A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts

Illuminating the unsung Gilded Age legacy of socialite Alva Vanderbilt – philanthropist and activist for children’s, women’s, and civil rights (Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island, 1874 – 1908): What Do Billionaires Owe the Rest of Us? was recently broadcast on NPR 1A, in response to the wealth tax plans proposed by some 2020 Democratic candidates. As we reflect on the extremely wealthy today, what, if anything, they owe to us, it’s worthy to look back on what the richest American families in the late 1800s – the Gilded Age era, whose name came from a Mark Twain book, did for America.

Cornelius (nicknamed The Commodore) Vanderbilt, was one of those families; he built his fortune in steamboats and railroads. Therese Anne Fowler captures the era and the family in her second novel (her debut, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald) about another compelling woman behind the man. Except this time the woman is not known to us: Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of William Vanderbilt, one of Cornelius’ four sons (he also fathered nine daughters).

The novel is a captivating historical read. Strong-willed Alva Smith married a Vanderbilt for financial security not love. She sought to become a prominent force in the early days of establishing Manhattan’s upper-crust. An activist for children, she later became one of America’s earliest suffragettes. Today, these fights continue – for migrant children and immigrant Dreamers, voting rights, women’s, and human rights – making Alva’s story important to tell.

Interesting comparisons can be seen between Alva’s post-Civil War time period to today. Both a highly divided America: extreme poverty and the dwindling middle class versus extreme wealth; and racial, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic discrimination.

Newly married Alva is seen as sensitive to the plight of African American women. She fought tooth and nail her new husband’s and sister-in-law’s racial condescension towards her personal maid and confidente who was black and by her side since childhood, opposing their desire she let her go because she didn’t fit the “lady of privilege” image the family wished to project. An early example of the expectations of marrying a Vanderbilt, raising a timeless question: Is choosing wealth over principles worth it? And in Alva’s case: Can a marriage survive based on transactional benefits?

Alva acted like a well-behaved woman, but she was also fiercely independent-minded when it came to injustices – equal treatment of all children and women, including those of color. Noteworthy at “a time when many people (including those in the suffragette movement)” were not standing up for equality for all.

In the year since the novel was published, America is more polarized than ever. So now is a poignant time to read the newly released paperback edition.

There’s other reasons to sing the novel’s praises. It’s a lovely literary escape into more classical prose, manners, evoking classics like Edith Wharton’s A Custom in the Country and Henry James’ Washington Park, two of Alva’s reading choices, also set in Manhattan’s Gilded Age. Again, timely as NPR just confirmed we’re living in the second Gilded Age.

Alva’s motivation to marry a Vanderbilt at twenty-one opens the hefty novel: “Once there was a desperate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying as quickly as his money was running out.” And there were four sisters who needed to be fed – Alva’s older sister, Armide, destined for spinsterhood, and two younger ones.

The Smiths weren’t always poor. Their father made his money in cotton in the Deep South until it became the “disgraced-South.” The family escaped to Paris, where they spent many lavish years before coming to New York, where they weren’t accepted into high society – the “deep-rooted Manhattanites.”

A shortage of men after the Civil War also limited the sisters’ marriage prospects. Also, Alva wasn’t a beauty to show off. What she had going for her was ancestry and cultured years in France.

Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt at Costume Ball, 1883
By José María Mora via Wikimedia Commons

Consuelo Yznaga, Alva’s best friend, is a huge presence. A wealthy, prettier socialite whose Cuban-American father made his money in sugarcane, she fancied matchmaking, which she did for Alva with William Vanderbilt. Both women wanted the same things because “status gave a woman more control over her life.” For years, they traveled along parallel paths, Alva in Manhattan and Consuelo in England, until something terrible happened. Letters between the two over the years keep us updated. Consuelo, not so well-behaved, is flamboyantly revealing; Alva is more reserved.

Over time, we like Alva more and more, Consuelo less and less. We don’t approve of their gold-digging, but we’re sympathetic to Alva’s desperation to support her family in crisis. Alva’s strength, moral convictions, and compassion towards Consuelo’s painful behavior is admirable. Valuing friendship, another prevailing theme.

