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.


Leave a Comment

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.”


Leave a Comment

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.


Leave a Comment

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.


Leave a Comment

The Echo of Twilight 1

A lady and her lady’s maid – an unconventional relationship (England and Scotland, WWI and Interwar periods, 1914-1925): What better way to kick-off a new year of blogging than to start with an historical novel by the same author whose historical debut inspired this blog nearly 4 years ago. For The Echo of Twilight echoes the enchanting prose of British novelist Judith Kinghorn’s The Last Summer, also set at the brink of WWI.

Whereas the first novel transports us to a country estate in the south of England, Kinghorn’s newest (her 4th) takes us to two “pristine and loved” estates: Birling Hall, shining brightly in northern England’s Northumberland (the author’s birthplace) and Delnasay, atmospheric in the “purple mist” of the Scottish Highlands, where so much of the novel’s emotional heart happens.

Echoes of Downton Abbey reverberate here too. With a twist that’s central to the plot. For the customary relationship between a beautiful lady of two grand houses – Lady Ottoline Campbell – and her pretty lady’s maid, Pearl, is intense and complicated, growing in dependency and entanglement. Part servant, part dear friend, part mother/daughterly, theirs is a closeness that strengthens, shifts, struggles, and changes over time and circumstances. Roller-coaster emotions that seem to parallel the timeline of the devastating war – before, during, and after. As such, we see their liaison as sweet innocence in the summer before the war; followed by great pride and honor of dutiful service as Britain gears up to enter the war; then a clinging to each other as the war rages on; later a hardening as the war takes its toll; and a long-lasting aftermath.

British WWI Recruitment Poster
via Wikimedia Commons

Told in Pearl’s refined voice, most of the novel ensues over six years in three Parts. Parts I and II shape four years of Pearl’s life in domestic service, opening when she’s 23 after nine years of service positions, searching for a place to belong (“a small star in transit”). She finds it as a lady’s maid to Lady Ottoline, who treats Pearl as “someone relevant.” Part III takes place over two years post-war when Pearl moves to London and gains employment at the high-class Selfridge’s department store, echoing another British TV drama, Mr. Selfridge. An Epilogue illuminates five more years.

It’s important to highlight the culmination of Pearl’s domestic service at the end of WWI for it coincides with the historical ushering in of the rise of feminism and a changing society. Historically, this is when Britain granted the right to vote to all men and to women over 30.

Which means that besides the winning prose, the author’s strength lies in seamlessly weaving historical details and themes (and evocative landscapes) into an interesting, informative, fast-moving plot. Many faces of many themes run throughout: an “upstairs/downstairs” hierarchical class system; powerful loyalties to those served at home and to country; loneliness, loss, grief, and love. Love of family, friends, colleagues, and romantic love. A profound and moving love story that’s Pearl’s, but like everything else Ottoline is ensnarled in it too.

War is rumored when we meet Pearl, who’s “looking for love and home” and “betterment.” She’s on her way to Lady Ottoline’s beloved 14th century stone estate, having interviewed and accepted the prized position as her lady’s maid. Exalted because it “took a very superior sort of girl to be a lady’s maid.” Pearl prides herself on being that girl despite her emotionally affecting childhood, driving one of two unspoken mysteries.

That mystery is the identity of Pearl’s father. She’s never met him because her unwed mother committed suicide the day she was born. (Pearl was raised by her Aunt Kitty.) The other mystery that tugs at us surrounds the man Pearl falls madly in love with in Scotland: Ralph Stedman, a painter and Ottoline’s cousin, who lives in a cottage on the estate’s “10,000 acres of rivers, woods, hills, and fields.” These mysteries turn pages.

Some of my favorite lyricism comes when Pearl realizes she’s found the happiness she’s only dreamed of:

“As I gazed out across the glen, the river, beyond the alders and groves of silver birch to the mountains, the peace was overwhelming, newly extraordinary, deeper and more powerful than anything I’d known. And with it came a sense of belonging, a sort of contentment and connectedness. And I thought, even if nothing else happened in my life, this was enough: this sky, these hills, those high-up purples and blues, that dark bird’s wing, those feathery clouds and him.”

As the war heightens and darkens Pearl’s and Ottoline’s lives, so goes their relationship. “I need you,” blurts Ottoline, for whom Pearl responds faithfully and gratefully, reacting to her lady’s maternal warmth and kindnesses.

