Lilac Girls

Unspeakable Horrors, Unsung Heroism – WWII history you might not know (Manhattan & Connecticut; Lublin, Poland; Fürstenberg, Germany; Paris, France, 1939-1959): “It’s not so much you should remember the name. We should be living every day with the standard he set,” says The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers about “the greatest reporter of our time,” David Halberstam, unknown or forgotten these days. I cite this because Lilac Girls was inspired by a real life WWII humanitarian most of us probably never heard of. Thanks to Martha Hall Kelly’s ten-year effort to bring Caroline Woolsey Ferriday to life, the standard she set – her philanthropic legacy, compassion, doggedness, and resourcefulness – is now out there to inspire.

Chances are you might also not know about the plight of over 200,000 dislocated children in France cared for in mansions converted to orphanages; what went on inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp – the only camp solely for women, intended for 7,000 but rose to 45,000 “living skeletons” by 1945 – far less infamous but equally sickening; and that of the six million Poles who perished during the Holocaust, three million were non-Jewish.

Which makes Lilac Girls a remarkable novel among a bumper crop of remarkable Holocaust novels capturing us of late. A novel of stark contrasts: A heartwarming do-gooder’s story of tremendous generosity, advocacy, and benevolence to aid and comfort WWII orphans and Ravensbrück survivors pitted against monstrous, cold-bloodedness perpetrated by Hitler and his evil followers. It’s a testament to the author’s rendering that we come away celebrating humanity at its most exceptional rather than have our spirits broken.

One reason the novel is so compelling is that all the important characters are based on real historical figures. It’s unusual for so many novelistic characters to come from history. In the hands of this skilled writer, these characters engage us so authentically they come alive, palpably. In so doing, they convincingly make their stories even more unbelievable.

Contributing to this is the author’s tight, revealing dialogue. Though her debut novel, Kelly’s clearly brought her top-notch advertising copywriting skills with her penning dialogue that’s engaging, cinematic, and spot-on in imparting the personalities, beliefs, and prejudices of three females – all drawn from history – our narrators.

Since this is fiction, we can’t be sure everything we read about them is 100% true but it doesn’t matter. Kelly’s extensive research (take a look at her fascinating, detailed website after you’ve read the novel) and talent enables us to step into the shoes of these three women, giving us three perspectives to examine the war and a realistic sense of what it might been like to live through an insane era we’ll never really be able to grasp entirely. Who could?

Contrary to today, back then everyone knew someone affected by the war. If you’ve ever wondered why your grandparents or parents never spoke of the horrors, Lilac Girls answers why. Would we have found the super-human strength and courage to endure the torture in the camp like the survivors did? How would we have gone on afterwards? Would we have sustained Caroline’s “positivity” selflessly for twenty years in spite of personal losses and longings? Are these ponderings why we can’t get enough of Holocaust novels?

The three female narrators who help us to understand are:

Caroline Ferriday: A former actress whose New York high-society “set” mingled with the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys yet she’s not the stereotype of her uppity, self-indulgent friends. Rather, a delightful carbon copy of her endearing mother, who latches onto “charitable opportunities in the way some eyed a plate of pastries.” Both are Francophiles (her mother owned an apartment in Paris; also a summer house in Bethlehem, Connecticut, now an historic landmark you can visit like the author did), so her mother’s connections got her a meaningful position (volunteer) at the French Consulate assisting French families in the U.S. and orphans in France. The moment war breaks out in 1939 when Hitler invades Poland which happens in Chapter 1 (chapters superbly chronicle the enormity of Hitler’s aggressions), Caroline jumps in to assuage the chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. As war deepens, so does Caroline’s involvement.

At thirty-seven, when we meet her, she’s the only one of the three who brings us some respite – a romance – with delicious prose like her opening line: “If I’d known I was about to meet the man who’d shatter me like bone china on terra cotta, I would have slept in.” She charms us, certainly not what we’re expecting! We’re grateful for this balance in a novel of this magnitude. Her love affair with Paul Rodierre, an “achingly beautiful” married French actor with a “Cheshire Cat smile” is, in keeping with the novel’s authenticity, based on a true relationship; only the man is fictitious. The early stages of their playful liaison enable flirty, sharp-witted, self-deprecating humor, but once war explodes the lighter-heartedness darkens as Paul feels compelled to return to France to find his estranged wife, Rena, whose father is Jewish.

Kasia Kuzmerick: Inspired by the real Nina Ivanska, from Lublin, Poland. At sixteen, she joins the resistance movement. Kasia will change the way you think of organizations like the Girl Scouts. We meet her when “Poland no longer exists as a country.” These brave teenagers played a significant role in Poland’s active underground. We learn a great deal about the victimization of Polish women during the Nazi regime through Kasia and her best friend Nadia (whose grandfather was Jewish); Matka, her mother (a former nurse and artist); and her sister, Zuzanna, inspired by Nina’s real sister, Krystyna (also a nurse). That’s because all end up at Ravensbrück.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
Photo by ho visto nina volare from Italy (ravensbruck, il lager delle donne)
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

(After Hitler, the Soviets oppressed the Poles until 1989. Lilac Girls brings your closer to this country’s repression more than I’d ever appreciated.)

Dr. Herta Oberheüser: While far fewer pages are consumed by one of the only female doctors at Ravensbrück, her psychopathology up-close is still mightily hideous and heinous. A fervent German nationalist who craved respect and power in a society that treated women as inferior to men, she applied for a position as a medical doctor at the concentration camp under the guise it was a women’s “reeducation camp” for prisoners. Though she had good reason to escape her home in Düsseldorf, Germany, needed the money, and a former classmate, Fritz Fischer, worked there, she disgusts us regardless. Early on, when it was obvious what “not for the squeamish” really meant, she could have left. Instead, she not only willingly participated in the cruelty to the bitter end, but was proud to earn the War Merit Cross, a distinction she shares with Adolph Eichmann and Albert Speer.

Lilac Girls abounds with strikingly contrary images. For instance, Ravensbrück was built in Fürstenberg, a resort town described as “a scene from a Black Forest box.” Yet inside: a “special kind of terror we would grow used to.” Herta sees the camp as a “place of superior value.” She says: “how nice to see immature linden trees, the hallowed “tree of lovers” in German folklore, planted at regular intervals along the road.” When in fact that farcically named Beauty Road was satanic. The absurdity of calling notices mailed to families whose loved ones were wiped out at the camp “comfort cards” versus the “comfort boxes” Caroline painstakingly and lovingly pieced together (from former, exquisite costumes she saved) and went to great lengths to send to the orphans is repulsive. What to say of the guards enjoying music amidst barbed wire buzzing?

So you might be thinking: How could Lilac Girls possibly lift us up with all the chilling ugliness? Kelly wisely lets the lives of these three women play out after the war. That answer comes in the unfolding and the ending, when the title becomes clear. The contrasts are stunning.


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The Women in the Castle 2

German complicity in Nazi Germany and the German Resistance Movement (1938 to 1950, also pre-WWII & 1991 in flashbacks and endings; mostly German towns): Entire fields in philosophy and psychology are devoted to the complex study of morality. In The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck is laser-focused on the moral legacy of ordinary German citizens who were complicit in one way or another as Hitler’s Nazi regime committed atrocities against humanity. Moral questions leap out from practically every page.

That’s because this is a profoundly personal novel. Shattuck is of German ancestry and her beloved grandmother (who lived until almost 100) was a member of the Nazi party. Reckoning with that agonizing incongruity makes for a most unusual, penetrating, and timely WWII novel that begs for an overarching moral code in national political discourse and conduct.

What does it mean to say someone has a moral compass? Can immoral behavior be justified to survive? Or, is there “a right and a wrong in every situation”? What if you only “half-knew” something was horrific? What if you were unobservant or too self-involved or allowed yourself to be deceived? How far should accountability go if you participated in one of the many ideological and militaristic child-molding programs of Hitler’s Youth Movement like the types characters in the novel did – older boys groups (Jugend), older girls groups (BDM), rural youth camps (“children-to-the-land-programs”) – even if you entered unaware? What about the stigma of having been reared in a “Children’s Home” for Germanisation? The abuse and scarring of children burns throughout.