Pearls, the inviting title of the novel’s first part, focuses on Alva’s fixation on acceptance into New York’s upper class, starting with getting invited to exclusive society balls, scheming and hobnobbing with Consuelo’s help and another friend’s, Ward McCallister. A long-time friend of Alva’s family, this charming, gossipy man-about-town was close to Caroline Astor, the famous Mrs. Astor, seen holding the key to opening doors, or not. Considered queen of New York society, her Old Money world frowned on “robber barons” like The Commodore for their exploitative business practices. William seized on Alva’s attributes to help breakthrough Mrs. Astor’s disapproval of the family, so it was a marriage of convenience for both.

Alva in turn, raised to “always put sense above feeling,” that “love was a frivolous emotion,” seized on the challenge. Yet, for all the head-over-heart guidance, a sexual thread runs throughout, making Alva more relatable.

Formidable Vanderbilts posed other challenges for Alva. One,the earlier cited sister-in-law, Alice, wife of William’s brother, Corneil, who was perceived as “a shining example of all that’s right in the world.” Snobby, overbearing Alice assumed that meant her too; she aimed to be the next Vanderbilt matriarch – not Alva. Forever disparaging Alva, she gets under our nerves and Alva’s. Alva is too disciplined, wise, and ambitious to cower.

Vanderbilt House, 5th Avenue, 1886
NYPL Digital Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Less offensive and better-intended was William’s mother, related to the Roosevelts. “I don’t pretend to understand all this best society nonsense. Who’s allowed in, who’s kept out,” she says, but she certainly knows how to take charge to make that happen, “acquiring a house on Forty-Fourth Street as a wedding gift” for the newlyweds.

Of course, the house wasn’t an ordinary one. Rather, a magnificent mansion, the first of a number of their palatial properties in Manhattan and Newport, where this wealthy clan summered. Alva relished furnishing and decorating her estates.

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island
Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

So many historical figures fill the pages, going as far back as the 1600s when New York was settled by the “best New York Dutch.” The juiciest parts of the city’s real estate development are how “family history and reputation” led to “the clear establishment of order” along the richest areas of Manhattan along Fifth and Park Avenues, setting down boundaries.

Another Gilded Age family – the Belmonts – is ever-present. The Belmont critical to Alva’s story is Oliver, one of William’s friends. Their on-and-off friendship is the real sexual tension that makes the novel hum.

Alva’s accomplishments exceeded her lofty goals, but she was lonely much of her life. Besides managing estates and entertaining to the hilt, she kept herself busy mothering three children and increasing her progressive philanthropy and activism.

Ironically, Alva learns that “existing on a joyous merry-go-round of wealth” was not enough. Finding love is what makes the world spin. Still, would she think her sacrifices were worth the greater good?

Celebrating Alva’s great deeds feels like a good way to end this year’s reviews. Wishing you peace and happiness. See you in 2020.


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The Last Train to London

Little-known Dutch pre-WWII profile-in-courage (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, England, 1936 – 1940): Had the International Women of Courage Award existed in the late 1930s (created in 2007 by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) – Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer from Amsterdam, affectionately called Tante (Auntie) Truss – would surely have received it. The Last Train to London, Meg Waite Clayton’s seventh novel, offers a revelation about an extraordinary Dutch woman who wasn’t even Jewish who rescued 10,000 Jewish children out of Germany and Austria before WWII ignited, when Hitler rose to power and invaded Czechoslovakia and Austria.

Surprisingly, her story is unfamiliar in Holocaust fiction. Even more surprising, the Kindertransport was relatively unknown in Austria until fairly recently.

To see the desperation and chaos of these historic times when parents sent their children away before their destiny was sealed by the Nazis, take a look at this short video:

Seeing those images and then reading the novel’s preface – an excerpt from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize speech fifty years after the novel opens in 1936 – beautifully summarizes the resounding message of Truus’ life: “one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death.”

Clayton’s meticulously researched, chock-full of details (460+ pages worth, fast-moving in brief chapters) novel is divided into four sections – Part I, The Time Before, 1936; Part II, The Time Between, 1938; Part III, The Time After, 1939; and Part IV, And Then … – that layout before and after. The 1938-1940 years mark Truus’ heroic accomplishments, with the help of other historical saviors, pitted against evil historical figures.

