The Home Place

Magnificence and Malfeasance: A magnificent place where “evil exists” (Montana, present-day): When was the last time a novel brought you to tears?  So much emotion in Carrie La Seur’s prose – enchanted, poignant, angry.  The soul of northern plains Montana looms large, as important as the emotionally-felt characters.  Understandable, for this over 10 years in the making debut is deeply rooted to the author’s Montana stretching seven generations to the 1860s.  The “home place” preserves a “common heritage.”

Drawn to novels with a powerful sense of place, I’d no idea this one would also be a page-turning mystery.  It’s also a heart-tugging romantic story of first-loves.  Under its big skies, there’s ample room to tackle big issues: duty, ethics, racial and sexual prejudices, environmental protection (mineral rights).  There’s also a rancher/cowboy life “where you work your tail off for twelve months a year and live or die by three hours at the livestock auction in February.”  Here “the men have always been strong but the women are made of steel.”  In short, this novel ought to have wide appeal, to both men and women.

The opening line – “the cold on a January night in Billings, Montana, is personal and spiritual” – grabs you as I’d hoped prose crafted by an environmental lawyer/author’s might.  The unforgiving winter weather, its own character, plays a prominent role.  The  central character, Alma, 30, named after the author’s great-grandmother, lost her parents at 17 on icy roads, probably on a “high country dark” night when the brutal winds whipped over the:

“Beartooth range to the west  … shivering down the Yellowstone, the mighty Elk River – howling hurting … The leafless trees bow over it, but the pines, the native ladies, merely part their heavy skirts and let the wind come through, lifting the featherweight of snow from their boughs, dispersing it in breathtaking little blizzards that sweep down the street, one after another, like guerillas advancing, attacking, and taking cover.”

Despite Alma Terrebone’s Montana ancestry going back generations like the author’s, her “deep-frontier instinct” and “infallible country girl sense of direction,” she ran away from this land of “inexpressible sweetness,” a place she feels like “texture.”  Gone 15 years, she still “sees her soul as a snow globe balanced on a windowsill: something beautiful within, but sizzling with potential energy, so close to falling, shattering.”  During those years, Alma channeled that energy compulsively and productively at Bryn Mawr and Yale, where she learned “how to be intimidating when something is important.”  Nearing partner at a corporate law firm in Seattle, she’s done well for herself, a pro at repressing her feelings.

The problem with that escape is she left behind her younger, vulnerable, troubled, sister, Vicky, and brother, Pete.  Now those ferocious winds have found Alma, instantly changing her controlled life, upon receiving a nightmare phone call from a soft-spoken detective, Ray Curtis, of the Billings police department.  He’s Crow – yielding a racial theme since his is a language “barely acknowledged” – so he respectfully informs her that Vicky has been found dead on those icy streets.  Vicky, 25 year old mother of 11 year old Brittany, whose father, Dennis, is one of a number of low-life men she got mixed up with.  This family tragedy Alma must run to, her niece needs her.  All that she has accomplished to survive and fix her destiny is at risk of unraveling, threaded with tremendous guilt as Alma journeys to piece together her sister’s life.

Not a pretty picture.  Raised by an aunt and uncle, Walt and Helen, Walt a brute who “took everything to heart” since returning from Vietnam with a Silver Star and Purple Heart; Helen a passive person, weakened by multiple sclerosis, preventing her from bearing children.  You might think Vicky was welcomed into their home, but she spelled trouble.  A life on the edge – drugs, borrowing money from everyone, dangerous relationships.  The autopsy revealed tattoos of angels flying, sending Alma’s mind back to little Vicky wanting to be an angel.  The imagery of wings evokes the freedom the landscape inspires, but not for Vicki.  She may have “lived under a big sky full of a million stars, none of them lucky for her.”

Did Vicki fall victim to her own circumstances, die from accidental causes on those treacherous streets?  Or, was something more sinister lurking under those magnificent skies?  These questions Alma doggedly pursues, while grieving and tending to her bereft niece and dealing with a make-or-break investment deal she left behind at the office, along with her boyfriend of two years, Jean-Marc Lacasse.  As if not enough to balance, she runs into Chance, former rodeo cowboy turned electrical engineer whose come home to the family ranch, her first love.  You may be anonymous in Seattle, but not in Billings.

Chance, what a great name – are their second chances? – will charm you.  He “has a gift for falling for women who can’t accept what I have to offer.”  Jayne, his dear mother who loves Alma like her own despite knowing she “broke her son’s heart,” still finds a well of human kindness to welcome her and Brittany back to their ranch.   Jayne symbolizes the “quiet strength” of mothers, like the Cheyenne women, Alma muses.

Alma’s mind races back and forth in time as she races around trying to figure out what happened to Vicky.  Two people she turns to are Pete, also ex-military, who owns a coffee shop, The Itching Post.  Her brother has been Vicky’s rescuer, honorable, protective.  The other is grandma Maddie, whose “voice speaks of place as much as the place itself, not the word but the land made flesh.”  For 50 years, Maddie lived at the “home place,’’ but now she lives alone in an Airstream, frailer but still another woman of inner strength.  Grandpa, Al, has passed on.  Raised on a Crow reservation, he with an “exceptional sense of sacred,” is missed.

These comforting characters strike a contrast to a host of unseemly ones who become suspects in a possible homicide.  They include: a crew of undesirable men Vicky was involved with; and Rick Burlington of Harmony Coal, who has been threatening landowners, tribespeople, and the “home place” to get access to mineral rights.

Alma’s in-the-moment-searching prose is filled with anger and sadness, but her musings are uplifting prose, reminiscences of an idyllic, Western childhood: riding horses (“across the vast grazing lands, along cool creek bottoms, and onto buttes that lifted them like demigods above the magnificence of a high plains universe”); fly fishing (“casting into dark, glowing pools”); “swimming the deep holes, jumping off bridges and high rocks, floating the river on inner tubes.”  The nostalgic prose sparkles like her memories of “playing with sparklers on summer nights.”

Nothing, though, comes close to Alma’s remembrances of Chance, who still makes her feel “legless.”  When Chances divides Montanans into “the ones who never leave, and the ones who leave for good, and the ones who choose to come back,” what he – and Alma – and we want to know is where does Alma fit in?

As there’s “no room for falseness in the moonlight” – a beautiful sentiment that matches the illumination of the truth of Vicki’s death – the reader hopes Alma cannot “unlearn” her true feelings for Chance, which she longs to do.  How strong is a first-love?  Can it endure like “the home place”?


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Sisterhood and Individualism:  Love and other Ambitions (Australia, 1925 – 1933):  Bittersweet is a perfect title for the romantic entanglements of four sisters – two sets of beautiful, devoted, non-identical twins – at the heart of this sweeping historical novel set when a young Commonwealth of Australia gained its independence from Great Britain, in the years leading up to and during the Great Depression.  It takes place in a “kinder and richer rural area than most of Australia,” an imaginary town of 50,000 in the state of New South Wales: Corunda.  The gem-like name also perfect.  Derived from the mineral that turns out rubies unearthed here, the novel itself a gem.

With at least one man entangled with each sister, how they handle these relationships speaks to their traits, needs for purposefulness, and medical ambitions.  For as much as this is Colleen McCullough’s “first romantic saga since The Thorn Birds” (published in 1977 to a tune of 30 million copies sold), it’s also a saga about a higher calling – a “new style” of nursing – a three-year, registered nursing program all four sisters enter in 1926, when the story takes off.  New governments “as green as grass” matter greatly too.  Everyone seems caught off guard by the approaching financial calamities except for a politically ambitious male character entangled in one of these relationships.  Hence, this is an ambitious novel about ambitions.

