’Round Midnight 1

Connecting four female characters to one unique place over sixty years (Las Vegas, 1957–present): You know a novelist has created compelling characters whose stories you care about when you close the last page with tears in your eyes.

’Round Midnight is a heartfelt novel deftly tied to a strong sense of time and place. The emotional highs and lows of the lives of four very different women over a span of sixty years cleverly parallel the booms and busts of Las Vegas by Las Vegas author Laura McBride, her second novel set here.

Write what you know is lyrically on display as Vegas looms as large as the characters. Like them, it bears secrets, good times and bad, fortunes and mistakes – “pain and glory.”

“Vegas wasn’t for the weak and it wasn’t for the cowardly,” McBride tells us. So you’d rightly expect her women aren’t cowards. Take June, for example. Her chapter, the first, opens with the grabbing line: “To celebrate victory in Europe, June Stein dove headfirst off the Haverstraw Bridge.”

That’s just one of many literary hooks that keeps us turning pages. Actually, by the time you’ve read the back cover you’re already hooked by McBride’s summing up her four women with catchy phrases that make us curious about them, and how they interconnect, collide. For they must, we assume, as this is not a short story collection, rather a novel with a lot going on above and beneath the surface. So we start off with June cast as “The One Who Falls in Love;” Honorata “The One Who Gets Lucky;” Coral “The One Who Keeps Hoping;” and Engracia “The One Whose Heart is Broken.”

Next come the hooks beautifully composed in tantalizing Prologues, with an alluring clue or tidbit planted. If you read too fast, you might miss these. In June’s case, it’s the mentioning of a “fateful night.” Honorata’s overture follows, misleading us with a tip that she won over a million dollars at a Megabucks slot machine so we think her life will be charmed but take notice for she also “could almost smell the sadness in the place.” All the money in the world can’t make up for what she endures.

On the surface, a nightclub is the nexus to all four women. Each of their chapters opens there, at different time periods. Their kinship, though, is more profound, which is why the novel is so arresting.

’Round Midnight opens in the late fifties in The Midnight Room; it’s a presence until 2010 when renamed the Midnight Café, a nod to Vegas’ severe economic downturn. Attached to a casino/hotel owned by June (and her husband Del) that’s fictional, yet McBride’s Vegas is inspired by history. Since June is introduced first, we follow her the longest, from her late twenties to her eighties. With its “pin-up feel,” the El Capitan was never one of the newer, flashier hotels on the Strip but when Del bought and remodeled it and June had the vision for its success, gambling wasn’t the only game in town. Entertainment was.

It was June’s idea, a gutsy move, to hire Eddie Knox, an exotic black singer fresh from Alabama. He’s a prime illustration of how the real Vegas is woven into the characters’ stories. Vegas was known as the “Mississippi of the West,” a hotbed of racism until 1961 when the casinos and hotels became fully integrated. Big name black entertainers like Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and others may have performed there back then but that’s about all they could do alongside whites. The “Moulin Rouge pact” is mentioned: the only casino/hotel integrated at the time June sought Eddie out. We like all of McBride’s women. June, a white Jewish girl from New Jersey, warms our heart with her lack of prejudice.

June symbolizes so many “young and old, wanting to start a new life” in Vegas. She not only sensed “Las Vegas as the future,” but that “casinos were all about people and how many hours you could keep them in your joint.” So she, Del, and later their son Marshall, all enjoy business prosperity, but there’s an undercurrent of emotional unraveling that pervades.

Coral, a black music teacher, is the character native to Vegas, although we meet her after she’s come back home from California to live with her sweet Mama Augusta after her marriage ended in divorce. By then, her father had died and her siblings were gone. Back in her childhood home, she’s flooded with memories as early as seven when she’s first asked about her “caramel” skin and overhears something whispered at home. In scenes of togetherness over the years, we see a wonderfully loving family but Coral’s uncertainty about where she comes from poignantly shows us how deeply ingrained and deeply felt our identity is.

Honorata is Filipino. She makes her way to Vegas as a mail-order bride to a repulsive Jimbo. Launching her character in 1992 is a keen choice of timeframe as the Philippines enacted a law in the 1990s against this practice. Presumably, illegal schemes persisted. Since her uncle made the arrangements, her story begins with betrayal, and worsens.

Engracia is Hispanic, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. She’s the mother of a ten-year-old son, “perfect” Diego; her husband Juan is in jail back home. She’s a waitress and a housekeeper in her twenties, but her actions manifest as someone much older.

