the female world of 100 years ago—a world in which unattached females were often without options, governed by fathers and brothers or bullied by powerful men, and expected to fall into the quiet role that society made for them. Amy Stewart tells it all without extra frills and without turning it into a feminist tirade.

For myself, I found Constance’s growth and the interactions between the sisters the most compelling aspect of the book. I ended up feeling a kinship with Constance and with the thoughts that drive her.

“Where the years ahead had once seemed vague and unknowable, amorphous in shape and indeterminate in size, after my mother died I began to see a set of decades stacked neatly in front of me like bricks. First came my thirties, already half gone, and beyond that my forties and my fifties, solid and certain. But after that, the bricks started to crumble. . . . When I allowed myself to think about the brevity of the time ahead of me, and the futility of spending any more of it on cooking and mending and gardening, it frightened me so much that I almost couldn’t breathe.”

[And I love her thoughts on cities and hotels: “Fleurette liked the opportunity to dress up and be seen, and I just liked living in a clean, modern building, with twice the comforts and none of the chores we faced at home.” Amen!] Constance’s transformation into a recognizable, modern woman offers a challenge—to take up our talents, use them, help others with them, and not be held back by what our community expects us to be.

 


“What I didn’t say to Francis was that when Lucy grabbed me on the street in Paterson that day, I couldn’t understand how anyone would take hold of a stranger and pour out their troubles. But now I realized that people did it all the time. They called for help. And some people would answer, out of a sense of duty and a sense of belonging to the world around them. That’s what Sheriff Heath and his men did, lying in wait in our freezing barn, their guns drawn, to get the man who was trying to get us.

“If I could give something to Fleurette . . . —it would be this: the realization that we have to be a part of the world in which we live. We don’t scurry away when we’re in trouble, or when someone else is. We don’t run and hide.”