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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The Giver of Stars

Five remarkable horseback-riding women transport us to Depression-era Appalachia – inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s WPA Pack Horse Library Project (Baileyville, Eastern Kentucky 1937): When the author of 38 million books sold, including the hugely popular Me Before You trilogy, acknowledges at the end of her 11th novel that “more than anything I’ve written . . . The Giver of Stars “made writing an unusual joy,” believe her, because it’s a joy to read.

And it’s “good for the soul” like reading – the mission of five heroic women carrying out Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambitious goal of delivering, by horseback, books, magazines, and comics to uneducated, wary of strangers, isolated mountain families in extreme poverty (shacks and cabins insulated with newspapers), scattered miles within the beautiful yet daunting Cumberland Mountains of Appalachian Kentucky, to provide them a new deal under FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Stars who risked their lives to make a difference. And they did, but wouldn’t have if not for the friendships forged.

Book carriers in Hindman, Kentucky
Works Projects Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While the historical times were not joyous, gutsy characters depict qualities to celebrate: persistence, resilience, courage, loyalty, compassion. Joyous too how much reading matters for the downtrodden.

The Giver of Stars hits the right notes on big, important themes: understanding mountain people as victims of circumstances – economics, illiteracy, domestic abuse, sexism, alcoholism, long-held feuds. Others egregiously affected by power, money, and the dangers of coal-mining, with little hope of earning an income except for local farming and selling home-made, illegal, and potent liquor, moonshine. Contrary to stereotypes of Appalachia as white, coal-miners were also black, so racism also reveals its injustices.

Moyes invents a town, Baileyville, but it feels as if it exists. “For people who lived so deeply in nature . . . they seemed oblivious to the idea of respecting it.” Coal mining’s impact – devastation to the land, health hazards, displacement of families, and efforts to squash unionizers championing workers rights– provides an environmental and economic message as relevant today as seventy-years ago.

This, then, is an emotionally, culturally, financially, and ethically moving tale that humanizes plights of survival of poor people living in small, remote towns, the greedy men who suppressed them, and the brave souls who served them, advocating for human rights, humaneness.

Moyes creates five different women, with different struggles and fears, to represent the different themes. Each has lost so much too, but by coming together for a meaningful cause they “shine through the gloom.”

It’s a pleasure to introduce them:

Alice: The protagonist. Like the author, from England. Unlike Moyes, who still lives there, Alice leaves, rashly marrying a handsome man she barely knew, Bennett Van Cleve – her ticket out of Surrey, UK, away from her rejecting family where she can’t seem to do anything right in their upper-class eyes. Elegant, Alice’s sadness and loneliness will tug at your heart. Sadly, she plunges deeper into misery, when she finds herself in a loveless marriage in Appalachian Kentucky, a shocking “cultural shift,” living under the same roof as father Van Cleve, a repugnant man and despicable boss of the Hoffman Mining Company. Rich but his house is silent and repressive, surrounded by the ghosts of a deceased wife and mother. Made even more unbearable when Alice realizes she married a shadow of a man.

A terrible incident in that terrible house is another shock to her system, compelling Alice to defiantly escape, by volunteering for the library project. This time she finds companionship and “liberation” with the women and a devoted animal aptly named Spirit: a mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey. We so want Alice to be happy, a testament to how emotionally relatable and tenderly developed the author has created her.

Moyes understands what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, saying in an interview that’s how she felt writing about Kentucky and its mountain people. So she visited the region three times over the course of two years while writing the novel, riding the same mountain trails the women rode, staying in a mountain cabin, and talking to the people to hear their stories and rhythmic language, which she infused in her evocative prose.

Margery: Alice’s fearless role-model. At thirty-eight, she’s tough-as-nails, having lived in the holler all her life. She knows the land and its people, and like all small towns where everyone knows everyone’s business, the “misfortunes of families,” they know hers. Margery is fiercely independent, learned to save herself her life must be unencumbered, which sets up one of the two romantic tensions winding through the plot. (The other romance is sweet Alice’s.) The author is an award-winning romance novelist, so she excels at poignantly developing affairs of the heart.

Margery takes Alice under her wings when the fledgling book project begins. Also encourages the other women to stand up for themselves. Until another tragic event beats her down.