Tackling these moral questions is a minefield. Not everything is black or white and nothing is easy to swallow. It’s not meant to be. Questions that have gnawed at Shattuck for it appears at least twenty years when she first interviewed her grandmother at her farm in Germany; and imaginably with much angst during the seven years she researched (extensively) and wrote this chilling novel (her third.) Questions weighing on the author for what must feel like a lifetime. Questions that should weigh on us too. These are dark times.

So it follows then that the prose feels like the author poured herself into the novel. Many sentences flow in a manner of deep absorption like the concentration Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his theory on the science of mental flow, examined more pointedly as it pertains to the writing process in Writing in Flow. As such, Shattuck’s prose is as clear and as dogged and take-charge as the novel’s moral conscience, conceived in a character of “unflappable strength”: Marianne von Lingelfels.

On the night of the Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass, when 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps), thirty-one-year-old Marianne is preparing for a harvest party at a forsaken Bavarian castle. The fortress belongs to a countess, the great aunt of her husband Albrecht, a diplomat in the Foreign Office. The countess is Marianne’s role model for she’s a broad-minded intellect, outspoken even today from her wheelchair. Which is why Marianne has taken on the herculean task of divining an “anarchic, un-German atmosphere” in a country immersed in a “wave of rigid and peevish militancy.” The first of many daunting challenges rock-solid Marianne pulls off.

It’s at this fateful party that the infamous July 20th 1944 assassination plot against Hitler was hatched. Among the guests in on the conspiracy are Marianne’s cherished childhood friend, Connie Fledermann. Handsome, charismatic, impulsive, and a “passionate champion of what he felt was right,” the opposite of Marianne’s cooler, more deliberative husband. She might even have married Connie if she were a softer, lighthearted, prettier, sexier version of herself, feelings apparent when he introduces her to nineteen-year-old, beautiful Benita he plans to marry. Marianne is her opposite: “stern-faced,” could care less about how she looks and dresses, well-educated, and politically-minded. She and Connie see eye-to-eye on important things: Germany has become a “savage land.”

In history’s real assassination attempt, the resisters included Claus von Stauffenberg and Ludwig Beck (both mentioned), and others. In Shattuck’s rendering Connie is one of those others. Albrecht was in on the conversations but he had mixed feelings, believing justice would prevail.

“There are thinkers and there are actors,” Albrecht says. Albrecht’s the thinker, Connie’s the doer, and Marianne is both. Her character is ideal for carrying out the novel’s plot: a promise she made to Connie at the party that she’d “be the commander of wives and children” should the co-conspirators’ scheme go awry, which, tragically, we know it did. This all happens in the Prologue.

The reader, then, is prepared for Part I when it opens. Not only are Connie and Albrecht dead but “Germany itself was dead, and half of the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two.” Marianne is left a widow with three children (Elisabeth, Katrina, Fritz) holing up in a few rooms of the antiquated castle she’s now inherited, protected due to her aristocratic status and the fact that the castle, located in Ehrenheim, sits within the American Occupation Zone. She is, though, surrounded by a town of fervent Nazis and later the Russians come.

Occupation Zones, 1945
By glglgl [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

Marianne’s life is now consumed by her moral pledge, both in the immediate aftermath of WWII rescuing and protecting widows and children of resisters and in later years for the cause of displaced persons. She and two women she rescues make-up the women in the castle.

The most emotional salvation is, understandably, Connie’s Benita and Martin, the son she was pregnant with when Marianne met her at the party. Benita is the spitting image of Nazi Aryan racial adoration but when Marianne liberates her she’s a shell of her former alluring, flirtatious self. Martin, the first she extricates, is also traumatized. The other emancipated widow Marianne knows even less about, the wife of the man who announced Kristallnacht at the party. Ania is “unreadable” until the latter portion of the novel when her hard backstory comes to life. Her two boys, Wolfgang and Anselm, are like her: “silent and knowing.” Everyone bears unspoken, harrowing pasts. Had Marianne known of these, perhaps her relationships and actions would have turned out differently. As the novel moves back and forth in time, place, and character we see how stark class differences and circumstances influenced who these people were when they came together at the castle. Not meant to excuse, but to help understand.

Shattuck explains how her three women are connected:

“Connected not through allegiance to any group or party or particular way of thinking but through the reality of the moment, through their shared will to get through the next hours, the next day, and the one afterward, and through their shared determination to keep their children safe.”

Despite the novel’s soberness, two uplifting scenes stood out. One takes place on Christmas day when the castle folk and townsfolk attend mass. The priest’s sermon falls hollow on battered souls. But music, Beethoven’s 9th, has the power to stir; Marianne is wondrous at how such a delicate instrument like the violin was salvaged amongst all the ugliness. In those ephemeral moments, the churchgoers felt “invited to be a small piece of eternity.” This is not about forgiveness, but the preciousness of all human life.

The other scene involves a willow tree, a leftover from a time when the ground in Dortmund (the town Ania’s from) was marshy. The weeping willow tree – “it’s bent, grief-stricken shape is a product of its longing” – serves as a metaphor for the horrors of the Holocaust. It endures yet it weeps.


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No One Is Coming to Save Us

The Psychology of Poor (Piedmont region of North Carolina; contemporary): How’s this for a shocking statistic. In just eleven years (2001-2012), some 63,000 manufacturing plants vanished from America’s towns. Ordinary livelihoods and identities attached to them also shuttered. For the “ordinary poor” in the poorest of towns where “not much happens here except the same, same” these causalities are a deathblow. No One Is Coming To Save Us – even the lyrical title tugs at us – takes us inside the psyche and broken hearts of black characters hard-hit in one of these communities.

Pinetown is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, not far from the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, but not much feels lovely there today. Although “people didn’t experience joy” in the olden days, at least they experienced “the immediacy of the life they were living” and were “young enough to believe in happy endings.”

Stephanie Powell Watts, award-winning professor of African American literature at Lehigh University, writes wonderfully long, winding, rhythmic sentences that often fill up one paragraph on the page, sentences that swing to and fro meshing past and present together, creating a dream-like narrative with a sense of entanglement. In fact, Pinetown characters are tangled up in a maze perilously searching for a way out. If only they’d chosen a different path, things might be different they think.

Beyond its searing literary value, Watts’ novel is a sociological and psychological study of what that blow means to black characters who’ve lived their entire lives in this town and don’t have much else, if anything, to fall back on. This is the essence and culture the novel feeds on.

Zooming in on how many broken lives came from furniture plant closings in the Piedmont area, the so-called “Furniture Capital of the World,” the figure reaches close to half. We see the aftermath, bumped up against the past, realizations that “life has amounted to too little.” When everything “screamed cheap, cheap, cheap and worse than that – desperate,” what does that do to your sense of worth? Relationships? Desire, strength to change?

It may be surprising to learn that this beautiful coastal and mountainous State has some of the worst poverty in the nation, especially rural counties like Pinewood. The deserted town reminds us of the collapse of white West Virginia coal country, or white, blue-collar Rust Belt communities, lives torn apart as result of free trade and globalization. Places that have been getting attention of late – Trump country. If my googling is right, the Piedmont area also voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The author, then, does us a service by zooming in on another section of America cast aside.

Billed as “The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South” (quoted from the back cover) because an evocatively named character Jay – formerly J. J. Ferguson, a foster child who grew up in Pinetown, somehow made it out but now’s returned after seventeen years – seems to have “made it” big. The novel opens when Jay’s building a palatial home overlooking the foothills in “a section where the people are rich and their lives are so far from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” Hoping to revive and reinvent the past with Ava, his childhood friend and once sweetheart, bringing whiffs of Daisy Buchanan.

While the novel is brilliant – prose that sings a song of such sadness – a different genre of book comes to mind: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis, which skyrocketed to national fame to grasp what drove poor white people in droves to vote for Trump. Watts has done the same for poor black people in this area of the South.

Much is told through the third-person, omniscient voice, allowing the author to delve perceptively, knowingly into the “drag of poverty.” Washington Post reporter, Michelle Singletary, recently denounced people who “talk about the poor, especially people who haven’t experienced poverty, [yet] it’s often without context or compassion.” Definitely not the case here. Watts hails from around this geography, so her writing rings authoritative, authentic, and raw emotionally.

