Miss Emily

A poet’s voice and humanity (Amherst, MA and Dublin, Ireland, 1866): For a blog called Enchanted Prose, Miss Emily is a literary standout.

Irish poet/author Nuala O’Connor’s artful American debut about the reclusive Victorian poetess, Emily Dickinson, is packed with poetic prose (“I am an eyeglass in the eyrie.”) From a writerly point-of-view, it also shines because of the attention paid to the solitary craft of writing (the “writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat”); the importance of words (“words are my sustenance”); and the uniqueness of words (“each word solitary”). “Chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words” please her – and us.

This slender novel delivers a strong punch by packing in so much poetic prose the reader hears Emily’s tender voice, feels her unconventional spirit, senses her impassioned soul. It starts off reposeful, then intensifies, answering affirmatively to a question Emily poses: “Can calmness and energy be bedfellows?”

Short chapters, with titles written in “inked curlicues” suggestive of Emily, move back and forth between Emily’s voice and a second female’s: fictional Irish maid, Ada Concannon, 18 years old and newly immigrated from Dublin, Ireland. Ada finds work at the Dickinson’s home, Homestead, in Amherst, Massachusetts, “a town of light and brick.” Ada is made up but she’s true to the historical record, as the largest source of American housemaids in the 19th century hailed from Ireland. Ada allows O’Connor to softly transport Ireland to America for readers, pointing out the “openness” of Dubliners compared to the tight-lipped nature of New Englanders. (There’s “no better secret-keeper than a Dickinson.”) Ada also provides a vehicle for airing prejudices against the Irish. Emily befriends and defends her, a caring friendship disapproved by her family, most notably her brother Austin, who cautions “all Irish people lie” and are melancholy.

Emily Dickinson’s Homestead
Photo by Daderot [Public domain]

But for Emily, Emerald Ada is “all cheer.” So imagining Emily in a personal relationship with the charming Ada, who “enlivens” Emily, feels morally right. She also shows us an unfamiliar side to Emily – the duality of her passions. Emily “wants to share love” yet she’s only at peace in solitude.

Inventing a tragedy that strikes Ada and affects a handsome Irishman she’s fallen in love with, Daniel Byrne, forces Emily to venture outside her inner sanctum (“I am in the habit of the house, and it is in the habit of me”) to help Ada and Daniel. Austin’s “detached legal mind” may disappoint Emily, but he takes risks, gets involved too. Knowing how dearly Emily Dickinson cherished her freedom and safety, her act of selflessness and kindness is extraordinary.

Miss Emily takes place over a year in Emily and Ada’s lives. We meet Emily in her late-thirties, when she’s chosen to become that “Woman in White,” dressing only in white. (“If I am pure in dress, my mind may empty itself of all concerns, and that will make it easier for me to write.”) She may be lonely (“the outside world does not bring me joy”), but her inner world (the “landscape of my invention – poem lands”) brings passion and solace.

O’Connor’s Emily instructs us not to be fooled by her singular white attire, for “inside I will roar and soar and flash with color.” And so she does, making this Emily accessible. She craves sweets and loves baking (“I love the kitchen on a dreary day”), the pleasure enhanced by Ada, who perceives even butter as “exalted.”

Besides poetry, this inwardly colorful Emily is passionate about gardening, nature, and “the only audience my heart trusts,” her sister-in-law Susan. She’s so much closer to Sweet Sue than her cat-loving, also single sister, Vinnie, content with housekeeping chores. Emily idolizes Sue. Sue may not fully understand Emily’s poetry – “I love to riddle” – but she’s so unlike Emily’s mother who “would not understand the demands of the mind,” a Victorian wife “who obeys.”

O’Connor handles Emily’s intimate affection for Sue delicately. “I love you from a distance,” Emily says. (An emotional distance as Austin’s family home, Evergreens, was so close to Emily’s the two seem almost one; both homes now living museums.) Was her love deeper than sisterly? There’s no direct suggestion although Sue (mother of two and civic-minded) expresses discomfort with Emily’s profound adoration. Still, we perceive Emily’s choice of a single life as a revolt against being “regularized.” She yearns to “pursue the things that please me,” which makes us smile knowing many things pleased cloistered Emily.

This Emily is likened to the Irish, who “put great store in spinning a narrative around every small thing.” She’s also a deep thinker, questioning the existential meanings of life. (“Each dash I create is a weight, a pause, a question.”) There’s no place for religion in Emily’s worldview, unlike devout Ada, preferring science to help explain the unexplainable.

Ada’s Irish voice brings prose that delights too. My favorite word of hers is figairy. A light, rhythmic sound, but I had no idea what it meant. It’s Irish slang for whimsical, thoughtless. The opposite of this serious, well-researched, thoughtful novel!

For all the writers who dread a white piece of paper, Emily inspires. Blankness “seduces” her. It’s also inspiring to read ordinary things expressed poetically: The snow of Amherst becomes “sugared Amherst.” Nightfall turns into “twilight fingers Amherst with its tawny glove.” Dried fruit described as “crinoline hips and the flesh of candies.”

Miss Emily inspired me to start reading a modern-day memoir about singlehood: Kate Bolick’s recently published, well-written Spinster. Bolick, an editor for The Atlantic, aspired to be a poet. Like Emily, she feels “most alive when alone.” Interestingly, her research shows that the largest group of single women in the 19th century lived in Massachusetts. Her discussion of single women moves from the derogatory to the positive: from her own “spinster wish” to a 19th century, short-lived term, “bachelor girl,” and then to Henry James’ depiction of the “New Woman.” In 1913, this woman was deemed “a very splendid sort of person.” Just like the Emily we meet in this novel.

Lorraine

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The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach 2

The choices we make in love and war (Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, England, France; 1941-1944): The title and cover of The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach suggest a light, beachy read. But if you’re familiar with Pam Jenoff, bestselling author of Holocaust-themed novels, a former State Department Foreign Service Officer who specialized in Holocaust issues, you expect more. More is what you get.

Grand hotels lined the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey in its heyday in the 1940s. Leading up to and during WWII, “Camp Boardwalk” – the nation’s first seaside boardwalk – also symbolized America’s home front: recruiting and training soldiers (later converting hotels into recuperative centers). So, this beach setting befits the summer release of Jenoff’s newest, multi-themed WWII historical novel – her first emotionally centered on mostly American soil.

Told through the sweetly sad voice of a teenage immigrant girl, Adelia Monteforte, over three transformative years as she navigates her identity, family, love, and aspirations. The emotional complexities of her coming-of-age story move through multiple locales, but Chelsea Beach is where it all begins and tugs at her heart.

Imagine being sixteen years old, pushed onto a ship from your childhood home in Trieste, Italy by your politically active parents trying to save you from Fascism. That’s how we meet Addie, a “gawky girl” petrified of the seas she’s lived by. For most of the novel, her parents’ whereabouts are unknown. She’s been shipped to her Aunt Bess and her Uncle Meyer’s home, located in a self-segregated Jewish neighborhood in south Philly, one of a “messy patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods.” Bless their hearts but the childless relatives are outsiders to parenting the way Addie is an outsider in America. Understandably, her voice, braver than she thinks, is melancholy.