As it turns out, Engracia’s heart is not the only one broken. All McBride’s women experience heartbreak, for different reasons. And yet, the novel also sends the message that “joy was possible even if there was also a great deal of pain.” Yes, there’s the love and pain of marriage or the longing to be. But it’s the joys and heartache of motherhood – being a mother, doing whatever it takes to protect your child, the bond between mother and child, yearning for your mother – that transcends. The commonality of the women’s emotions, and how the choices they made in a fleeting moment had such lasting consequences is what makes this novel rise above.

Las Vegas was, and is, one of the fasting growing cities in the U.S. While we can watch videos of vintage versus contemporary Vegas and, of course, visit its attractions, if you want an authentic feel for Vegas through the decades, ’Round Midnight gives us that and more.

Las Vegas in the Mid Fifties 16mm film by H.G. Mueller

Las Vegas then

Dean Martin – Las Vegas

Las Vegas now

Drive outside of Vegas and you can still find the “barren earth,” the “rock and hill and sky,” and a “million mysterious stars above” that Coral is nostalgic for. But the mysteries evoked in McBride’s Vegas aren’t earthly, they’re man-made. Each of her women harbor mysteries. The one that may affect you the most isn’t even resolved until the final page. Still, the greatest mystery, the elusive one, is how an author can weave a tale that makes us cry.


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Lilac Girls

Unspeakable Horrors, Unsung Heroism – WWII history you might not know (Manhattan & Connecticut; Lublin, Poland; Fürstenberg, Germany; Paris, France, 1939-1959): “It’s not so much you should remember the name. We should be living every day with the standard he set,” says The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers about “the greatest reporter of our time,” David Halberstam, unknown or forgotten these days. I cite this because Lilac Girls was inspired by a real life WWII humanitarian most of us probably never heard of. Thanks to Martha Hall Kelly’s ten-year effort to bring Caroline Woolsey Ferriday to life, the standard she set – her philanthropic legacy, compassion, doggedness, and resourcefulness – is now out there to inspire.

Chances are you might also not know about the plight of over 200,000 dislocated children in France cared for in mansions converted to orphanages; what went on inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp – the only camp solely for women, intended for 7,000 but rose to 45,000 “living skeletons” by 1945 – far less infamous but equally sickening; and that of the six million Poles who perished during the Holocaust, three million were non-Jewish.

Which makes Lilac Girls a remarkable novel among a bumper crop of remarkable Holocaust novels capturing us of late. A novel of stark contrasts: A heartwarming do-gooder’s story of tremendous generosity, advocacy, and benevolence to aid and comfort WWII orphans and Ravensbrück survivors pitted against monstrous, cold-bloodedness perpetrated by Hitler and his evil followers. It’s a testament to the author’s rendering that we come away celebrating humanity at its most exceptional rather than have our spirits broken.

One reason the novel is so compelling is that all the important characters are based on real historical figures. It’s unusual for so many novelistic characters to come from history. In the hands of this skilled writer, these characters engage us so authentically they come alive, palpably. In so doing, they convincingly make their stories even more unbelievable.

Contributing to this is the author’s tight, revealing dialogue. Though her debut novel, Kelly’s clearly brought her top-notch advertising copywriting skills with her penning dialogue that’s engaging, cinematic, and spot-on in imparting the personalities, beliefs, and prejudices of three females – all drawn from history – our narrators.

Since this is fiction, we can’t be sure everything we read about them is 100% true but it doesn’t matter. Kelly’s extensive research (take a look at her fascinating, detailed website after you’ve read the novel) and talent enables us to step into the shoes of these three women, giving us three perspectives to examine the war and a realistic sense of what it might been like to live through an insane era we’ll never really be able to grasp entirely. Who could?

Contrary to today, back then everyone knew someone affected by the war. If you’ve ever wondered why your grandparents or parents never spoke of the horrors, Lilac Girls answers why. Would we have found the super-human strength and courage to endure the torture in the camp like the survivors did? How would we have gone on afterwards? Would we have sustained Caroline’s “positivity” selflessly for twenty years in spite of personal losses and longings? Are these ponderings why we can’t get enough of Holocaust novels?