The range and nature of these feelings – chronic strain, disappointments, regrets, anger, hurts, betrayals, and concerns of characters who feel very real – also comes from first-person dialogue that jumps out fast and furious.

Two of the most resounding voices dramatize the novel’s other profound theme – motherhood. A mother and daughter pair. They’re also connected to Jay’s past, so they’re also the most stirred by his reappearance.

Heavyhearted Sylvia is approaching seventy having “spent her whole life tensed and waiting for the worst to happen.” Fears she’ll end up miserably unhappy and lonely like her mother appear to have come true. Ava is almost forty, a wicked age for someone desperate to be a mother. Sylvia walks on eggshells around her, doesn’t know how to ease her pain or why her daughter is so distressed. Ava has a good job and dresses the part, working as a loan officer at a bank. Yet Ava’s all-consumed with her failures of trying to conceive and the constant praying she will. For Ava childlessness is a burden equivalent to a “moral mistake.” Ava laments “maybe in heaven you get back all the time you lost hoping.”

Mother and daughter have “sorry husbands,” even sorrier marriages. Both men expendables of the factory shutdowns. Depressed and lost, that doesn’t excuse their weak behaviors. Be it the drip, drip, drip or the sucker punch of their absences – physical and emotional – Watts gets us inside the heads of these women as to why it’s brick hard for them to let go of their pasts. “The hardest thing you’ll do is keep moving forward,” Sylvia prods Ava.

Both are jolted by Jay’s arrival, breaking the pattern of nothing ever happening. He causes mother and daughter to examine what’s become of their lives. He too can’t get beyond the past.

Another unusual event is announced on page eight. An outsider, Marcus, has been mysteriously calling Sylvia from the county jail. Black, twenty-five, he reminds Sylvia of her son, Devon, whose presence hovers but we don’t find out what’s up with him until we’re almost three-fourths through. His begging Sylvia for help speaks to someplace deep within her she keeps hidden. To underscore her “heaviness,” Watts imagines her as fat, adding more weight to her self-reproach and feelings of disregard.

Imagine how bad things have turned out when a “segregation-era chic” restaurant named Simmy’s near one of the closed factories stands as a dark reminder of when blacks couldn’t even enter the front door, yet the two husbands (and others) still hang out here.

It’s not just furniture jobs that have gone by the wayside. Gone are extended families and extended gatherings when hours of cooking special foods “meant celebration.”

Now the best anyone can do is just get by. Except for the promise of Jay.

And the one colorful character we must celebrate. Lana, Sylvia’s glass-nearly-full sister, who takes great pride in her beauty salon and cares about her downtrodden sister. She brings “brightness, her humor, her unmuddied outlook of the world.” Lana’s someone who has successfully reinvented herself.

Naturally, we wish others could do the same. We too can’t help but want happy endings.


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The Barrowfields 2

Haunted house, mountainscape, characters – a Southern Gothic novel (Appalachian region, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina; three generations spanning the 20th century): For a blog that prizes prose above all, The Barrowfields is a stunner. It wins for beautiful, atmospheric, sorrowful prose. A blend of formal, literary/poetic, Appalachian dialect, conversational, and a bit of legalese. Versatile prose that rhythmically evokes “eloquent sadness” set in a beautiful, forlorn place with a heavyhearted clan.

To get a feel for the melancholy tone, listen to a piece of classical piano music played by our narrator, Henry Aster. Chopin’s C-Sharp Nocturne, he says “begins in sadness, moves to bittersweet remembrance, and then returns again to sadness.” Much like this standout debut:

A concise, tantalizing Prologue hints at someone’s existential angst. As opening lines go, it grabs like the opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance novel, Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Why is that line so famous? For one thing, the unknown narrator’s voice flows poetically, and it enigmatically forewarns. Compare Lewis’opener: “The desk is the same as he left it.” In case we don’t notice a similarity, he repeats the cadence and unease with two closing lines, first from the opening line of Albert Camus’classic The Stranger: “Mother died today” followed by “I’m beginning to understand.” Which, of course, the reader doesn’t, hooked to figure it out. That doesn’t happen until page 346 of a 348 page book, keeping us in the dark as to the novel’s overshadowing mystery: Where did the character who abandoned his writing table go? The scant details the Prologue offers inform us that the he in question was working on a novel, apparently cast-off nine years ago.

The significance of the unpublished novel is examined within the larger context of three-generations of the Aster family, recounted for us by third-generation narrator, Henry. They all come from “an achromatic town high in the belly of the Appalachian mountains,” evidently inspired by the North Carolina mountain town region the author is from.

Old Buckram is a fictional “town of ghosts and superstitions,” population in the hundreds. The “streets and sidewalks are lonely and seldom traveled” as this is a place of “unrelenting poverty” where decent people persevere like Helton and Maddy, Henry’s grandparents, because “mountain folks have a hell of a lot of character and ruggedness.” The landscape right outside of town – the novel’s namesake – is equally ominous. The Barrowfields is a mountainous area “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss which climbs over mounds of rocks and petrified stumps.”

Already, dark features of a Southern Gothic novel unfold:

  • premonition about a deflated character
  • woebegone, small southern town
  • eerie landscape
  • strong sense of place
  • mournful passages

Exploring what it means to call a novel Southern Gothic is even more germane to The Barrowfields because the narrator’s father, also named Henry, is all-consumed with the gothic works of Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and William Styron. His highbrow fanaticism with the great books of literature starkly contrasts with the dirt poor, remote community barely eking by, thereby setting him apart. The outsider character a gothic feature. Picture him wearing a “long black rider’s coat,” à la Poe.

We come to know father and son in another sinister setting: their out-of-place “immense house of black iron and glass.” A haunted house another characteristic of the genre. The rest of their immediate family includes Mother (yes, Henry refers to his parents old-fashionedly) Eleonore, and Threnody, his sister nine years younger. Her odd name signals she’s another character out-of-step with the community. Their “lonely old house” (and Old Buckram and the Barrowfields) all loom large, like characters.

The house is an “architectural curiosity” once owned by a tobacco magnate of R. J. Reynolds. Shadowed in the mountain hollows, turns out Henry has good reason to view the house as a “vulture house.” At the end of Part 1 (the novel is retrospectively structured in four parts), he swears to himself: “I’m not coming back here … This place, with all its bleakness and sorrows, is not for me.” Years later, we see how “a place where your soul resides and where all your ghosts and demons still persist will remain for all the years of your life no matter how far away you travel.” (Apparently, quoted from his mother’s favorite book by the aviatress Beryl Markham.)

Fortunately, Eleonore has other interests – horses, flowers, birds – that nurture her optimistic, sweet spirit like the “soul of a little songbird.” She needs bolstering as our sense of foreboding becomes a reality for a family cooped inside a “monstrous gothic skeleton” of a house with a ghostly past. Henry’s father is an absent presence, devoting every waking (and drinking hour) when he’s not small town mountain lawyering sequestered in a “cubical chamber” surrounded by his coveted library of rare books. Meanwhile, everyone else – innocents – must bear the brunt of his “unspeakable melancholy.” Innocent characters another element of Southern Gothics.

Whereas Eleonore is the hardiest soul, her son denies the heavy burden weighing him down; Threnody, who idolizes her brother, is the most transparently affected. Brother and sister share their father’s intense need for reading and storytelling. A lifeline for this isolated family.

Phillip Lewis is a lawyer from these rural mountain parts. By creating two lawyerly characters – father and the son who becomes one – he has found a novelistic way to pay tribute to small town southern lawyers who “quietly do more good for people and communities than probably anyone would realize.”

The author has also conceived of another key character who combines darkness, mystification, innocence, and romance – another gothic element – Story. An apt name for she has a baffling backstory Henry gets entangled with. They meet in his senior year of law school; for Henry its love at first sight. She’s beautiful, but he seems also attracted to her as he recognizes “some distant sadness from wounds afflicted long before.” As a consequence, their relationship moves tentatively, though the dialogue is crisp and charged. Whenever Henry is around her he’s “melting” or “desires her to the point of delirium.” When he’s not, he can’t sleep or concentrate and drinks heavily. The reader can’t help but think: like father like son.