We’re told some downstairs staff are jealous of their exceptional relationship. Two downstairs characters touchingly prove otherwise: Rodney Watts, the butler, and Mrs. Lister, head cook. They will remind you of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Patmore of Downton Abbey. The Lagonda motor car featured in Ottoline’s shaky driving skills (reflective of her erratic behavior), and Pearl’s chauffeuring role will also bring back scenes from that PBS Masterpiece show.

The rest of the upstairs family includes Lord Hector Campbell, whose fuzzy position in the Foreign Office necessitates stretches of time spent in London, particularly during the war effort; and sons Hugo, 21, Oxford-schooled, and Billy, 19, an Eton student, who we come to know best and care most about as he’s the golden boy Ottoline’s acutely attached to.

Pearl’s initial impressions were of a “very happy household” where every day felt “like Christmas.” Although, she did sense an “ineffable sadness” about her ladyship, which surfaces in ways good and bad.

On the balance between happiness and sadness, the author has crafted a novel of a nation at war that never forgets to remind us of the beauty of life, nature, and experiencing true love.

Speaking of love, if you love historical novels, this one, I think, will inspire your new year’s resolution to read more in 2017!


PS My last post on Victoria cited another PBS Masterpiece show, a mini-series based on the novel. Update on when it airs: January 15th. Also: After Queen Victoria’s reign, King George V became the next British monarch. Thus, The Echo of Twilight follows the historical timeline of British succession. Mentioned is the King’s Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, who made the momentous decision to enter the war, and Lord Kitchener, his Secretary of State for War.

Leave a Comment

Victoria 2

A young Queen Victoria – four early years in the life of the second longest serving monarch in British history (1835 – 1839, Kensington and Buckingham Palace):  It’s a thought-provoking political time to be reading Victoria, British bestselling author Daisy Goodwin’s third historical novel set during the Victorian era.

I say this because Alexandrina Victoria’s ascension to the throne at the tender age of 18, after her uncle King William IV died, provoked tremendous anxiety and skepticism of her ability to govern during “uncertain times,” reminiscent of the fears and distrust about President-elect Donald Trump’s capacity to lead.  Similarly, early on in Queen Victoria’s reign, “the first mass movement driven by the working classes” (known as the Chartist Movement) sprang up, resonant of the fervent concerns of America’s working class that fueled Trump’s victory.

While this is not a political blog, Victoria is a political book that sends a timely message about duty to country above everything else, seen most impressively through the heart-tugging, dazzling character of Lord Melbourne.  He was her first Prime Minister.  He also became the young queen’s Private Secretary, her most trusted and influential advisor and defender.  Theirs was a deepening relationship that, for me, was the delicious aspect of the novel.

Melbourne, about fifty, initially served as a father figure (Victoria had lost hers).  Then he became her dearest companion, most comfortably as her riding partner.  From there, their relationship evolved to something more alluring, an emotional closeness that disturbed nearly everyone, spurning rumors and schemes to find her a suitable husband.  But it’s Melbourne, with his “arresting green eyes” – a “stealer of hearts” – who steals ours.

A man who didn’t have “the happiness he deserves,” so we can’t help but like and appreciate him, who put country first no matter the personal sacrifice, qualities of character I feel we saw very little of during the 2016 political campaign.  “I don’t believe in much,” he confessed.  “But there is one thing I do believe in, and that is the British Constitution, in all its tattered glory.”  Melbourne’s significance to the fledgling, untested queen – his encouragement, candor, counsel, integrity, affection, and charm – are standouts.

Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years.  So I also found it interesting Goodwin chose to focus only on Victoria from ages 16 through 20: two years before she was bequeathed the Crown to the first two years of her dynasty.  The novel shows us why.

These were transformative years, giving us context into understanding Victoria’s temperament and the challenges facing her.  She was small-framed and short at 4 ft. 11 inches.  The crown, throne, silverware all too big.  More significantly, it was “hard to be regal when everyone could see the top of your head,” she says, but Lord Melbourne tells her she’s “every inch a queen.”  He’s wonderfully steadfast in these lovely proclamations about her “natural dignity.” (“There was something regal about the resolute tilt of her head and the steady pace at which she walked.”)