The three female narrators who help us to understand are:

Caroline Ferriday: A former actress whose New York high-society “set” mingled with the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys yet she’s not the stereotype of her uppity, self-indulgent friends. Rather, a delightful carbon copy of her endearing mother, who latches onto “charitable opportunities in the way some eyed a plate of pastries.” Both are Francophiles (her mother owned an apartment in Paris; also a summer house in Bethlehem, Connecticut, now an historic landmark you can visit like the author did), so her mother’s connections got her a meaningful position (volunteer) at the French Consulate assisting French families in the U.S. and orphans in France. The moment war breaks out in 1939 when Hitler invades Poland which happens in Chapter 1 (chapters superbly chronicle the enormity of Hitler’s aggressions), Caroline jumps in to assuage the chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. As war deepens, so does Caroline’s involvement.

At thirty-seven, when we meet her, she’s the only one of the three who brings us some respite – a romance – with delicious prose like her opening line: “If I’d known I was about to meet the man who’d shatter me like bone china on terra cotta, I would have slept in.” She charms us, certainly not what we’re expecting! We’re grateful for this balance in a novel of this magnitude. Her love affair with Paul Rodierre, an “achingly beautiful” married French actor with a “Cheshire Cat smile” is, in keeping with the novel’s authenticity, based on a true relationship; only the man is fictitious. The early stages of their playful liaison enable flirty, sharp-witted, self-deprecating humor, but once war explodes the lighter-heartedness darkens as Paul feels compelled to return to France to find his estranged wife, Rena, whose father is Jewish.

Kasia Kuzmerick: Inspired by the real Nina Ivanska, from Lublin, Poland. At sixteen, she joins the resistance movement. Kasia will change the way you think of organizations like the Girl Scouts. We meet her when “Poland no longer exists as a country.” These brave teenagers played a significant role in Poland’s active underground. We learn a great deal about the victimization of Polish women during the Nazi regime through Kasia and her best friend Nadia (whose grandfather was Jewish); Matka, her mother (a former nurse and artist); and her sister, Zuzanna, inspired by Nina’s real sister, Krystyna (also a nurse). That’s because all end up at Ravensbrück.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
Photo by ho visto nina volare from Italy (ravensbruck, il lager delle donne)
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

(After Hitler, the Soviets oppressed the Poles until 1989. Lilac Girls brings your closer to this country’s repression more than I’d ever appreciated.)

Dr. Herta Oberheüser: While far fewer pages are consumed by one of the only female doctors at Ravensbrück, her psychopathology up-close is still mightily hideous and heinous. A fervent German nationalist who craved respect and power in a society that treated women as inferior to men, she applied for a position as a medical doctor at the concentration camp under the guise it was a women’s “reeducation camp” for prisoners. Though she had good reason to escape her home in Düsseldorf, Germany, needed the money, and a former classmate, Fritz Fischer, worked there, she disgusts us regardless. Early on, when it was obvious what “not for the squeamish” really meant, she could have left. Instead, she not only willingly participated in the cruelty to the bitter end, but was proud to earn the War Merit Cross, a distinction she shares with Adolph Eichmann and Albert Speer.

Lilac Girls abounds with strikingly contrary images. For instance, Ravensbrück was built in Fürstenberg, a resort town described as “a scene from a Black Forest box.” Yet inside: a “special kind of terror we would grow used to.” Herta sees the camp as a “place of superior value.” She says: “how nice to see immature linden trees, the hallowed “tree of lovers” in German folklore, planted at regular intervals along the road.” When in fact that farcically named Beauty Road was satanic. The absurdity of calling notices mailed to families whose loved ones were wiped out at the camp “comfort cards” versus the “comfort boxes” Caroline painstakingly and lovingly pieced together (from former, exquisite costumes she saved) and went to great lengths to send to the orphans is repulsive. What to say of the guards enjoying music amidst barbed wire buzzing?

So you might be thinking: How could Lilac Girls possibly lift us up with all the chilling ugliness? Kelly wisely lets the lives of these three women play out after the war. That answer comes in the unfolding and the ending, when the title becomes clear. The contrasts are stunning.


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The Women in the Castle 4

German complicity in Nazi Germany and the German Resistance Movement (1938 to 1950, also pre-WWII & 1991 in flashbacks and endings; mostly German towns): Entire fields in philosophy and psychology are devoted to the complex study of morality. In The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck is laser-focused on the moral legacy of ordinary German citizens who were complicit in one way or another as Hitler’s Nazi regime committed atrocities against humanity. Moral questions leap out from practically every page.