Like so many families, they summered on the Jersey shore, where neighbors mingled, not defined by ethnicity or social class. This explains where, when, how, and why Addie can so easily become wrapped up in the fabric of an Irish Catholic family of four boys, the Connallys, when Jews and Catholics kept to themselves back in Philadelphia (and elsewhere).

Addie grows to depend on the Connally family, in spite of her independent spirit. Mrs. Connally treats her like the daughter she never had. The boys treat her like brothers, except maybe there’s more going on than that. This is, after all, a love story – or love stories – as much as a war story.

Lower Chelsea Beach, Atlantic City, NJ
c. 1930-1945, via Boston Public Library

The novel starts off looking back in time. We’re told the Connallys “lived in a place where their grief would always be as raw as the day it all happened,” so early on the reader knows something momentous occurred at Chelsea Beach. Which is why Addie’s deeply rooted memories of this summer place are both happy and pained. They haunt her – grief, guilt, survivorship, and forgiveness are among the novel’s powerful themes.

Each of the Connally boys plays a role. The two older boys are Charly and Liam; the two younger are twins, Robby and Jack. The golden boy whose “smile lifted the world” is Charly, protective, bold, destined to do something heroic. Liam, with his “taunting grin,” has the darker side. He, like Addie, feels different.

Addie is the type who “finds the dark spaces between the light, even in the happiest moments.” She’s unsure of herself, unsure of her attractiveness yet romantically attracted to and entangled with more than one man. “We can’t always help who we love” is a repeated refrain, which increasingly takes on greater significance as Addie tries so hard to run away from her memories.

The first place she runs to after Chelsea Beach is Washington, DC, with its “bland, antiseptic feel,” where she finds work at the Washington Post. For reasons that constitute spoilers, suffice it to say that she runs away again, impetuously, desperate to go someplace “where no one knew me.”

This time she makes her way to London, after the Blitz but before America entered the war. What a foolish or brave thing for her to do, given why this Jewish girl was sent to America in the first place and events transpiring in Europe. There’s a vivid scene with a Polish citizen where she hears firsthand about the atrocities being committed against Polish Jews. The author was stationed in Krakow, enlarging the potency of the brief encounter.

Compared to America where the war felt “hidden,” in London war is visible everywhere: air raid attacks, bomb shelters, food rationing, and the “knackered” faces of ordinary, stoic citizens. Addie becomes especially emotionally affected seeing so many mothers without their children – Britain’s historic evacuation – reminding Addie of what her mother did for her. But since she’s also not the type to “look away from unfairness,” count on her to do something about this to make a difference.

My favorite romantic part of Addie’s story happens when she arrives at 19 Fleet Street, the London-based office of the Washington Post, where she’s managed to get herself transferred. Her keenness about issues and language skills land her a coveted job, outside the secretarial pool, alongside the “too good-looking” Teddy White, the only British journalist on the staff. His movie-star looks, “easy style,” and utter goodness make us wish he was based on a real historical figure but Jenoff tells us he’s not.

Teddy is immediately drawn to Addie. A former ladies man, with Addie he’s devoted, selfless, generous. For all these reasons and his upbeat attitude about winning the war now that America has entered into it, we immediately like him. His adoration for Addie wins us over with romantic lines like this: “My whole life I’ve felt as though I was writing the story. With you for the first time I feel a part of it.” If only Addie felt the same way! Yes, she appreciates him but remember she’s plagued by memories back at Chelsea Beach. You so wish she’d find a girlfriend to tell it to her like it is!

Jenoff wisely offers Addie – and us – one. Another character who feels so historically real, but apparently she’s made up too. Claire is Churchill’s niece, who lost her parents and was raised by another family (Churchill’s), echoing Addie’s history. Glamorous Claire can hobnob with the upper class, which she does, but she gravitates to Addie because she’s “real.” No-nonsense Claire is “fearless, intense and ready to fight,” which she does when she joins the Auxiliary Territorial Services, the women’s branch of Britain’s Army.

At this juncture, we behold how the pieces of Addie’s character formed from her life experiences and life choices in Atlantic City, Washington, DC, and London resonate with the war direction of her story. For circumstances do propel Addie on a dangerous mission in France.

From here, Addie’s story circles back as the reader knew it would from the opening. There are subtle clues to the ending, which bind the novel’s themes. Up until the very end, the question you’ll be asking is: Can Addie – Can We – ever really go home again?

Lorraine

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Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper

Why you don’t want to have it all (Hollywood, present): I was going to start off by suggesting that if you’re in the mood for a clever, inside-Hollywood, beachy read, then Hilary Liftin’s fictional celebrity tell-all fits the bill. Until I read an auspicious, refreshing, apologetic interview with the founder of the online Gawker Media Group that includes Gawker, which describes itself as the “definitive gossip sheet for followers of entertainment.” It highlighted why the messaging behind Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is more than that.

Gawker’s Nick Denton essentially wrote my lead-in by promising to deliver stories that are “nicer and less tabloid in its sensibilities” – precisely what Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is. Similarly, when he said he’s now “much more sensitive to the children and families of those who get caught up in stories,” he pinpointed the catalyst that led to Lizzie’s memoir. When he cited Gawker as “an intelligent tabloid that covers juicy stories that show how the world works,” he identified the contents of Lizzie’s memoir – how Lizzie’s world changed almost overnight when she went from being a free, happily-successful, single TV star close to her parents and best friend to a tortuously controlled, married “IT” couple. And when he cautioned that “celebrities and the subjects of stories are people just like us,” he hit the emotional nerve of Lizzie’s plight and the novel.

Denton, then, could just as easily be commenting about Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper than lamenting a troubling, embarrassing, very private (alleged) story about a public persona. It caused candid reflections and re-calibration. Will Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper have the same positive effect? We can only hope so.

I’m not one of the million followers of Gawker, so I wasn’t even aware of the controversy that precipitated Denton’s thoughtful interview until I read the New York Times piece. My purpose in sharing his commentary is because it illuminates why this Hollywood novel is different than most others I’ve read.

For one thing, it is “nicer.” Written by a real-life Hollywood ghostwriter of bestselling celebrity memoirs (Miley Cyrus, Tori Spelling, Mackenzie Phillips, others), Liftin’s fiction demonstrates a high regard for the awesome responsibility a celebrity memoirist has. The goal shouldn’t be to sensationalize or scandalize. A more exemplary approach would adopt Lizzie’s, whose goal was to simply tell a “story about the choices we make every day, and how those choices make us who we are.” By talking to us from her heart, she can be “so goddamned corny.” She’s fine with that, and so am I, because Lizzie voices genuine emotions and the only values that ought to matter. All the money in the world that her super-rich, super-famous, super-powerful movie star husband amassed couldn’t buy the freedom to choose and do the most commonplace things in life. Without these, your soul suffers.