Another author might not have pulled all this off quite so pleasurably, so seamlessly, even blending points-of-view within chapters, letting you get closer inside a character’s head.  For this is Australia, McCullough’s native homeland, and she’s authored some 20 other novels.  She’s also a neuroscientist who established a new department in a Sydney hospital, not unlike the experience that plays out at Corunda Base Hospital, where the sisters are circulating among the wards, renewed by that same clever fellow with grandiose political aspirations.

First, let’s meet these beguiling sisters, whose development is as strong and distinctive as their personalities: EDDA and GRACE, twenty months older than TUFTS and KITTY, roughly 20 and 19 when they head off to become “new style nurses.”  Their father is the Reverend Thomas Latimer, “the sweetest and kindest man in the world.”  Edda and Grace’s mother has passed away.  Enter the “pushy, shallow, and social climbing” stepmother Maude Treadby Scobie, once the church’s housekeeper.  Her only motherly cares are for Kitty, the most arresting, which has lasting repercussions.  The sisters are united in their protection of Kitty and dread of Maude, “a sickly sweet apology for a mother.”

More about the twins, whom a cold-hearted matron as “starchy” as her nursing uniform, Gertrude Newdigate, insists they be called differently to hide they’re related from the “West Ender” trainees, lest they assume the sisters have been granted special privileges, commensurate with their more privileged backgrounds, which is definitely not the case:

EDDA (Nurse Latimer):  The “ringleader,” fearless and the most gifted.  Her highest ambition is to become a doctor (a “scientist not a romantic”).  Too expensive, she pursues nursing, as “nurses had a certain power; anyone thrust into the live-or-die maw of a hospital came out with a profound respect for them.”  It fits that Edda gravitates to the Operating Theatre and Casualty ward.  Corunda can’t be enough for her, and it’s not.

GRACE (Nurse Faulding, mother’s maiden name): the complainer and most conventional about marriage, but she has an unusual passion for steam locomotives.  It’s almost expected that Grace will be the sister who drops out of nursing school for a man.  Her strength will impress you as life deals its blows.

TUFTS (Nurse Scobie, Maude’s first married name): Calmest, most logical.  With “amber-gold eyes,” she resembles the actress Myrna Loy.  At the hospital, she works alongside Dr. Liam Finucan, a decent 43 year old, Irishman plagued by a problem wife.  A “plodding” pathologist and coroner who tutors all the sisters, liked by all.  Tufts befriends him, but she’s tough!  She prizes individualism over “the subordinate role in life that marriage demanded of a woman.”  She has no desire to leave Corunda, finds plenty of misery here.

KITTY (Nurse Tready, Maude’s maiden name): Ravishing, likened to the actress Marion Davies.  Standing out with her tantalizing “lavender-blue eyes” and frank, caustic dialogue – cutting remarks that are not enchanted prose!  She finds a peaceful place in the Children’s ward, where she can be anonymous, where her beauty unimportant.  Kitty loves Corunda.  That striving fellow didn’t know Kitty detests being valued for her appearance; makes the egregious mistake of announcing his love for her upon first meeting and relentlessly pursues her.  Charles Henry Burdham, bachelor, 32, is a wealthy Englishman, a “Pommie,” who quests to become the next Prime Minister of Australia.  Since Kitty is the sister the least sure of herself, his pursuit creates one of the romantic plot tensions.

Charles – who must go by the name Charlie to mix with this unpretentious crowd – is a complex character who offers insight into the cultural and political climate of Australia after WWI.  He’s clueless why being a “Pommie” is such a liability.  Also going against him is his small size, “height no man can bear to be without.”  On the positive side, he’s a compassionate doctor who cares about the common man, his politics often siding with the Labor Party but McCullough wisely casts him as an Independent, apt for his ambivalences.  A modern man who gauges the parties are too entrenched in Old World thinking, he understands interest rates from his London time, predicting the onslaught of the financial crisis since he’s aware of Corunda’s heavy borrowing history.  He prepares, he safeguards, so he’s more than ready to assume the position of next Superintendent at the sisters’ hospital.  There, he ingratiates himself by much do-gooding, remaking this “army barracks” of a facility miserly run by the former head, Frank Campbell, under whom the sisters endured unnecessary hardships in their training, like housing and food.  Their determination to rise above these challenges offers an encouraging message.

There’s one other male character to bring into this discussion – others and all the emotional involvements must be left for the reader to freshly come upon – charming Jack Thurlow, 30, another bachelor.  A “true landsman” and horseman, he’s the one we envision riding gallantly atop one of the Arabian horses he raises on his “5,000 acres of magnificent land,” Corundoobar.  As an heir to Old Tom Burdum (96), he refuses his extreme wealth, which the already rich Charlie gladly welcomes.  Jack’s a man supremely content with what he has, values duty over money, and knows “money is no teacher of what makes humans tick.”  What’s not to like?

You cannot write a novel steeped in Australia without a slew of quirky, unfamiliar expressions.  Prose that delights such as: bikkies, flivvers, swagman, chooks, tuppeny, stickybeaks, bang on, codswallop, earwigs, karri, and my favorites, stiffen the snakes and starve the lizards!

Yes, the vocabulary is memorable.  So are the characters, especially the nursing sisters, delightful reminders that “nurses were remembered.”


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The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning 3

Enchanted Prose is a blog about beautiful fiction – mostly.  From time to time, a memoir grabs me.  The two previously reviewed here (Under Magnolia and Act One) felt like fiction.  The Ogallala Road does not.  But the author’s sense-of-place is palpable, and the environmental message too real to ignore.

High Plains “Zealot” and Water Conservationist (Western Kansas, present-day):  Statistics don’t feel personal. So if you read in a newspaper a Kansas study concluded that a vast underground reservoir of water spanning eight states – The High Plains Ogallala Aquifer – will run dry in 50 years would it register?  Maybe, in passing.  When Julene Bair tells a similar story, it not only registers, it sinks in.  For her memoir is a wake-up call about the “largest, single water-management issue concern in the U.S.”

The Ogallala Aquifer is among the largest in the world.  It flows under sections of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas, where Julene Bair grew up on a farm in the far western part of the state.  Her town, Goodland, the biggest east of Denver, is “dying despite irrigation, and, to some extent, because of it.” Seems the only thing “farming hadn’t messed up” might be the sky.

This forewarning is even more convincing when you realize Bair does not see the glass as half empty.  She’s the “family idealist,” who believes in the goodness of people to “do right even if it meant going against their own self-interest.”  She’s also someone who has not taken the easy road.

For a transformative period in her life, after her divorce, she lived with her young son, Jake, in a “rock house” in the Mojave Desert, on what was then Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.  Single parenting, remotely, in a desert, is an impressive undertaking, even for someone “yearning for wild land.”  There, she “discovered the West of my imagination” and a sacred respect for the life-force of water, the “world’s purest element in its purest form.” So, when Bair says the average American uses “80 to 100 gallons of water a day” but she made do with only 500 gallons a month, she earns our respect.  Bair, unlike many of us, does not take water for granted.  When she describes modern agricultural practices advanced by government farm subsidies as “cowboying weeds into submission and magnificently boosting our yields, [but] they were also leaching into our groundwater and into our bloodstreams,” her call to arms about chemicals sounds like Rachel Carson’s alarms in Silent Spring.

It’s one thing to write about wilderness eloquently, fictionally, but when you’ve lived it and sacrificed for it, well, it takes on a whole other authentic meaning.  And Bair’s lyricism is for uncommon elements, like buffalo grass, blue gamma grass – “low growing grass stitched itself over the ground like a wooly tapestry.”  It’s marvelous that she finds the smell of grasses “intoxicating, restorative,” for it helps to balance her woeful tales of farmland and water exhaustion.

