Into the Savage Country

America’s fur trappers and early Western explorers (Territories west of St. Louis, from the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest, 1826 -1829): Passions run hot about America’s West, but imagine being captivated by fur trappers, early 19th-century explorers. You will be after reading Into the Savage Country. These so-called mountain men, hunted, preserved, traded, and blazed our “magnificent country. Fertile and beautiful and savage and the whole world thirsting after it.”

Told through the personal narrative of William Wyeth, looking back on three glorious, reckless years when he left St. Louis at age 22 to join a fur trapping brigade that headed 1500 miles up the Missouri River, a “soul-crushing” journey reminiscent of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Those famous explorers were backed by a President; Wyeth’s companions had only the backings of themselves, stirred by an “unquenchable desire for accomplishment, for recognition, for glory.” Muscular storytelling, as good as it gets.

Taking us inside his yearnings, motivations, and fears, Wyeth’s memories are of the “world’s great heart beating inside me.” Fresh and action-packed because his account comes from a diary he kept at the time using a quill pen, written in “parchment notebooks with velum covers.” Since the real mountain men kept journals, fictional Wyeth’s tales feel authentic.

Jim Bridger, Mountain Man
via Wikimedia Commons

Lest you assume trapping beavers in the years before they quickly became depleted, or hunting buffalo along rivers, sagebrush, and mountains before the days of cowboys is not the romanticized Western you’re nostalgic for, I invite you to hold the handsome book, with its majestic Mountain Landscape with Indians painting on the cover, and finger thicker pages than most. Its sturdiness portends the adventurers you’re about to meet. Many are legendary explorers who display the same unwritten code of honor Hollywood captured: fairness, justice, courage, survival, patriotism.

You’ll also like the author’s conciseness given the incredible volume of resources on early American fur trading: journals, letters, biographies, research. There’s even a Museum of the Mountain Man, which publishes the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal to “further the knowledge base and discussion of the Rocky Mountain fur trade era.” Precisely what Burke’s novel does for us.

Structured in chapters that read like installments – The Voyage Out, The Settlement, The Far West – the reader is drawn into a time nearly two centuries ago when men were willing to sacrifice their lives for excitement, riches, or to prove something.

The prose flows. Wyeth’s self-deprecating voice is full of youthful restlessness and longing, for beautiful western mountains and a woman he falls for by page four. He feels “at the cusp of a great mystery, infinite, overwhelming, and bewildering.” Indeed, as Wyeth tells us in the opening paragraph, America is at the cusp of a new frontier:

“I was twenty-two years old and feverish with the exploits of Smith and Ashley. I followed their accounts in the Gazette and the Intelligencer and calculated their returns and dreamed of their expeditions. The fur trade was warring and commerce and exploration, and above all else in my mind, it was adventure.”

Wyeth’s trapping lands are the most pristine west of Missouri. These mountain men opened up Western territories, defined by the Treaty of 1818, which left huge swaths of gorgeous country open. Sought after by the British and of course Americans, these lands were also inhabited by Canadians, French, Spanish traders and many Native American nations: Crow, Sioux, Blackfoot, Gros Venture, Mandan. Wyeth’s adventures span what’s today the States of Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wyoming. Gigantic wilderness where those “gigantic, lumbering beasts” – buffalo – once roamed.

An eye-opening Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit soon-to-close showcases the striking art of the nomadic Great Plains Indian hunters. One reason its garnered rave reviews is their sophisticated artistry was not well-known. On display are painted buffalo hide robes, fur-lined leggings, feathered peace pipes, like the wardrobe and ornamentation visualized in the novel. It too delivers an eye-opener: to a “glorious life that flamed up for a time in the Western mountains.” While there were also “darker moments” – hardships, violence, isolation – Wyeth chooses to downplay these.

He also doesn’t want to bog us down with too many “particulars of the trade.” So I’ll take his lead and not even attempt to describe the “art of fur trading,” except to say you do get a great sense of the particulars from the fur trader’s language: booseway, calumet, castoreum, pommel, cudgel, pemmican, willow trap, hivernant, palavering.

Instead, here’s particulars about a few of the characters:

WYETH: Charms us with his boyish shyness and honesty (“puffed up with self-importance”). Aware he’s different from his farming brothers, he craves “vast, wild spaces.” He fears he’s no match for these “real outdoorsmen, mountain men,” but you’ll see he proves his mettle time and time again: battling hostile tribes, a moose, a grizzly bear, and displaying exceptional horsemanship when the stakes are so high the weight of Western boundary-making seemed to rest on his shoulders. His instant infatuation with Alene Chevalier endures throughout, from their first meeting in St. Louis and then later, fortuitously, when he’s a trader with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. She’s “French with a quarter native blood that showed in her hair and eyes” … all very proper and European in her manners … she trod that middle ground between warmth and propriety.” He courts her as best he can, but she’s a widow in a long mourning who also understands the trapper’s life is exciting for the men but not for the women left behind.

Encampment, by Alfred Jacob Miller
Walters Art Museum

FERRIS: Wyeth admits misjudging Ferris, who joined the brigade at 19. The son of a physician, he seems “small and frail and boneless as a doll,” but his gentleness turns out to be virtuous good-naturedness and a natural confidence in the wilds. What endears us to him is his immense curiosity in everything around him, sketching and painting the scenes Wyeth recorded. They make an interesting pair, and become friends. Named the “White Indian,” for his genuine desire to understand the customs, adornments, and traits of Native Americans, so refreshing given our painful history of negative stereotyping. Burke introduces two famous native chieftains – Long Hair of the Mountain Crow and Red Elk of the Blackfoot – who despite their “excessive pride” are willing to negotiate and seek help. Ferris is likely to also be a real historical figure. Burke acknowledges some that inspired him, but we’re left to imagine who Ferris might be. John Mix Stanley painted the cover, but my guess is Ferris is fashioned from fur trader and painter Alfred Jacob Miller, who sketched and painted hundreds of scenes of Native Americans, mountain men, and grand landscapes. One he’s celebrated for is of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, depicted in the novel.

HENRY LAYTON: He’s a charismatic, energetic, boastful womanizing con man from St. Louis who knows nothing about fur trading, but knows how to put together a fine brigade. Led by Jedediah Smith, a real mountain man who like Wyeth set out at 22 to trap beaver under General Ashley, and to this day enjoys a following for having explored more untapped wilderness than any other ( Layton has an inconsistent personality of spirited highs and irritating lows. You, like Wyeth, will come to admire his dauntlessness for defending our territories against the British, and just about anything else that stands in the way of making the fortunes he boisterously promised his men.

Who remembers these fur trading explorers from history class? The best of historical fiction is a history light bulb. Entertaining, enlightening – and memorable.


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Paris Red

French Realism: Édouard Manet and his “modèle de profession,” Victorine Louise Meurent (Paris, 1862): The first clue you get that Maureen Gibbon’s 19th-century historical novel about the French painter, Édouard Manet, and his muse, Victorine Louise Meurent – he 30, she 17 – is going to be risky and provocative is that of his more than 400 paintings, the one selected for the cover is Olympia.  The full painting is a nude, one that caused such a stir critics did see red when exhibited at the Salon of Paris in 1865, two years after Manet finished it, after the novel ends.

Manet’s nude is considered the most famous of that century.  It may not be the painting non-art historians like myself are most familiar with (or most enamored with).  Those are his impressionistic masterpieces of later years – boating, beach, café, railway scenes – that evoke a “dewy-eyed” loveliness, which the avant-garde Olympia is not.  But Gibbon’s goal is to pen something original, like Manet’s passion to “paint something entirely new.”

She does so with spare prose that creates an aura catching Manet’s shadowy, mysterious, erotic world, which means her novel isn’t soaked in details, nor the totality of the artist’s career.  Instead, it’s a window into Manet’s art when he created a sensual painting that shocked the Parisian art scene, giving us glimpses into the inspiration of his early years, pioneering the French realist art movement.

Édouard Manet Self-Portrait, 1879
via Wikimedia Commons

Here we see Manet’s devotion to art that is honest and realistic not romanticized, the prevailing preferences of the time.  The same can be said of the author, who wants us to see the darker side of the City of Lights.  The novel is best appreciated like a great piece of art in a museum: by looking and seeing, understanding all by ourselves, with just enough details to intrigue.