Izzy: Her marvelous turnaround makes you feel like singing out, like she does in her angelic singing voice, accomplishing something more powerful than the sound of her music. Another outsider, because of a leg disability from polio. Her mother, who oversees the WPA project, forced her to ride into the mountains when she couldn’t even mount a horse. Alice comes up with an idea to accommodate that, boosting Izzy’s self-worth.

Sophia: Symbolizes the racist times. She lives in a segregated area in the worst spot in the valley. Came home from Louisville where she was a real librarian for eight years in a segregated library – sanctioned by a 1933 law (an assault on libraries as great equalizers) – to care for her brother William, who lost his leg in a mining accident, the mine owned by elder Van Cleve. When the library takes off, she’s called upon to organize and mend books. You’ll love how everyone comes to depend on her, how much strength she has.

Beth: Least known, for a good reason. She’s so busy tending to her farming responsibilities and her substitute motherly role for her brothers, she’s not around as much as the others.

Two good-hearted men of integrity buoy these heroic women, heroes too:

Sven: Margery’s lover for the past ten years. Beloved by all, he’s one of the miners. And the one who keeps asking Margery to marry him.

Fred: “A veritable saint.” Offered his barn to house the books where the characters gather. There’s warmth in that makeshift library, but his old-fashioned manners and protectiveness of Alice warms even more. He also watches over Sophia, sensitive to vulnerabilities. We see how deeply he cares for Alice before she does, since she’s married, he off limits. Their budding relationship is an endearing conflict between heart versus head.

Much more is packed into this nearly 400-page novel. Sentimental scenes of Alice softening bitter mountain men and grieving mountain women to allow her into their houses to bring reading material and read to their children, in stark contrast to dramatic scenes of lawlessness, hopelessness.

Moyes’ nimble prose flows from fine, reserved proper English to Appalachian dialect and poor grammar, to the outspokenness of unconventional women, to the distrust of strangers, and the angry lashing out loosened by drunkenness.

“There’s always a way out of a situation,” says Margery to Alice. It’s telling this conversation was chosen for the back cover. Whether that advice comes to fruition for those in deep trouble and pain is why this starred novel will sell many more millions of Jojo Moyes’ books.


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Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland

For the love of Icelandic Horses (2004 – 2015 Thingeyrar Iceland, except ‘06, ‘08, ‘12 Connecticut; Epilogue, 2016 Iceland): Once you see a picture of an Icelandic Horse like the author did while daydreaming at her desk job, you understand why she fell madly in love with these precious, unique animals. But don’t let their small size and adorable looks deceive you. “All the horses get wilder here, their blood filled with the wind and the waves of the Arctic waters.”

Icelandic Horse via MaxPixel

Even if you’re an equestrian, how many of us would become so “obsessed” about riding an Icelandic horse in surreal, subarctic Iceland to go to great lengths to actually ride them there? Especially when apparently there are places to ride Icelandic horses in the US, including one in the Berkshires of Massachusetts not too far from the author’s home outside New Haven, Connecticut, where she works at Yale University editing a journal.

That Icelandic horse farm triggered the author’s “Icelandophilia.” The two experiences cannot compare by any stretch of our imagination. And this gorgeous memoir lets your imagination run free, as it did for the author.

Fifteen years ago, Tory Bilski took her first magical trip with a core group of women her age (middle-aged, one older) to temporarily escape the realities of daily life. Back then, not many people were even traveling to Iceland on Icelandair – the only international airline that flies into the country. Landing in Keflavík (not Reykjavik, the capital), the view is bleak, Mars-like. Today, Iceland is a hot destination, but if you only know it as a stopover to Europe or elsewhere, you cannot imagine that the closer you get to the Arctic Sea overlooking Greenland, it’s fantastical, fairy-tale lands. An ancient, mystical Norse country steeped in folklore and myths, inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasies.

Bilski’s adventures come across as mythical: a “horse-lover’s dream” amidst a verdant landscape, “mesmerizing blue fjord,” volcanic sands. This is not only a unique place, but Icelandic horses are a unique breed “that’s remained isolated on this island for over a thousand years.” A breed that’s part “Norwegian Fjord horse, the Shetland Pony, the Irish Connemara, and the Fell and Dales Ponies of Yorkshire.” Interestingly, a bit of the Mongolian horse too, the subject of another memoir reviewed here.