Googling, I learned gothic literature also contains a comedic component. Admittedly, I struggled with that one as nothing seemed in the least bit funny or darkly humorous until Henry adopts a giant, unruly, loveable dog whose witty antics include destroying Henry’s collection of “Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge …” Of Buller Henry amusingly observes, he “apparently preferred the romantics.” Picture a devoted alpha dog barreling at you, all licks, comfort, and lightheartedness.

Before law school, even at college, Henry endured a “cloistered existence.” In law school he makes friends, particularly with J. P., whose coarseness sticks out, reminding us how different Henry really is from his peers.

Henry’s passionate about timeless things – literature, music, night-gazing. So while the novel has a brooding spirit, there’s also an inspiriting thread about enjoying all that’s beautiful before time runs out.

An overarching theme, highlighted by citing Thomas Wolfe on several occasions, is whether any of us can truly go home again. For years Henry did leave the macabre house – to Connecticut for college, Chapel Hill, North Carolina for law school, and Charleston, South Carolina where Story is from. You’ll see, though, that “no one can never leave a place completely.” Perhaps, the most potent message of all.


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Harmless Like You

Conceptualizing Invisibility, Conceptual Art (New York, Connecticut, Berlin; 1968 – 2016): There are many ways to describe this psychologically complex, artistic novel but harmless isn’t one of them. By the time the full measure of harmfulness sinks in, you’ll be two-thirds through and in awe of how such exquisite sadness could be so exquisitely written.

Apropos to its creative rendering, avant-garde art is the medium linking two generations of emotionally damaged, estranged protagonists – a mother and the son she abandoned at two. Yukiko – Yuki – Oyami is so sad and dazed “it was as if someone peeled off her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing.” A struggling-to-be-an artist Japanese-American immigrant whom we meet in 1968 at age sixteen after ten years of living in-between the Village and Chinatown. In-between-ness, a fringe existence, a “constant state of disorientation” and loneliness, feeling you don’t belong anywhere, define Yuki.

Jay Eaves, her adult son, struggles differently. A Japanese-American-French-Canadian owner of a Brooklyn art gallery specializing in Asian/Asian American art by female artists, he’s profoundly angry, lost in his marriage, terrified of new fatherhood. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t represent Japanese artists but it takes time to absorb the weightiness of the emotional scars of his mother’s abject rejection because Jay’s contemporary story is told in shorter chapters that progress non-linearly.

Yuki’s chronological, longer chapters reflect the significance of art and her downward spiraling as headings darken over the years. The novel opens at its most hopeful, with shiny chapters named for colors like Quinacridone and Celadon Gold. Later titles are foreboding, named for bleaker colors like Caput Mortum (brownish-plum) and Ivory Black or brighter paints like Vermillion that “always poisons.”

Yuki and Jay haven’t seen each other until the novel’s hauntingly beautiful three-page Prologue, when an unrecognizable son comes knocking on her Berlin door. Yuki greets him aged beyond her sixty years, bundled up in scarves, cold as she was always skinny, a “habit of deprivation” that seems anorexic. Jay dreaded coming, but was duty-bound. He’s just loss his loving father, who bequeathed his Connecticut estate to Yuki; he has papers for her to sign. It’s not until the last sentence on page 3 that the reader surmises her child is male. Enigmatic prose that beguiles and turns pages for we want to know: What drove Yuki to desert Jay? Who was his father? When did she live in Connecticut? Why did she leave? What brought her to Berlin? Mysteries that unravel little by little, cleverly.

Artistry is also seen in the originality and acuteness of the prose evoking emotional pain. A psychologist would have a field day diagnosing the emotions depicted. Yuki says there’s “no place she could imagine being happy,” so leave happiness off this clinical list. At the beginning, she wished to do something her parents would be proud of her, but even then she was melancholy. As her life spins unhappier, she accepts years of a physically abusive relationship with an older man (not Jay’s father) if only to be shocked awake. The author seeks to jolt and awaken us too. This is not a making-it-in-America immigrant experience. This is all-out alienation.

Finding a way to express herself through art takes on a life of its own. Detached from her Japanese culture and clashing with the American, worlds that call for translations, she’s drawn to art as “light and shadow required no translation.” It makes sense, then, that the sixties and the seventies are crafted as Yuki’s most vivid years, echoing an influential era of radical experimentation with art. Since she’s forever dissatisfied with her art, trying to breakthrough with various art forms – photography, watercolor, drawing, painting – we wonder if Yuki ever found moments when she was happy at her craft and did she make “it.”

Was she ever even a happy young child? When we’re introduced to her she’s already hungering, though she appreciates her mother’s “perfection” of preparing special Japanese foods. Both parents are stoical: her mother for adapting to this strange new land and her father for bearing the enslavement of a Japanese internment camp. Though he’s a successful Japanese car company executive, he’ll never forget what our “ugly country” did to him. So he awaits returning to Tokyo in six months, which is when Yuki’s coming-of-age story kicks-off.

She’d been biding her time. Until she befriends dazzling Odile, gets so caught up with her beauty Yuki chooses to completely cut herself off from her parents and culture, remaining on. While she still wants to be a “good daughter” from afar, you’ll see how wildly and sadly her plans go astray. By the time she’s in a relationship with Jay’s rocklike Canadian father, her body and soul have been so battered there’s even an “ache in her eyes.”

All this pain has redeeming value: at least she knows what she wants her art to say: “communicate even one ridge of pain.” That’s the point of the novel. Painting a daunting tableau of a range of dislocated emotions when ties to family, home, culture are severed. What does identity loss, emptiness, anonymity look and feel like?

In this picture’s foreground are ambivalence, turmoil, violence, and artists pushing boundaries: Jay’s “Chinese and Korean, on both sides of the Pacific” art patrons who felt “at best ambivalent about the Japanese”; scorching TV and magazine cover images of helicopters delivering body bags and the faces of traumatized Vietnamese girls; and the rise of modern art movements inspired by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, whose names are brushed on the pages. Avant-garde art that assaults the “soft-touch” of Japanese calligraphy, also embellished across pages. Especially poignant is the Japanese character for Love. Complicated to write, like the love Yuki seems incapable of and Jay frightened of.

Yuki and Jay’s voices exhibit two sides of grief. Yuki’s is the sensitive voice of a shy “ghost girl.” Depression turned inward, with loud voices screaming inside her head. Jay’s profane voice is rage and sorrow turned outward.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan describes herself as “British, Chinese, Japanese, and American.” In an interview, she explains that she “spent her life alternately between London and New York, each time missing the other place, feeling as if there was more home there than here.” Her debut novel, then, is personal, which is why it feels so topsy-turvey authentic.

Some current events are also relevant thematically. There’s an art exhibition by an experimental Japanese artist who came of age during the sixties that’s causing a sensation at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The artist, Yayoi Kusama, has been living in a mental institution for thirty years. Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott describes some of her works as a “somber sea of sadness” and the overall effect is:

“not so much the visual repetition that stuns you, rather, it’s the solitude, the kind of solitude that inspires thoughts like ‘I am trapped in my life …”

Kusamo’s exhibition is visually stunning; Yuki’s feels muted and somber. Yet both might be suffering mentally alike.

There’s also recent reporting on the “invisible wounds” of traumatized refugee children, and other accounts of the psychological stress the anti-immigration ban is having on Dreamers.

The trauma of separation is boundless.

The conceptual art movement of the sixties, in which originality of the idea not the aesthetics was paramount, seems inexplicably odd to many. Yuki, I think, is imagined as a conceptualist. Likewise, “odd” is a word Yuki perceives of herself. It’s also the same apt descriptor for Jay’s bald, old, diabetic cat Celeste, whom he can’t let go off. But it’s not odd why. Animals love us and are devoted to us in ways humans sometimes can’t. Celeste assumes a strong presence, reminding us of our essential need for attachment.

Yuki agonizes to find her artistic voice – what to say and how to say it. To contrast, Buchanan’s voice seems effortless, purposeful, and deeply emotional. Quite an exhibition!


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Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars

A deceptive mystery set in London’s “Swinging Sixties” (October 30, 1965 – November 18, 1965): On the surface, this is a mystery about a moody actress gone missing in a moody city. Like all crafty deceptions, it turns deeper than that. Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a heady mix of historical fiction when “the world had decided it would make no more sense.” A novel more serious than the lighthearted title suggests.