So, despite the short chapters – sometimes only a one-page impressionistic paragraph, like the artist sketching – this is not a breezy read.  The prose is nuanced, echoing Paris when the lights are gray-blue.  We sense what it might have felt like to have been Victorine, who tries so hard to grasp Manet’s “not-simple” paintings, because we’re compelled to understand what the author wants us to see.  Gibbon acknowledges she’s thought about Olympia for ten years, so her vision and impressions interest us almost as much as Manet’s or his model’s.  (“I am trying hard to understand what it all means to him because I know that it does mean something.”)

There’s a sadness that permeates Victorine’s voice – our narrator – and the evocative prose.  Apparently, not that much is known about the real-life young woman who posed for Olympia, allowing the author the freedom to speculate.  Artistic freedom – Manet’s, his muse’s, and the author’s – a worthy theme.

What the novel tells us about Victorine is that she’s a precocious 17-year-old working-class girl, a silver burnisher.  She relishes the tools of her trade, learned from her working-class parents: her father an engraver, her mother a seamstress. But it’s not until we’re more than halfway through that we’re even sure of her real name: Victorine Louis Meurent.

That’s because when the novel opens she’s called Louise by her intimate friend, Denise, not her lover, more like a sister.  They share a shabby room, even the same bed, toiling away at the same silver shop barely eking out enough money to live.  That shopworn look is what Manet spots on a street.  He makes advances to them both, teases about their names, a “ménage à trois” at first.  He’s sizing them up: Denise, the brunette, with “a kind of sweetness about her”; Louise, the emboldened redhead, craving much more out of life.

Louise/Victorine knows she’s “different from everyone else.”  Hers is a restless yearning to be noticed and touched – to be someone.  So she makes a crass sexual move to grab Manet’s sole attention.  Turns out she’s a far better match of the two to become his model: she enjoys drawing, colors, details, and, most importantly, is very willing to experiment.

Victorine Meurent by Manet, c. 1862
via Wikimedia Commons

Victorine has been sizing Manet up too.  Her intense desires “not to be ordinary” are matched by his intensity about realism in art (“there’s only beauty in what’s real”).  A poignant scene finds Manet rubbing away much of a canvas he disliked, which upsets Victorine because she doesn’t want to be “erased.”  Manet sensitively explains it’s not the memory of the woman he painted he removed, just brushstrokes and composition.  It’s a marvelous example of his softness.  Indeed, Manet is a sensitive man, not content to “paint people at the edges.”  And yet he’s veiled, hiding his face behind a bushy beard.  (“There is something fine-grained about his face in spite of the riotous beard and moustache.”)

Artist and model also share a fierce independent streak.  Manet has the luxury of being an independent artist.  He has money to pay Victorine, presumably coming from a well-to-do family, so he’s not enslaved to paint to please the aristocracy.  Instead, he painted what he saw.  Victorine may adore Denise, yet she risks striking out on her own for “whatever it is in me that wants and wants – it is as big as the sky and keeps going.”

By the time Victorine has grown comfortable posing nude for Manet, she’s taken the black ribbon necklace on the book’s cover and made it her own.  It’s a pivotal moment, seeming then to transition from being Manet’s model to his rebellious source of inspiration, his muse.  By now he’s calling her “Trine,” an affectionate name reflecting the sexuality of their artistic relationship.

Was their real-life artist/muse relationship as sexual/erotic as depicted? Not clear.  What appears certain is Victorine was Manet’s most favored model.  Did he love her?  Not clear either.  He cares for her, is concerned about her finances, is kindly and respectful in the privacy of his studio and publicly among his contemporaries, but Manet is an obscure man with another life.

Most certain is his ardor for his art: “That is the thing that I cannot get inside: what it must be like to love something – a thing – so much.”  Did he make love to her so she’d trust him completely? To capture Victorine’s essence, she must unabashedly be at ease, in her most personal, raw moments, especially if he is to paint the soulful expression in her eyes.  When Manet finally shows Victorine Olympia, she’s moved that there’s “nowhere to look in the painting except my eyes.”  She recognizes that expression: “I know what it feels like to look that way … When my grandmother died.  When my heart was broken.”  Victorine’s soul, then, is forever a part of Manet’s “groundbreaking” art.  Now she has what she’s desperately wanted: she’s unforgettable.

Numerous sprinklings of references evoke the era – names of Parisian streets in the 1860s, French phrases, Manet’s artist and writer friends.  At times I wished for an appendix, maps, dictionary, but the truth is that precision isn’t necessary since the novel is about sensing moods and artistry, which it achieves.

Still, once read, I googled Manet’s friends, as some names were familiar, others not: Félix-Jacques Antoine Moulin was a photographer whose photos Manet uses to see the “effect of shadow and light;” Henri Fantin-Latour was a portraitist and painter of flowers; Charles Baudelaire, a poet; Honoré Daumier, cartoonist and painter; Louis-Émile-Edmond Duranty, author; Zacharie Astruc, sculptor and painter; Tonin, turns out is An-tonin Proust, boyhood friend and journalist; Tony Robert-Fleury, another French painter; and Alfred Stevens, a kindly, romantic Belgian painter.

Just as Manet pushes Victorine to observe her reactions, the author pushes us.  Like the famous artist and his muse, she’s “bold enough to tell the truth.”


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Girl Underwater

Heroism – Saving lives, then saving yourself (Colorado wilderness, Northern California college, Boston, Massachusetts neighborhoods; present-day):

Girl Underwater makes you wish you had nothing else to do in your day but binge read. The way it unfolds, and the taut prose, are riveting.  Artfully, Claire Kells delivers a message about true courage and the raw instinct for survival that is as much about hope and trust as monumental catastrophe and despair.  At under 300 pages, it’s stirring writing for any author, let alone one’s debut.

The novel’s timing is eerily uncanny given the rash of horrific plane crashes of late.  I’m not giving anything away here since by page 8 the air tragedy has already been set in motion.  Later we learn 204 innocents perished, someplace in/by a Colorado Rocky mountain lake, “the kind of wilderness no one comes to visit, the kind of lake no one ever swims in.”  Yet, there are a few survivors and two are elite swimmers.

Colin Shea and Avery Delacorte are swim teammates at a Northern California college, flying home on Thanksgiving break, which means the wilderness lake is frigid.  But it’s strewn with the wreckage of the plane, pieces of fuselage and contents that might help them survive. That taunting, haunting lake and their exceptional swimming skills and endurance are there for a purpose.

It’s with that same purposefulness, more like fate, that as soon as Colin boards the airplane he changed his seat to sit beside Avery.  They weren’t close friends, but that simple act belies the dramatic changes their relationship will undergo in the face of life-and-death decisions. (“The façade he used to navigate our stilted interactions has been stripped away.”)  Colin’s proximity to Avery is an incredulous stroke of good fortune, which is not lost on Avery who witnesses his acute sensitivities to her needs and to those of the people surrounding them over his own – his split-second reactions, selflessness, bravery, and calmness – which kick into high gear before others seem to realize what’s happening.  We’re told there’s “nothing embellished” about Colin (he has a “strange sense of groundedness”).  His is a tender way of getting straight to the point that’s honest and strong, much like the author’s prose.  She does not waste words, so the ones she’s chosen have a sureness and eloquence that is point-blank.

Avery, rather than Colin, is the right choice for narrator because she has insecurities whereas he possesses a “smooth, languid magnificence that so few creatures can claim.”  Her recounting moves back and forth in time in chapters that immerse us in dramatic scenes of their fight to stay alive; their histories; and the aftermath, centered on Avery’s coming-to-terms with being one of the lone survivors.  Life for her is now conceived of as Before and After: before the crash and afterwards.  Before sheds light on who Avery and Colin were when disaster struck, to render this survival story – theirs and the three young, trusting boys they heroically saved – believable.

Swimming – Avery’s and Colin’s athleticism and discipline – are key to the novel’s premise.  Colin, a junior, is even “better than Michael Phelps” in the pool, with his “rippling cords of muscles in his forearms and shoulders.  His jaw is locked, his expression neutral.  It’s no wonder he dominates so completely in the pool.”  He transfers that power, energy, laser focus in the crucial moments of crisis and for days after.  His “massive, warm, life-saving hands” perform like a well-oiled machine, “carrying loads that would pose a challenge to three or four men put together.”  Equally important is that he’s someone who “doesn’t just keep his cool, he creates it,” with “teasing smiles that could thaw a glacier.”  His profound sense of “hope without making empty promises,” beyond that which the rest of us would deem rational, is a gift for Avery, the three boys, and us.  All these marvelous traits are provocatively enhanced by his sweet shyness, “fierce loyalty,” and eyes that are “dark, tempestuous, gray-blue, intense.”  In short, Colin possesses a charismatic, complex, almost indescribable combination of the right stuff.