While we might not fully grasp the science of water tables, irrigation and agricultural systems, especially in a remote region of the country we may not know, we certainly can understand that more water is being used up than sustained.  If depleted it would take 5,000 years to replenish!  The Ogallala Aquifer is supposed to be “the hope and promise at the center of the nation,” Bair laments.  And yet, from this source a single farm – Bair’s – pumped 200 million gallons of water in a farming season.  Sounds like a lot, but Bair says not so.  All this irrigation has depleted the water table.  The water may run underground, invisible, but Bair can see the “land was flatter now, and the grass had vanished.  The earth had been human stitched into a patchwork of monotones – squares and circles of bare dirt, corn stubble, and winter wheat.”

Another area of western Kansas beautifully described – it brings a “tenderness in me because it was in danger” – is the Smoky Valley, a “paradise of unfarmed hills sloping down into cottonwood groves along the river.”  Bair got close to it as the home of a rancher named Ward, a serious boyfriend for much of the memoir.  Their relationship didn’t endure because he’s a “settler” and she’s a “seeker.”  They met when Bair had returned to her Kansas farm from Laramie, Wyoming, where she’d been living for eight years with her son, Jake.  An “exploring spirit,” on this day she was inspecting the “sandy beds of dry creeks.”  Water issues have troubled her for quite some time.

While Bair writes candidly about the “deliciousness of desire” in mid-life after so many years of single motherhood, it’s her romance with the “kind of low-key vista that could thrill only a native Kansan whose eye had not been jaded by mountains or the sensational” that’s most delicious.

Of course, this is a memoir, so it’s peopled with Bair’s “atypical family” (older members are liberals; younger ones tattooed).  Looming largest is her father, who farmed her grandparents’ land.  Bair watched the progression from “intense labor that broke men’s and women’s backs to intense pillage and poison that broke the earth’s.”  But her father, a rock as hard as her rock house, her “underlayment,” never gave the land up.  That’s his rallying cry: “Hang on to your land!”  The motto hangs over the author’s head and her brother, Bruce’s, who takes over the farm after their indomitable father dies.  While the heart-wrenching decision of “what to do with the farm” causes much angst, interestingly, the author’s mother concedes whatever decision her son makes, giving us insight into the “stoicism” of Kansans.

For Bair, it’s important to distinguish what losing the land means.  Her father cherished it for the real estate value; Bair’s is an emotional connection.  She’s convinced, and convincing, that “our sense of beauty is a survival instinct.”

During Julene Bair’s early desert years, she coped with great loneliness by writing in “countless spiral notebooks that she filled by kerosene lantern light.” Presumably she kept this pattern up, which enabled her to reflect vividly on those and later years, reliving her passions, hopes, regrets, and concerns.

Together, The Ogallala Road is a blend of heavyheartedness and optimism.  Bair is buoyed by “wilderness on my skin” – a “plains palette” that makes her feel “on top of the world.”  On the other hand, the once 30 million farms in the country have dwindled to less than 2 million.  Since most are now large-scale (farmers had to “get big or get out”), they’re still causing plenty of damage to our water: “farming accounts for 70% of contamination of rivers and streams.”  All this data sobering when put forth personally.

The author seeks to contribute to a cause she cares passionately about.  Her evocative prose – if widely read – is a step in that direction.


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American Blonde 2

THE “OLD HOLLYWOOD” STUDIO SYSTEM AND THE MAKING OF A MOVIE STAR (1945-1947): Jennifer Niven’s American Blonde is like a walk down memory lane.  You can almost see and hear Judy Garland singing, Fred Astaire dancing, Clark Gable acting.  The author is in love with the Old Hollywood of the ‘30s and ‘40s when a big-league film studio like “Metro” (“sixty stars, the most of any studio.  More stars than in heaven”) made stars bigger than life.  Niven, whose name has a stardom ring to it, has an emotional attachment to those bygone days, which you’ll learn about in the last enlightening chapter, “Endings.”  From what I gather, she’s waited a long time to craft a wistful Hollywood story she was meant to write, steeped into nostalgic details, for this is her fourth novel starring her beautiful, spirited country girl from Appalachia, Velva Jean.

Velva Jean heartens us, the way she keeps re-inventing herself.  In this novel, she’s Kit Rogers, Hollywood’s newest sensation.  If, like me, you start with American Blonde, you can always go back to what you missed as she comes of age in Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Becoming Clementine – the “Velva Jean Series.”  This novel can stand alone, as it fills you in on the earlier trio: Married at 16, divorced by 20 (DRIVE); Velva Jean heads to Nashville pursuing her passion, singing. When that doesn’t work out, her brother, Johnny Clay Hart, inspires her to pursue flying, as a WASP or Women’s Airforce Service Pilot (FLY), which leads to her becoming a spy and a WWII heroine (CLEMENTINE).

Returning to America, “Miss Red, White, and Blue,” poses for a newsreel featuring the “second girl in history to fly a bobber across the ocean.”  A blonde, green-eyed “natural beauty,” Velva Jean catches the cinematic eyes behind Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, like its legendary head, Louis B. Mayer, who at 60, “didn’t look at all like the most powerful man in Hollywood.”  Now Kit Rogers, her transformation feels as glamorous as the novel’s alluring cover but Velva Jean confides she “had her own scars but I wasn’t wearing them on the outside.”

At 24, Kit Rogers still dreams of Nashville.  She reasons that coming to Hollywood she’ll “train with the finest music teachers in the world,” so when she returns to her southern roots she’ll take them by storm.  She’s right: she’s seriously trained in singing, and so much more.

Kit’s first film role is a revolutionary war hit, “Home of the Brave,” on Stage 15, “the largest in the world.” She plays Betsy Ross, a “patriotic Cinderella,” a role created just for her.  Here we meet a full cast of Hollywood characters – actors, actresses, producer, director, agent, photographer, publicists, gossip columnist, costume designer, drama teacher, voice teacher, general manager – so many as you’d expect for the mighty studio.  A couple of characters besides Kit loom large: The screenwriter, Sam Weldon, one of two men who sweeten the novel’s romantic tension; and Barbara Jenning, formerly Eloise Mudge, one of Velva Jean’s closest friends going back to their flying days, now an actress in the picture too, whose having an affair with the film’s hottest star, handsome Nigel Gray, a married man.

Since Velva Jean tells us she’s spent her life fighting, Niven plots another cause for her to fight, turning her charming historical novel into a mystery.  Like her honorable character, she’s not afraid to shine a light on an all-powerful studio system that didn’t just make stars, but could break them.

What I especially relished about the novel is the tender prose.  The author stays true to the integrity of her Velva Jean character even in Hollywood.  Romance and mystery can still be delivered up in the juicy, wholesome spirit of the golden era of Hollywood.  So, the mystery feels like you’re watching Perry Mason sleuthing and the romance is sweet and sexy but left to your imagination.  Take this witty, suggestive banter between Sam and Kit, whom he affectionately calls “Pipes”:

Sam: “You’re not the kind men mess with.”

Sam: “For you, Pipes, I’d steal the moon.”

Sam: “I like holding hands with you Pipes.  I don’t know when holding hands has ever excited me more.  Or at all.”

Kit: “I can’t imagine you do a lot of hand holding.”

Sam: “No, but I can imagine doing a lot of it with you.”