Those early years enlighten us to the origins of Victoria’s feisty, independent spirit, which propelled her resolve through a rocky period of inexperience, unsureness, scandals, and crises.  Her determination is seen, for instance, in her tough treatment of her controlling mother and of her mother’s odious, jockeying-for-power confidante, Sir John Conway.

Those two princess years, depicted in a Prologue, reveal a very lonely girl, overly protected, isolated, and friendless, so much so her upbringing is termed the “Kensington System.” Resentment towards her mother, Duchess of Kent, formerly a German princess, and her deceitful Comptroller and advisor, Conway, come to fruition the moment Victoria becomes “Her Majesty the Queen.”  She’s overcome by the “thrill in being able to do what she pleases,” which she does when it comes to both of them.  Bright spots in Drina’s (a pet name) childhood were her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen, and attachment to her spaniel, Dash.  Both play meaningful roles when Victoria is anointed Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.  Those first two monarch years encompass around 400 pages, flowing in short chapters divided into Books 1 through 4.

Yet, googling to get a sense of the breadth and happenings during the span of Victoria’s lengthy sovereignty, I found other curious historical facts that could have been featured in a novel on the monarch, such as six attempted assassinations and mothering nine children who married other European royals, producing 37 great-grandchildren and the nickname “grandmother of Europe.”  The source and inspiration for the novel were Victoria’s diaries: 62 million words!  Obviously, an extraordinary amount of material.  Since Victoria was a pleasure to read, seems the novelist made a smart decision.

It’s also a perfect time to read Victoria, before PBS Masterpiece Theater airs Victoria, an eight-part miniseries, in January 2017 in the same Sunday night timeslot as Downton Abbey.  Goodwin also wrote the screenplay.  Her interests and talent for creating rich-in-historical details fiction and film surely stem, in part, from her study of history at Cambridge University and film production at Columbia University as a Harkness Fellow.

The novel offers insight into how British government and royalty works – befuddling rules of succession, the “delicate relationship between Monarch and Parliament,” protocol, ceremonial duties, charity obligations, and the like.

At times, I longed for a royalty/family tree as there’s a multitude of royal and non-hereditary characters to keep track of, some good but many awfully ambitious and conspiring with their own political agendas, which seems ordained by laws and a class system bound by rules and expectations.  You will, though, keep the most important, influential ones clear in your mind as the author brings them to life.

Still, I thought readers might welcome a few images, below, of some key characters who were historical figures in this expansive period in British life that came to be known as the Victorian era.  This allows me to not give much away, yet perhaps gives you a glimpse into the people and setting the author immerses us in.  In short, this is not a light summer read.  Rather, it’s a meticulously rendered, historically intriguing one.

Victoria broke the longest period I’ve gone without blogging.  Characterized by too many dark, depressing, angry books, plots and prose I couldn’t praise as enchanted.  Some were page-turners, others I couldn’t finish.  Is this also a reflection of the times?

Another reason to read this novel now.  Yes, there was unrest, cutthroat machinations, and wrongdoings.  But there was also grace under enormous pressure and odds, courage, benevolence, and a refreshing allegiance to country told keenly and in uplifting prose.  A gift for all of us this holiday season.  Lorraine

Young Queen and her beloved dog Dash

Lord Melbourne, P.M., Private Secretary, Confidante, Companion

Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, widowed

Sir John Conroy, nefarious advisor to the Queen’s mother

Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, an admirer of the Queen

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, son of Queen Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, therefore Victoria’s cousin, whom Leopold burns for the young Queen to marry


Leave a Comment

Behind Closed Doors 1

A man, a marriage too perfect – BEWARE! (Spring Eaton, twenty miles outside London, present-day): I hadn’t expected to be drawn into Behind Closed Doors, a UK bestseller destined for the movies. I don’t like the thriller genre largely because it’s driven by plot not prose. Two months ago, I discovered a psychologically suspenseful novel with exceptionally good prose, so I’ve been open to reading more. Often disappointed by publishing hype, this psychological thriller’s hype rings true. “Unputdownable” rings so true I must warn you if you read this novel at night you might have trouble sleeping. It’s that psychologically jarring. Also true is the praise that it’s “incredibly well-written,” which brings me to why I’m blogging about it, why I got so caught up in it.