So does Avery, but she doesn’t think so. Despite her talents, strengths, and natural beauty (hair like “fairy dust” and “spectral green eyes”), she walks around feeling “borderline” – wanting to be “normal meant more to me than being me.”  Avery is passionate about distance swimming, the 1500 (“the “closest thing swimming has to a mile.  A mile to find a rhythm, to become one with the water”), but the coach recruited her for middle distance so she’ll “go where I’m needed.”  Her father, a no-nonsense physician, drilled her in fending for herself.  One lesson he taught her is that “people die because they panic,” a skill she, and we, get to see up close really matters.  Amidst incredible perils, her father’s wisdom buoys her: “I want to cry but my father would have forbidden it.”

The airplane crash scenes are action-packed.  But it’s the psychological action of this tiny band of clinging-to-life survivors, and Avery’s emotional voice that grips us.

Avery and Colin both grew up in Boston, but different worlds: Colin from proud, working class Dorchester, and Avery, upscale Brookline.  Of Avery’s three brothers, it’s Edward, a professional baseball player earning $6.4 million who surfaces because he wants to give all that up after his sister’s accident.  Hooray for a character who reminds us that “money isn’t everything.”  Colin’s father is a roofer, so Colin knows something about building protective structures.  As the oldest of three younger sisters and a dear Mom, the role of protector comes second-nature.

The prose is evocative whether describing the strokes and lure of swimming (the college natatorium is a “transparent cathedral”); the relaxed California culture of “hugs and first names” versus the reserved “handshakes and Mr. and Mrs. of Boston;” and the torment of Avery’s recovery process in dealing with survivor’s guilt, the intrusiveness of the media, nightmares, and paralyzing new fears.

One disquietude we can relate to is Avery’s conflicted affections and allegiance.  When she stepped onto that fateful plane her heart was attached to a happy-go-lucky boyfriend, Kahale, Hawaiian, “Lee to mainlanders,” who we see genuinely loves her.  But after you’ve been through what Avery and Colin have endured – events depicted and others we can only imagine – Avery is rightfully torn about her feelings toward Colin.  After: she feels “I’ve known him all my life.”

You’d think the relationship angst of “interpreting the afterglow of tragic events as the real thing” would be easy compared to surviving a plane crash lost thousands of feet above civilization, but it’s not.  Avery’s inner struggles are like the advice given to beginner swimmers: “there comes a moment of sudden, breathtaking awe – the moment they learn to trust it.  Not just the water but themselves.” Avery must learn to trust herself.

There are real-life Colins and Averys out there, private heroes whose heroism comes from someplace deep within their souls.  Since they’re not seeking attention and glory, we need a novelist like Claire Kells to make them real for us, inspiring us to dig deeper than we thought possible.


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The Precious One 2

Discovering/Re-discovering what’s precious in life (New Jersey, present-day): What is it about Marisa de los Santos’ novels that have so much heart?

The Precious One is the author’s fourth novel; I read her first three, pre-blogging: Love Walked In, Belong to Me and Falling Together, my favorite because the scenes set in the Philippines, where her father is from, pulsed genuinely.  Still, the details of those earlier tales are fuzzy, except for a lingering warmth that these stories of love, friendship, and family touched me.  So now I get a chance to examine and share why The Precious One, with the same signature themes, once again emotionally resonates with so much heart.

We connect because the characters feel real and distinct – good, bad, confused, obscure.  Some remind us of people we’re lucky to have in our lives, or wish we did; others we hope we’ll never come across, although sadly, we know of them.  Structured in chapters alternating between two female voices, one young, one older, we get inside their heads.  Others are important too, for they are mixed up in their lives for good and for bad, and they too feel familiar, well-realized.  Some you’ll like, love, admire, root for, and smile at their delightful sense of humor; others, only two actually, you’ll dislike, intensely.  A collection of characters perceived singularly because the prose and dialogue are sensitive, sharp, and nimble, conveying emotions ranging from good-natured/good-humored/tender to muddled to frightened to sarcastic/mean-spirited, depending on the character.

Allow me, then, to introduce them, and the storyline:

NARRATORS: Taisy Cleary, 35, and Willow Cleary, 16.  Yes, they’re sisters, half-sisters, who’ve never really met (only one dreadful Christmas, when Willow was an infant), until now.  Taisy you’ll want to hug and have in your corner from the get-go; Willow grows on you.  By the time we meet their stony-hearted father, Wilson, you’re already primed to dislike him.  Our animosity doesn’t soften much, although some of his grandiose behaviors become explainable although never condonable.  He’ll vex you, as unknowable people can.  More about Wilson below.

TAISY: lovely, self-deprecating, funny, wistful, brokenhearted, lovesick, dogged, and achingly candid when she’s around the only man she’s truly loved, Ben, someone she hasn’t seen in seventeen years.  A ghostwriter and editor, she berates herself for agreeing to spend two weeks at Wilson’s house – she’s been summoned after he’s had a serious heart attack – since he cut off all ties after her parents divorced. She, and we, very soon learn that Wilson isn’t looking to make amends; he has something different in mind.

WILLOW, a “beautiful misfit”: overprotected, melodramatic, “old soul” intelligence, jealous, caustic, lonely, and up until now homeschooled.  Wilson’s health crisis has thrust his precious daughter into a “soul-killing place” – a private high school – 21st century life she can’t possibly know how to survive in having been shielded from the outside world. Wilson’s overprotectiveness is obsessive, bordering on abusive: she’s never watched television or movies; been allowed to read anything past the 19th century (she adores literature; the author’s doctorate in English Literature shines through as Middlemarch, especially, is dissected for a class project); own a cellphone; have sleepovers; eat candy, you name it.  She’s been brought up to think she’s above all that.  Brainwashed to believe untruths about Taisy, she presents as impenetrable: “she spits venom at me [Taisy] with her eyes, but there’s something about her that sort of tugs at my heart.” Willow carries the burden of an irrational sense of responsibility for her father’s well-being and for her gentle, artist mother’s.  “If I could not take care of the people in this house, I was a brute,” which is why her fragility, evoked by her wispy name is apt.  The reader will see how terribly vulnerable she is.

MARCUS: is not the failure his father purports him to be.  He’s a financial trader, wealth Wilson hypocritically mocks despite being a millionaire.  Marcus is endearingly devoted to Taisy (he’s “home to me, the safest place I’ve ever been”), so we immediately take a liking to him and accept his “red-hot” anger toward Wilson.

WILSON, a “breathtaking jerk”: Taisy and Marcus can’t bring themselves to call him father.  Can you blame them?  He’s Taisy’s “hidden, broken part,” but she’s carved a good life down South.  Wilson’s request is that she write his memoir, not the full story, the unknown parts, but his “intellectual journey, my scholarship, my teaching.  The life story of a mind.”  Consistently, annoyingly pompous!

BEN: Willow’s high school romance.  Lovable, easygoing, attached to his great Dad, terrific sense of humor, with a laugh that was Taisy’s “own private meteor shower.”  You can probably pinpoint the cause of their disrupted bliss.  When Taisy learns Ben has returned home to New Jersey, not far from her father’s house, near her childhood home, we see to what delectable lengths she’s willing to go through to try to win him back.

TAISY’S MOM: A “tireless-lawyer-with-a-heart of gold job.” While she doesn’t say that much, she’s prescient about Taisy’s emotions and actions, which is all we need to know about her maternal instincts and unconditional love.

WILLOW’S MOM: Caro is a glassblower for whom “the most amazing things take shape inside her mind, beautiful things that exist nowhere in the world, and then she makes them exist.  How many people can you say that about?”  Over time, she turns into an ideal sounding board for Taisy, relieved to be staying at the pool house, a separate arrangement she adapts to easily.

TRILLIUM: Taisy’s sparkling, pull-no-punches best friend (an “ineffable iridescent effervescence that I would call Trillium-inosity”).  Famous for an international bestselling guidebook of Life RULES! which is the same catchy turquoise color as the novel’s cover.  Her “5th life rule”: “Every woman must have one friend for whom a lunch-and-shopping trip is always the solution, no matter what the problem might be.” Taisy’s freelance writing career got started as her ghostwriter, but leave it to Taisy to graciously give all the credit to Trillium: “What made her story special was Trillium herself: the cadence of her throaty voice, her leaping mind, the way she’d throw words out like handfuls of confetti one minute, and select them, one by careful one, the next.”