It’s also “nicer” because the author created a character who really was the proverbial “girl-next door” (from Chicago), who became “famous for my girl-next-door character, my girl-next-door upbringing, and my girl-next-door looks.” Almost magically, she was transformed from an “IP” to a “VIP” when she becomes the girlfriend, then wife and mother of the seemingly perfect, handsomest, biggest movie star in the world, Rob Mars. (“I was known; he was worshipped.) Sweet Lizzie is not the type to stoop low and dirty to explain what went wrong in their hugely publicized marriage. Which means the prose doesn’t shoot for the jugular or the vulgar. It would have been so acceptable to go that route. It’s Hollywood, after all. Yeah for Lizzie and Liftin for taking the high road!

Lizzie’s star-struck romance with Rob Mars (“I was the clichéd princess, swept off my feet”) is an up-close look at what celebrities mean when they say they want to protect their children. Motherhood changes us all. Lizzie’s memoir drives home how high and enmeshed the stakes can get. Why should a movie star who luxuriates in the spotlight professionally have to be subjected to the same spotlight in their private lives?

Why do we get so caught up in idolizing Hollywood movie stars? “I could say I never dreamed of it … but isn’t that what everyone dreams of?” confesses Lizzie. So, if you feel you’ve missed out on Hollywood fame, fortune, and lifestyle, thank your lucky stars Liftin shows us why we should think otherwise.

Lizzie Pepper wasn’t so lucky. She got all caught up in the lavish, romantic attention of Rob Mars, twenty years her senior. An “unbelievably distant star,” his name tells all: how Hollywood power brokers and his family revolved around him. Like living on “another planet.”

Lizzie ignored the early warnings. Since we’re given a heads-up in the book’s jacket and Introduction, we have the benefit of looking for clues she was too blindsided to see.

When things are too good to be true, well, they’re too good to be true. Often Lizzie concedes Rob’s “polish was so impenetrable,” but she kept falling into an emotional trap as he always pulled off the right words to make her feel understood. Red flags surfaced, though, like the time she stumbles on Rob’s secret office, which she dubs “Bluebeard’s Castle.” He won’t let her in, which nags at her. What is he hiding?

There’s plenty of other signs to warrant our suspicions: a mysteriously banished ex-wife; an elusive relationship with Rob’s sidekick, Geoff; and questions about the trustworthiness of those supposedly closest to Lizzie. Money and acute ambition can drive people to do terrible things.

Our greatest suspicions center on Rob’s fanatical attachment to One Cell Studio: an exclusive, tightly held, mind-body cult that preaches controlling emotions. Rumors abound. Lizzie’s no fool, but it does take her a long while to put the pieces together.

“I had the world at my fingertips. I had a beautiful family. I could buy a house and live anywhere on Earth. Dream come true? But it was all on the surface. I had no idea how to find or fix what lay beneath.”

Except what’s underneath is still that “girl-next-door.” Eventually, Lizzie follows her heart, not the rules she’s so dutifully played by her whole life.

The lines between fiction and reality can be fuzzy and risky. Lizzie’s fictional story has real-life consequences. While her life will never be the same, her voice echoes something else Denton wisely put: “People are happier when they live in truth.”

Lorraine

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The Mountain Story

Lost souls, lost on a mountaintop (fictional mountain wilderness setting inspired by Mount San Jacinto, overlooking Palm Springs in California’s desert Coachella Valley, present): The Mountain Story is an impressive mountain survival tale that stimulates our senses. The strength of the sensory prose is cumulative, visually making us aware of a place, its smells and sounds, its timelessness. By doing so, you’ll quickly step into the shoes of four lost souls lost on a mountaintop 8,000 feet up, without food, water, or basic orienteering tools. Their stories unravel in life-and-death moments and in the ebb of time stretched to its limits. Our heightened sensitivities stir us because we know, like the four, no one is searching for them. They didn’t leave much behind.

“What happened up there changed my life … Hearing the story is going to change yours,” you’re told at the outset. What you’re also told – inside the jacket and introductory three-page letter addressed to the son of the male narrator, Wolf, one of the imperiled four – is Wolf got lost on that mountaintop with three female strangers for five days; three survived and he was obviously one of them since he penned the letter years afterward. You’re also told Wolf came to that mountaintop to end his life. You might call these spoilers. But they don’t spoil a thing!

Be assured, then, this commentary will also not spoil the thrill of this tense ride. Which means here you will not find out why 18-year-old Wolf wanted to kill himself on his birthday, the same day as his best friend’s, Byrd. Nor will you learn how the three women are connected, or their reasons for coming to the mountaintop, since that’s not revealed until page 60+.

It’s the sensory prose I want to talk about. For it deepens the emotional impact of Canadian author Lori Lansens’ gripping fourth novel.

The mountain that inspired the story,
outside of Palm Springs
Photo by Conn, Kit [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

First, the locale. The author has fictionalized the name of the mountain wilderness area and tweaked geological details. But the tram the four ride up in, which “takes you from the Desert Station – the climate of Mexico – to the Mountain Station – the climate of Northern Canada – in less than twenty minutes. Palms to pines” is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. According to the website, this tram is a 2 ½ mile feat of engineering genius, climbing to Mount San Jacinto. There’s only two others like it in the world: the tramcar’s floor rotates. This one is the world’s longest. You decide, then, if you’d experience this dangling, rotating transport marvel as “exciting” as Web commentators wrote, or react more like Lansens’ jittery women, who set a dicey tone for this nightmare in the wilds.

Enclosed in this high-wire, jolting tram, Wolf sizes up the women, before he even knows their names. He picks up on distinguishing features. So that’s how I’ll introduce them, noting names matter: Red Poncho, Green Flip-Flops (hmm, clearly not prepared; neither was Wolf, the most experienced mountaineer among them, for he came here for a different purpose), and Yellow Ponytail. When the tramcar lets them out at Mountain Station, there’s still a climb to the peak. “The climb speaks to our character, but the view, I think, to our souls,” says Wolf.

The real tram overlooks the wealthy resort city of Palm Springs. It contrasts sharply with the fictional town of Santa Sophia where the sad mobile home community Wolf’s been living at for the past five years, Tin Town, is located. The window we see bears the stereotype of white trash, marked by their lack of character and dignity rather than money. Wolf’s lot are a disgusting, out-of-control family: a repugnant, uncaring, loser of a father Frankie (“one of those guys people loved until they hated”); and a low-life aunt interestingly named Krikit, her coarse boyfriend, and crew of unkempt children fathered by many nameless. (Their dialogue can’t possibly be enchanted.) Something happened to Wolf’s mother, lovingly named Glory, which led Frankie to leave Michigan for the desert, accelerating his disgrace.

Already, a stunning contrast between Tin Town and the exalted mountains Wolf is addicted to “beyond love.”  Already, we understand the pull of this place for Wolf. Here is where he searches for the answer to: “Could a guy learn on his own what it means to be a man?”  Yes, he can, over five ill-fated days.