The narrator’s voice – Grace, married 18 months ago to a lawyer who never lost a case and resembles George Clooney – flows so effortlessly it feels as if she’s sitting by your side confiding her worst fears and opening up her good heart to you. Jack Angel – a surname he chose, a sadistic joke! – doesn’t have a heart, even though he’s “superficially charming” and can “strike observers as remarkably normal,” to quote one definition of a psychopath.

So, this isn’t a novel that just grips you at the opening; every page grips you. For you’re trying to figure out if someone could be this deranged and this clever to deceive not only your fiancé but everyone. You will be impressed by the intricate web of plausible deceit Jack – and British debut novelist B. A. Paris – have spun throughout. Which is why the novel scares us. Could this really happen in a marriage that seems so perfect to anyone looking in? Could a man so perfectly handsome, elegant, and gentlemanly be this emotionally sick to do what Jack does to Grace and has planned?

Leaving nothing to chance, he gives nothing away until the perfect woman comes along to execute his long-seated madness. He snaps her up in a matter of months. By the time he unveils enough of himself to her it’s too late, for he’s made sure there’s no escape.

The word perfect is effectively used, repeatedly. Perfect first appears on line 5 of the first chapter, titled “Present.” All chapters take place in the Present or Past, a clean design that has us glued to the deft and twisted machinations Jack frames, continually boxing Grace in.

Jack is the first to pronounce the word “perfect,” a response placed right on page 1 so we’re hooked, clued in something’s definitely not perfect in this household. Grace has accidently knocked into a bottle of champagne in the kitchen while dinner guests are in another room. She’s “hoping he [Jack] won’t have noticed how nervous I am.” Jack does, of course, because as we’ve already established, he doesn’t miss a trick. Why should a loving husband be pleased his newly married wife is anxious?

The dinner guests are two couples: Diane and Adam (he hailing from Jack’s law firm) and Esther and Rufus, new to the neighborhood and the group, emphasizing these are not Grace’s close friends. The dinner scene introduces the second, third, fourth, and fifth time the word perfect appears, with reference to Esther:

“I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect lie.”

Hmm. By page 2 it’s confirmed: something’s horribly amiss!

The strongest word for the extreme opposite of perfect – nightmare, psychological torture, hell – depicts Grace’s predicament and husband. Worse, Jack is so frighteningly “brilliant” and cruel the only person who knows the marriage is a horrific lie is Grace. She finds that out on her wedding night in Thailand, revealed around page 85. That’s when it hits us Jack is clearly not who he purports himself to be. Grace is not only far from home, she’s far, far away from being “the luckiest person in the world.” Tragically, Jack’s old-fashioned manners and handsomeness wooed her. “He made me feel special, cherished, and best of all, he adored Millie.”

Millie is Grace’s younger sister, born with Down’s syndrome. Her parents didn’t want any children, let alone Millie. So when Grace meets Jack in a park when she’s with Millie and he dances with Millie, Grace falls under his wicked spell. Jack is awfully accepting of Millie, too willing to offer that when Millie turns 18 she can come live with the newlyweds. Jack knows Grace has promised she’ll take care of Millie after she’s finished her mainstream schooling (with a constant caregiver, Janice), which Grace fought hard for so Millie is never institutionalized. Up until now, it’s the reason Grace hasn’t had a serious suitor. Millie will be graduating soon. The clock is ticking.

You can’t help but admire Grace’s deep love and devotion for Millie. She grew up taking care of her. Their bond is beautiful: “I love Millie more than life itself and wouldn’t change her for the world.” It’s one of the few aspects of Grace’s story that’s beautiful.

Another could be their home which appears to be gorgeous until you get behind closed doors. Jack gave the home to Grace as a wedding present. They’d talked about her dream home, but it didn’t include being outfitted with two sets of metal gates, hidden by “high walls around it so nobody can see in.” Set in a fictional village that sounds a lot like a real village that appeals to Grace is a perfect façade. Apparently, Surrey is located in England’s wealthiest county, so Hollywood-type seclusion wouldn’t raise any red flags.

Then again, Jack has made sure there’s no one on the lookout to be suspicious. For starters, Grace’s parents will soon be moving to New Zealand. Perfect. Jack insisted Grace quit her job with the lavish Harrod’s department store. Travel requirements, he reasoned, wouldn’t be good for a fledgling marriage. She’s a fruit buyer, travels to South America. Who gives up an interesting job like that so easily? Grace, because of Millie. Perfect. Jack’s even offered to pay for Millie’s expenses until Millie comes to live with them, so why should Grace work?