MR. INSLEY: Willow’s English teacher. Their teacher/student relationship develops over school lunches, then he teaches Willow to drive. He speaks as though he were living in the 19th century (“the obsessions of the bourgeoisie!”), and is impassioned by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites.

BEN’S DAD: A “slightly goofy joy,” whom Taisy tells us she’s “probably touched him more than I’d touched my own father in my entire lifetime”.  It fits that he works at glowing botanical gardens.

LUKA BAILEY-SONG: Offered to be Willow’s English partner when no one else wanted to be. “Ridiculously good-looking,” with a poetic name that echoes his kindness, like Ben’s.

When the ever-hopeful Taisy relents to her father’s command, we assume something-is-going-to-happen to their estranged relationship will form the heart of the novel.  Those tensions and other darkness do lurk, but it’s  Taisy and Willow discovering each other, and Taisy and Ben re-discovering each other, and Willow and Luka’s finding each other that overshadows.  While we can’t fix all those who need fixing, right all the wrongs, we’re glad to have met a few of the precious ones who make us feel good.


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Mademoiselle Chanel

A fashion designer who endures and still captivates (France, also Italy, England, Spain, Hollywood; 1895-1954): Artists and their passions attract me, but I hadn’t expected this biographical novel to be as grand in scope, history, and mystery.

The scope: spans Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s complicated life from the pivotal time she was orphaned at 12 until her dramatic comeback nearing 60 (she died at 87, still working). The history: enlightens the tremendous impact the Depression, WWI, and WWII had on this accidental hat designer’s meteoric rise that revolutionized European and American (especially) couture, emphasizing the enterprise “is not folly.” Since both are meticulously detailed, it’s noteworthy that Christopher Gortner has left the mystery haunting her legacy for the reader to resolve. Acknowledging that more than any of his six other historical novels about powerful, controversial women, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL “was truly a labor of love,” one concludes he intended to leave the mystery up in the air, which of course is his prerogative! Lest we forget, this is a work of (historical) fiction.

Easy to forget because everything feels real. For one thing, so many characters are famous historical figures. Coco Chanel’s persona – fiercely independent, a creative genius consumed by work, headstrong, all driven by her fervent desire “to be someone” – ring loud and clear. Authentic and powerful, it’s the realization of a “dream come true,” says Gortner, who has been fascinated with the legendary fashion designer since his teens, schooled at San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, followed by twelve years in the industry.

Are we to assume, then, that he also intended to present a very different perspective on the mystery? Was the famous designer – whose iconic name is automatically associated with the scent of N° 5 (and should be linked to the classic “little black dress” and chic cloche hats, all finely described) – also a Nazi spy?

Despite two recent biographies claiming she was – Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History (Rhonda K. Garelick, 2014) and Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (Hal Vaughan, 2011), supported just last year by a French intelligence agency’s release of declassified documents, I came away believing Gortner’s opposing viewpoint, albeit fictionalized: that Coco detested the anti-Semitism expressed by her lovers (at least two); was horrified by Hitler’s aggression; and engaged in behaviors that could alternatively be explained if given compelling details otherwise. Gortner casts these secretive events as complex circumstances that might have happened.

Note: the mystery question doesn’t arise until the last 100 or so pages of a packed 400+ page-turner. I raise it at the onset to encourage close attention throughout Gortner’s skillful storytelling, particularly dialogue – relayed in Coco’s voice – and to measures she took that back up his contradictory position. In light of the apparent opposing evidence, it’s impressive how convincing the novel is.

Coco Chanel c. 1920
via Wikipedia

That doesn’t mean you have to like many things about the real Coco Chanel, but you’ll understand why she felt and did what she did, whether fictional or true. For the most part, hers was a steely heart, hardened such that “everyone seemed to forget that my heart was not made out of stone.” But we empathize, for at a tender age that heart was “ravaged” by her father, when her mother died and he determined he couldn’t parent Coco and her four siblings because his job entailed extensive travel. Anguished, Coco was farmed out to an orphanage, then lived at a convent with her cousin, Adrienne. These may have been stark, restrictive years but she was well-cared for and this is when her sewing skills were nurtured and noticed, gifts she learned from her seamstress mother.

Sometimes, too, Coco felt deeply: a “volcanic passion” for the only man she truly loved, the wealthy Arthur “Boy” Chapel. Once successful, she was notoriously generous in saving struggling artists such as the Russian ballet choreographer Sergei Diaghilev; and she cared greatly, fanatically, for her nephew André.

Surely we don’t have to love Coco personally to admire her marvelous sense of taste that originated simple yet elegant creations; hunger for reading; spirit of “freedom of self-expression and attire” that propelled her to free women from the constraints of corsets (a “rib-expanding release”) and uncomfortable, impractical, ostentatious outfits by using innovative soft fabrics like jersey, suede, and felt; penchant for natural creamy colors, also seen in her interior decorating, most spectacularly in an estimated $50 million piece of property hugging the French Riviera, once her peaceful villa named La Pausa; openness to ideas like studying astronomy to inspire a collection of moon, solar, star-shaped jewels; and democratic vision to offer women clothing that “bridged the exclusive and the commonplace.”

No doubt Coco Chanel was an extremely complicated woman. Harper’s Magazine may have called her “the quintessence of restraint in an unrestrained world,” but her friends were avante-garde – Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí. Her life was marked by extravagant love affairs with wildly rich men she befriended but didn’t really love, an emotion she worried she had little of, letting them overindulge her living at their chateaus, even once leaving her beloved France to reside in a Downton Abbey-esque estate. Having experienced poverty, she never lost sight of the advantages of money, as these lovers were her benefactors – Étienne Balsan; Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Ramonov; Hugh Richard Grosvenor, Second Duke of Westminster (“Bendor”), and “Boy.” They made her dreams come true: helped her open her first atelier in a Paris apartment, then move up to the glamorous Ritz hotel, and later venture to the French seaside town Deauville, renowned for horse breeding and racing. At the height of Coco’s career in the thirties she employed 2,000 people at three salons. A fantastical, fairy tale story.

The intensity of Coco’s ambitions and nature had its drawbacks. Numerous lovers, heirs to fortunes, but she never married. While she repeatedly declared she was already married – to her work – and didn’t want to be attached there were disappointments and great loneliness. She needed the intimacy of genuine friendships. There was the actress Émilienne d’Alençon, an early admirer, and the sympathetic Baroness Kitty Rothschild, but over the course of her lifetime her closest friend was an unlikely one because she was so overbearing and brutally honest: Misia Sert, once a pianist who made it her business to know everyone in Paris.

Coco’s pursuit of a perfect perfume sheds insight into her intuitive mindset. She wanted it to be:

“as expensive as possible, for that is the only way to assure its exclusivity. … “mimic nature not by exaggeration but rather by emphasizing the naturalness within it – it must distinguish and individualize, be unforgettable on every woman who wears it. Above all, it must last.”

Chanel No. 5 Perfume
By arz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To manufacture and distribute the quality and quantity of Coco’s perfumery vision, she relented into a contractual arrangement with the leading fragrance company in France at the time. It was a business decision she bemoaned for years and years, adding fuel to the allegations she was anti-Semitic because the founder, Pierre Wertheimer, was Jewish. Judge for yourself if her consternations and legal battles were ethnically based. Gortner makes the case they were not.

Most troubling was her scandalous affair with a German military officer named Spatz. The intrigue of their entanglement deepened: What was the full nature of her covert, convoluted role during the war that involved Winston Churchill? Churchill was the only person who called Coco ‘Mademoiselle Chanel.’ The significance of that name as the novel’s chosen title shouldn’t be discounted.

Still, Coco’s war efforts seemed part of her destiny. When her actress friend advises her that “the right person, at the right time, with the right approach, can exert more impact than we realize,” we see how clearly that applies to a legend today.


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AMHERST’S author likes making connections, so let me suggest one: His thoughtful new novel is an ideal accompaniment to THE HALF BROTHER, my last posting: roughly the same New England locale; also set on a bucolic college campus; and both use poetry to explore provocative themes of love.  Though, poetry – Emily Dickinson’s – looms much larger here.

Seeking the meaning of love through Emily Dickinson’s poetry (Amherst, Massachusetts, 1880s/2012): Discovering a new author is exciting!  In this case, it’s William Nicholson, an award-winning British writer of screenplays, BBC television shows, novels (six contemporary ones with characters apparently connected to AMHERST) – whose writing experiences have skilled him in honing sharp prose that’s as irresistible, mysterious, and plaintive as the characters that inhabit this novel of two connected love affairs.  You’ll be hooked right by the opening sentences:

“The screen is black. The sound of a pen nib scratching on paper, the sound amplified, echoing in the dark room.  A soft light flickers, revealing ink tracking over paper.  Follow the forming letters to read:

I’ve none to tell me to but thee.