Mountain Time is perceived through five long chapters, each representing one intensely long day lost on the mountain. This is not the time zone but that floating perception of time when you lose yourself in Nature; or, in the most harrowing of imaginable and unimaginable wilderness crises, when time agonizingly stands still.

When faced with the impossible – rapid-fire crucial moments or five fighting days-worth – strangers fast become intimates. It’s partly why the novel is not fatalistic, but uplifting. Wolf bonds with the women, understandably a “comfort as I’d never known,” shining a bright light on the profoundness of human connections when tested in extreme situations.

Since names matter, let’s discuss Wolf’s. He has a “keen sense of smell.” Like wolves (and dogs), with something like 200 million olfactory cells versus our 5 to 6 million. There’s a name for Wolf’s acute sense of smell: hyperosmia. Wolf calls these smells “Endorphins. Inhale enough and you’re a mountain junkie.” When he smells butterscotch in the Jeffrey pines we almost taste sweetness. But it’s the camphor of wet sterasote bushes and the “quiet blue fragrance [that] meant rain” that counts when struggling to stay live. And these women are counting on Wolf. Feeling needed is intoxicating: Wolf has found the will to live and a heavy “sense of duty” to save them all.

When Wolf breathes in “ancient odors that spoke volumes of loss” he speaks for the Cahuilla Indians who once inhabited these mountains. He’s one-sixteenth Quebec Cree, so he’s been interested in Native Americans. Their healing arts, physical and spiritual, are woven into the dialogue and serve a crucial role.

There’s place names like Angel’s Peak, Devil’s Canyon, Secret Lake. Awe-inspiring and awe-frightening, like the “magnificent batholith” landscape that energizes versus the “horrible rock-ship” that torments. Again, the stark contrasts of Nature.

There’s rare mountain phlox around Secret Lake, a “magical oasis” intentionally not shown on maps, another challenge. Wolf identifies ironwood and lodgepole, with qualities that could aid. There’s also danger that a “large, loose boulder that could break off at any moment – or cling for another thousand years. That’s how it is with the rocks.”  Rocks as “big as cars.”  Rocks likened to “skyscrapers of gold-veined quartz.”

This wilderness is a meteorological roller-coaster. Wild and unpredictable. “The wind blew hard and mean, invading the spaces between the trees and rocks and us and courage.” The “fickle wind” plays disheartening tricks on the mind. “Mountain acoustics,” Wolf explains, means “you think you hear things – waterfalls, airplanes, voices.” Rescue that’s not there. Hope comes from someplace else, deep within us.

Wildlife is teeming. Again dramatic differences: lovely “singing finches” and majestic sightings of golden eagles, but lookout for coyotes and rattlesnakes that can sneak up on you.

Survival on that mountaintop brought “clarity, charity, perspective.”  It lay bare, then transformed four lost souls. They showed us the heroes among us.

Lorraine

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The Book of Speculation

A family cursed? – A fantastical modern tale tied to generations of a family’s circus history (set in a fictional town on the Long Island Sound; backstories traced to 19th–20th century traveling circuses): The current issue of Poets & Writers magazine cites an MFA course devoted entirely to crafting first paragraphs. Herein, I submit The Book of Speculation for a case study.

Chapter 1 opens on June 20th (the calendar matters). The voice, our narrator, is Simon Watson, a twenty-nine-year-old librarian archivist soon to be a victim of budget cuts:

Perched on the bluff’s edge, the house is in danger. Last night’s storm tore land and churned water, littering the beach with bottles, seaweed, and horseshoe crab carapaces. The place where I’ve spent my entire life is unlikely to survive the fall season. The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.

Hungry for more? More keeps coming. This is not one of those novels with openers that hook us, then flattens. I loved the crisp prose – opening chapters, sentences, word-by-word. (Exception: Simon’s constantly swearing, tarot-card-addicted, rough sister. Named after the plane that dropped the atom bomb, Enola feels explosive.)

Three of Swords tarot card, Rider-Waite deck

I couldn’t put Erika Swyler’s debut novel down. A testament to how much I loved her taut, vivid prose because I shun away from mystical themes. Nor am I nostalgic for circuses or carnivals. Certainly not the freak shows. This is not your Greatest Show on Earth memories of slapstick clowns and fluffy cotton-candy, or Ferris wheels and skeeball carnival games. This is a darker underbelly of circus acts, where truth is an illusion. I’d never even heard of the term “cartomancy,” nor interested in tarot cards dating back centuries. The Waite deck, alluded to, might be the type passed down through the generations that keeps popping up, especially the ominous ones like the Three of Swords depicting a heart with three daggers piercing it. The symbolism of these cards plays out as the novel alternates between circuses past, Simon’s disquieting present and his near-future fears – which eventually converge.

The present revolves around the burden Simon has carried since eighteen. He’s been Enola’s surrogate father, after their mermaid circus performing mother, Paulina, a dark-haired beauty, drowned young, on July 24th. Their grief-stricken father essentially stopped living: stopped nurturing his children and completely ignored their circa 1700s historic house, so badly weathered by the waters today it’s literally falling apart. Then, he died of a heart attack. From heartache? Did he realize his wife’s family was troubled? Questions you’ll start wondering about as the novel unfolds.

It kicks off when Simon receives an antiquated book from a cheerful, elderly bookseller in Ohio with a circus-sounding name, Churchwarry. The rare book, adorned with eerie photographs illustrated by the author (an interesting addition) was part of a lot he speculated on at an auction. Simon’s grandmother’s name, Verona Bonn, was inscribed in the book, which is how it found its way to Simon.

There’s a hypnotic rhythm to the prose as the researcher obsessed Simon (who admits he’s better suited for reference work than people) obsessively researches the enigma of his grandmother’s attribution. He discovers she too was a circus mermaid who drowned young, on the same day his mother did.

Simon is like us: “I’m not a believer in curses. I like facts.” So he delves into circus history back to 1816 uncovering too many women in his family drowned young. All on the same fateful day. All circus mermaid acts. Seems his family has a superhuman ability to hold their breath underwater for incredibly long amounts of time. The skill (gift? curse?) lives on in Enola, and in Simon, the lone male. Paulina’s swimming-lesson voice haunts Simon. She schooled Simon and Enola to do the impossible.

As far-fetched as drowning mermaids over many generations in one family may sound, reference to the Flying Wallendas “dating back four hundred years, with a string of falls and accidents tragic enough to be called a curse” makes the family’s fate and Simon’s trepidation a similar fate will befall Enola seem plausible enough.

Enola, who Simon tells us is “not easy,” is easy to worry about. She’s chosen the same surreal circus path, but not as a mermaid. Prescient? She’s a tarot-card clairvoyant with a traveling carnival. Early on, she phones Simon, desperate sounding. She’s coming home for a long-overdue visit – abandonment a theme – accompanied by her tattooed boyfriend, Doyle. Another human freak act: Electricity Boy at the carnival. Doyle’s tenderness with Enola, and by extension, her brother, makes him likable actually.