You can’t help but wonder if Truus’ death in 2016, the year the 45th President of the United States was elected, inspired some of the prose. Like quoting Hitler as saying “the lying press.” And asking: “how has Hitler convinced all of Germany that lies are the truth and the truth is a lie?”

Historical fiction is hot. Inventing characters illuminates and humanizes history and statistics, provides lessons to guide us, as long as we can connect with them, find them believable, interesting, relevant, informative. In this novel, we want to wrap our arms around three fictional characters, fittingly children: two Jewish brothers and a non-Jewish best friend forced to mature well-beyond their tender years. Their sensitivities, loyalties, attachment to one another, terrifying fears, uncertainties, and suffering feel real. Combined with Truus’ rescuing truths, the novel builds suspense and hope as to whether history and fiction will intersect. Did Truus save the three child protagonists?

The number of Jewish children killed by the Nazis is estimated at 1.5 million. Another 10,000 didn’t perish because of the children’s transport program. How many more survived through hiding and escape? Added up, these numbers are impossible to grasp. But when they’re no longer a number but real individuals, we emotionally feel the weight of their pain and losses.

Stephen Neuman is the sixteen-year-old Jewish son of a famous chocolate-maker in Vienna. His family symbolizes Jews Hitler rounded up and attacked over two brutal historic days in 1938 – the Kristallnacht – vividly announcing to the world his intention to wipe out all Jews in as many countries as he could.

Austria has a long history and love of chocolate, even a Museum of Chocolate, so the family’s business is apropos. As is their cultured life in Vienna – arts, music, literature, theater. Stephan aspires to be a playwright; his idol is the prolific Austrian Jewish writer who wrote some plays, Stefan Zweig, considered one of the most popular writers in the world back then. His inclusion also a terrific choice for the era, especially since he escaped Nazi Germany only to be so exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering he tragically took his own life.

Walter is Stephen’s young brother forever clinging to his Peter Rabbit and his brother, who protects and cares for him as their mother is ill, confined to a wheelchair. Mutti is another emblematic Jewish character, as the Nazis had no use for weakness. Her sister, Aunt Lisl, loves the boys as if they were her own. Childless, she’s married to Michael, a Christian; they live in the Neumans’ opulent mansion. Michael represents the unbearable choice of having to choose family over one’s own life. Trying to balance both, he walks a dangerous tightrope.

Žofie-Helene is Stephen’s fifteen-year-old new best friend he meets early on through her adoring grandfather, Otto, Stephan’s barber. They’re instantly drawn to each other. Žofie’s prose shows she’s brilliant, a protégé of her renowned mathematical logician professor, Kurt Gödel, famous for his “Incomplete Theorem”. Her independent streak comes from her mother, Käthe, who publishes an anti-Nazi newspaper; her historical news articles punctuate what’s swirling around the fiction.

Unless you’re mathematically logically inclined, you’ll likely not fully grasp this confounding way of thinking, except to glean that just as some things cannot be proven in math they do carry over to Žofie’s trying-to-make-sense of her adolescent world. For instance:

“This very sentence is false, she said. The sentence has to be true or false, right? But if it’s true, then, as it says itself, it’s false. But if it’s false, then it’s true. So it has to be both true and false.”

OK, so we may be a bit lost there but not when she transfers math logic into relationships, like when Stephan wants to hold her hand but she hesitates:

“How could you take the hand of someone who had so quickly become your best friend without risking the friendship?”

This human paradox (paradoxes from math logic are titles of their Vienna chapters) befuddles Žofie and Stephen for a long time as they both care for each other and are afraid to jeopardize their friendship. Until it becomes vital and urgent once the Nazis invade Vienna.

Tante Truus’ historical tale is told in alternating chapters. Also childless (she and her loving banker husband, Joop, ache for not being able to have a baby of their own), her love for children drove her to save thousands of innocent Jewish children.

Some may prefer history painted into novels in broad brushstrokes, rather than chock-full of details as this one is. Yet it seems necessary to pack in facts to see how rapidly and dramatically pre/post-Nazi occupation changed lives, forever. Facts, like people, can mean all the difference in the world, as we’re witnessing in the Trump era.