The area of light expands. A small maplewood desk, on which the paper lies. A hand holding the pen.

My hand, my pen, my words. My gift of love, ungiven.”

That’s Emily Dickinson’s voice, echoed in several short chapters evoking the “MYTH.”  These brief interludes are in tune with the reclusive poet (by now cloistered at her home, Homestead, for fifteen years), summoning the enigmatic poet who continues to captivate legions.  It’s a clue that Emily Dickinson’s poetry – and the “ghost of Emily Dickinson” – infuses this novel.  As it should.  For although the central voice is Alice Dickinson’s – of no kinship to the poet, again hinting at the author’s preference for connectedness – it’s Emily and her “strange poems” that casts the hypnotic spell.

Alice has come to Amherst from England to “give dignity” to a screenplay she aspires to write about an intense, historical love in a puritanical society: between Emily’s brother, Austin, a lonely soul in a bereft marriage who finds his soulmate late in life, and twenty-something Mabel Loomis Todd, newly arrived at Amherst College from Washington, DC, married to Austin’s colleague.

Amherst College Main Quad
By David Emmerman (PicasaWeb)
[CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Since this is “Dickinson country” (Emily’s grandfather founded the college), Mabel, like today’s scholars, poets, and fans, can’t seem to get enough of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  Like me, you may find yourself re-reading the poems, interlaced throughout, twice, three times, to grasp their meaning.  The challenge is part of the mystique.  Nicholson tantalizes with glimpses of insight.  Of course, there’s a treasure trove of resources available to us: print, digital, and archival at Amherst and Harvard (Mabel/Austin’s love letters conserved at Yale), including those cited in the bibliography.  To confirm the poems are difficult, there’s even an Emily Dickinson Lexicon: 10,000 entries to help decode the words and references penned in her largesse of 1,800 poems.  Fascination with the 19th century poetess is attributed to many factors, starting with the depth of her passions yet she spent most (or all?) of her life loveless, and secluded; why the subject of much speculation.

Another reason for Emily Dickinson’s popularity: “words and phrases exhibiting an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power, yet often set in a seemingly whimsical or even rugged frame.”  Her poems were a radical departure, hence underappreciated early on.  Contributing to their elusiveness are features such as the omission of all punctuation except for dashes; most lack titles; capitalizing words mid-sentence; rhythms that don’t rhyme.  There’s also the sheer breadth of themes beyond ordinary existence – nature, biblical, spiritual, death, immortality.  Like the Puritans of her day, she valued a simple life but she also defied accepted beliefs and customs, trusting her own individuality as the highest power.  Thus, she feels all-knowing and timeless.

Poems By Emily Dickinson [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Mabel Loomis Todd became obsessed with Emily’s poetry (and wanting to meet her). She sensed a powerful connection to this spirited woman who expressed emotions she felt for the “greatness, mystery, and depth of life.”  Her father, dear to her, introduced her to poetry, but it’s her dismay at the sleepy college coupled with her hunger for adventure and true happiness that sparked a ‘perfect storm’ for escaping into and idolizing Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  History ought to be indebted to Todd for her adoration, devotion, persistence and painstaking role, as depicted in the novel, in transcribing and getting a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems initially published.  The evolution of Mabel’s determination is seductive storytelling.

Mabel and Austin’s fated affair began innocently over a mutual love of nature.  The “joy of understanding” touched their souls.  Togetherness and physical love blossomed very slowly, discreetly, given the morality of the era, heightened by Austin’s sensibilities and morose acceptance of his unhappy destiny.  Eventually, though, their ardor finds its way into the privacy of Emily’s home, where you can feel Emily lurking as the lovers rendezvous in her living room.  (Emily doesn’t live in total isolation; there’s her spinster sister, Lavinia).  Austin’s home, Evergreens, is conveniently connected to Emily’s.  You can, like Alice, pay a visit: it’s the yellow home illustrated on Amherst’s telltale cover, now the Emily Dickinson Museum, which appears to be beautifully preserved.  It’s a testament to Nicholson’s writing that the reader wishes to visit there too.

Unlike Emily, Mabel is beautiful, stylish, aglow; she craves attention and attracts it from everyone.  Whereas Austin must hide his feelings from his cold, begrudging wife, Susan, Mabel is remarkably open with her unjealous husband about hers, for he’s candid about his extramarital desires.  David believes, even goes so far as encourages, the idea that loving more than one person at a time grows one’s capacity to love: “The more you love, the more love there is.”

The novel, like Emily Dickinson’s poems, respects a broad spectrum of types of love: romantic love, familial love, self-love, spiritual love, love of nature and the arts, enduring love.  It also raises connections among some.  For instance: Does a love for a father figure influence who you choose to love?  Nicholson makes sure you think hard about that question by structuring his novel with two love affairs, historical and contemporary, that draw interesting parallels:

Mabel Loomis Todd is in her mid-twenties when she falls deeply in love with a man old enough to be her father.  Alice is also in her twenties.  Her Dickinsonian research re-connects her to her former boyfriend, Jack, whose mother had an affair with Nick Crocker, a visiting English professor at Amherst.  Jack, in turn, connects Alice to Nick.  Alice is searching for a happy ending to her play because she too longs for the greatness of love.  Nick, like Austin, is also in his fifties.  He’s exceptionally handsome; all the women find him “irresistible.”  He lives in a “grand wedding cake of a house,” and like Austin is unhappily married.  An “old soul,” who can recite Emily’s poems.  Need I say more?

As Nicholson weaves in Mabel and Austin’s soul-searching letters and Emily’s heady poetry – “the lovers act, the poet reflects” – offering his own reflections, often punctuating a character’s crisp dialogue with their inner thoughts, he lets the reader in on what we’ve already been thinking: “How complicated it all is,” and “We all live our lives in hiding.”

When Nicholson asks us to ponder “What is there that’s bigger than love?” is the answer Alice’s happy ending?  A cache of nineteenth-century stirring letters and poems may hold the key: A love so profound it resides deep within one’s soul, blessed forever.  Until eternity.


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The Half Brother 1

Physical and spiritual love – a psychological novel (Massachusetts, roughly 1990s to post 9/11; Atlanta, earlier in backstories): Put on your thinking cap!  You’ll be lulled by the elegiac prose and the Currier & Ives imagery, but like our sensitive narrator who grew up in Atlanta suspecting “something easily missed, a golden egg hidden in the deepest underbrush,” you will too in this emotionally suspenseful, nuanced novel.  Yes, there are secrets and ah-ha moments, thoughtfully plotted, revealed slowly.  Even the title is thought-provoking.  It could have been plural since there’s two half-brothers.  But like everything that matters in Holly LeCraw’s cerebral novel, she makes us think.  What better vehicle than through the psyche of Charlie Garrett, who deems his best asset is he’s a “thinker.”  He “had to get closer and closer to things, all the time, see their astonishing thingness as thoroughly as I could.”

The first hint you’ll get comes early on in the novel as a poetry lesson and early in Charlie’s 17 years of teaching English at the Abbott School, a “cloister-let:” a small, picturesque New England boarding school perched atop “softer mountains than the Berkshires,” in Abbottsford, 90 miles from Boston in north-central Massachusetts.  The school/town may be fictitious, but this is the area of the country with the most private boarding schools; this one “genteelly clinging to the second-tier.” Charlie feels like a fraud because he got into Harvard and Abbott through the “old order” of wealth and connections.  But at 22, fresh in his first job, illuminating a complex 17th century “metaphysical” poem divining physical and spiritual love, he soon validates his intellectual capabilities.

John Donne, 17th century portrait
(Paul Haymon at en.wikipedia
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The arousing poem, “The Good-Morrow,” penned by John Donne, considered the “Father of “Metaphysical Poetry,” offers provocative, enlightened guidance for a senior class at the threshold of possibilities; and a superb choice for a soulful novel with tangled themes of physical versus spiritual love.  It’s met with faculty approval since on this campus “old-fashionedness was not discouraged.”  Charlie may be a novice struggling with his own identity, but his senses are spot-on:

“Look at every word.  Every word is there for a reason, probably ten reasons.  Get closer and closer.  Be patient.”  … Trust yourself.  These poems aren’t something to get.  They are something to apprehend.  Apprehend: to take hold of.  To pay attention.  Pay attention and the meaning will open up.”