Enola is aghast at the neglect of the house. Of course, Simon can’t afford the exorbitant costs to fix it, especially now that he’s jobless but he also can’t bear to let it go. He’s acknowledged he’s also “not easy,” but his emotional ties to his childhood home touch us. His neighbor, Frank McAvoy, father-like, can cover expenses. He’s fixated on this house, misses its occupants. His daughter, Alice, red-haired and freckled-faced, is a programmer at the same library as Simon. The two grew up together on this lovely and mysterious expanse on the Long Island Sound. Their friendship gets tangled up as Simon digs deeper into the precious book curiously in his possession.

“Portable Magic and Miracles” is a circus log meticulously maintained by a flamboyant, richly imaginative, profiteering circus-master with a flair for showmanship and a commanding voice. It details the comings and goings in northern and southern cities in America of his otherworldly circus menagerie.

The Fool tarot card,
Rider-Waite deck

“Never had there been such a man as Hermelius Peabody and he was fond of saying so,” boasts the journal’s keeper. Of all the weird acts he concocted, controlled, and chronicled most alive are the witchlike fortune-teller Madame Ryzhkova because her tarot cards offer a mute savage boy, Amos, a miraculous way to communicate. Peabody found him; turned him into the caged Wild Boy act. “We’ve all got to be somebody,” Peabody proclaims. He’s pecuniary but he has a heart, caring for Amos outside of the show like a son. Thankfully, the tarot-card diviner has a better idea. She mentors the mute boy as her trusted apprentice, teaching the double meaning of the cards (“Fool is fool because of blind happiness. He does not see misfortune.”) She cautions: “the seer is a blade. Too much softness dulls the mind. Silks and curtains are for guests.”

Was the fictional Peabody inspired by the real British circus manager Philip Astley? His name is casually dropped. There’s similarities: both had a large frame, booming voices, exceptional business acumen, and Astley was thought to be the originator of freaky acts. (Not all in Peabody’s circus is dark. There’s Benno, the strongman, “taught to watch for gentle souls”; and a miniature horse, Sugar Snip, who stands for kindness.)

Peabody’s writings drive home that no matter how weird or wacky or folkloric, circus performers have feelings too. The mute boy longs for a mermaid named Evangeline who taught him that “a smile did not always mean happiness, crying might mean sadness or joy, and that women could be much comforted by an embrace.” Amos also cares for the Russian psychic who also taught him how to live. The two women don’t mix well. “All folktales have a price.”

Simon figures out there’s a price to his fact-finding too. As the clock ticks, there’s revelations and a tense ending. Much to ponder but one thing you won’t need to speculate on: “Books have a way of causing ripples.”

Lorraine

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The Truth According to Us 2

Ties that bind – A family’s fierce loyalty and the history of a place (West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, 1938): The truth about The Truth According to Us is that it’s a big novel with a big heart. More truthfully, it beats with many hearts:

Two generations of the Romeyn family living under the same roof, a “white-brick and gracious” house with one of those friendly, inviting porches of bygone days. They’re a charming, quirky, irresistible fictional clan. Joined one sultry West Virginia summer in 1938 by a beautiful, sophisticated “princess,” Layla Beck, who boards with them, elegantly stirring their hearts and ours.

The warmth and sparkle of this literary gem invite you right in. Come casual and cool. Marvel at the delightful, versatile prose told in multiple voices. Smile at the family’s eccentricity. Transport yourself to a culture deeply rooted to the history of the Appalachian mountain region in the Eastern Panhandle of the State during the Depression era. Keep your antennae up too, for the complex family dynamics and loyalties that ensue.

While we’re talking truths, let me add mine. This is the same Annie Barrows who co-authored the widely bestselling The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, delivered entirely in the epistolary format. You’ll find those same artful letters here (Layla’s voice). But it’s the other voices, singular and nimble, delivered in chatty, sassy dialogue; in narrative reports (Layla’s again); and through one character’s nagging, painfully loyal conscience that richly develop the characters. (“Character fascinates me – the power of it,” penned Layla.) So, while I liked the Guernsey novel, the truth is I loved this one and bet you will too.

First, the invented locale because the fictional setting, carefully tied to real history, is central: Macedonia, “tucked up in a crook between the Potomac and the Shenandoah,” is a small town steeped in Civil War history where everyone knows (or thinks they know) everyone’s business. Layla stereotyped it as boring, populated by “bumpkins.” Instead, the “tattered, dead-quiet town square” she found was “seething with a white hot passion.” Remember summers here are so hot and humid even “the trees are sweating.”

Time to introduce the unconventional Romeyn bunch. There’s two children, sisters: 12-year-old bookish Willa, our main narrator, and her cuter nine-year-old sister Bird. Willa’s authentic childhood voice is surely due to the writing adventures of the author’s award-winning Ivy and Bean children’s series. (Ivy’s love of reading endures in Willa.) Willa’s parents are divorced, uncommon in the ’30s (about 18% vs. today’s 50%). Felix is their father, Charles Boyer movie-star handsome and elusive. His profession is secretive (something related to chemicals), provoking much curiosity, particularly for Willa, who adores him but can’t bring herself to tell him so. He’s forever mysteriously disappearing, so when the novel opens she’s decided to spy on him to figure things out, but of course that complicates things. Grownups confound her. But the reader suspects the truth is something darker is lurking beneath the delectable antics and gossipy happenings.

Willa tugs at our heart. She longs for her father, wishes “people fussed over” her, sees herself as “puny” and a “pitiful specimen,” rather than the bright, inquisitive, tender child that she is. You’ll want to hug her, but know that she’s selflessly cared for by her surrogate mother, Jottie. At 38, Willa’s attractive yet unmarried aunt is, in these times, considered a spinster. She runs this grand home, also atypical given how hard hit West Virginia was in the Depression. Her “enormous dark eyes” portend her heartaches and loyalties, which you’ll appreciate in her own words and moral code for she’s our second narrator. During the week, this colorful crew includes Jottie’s two sisters, Willa’s aunts. Mae and Minerva are twins. They’re so connected they can’t bear to live without each other even though they’re both married, so they don’t, except on weekends when they return to their husbands and farms. Rounding out this lively tribe is their brother Emmett, Willa’s gentlemanly uncle, an unassuming history teacher who hides behind older brother Felix’s charismatic shadow.

The novel starts off with Willa informing us that Macedonia is celebrating its 150-year history, or “sesquicentennial, a word I thought had to do with fruit for the longest time.” (Fruit growing, especially apples, is prevalent here.) The festivities culminate in September with the unveiling of an historic event, part of FDR’s Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal Works Progress Administration employment relief program.

Federal Writers’ Project
via Library of Congress

The head of the Project is Layla’s uncle, Ben. She’s not your average candidate. The “black sheep” in her distinguished Washington, DC family, she defied her Senator father’s elitist marital choice, so she was sent away as a favor to write West Virginia’s first State Guide, one of The American Guide Series produced in the ’30s and early ’40s. Macedonia may be only 85 miles from our capital city, but it’s worlds away from the privileged life this 24-year-old stylish lady was accustomed to. With “one-quarter of the employable citizens of this country” out of work, she’s reprimanded about gratitude, but all Layla envisions is a dreadful existence over the summer months of her forced upon assignment.