Sam, like Kit’s adoring fans, is dazzled by her.  So is Butch Dawkins.  Not to the new Kit Rogers, but to the old Velva Jean he met five years ago when they trained at Camp Davis.  (Here, for instance, I wanted the backdrop.)  Butch, part Creole, part Choctaw, plays the guitar in a band with Kit’s brother Johnny Clay.  They’ve come to LA to record soulful songs.  Velva Jean may be flirtatious around polished Sam, but it’s the virile, non-polished Butch who “didn’t smile a lot but when he did he was the best-looking man I’d ever seen,” that Velva Jean/Kit Rogers can’t seem to forget.  Butch remembers too, but he’s a serious, compassionate, patient, no-nonsense guy.  Yes, you really can feel the electricity between these two.  MGM may have succeeded in training Kit to sing pop, jazz, and vocal without her southern cadence, but it’s Butch who warns her “they’re going to rub the shine right out of you.”

His words are prophetic.  When Kit first breathes in California, she tells herself “all the world was right here at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.”  But then a tragedy unfolds.  If you read the back cover, you’ll know that Kit’s best friend Mudge has suddenly died at a party for the cast and crew of “Home on the Brave” at the Santa Monica estate of the film’s producer, Billy Taub, and his brought-out-of-retirement for this film, celebrity wife, Ophelia Lloyd.  Now Kit Rogers finds herself in a “world where nothing was what it seemed.”

Yet Kit Rogers is still that brave girl who escaped a concentration camp and rescued her brother, Johnny.  (Another instance when I missed the earlier novels.)  For American Blonde is filled with suspense, pressures, and threats but our heroine is undaunted, determined to solve what’s really happened to her friend – which she does.

When Kit sings the apt-titled song “Facing the World Alone” in her next “Flyin’ Jenny” film, you can envision sitting in the audience clapping your hands.  For you too are won over by this principled, old-fashioned character who sends us a big-hearted, modern-day message about hope and love and friendship and truth.

My hope is that the film rights to American Blonde are bought by MGM, so that fiction and truth merge when I’m really in the audience clapping.   Lorraine

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The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances

I still recall the pleasure of a novel by Ellen Cooney I read nearly 10 years ago: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies (published in 2005, historical fiction/1900’s Boston).  And, for some unknown reason, have yet to read Lambrusco, published a few years later (also historical fiction/1943 Italian Resistance movement), awaiting on my shelf (not much longer!).  So, when I learned the author had written a new book about animal rescue, so different from these, I was excited to read it, especially since my family has rescued three beloved English Setters.

Rescuing Dogs, Rescuing People (present day, Maine?):  You do not have to be a dog rescuer (or other animal rescuer) or dog lover to appreciate this novel.  All you need is a heart.

As any volunteer for any noble cause knows, the giver gets as much (or more) than the giving.  The giver who touches your heart in THE MOUNTAINTOP SCHOOL FOR DOGS AND OTHER SECOND CHANCES is Evie, a 24-year-old broken soul whose soul-searching voice narrates this affecting story.  Occasionally, she curses but mostly she comes to us sadly, pensively, in poignant prose.

We meet Evie the day she arrives at the “Sanctuary,” a “sprawling, rugged, stone and wood lodge built a hundred years ago as a ski resort,” now a dog rescue center.  Its starry logo is a dog “tilted upward, head high, front paw lifted, like he was walking around in just air.”  This “place of refuge” is the last stop for these dogs, saved by an underground “Network,” having failed everywhere else.  Evie answered an ad she found on their website, paid fees for what she assumed was a traditional training school with classes, textbook, teachers, students.  But the sanctuary that sits atop a snowy mountaintop in an unknown locale is anything but conventional.  And Evie, who has never owned a dog, is the only trainee.

I’m guessing the novel is set in northern Maine, the state where the author lives, for there are clues beyond being snowbound: people attired in park ranger garb, elderly staff, and a rescue scene off the mountaintop to a neighborhood that’s a: “came-to-life picture of a perfect place in America to live.”  Yet nothing is perfect here for the poor dog being rescued, one of the many thoughtful messages Cooney makes.  This one: things are not what they seem to be.

At the base of the mountaintop is an inn, room and board included with Evie’s fees.  Here she meets the innkeeper, Mrs. Auberchon, 50, another lost soul (less obvious) who is also “Warden of the Sanctuary,” which means she observes dogs upon arrival, communicating with them through “computers, cameras, speakers, mikes, magic.”  The pros/cons of the solitary nature and value of technology in the lonely lives of these two loner characters is another message.  While enough of Evie’s past is revealed over time to grasp why she’s a human stray, Mrs. Auberchon’s comes to light only at the tail end, along with a glimpse into the evolution and future of the twosome’s relationship.  While there are other people in the story, volunteers and staff, it’s Giant George, the only other young person, a 15-year-old boy who perceives himself to be a Great Dane, who – aside from the dogs – contributes to the rescue of Evie.  For that’s what this heartfelt tale is really about: Evie’s rescue.  “Rescue,” Evie says, the “Best. Verb. Ever.”

Rescue is part of Evie’s alphabetic voice.  Cooney has cleverly structured the novel as an A-Z glossary of dog-related vocabulary – details about breeds, traits, behaviors, training – reflective of Evie’s avid research.  It’s delivered in down-to-earth prose, metaphors for human behavior and understanding.  Dog/human terms include: Abandon, Adoption, Alpha (bullying), Appreciation, Bonding, Companion, Connection, Depression, Family, Fear, Forgiveness, Gains, Goals (“totally overrated”), Home, Loneliness, Losers, Obedience, Second Chances, Shelter (“a place you’re glad to be”), Rehab, Surrender, Treats, Trust, Victories.  A few more examples show why Evie refuses to discuss her past, and hint at her healing:

Abuse: “Sometimes you don’t call it abuse even when it is happening to you … You just call it “my life.”

Gentle: “Good adjective.  Good non-alpha thing to be.  Good thing to aspire to, but not until you’re ready to stop being a softie, desperate to be liked and admired.”

Hope: “Can I have it?” – “Can I actually figure out what it actually is?”

Real: “You cannot be fake with dogs”

Truth: “The truth is there are moments when I am very, very peaceful.”

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the important dogs in the story.  They arrive with handwritten assessments of their condition, including prognoses for adoption, many poor: Shadow, a hound mix with a nasty infection from a choke collar; Hank, a Lab/Pitbull crazed by wooden objects; Josie, a small mix still biting at 8, who “wasn’t the only one in this room with memories needing erasing;” Tasha, a Rottweiler who needed an owner who could handle her intimidating size and strength;” Dapple, an underweight, withdrawn, overworked greyhound; and the “pitties,” whose foreboding arrival is anticipated by all, except unknowing Evie.  They were trained for dogfighting.  Yes, this practice still exists.  In “many states,” Cooney chillingly points out, it’s “not a serious crime to abuse animals.”

When we’re introduced to Evie at the inn, she’s very anxious.  When one of the dogs knocks her to the ground, the fall mirrors her life: a “pattern of being knocked to my feet.”  She doesn’t even realize she’s being tested, that her training has begun.  For days, she tries to figure out what’s going on, and is understandably upset when she overhears Mrs. Auberchon confiding to Mrs. Walzer, the baker of dog treats, Evie will never last the week.  Little by little, Evie proves herself with the dogs.  When she’s granted permission to go to the mountaintop, you feel the emotional significance of her acceptance: “The light in the windows had the mellow glow of candlelight, and for a few moments I was enchanted, as if I’d entered a Christmas card or a carol.”

On the mountaintop, she’s greeted by Boomer, an older Golden Retriever, whose golden heart cannot be overstated.  Boomer may be aging but his “spirit was like a genie in a lamp, as alive as anything.”  When Evie hugged Boomer: “It was the first time finding out what it’s like to be held in the arms of someone who has no arms … He was good at holding.  He was doing a better job with me than I’d ever done with myself.”