There’s something about horses and their relationship to mankind that’s enchanted, almost spiritual. And those who write memoirs about that profound connection infuse their passion into their prose. “You seek in horses what you can’t get in humans.”

Wild Horses of the Summer Sun is escapist fiction crafted in literary prose.

Remarkable how Bilski fell into something beyond her wildest dreams, recognized that, and made it into an annual tradition for more than a decade, except for a few years when family and personal health prevented her from doing so. The euphoria lasted all year, as best as life lets it, until another late June when she set off again. There’s the summer sun in the title but there’s also cold, windy, driving rains, weather that dramatically changes throughout the day.

These life-enriching experiences confirm the cliché about being in the right place at the right time. Bilksi had gone to that Berkshires Icelandic horse farm, where she met Evie and Sylvie. Evie owned the farm with her husband Jack; Sylvie started riding there after retiring at 59. Already, you have a sense these women are hardy souls with big dreams. Helga was Sylvie’s friend in Iceland, who owned a magical horse farm where she bred and trained these beloved horses. The property included a heavenly guesthouse that was not a B&B, but she graciously and generously let Sylvie stay there, along with some of her friends, year after year for many years. That’s how Sylvie, leader and organizer, Evie, the author, along with another of Sylvie’s friends, Viv, and dear Helga, became a small cadre of women the author bonded with. Friendships that made it all possible, doable, incomparable.

Each year, Sylvie invites other women and teenagers to join her; some returned, many not. Sometimes there were nine or more, other times down to the essential four. Some were problematic as they were dealing with significant issues, which is why compassionate Sylvie invited them in the first place. She wholeheartedly believes, as many do, “horses have a way of healing.”

Besides the magical horses and Iceland, these female friendships at a later stage in life should be factored in. Women value friendships in general; in the author’s case, she describes herself as someone whose life revolved around her husband and three children, and someone who did not make friends naturally. So when she does, she’s grateful for them. And when she looks back, as she does in her memoir, she’s nostalgic for what they had. All along worried, how long can fantastic last?

Icelanders are another draw: easy-going, serene, tolerant people. “After all,” the author says, “this is a country that hosted the Reagan-Gorbachev summit; this is a country where people can make peace and disarm nuclear escalations.” She finds even the language restorative, a “lullaby language with nursery-tale tonality.”

You can think of a lot of adjectives to describe Icelandic horses, but the one that doesn’t fit is they’re easy to ride. Their pony-ish size and shaggy looks belie how highly energetic they are when released into their spirited landscape.

Also challenging is these horses have five gaits, atypical. The author hadn’t ridden much since her younger “horse-crazy years” until she turned forty, when horses became intoxicating again. If this was a mid-life crisis, it’s the kind that creates a second life. One that took her husband time to adjust to, time to understand how much Icelandic horses in Iceland meant to her.

The author was forty-six when these adventures took off. The oldest woman was Sylvie at sixty-six. She hardly knew Sylvie and her friend Eve, the rest were strangers.

Helga’s “state-of-the-art” horse farm in Thingeyrar is at the center. It’s about five hours from the airport, but in 2004 the journey lasted frustratingly longer without a GPS app on a cellphone. Neither existed back then.

What drives our fascination with something? Someplace? the author asks. To be addicted to this spectacular breed in a spectacular setting is one thing, but if you want to ride them you’ve got to master their “complicated” gaits. That’s why the author names her chapters – long but broken into short sections – after their five gaits, ranging in speed and number of beats.

The fifth gait is the one to beat. Also called the Flying Pace, it’s the one we can picture vividly: when all the horse’s legs are suspended in air, “giving it the feeling of flying.” No wonder the author felt “wildly free,” wildly flying in a “wild, moody place,” wildly unconventional compared to her life back home.

The author explains how important it is to get to know each horse’s personalities, moods, abilities. Equally important is how horses are affected by their rider’s competence, confidence, moods. Made more difficult as the years pass, as the women grow older and are not as willing to take risks. “Horses are a mirror. You can’t lie to a horse.”

Sixteen pages of beautiful color photos the author took add to our appreciating, like the author does, “the aching beauty of the universe.” The memoir then is a very timely, important tribute to an Arctic Shangri-La crying out for the urgency of global actions to protect our planet in crisis.