Adolph Eichmann makes his first appearance on page 22. His role in the Holocaust looms larger than perhaps we realized, as the expert who devised the plan to solve Germany’s “The Jewish Problem”.

Britain’s Helen Bentwich, “a real and important contributor to the Kindertransport effort,” who coordinated with Truss, offers another stark contrast to heinous historical people. The above quote is taken from the postscript (Author’s Note and Acknowledgements), which delivers quite a punch when we learn how the lives of the novel’s characters turned out.

More prose feels pointedly designed for today: “Everyone is too wrapped up in their own families and their own lives to see the politically darkened clouds piling up on the border between Germany and Austria.” How many overworked, stressed American families are paying attention to the facts of our national security crisis? And: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather going forward in the face of it.”

Will these Holocaust heroes and loud alarm bells help to awaken America before it’s too late?


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An Echo of Scandal

Toxic, intoxicating Tangiers/Tangier (Morocco, 1928 and 1978): Laura Madeleine’s sensory prose tantalizes with the tastes of food, sweets, and atmospheric smells. In An Echo of Scandal, her fourth historical novel, she mixes in another powerful ingredient: spicy, pungent alcoholic beverages concocted for the exotic, sultry, teeming north African city Tangier, Morocco. Fabled, multicultural, and centuries old (and new), it sits “at the edge of the world,” a short ferry to Britain’s Strait of Gibraltar and Spain’s southern Andalusia region.

Map of Morocco by Cacahuate [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Formerly an International Zone (Interzone from 1912 – 1951), the city is “nothing but layers.” It’s “built on stories,” an ideal locale for Madeleine’s trademark of inventing layered stories separated by decades, one historical, one modern-day.

What’s echoing is a secret protected for fifty years the contemporary protagonist – Sam Hackett, wandering American ex-pat – stumbles upon, leading him back to the 1928 Spanish main protagonist, Alejandra del Potro. From “the Tangier of now into the Tangiers of then.”

The two spellings of the city – with or without an s – is intentional. While the Internet says the two are synonymous, the author uses these to distinguish historical periods – Tangiers for the past, Tangier for the present – to tell two stories of two very different characters who “didn’t fit in anywhere else,” until they landed in Tangiers/Tangier.

When we meet Ale and Sam they’re traveling in different worlds. Sam is an author with writer’s block who depleted his funds vagabonding around Europe searching for inspiration for a novel. Tangier is his last hope, or else he’ll have to return home. Ale is a watchful sixteen-year-old without a last name living in an inn that doubles as a brothel in Cordoba, Spain. She has no idea how she got there, either “born there, or at least left soon after,” adopting the inn’s name for her last name, Del Porto. The novel opens when she’s been assisting the cook, Ibrahim, her only friend. Tender of age but old enough to now serve as prey for garish men who take advantage of destitute girls whose survival depends on obliging their desires and those of the inn-keeper/madame, heartless Mama Morales. By page 3, something terrible happens to Ale, sending her fleeing; something she’ll have to keep secret or risk being arrested for a crime she didn’t commit. Already, we’re hooked as her fate feels sealed: she must keep running away from her past, hiding her identity.

By the time Ale reaches Tangiers, her existence is wretched – lurking on the dangerous streets scared and penniless, painfully disguised. She’s been through so much and yet her tale hasn’t really begun.

Fast forward to 1978: Sam purchases a leather writing case at one of the myriad market stalls in the old city (medina) that courses through narrow passageways. Spending precious little monies he needs for rent, he buys it from a friend, Abdelhamid, who pitches the sale as an omen, one writer to another. The case and contents contain clues that propel Sam to dig into a mystery from 1928 – Ale’s time.

The case provides enough evidence for Sam to fantasize the plot of a mystery for his elusive novel, if he can unlock the story of the case, which he imagines involves “drugs and glamour and mistakes.” The clues include the name del Potro, gold initials, and another name the reader will see as somehow linked to Ale. Sam’s imagination may sound as wild as Ale’s Tangiers, but it fits an international city with a dramatic history and one known to have inspired writers.