Moods move upbeat and downbeat. Lively backdrops transport the “baroque loveliness” of the “largest theatre district in the world” along with the sultry, Caribbean-influenced jazz scene. Biting social/cultural commentary on racism and prejudices towards people of color, immigrants, the gay community, and others not “English as toast” presents a tumultuous city of dramatic contrasts amidst a “great wave of malevolence.” London is multi-layered, like the novel.

Since this is a novel tied to a London play (Field of Stars) penned by a British author who is also a playwright it caught my attention, believing if you write what you know it’s likely to feel authentic and be crafted in atmospheric prose. That it is. Miranda Emmerson knows London’s “Theatreland” (Soho, West End). She also knows the faces of other London neighborhoods as the search for the vanished starlet Ionathe Green – Lanny – traces and races through London like a street map.

The actress’ costume dresser-turned-gumshoe Anna (Miss Treadway) was the last to see Lanny leave the Galaxy Theatre, described in glimmering prose:

“A world of angel faces, ribbons and masks; opera glasses in their little cages, pill-box hatted ice-cream girls in sharply starched black and white. It was a world seemingly unchanged in the past fifty years, a place suspended in time.”

Emmerson’s prose is also historically accurate. Be forewarned it’s populated with the same offensive language denigrating people by the color of their skin as you’d find in an historical novel set in America’s Deep South. The ugly “c” word was apparently “common parlance in the sixties” of Britain, particularly fervent as an influx of immigrants flooded into the country from the Caribbean and Africa. The anti-immigrant movement was not restricted to blacks. Sentiments against the Irish were fierce too. Trying to understand this disturbing history, I learned that in 1962 Britain passed its first Commonwealth Immigrants Act, eerily reminiscent of the anti-Muslim ban the Trump administration proposes. This London is an equal opportunity discriminator against all persons differing.

At least we can take heart that the author has created a shining character from Jamaica: Aloysius, a proud accountant. His elegance, gentleness, compassion, and handsomeness inside and out leap off the pages. You’ll fall in love with him. He joins Anna on her consuming hunt for Lanny, for she, unlike the police, feels an urgency to find or find out what happened to the leading lady. He’s attracted to her and protective, realizes she can’t do this alone. The two meet at a rocking jazz club, a client of his, after Anna learns Lanny was spotted at the Roaring Twenties (out of sync with her go-it-alone persona). It’s one of a number of legendary nightspots depicted in the novel, where the music of Jamaica – Ska – pulsates.

Mini-skirts were also the rage. So conservative, bookish Anna stuck out with her oxfords and “librarian’s clothes.” Yet Aloysius (also a literature lover) sees her as “beautiful,” as she sees him. After four unkind years in London (except for his landlady who treats him like her own) adjusting to the “white person nod,” Aloysius confides he’s only “had the pleasure of an honest conversation about twice a year.” Anna, who shies away from intimacy for a reason that becomes clear at the ending, isn’t sure if Aloysius manifests “beauty from his features” or the “kindliness he exuded.” It’s both, which is why she admires and respects him. This gentle-man begs us to be better than we are. “Why do we need to refer to the color of people’s skin?” he implores.

Like an interesting play, the novel delivers an ensemble of diverse characters. Some represent goodness; others definitely not. All seem to share a deep desire to reinvent themselves. Of course it’s the good ones who make the novel hum.

Here’s a glimpse into some characters without giving anything away:

  • LANNY: Forty-year-old Irish American diva “charming the Home Counties.” Hasn’t forgotten her tenement-Boston early years. Not much is known about her when she disappears.
  • ANNA: Despite top billing, probably the fuzziest. Twenty-some and reserved, we know there’s something in her past she wishes forgiveness for. As her search with Aloysius intensifies, so does their relationship.
  • ALOYSIUS: “Genteel voice,” even when he’d be justified to act otherwise.
  • OTTMAR: Owner of a Turkish café that’s a “little slice of Istanbul,” where Anna used to waitress. Worried sick over one of his daughters, rebellious Samira. Can’t understand “why the love he had to offer seemed to cure nothing at all.” We feel his pain.
  • LEONARD: Owner of the Galaxy Theatre and an apartment close to Ottmar’s café. His profanity flashes “manic grief” and resentment over the discrimination he endures as a gay man.
  • BARNABY/BRENNAN: Irish detective on the West End police force who has changed more than his name. Wants to succeed so badly he’s let his marriage and fatherhood go adrift.
  • JAMES: Reporter who broke the story, “Disappearance of a West End Star.”
  • INSPECTOR KNIGHT: Barnaby’s cynical, foul-mouthed boss in no hurry to investigate a missing, aging actress.
  • SAMIRA: Perhaps the most outside of them all, reflective of the novel’s unflinching treatment of the immigrant experience. “No one is like us,” she cries. “No one’s Turkish. No one’s Muslim” … “at school I’m this thing. This thing that doesn’t fit. I feel like dirt.” This may not be the novel we’re expecting, but it’s exemplary.
  • ORLA: Brennan’s Irish wife, another goodhearted soul leading an awfully lonely existence. She “had a light that shone on the people around her,” making her despair even more egregious. Lives in a “bubble” with her baby girl, Gracie.

As the plot drives headlong looking for Lanny, these characters call out for a more mindful, accepting society. Ottmar asks: “After all the thousands of years and all that philosophy and religion and books and poetry, after the millions of elections and debates, that’s as good as we get?” Similarly, Aloysius wonders: “Maybe we all have to look out for each other?” Questions that will linger long after the mystery is solved.

So grab your Columbo trench coat, Aloysius’ fedora hat, Anna’s ticking-clock determination, and Barnaby’s notebook to crack the case. Don’t get too distracted by the “little Versailles” theatre district, marketplace hustle of Covent Garden, jazzy rhythms, Turkish delights, Soho hippies, Georgian residences, moonlight over the Thames, and all the mayhem. A lot to take in.

London’s shifting “Swinging Sixties” may have “seemed romantic” to the dreamers in the novel, but it reveals a darker underbelly. Along the way, many characters also reveal they’re hiding something. They’re not – we’re not – as different as others would like us to believe.


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The Orphan’s Tale

Mercy under the Big Top (Holocaust, 1942-1944; Darmstadt, Germany and Thiers, France): Tear-jerker alert! Pam Jenoff has outdone herself in her ninth historical novel of unimaginable feats during an unimaginable historical era.

The gut-wrenching movie Denial about Holocaust deniers, released as anti-Semitism is rising, screams there’ll never be enough stories drawn from the Holocaust. Not just the inconceivable acts of horror, but the inconceivable acts of heroism, endurance, self-sacrifice. The Orphan’s Tale is all that, and more.

Two female narrators recount this death-defying story of circus aerialists when the “entire world hangs in the balance.” A survival story where love bloomed “in the most unlikely of places.”

Two pieces of Jewish history unforgettably converge: centuries of Jewish circus families and the heartbreaking account of “Unknown Children” dumped in a boxcar headed to a concentration camp – unknown even to Jenoff, a former State Department diplomat on Holocaust affairs. The novelist cannot forget nor wants us to, so she’s woven together unfamiliar truths and emotional fiction into a page-turner that may leave you in tears. As it left me.

A prologue opens the novel 50 years hence at an art exhibition on “200 Years of Circus Magic” held at the Grand Palais in Paris. French (and German) words are sprinkled throughout, invoking the two countries where the novel is set. You’re hooked because we’re not told whose voice we’re hearing. We do know this person planned for months to sneak out of a nursing home to get to France. By the end, you’ll figure out whose voice this is, bringing a little closure. Not much as this tale’s not meant to ever feel closed.

In the next 25 or so pages, you’re swiftly introduced to the plight of two women whose first person accounts narrate: Noa is 16 and Astrid 10 years older. At first, their only connection is they’ve both lost their families as a result of the war. Linked by sadness, for different reasons.

Noa’s parents threw their young, unworldly daughter out of her Dutch village home when she became pregnant by a Nazi soldier. Astrid, an aerialist with a “body like a statue, elegant lines seemingly carved from granite,” comes from a 100-year-old Jewish circus family – Circus Klemt – forced out of business in 1930 by the Nazi regime. Based, I think, on the internationally renowned Jewish Circus Lorch, which lasted 130 years. I’m not certain since it’s one of a surprising number of Jewish circus families Jenoff cites. In 1942, Astrid went looking for them in Darmstadt, Germany, but they’ve disappeared. Also in Darmstadt is the winter training grounds of Circus Neuhoff.