As Evie works with the dogs, her conversations with them are not just reflections about them but herself.  Her voice brightens when she speaks to little biting Josie: “You would not believe how much I get it that your will is a whole lot bigger than your body.  I’m in awe of that.  I mean, I know things like that.”

You can’t help but admire the way Cooney delicately sends us many wise messages, such as when Evie appraises the former ski lodge’s shabbiness on the outside, yet it still retains “personal dignity, the kind that only comes from inside.”  Or when Evie appreciates how a dog can have a “heart twice the size of its body.”  Cooney wants us to appreciate Evie as twice as powerful as she seems on the surface.  Evie possesses an inner strength we ought to be a little in awe of.


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The Kitchen House 1

It bothered me I hadn’t heard of this powerful novel set in my state, Virginia.  I wondered if its timing was overshadowed by THE HELP, but that blockbuster came out a year earlier.  Very different stories of racial injustices in the South, but you’d think THE KITCHEN HOUSE would have garnered attention once readers showed how much they cared about civil rights.  So, I did a little Googling and learned it took 2 ½ years for this historical novel to get traction, through word-of-mouth spread.

Indentured Servitude, Slavery, and the Price of Freedom (Virginia tobacco plantation, 1791 to 1810): If only THE KITCHEN HOUSE were pure fiction.  If only the racial horrors, abuses, and inequalities were the product of the author’s vivid imagination, rather than stirred by stark antebellum South truths.  It’s a testament to Kathleen Grissom’s storytelling and authentic dialogue – told through two distinct female voices – that what happens on her imaginary plantation, Tall Oaks, feels so real it might have taken place at one of the best preserved plantations in Virginia: Prestwould.  Built by slaves during the same historical time period as the novel, the author did some of her research here.  Grissom, who renovated a Virginia plantation property, clearly felt history come alive, as you will too.

From the Prologue, you’re prepared for an “unspeakable” tragedy.  And while you should prepare for plenty more heart wrenching calamities, there’s also courage, dignity, and love that buoys you.

First, though, you’ll want to wrap yourself around a who’s who of characters for this story is peopled by a large cast.  Backgrounds, race, class, and family loyalties matter greatly, impacted by whether they’re members of the “kitchen house” or the “big house” or toil in the tobacco fields, thus live in slave quarters.  Here’s a rundown of key people at Tall Oaks:

LAVINIA McCARTEN:  The white, female, more educated voice.  An indentured servant who will eventually be granted freedom when she comes of age.  At 7, she arrives ill and disoriented, having lost her Irish family.  It’s historically fitting that she comes to Virginia, the first state to institute the harsh labor practice of indenture.  Brought over by ship by the plantation owner, Lavinia looks as you might expect: pale, thin, freckled, red hair, and as gentle and amiable as can be.  Her room, board, and labor is at the “kitchen house” where she quickly becomes attached to the wise matron, Mama Mae, a slave whose status is elevated working here but she’s still property with no hope for freedom.  By 12, Lavinia is beginning to understand the “line drawn between black and white.”  Her “lonely heart,” her “singing heart,” tell her not to “want to be the white girl.”

BELLE:  The bi-racial, second narrator, whose uneducated voice is in a dialect that flows and moves us.  She’s so light skinned she could pass for white.  That’s because her father is the plantation master; her mother, an unknown slave.  Since she’s the captain’s daughter, she’s at the main house, but the captain’s wife does not know her genetics, believes she’s her husband’s mistress.  Belle’s mixed heritage complicates other lives too.  She loves Mama Mae’s son, Ben, which, of course, is unacceptable.  They hide their love, fear their lives.  At 18, she doesn’t want her promised freedom, for she can’t bear to lose Ben.  She’s one of the characters whose “gotten hurt enough in this life.”

CAPTAIN JAMES PYKE:  Married at 40, at sea for months on end, driving his jealous, extremely lonely wife to depression and madness, for she sees that Belle is “one of the captain’s most prized possessions.” He may be kindly but he feels unknowable, owing to his constant, lengthy absences.

MISS MARTHA:  When she married at 20 her “vibrant nature” was considered well-suited to her “adventuresome” husband, but sadly she’s anything but.  As the weakest, languishing character, we empathize with her feelings of abandonment and great losses.  Her survival depends on opium.  She adores her young daughter, Sally; not the case with her son, Marshall, for reasons that become painfully clear.  Belle may be responsible for her care, but it’s Lavinia she bonds with.

MAMA MAE AND HER FAMILY:  We understand why Lavinia loves Mama Mae.  You will too.  She’s brave, spiritual, devoted to her family, endearing.  She may “act like I don’t have no mind of my own, except how to make everybody in the house happy.  That because I mean to stay up here.”  Papa George, her husband, has a heart of gold too.  They have twin girls: Fanny, the “plain one,” and Beattie “destined to be a beauty.”  They instantly became Lavinia’s playmates, as they’re all close in age.   Ben, their 18-year-old son, knows his place as a slave despite his enduring affection for Belle, so he also gets involved with a slave, Lucy.  For too many sorrowful reasons, his “big old eyes fill up and run over until it looks like there’s a bucket of water coming down his face.”  Dora is their oldest daughter, tending to a sick baby Henry; the father, Jimmy, a slave working in the fields.  Yes, all these relationships are steeped in complications.

WILL STEVENS:  A breath of fresh air for his kindnesses, his human decency.  Will enters the picture when the Captain realizes he needs someone capable to run his estate while he’s away.  As a young girl, Lavinia is infatuated with Will; theirs a charming, teasing relationship.  When she matures, he sees she’s a “beautiful young woman who has the heart of a child.”

RANKIN:  One of the abusive, hateful characters.  Rankin oversees the tobacco farm, an alcoholic, and a dangerous influence on Miss Martha’s son, Marshall.

UNCLE JACOB:  A calming, spiritual presence.  He’s the least known except for references to his African tribe, Foulah, and Islamic religion.  Presumably, these differences account for why he lives alone in a cabin on (or near?) the plantation.

MR. WATERS:  Marshall’s tutor, out for no good.  Perhaps the root of Marshall’s abusiveness?

While there are more characters in this sprawling novel as the years pass, telling about them would spoil the reading.

While often “everybody’s full of nerves,” not all is always bleak.  Home cooking runs deliciously throughout, reminding us of the goodness of families, summer southern days, and regional recipes of biscuits, corn bread, peach preserves, pickled cucumbers, and strawberry jam pound cake.  Periodic references to the estate’s “blue room,” bring forth a peaceful oasis bedecked with books.

Of Ben it’s asked: “What gave him this courage?” I wondered the same of the author.  For this is a brave novel, debut or not, that digs painfully deep into racial hatred.  At times, Grissom says in her thoughtful Author’s Note, she was drained by the writing.  But I think the reader is strengthened by the courageous voices who come through to us with a loud, very important message: We must never forget all the Mama Maes, who graced us with their woefully understated words: “Times, this life not easy.”


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The Fortune Hunter 2

An Empress, a Horseman, and an Heiress/Photographer:  A Victorian-era romantic triangle (England, 1875): The first word that comes to mind to describe Daisy Goodwin’s second historical novel is: delicious.  (The same can be said of her debut, The American Heiress.)  Since a New York Times testimonial on The Fortune Hunter’s star-studded cover said it first (“Ms. Goodwin writes deliciously”), let’s expound.

When was a novel’s dialogue your favorite part?  Goodwin’s award-winning British TV company, Silver River, prides itself on “taking a concept to the screen in the most entertaining way possible.”  So it stands to reason the author knows how to write dialogue in the most entertaining way possible.