Sam and the case become inseparable, with serious consequences, more mysteries, and lots of twists and turns. As Ale’s and Sam’s stories unwind, they parallel each other. The reader itches for these to converge, which they do, as the novelist has done before. When they intersect, two timeframes feel like they’re happening at the same time.

You will not tire of the author’s separated-in-time intersecting style. She’s a pro at keeping the suspense going and going, along with complicated romances. In this novel, romantic tension echoes unusually.

Another familiar element are characters that are cooks and bakers of sweet things and life-saving bread. This time Ale fakes her way into being a real cook. Most of her chapters are introduced by an alluring, potent alcoholic recipe befitting the city’s seductive setting and legendary history.

The author once baked cakes from recipes she created for a UK blog she also wrote for, Domestic Sluttery. Did she create the alcoholic concoctions foretelling Ale’s world? (For the novel’s launch, she enlisted an award-winning bartender to create a “unique cocktail”.) Drink names offer hints about scenes and moods.

For instance, Ale’s story begins with Blood and Sand, so strong you “break out in a sweat . . . an experience rarely repeated.” Indeed, it’s one Ale prays she’ll never repeat. For her next chapter (the two storylines go back and forth in time) Have a Heart is the drink because it draws from critical life lessons Ifrahim taught her: being a cook cast a “kind of magic” – “stove spirit” for the “power and control that came with feeding people.” Advice Ale took to heart when she made her way into Tangiers, allowing her (at great peril) to “carve a space for myself in a world that didn’t want me.”

An Echo of Scandal sets its sights on new territory for Madeleine, whose first three novels are set in France. For those who don’t know about the intercontinental history of Tangiers/Tangier, the commingling of Arabic with French, Spanish, and English, it’s a fascinating read.

Tangiers is where Ale’s destiny is set in stone at a covered-up villa in the oldest part of the city, the Casbah. On the author’s blog, we’re told the inspiration for this hidden enclave was Dar Zero. In the late 1600s, the residence was owned by Britain’s Samuel Pepys (best known for his diaries), when the city was occupied by the British. Last year, the home was featured in Architectural Digest, where the 100th birthday of a famous French designer, Charles Sevigny, was celebrated on the rooftop of the estate overlooking the bluest of seas.

Ale ends up at its fictional version, named Del Portuno, owned by a rather mysterious, charismatic British fellow, Arthur Langham. You’ll be guessing who Arthur really is until the end. Another character, then, whose identity is concealed. His wealth and frequent disappearances are shadowy, constantly hosting lavish garden parties for questionable guests who overindulge in food, drinking, and smoking of kif in a sebsi pipe. What’s really going on here beneath the smoke and mirrors?

Ale’s recipes/chapters are “not for the faint of heart.” Like the drinks Twin Six, “smooth, and very deceptive”; None but the Brave with “bitter allure”; and the Epilogue’s Last Word, which aims to “cleanse the palate, when the day is done.”

Ale’s and Arthur’s story is not just one of danger. For a time, it was filled with the smells of “ancient rose petals,” “honey-slow heat,” when Ale’s world “was as soft as cinnamon.” At her happiest, she “wanted to drink the light. It would taste of pomegranates and cold butter, strawberries wet with dew and honey dripped from a comb.” There’s a lovely, sensual rhythm to the prose.

Roses and cinnamon are fragile. Ale’s extraordinary life is an emotional roller-coaster, since “identity can be a slippery thing.”


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The Dutch House

The unbreakable bond between two siblings arising from a broken house (Elkins Park, Pennsylvania dominates, 1946 – 80s): Admired, award-winning, bestselling author and co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Ann Patchett, is a household name to millions. Whenever she comes out with a new book, the literary world is abuzz. Her eighth novel, The Dutch House, is no exception.

Patchett was singled out in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012 for her “wisdom, generosity and courage” and “moral code”. All on full display in her new novel, in its heart-to-heart, astute prose and principled, selfless central character, Maeve.

At ten, Maeve mothered her three-year-old brother Danny, and never stopped. Their mother abandoned them, without a word. Trauma worsened by an extraordinarily self-centered, apathetic father, absent even when he was present at the dutch house, named for its prior owners, a Dutch couple, the VanHoebeeks.