That’s where Noa and Astrid’s connection deepens as they both find refuge in this circus inspired, I believe, by Circus Althoff, also historically referenced in the novel. Adolph Althoff saved Jews during the Holocaust like Herr Neuhoff does. Both employed a Jewish performer who was a member of the Lorch family.

Poster for the Lorch Family’s act (c. 1915)
Document © The John & Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Online Collections

Both men also went to extraordinary lengths to hide Jews among the “chaos and intensity of the circus.” Neuhoff’s small stature (5’3”) belies his huge heart undeterred by a heart condition (like Althoff.) The novel is replete with dramatic contrasts like this, “characters in the wrong storybook.”

Noa speaks first. It’s 1944 and she’s made her way to Germany, eking out an existence cleaning bathrooms in the Bensheim rail station. She detects sounds coming from a parked boxcar, rashly rushes out into the freezing snow risking being spotted by the German police, an act that alters her destiny. Actually, her fate was sealed when she gave birth to her Jewish son at a German hospital expecting he’d be adopted by a German family since she’s blonde. Did she know the Lebensborn program was “one of the most secret and terrifying projects” aimed at creating a “racially pure” society? Nothing suggests she did.

Grief, sorrow, guilt propel Noa to the boxcar featured on the cover, loaded with crying infants, crammed and packed so densely she can’t find a space to step into. Somehow she stretches far enough to grasp one baby boy; continually regrets she couldn’t save more. He’s circumcised, a Jewish baby, like the one she abandoned. This time she’ll fiercely protect him no matter the danger. Much of the novel reads at this breakneck pace.

Imagine Noa at this moment. Her makeshift sleeping arrangement in the railway’s closet is now impossible. Then imagine what it felt like when she meets ringmaster Neuhoff, offering her and her baby, Theo, refuge on the condition she perform with one of only a few aerial artists in the world who can execute the triple somersault – Astrid, whom Neuhoff is also protecting. Noa must learn the Flying Trapeze: flying through the air with a flimsy net nearly touching the floor.

Astrid’s lost more than her circus parents. Her prowess is what she clings to. “The air was all I had known,” she says. The two begin working together, more like battling as training to “take flight” takes years of mastery. Yet they only have a few weeks before they travel to Thiers, France!

For Astrid to catch Noa she must trust her, which means Noa must come clean about Theo. How to trust when “everyone needs to hide the truth and reinvent himself in order to survive”? A moral dilemma that plays out over and over, as both women harbor secrets.

The circus is a “great equalizer,” so others have hidden pasts too. Peter, “a sad clown fitting for these dreary times” is key because of his deepening involvement with Astrid. Astrid and Noa’s complicated partnership grows too. These relationships drive the nail-biting suspense.

This is a full-fledged circus – more clowns, acrobats, Fortune Teller, Gypsy, elephants and tigers and their trainers, other “defying gravity” acts like the High Wire, and a cast of workers that make this “huge enterprise” function and dazzle even though behind the scenes it’s plain old hard work, not at all exotic.

What is alluring is Jenoff’s lyrical prose evoking the world of aerialists. “Circus artists are every bit as intent as a ballet dancer or a concert pianist. Every tiny flaw is a gaping wound.” Here technical proficiency is a life-or-death proposition – cradle swings, hock-and-ankle catches, swing passes. And, the show demands presence, charisma. “Think graceful,” Astrid commands Noa, “dance, use your muscles, take charge.” The “audience is all around us like sculpture,” so Noa must also learn to think “three-dimensional.” The “lights and a thousand eyes upon you change everything,” so Noa must also learn to flash “personality, flair, the ability to make the audience hold its breath.” What a relief Noa displays “agility and strength” owing to earlier gymnastics training. Still, you’re gripped when she climbs the ladder to heights most of us dare not go and struggles to learn how to let go.

Against the backdrop of the Holocaust, its unimaginable the circus even existed. Like this unimaginable tale of finding family when millions were lost.


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Huck Out West

“Wonderfullest” sequel to an American classic (Western and Indian Territories around the start of the Civil War to 1876): It takes boldness and a master to craft an “owdacious” and masterly sequel to a Great American Novel. Huck Out West, Robert Coover’s 11th novel, is just that.

Told through an adult Huck’s eyes in a mostly “melancholical” voice, this collage of adventure tales follows Huck “over a fair number of years and persons” after he declared in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he’s “got to light out for the territory” so Aunt Sally can’t “sivilize me.”

Huck Finn is “one of those books everyone knows, even if everyone has not read it,” wrote American Literature professor John Seelye in his introduction to the 2009 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. So if like me you’ve “disremembered” Huck’s earlier escapades, take heart for this outstanding novel stands alone.

As a blogger, though, I sampled a ridiculous fraction of the voluminous critical analyses of the essence of Mark Twain and his masterwork – influence, language, themes, inventiveness – to have some basis for judging the cleverness of Coover’s sequel.

For I was at a disadvantage. I’d not read any of the author’s extensive body of work, unaware of Robert Coover’s “reckonition.” Professor Emeritus of Literary Arts at Brown University is “widely acknowledged as an innovator in the field of post-modern American fiction.”

Plainly, I don’t profess to be a scholar of either author. You don’t have to be to relish what Coover has achieved.

Before introducing a bit of what Huck Finn gets mixed up in, here’s some things that may surprise. For starters, Huck Out West is a wickedly disguised series of serious history lessons in America’s westward expansion. If you’re not an historian, you’ll recognize many historical references, but perhaps not all.

Another surprise is the timelessness of Twain’s social commentary. Huck was invented in 1876 but his moral code is as relevant today as ever. That’s because Huck Out West hits at the core of human nature. Huck’s moral compass still prevails. “It’s not easy to stand up for something when you’re the only one,” says Ben Harper, one of Huck’s childhood friends who periodically pops in, stays for a brief while. (Tom, Jim, and Becky make appearances too.)

The prose is an unexpected joy. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes place in the pre-Civil War slavery era. Thus the controversy over its offensive, prolific use of the “n” word as Twain, like postmodernists, sought “trueness.” By my count, the repugnant historical word appears twice in Huck Out West. Given the sequel’s Civil War and post-Civil War setting, the language (and hideous actions) illuminates racism towards a different population: Native Americans. And, it continues to reflect Huck’s poor Missouri education, filled with bad (and humorous) grammatical usage – a few examples herein – as well as regional southern dialect, as Missouri was considered part of the South back then.

The concept of time is fuzzy. The novel doesn’t begin at the beginning. It kicks off someplace in the middle when Huck has spent “many seasons” in the territories. Timelines help put context to the historical events. What year is this? Along the way, Coover provides clues as to the novel’s timespan: Huck’s a rider for the Pony Express, legendary but it only lasted from 1860-1861; Huck hears the President was shot (1865); the ending falls around the centennial celebration of Independence Day, 1876. Presumably then, Huck Out West opens in the middle of these years, 1870? But try as I might I couldn’t pinpoint Huck’s precise age, a desire triggered in part by Huck’s telling us on page one that he “spent nigh half his life out West.” The novel is referred to as “iconoclastic,” which I learned includes this kind of disordered chronology called fragmentation. Suffice it to say Huck’s now a grown-up!

Not according to Tom Sawyer. Tom tells Huck his problem is he’s “still living in a dream world that don’t exist.” Cheers for Huck if that means he didn’t turn out like Tom, someone who “loved a good hanging” and wasn’t “scrupulous about consequences.” Huck rails against the “grabby emigrants” who came west searching for fortunes; sadly Tom has become one of them. Huck’s rallying cry is against the “meanness of the whole human race.” This was the Wild West, when “awful things had happened.”

Not everything is harrowing. Huck’s atypical attitude toward American Indians, particularly the Lakota Sioux of today’s South Dakota, is a highlight. That doesn’t mean he fully understood the plains Indians for there was a stint when he killed buffalo, until he learned the tragedy it was.