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The Secrets Between Us

The dangers of love during an unfamiliar slice of French WWII history (South of France, February – September 1943; England and France, 1993): Laura Madeleine has found her secret to writing elegant, heartfelt novels set in France. The Secrets Between Us her third. (Her prior novel reviewed here.) It’ll be interesting to see what she comes up with in Spain, the setting of her soon-to-be-released fourth novel, An Echo of Scandal.

A few of the author’s secrets seem knowable; the rest, the magic of writing. As a former baker who still creates her own recipes, one ingredient she employs is her passion for baking. A French village bakery centers the WWII storyline, producing “life-giving dough” amidst the despair. Fifty years later, a second plotline intersects with it.

Two female protagonists narrate: 1943 eighteen-year-old Ceci, baker-assistant to her father, and 1993 twenty-something Annie, an archivist living in England. It doesn’t take long for their connection to become evident.

The war story is set in a fictional mountain village, Saint-Antoine about forty miles north of the French Riviera. It’s inspired by the historically significant one, Saint-Martin-Vésubie.

In January 1943, a month before the novel opens, the anti-Semitic French Vichy government established its Gestalpo equivalent military force – the milice – to go after members of the French Resistance risking their lives to save Jews. In February, the novel begins, timed to when Jewish refugees were rounded up and sent to the village occupied by the Italians not the Germans until September 1943, the month the war story ends, when the Germans took over. An example of fine research blended into exceptional fiction.

The real town’s non-Jewish residents were honored by the World Holocaust Center Yad Vashem, with the designation Righteous Among Nations for what they did to protect the Jewish people. These courageous acts are inspiring and bring a slice of lightness to the inhumane Holocaust darkness. Made more compelling when we learn about the Italians’ role in WWII – historical fiction not often seen.

Map via Wikimedia Commons
By Eric Gaba for original blank, mapRama for zones [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Many secrets run through the novel, not just the dangerous ones in the title.

Generations of family, particularly grandmothers, are key to the two narratives. Another ingredient the author mixes in, surely adding emotion to the writing as the author’s grandmother’s WWII stories in France inspired the novel. (See her post, which includes photos of the historic village.) The author’s family lives in France; today she lives in England. Much like Annie, who travels from England to France, in search of her long-lost grandmother at the urging of her famous anthropologist mother.

Annie grew up without knowing who her father was. Her grandmother Celeste helped raise her when her single mother was off traveling. Still, she’s reluctant to pick up and leave her new history-documenting job outside of London, having just returned to her workplace after an unexplained absence. Miserable in her new position, a “demotion” in her eyes. Computer cataloging historical documents isn’t intimate like thumbing through personal, handwritten artifacts. Annie’s kept it a secret why she had to take leave, a sign she’s an extremely private person, much like Ceci. Two different women decades apart, but they share loneliness and compassion for others, resulting in both choosing uncharacteristic paths.

Annie abides by her mother’s wishes partly because she’s worried her cancer surgery means she’s running out of time to make amends with her mother Celeste, whom she hasn’t heard from in years. Annie doesn’t know what happened between them, nor, ironically, the details of her own family’s history – the other reason she can’t turn away.

With access to historical information, Annie’s personal research takes off quickly. As Ceci’s and Celeste’s stories converge, chapters increasingly flow seamlessly into one another, letting the years conflate, letting the past merge into the present. Rightfully so: burying far-reaching secrets persists and torments.

Generations also drive the labor-of-love performed at the bakery, owned by four generations of Ceci’s family her father inherited. Five years ago, times were better, but during the war even basic ingredients were hard and dicey to acquire. The bread barely edible, nothing like the savory and decadent taste it once was. (Think chocolate stuffed into quintessential French dough.)

Ceci and her father rose at 4 am, baked until 11, then began selling, now to a long-line of starving Jews who’d lost everything when they were forced into the stone mountain village. Ceci’s childhood best friend, Paul, who grows more fond of her by the day, assists too when he’s not off playing his hidden role in the war.

Ceci, and the other villagers, are poor. A hotel, with its friendly managers, is the bakery’s major source of income. Then it becomes vital to the refugees, and shows up in the wow ending. The villagers rent out rooms; Ceci’s bedroom over the bakery rented to a Jewish couple. She shared it with her brother, now an imprisoned soldier gone missing. Ceci moved in with her grandmother, but the bakery is where you’ll usually find her.