The grandiose mansion stuck out like a sore thumb in an everyday suburban neighborhood outside of Philadelphia, more “Versailles than Eastern Pennsylvania.” A see-through design – glass entranceway at the front and back – let’s us imagine how anxious, discomforted, exposed one might feel in a house like that – precisely intended. Sister and brother spent their formative childhood years there, until they moved out, Maeve first, then Danny.

Initially you may be unsure whose penetrating image is featured on the cover. That’s because inside the opulent entrance hall hang two portraits of the former occupants painted in the same artistic style as the cover. “Rendered with Dutch exactitude and a distinctly Dutch understanding of light,” we think perhaps it’s their daughter? Whoever it is, the arresting image feels iconic, reminiscent of the Dutch Golden Age. You’ll soon figure out the image is Maeve, making it one of the best covers for a novel for what it reveals and portends.

Inside, the paintings creepily hover over the first floor. In fact, all the former belongings hadn’t been cleared out, the couple died leaving everything behind. But why not remove strangers’ things, personalize the house, make it your own home? Palatial marble and fancy chandeliers will never transform this house into a home.

Maeve is on the cover since she looms large in Danny’s eyes. He’s our storyteller, the sibling who keeps revisiting and questioning the veracity of his early childhood memories growing up in that “depressing enterprise.” His narration, the author’s literary weapon, is chronicling the siblings’ life in clear, flowing, realistic, down-to-earth recounting. In stark contrast to the pretentious, shrouded estate.

“Mothers were the measure of security,” Danny says, as he goes back and forth in time with Maeve about his recollections, questioning whether anyone can be objective about their past. Especially with a father who “didn’t tell us anything,” who matter-of-factly managed to inform them their mother went to India, but that’s all. Didn’t give a hoot how alarming a mother’s disappearance would be, or how that impacted them when she never returned.

Danny’s narrations feel like natural, intimate conversations he’s having with us – in Maeve’s car. Parked across the street from that oppressive house, this setting becomes a ritual, as they return to it over and over again through the decades, rehashing, dissecting perceptions of the origins of their disquietude. An obsession that plays out through various stages of life: coming-of-age, college, career and marriage choices, into mid-life. Relayed when they’re both outsiders, even when Danny lives in New York. It’s Maeve who doesn’t alter her geographical world much.

The magnetic strength of the novel is found in Danny’s poignant, bewildered, regretful, relatable conversations; in lengthy, sweeping paragraphs, sometimes running more than a page. Chapters longer than we typically read that swallow us up the way life does.

Maeve’s cover painting marks a major turning point in the siblings’ lives – when their mother deserted them. Like art lovers and critics who analyze an artist’s intentions, we do the same with Maeve’s image as the siblings and novel develop, as Danny gains deeper insight and so do we. When we examine Maeve’s blue eyes, we see how watery they are, on the verge of crying. We observe how awkwardly her hands are resting. How painfully sad she appears. This is what it looks like when a child’s world is frozen. Why the siblings clung to each other, and never let go.

Danny is devoted to Maeve above anyone else, and she to him, to both of their detriments. Loyalty is an overriding theme, carried to extremes. The two show us how far people can go to protect someone they love more than themselves.

Three household staff did watch over them – a housekeeper, cook, and another housemaid who came before them. They loved them as best they could, but there’s no substitute for a mother, or a substitute mother whose blood runs through yours.

The novel opens after WWII, when Danny, eight, is reading in fifteen-year-old Maeve’s upstairs bedroom on a window seat hidden behind drapes. Sandy, the housekeeper, disturbs the peace announcing their father beckons Danny (not Maeve) downstairs to meet a friend of his, Andrea, an early sign of the unraveling, noting their father “didn’t have friends.” By page six, Danny tells us the two married, though that earth-shattering event didn’t happen until later, slowly burning through Danny’s alternating-in-time recollections of a future, wicked stepmother who “lingered like a virus.”

To emphasize how lost sister and brother were Patchett doesn’t even reveal the father’s name until page 96. Emotionally detached from them, and later to his young stepdaughters, Norma and Bright. A tumultuous, dysfunctional, blended family that never blends.