That’s because this is a profoundly personal novel. Shattuck is of German ancestry and her beloved grandmother (who lived until almost 100) was a member of the Nazi party. Reckoning with that agonizing incongruity makes for a most unusual, penetrating, and timely WWII novel that begs for an overarching moral code in national political discourse and conduct.

What does it mean to say someone has a moral compass? Can immoral behavior be justified to survive? Or, is there “a right and a wrong in every situation”? What if you only “half-knew” something was horrific? What if you were unobservant or too self-involved or allowed yourself to be deceived? How far should accountability go if you participated in one of the many ideological and militaristic child-molding programs of Hitler’s Youth Movement like the types characters in the novel did – older boys groups (Jugend), older girls groups (BDM), rural youth camps (“children-to-the-land-programs”) – even if you entered unaware? What about the stigma of having been reared in a “Children’s Home” for Germanisation? The abuse and scarring of children burns throughout.

Tackling these moral questions is a minefield. Not everything is black or white and nothing is easy to swallow. It’s not meant to be. Questions that have gnawed at Shattuck for it appears at least twenty years when she first interviewed her grandmother at her farm in Germany; and imaginably with much angst during the seven years she researched (extensively) and wrote this chilling novel (her third.) Questions weighing on the author for what must feel like a lifetime. Questions that should weigh on us too. These are dark times.

So it follows then that the prose feels like the author poured herself into the novel. Many sentences flow in a manner of deep absorption like the concentration Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his theory on the science of mental flow, examined more pointedly as it pertains to the writing process in Writing in Flow. As such, Shattuck’s prose is as clear and as dogged and take-charge as the novel’s moral conscience, conceived in a character of “unflappable strength”: Marianne von Lingelfels.

On the night of the Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass, when 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps), thirty-one-year-old Marianne is preparing for a harvest party at a forsaken Bavarian castle. The fortress belongs to a countess, the great aunt of her husband Albrecht, a diplomat in the Foreign Office. The countess is Marianne’s role model for she’s a broad-minded intellect, outspoken even today from her wheelchair. Which is why Marianne has taken on the herculean task of divining an “anarchic, un-German atmosphere” in a country immersed in a “wave of rigid and peevish militancy.” The first of many daunting challenges rock-solid Marianne pulls off.

It’s at this fateful party that the infamous July 20th 1944 assassination plot against Hitler was hatched. Among the guests in on the conspiracy are Marianne’s cherished childhood friend, Connie Fledermann. Handsome, charismatic, impulsive, and a “passionate champion of what he felt was right,” the opposite of Marianne’s cooler, more deliberative husband. She might even have married Connie if she were a softer, lighthearted, prettier, sexier version of herself, feelings apparent when he introduces her to nineteen-year-old, beautiful Benita he plans to marry. Marianne is her opposite: “stern-faced,” could care less about how she looks and dresses, well-educated, and politically-minded. She and Connie see eye-to-eye on important things: Germany has become a “savage land.”

Operation Valkyrie: The July 20 Plot

In history’s real assassination attempt, the resisters included Claus von Stauffenberg and Ludwig Beck (both mentioned), and others. In Shattuck’s rendering Connie is one of those others. Albrecht was in on the conversations but he had mixed feelings, believing justice would prevail.

“There are thinkers and there are actors,” Albrecht says. Albrecht’s the thinker, Connie’s the doer, and Marianne is both. Her character is ideal for carrying out the novel’s plot: a promise she made to Connie at the party that she’d “be the commander of wives and children” should the co-conspirators’ scheme go awry, which, tragically, we know it did. This all happens in the Prologue.

The reader, then, is prepared for Part I when it opens. Not only are Connie and Albrecht dead but “Germany itself was dead, and half of the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two.” Marianne is left a widow with three children (Elisabeth, Katrina, Fritz) holing up in a few rooms of the antiquated castle she’s now inherited, protected due to her aristocratic status and the fact that the castle, located in Ehrenheim, sits within the American Occupation Zone. She is, though, surrounded by a town of fervent Nazis and later the Russians come.

Occupation Zones, 1945
By glglgl [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

Marianne’s life is now consumed by her moral pledge, both in the immediate aftermath of WWII rescuing and protecting widows and children of resisters and in later years for the cause of displaced persons. She and two women she rescues make-up the women in the castle.