The novel opens in the middle for good reason. Huck’s been bitten by a poisonous snake, saved by the Lakotas, leading to a “proper friend,” Eeteh. Eeteh’s plight humanizes the Indian Wars. Huck lives among the Lakotas for the cited “many seasons.” In fact, his teepee is the closest he comes to feeling he has a real home. With Eeteh, he delights in “jawing,” drinking whiskey, smoking a stone pipe, and listening to the myths of the Great Spirits. Eeteh is different than his tribe, so the two share an outsider connection. A peaceful fellow who revels in laughter, he contrasts with the Sioux known as relentless fighters – Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull show up too.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is set in a fictional town, St. Petersburg, based on Hannibal, Missouri, where Samuel Langhorne Clemens grew up. Similarly, in Huck Out West, a principal town is Deadwood Gulch (in today’s Nevada), drawing from Twain’s travels to Nevada Territory with his brother in the 1860s. He lived in Nevada for a stretch, reminding me to tell you that while the novel paints realities, some “stretchers” are thrown in too. (Mostly, they’re Tom’s.)

United States, 1868-1876
Via Wikimedia Commons, by User:Golbez. (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5]

Huck’s adventures are the stuff of Western moviemaking. Expect to “beflummoxed” by the “stampeed” and “masacreed” and all the “rapscallions” – “vegilanty gang,” highwaymen, drunkards, charlatans – and greedy prospectors willing to do anything for “glittery yallow rocks.” All characterize the up-for-grabs mentality and lawlessness marking this shaping period in America’s history – justice another thread.

As far as Huck’s concerned, the discovery of gold is “bad-luck.” What’s “importantest” to him, makes him “comfortabler” is comradery, Nature, and a deep bond with horses. His attachment to two – old Jackson and Tongo a wild stallion he gentles – touch us. Breakaway scenes of Huck riding bareback across the landscape on this powerhouse horse no one else dare ride are stirring imagery. So is Huck’s brave act to rescue a herd of Indian horses seized by a mean-spirited Cavalry General – abuse/escapism/freedom, a running theme.

Huck’s “bad luck” comes when he refuses to do what “General Hard Ass” demands he do. (He’s worked a spell for both the North and South sides of the Army.) No surprise Huck’s not a “good soldier” for he’s got a mind of his own. Huck is forever fleeing the General, one of my history lessons: The General is fashioned on General George Armstrong Custer who led the Black Hills Gold Rush portrayed in the novel. (It ended in 1876, another indicator of the novel’s timespan.)

The romantic elements of the Old West are here too. Huck’s a bona fide cowboy. He wrangles horses, protects wagon trains and stagecoaches, and drives cattle over the famed Chisholm Trail along a desert “as lonely and as sad as me.”

Huck warns “life don’t rarely turn out like you think it might.” True, but it’s “sejested” you come along for this “jeanie-logical” ride anyway. It’s one heck of a journey. Or, as Huck would say, “heck-stasy.”


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No Man’s Land 2

A tribute to a literary giant (1900-1919, England & France): No Man’s Land reads like you’re watching a movie. Simon Tolkien has a “gift for making people and places come alive.” So does the star of this movie, Adam Raine, as his coming-of-age saga was inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author’s grandfather “who fought on the Somme July through October 1916.”

Admittedly, Simon Tolkien’s famous lineage piqued my interest. The intrigue was furthered by a recent article noting the novel was being marketed not only to Lord of the Ring fans (timed to its 90th anniversary) but to Downton Abbey types, which includes readers of this blog since this British era has enchanted. Parts were apparently written while the author watched the acclaimed PBS series. That’s because a country estate – Scarsdale Hall – set in north England’s misty landscape of “still-water lakes and green fields” is where some of the drama takes place, propelling plot and a superb ending.

This immersive, thoughtful novel follows Adam’s maturation from boyhood to manhood, harsh worlds that forged the strength and integrity of his heroic character. For Adam can’t “bear to be less than he hoped he was,” a “virtue and a fault that he would carry with him all his life.” These profound aspirations define Adam and largely “who we are; and who we become.” This overarching theme plays out in many consequential scenes, none weightier than on the battlefield.

It would be a mistake, though, to peg this solely a war novel. Detailed, it weighs in at a hefty 578 pages, so this movie ought to be long, maybe 2 ½ hours. While the war consumes a chunk, to appreciate Adam’s character by the time he’s an Army soldier, the movie, like the well-crafted novel, should depict the historical context and Adam’s upbringing. (Adam, like J. R. R. Tolkien, did not immediately join up. He was studying at Oxford, like J. R. R. Tolkien and the author.)

Historical images of union strikers and suffragettes would float across the screen reflecting a “new age of social justice.” Adam’s father is one of those activists, in-and-out of construction jobs, staunching fighting for a world “where men are valued for who they are, not for what the rich can get out of them.”

The novel opens with a foretelling line: “The first world Adam knew was the street.” Those streets were the slums of London. Adam’s childhood was impoverished. Yet, like his mother’s piano music, his was a world of both “sweetness and loss.” His sickly, desolate, church-praying (spirituality another theme), loving mother managed to nurture Adam’s passion for books, Latin and Greek, and poetry (like J. R. R. Tolkien). From there, we witness Adam’s adolescence spent in northern coal country, also marked by hard times and formidable challenges.

Tranquil imagery contrasts greatly with vivid, life-and-death scenes. One, for example, happens at the manor house, home of Sir John Scarsdale, owner of the Scarsdale coal mine, paralleling a period in British history when coal miners protested unsafe conditions and unfair wages around 1912. More drama takes place 500 feet underground. Shafts descend into the “godforsaken darkness” of harrowing, narrow-tunneled mines. We feel for Adam’s struggles with claustrophobic demons, and we cringe at the vision of “pit ponies” hurtled down mine shafts to do their jobs – emblematic of the vast “industrial outcrop of the new century” when Britain was the “most powerful nation in the world.”

The movie, like the novel, would splendidly punctuate the bleakness with shots of the landscape’s beauty. The author continually reminds us of the environment’s importance as a “balm” for a “tortured soul.”

The coal town is named Scarsdale for a reason: the mine was “king.” Pitting the working-class against the “ruling class that has become decadent,” it highlights the extraordinary class system of the Edwardian era where “everyone has their place in the world.” This was an era when “decadence precedes disaster,” when an angry, disenfranchised working-class rose up against the “rich and powerful.” You can’t help but be struck by a novel set 100 years ago that resonates today with the populist movements that brought Brexit and the Trump presidency.

Simon Tolkien spent four years researching and writing this novel, his fifth. (A former London barrister, he’s written crime novels.) So he couldn’t have known this epic would send chills warning us that a “house of cards” can lead to calamity. Hence, like a well-made movie, the novel takes hold. The prose enchants us – i.e. grabs us – but most of the worlds it inhabits are not enchanting.

Here are exceptions: Adam’s resiliency and compassion; and his cautious, tender love for painfully shy, overly sensitive, submissive, Miriam, devout daughter of a parson Adam admires and befriends. (Like J. R. R. Tolkien, Adam fell in love before he went to war.) Miriam’s striking beauty is “simple like Madonna in a painting.” Adam later meets up with the Parson when he volunteers as a war chaplain, resurfacing spiritual questions more forcefully. How can horrific war be explained? “How can such beauty exist in the world?” churns Adam.

Like a well-cast movie, there’s a memorable cast of characters. Some bear uplifting traits of incredible bravery, fortitude, loyalty, generosity, objectivity, fair-mindedness, and humility. Others are scheming, cruel, villainous: Miriam’s mother, Lady Scarsdale and her younger, weak, insanely jealous, “dandified” son, Brice – all foes of Adam.

Adam encounters the admirable cast when he moves to Scarsdale, where his cousins live. Some don’t accept the city boy initially. An incident at the mines forms bonds. None more formidable than when the cast finds themselves on the Western Front during the “Big Push” depending on each other for survival. The power of friendship another compelling theme.

The wonderment of Adam is that he embodies “the spirit of man and what he can achieve.” He endures adversities, yet his “spirit wanted to embrace life rather than dwell on the hardships he’d suffered.” So in this soul-searching, serious work, you’ll find gems of inspiration and hope.