Dialogue that is so clever.  It’s flirtatious, teasing, witty, flamboyant, sycophantic, compassionate, catty, loving, perceptive, and brimming with tidbits of British history under Queen Victoria’s reign – depending on which of the numerous characters is being depicted; many inspired by real figures.  Peopled with upstairs and downstairs characters from England, Scotland, Hungary, and an exuberant American photographer from California who contrasts his “country that is still being imagined” against “every patch of earth [in Britain] has a story,” the settings are central England’s prime fox hunting countryside, where such English country houses in Leicestershire (Melton Hall) and in Northhamptonshire (Althorp and Easton Neston) still loom marvelously and so “monstrously out of scale” we see them as characters too.

The incisive prose takes us inside the passions that drive the three main characters: fox hunting, steeplechase riding, and photography (for “viewers to see their characters, not their situation in life”).  All together, the result is an enormously entertaining novel, one you’ll regret when it closes on page 468. Mind you, none are wasted pages, for the dialogue is precise, getting us quickly inside the heads of these three characters:

THE EMPRESS:  Given “the mystique of royalty is a precious thing” and the Empress graces the stunning cover, let’s start with “the most beautiful woman in Europe,” Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also Queen of Hungary), nicknamed Sisi.  At 38, she’s been unhappily married to Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph since sixteen, a stifling life of “layers of custom and faux servility” under a spotlight she finds painfully dull except for her portrait painted by Winterhalter, with her extraordinarily long hair studded with diamond stars.  Sisi was, as she appears here, obsessed with her beauty, figure, and athleticism, had a pet monkey, and detests being photographed, fears her laugh lines will show.  Then again, “perhaps it was more important to find something to laugh about.”  The only time she feels free is hunting, so she’s escaped to England for the challenging Pytchley hunt, where the “idea of a galloping queen was peculiar and splendid.”  Surrounded by her devoted countess, baron, and cavalieri servanti, they cater to her whims (like raw veal skin treatment) and watch her every mood.  It changes in England when Captain Bay Middleton, a great English horseman, becomes her “pilot” guiding her riding, already accomplished and fearless.  Around Bay, she’s determined to seize “a chance at happiness.” How could he (or anyone) refuse her?  And so the romantic triangle begins to take shape.

THE HORSEMAN:  Bay isn’t in a position to refuse the piloting assignment because his commanding officer and equerry patron, Earl Spencer, Sisi’s friend, has summoned him to do so.  (The “Red Earl” is Viscount Althrop.  Yes, the same Althrop as Princess Diana’s childhood home – another slender beauty also unhappily married, whom the author draws parallels to.)  Bay is a “ladies man,” a gift and a curse.  History says he did have an affair with that married woman, Lady Blanche Hozier; perhaps her child, Clementine, was his? Just one of the juicy pieces of British history since Clementine later married Winston Churchill.  While it’s true Bay was Sisi’s “pilot” and there were rumors about their relationship, the romance here is Goodwin’s invention.  Bay’s womanizing is the subject of constant ridicule, which he endures gracefully; he’s even self-deprecating about it (“I am not the sort of man that makes mamas happy.”)  While he enjoys “being in the center of things,” he’s not full of himself.  Confused about his emotions, he’s most endearing when he expresses his compassion for his horse, Tipsy.

“You know what you are getting with a horse, whereas with a woman all you can see is what’s on the outside.  You can see a horses’ soul the moment you ride together but with a woman – well, I don‘t think I have ever met a woman who says what she means.”

THE HEIRESS/PHOTOGRAPHER:  Charlotte Baird is the diamond in the rough in the novel.  Also drawn from history, she’s the least well known of the triad.  A wealthy orphan due to inherit the Lennox fortune when she turns 25, she’s come to London from the Scottish Borders to be under the guardianship of her Aunt Adelaide (Lady Lisle) until she reaches the age of majority, 21, months away.  What a welcome contrast to Sisi!  She knows she’s “not the most striking looking girl in the room” (although Bay falls for her grey-blue eyes, the “color of a blue roan” he rode in Ireland), but her whimsical disdain for the pretentiousness and trappings of royalty, refreshing spirit, strong sense of self (“The one advantage of being motherless is that you learn how to make up your own mind about people”), and way of seeing the world through the lens of her camera wins our hearts.  When Bay starts paying attention to her – he’s her first suitor – she ignores jealous warnings that he’s a fortune hunter.  Charlotte’s not afraid to stand up for herself against her so-called protectors: Fred, her pompous, annoying brother, who cares more about himself and the family fortune; Augusta Crewe, her petty, “affected and calculating” soon-to-be sister-in-law; and Captain Chicken Hartopp, a friend of Fred’s from his cavalry, the real fortune hunter.

The repartee between Charlotte and Augusta is so good.  When Augusta warns Charlotte that “Captain Middleton, who comes from a modest background, is a fortune hunter,” Charlotte replies: “If that is the case, he does a much better job of concealing it than anyone else.”  Or, the time Charlotte is called upon by her mentor photographer/godmother Lady Dunwoody (inspired by the British photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden) to come to Holland Park, London to help her assemble a photographic exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society.  Augusta swoops in to remind Charlotte that nothing is as important as helping with her wedding, to which Charlotte replies: “But Augusta, as you have often pointed out, I know very little of the fashionable way of doing things … Forgive me, if I would rather go somewhere I can actually be of use.”  Touche!

Bay may find Charlotte “full of contrasts” but it’s Bay’s feelings for Charlotte and Sisi that are confused.  He finds himself spending more and more time with the Empress, yet he very much “likes the idea of making Charlotte happy.”  The stakes get higher when Charlotte inadvertently takes a photograph of Bay and Sisi exquisitely mounted on horseback readying for the hunt, capturing the intensity of Bay’s expression looking on at Sisi.  Since the “camera doesn’t lie,” Charlotte must confront the admonishments about Bay.  Are they true?

Just as the fox does not “run in a straight line” … “the endless circling and doubling was the element that made hunting so fascinating,” so too is the circling back and forth between Bay and Sisi and Charlotte.  We know which star we’re wishing for, but Goodwin keeps us guessing until the very end.


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Restoration & Merivel: A Man of His Time (sequel)

King’s Fool and Friend: The Highs, Lows, and Contradictions of a 17th century man (Restoration: 1664 – 1668/England; Merivel: 1683-1685/England, France, Switzerland):

Just as Restoration opens with Sir Robert Merivel – a lavishly imagined historical character we get to know so vividly over these quick-turning 800 pages he feels real – recounting “five beginnings” of his life, let’s start by listing five ways this posting is unlike any other:

  1. The review is a double-package.  Merivel is the sequel to Restoration, originally published in the UK in 1989, and nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  I read both to see how well Merivel stands by itself.  While it does (many times the reader is brought up-to-speed), you may feel greater compassion for Merivel having seen how far he’s come if you read both.
  2. 17th century England, the “Age of Possibility” when King Charles II was restored to the throne, is 200 years earlier than my historical fiction preferences.
  3. I love books whose prose is uplifting.  But Merivel is a man of many contradictions (“I’m a paradoxical thing” he tells us) – manic and melancholy (he cries so much he wears out handkerchiefs).  Since this is a penetratingly honest account of twenty years of his insatiability – insatiable lust, greed, and quest for purpose – the prose soars when his moods are joyous but plunges when he despairs.
  4. The prose is extraordinary but not always “enchanted.”  Merivel’s younger years, in Restoration (we meet him at 37), are more hedonistic than 15 years later when we meet him again in Merivel: A Man of His Time.  Sometimes the prose startles in its vulgarity and graphical depictions, but as Merivel grows more searching, loving, noble, so marks the prose.  When he speaks “soul-to-soul” about his love for animals, nature, music, art, the King, Pearce, his manservant, his daughter, the prose enchants.
  5. The prose never feels gratuitous.  In fact, Rose Tremain confirms this in her eye-opening “Afterward” to Restoration, explaining her fictional intentions.  She reached far back in history to a grandiose King who had so many mistresses (at least 8 I found in historical references, claiming 17 illegitimate children), to give fictional integrity to anything goes!