How could she be miserable, though, with such a memorable family like the Romeyns? The truth is around them “she seemed to glow.” Her letters back home reveal her changing sentiments, as she interviews a long list of the town’s “most illustrious” and tours scenic and historic sites, becoming fervent “to make my little book the best history of Macedonia that ever existed.” Her WPA accounts surprise everyone. Turns out she’s a gifted writer. Of course, the truth is the real gifted writer is Annie Barrows.

Macedonia’s biggest employer is the American Everlasting Hosiery Company, a fitting choice for this part of West Virginia with a history of textile manufacturing. (This is not coal country Layla reminds us, it’s “apple, cow and sock country.”) In its heyday, the mill employed 950 people, meaning “half the town worked in that mill and the other half wished it did.” Hence, the mill fills the novel’s economic heart.

Willa’s deceased grandfather, St. Clair – a great name for he was a “Santa Claus” whose benevolence remains a formidable spirit – was its former President. Still, worker’s rights are a brewing issue, reflecting the rise of the 1930s labor union movement.

Which is to say that the scope of the novel isn’t all charm and nostalgia for milkshakes, ice cream sodas, penny candy, “sweating-cold” Coca Coca bottles, paper dolls, Mom-and-Pop department stores selling “snoods” and “jabots,” although there’s plenty of fun reminiscing. But there’s also penny pinching even among the most influential, entrenched attitudes, and a catastrophic fire in 1920 that burned down the mill, causing the loss of someone dear to this family.

An astute child plays detective searching for “the right ending.” A tragedy that happened 18 years ago still tears apart hearts. When those hearts are pulled together, the ending is the “giant blanket” Willa yearns for to comfort them all. Comforting us too.

Lorraine

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Backlands

Romantic folk-telling – A folk hero couple in Brazil’s outback (Northeast Brazil, 1922 -1938): If Victoria Shorr hadn’t lived in Brazil for ten years, I doubt she’d have written, or we’d be treated to, this unusual historical novel about nomadic banditry “full of beauty and danger,” at a time and place completely unfamiliar to most of us.

In fluid, mystical storytelling, Backlands lets us imagine what it might have been like for two legendary Brazilian outlaws – Lampião and Maria Bonita – to have roamed a remote, desert-like landscape “cut loose, as if by magic, from the worries of the rest of the world.” The surprise is how much we have in common with the humanity of the couple’s motives and passions – powerful themes of justice, fairness, freedom, happiness.

As much as Shorr’s debut novel is about two hero bandits whose hearts were stirred by music and dancing, it’s also about a sweeping terrain called the Sertão, where they hid out “under the stars” for so many years. The reader, too, is swept along by a landscape that makes you feel:

“overcome by the beauty, the light, coming across the vastness, a color of light you’ve never quite seen before … an endless stretch of wilderness, ‘caatinga’ they call it, dotted with thornbrush and all kinds of cactus, though it isn’t quite a desert. There are trees, thick, beautiful trees, well-shaped and spaced, as if planted in an English park. ‘A vast garden with no owner,’ the great Euclides called it a hundred years ago, and it’s still true. You listen, and hear nothing, and then goat bells in the distance.”

The gentle prose isn’t meant to fit the decades of violence that spread throughout an area the size of Texas in the 1920s and 30s, by a gang of bandits led for fourteen years by Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as Lampião, before joined for another eight years by his “Beautiful Maria.” Instead, it evokes their hearts, in soft, melodious prose that could easily be read aloud, like legends passed down through the ages orally.

Because the outlaws, like their culture, were deeply religious, spiritual, superstitious – praying to saints to protect them, bring rains on their parched goat farms, keep them alive – there’s an otherworldly aura to the novel. Even its copper-sepia cover is dreamlike.

The Sertão, “bigger than Brazil,” is backcountry so removed from the rest of Brazil, “almost another country,” I’d guess most Brazilian’s haven’t even ventured there. But legends live on.

Still, if asked to name outlaws who’ve lived on in folklore, films, and books, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa would come to mind. Surely not Lampião and Maria Bonita, unless you studied or fancied folklore history. The Portuguese, who came to Brazil in the 1500s, have a word for these do-gooder outlaws: cangaço. And, there’s a journal devoted to outlaw heroes, along with a term to describe them: “social bandits.” So, this is a tale, comprised of many tales, of polite banditry (“murder and courtesy”) about a “bandit with a good heart” and the younger woman he loved.

The Sertão is a strange mix of American southwestern cowboy country, Australian outback, and something more fantastic given the waters of the Rio Sao Francisco that slice through it and the “very exotic bush with a beautiful shape and large base called an ‘Umbo” tree that can thrive without the water, their fruit and shade could save you in the desert.”

On its lands live the rich and the powerful, but mostly the poor, the very poor, the powerless. The rich were corrupt politicians and wealthy landowners, especially those who lived on the coast. The poor were those who managed “day by day,” simple lives raising goats, some cattle, and in the best of times, some cotton. They were also the ones whose boundaries were trampled on, possessions stolen, and killed when the droughts and famine came, plentiful in this area near the equator.

That’s what happened to Lampião’s family, including the murder of his father. He’d been a “law-abiding cowboy” who tried to avenge and honor his family’s injustice in court. But when he failed, he chose to go outside the law, to vindicate all his people, stealing from the rich to help the poor. Regardless of who chased and betrayed him – police, soldiers, mercenaries – he always outsmarted them. Twenty years without getting caught is a long time. (There’s “no such thing as old age for bandits.”) Except during the month of July, when Lampião believed his fate would be sealed. The reader senses the fatalism. Knows what matters is the romanticism of the journey we’re on.

The historical backdrop is a 200-year history leading up to the time when a new President, Getúlio Vargas, came to power in 1930. He sought to centralize and improve his country, which meant ridding those who terrorized it. Not easy when the “King of the Bandits” was venerated as a “thunder god” – untouchable, beloved, protected by the people.

Lampião and Maria both had charisma and style. Lampião was the bravest one, a natural leader, expertly skilled with an exceptional tracking eye (he’d lost one, injured by cactus) for the land he loved:

“Loved the very distances, the great broad vistas with nothing to break them, loved the fact that it couldn’t be tamed, couldn’t be trusted, and loved even what it took from them to survive.”

Moving back and forth in time within chapters, the novel is told in stories: of halcyon days and of the bandits’ escapes from the law, militias, anyone seeking glory to capture the “most wanted man in Brazil.”

Escape was also Maria’s reason for becoming a bandit. She escaped an arranged, loveless marriage at age 16 (how else could a poor family care for 11 children?) to an old shoemaker, six lonely, miserable years until the day she heard Lampião singing. She instantly knew he was her destiny, despite the risks. He famously sang about teaching love (in exchange for lacemaking, which the women did.) When they danced together, “she felt she was dancing for her mother, too, and her grandmother, her aunts and cousins, especially the ones who died young. Died of old age at thirty – the poor.”