Meanwhile, early on Grace allows Jack to take away her cell phone. Quickly, she loses touch with two good friends. She’s so gullible and unsuspecting because Jack is so “meticulous” in setting up that perfect lie. Losing friends, family, job, and communications would unnerve us. Not Grace, at first. She’s so focused on Millie’s welfare she loses track of her own. Maybe that seems implausible but if you’ve spent your entire life putting someone else’s needs above your own the pattern is fixed. As we put ourselves in Grace’s shoes, we see how she got herself into this nightmare, how she is Jack’s perfect wife. 

One thing you’ll love about the developmentally challenged Millie character is that she’s quite perceptive. By page 23, you sense it’s Millie who will give Grace her extraordinary “resolve.”

Can Grace extract herself from this nightmare? Before Millie becomes a victim too? How? This is what keeps us turning pages, perhaps late into the night.


Leave a Comment

Miss Jane 2

Born Different and Special (Mercury, Mississippi, 1915-early 70s): BRAVE is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane. Brave girl/brave woman, bravely written, bravely published. For it’s the fictionalized story of a Mississippi farm girl born in the early 20th century with a rare, life-altering anatomical condition that’s uncomfortable to read about, inspired by the true case of the author’s great-aunt Jane. Our Jane is a “strange and beautiful child, big eyes so expressive, as if wiser or more knowing than possible.”

HEART-BREAKING is the second word that comes to mind because when your bodily and sexual functions are significantly abnormal and medical science is not advanced enough to repair those abnormalities – so different than everyone else (reportedly 1 in 20,000 are born with the condition) – engaging in normal activities and relationships is an enormous, nearly impossible mountain to climb – school, friendships, boyfriends, intimacy. So this is a SAD story about Jane’s childhood and womanhood that, for the most part, feels painfully lonely, heavy-hearted. And yet, Jane’s not mired in sadness or bitterness. Her inner strength is a gift to all of us struggling with something.

Jane’s spirit contrasts with her chronically bereft mother, her downtrodden father, and the coolness of her sister, who grew to love her because “I have to love something” – though each has their own reasons to be justifiably melancholy.

Jane’s was the home of a hard-working farm life, through the years of the Depression, in which an uncharacteristic hug from her father “sent her senses singing.” Fortunately for her, she took to farming and loved roaming the woods on the property. So, she was a “good-humored, even cheerful little child” who matured into a self-sufficient woman of remarkable acceptance of her lot in life. Miraculous, given her childhood was marked by no friends, embarrassment (diapering, soiling), and so many sacrifices. A bright child, she tried to go to school but it was untenable. Instead, she learned math helping in her father’s general store and was pleasant with the customers, mostly sharecroppers and tenants who worked the farm, which grew cotton, tobacco, corn, pecans and raised some cattle and pigs.

Watson’s prose is sensitive yet unsentimental. He’s not afraid to describe the harsh realities of Jane’s physicality – although you don’t learn of the precise medical term for Jane Chisolm’s condition until page 199. It doesn’t matter. The point is to be drawn into what Jane went through day after day, year after year, for the rest of her life. The slower pace of the novel suits the heaviness of her circumstances.

As the heavy burden of Jane’s daily living grows on us – the lengths she goes through (starving and dehydrating herself, wearing layers of slips and perfume) – we’re awed by her amazing grace. Grace is a word used often in the novel. Her sister’s name is Grace; a chapter is titled Grace in the Wilderness; and Jane “moved with a kind of natural grace, as a leaf will fall gracefully from a tree in barely a breeze.” Grace is a perfect word for the beauty, dignity, and spirituality Jane evokes for life, particularly when she loses herself in nature.

“She loved most being in the woods, with the diffused light and the quiet there. Such a stillness, with just the pecking of ground birds and forest animals, the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels playing up and down a tree. The silent, imperceptible unfurling of spring buds into blossom. She felt comfortable there. As if nothing could be unnatural in that place, within but apart from the world.”