One surprise I can impart without giving anything away is about the prose.  I expected the coolness of New England, not the warmth of Southern manners.  Actually, the prose is more a mix of North and South, ideal as Charlie, and other characters, have deep Southern roots.  Charlie’s sensitivity to his surroundings resonates in prose that combines the reserve of New Englanders with the elegance of Southerners. (Although, sometimes characters’ emotions let loose, unable to control all they’ve bottled up.)  The author is from Atlanta, now living outside Boston, which must account, in part, for the authentic feel of the prose.

The pull of home is ever-present.  It arrives with Charlie’s first impressions of the serene campus: “green rolling fields and white buildings, a chapel of gray stone – foreign and familiar, like scenes from a picture book.”  This “little farm of learning” was meant for him.  In boyhood, he discovered the magic of learning in his stepfather Hugh’s “leathery, book-lined study.” (Books were “like a time machine, taking me back and sideways to other minds and times and cities and planets.”)  He also values the students – “all of them, even those nature hadn’t favored … they were changelings, they were becoming.” Most dominant is Charlie’s home, “a thoroughly New England mishmash that, even so, struck me as a little southern.” At 29, he’s awfully young to own a large farmhouse abutting splendid mountains, a “destination.”  For ten years of this story, it emits such a strong presence, taking on “a life” of its own.

But Atlanta’s “ghosts were thick,” so they come North with him, where they hover, haunt, and shake-up Charlie’s three most important, emotionally-laden relationships, structured in sections titled May, Nicky, Anita.  The dynamics of all three twist and turn, shift in and out of Charlie’s life over the years.  Throughout, you’ll be amazed at the noble lengths he goes through to protect and honor these three.  When one of Charlie’s students asks if love is selfish, his moral compass shows us just how selfless love can be:

MAY: or “May-May,” an affectionate nickname that once mortified Charlie when a slip of his tongue in class, when May was his student during his second year teaching.  By then, it confirmed our sense that all along Charlie harbored passionate feelings for the young daughter of the school’s chaplain, Preston Bankhead, “an institution.” (Charlie aches to get closer to Preston’s “purported magic.” But even when he falls into being his chess partner he can’t; he “exuded intimacy only from far away, in the pulpit.”)  Charlie first spots May, a slender beauty, when she’s surrounded by her picture-perfect family (three blond brothers and blonde mother from Savannah; Preston from New Orleans.)  May grew up at Abbott.  Charlie adores everything about her: hands, hair, and eyes, “hemispheres of ocean and sky, and I was sailing over them using only the old knowledge of the stars” (Poetic words that echo Donne’s).  Among Charlie’s many admirable traits is endurance, so he patiently waits for May to mature.  When she does – that embarrassing incident in class – tenderly reveals his rapture.

NICKY: the other, younger half-brother.  The “favored son.” Glamorous, a golden-boy whose “red-gold curls draw the sun” and everyone to him like a magnet.  A math genius who appreciates the elegance of math but not its purpose, he sought relief work in Haiti and then Afghanistan, which couldn’t possibly have worked out for someone “who expected magic to pop out of a box or a song.”  So, Nicky follows his brother’s path to Abbott, where he “wants to scatter his light as he walks.”  Charlie always puts him first, but that light casts foreboding, dark shadows.  Nicky’s terrible sloppiness befits his fecklessness.

ANITA: whom Charlie never calls Mother.  Did he when it was just the twosome, before Nicky came along and Charlie became the outsider?  In Atlanta, whenever the threesome were together, Charlie “let them love each other, let them carry all the energy.”  Anita is well-suited as a nurse: practical, unruffled, and extremely discrete, except she’s that way with Charlie (“telling me anything would have been breaking our rules of engagement”) and Nicky, who doesn’t, or isn’t wired, to notice.  She too ends up at Abbottsford needing Charlie.

Other central characters bring diversity onto the campus, friendships and extended families for Charlie, plus emotional sub-plots:

THE MIDDLETONS: Charlie’s Jewish landlord, Anita; her African American husband, Booker, the school’s groundskeeper; and one of their children, Zack, who becomes a popular football star in Charlie’s class with loftier aspirations.

THE LOWELLS: Divya, Charlie’s colleague, from India; and husband Win whose dedication/obsession for caring for a labyrinth of boxwoods planted by their home’s original owners, a nostalgic nod to the Mississippi plantation home they left behind, takes on mythical significance about those who came before us and after.

Given all Charlie’s musings about someone’s physical versus spiritual presence/absence/essence, it’s ironic that this “thinker” doesn’t perceive his greatest asset is how profoundly he embodies what he teaches about John Donne’s poem – “that soul thing” – which is why this novel shines.


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Mr. Mac and Me

A seascape shaping WWI history, artists, and fiction: The year Scottish architect/artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh painted there (Suffolk Coast, England, 1914-1915): This gorgeously written novel paints moods with words – wistful, soulful, hopeful – blending facts and fiction the way warm and cool watercolors blend into one another.  The painted canvas, Mr. Mac and Me, is perceived as earthy tones, understated beauty that glows.

Aesthetic prose is exquisitely fitting since this is partly a biographical novel about the year the misunderstood Scottish architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, escaped to the alluring Suffolk coastline of England immersing his melancholy self into his early artistry: flower watercolors.  Esther Freud has matched the mood of Mackintosh’s beautiful watercolors with her atmospheric prose.

First, a confession.  I fell in love with this novel – or the idea of it – before it transported me; before I laid eyes on its lovely purple bell fritillaria cover, depicting one of Mackintosh’s painstakingly painted flowers.  He made this watercolor in 1915 when he lived in the small seaside village of Walberswick, as WWI dawned – the same village Esther Freud lives in.  Sitting on Britain’s northeastern coast near London, surrounded by a string of villages (Southwold, with its ferries, the largest), it hugs the North Sea across from Belgium, where battles were fought.  I was charmed by the author’s 400-year-old stone cottage, where you can envision her inspired to poetically craft Mr. Mac and Me, her ninth novel.  To see if you might be as enamored, see At Home with Esther Freud.

The parallels between Freud’s background and the novel also fascinate.  Her father was the artist, Lucian Freud, considered a leading British portraitist of the 20th century.  The author, then, grew up in an artistic home watching her father paint, like her story’s narrator watches “Mr. Mac.” Lucian Freud’s work is characterized as “moody.”  His daughter has penned a wonderfully moody novel.  The prose has a poignancy and air of mystery and wonder about “Mr. Mac” and Suffolk’s land and sea, a powerful presence rich with wild, low-lying vegetation.  Freud lures us into the daily chores and comings-and-goings of village life “where there’s nothing that gets by a village this size.”

The “Me” in the title is the narrator: 13-year-old Thomas Maggs, who strikes up a warm friendship with “Mr. Mac.” He’s mature beyond his years, having had to bear the burden of being the only surviving son of six brothers (he has two sisters, Ann and Mary), and a useless alcoholic father.  The family runs an inn, with one of the village’s two pubs attached.

Tommy’s voice is sensitive.  He and “Mr. Mac” have several things in common: physical disability (Mackintosh was born with a club foot, whereas Tommy’s “twisted foot” seems due to a sinister cause he’s averse to explaining); a passion for drawing; a keen appreciation for Nature; vigilant beholders of the sea; and a palpable lonesomeness borne from their “longings.”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
([Public Domain], via
Wikimedia Commons)

Today Charles Rennie Mackintosh is acknowledged as the “Father of the Glasgow Style,” famous for designing the Glasgow School of Arts, which tragically caught fire around the time the novel went to press! (Restoration underway.) But in the early 1900s, his avant-garde Art Deco designs, which enveloped the totality of a structure (interior as well as exterior), were not well-accepted in his native Glasgow as they were in Europe, especially Germany and Austria.  I’d never heard of Mackintosh until now.  He has legions of followers (

Mackintosh is spotted roaming the seashore at night with “spyglasses.”  Since “this is where the enemy could land,” and he “looks for all the world like a detective,” Tommy is naturally wary of him.  He also speaks a dialect that’s hard for Tommy to understand; it sounds German.  I googled it: Glasweigian (or The Glasgow Patter) is spoken in Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, where the summertime “herring girls,” Betty and Meg hail from.  It doesn’t help that everyone in the neighboring villages is being urged to be on the lookout once the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA) was enacted in August 1914 and posted along the Southwold pier.