All the characters are based on real historical ones, such as members of Lampião’s gang, like his brothers, Levino and Ezequiel, and, of course, his enemies. One was a lieutenant on the Piranhas (one of the region’s seven states) police force named Bezerra. The author has structured her novel to give voice to these two perspectives: a voice that speaks for the bandits governed by loyalty and love for their leader, a code of rules, and a “never-ending fear” of being caught. Often that voice is Maria’s. The other voice speaks for the police, forever trying to catch the outlaws. Nicely sprinkled throughout are newspaper accounts of so many who “seemed to have fallen in love with Lampião.” Why not? When he was happy, “it was like a warm soft blanket over them all.”

Lampião was “so interwoven with the fabric of life in the Sertão that to destroy him you’d have to destroy that fabric.” Which brings us back to where we began: An unusual novel about unusual banditry, fighting for a way of life totally unfamiliar to us. And gone. Until now.

Lorraine

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A Lady of Good Family

The shaping of a world-class American garden artist – Beatrix Jones Farrand (1895 -1920; told from Lenox, Massachusetts in backstories to Old World European and British gardens): Are you thinking, who is Beatrix Jones Farrand? If you’ve ever admired the elegant gardens at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, or the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine, or Bellefield on FDR’s Presidential Museum and Library site in Hyde Park, New York, or Yale’s Memorial Quadrangle gardens – some 200 public and private gardens – then you’ve delighted in the aesthetic legacy of Beatrix Jones Farrand. You just weren’t aware that these artistically landscaped gardens were designed by a pioneering woman, considered one of the most influential American landscape architects of the 20th-century. Thanks to the author’s gardening passion (echoed by countless others, see here and here), you’ll find A Lady of Good Family unfolds and blooms in its own delight.

The first pleasing seeds are planted when you learn that two of the lady’s Gilded Age connections were those wonderful chroniclers of the clash between the Old World and the New: Edith Wharton, Beatrix’s aunt (Wharton likened her writing to a “secret garden”) and Henry James, Beatrix’s friend. So too does Jeanne Mackin’s newest historical novel transport us back to the attitudes and customs of the gilded era at home and abroad, bumping Beatrix’s New World aspirations devoted to designing magnificent gardens that fit naturally into landscapes – Beatrix’s real history – up against an imagined Old World romantic love – the novel’s fictional “heart history.”

Your transporter – our narrator – is Daisy Winters, whose delighting, reminiscing prose flows like “daisies danced in the breeze. My namesake flower.” She’s a fictionalized confidante of both Beatrix and her kindly mother, Minnie. We trust Daisy’s storytelling about Beatrix’s heart because all three were close-enough in age to be believable good friends (and we’re privy to Beatrix’s warm, heart-to-heart letters to Daisy). When the novel opens, Beatrix is 23, Daisy 33, Minnie 47.

Daisy’s vehicle for confiding Beatrix’s life is told mostly as porch conversations she’s having with three strangers she’s met at an inn in the Berkshires, where she’s staying for a week. It’s nicely situated near Edith Wharton’s white mansion summer home, The Mount (some gardens were designed by Beatrix.) Sometimes Daisy interrupts her recollections with fond and melancholy glimpses into her own life and heart. While she greatly admires Beatrix, there’s regrets and jealousy too. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Daisy’s character adds the perfect intellectual twist to the author’s creative intermingling of famous historical figures and details with famous literary ones.

Beatrix, you’ve gathered, came from a privileged, well-connected East Coast family. But like her understated landscape style, she didn’t flaunt herself (she “wore her wealth more lightly than most”). Rather, she quietly dazzled with her “Titian-colored hair” and “pale grey eyes full of sweetness” and “coloratura” singing voice. An only child adored by her mother, whose sincere charity-mindedness instilled a lifelong commitment to doing good works. (Daisy is also socially-minded, as she’s just returned from Tennessee, the last State to grant voting rights to women.) Beatrix, who found her life’s calling early on in spite of prevailing societal beliefs that a woman’s place belongs in the home, translated her mother’s ideals “to give back to the world” through the “pleasure and beauty” of designing beatific, spirited gardens:

“It isn’t enough to be beautiful … A garden must meet the needs of the soul as well as the senses. You feel at home and somehow enlarged, more yourself, in a good garden. Most of all the garden must suit the land … It was a philosophy of life as well as gardening: pleasure combined with work, beauty with practicality. The garden would both calm and awaken senses and memory.”

Beatrix felt deeply that “there is no more sensual activity than gardening,” so she couldn’t envision herself as the marrying type. Her determination and independent spirit were also fueled by a lack of close-up, positive role-models for marriage: Her father, Frederic, Wharton’s brother, was a floundering gambler; Edith’s marriage to Teddy was unhappy (eventually they divorced); Daisy, our outgoing and intimately chatty narrator, a mother of six who does not take well to a solitary life, is unrealistically optimistic about her also gambling husband; and Henry James, who never married, his sexuality affecting his novels, cautioned Beatrix (and Daisy) about making impulsive romantic decisions. Beatrix also keenly understood “reputation [is] a woman’s most important possession.” This is the mindset of the lovely young lady we’re introduced to when she embarks with her mother on a transformative journey studying and sketching some of the grandest gardens in Italy, France, Germany, and England (at the encouragement of Beatrix’s horticulture professor, Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum).

Where else should the novel’s dreamed-up, dreamy romance be sown than a very proper, formal Old World garden? In this case, the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome, which is where Beatrix encounters a mannerly, shy Italian, Amerigo Marrismo, who is as enchanted by Beatrix’s “newness” as she is with his look “as honest as the sun.” But his is an Old World “timelessness” and Beatrix has set her sights on the New, thus setting up Beatrix’s inner turmoil. The novel’s tension persists as the two keep meeting in other European cities amid Beatrix’s horticultural travels, where Amerigo is chasing after a “little family business.”

Offering a playful contrast to the refinement of the old-moneyed, upper-class society of the Jones and the Whartons is another fabricated character, Mrs. Haskett. She’s the obnoxious one, representing the “nouveau riche,” an American mother desperate to find suitable husbands for her three daughters. She’s also key to Amerigo’s popping up everywhere Beatrix is, making it impossible to forget him.

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden
New York Botanical Garden
Designed by Beatrix Farrand
PHOTO: Jim.henderson (Own work) [CC0]
via Wikimedia Commons

Accompanying the charm and allure of the couple’s old-fashioned infatuation is the author’s depiction of gardening as metaphors for life. Chapters are introduced by three prologues, each summoning messages about the arc of the novel and, more poignantly, about life. It’s these tidbits of wisdom attached to flowers, plants, and gardening that shine throughout. A few examples:

  • Creeping speedwell evokes a life that is “full of uncertainty and unexpected happenings.”
  • An old apothecary rose signifies life is “not to be taken for granted.”
  • Daisy’s storytelling is not “embellished,” the same way “gardeners know better than to force excessive color or outrageous shapes into a flower bed.”
  • For trustworthiness and the “simple goodness of life” the gardener is advised to nurture the while alba rose, known for its “constancy.”
  • “Life was, after all, an experiment. What is the planting of a single desiccated seed if not an experiment in hope?”
  • “Life and landscapes require flexibility and a touch of serendipity.”
  • “A single plant does not constitute a garden, any more than a single decision constitutes a lifetime.”
  • “Walk a garden path and you walk a kind of eternity.”