Considered a companion to the author’s previous novel, Commonwealth, also about complicated family relationships arising from divorces and intermarriages, the author is wonderfully forthright as she is in her books (see interview), confiding this is familiar personal territory. She then surprises by saying writing, rewriting the novel felt “like burning a cake.” Yet nothing feels wasted as the prose is so assured and humanly plotted we feel we know Danny and Maeve, or someone like them, if only we were privy to their inner thoughts and emotions over decades like Danny candidly shares.

Maeve, like the Time quote, marches to her own moral compass. Danny laments she didn’t use her math-whiz skills to her potential, having failed to encourage her to do so. Instead, she settled for an uncomplicated life, saving her valiant strength (her health compromised by diabetes) to always be there for Danny. Maeve’s self-worth is wrapped up in feeling “indispensable” to Danny, and to a kind, empathetic employer. Can you blame her?

Maeve, though, is relentless at pushing Danny; he, like a dutiful son, abides by her wishes against his own. As hard as it is for a parent to let go, it’s equally hard for that dependent child too, even when they have their own family. That havoc is here too.

Politics is also very much alive, depicting the damage an exclusive fixation on wealth inflicts. The much-disliked father only cares about growing his real-estate business, and grooming Danny to takeover. Otherwise, he’s abnormally disinterested, insensitive, empty. (Distasteful Andrea focused on her own cunning motives.) It’s no coincidence the father’s profession and financial ambitions echo loudly, as “everything feels political to me these day,” says Patchett in another interview. Sending a resounding message about the true costs of wealth sought at any cost.

Tragically, Danny has been consumed trying to solve the mystery of his mother, and yet, in one particularly eye-opening revelation, realizes he’s also spent “every minute of his life” worrying about Maeve, his heroine.

Heroines are meant to inspire us and can break our hearts. That’s what Ann Patchett pulls off. Time and time again.


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This Tender Land

The Vagabonds – how four orphaned children survive inhumane treatment at an Indian Boarding School during the Depression: (Minnesota, 1932): “Does anyone ever get used to having their heart broken?”

That’s one of the many piercing questions gifted storyteller Odie O’Banion asks in his eighties as he looks back on four “soul-crushing” years he endured at an Indian boarding school in Lincoln, Minnesota, along with his older protective brother, Albert, and two other orphans they befriended – Mose, member of the Dakota Sioux tribal nation, and Emmy, an adorable little girl – and what happens to them afterwards in one life-changing summer in 1932. Odie’s recollections are vivid, because “everything that’s been done to us we carry forever.”

Odie’s tales are spun in gorgeous, lyrical, heart-wrenching, spiritual prose that seems destined to live on for the ages. William Kent Krueger cites as his literary inspirers great classical writers like John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway, which may partly explain why This Tender Land has “the feel of a classic” (quoted from the back cover). Odie’s storytelling brims with heart and soul.

Photo by Tony Fischer on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

In a heartfelt letter to readers, Krueger says “in asking you to read This Tender Land, I am, in a way, offering you my heart.” He ends with “I’ve poured the best of myself into this story” – and it shows in this follow-up to his acclaimed, first stand-alone novel Ordinary Grace, also set in Minnesota, where the author lives. (Krueger is the author of a seventeen-book mystery series featuring Cork O’Connor.) His 2013 novel takes place thirty years after this tender tale set during Herbert Hoover’s Presidency, blamed for the Great Depression. In fact, the Herbert Hoover song made famous in the musical Annie, as well as the shantytown name Hooverville, appear in the novel. Emmy’s depiction is in the image of Little Orphan Annie.

To get a feel for the mood of the novel you may want to listen to Shenandoah, a melancholy folk ballad, Odie’s favorite song, he plays on his can’t-live-without harmonica, his “hobo harp.” Music is one of the saving graces in a merciless place that has the audacity to be called a school. The lyrics foretell what’s up ahead for the children:

Each of the four orphans brings a special quality to the group, which becomes the family they’ve all lost and yearn for:

Albert is deft at all things mechanical and technical, which comes in mighty handy.