Southwold Pier, Suffolk Coast© L Green /

Southwold Pier, Suffolk Coast
© L Green /

Mac and Tommy’s friendship begins by walking the sea together.  Then Tommy starts spending time in the Mackintoshes’ loving home.  Kind Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh is also an artist, known for her unconventional gesso panels adorned with Glasgow roses.  After Mackintosh gives Tommy a box of watercolors, they draw together in a “thick, warm silence.” Tommy realizes “Mac is not a danger.  I can see that now.  He may have even been sent here to keep us safe.”  Unfortunately, others believe he may be a German spy.  How sad for an artist who “made places for poets.”

Tommy is drawn to the sea, but his mother seeks a different life for him.  So he draws boats anchored on the waters and battleships from ship models encased in glass cabinets in the Sailors’ Reading Room, where he sneaks away to when he’s not tied down to his many responsibilities at home and school.  One is a paying job as assistant to rope-maker George Allard, turning a wheel.  Rope-making is a “dying art,” laments Allard.  The war needs metal for barbed wire, not rope.

Tommy recognizes Charles Rennie Mackintosh is “nothing like any of the artists that I’ve seen.” He’s seen plenty, inspired by the coastline.  (Danky, a villager Tommy looks in on, models for artists.)  By now, Tommy endeavors to see the world through Mac’s eyes.  He’ll stare at:

“one pebble shaped like a heart – or almost – and I think of the pamphlet of Mac’s designs.  There were hearts carved into a bookcase, and a cluster of them floating high up in the panel of a bedroom door.  There were small dropping hearts in lamps, and most beautiful of all, a square of metal molded to the rise of a heart.”

Mackintosh’s heart is best revealed through romantic letters he wrote to “My Margaret,” as she often had to leave him for lengthy periods of time to tend to family crises.  She affectionately called him Toshie.  He writes: “There are only three important words that could take the place of the rest.  I Love You.  I hope you find them here in every line.”

The haunting drumbeat of war is sketched into sentences too: in the names of battles Tommy must memorize at school – Battle of Tannenberg, Heligoland, Bight, Siege of Tsingtao; in the sounds of guns heard as far away as Flanders, and then, closer, overhead, the Zeppelins; in the canons that must be buried on Gun Hill; in Ann’s anguish Jimmy Kerridge may have perished on the HMS Formidable in the Channel nearby, a battleship Tommy drew. “Ann needs me,” he says, racing to console her.  We want to embrace this compassionate young fellow with dreams of the sea.  Mackintosh feels warmly about “our boy” too.

It’s that same warm emotion Freud keeps brushing in with the somber, buoying us: a landscape blessed with daffodils, celandine, hawthorn, sweet william, gorse, aubretia, heather-bell, larkspur, bluebells, hyacinth, hellebores, narcissus, witch-hazel, elderflower, anemone, and yes, those lovely fritillaries.

Moved by the landscape, Mackintosh painted flowers “fresh and breathing.”  Esther Freud matches him with “fresh and breathing” prose.


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A Touch of Stardust 2

Dreams vs. Realities: The Golden Age of Hollywood at the Brink of War (1938-1939): A Touch of Stardust is an old-fashioned Valentine’s gift for the cinephiles and dreamers among us.

If it were a box of fancy chocolates, the package would be elegantly wrapped.  Upon opening, each mouthwatering piece would appear carefully formed and placed.  All would look soft and creamy, but when you bite into some you discover hidden ingredients, nudging you to contemplate textures and tastes you hadn’t expected.  Since these delicacies are equally well-made and the surprises don’t overpower, you eat them all, impressed by the thoughtfulness that must have gone into their creation.

A Touch of Stardust, then, is a well-thought out, well-researched historical novel that is more than a tribute to the halcyon days of Hollywood moviemaking when studio moguls “ruled this world of make-believe,” creating larger-than-life movies and movie stars.  Yet not all the “fairy-tale” glamour is as magical as the Stardust title suggests; serious themes are raised.  What consistently sparkles is the smoothness of Alcott’s prose, never hitting us over the head but making sure she’s gifted us something meaningful, not just decadent, to chew on.

This is Alcott’s third historical novel casting strong female characters (The Dressmaker, The Daring Ladies of Lowell).  It’s a romantic Hollywood tale showcasing grand filmmaking, with enough juicy Hollywood gossip to feel like we’re getting the inside story.

Julie Crawford, a recent graduate of the elite women’s Smith College, has come to Hollywood to escape Fort Wayne, Indiana, pinning her hopes on becoming a screenwriter.  Her parents have given her a year to prove herself.  Julie masks her beauty in a town obsessed by it, wearing eyeglasses she doesn’t need, so she’ll be taken seriously.  She was inspired by the great female screenwriter, Frances Marion, who once spoke at her college.  When Julie sees first-hand how respected her idol is in Hollywood (for decades Marion was the highest paid Hollywood screenwriter in a town where men have beat out women for the highest paying jobs), we’re tickled Julie set her sights on such a worthy icon.

Could the author have chosen a more perfect movie to anchor her novel around than Gone with the Wind – the top grossing film of all time – and still, 75 years later, provoking controversy?

(Wikimedia Commons)

Clark Gable, “King of Hollywood,” seemed destined to play Rhett Butler, but fiercely independent producer David O. Selznick, of Selznick International Pictures, whose “passion for perfection was legendary,” reportedly screened 1,400 actresses for the role of Scarlett.  Winning out over actresses like Katherine Hepburn (not in the novel) and Carole Lombard (looms large in the novel) – crazy in love with not-yet divorced Gable – Selznick banked on a British actress, Vivien Leigh, with “skin as luminous as a bed of pearls.” His Scarlett (very much “his”: he fired the first director, George Cukor; the film was then directed by Victor Fleming) looked as though “she could have just stepped by magic from the pages of a Civil War History book.”

Could there be a more perfectly fictionalized character for Julie to become romantically entwined with than the handsome, older/wiser, Columbia graduate Andy Weinstein, whose Jewish identity is a sensitive theme?  He spent his childhood in Berlin living with his grandparents, “the two people he loved more than any.”  Now, justifiably, he’s full of angst about their fate as the movie was under production when Europe was at the brink of war.  Even when the two first met, Andy bluntly asks Julie if she is “put off by my name?” While she quickly replies of course not, her words haunt her as novel unfolds.

There is much to like about Andy.  He recognizes Julie’s refinement and innocence, treats her gentlemanly.  But he’s balancing so much pressure on-and-off the job, he’s not always able to be as available and emotionally open as she deserves.  (“Being with Andy sometimes felt like swinging on a trapeze quite high above the ground.”)  Andy is Selznick’s right-hand assistant, which means he must stay on top of a zillion production logistics for a “sloppy monster of a movie with an unfinished script that lots of people predict will go down as the biggest disaster in film history.”

Carole Lombard (Wikimedia Commons)

Carole Lombard is the historical character who touches us the most.  With “her heart in her eyes,” what comes out of the mouth of the “Profane Angel” may not be enchanted prose but it sure feels authentic.  Early on in the novel, Carole asks Julie to be her personal assistant, thus offering Julie “a wave of energy that seemed capable of lifting anyone off his or her toes.”  Their professional relationship blossoms into a soulful friendship.  Stardust, then, is also more than a generalized tribute to Old Hollywood; it’s a specific nod of appreciation to a beautiful, gutsy, comedic actress who hailed from Julie’s Midwestern hometown.  You’ll read more about her life story in the “Epilogue,” which is when it hit me why the author wanted Lombard to emotionally reach us.

Another historical character you’ll root for, despite his notorious womanizing, is Clark Gable.  For one thing, he genuinely adores Carole.  It’s his expressions of outrage at the discrimination and hypocrisy towards the treatment of the black actors and actresses in the film, both on and off the set, which endears him to us.  Two in particular: Mammie, played by Hattie McDaniel, (who went on to become the first African American to win an Oscar for Supporting Actress); and Butterfly Queen (whose glorified and stereotypical role as Scarlett’s content, not very bright servant is one vexing aspect of “GWTW.”)  Against Gable’s (and apparently Selznick’s) objections, Hattie and Butterfly were barred from attending the movie’s three-day premiere in Atlanta.  Margaret Mitchell’s novel may have won the Pulitzer-prize, but we’re reminded this was Jim Crow South.  That’s why when Gable goes wild on the LA set shouting “this isn’t the Deep South,” when he spots segregated bathroom signs and threatens to quit unless they’re removed, we really like him and he feels real to us.