Two characters who touch Jane’s isolated world magnify that grace:

  • Jane’s doctor, Ed Thompson, who lives two miles from the family farm. His relationship with Jane deepens over the years, medically of course and then emotionally as he comes to care about her like his own daughter. He’s childless and for much of the novel a widower.
  • A tender, sixteen-year-old boy with blue eyes like Jane’s, Elijah Key. His self-consciousness about wearing eyeglasses almost startles us compared to what Jane endures, reminding us that how we perceive ourselves and accept our own imperfections impacts us greatly. Theirs is a brief interlude (so is her flirting with boys at a dance hall at sixteen) that offers respites of joy.

In a less eloquent way, we’re also moved by Jane’s increasingly alcoholic father who quietly feels remorseful and guilty believing it was his alcoholic transgressions that cursed his beautiful child. Jane was the last of five children, conceived late in her mother Ida’s life. By then, she’d lost two boys to illness, and her two older sons had already left home and are barely a presence. Jane’s sister also couldn’t wait to escape into town, initially working as a seamstress. For a number of years, Jane lived with her; she too could sew. Mercury, the town, is also the setting for another of the author’s novels, The Heaven of Mercury, a finalist for the National Book Award.

The heart-tugging and philosophical power of the novel asks us to dig deeply about the meaning of love. What Jane and Elijah had was pure love – not physical love but a love that transcended that. A love more extraordinary.

So another word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane is UNFORGETTABLE.


Leave a Comment

Lions 2

Legacies and Folklore – Ghosts of the Past (Colorado Eastern Plains, present-day): Poetic. That’s the first word that comes to mind reading Lions. Eloquent, melancholy, atmospheric prose that even makes welding sound beautiful. It pulls you in at the opening sentence: “If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know there’s a ghost in everything.” Actually, many ghosts haunt this mesmerizing novel about broken dreams and promises, grief and loneliness, in a “living ghost town.”

Even the town’s name is mythical, passed down through generations of pioneers who settled in the high desert plains of eastern Colorado:

“A name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it has been first imagined … There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass … Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it.”

That sky is colored “heartbreak blue.” For this is a novel about all sorts of heartbreak in a ghostly landscape, with a one street downtown and a handful of businesses: garage, diner, bar, gas/grocer, and junk shop.

Still, 117 souls hung on in Lions. Why have they stayed?

Chief among those enduring souls – characters who’ll touch your heart and are at the heart of this soulful novel – are:

  • John Walker, 55, “wizard” welder, Georgianna his wife of more than twenty years, and their very serious, reserved eighteen-year-old son, Gordon, deeply attached to his father; and
  • Leigh Ransom, Gordon’s girlfriend/best friend/neighbor/the only person in Lions his age and his going-off-to-the-same-college partner in the fall; and her mother May who owns the Lucy Graves diner (named after a fabled, reclusive 1870 homesteader) where Leigh works.

Lucy Graves is one of the ghostly tales woven around the main plot. “People say they want the truth but they don’t. They want a story.” A story you get. Many, actually. Some real, some the stuff of legends. That’s because Lions is an allegorical place.

Lions could be someplace near Longmont or Ft. Collins, sites of the first sugar beet factories in the eastern part of the State built in the early 1900s when sugar was Colorado’s economic driver. I’m guessing this based on literary scenes of an abandoned sugar beet factory and the author’s acknowledgements hinting at that.

Hundreds of ghost towns are scattered throughout the West, echoes of the immigrants, Easterners, and dreamers who came westward “looking for paradise.” Some hit gold. This region’s version is the sugar beet, dubbed “white gold”. That term speaks volumes for a bountiful ecosystem, when Lions sat on the “westernmost edge of fertile prairie grassland.” Googling, I learned there are only a few places in the world that have the ideal growing conditions to sustain the sugar beet crop. Lions once did. Its soil was so loamy it was “the consistency of dense chocolate cake.” Now it’s “pale dirt so hard and dry it was no more fertile than moon rock.” The loss of this complex, precious ecosphere is a different type of heartbreak.

Leigh’s heartache is the emotional kind. “You could have called it despair, or panic, or desperation to get out.” She speaks often about an “unbearable light” that’s “refracted, diffused, reflected, and smashed and split apart.” When she gazes out her window all she sees is “a place of air and light and rock.” The allusive prose helps us imagine that sense of burning, boundless isolation.

A “photographer of isolation,” Dave Heath, recently passed away. His photographs made me realize that the only thing missing from this soaring novel are pictures of the faces of the really good souls who inhabit Lions. Are years and years of dashed hopes and barrenness etched on their faces? What does toughness and resilience look like? “Staying power,” the author calls it.