The result is immersive prose, an unforgettable fellow, and a powerful warning that resonates today.

A brief timeline of Merivel’s beginnings: 

1636:  Merivel at age 9 performs his first dissection.  Later, he excels in anatomy when he pursues medical studies in Cambridge, which explains his graphic prose

1647:  Meets his Quaker friend, John Pearce (“prone to Godliness”) in college

1661:  Father serves as glovemaker to restored King Charles II at Whitehall

1662:  Parents perish in a fire at their haberdashery shop, humanizing the Great Fire of London 4 years later

1664:  Forgoes medicine to serve the King, makes him laugh, is his tennis partner, saves his spaniel, Lou-Lou. (Animals play an important role in both novels.  Not all are commonplace, like an Indian Nightingale and Clarendon, a bear.)

1664:  A grateful King sets Merivel up in an estate in Norfolk that comes with a monthly stipend on the condition that he marries, in name only, one of his mistresses, Celia Clemence.  Merivel must promise not to love her for she belongs to the King, who wants to placate a jealous mistress, Lady Castlemaine.  Poor Queen Catherine!  (She does not produce any heirs.)

Bidnold, Merivels’ estate, looms large.  As he delights in changing its character, he reveals some of his:

“It was a Jacobean manor, moated and bordered by a substantial park … Though struck by its drabness, I rejoiced in it.  For from these plain rooms, I decided at once, I would fashion interiors that reflected, in their crimsons and vermillions, in their ochres and golds, in their abundance of colour and light, my own excessive and uncontainable nature.”

Bidnold may be magnificent, but the countryside is isolating and brutal in the winter, triggering loneliness and boredom for the restless Merivel.  Without doctoring, he must find other means for “enlightenment.”  He starts by aspiring to be an artist, hoping the painting “as wild, as undisciplined, as excessive as my own character” will “make me whole.”  His attempts to play the oboe, lead him to wonder:  “Does music teach wisdom?” “Does it civilize the soul?”  What music does is awaken him to the beautiful voice of his wife, hence her beauty, hence his downfall.

Merivel’s adventures take many roads.  One leads to re-discovering his old friend Pearce at Whittlesea, a Quaker mental hospital, where he joins the staff in the “service of the common good.”  Within this bedlam, he further disgraces himself by impregnating Katherine, a patient.  As Restoration draws towards its ending, sadly, this will not be the only time Merivel mourns his “beastliness” and “the peculiar ways in which, without meaning to, we sometimes bind ourselves to another person for all eternity.”

Merivel:  A Man of His Time opens with Merivel’s adoration for his seventeen-year-old daughter, Margaret, strengthening his likability.  When she departs with friends for Cornwall his depression deepens, along with self-reflections.  Tremain cleverly capitalizes his Feelings and Thoughts, emphasizing them.  Loneliness, Poverty, Poisoning, Suicide, and Meaninglessness are laid bare as five possible endings for Merivel’s destiny.

Still, he yearns for Wonders.  So Merivel dreams up the idea of traveling to Versailles, where King Louis XIV reigns, King Charles’ cousin.  Clutching the King’s letter of introduction, he hopes to serve another monarch.  Versailles, a “Song of Magnificence and Beauty,” dazzles him, like the room with 100 mirrors.  Along the way, he encounters a Dutch clockmaker, Hans, who signals a theme of time, ever more pressing.  Merivel is also touched by the predicament of a caged bear (“I don’t know why the plight of animals moves me so greatly.  Perhaps it is that I have never overcome my own Animal Nature”); poverty (“the great scourge across the land”), and a woman he meets, Madame Louise de Flamanville, whose father owns a chateau in Switzerland.  He is now 57 years old and craving Lightness of Heart.

As Merivel struggles to find peace, we cannot read fast enough to learn whether he has predicted his destiny.  By now, we care about this flawed, passionate, charitable, philosophical man.  When at last we find him ensconced in a comforting room back at his beloved Bidnold, reflecting on how much he “liked to sit, sometimes, and watch the Alterations of the sky, and listen to the wind, and feel that I was above the world and yet floating in its beauty, like a cloud,” we so wish his destiny to be floating in beauty.  But Merivel is a most contradictory soul, whose spirit we’ve come to know rather intimately.  So we brace ourselves for the coming clouds.


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Backlands: A Novel of the American West 7

Darn good, old-fashioned Western storytelling: Western nostalgia and the beauty and serenity of southern New Mexico (1920 – 1943):  Second in a trilogy, Backlands illuminates New Mexico’s heart and spirit in a family saga as expansive as the landscape.  By centering on one family – the Kerneys – it offers a personal understanding of how the years of the stock market crash, Depression, Dust Bowl, Civilian Conservation Corps, and WWII’s Army Specialized Training Program affected the lives of hardworking ranching families in New Mexico’s desert Southwest.

The Tularosa basin, where much of the novel is told, lays in the remote backlands of the San Andres mountains overlooking the Mescalero Apache reservation, a “land of hidden canyons and wide mesas and high pasturelands and forested mountaintops and rugged mountains.”  The prose is “quiet, serene, and calming” resonating the scenery of the Tularosa:

“an expanse that filled the eye, stretched beyond blindingly brilliant sand dunes to the south and dangerous, ink-black malpais to the north.  Most days the basin shimmered under crystal-clear skies, with mountains looming and lurking in all directions.”

Backlands stands well alone.  But its feel-good values are so beautifully told you’ll be sorry when it ends and anxious for the final chapter.  If you can’t wait, or need another reminder about freedom and the “Code of the West” that vividly reveals “what kind of life a person lives” – especially when that life is physically, emotionally, and financially challenged – treat yourself, as I intend to do, to the saga’s beginnings, Hard Country (1875 – 1918).  The prose and the deft storytelling are a tonic.

The creative writing maxim – write what you know – is skillfully on display.  Not only is New Mexico the author’s home, but I reckon his psychotherapy and social work background is why the novel is so heartfelt.  (In the same way that McGarrity’s extensive law enforcement experience undoubtedly plays into the success of his Kevin Kerney crime series, a dozen penned from 1996 to 2008 prior to creating this New Mexican epic, called a prequel to the Kerney mysteries.)

As a fine Western novel should, this one is filled with colorful stories and characters that sweep us along its 503 pages.  They all revolve around the central character, Matthew Kerney:

MATT:  You’ll visually watch him grow from ages 8 to 30.  He loves his Ma, his horse, reading, education, and a beautiful gal, Beth Merton, who has come to New Mexico from Cleveland to be healed by its dry climate in one of the State’s TB sanatoriums.  We see him as a cowboy, a cattle rancher, an engineering student, an auto mechanic, a forest service ranger, and an army officer.  He’s a good, obedient boy and a very decent man who goes through a lot of tough times, often feeling an “empty weariness about life.” But he’s brave and resilient.