One reason Stardust feels so authentic must be the author’s Hollywood connections.  She married into the famous Mankiewicz screenwriting family.  Surely it was fun writing a scene in which fictional Andy escorts fictional Julie to her first Hollywood star party (he’d been taking her to the “Place Where the Stars Eat,” Chasen’s, now closed after 60 years) at the Beverly Hills home of the “classy writer” Herman Mankiewicz.  At that time, he was finishing The Wizard of Oz.  Andy, in his no-nonsense way, informs Julie that “if you’re looking for intellect, you find it here.”

This party is memorable because here is where Julie is formally introduced to Frances Marion.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald was present too.  He was working on the troubled script.  Andy’s advice: he “should be writing novels, far from Hollywood.)  Mankiewicz’s home is also where Julie overhears opinionated conversations about America’s entry into WWII.  Many proclaim it’s not our war.  Not Andy, whose resentment of Hollywood powerhouses like Louis B. Mayer “pretending they aren’t Jewish” was far more than just personal: Up until America entered the war, Hollywood stayed clear of making movies about the Nazis, for fear of offending international audiences.  A sorry bit of cinematic history.

Alcott makes sure we don’t linger too long on this.  Lightly, she drops in Hollywood notables like gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons; lavish costume designer, Edith Head; Laurence Olivier, married and openly having an affair with Vivien Leigh (Yes, Selznick was “afraid of scandal;” sometimes Scarlett had to be appeased); and the all-mighty Mayer, head of MGM, Selznick’s father-in-law, for whom he once worked.

Julie marvels how “actors step in and out of reality so brilliantly.”  Carole’s screenwriting advice to Julie: “create a set, sprinkle a touch of stardust.” Together, they sum up the author’s polished prose, seamlessly blending her imagination into realities.  Julie feels as real to us as Carole Lombard.  That’s the art.  The stardust.

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Lorraine

Nostalgic for more Hollywood?  See American Blonde and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.

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The Secret of Magic

Seeking justice when Separate is not Equal (From NYC to “Jim Crow” Mississippi, 1945-1946):  The Secret of Magic is the kind of writing that inspired this blog.

You can hear the musicality in Johnson’s prose, resonating the cadence of the Deep South.  When the narrator – Regina Mary Robichard, a young black lawyer from Harlem working for Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF) – travels to Mississippi to investigate the death of a decorated black WWII veteran, it’s the same “cadence that strolled through words and that branded Regina as an outsider.”  Prose that sings a distinctive beat evoking Southern sounds, a “syncopated rhythm” reflected in phrases like “jitterbugged” leaves and “uh-uh-uh in the shake of his head.”  Prose that’s a joy to read when recalling the “dense, lush moisture” of the landscape, smells of sweet olive, and an “old-timey” vision of Southern gentility (“dimpled hands holding tightly onto glasses of what looked like iced tea”).  But the prose also tells a tragic story rooted in truth, of a very painful time in our nation’s history when “Jim Crow” laws racially segregated the Southern states where the Confederate flag waved.  The contrast between “something that might look good outside but is evil” couldn’t be starker, more dramatic.  So why, I’m guessing, haven’t you heard about this novel?  With the newly released paperback, let’s hope word spreads.

The ebb and flow of the prose adds texture to the novel’s complexities and paradoxes.  Set in a racially segregated fictitious town in Mississippi at the end of WWII, Revere is unlike Regina’s Harlem “where the races rarely mingled.”  Rather, it’s:

“a place where black people and white people were all jumbled together, had built up a land, and still lived, in a sense, right on top of each other, constantly traipsing in and out of one another’s lives.  So close that they couldn’t just naturally be separated.”

Thurgood Marshall,
attorney for the NAACP
(Library of Congress)

Yet, separated they were.  By law. The injustice and absurdity of proclaiming “separate and equal.”  It is within this historical time period that the novel opens, with the arrival of a thick, fancy envelope at the Fund’s Fifth Avenue office, addressed to Thurgood Marshall, already a legendary civil rights leader.  The package is from Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun, requesting Marshall look into the death of Lieutenant Joe Howard Wilson, son of her family’s long-time help, Willie Willie.  Inside were cryptic news-clippings and a photograph that grabbed Regina – whose character is based on Constance Baker Motley, the first black female attorney who worked for Marshall at the LDF.  “Reggie,” who clerked for Marshall in law school and “idolized” him, convinces Marshall to let her take on the case.  By now, Marshall believes to “really affect this country – we have got to move on to changing the law, not trying the individual cases that break it.”  He agrees, but only for three weeks’ time despite all-expenses paid.  The NAACP, you see, is flooded with cases.

Regina loves the law.  Her mother, a legend in her own right, the first black woman to graduate from Columbia’s Teachers College, has been fighting for justice too: for the passage of Federal anti-lynching laws.  Regina’s father was lynched in Omaha in 1919.

Regina’s drawn to this case for two more compelling reasons:

  • Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun is “M. P. Calhoun,” author of a children’s book she coveted; its title aptly, The Secret of Magic. That novel brought fame and fortune to that author, and inspired Regina with “spunky black heroes in a white book.”  No wonder it’s still banned in the Deep South!  The reader already senses that its murderous tale involving black and white playmates parallels Johnson’s story.  Hence, The Secret of Magic is a novel within a novel, a creative undertaking Johnson pulls off eloquently.  Save the Author’s Note for last, as it appears.  The full impact of Johnson’s art and intentions will hit you.
  • How is it possible that the recipient of the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross survived the battlefields of Italy but doesn’t make it home to Mississippi on an interstate bus? How is it possible that this black veteran singled out for “exceptional bravery” still “does not have the right to vote in Mississippi, his native state?”

A few things to keep in mind about Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun: She’s about twice Regina’s age, with “skin as white and translucent as a good Minton china cup.” Her daddy was the late Judge Calhoun, so powerful he kept the Ku Klux Clan out of Revere.  His portrait still hangs in the county courthouse, where the Confederate Flag still flies, where we see Regina bravely enter.  And yet, he’s also the man who hunted with Willie Willie; taught Willie Willie to read; made sure Willie Willie lived in a cabin behind the Calhoun’s antebellum mansion, not the typical outhouses of the day; paid for his son to attend Morehouse College; and counseled that if his son got out of Revere he’d make something of himself.

That may sound encouraging but the reader already knows that this black hero’s death was no accident, from the moment he refuses to give up his paid seat for German POWs when they board the Bonnie Blue Line bus.  (This is ten years before Rosa Parks makes her stand.)  This tense scene hits Joe hard for even a war – “the long horror of it – hadn’t changed one thing” in the segregated South.

Willie Willie knows his son’s death was no accident too.  Quite possibly, he’s even figured out who’s responsible for his murder by the time he picks Regina up at the bus depot.  Yes, the same bus route the lieutenant traversed, then disappeared.  Still, Willie Willie is an upbeat narrator, explaining to Regina why the town is so “pretty” (saved during the Civil War), dotted with grand “Victorian gingerbread” houses.  It doesn’t seem to matter, thinks Regina and the reader, that they were constructed by slaves.  For this is Willie Willie’s “home place,” the only home he’s ever known.  Could the meaning of home be more potent?  Discrepancies are everywhere.

Take for instance, Regina.  She tells us she’s a careful person, yet she’s thrust herself into the center of attention in a place where everyone is enmeshed in everyone else’s business.  Then there’s Miss Calhoun, raised with fine Southern manners, but she’s gruff with Regina and withholds information.  How could she possibly understand the secrets of a place like Revere?  Everyone in this town bears secrets, including Miss Mary, who has “never been able to figure out exactly who it is I can trust.”  Willie Willie comes closest.  Regina, though, is undeterred.  Watching the dance of their black-and-white female relationship is fascinating.

Little by little, Regina is handed clues by a couple of the town’s characters.  One is Peach Mottley, who did/still does the laundry for wealthy white families (the very same Peach in M. C. Calhoun’s novel.)  Another is a black attorney, Tom Raspberry, whose office is located in Catfish Alley, which “sounded like home.”  It seemed to be the only place in Revere that was like the rest of the postwar country, an “active hive of rebuilding.”  When Regina pays a visit to Tom:

“just being surrounded by black folks again was a relief.  Her shoulders loosened.  Her step lightened.  It was a lot of work to become “American,” like everybody else.  You always had to be on your guard.”

Tom offers hope that “things are changing.  Some deep foundations starting to shake.”   But as the plot thickens, Johnson wants to remind us that “good or bad, throughout the nation, it was the South pumped the heartbeat of so much.”


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