This is a way of life that’s “genius born of necessity.” Groceries, for example, arrive only monthly. So, at the diner, May serves odd concoctions of sandwiches like ham and grape jelly.

The greatest genius is the welder John Walker. The novel opens when a mysterious stranger and his dog show up one “record-breaking hot summer.” That’s 106 degrees in June, when welding means John covers his body in his sweltering garage to protect himself from the scorching blowtorch. With “myopic ceremony” he toils for hours because “people’s lives depend on a good weld.” Where does that kind of decency come from?

The stranger’s visit sets off a cascade of tragic events. The first, saddest, most consequential is John’s death. What will happen to his “first-class weld servicing facility”? Will Gordon takeover, thereby forfeit Leigh’s escape hatch and plans of going to college with him? Leigh has lost a father figure. Will she lose Gordon too? Can Gordon leave his mother, Georgie, dreamy and fragile? Much of the moody prose feels dream-like.

And yet it also conveys deep respect for something as real as metalworking – “agricultural equipment innovators and repairmen.” Thus, the novel pays tribute to our early frontier ancestors who weren’t cowboys or ranchers or farmers or miners or hunters or trappers. John’s work ethic puzzled the denizens the most. “Could have made six figures in Denver easy. Aerospace. Military. Hell. Lots of natural gas pipeline getting started in Wyoming.”

In the case of the Walker family, welding traces back more than a century, which means Lions is a novel illuminating “patterns to things.” Will Gordon feel the tug of responsibility and duty to carry on that familial tradition, or be the one to finally break it? Leigh, on the other hand, is counting the days and her savings until she can fly. “She wants the world.” Does she get it?

The townspeople believe the town is cursed. After John’s death, there’s an ugly, strange death, people get sick from the water, and then flee in numbers. (“Goodbyes didn’t come singly.”) Gordon begins disappearing for days on end, on a mysterious errand up North his father asked him to carry on before he died, the same deed John had been performing for thirty-five years. At some point, you may asking yourself if John really did play some divine role in “holding the town together by keeping the demon out.”

Whatever you believe about the events and stories supposed in Lions, one truth I’m pretty sure you’re nostalgic for is the old-fashioned code of simple human kindness represented. Nothing simple about it when times are tough. Which is why Lions move us so much. It represents the best in us.


Leave a Comment

Amy Snow

How far will you go for friendship?  A secret? (Enderby to London to Twickenham to Bath to York England; early Victorian era, 1831–1848)

Amy Snow is a joy to read.  For all its length (576 pages, includes reader’s guide and author interview), its charming classical prose, Victorian delights, “meadows and market gardens and mansions that dream away their days,” and clipped chapters make for fast-paced reading you’re sorry ends.

Joyful too is how the novel found its way to us.  Winner of the first Richard and Judy “Search for a Bestseller” competition in the UK, their book club influential like Oprah’s.

Its seriousness is disguised in the elegant prose.  For it’s not only the story of the depths of friendship between two young women from vastly different social classes, but poignantly depicts the expectations for women in early Victorian society.  The time period is perfectly aligned historically to Queen Victoria’s assumption to power, which eventually led to challenging prevailing attitudes about “The Woman Question.”

The plot, which takes many twists and turns, centers around a spirited, eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway who discovers an abandoned baby in the snow on the grounds of her family’s Surrey estate.  She names her “snow baby” Amy Snow.  The novel ends after Amy has been led on a clever “treasure hunt” commandeered by Aurelia through a series of letters and cryptic clues, wiser and worldlier than her seventeen orphaned years.

Aurelia comes alive for us only in Amy’s fond memories and her letters, having penned them on her deathbed.  The novel opens when she’s died at 25, not much younger than the Queen herself.

Queen Victoria, 1842
Franz Xaver Winterhalter
via Wikimedia Commons

Aurelia may have had a weak heart but hers was a “passionate heart” – an independent, intellectually-minded young woman who loved “philosophy, literature, economics, and politics.”  She might have been “considered a humanitarian visionary” if only she was born a man.  Her family tried to mold her rebellious, “bluestocking” nature, marry her off for obligation not love, but her deteriorating health ended all that.