The Jewish boarders in her house escaped from Belgium, Myriam and Daniel Reiss. Ceci realizes they’re well-off, so why didn’t they pay someone to falsify their identity papers so they weren’t stamped J, to avoid the round-up? What have they done? Seen? Heard? And why is Daniel gone most of the day, leaving Myriam alone?

He says she’s a writer and fragile, but that doesn’t quite mesh with her inconsistent behavior. For days on end, Myriam holes herself up in Ceci’s bedroom where if she’s writing she’s also crying. But then Ceci spots her laughing, drinking, smoking at the town’s café. Ceci is watchful, then confused by a subtle look on Myriam’s face, which turns into a fixation on what’s up with beautiful Myriam.

Ceci is the character who palpably feels the anguish of the refugees. The Italians protected the Jews as best as they could. Who knew this aspect of the war?

When the milice arrive, we brace for what will happen. The author doesn’t want to hit us with graphic violence. One scene she touches on it, others allude to it, but her technique is to grab us emotionally with lyrical, merciful prose.

From beginning to the end, the novel captures us, starting with the opening quote: “There is bread and salt between us.” Defined as “an Arabic saying expressing an alliance, a bond, an oath not to be broken.” In this novel, a hopeless bond.

A Prologue refers to the Bible, to Lot’s wife “who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back.” Precisely what the novel does. Salt also refers to the ancient salt trading roads; the old path winds its way into the steep mountains surrounding the village. And, of course, a pinch of salt is essential to bread.

Ceci notices other refugees, like three boys who lead us to imagine the unimaginable as fewer Jewish children survived the Holocaust than adults. These children don’t even know what happened to their parents. Compared to their trauma and plight, Ceci doesn’t feel sorry for herself. It’s impossible not to want to hug Ceci.

Ceci never spoke about the war, like everyone from that greatest generation. Maybe that’s why there’s such an appetite for WWII fiction. For the sacrifices made for country, survival, freedom, human rights, and for the desperation of tender wartime love never forgotten. Baker-turned novelist Laura Madeleine knows how to feed that appetite.


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Blue Hours

Chance encounters that change lives forever (Manhattan, 1991; Afghanistan, 2012): Blue Hours is a stirring, admirable tale about the sacrifices we make for love of country and someone beloved.

Daphne Kalotay is a gifted writer in control of how much she wants to let us know, or not. Mysteries drive an entangled plot involving several characters we meet in Manhattan 1991 – Mim, Kyra, and Roy – and twenty-one years later, when they find themselves, willingly or not, dangerously mixed up in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Told by Mim, the protagonist, first as reflections of an experimental, coming-of-age time when she came to Manhattan fresh out of college. Then followed by an intense, modern-day war story in places “it is simply too dangerous” to be, “even for the FBI.”

“The heart is a mysterious thing,” Mim says, to explain how confused hers was, how torn it still is. Haunting NYC memories come flooding back when she receives an out-of-the-blue call from Roy decades later saying Kyra has gone missing, somewhere in eastern Afghanistan.

Mim and Roy have been estranged from Kyra all these years, but they both cared deeply about her. So much so they jump into something they’re unprepared for. Mim particularly as she painted herself as an anxious, fearful, struggling-to-belong young woman. As we learn bits and pieces about her new, contented, fairly isolated world, we see she still harbors fears. For someone who also “hates traveling,” it’s a monumental feat of courage and loyalty to accompany Roy to Afghanistan to search for missing Kyra.

Despite years and anxieties that can distort reality, Mim comes across as a reliable narrator. She always wanted to be a writer, so she speaks to us in prose that’s well-crafted to deliver intrigue, suspense, and non-preachy, important messages.

Besides the central mystery of what happened to Kyra, we must first figure out what happened between Mim and Kyra in NYC to cut their ties?

Some background about the two women: They met on an Amtrak train going from New England to Manhattan “when you could move to the city without a job or a plan, just some unreasonable dream, and survive.” Kalotay is skilled at evoking the city in the early nineties when it was gritty, not like it is today. “That city,” Mim says, “doesn’t exist anymore. Just as the girl I was no longer exists.”