Odie is the risk-taker who does things no one else would dare to do.

Mosie is the most victimized as he’s the only American Indian of the foursome, symbolizing the long and ruthless history toward the Dakota tribe in Minnesota. He arrived at the military/prison-like/forced labor camp school without a name, a family, and unable to speak. The brothers’ mother was deaf, so they knew sign language, giving Mose a way to communicate since no one at the school could talk with him. A form of isolation and trauma. As the hardest and most upbeat worker, his storyline is even more heartbreaking. “There was something poetic in his soul,” says wise and eloquent Odie. “When I played and he signed, his hands danced gracefully in the air and those unspoken words took on a delicate weight and a kind of beauty I thought no voice could have possibly given them.”

Emmy beloved by all, soothes them all.

The four form a bond early on when they worked together at an apple orchard on a farm that had fallen on tough times, indicative of the hard hit Midwestern farmers during the Depression. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone suffering more than these four abused children, subjected to the wrath of the school’s superintendent, Mrs. Brickman. Nicknamed the Black Witch on account of her “black little heart,” she’s cruel and vengeful like a prison guard. Forever sending Odie, eight when the novel opens, for detention to a “quiet room,” a euphemism for “solitary confinement” as the terrifying cell he spent so many days alone in was a prison cell as the school was formerly a military base, Fort Sibley. A lot of history is embedded in the prose.

Good-hearts at the school were the exception. Besides the empathy these children have for each other, they had two compassionate teachers: Herman Volz, an older German immigrant, a gentle giant of a man, who taught carpentry. Like a “godfather,” his portrayal represents the large numbers of Germans who settled in Minnesota.

The other “precious gem” teacher is Mrs. Frost, who taught domestic skills to the girls. But they too were sentenced to hard labor cleaning cement, while the boys were treated like slaves by a heartless farmer, his farm on the school grounds.

If you’re unable to recall learning about the shameful history of Indian boarding schools aimed at wiping out American Indian culture, a form of genocide, that’s because it was wiped out of history books.

What happened to American Indian children nearly a century ago is not just old history, but another gut-punching point in American history that’s happening today on our southern borders, where migrant children are being held in prison-like cages.

Minnesota is located in a part of the country known as Tornado Alley. Frequent tornadoes devastate, another reminder of present-day – climate change. Combining tornadoes with tornadic, traumatizing school years, Part I is justly titled God is a Tornado.

Part II takes place four years later when Albert is sixteen, Odie twelve, Emmy six, and Mose’s age unknown but his spirit is ageless. This is when the adventure story begins. A freeing, roller-coaster time, when there’s a sense of hope mixed with hopelessness. Ever mindful of spoilers, the rest is left for the reader to discover.

Albert is an ethical young man, whereas Odie says he was not, yet he’s not afraid to rail against injustices, since “the only way to stand up against evil in this land, is to stand together.” Similarly, he says, “we are creatures of spirit . . . this spirit runs through us and can be passed to one another.” Indeed, a spiritual outlook winds through this hard-knocks novel, reinforced when a traveling band of healing evangelicals, a “revival tent show,” rekindles faith. Whether you agree with what the revivalists preached or not, they gave people that thing called Hope. Part III, then, is also spiritually titled, High Heaven.

Again no spoilers about Part IV, The Odyssey, and Part V, The Flats.

Odie is treated like “vermin,” very disturbing language that’s also timely as the President has referred to people of color and the less fortunate as “infestations.”

Odie’s stories heartily express grief, sadness, desperation, losses, but also a deep love for the grace of good, decent people and the land. Even in his elderly years, he speaks of a sycamore tree as a “thing of such beauty.”

In an Author’s Note, Krueger tells us he grew up listening to his “father’s stories about the Dust Bowl Years,” apparently the origin of wrapping his heart in the hearts of his characters, whose voices memorialize 250,000 homeless teenagers in 1932 he refers to.

The author is also after our hearts, 464 pages worth. Sixty-four chapters filled with such beautiful prose the pages fly.

Odie met another good soul who tries to comfort him saying the “heart is a rubber ball. No matter how hard it’s crushed, it bounces back.” But as Odie tells it, the heart never forgets.


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