She died with a secret she goes to extraordinary lengths to protect and share with the person she trusts the most, Amy.  She’ll only reveal it piecemeal, determined to keep her parents, Lord and Lady Celestina, in the dark for their coldness towards their only child reflects, at least in part, their grave disappointment at not bearing an heir.  Until Amy, Aurelia was a very lonely child.  She describes her parents as:

“People for whom love was a complicated affair, very closely bound up with, and easily confused with, matters of proprietorship, duty, and control.”

There’s not much to like about Aurelia’s mother, although she did let Aurelia keep the baby.  Still, she couldn’t be bothered with Amy at all, couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with her.  So Amy’s infancy was spent in a busy kitchen underfoot Cook.  Think Miss Patmore of Downton Abbey: “big-hearted, capable, and almost always there.”  As Amy grew and got more in the way, you could find her in the wheelbarrow of the gardener Robin; or in the hay of the stables under Benjamin; or tagging along Jesketh, the elderly butler.  Amy, then, knows how “to hold a currycomb and groom a horse,” “sort through apples,” and adores gardens.  When she gets older, she lives in the scullery.  Aurelia reads to her; shares her love of literature (especially Dickens, often quoted); teaches her to play piano and cards – cultures her devoted companion.

This all matters because Aurelia has great plans for Amy (“secrets and adventures.”)  The first journey takes off when the novel opens at the reading of Aurelia’s will, which means now there’s no place on the estate Amy can live.  She’s “accustomed to feeling like an inconvenience,” but without Amy she now aches for a true “sense of belonging.”

But Aurelia has other intentions for her beloved, sisterly friend:

“I have planned for my story to unfold just a little at a time, with every letter taking you farther from Hatville, farther from the ignominy of your treatment there; safer and stronger and freer.  By the fourth or fifth letter, the trail will long have run out for anyone else.  No one knows me as well as you dear.”

While I can’t reveal the clues and contents of the letters – after all this is your adventure too! – let me share a bit of what awaits you:

Letter 1 sends a grieving, unworldly Amy off to London to Entwhistle’s bookshop, where Letter 2 awaits, hidden.  She travels to a “London that demands to be taken seriously” via the miracle of steam locomotives, this being the beginning of Britain’s “Railway Age.” Leaving the bookshop, she briefly encounters the proprietor’s handsome grandson, Henry.

Letter 2 takes Amy to the village of Twickenham, as charming as its name.  Thanks to Aurelia, she’s stays at the Mulberry Lodge with three generations of the warmhearted Wister family “brimming over with good feeling.”  Waiting for Amy is a trunk Aurelia stuffed with exquisite clothes to “try to feel yourself a young woman of privilege.  The clothes will help.”  Amy is, of course, stunned and moved by all the ball gowns, in colors suitable and daring, along with “tulle purses stuffed with money.”

Here she meets Henry again, and another handsome man, Quentin, two very different men.  Garland is “polished, polite, and poised,” an impeccable dresser, whereas Henry is “all rumpled curls and sprawling limbs.”  Quentin “dazzles,” but its Henry who “warmed my heart.”  As we get to know both – Henry far more easily and likeably for he shows his tender emotions versus stuffy, “self-contained” Quentin, we see these characters are meant to symbolize two very different perspectives of a woman’s societal place, and the meaning of love.

Aurelia’s plan for Amy is becoming clearer.  She wants her to have “the wardrobe and fortune of a grand lady” to open doors for experiences and choices she wasn’t born into, never had, or dreamed of ever having.  What path does she choose?

Letter 3 takes Amy to Bath.  This time she’s pained to leave behind feelings of family and happiness, but she must find the resolve for Aurelia.  The ancient city brings a dramatic turn for here she’s to stay with Mrs. Ariadne Riverthorpe, a hardened, all-mighty 80-year old with a biting tongue and a mind of her own.  As the story evolves, you’ll see she’s something else too, something that gets to the heart of the story.

Lovely prose charms us with descriptions of gardens as “earth and apples,” earth as “rainbow and raindrop,” stables as “dust and gleaming.”  If we squint real hard, we can see the snowdrops, “daisied grass,” “whirling skirts,” “brush of ladybirds,” we can taste the tipsy cake, and hear York’s minister bells.

The wonder of historical fiction is to authentically transport us in time and place.  Tracy Rees beautifully evokes an “elegant and flawless at face value” British Victorian society.  With the same finesse, she shows us how “bumpy and biting behind the façade” that society could be.


Leave a Comment