Mim arrived yearning to erase “parts of my life.” Though a lonely soul, she came with a college friend, Adrienne, she rooms with. Compared to Mim’s writerly ambitions in the center of the publishing world, Adrienne was already on her way to seeing her movie-star dreams come true, armed with playacting offers in the Entertainment Capital of the World. They quickly learned even in a rent-controlled “walk-up” in Lower Manhattan, near the Bowery, Chinatown, and Little Italy, the rents were still too high if they wanted to eat.

Needing more roommates to share expenses, Kyra became the third – Kyra who had money to feed the homeless on their doorstep and the city streets, hinting at her dramatic turnaround later. Eventually, they took in two more roommates, one whose presence is acutely felt, whose background is another mystery for a while: Carl from Ohio with his buzz-cut, a “big duffel bag slumped in the corner,” and a noticeable “tremor in his fingers.” These too are revealing details, though we don’t know it until Mim becomes privy to his nightmares.

Roy was not a roommate, rather Kyra’s best friend growing up in Rhode Island. Both came from well-to-do families, and are strikingly attractive. Kyra is the one everyone loves, whereas Mim never felt loved. She envied them for how easy their lives were, how easy it was for Kyra to decline admission to Oxford University to be a dancer.

Kyra is the center of attention, while Mim received none. A victim of her mother’s premature death, her womanizing father who didn’t care about her, nor have money to pretend he cared.

Roy’s youthful feelings for Kyra have grown; Mim’s newfound friendship seems odd as Kyra is everything she’s not, though she’s also dazzled by her. The three often hung out together, and then abruptly stopped. Why?

The fifth roommate, an unnamed medical student, is essentially invisible. Adrienne mostly too as it didn’t take her long to land a role in a daytime soap opera. When she shows up in the powerful ending we didn’t expect, we cheer for her performance, how Kalotay brings her back in.

Jack, like Carl, is a Manhattan character absent in the later years, because he fulfilled his purpose: to add some physical pleasure into Mim’s loveless, out-of-place life among peers she felt were on the “brink of something magnificent,” except her. (Her degree amounted to a boring sales job in a clothing store.) In the years of her evolution, she realizes plenty of people hide their inner demons.

Kalotay unwinds her complicated characters’ stories and emotional pain at a time when America is suffering. Pointedly, she uses her characters to tell a highly polarized, disillusioned nation to pay attention to our nation’s foreign policies. To think about what we want our country to be, which means thinking about the damages inflicted on our citizens and others caught up in endless wars. Messaging that’s easier to swallow fictionally.

Jack, also rich, is the “son of diplomats” and refugees. Refugees and the impoverished are at the heart of Kyra’s disappearance, having left her cushioned life to work with NGO’s in troubled spots around the globe – African countries, Central American, The Philippines, Afghanistan, where Mim and Roy dare go.

Roy’s wealth enables the hiring of drivers who know the remote, treacherous Afghan lands, checkpoints, languages, culture, and village clans. Drivers willing to risk their lives for money and love – Asim, Ismail, Rafiq. Graceful messengers for peace, they touch us. On drives and hikes through the “crumpled mountains,” “parched earth,” and surprising “rushing brooks,” they protect the do-good foreigners, while trying to convince them their country is “not hopeless.”

Doesn’t feel that way to Mim, who awakens to the “realization that my country has done this.” A treacherous hunt made messier by humanitarian entities with good intentions too, but “not a lot of coordination.”

Kalotay also puts us authentically into this setting, describing the threadbare clothing of the Afghan women and men, and landscapes. But it’s the assault weapons of war they carry that hit us in the gut, these being the same guns terrorizing America. Again, a very timely plea.

If this all sounds too dark to be enchanted, the prose is. It makes us see what we don’t want to, or have ignored seeing. Kalotay also has a unique way of expressing things, like depicting an Afghan man as having “the face of antiquity.” Or saying “an old woman’s face is beautiful in the way the old become beautiful.” In how she boils down fifty years of the Islamic Republic’s history in one sweeping paragraph. Prose aimed at making thoughtful, penetrating points through her characters’ eyes and development.

The author did her homework, acknowledging Desert Storm and other experts who provided “first hand insights into Afghanistan, the eastern border regions, and humanitarian aid work.” No matter what they told her, she alone created the seat-of-your pants scenes in what feels like the scariest place on earth.

Mim’s journey is candid and raw. She shows us what it’s like to step so far out of your comfort zone, to get a better sense of “things so far beyond us.”


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