Just as Beatrix left us lasting, pleasurable gardens, the novel leaves us lasting pleasures. You can’t wait to read or re-read Edith Wharton and Henry James, touch the earth, and contemplate what type of garden exemplifies the landscapes of your life.

Lorraine

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

The Price of Artistic Genius – A Psychological Novel (Iowa, New York; two contemporary decades in the maturation of an avant-garde filmmaker): Does an artist – in this case an independent filmmaker – have a “responsibility to make the best movies possible” even at the expense of others? How far should an obsession with making great art go?

These are some thought-provoking questions The Life and Death of Sophie Stark raises again and again, forebodingly, until you find yourself feeling like one of the characters expresses (and all experience): Sophie gets “under my skin.” As she’s meant to. The more black-hearted, the more we try to figure her out, creating a riveting psychological drama. Anna North has conceived of an extremely provocative, intense, dysfunctional protagonist, ripe for both a case study in an abnormal psychology class and a filmmaking discussion on personal ethics and professional integrity.

North’s debut novel is terrifically structured. Told mostly through the voices of those who knew, loved, and were badly hurt by Sophie – lonely voices of their titular chapters – you’ll find yourself, like them, trying very hard to understand Sophie but coming away short. She’s too full of paradoxes, so avoid labeling her. To her credit, North does not, for she intends for us to mull over Sophie through these exploited voices.

What you can count on is Sophie confounding you. She can’t be pigeon holed as flat-out depressed even though her emotional presence is woefully flat, cold, bare, seemingly heartless, as she doesn’t lack interest in everything: Sophie cares about photography and cinematography.

But she’s a loner even in the midst of relationships she’s involved with: younger brother (Robbie); lesbian lover and actress (Allison); musician husband (Jacob); movie producer (George). They are the voices that fill most of the narrative.

Intermingled with these heartsick voices are the astute comments of an unconventional film critic, Ben Martin. He’s not anywhere as far out as Sophie, but he burns with idolism following Sophie’s filmmaking career – her rise from high school to college in Iowa, to a fellowship in New York City, a brief episode in Hollywood and then back to the city. Of all the voices, he’s my standout, for these reasons:

  • The clever design of his journalistic career, almost paralleling Sophie’s growth. We see his seasoning through the sophistication of the media in which his critiques appear: from high school paper to local newspaper to an online site to a magazine to mainstream news.
  • He’s the wise validator of our interpretations of Sophie. Her influence on him as a filmmaker notwithstanding (Sophie “made me want to watch movies for a living”), he too can’t “fully understood her as a director or as a human being.”
  • Prose-wise his voice is the most distinct, lyrical, insightful, and my preference – without vulgarity.
  • As a “former unusual kid myself,” Ben can put himself inside Sophie’s head better than the others. He’s not the only character who recognizes her “genius,” but when he pronounces her artistic exceptionality we accept it since studying films is his profession. His analysis of the impact of genius on others offers an interesting perspective for considering why all the characters let Sophie swallow them:

“It’s one of the perks of genius that you can be difficult or even impossible and not only escape censure but enjoy praise and the careful ministrations of others. This is a source of especial jealousy for those of us who are merely difficult without the benefit of genius.”

While the other voices – narrators – may sound similar, collectively they add to our deepening appreciation of Sophie’s unique talent, and to the damage she wreaked on the fragile lives of those who cared about her and respected her as an artist. They may seem to be eerily drawn to Sophie for their respective reasons, but you’ll find a commonality of heartrending themes: extreme loneliness, hunger for attention, longing to feel or become special. Sophie flatters them by noticing them, listening to them, filming them, but was hers just an agenda all along? Did she use trusting people like props, doing whatever it took to startle and capture the “sad fumbling of human love”?

Which means this is a sad novel. The characters are sad, their stories are sad, and Sophie is the saddest of all since the only way she really functions in the world is behind the lens of a camera. We hear about her fascination with picture-taking in elementary and high school. Her filmmaking career takes off in college where she focuses on how people move. Her first foray was a short documentary, Daniel, a borderline stalking endeavor of a popular basketball player with a jealousy-crazed girlfriend. Other films follow, her talent developing, but one thing that doesn’t change is her intensity. She’s so fiery everyone remarks her skin was “hot.”

It’s tempting to tell you about each of these characters, their entanglements with Sophie and how sorely she wronged them. But I’d rather highlight some of Sophie’s paradoxes so you see the emotional range of the author’s storytelling.

THE PARADOXES OF SOPHIE STARK (she’s even taken her name from someone else, a photographer):

  • Physically small (compared to a 12-year-old boy at 23), but her artistic power is perceived as big.
  • Confident and bossy in her moviemaking, but hers is a “scary joy,” seeming to stem from an enormous fear of failure.
  • “Conveys deep emotion by means not generally considered emotional.”
  • Acts like she doesn’t care what people think of her/ haunted by what people think of her films.
  • Plain, casual speech, yet she’s complex, almost beyond understanding.
  • “For someone who didn’t understand people, she was good at getting right to what would hurt me.”
  • Unable to discuss her feelings. Her movies are the only way she shows her feelings.
  • Appears oblivious to others/“hyperaware” of others.
  • Films display mastery/films are flawed.
  • People are jealous of her/people feel sorry for her.
  • Makes movies about people/her movies take her further and further away from people.
  • Moviegoers aren’t sure if her movies are “a good dream” or a “nightmare.” Similar to readers wondering if Sophie’s story will turn out good or bad.

The effect of Sophie’s special brand of visual imagery is “getting down to the ‘soft core’ of people.” In remarking that her “eyes never blink,” Ben wonders if “maybe she’s able to see a wider angle that most people can,” as he writes reverently about her mastering:

“a particular wide shot, with the camera placed slightly above the actors and giving a nearly 180-degree panorama … less interested in reproducing life than in transcending it, showing us what it would look like if we were able to step back beyond the bounds of what’s humanly possible.”

Then there’s the aging movie producer, George, desperate for a blockbuster win, hoping Sophie is the answer to his dreams. Like Ben, he makes the same observation about her: “like an alien had come down and filmed humans and shown us what we were like so much more honestly than any other human could.”

George even goes so far as to counsel Sophie that it doesn’t matter if her process of filmmaking burns others, for those feelings don’t matter as much or won’t last. What endures are her movies. That’s what she’ll be remembered for.

Yet given the emotional damage she leaves behind, also long-lasting, let’s not be so quick to tout the ends really do justify the means. That’s too easy, and Sophie Stark isn’t easy at all.

Lorraine

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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 (www.jedediahsmithsociety.org). 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.

Lorraine

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