EMMA:  Matt’s Ma.  She has a serious heart condition, is fiercely independent, a smart financial planner, and divorced early from Matt’s Pa.  That’s why some of the novel is set in Las Cruces, where Matt and Emma live, not on Pa’s Double K ranch in the Tularosa.  While she gets lonely, it’s “not as important as my freedom.”  Emma has earned notoriety for having endured a roundup trail drive.  Perfectly introduced to us at the time of the passage of the 19th amendment, the women’s right to vote, she’s a terrific example of how a ranch woman’s life was more equal to a man’s in the early 20th century than a woman’s from the East.  That accounts for her native counterparts praise when a famous Western writer, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, writes a story about her cowboying escapades, yet she’s scorned by those eastern women.  Rhodes is one of several authentic New Mexican historical figures nicely folded into the novel.  He wrote about the beauty of the Tularosa, his stories serialized in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, but he’s all but forgotten – except for now.  Perhaps Rhodes’ poetic writing inspired the author to bring him back to life?

PATRICK:  Matt’s ornery Pa with a past that haunts him.  One of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, so he’s not afraid of hardships but a disagreeable character whose estranged from Matt, does best alone, and while not physically abusive to Emma hurt her “with words and looks.”  To his credit, he cares deeply about the Double K ranch, “one of the nicest outfits on the Tularosa” despite its lack of modern conveniences.  His character shows us that sound agricultural practices and foresight matters in the cattle ranching business, under the constant stress of weathering nature and financial crises.

PATCHES:  Matt’s pony is to be appreciated because “you can learn a lot about a man by his horse.”  In fact, “sometimes a man’s pony can be his best friend, the most important critter in a cowboy’s life.”

THE IGNATIO & LUCERO families:  Teresa Ignatio is Matt’s maternal aunt, and Nestor and Gaudalupe Lucero are Matt’s neighbors in Las Cruces.  Both Mexican families pay tribute to the historical heritage of Hispanics in settling New Mexico and the role of the Catholic church; gracious hospitality and fiestas; and the “closeness and affection” of proud families – proud of their traditions and their State.

AUGUSTA & CONSUELO MERTON: Gus, a professor at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanics in Las Cruces and his wife Consuelo are the beloved and watchful aunt and uncle of Matt’s “wonderful love” Beth.  Their hacienda is a great example of New Mexico’s ubiquitous architecture: thick adobe walls, “low-beamed passages” that sprawl onto an open courtyard with endless views of the desert.  Beth is another strong female character: she dreams to become a doctor.

VERNON CLAGETT: What would a Western be without an outlaw?  This one allows the author to depict New Mexican law enforcement in the early 20th century.

ERNIE PYLE and BILL MAUDLIN:  Pyle, the renowned WWII reporter and Maudlin, Pulitzer-Prize winning WWII cartoonist, add two more compelling New Mexican historical figures to the cast of characters.  They help tell the fascinating story of New Mexico’s role in WWII: Operation Husky.

There are more characters, more stories, but to say more would be a spoiler.

With all this telling of tales comes a delightful mix of old-fashioned, Western language – hornswoggling and lickety-split and hogwash and greenbacks and jake – and a swell balance of depicting New Mexico’s “stark beauty” against its parched lands and sobering history.  As Matt’s friend, Boone, declared when he set eyes on the Tularosa: “I’ve never seen anything like this place.”  You may feel the same, when you see it through the visually evocative prose.


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Chaplin & Company

Being different, being alike: an orphan, a canal boat community, and the silent world of mime (London, present-day):  It takes courage for a debut author to pen a novel full of odd and unlikable characters in an unfamiliar setting.  It also takes originality.  And a respect for the reader’s sensibilities to care about these unconventional characters when the inviting prose brings you close to a place that’s “a halfworld up, a halfworld apart.”  That’s what British author Mave Fellowes has done, drawing us in from the opening pages, quietly, poetically:

“London in August.  From above, the city shimmers and glints in the sun.  There is so much activity on its surface that it looks crawling, swarming with movement, as if it is one whole living thing.  But look closer and this is just an impression given by the million little channels of movement that cross, curve, diverge, and wind between buildings.  These channels glitter.  Look closer still.  Sunlight flashes back from the windscreens and the roofs of the coaches, lorries moving across the surface of the city.  The machines chug out a quivering exhaust which softens the edges of the buildings and blurs outlines.  It is thirty degrees of dry, dusty heat and London is baking.”

Not surprisingly, with a little googling, we can learn that the author once lived in a house overlooking these “little channels of movements” – 2,000 miles of historic waterways – where “narrowboats” (less than seven feet wide, designed for Britain’s narrow canals; up to 2012 managed by British Waterways, today by Canal and River Trust) float along towpaths and under bridges on water that’s “in love with the moon.”  Chaplain and Company takes place on the Little Venice canal, near London’s Paddington and Regent’s Park.  And yet, “life on these waterways is lower than life on the streets around it.  It is below the eyeline.  A good place to hide.”

The offbeat characters hiding and drifting along in this dreamed up canal boat community include:

Odeline Milk: The heart of the story.  At 19, she’s the oddest of them all.  She dresses oddly, acts oddly, and has chosen an unusual artistic aspiration: mime.  She senses she “breathed a rarer air,” but isn’t sure if she’s “better or worse”?  She’s performed as an illusionist at children’s parties, but adamant she’s “an artist not a children’s entertainer.”  Her ho-hum accountant mother, Eunice, who laughed at her tricks, bought her magic business cards, has passed away, which leads her to discover her father’s identity when she sorts through her mother’s paperwork.  When Odeline learns she’s named after her father, a clown in a traveling circus, the epiphany is life-changing.  Now she knows where she gets her “gift for movement,” her artistic passion, and her “butterscotch skin.”  Her father’s nomadic lifestyle inspires her to leave her quaint yet stifling village of Arundel for London, for a floating home.  She dreams to be with him.

One of the delights of the novel are glimpses into the silent performing arts world of magic and mime.  We hear of 19th century English magicians, Maskelyne and Cooke, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplain, and Marcel Marceau, Odeline’s idol.  (She owns 19 of his books.)  Her everyday dress and accessories are borrowed from these silent artists – bowler hat, baggy pants, oversized “brogues,” red “braces,” and a prop box she drags around.  When we meet her, she’s also antisocial, barely eats, paranoiac, fanatical about keeping track of finances and her plans in a notebook, unable to say thank you, and has difficulty discerning when “she has discovered a terrible thing, or done a terrible thing herself.”

Chaplain & Company: Odeline’s historic narrowboat, listed here as an important character because the boat feels alive: she “breathes” and “sighs” and endures.  Such a clever name, attracting Odeline to buy it with her inheritance, yet it has nothing to do with the legendary Charlie.  Its history becomes known to us over time.  Stay with it, because it’s interesting information about the history of narrowboats during the war, and because it tells us something about living a life different than our own.

John Kettle: Canal boat warden and Odeline’s nemesis.  He’s a disagreeable alcoholic, dirty, and prejudiced against persons who are bi-racial and Asian.  When he shouts profanities, Enchanted Prose winces.  Fellowes hints at an earlier life as a “submariner,” when he was “better at life.”

Vera: A big waitress who works at the canal café.  She dresses in flashy pink tracksuits and floral skirts, is glued to international news, harbors a secret, and is scared of her powerful boss, Mr. Zjelko.

Ridley: Odeline’s heavily-tattooed neighbor, owner of Saltheart, another apt name, we discover.  In fact, he and Vera are rather likable.  It’s Odeline’s slow acceptance of their friendship that absorbs us.

We may think these colorful characters have nothing in common with each other, or us, but the brilliance of the novel is the way the story unfolds to show us that they do.  The shared human thread: loneliness.  The prose feels intentionally matched to the world of canal boats and mime, “not grand or flamboyant” but gentle and purposeful.  The characters go through their share of disappointments but we’re on the lookout for hope and goodness.  It comes to us the way “sunlight seems to bounce piercingly off the triangle of water, making liquid stars” – magically.

Fellowes you’ll see knows how to wave a magic wand.  Lorraine

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