Adam’s not the only character that lifts us up during this historical time of crushing devastation and death. Seaton, the elder son of Sir John, Adam’s calls the “best man he’d ever known.” You’ll agree, though you’ll likely feel the same about Adam. From the moment Adam met Seaton, he felt an “intense sense of companionship” with him. Seaton’s certainly another hero. (So is Rawdon, a fearless Yorkshire-dialect speaking miner, and Earnest, Adam’s good-natured cousin.) Seaton ought to take second star billing. Wonderfully caring of Adam, we cheer when he stands up to his despicable mother and brother; when he frees Adam in a fairy-tale hot-air balloon ride over the magnificent landscape; and when he’s a courageous colonel defending his men on no man’s land.

Which means this movie is R rated for violence. It also means the film must be shot in both Technicolor and sepia/gray-black tones. Technicolor is far less visually prominent as the slums, mines, and trenches are grimy, dark, muddy, deplorable. Yet the value of the colorful hues of nature that keep popping up, often in the most unlikely places, cannot be overstated. Can you imagine what it meant to Adam injured and alone on the smoldering French countryside in earshot of the Germans to spot “brimstone butterflies fluttered above the daisies and the buttercups and waving red poppies”? The Great War’s Symbol of Remembrance feels real. It will stick with you, which, of course, is the point.

That’s why a novel full of the vocabulary of colliers and warriors still enchants us. For amongst the tragedies and unspeakable catastrophes, Adam still finds goodness and beauty in the world.

No Man’s Land stands fittingly muscular for these tough-talking, chaotic, alarming times. Testing who we are. How we answer will speak volumes about who we become.


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The Things We Keep 2

Is love summoned from your brain or heart? Can love trigger new connections in your brain? (New Jersey, present-day): Sometimes an author’s endorsement sways you to pick up a novel you’d otherwise pass over. Such was the case with Graeme Simsion’s testimonial prominently placed on the updated cover of Sally Hepworth’s 2015 novel, The Things We Keep, out tomorrow in paperback. For when the author of two charming romance novels (The Rosie Project, continued in The Rosie Effect) about endearing professor Don Tillman’s social challenges (Asperger’s-like syndrome) views Hepworth’s love story of two significantly challenged characters diagnosed with early-onset dementia as appealing to “our common humanity, capacity for love, and sense of humor,” you take notice. Could it capture our hearts with hopefulness and tenderness rather than crush us with sadness? I had to find out. That it does so on such a disheartening subject is noteworthy.

A few years back, I read another novel depicting Alzheimer’s. Then my curiosity came from reading the author spent 10 years writing his debut and sold it for $1 million. The novel (We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas) renders the ravages of the disease on scientist Ed and his caregiving wife Eileen so realistically and graphically I found it too depressing; could barely finish it, let alone blog about it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. In fact, it was a bestseller with numerous accolades. What it does mean is what we read and like or dislike can shake us up when a story hits home too personally. For me it did. My mother had dementia caused by primary-progressive multiple sclerosis, which in its advanced stages mirrored scenes detailed in Thomas’ novel.

My mother’s dementia was rare – 5% – like the two types of younger-adult dementia afflicting Anna, 38, and Luke, 41, in The Things We Keep. Because of different ages and conditions, thankfully I didn’t recognize my mother much in this intriguing page-turner. The notion that two cognitively challenged people discover profound connectedness and love in an assistive-living facility is fantastical. That dementia, which “steals things – memories, speech, other abilities,” doesn’t steal your ability to love is as hopeful as it can get.

The title turns out to be more provocative than first thought. Initially, the things we keep seemed to answer yes to the author’s interesting question: “Can you love someone you don’t remember?” (Anna can’t even remember Luke’s name. She conjures him up by his distinguishing feature: Young Man.) But after watching the mind-boggling documentary, The Brain That Changes Itself, based on Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, on the pioneering work in brain science called “neuroplasticity,” the title took on a far-reaching interpretation. Again, it answered yes to another of the novel’s probing questions: Is “love like a river – it wants to flow off. If one path is blocked, it simply finds another”?

Reading those lines felt entirely fictional, a way of lending credence to what happens to Anna, more so than Luke. (Luke’s type of dementia, frontotemporal, attacks speech first). Even with severe memory loss, Anna continues to respond to him emotionally, passionately.

The documentary’s assertion spins the title on its head. Supported by amazing real life stories, it demonstrates (contrary to 400 years of thinking) that our brains are not “hard-wired” but “plastic” – “changing all the time.” Unused areas of the brain can be opened up – “unmasking dormant pathways” – echoing the novelist’s supposition! Thus, Anna’s potent love for Luke can be seen as awakening sleeping regions of her brain when other parts are impaired. The title could mean what we keep in the brain is far greater than what we know, until something miraculous happens.

Was the author aware she dreamed up a story at the cutting-edge of neurological science?

Luke is less known to us since much of the novel is told through Anna’s voice. Yet, all we really need to know is he possesses a charming sense of self, kindness, sensitivity, and praiseful protectiveness of Anna. (Oh, and he’s “sexy”!) He is her reason to live.

“Love is a continuous state,” Don Tillman says. Is it? For whenever Anna experiences Luke it’s all newness and freshness – no continuous memories. What is continuous is instinctive feelings regardless of cognitive function. The novel continually explores our capacity to love and where these powerful emotions flow from.

To appreciate the rapid deterioration of Anna’s dementia, the novel is structured by time and voice. It opens in Anna’s voice “fifteen months ago” when she looks and sounds like a “normal, forgetful person”; then switches to the present in a second female voice, Eve’s, who allows us to compare before versus now; then reverts back to an advancing past: 14 months ago, 13 months ago, and so on until 3 months ago. Like the disease, the novel feels like a ticking clock.

The second female voice, Eve’s, enters when she’s hired as cook for the small, private facility Anna and Luke are living at, Rosalind House. Anna was a paramedic. That brave job plays out in her gutsy behavior to voluntarily move into the home after an incident occurs at her twin brother Jack’s house, where he’s been living since her diagnosis at age 31.

Responsibility for Anna’s care fell to Jack. Their mother passed away from the same disease (which means Anna believes she knows her dim future) and their father deserted twenty years ago when Mom was diagnosed (ugh!). Jack adores Anna, is fervently well-intentioned. But as the story of Anna’s and Luke’s love blossoms, you’ll see he’s painfully misguided.

A third female voice infrequently pops in: Eve’s perceptive, 7-year-old daughter, Clementine. It’s a tricky thing writing believably in a young voice. In an author interview at the back of the book, Hepworth says she likes writing multi-generational stories. (She also tells us the inspiration for the novel.) It helps to know this, since Clem’s prose sounded too grown-up, though she’s had to grow up quickly due to the difficult circumstances that brought her mother to Rosalind House.

Thirteen residents are cared for at Rosalind House. Anna also refers to them by their obvious features, giving us short-handed glimpses of them in the earlier days of her disease when she’s lucid, observant, frank, and witty. A resident stand-out is Baldy. That’s Bert, a gruff widower still talking to his wife Myrna he lost 5o years ago. Alzheimer’s is characterized by moments of clarity, so sometimes he understands Myrna’s gone. It’s his way of keeping her memory alive. Other characters bear nicknames and sympathetic/not-so-sympathetic stories like Southern Lady, Angus the gardener, and Eric, the disagreeable manager.

Bert’s the resident most brightened by “young lady” Clem, and she with him. Their relationship is one example of how the novel shows us how two vastly differing people can benefit from one another.

Another example is Eve’s deepening friendship and insight into Anna’s lifeline-need for Luke. Her benevolence and the bold steps she takes to help Anna occur most importantly at night when Anna’s restless, can’t sleep, roams. “Night-restlessness,” agitation, and confusion are other disease symptoms. These (and sadly more) unfold over the timeline, which seems to parallel the progressive stages of the disease: early, middle, and late.

The novel is a departure for me as the prose is not as affecting as the poignancy of the messaging and the implications the words convey. The novel screams Live In The Moment. “Life is too short” is a phrase that may sound cliché and not earth-shattering, but the message is. A message common to all. That ultimately maybe all that matters is “right now.”

I hope readers will watch the brain documentary. Presuming the brain can stretch/adapt, then the possibilities put forth in The Things We Keep are awe-inspiring. Horizons gifting us all hope.


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