The most emotional salvation is, understandably, Connie’s Benita and Martin, the son she was pregnant with when Marianne met her at the party. Benita is the spitting image of Nazi Aryan racial adoration but when Marianne liberates her she’s a shell of her former alluring, flirtatious self. Martin, the first she extricates, is also traumatized. The other emancipated widow Marianne knows even less about, the wife of the man who announced Kristallnacht at the party. Ania is “unreadable” until the latter portion of the novel when her hard backstory comes to life. Her two boys, Wolfgang and Anselm, are like her: “silent and knowing.” Everyone bears unspoken, harrowing pasts. Had Marianne known of these, perhaps her relationships and actions would have turned out differently. As the novel moves back and forth in time, place, and character we see how stark class differences and circumstances influenced who these people were when they came together at the castle. Not meant to excuse, but to help understand.

Shattuck explains how her three women are connected:

“Connected not through allegiance to any group or party or particular way of thinking but through the reality of the moment, through their shared will to get through the next hours, the next day, and the one afterward, and through their shared determination to keep their children safe.”

Despite the novel’s soberness, two uplifting scenes stood out. One takes place on Christmas day when the castle folk and townsfolk attend mass. The priest’s sermon falls hollow on battered souls. But music, Beethoven’s 9th, has the power to stir; Marianne is wondrous at how such a delicate instrument like the violin was salvaged amongst all the ugliness. In those ephemeral moments, the churchgoers felt “invited to be a small piece of eternity.” This is not about forgiveness, but the preciousness of all human life.

The other scene involves a willow tree, a leftover from a time when the ground in Dortmund (the town Ania’s from) was marshy. The weeping willow tree – “it’s bent, grief-stricken shape is a product of its longing” – serves as a metaphor for the horrors of the Holocaust. It endures yet it weeps.


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No One Is Coming to Save Us

The Psychology of Poor (Piedmont region of North Carolina; contemporary): How’s this for a shocking statistic. In just eleven years (2001-2012), some 63,000 manufacturing plants vanished from America’s towns. Ordinary livelihoods and identities attached to them also shuttered. For the “ordinary poor” in the poorest of towns where “not much happens here except the same, same” these causalities are a deathblow. No One Is Coming To Save Us – even the lyrical title tugs at us – takes us inside the psyche and broken hearts of black characters hard-hit in one of these communities.

Pinetown is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, not far from the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, but not much feels lovely there today. Although “people didn’t experience joy” in the olden days, at least they experienced “the immediacy of the life they were living” and were “young enough to believe in happy endings.”

Stephanie Powell Watts, award-winning professor of African American literature at Lehigh University, writes wonderfully long, winding, rhythmic sentences that often fill up one paragraph on the page, sentences that swing to and fro meshing past and present together, creating a dream-like narrative with a sense of entanglement. In fact, Pinetown characters are tangled up in a maze perilously searching for a way out. If only they’d chosen a different path, things might be different they think.

Beyond its searing literary value, Watts’ novel is a sociological and psychological study of what that blow means to black characters who’ve lived their entire lives in this town and don’t have much else, if anything, to fall back on. This is the essence and culture the novel feeds on.

Zooming in on how many broken lives came from furniture plant closings in the Piedmont area, the so-called “Furniture Capital of the World,” the figure reaches close to half. We see the aftermath, bumped up against the past, realizations that “life has amounted to too little.” When everything “screamed cheap, cheap, cheap and worse than that – desperate,” what does that do to your sense of worth? Relationships? Desire, strength to change?

It may be surprising to learn that this beautiful coastal and mountainous State has some of the worst poverty in the nation, especially rural counties like Pinewood. The deserted town reminds us of the collapse of white West Virginia coal country, or white, blue-collar Rust Belt communities, lives torn apart as result of free trade and globalization. Places that have been getting attention of late – Trump country. If my googling is right, the Piedmont area also voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The author, then, does us a service by zooming in on another section of America cast aside.

Billed as “The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South” (quoted from the back cover) because an evocatively named character Jay – formerly J. J. Ferguson, a foster child who grew up in Pinetown, somehow made it out but now’s returned after seventeen years – seems to have “made it” big. The novel opens when Jay’s building a palatial home overlooking the foothills in “a section where the people are rich and their lives are so far from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” Hoping to revive and reinvent the past with Ava, his childhood friend and once sweetheart, bringing whiffs of Daisy Buchanan.

While the novel is brilliant – prose that sings a song of such sadness – a different genre of book comes to mind: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis, which skyrocketed to national fame to grasp what drove poor white people in droves to vote for Trump. Watts has done the same for poor black people in this area of the South.

Much is told through the third-person, omniscient voice, allowing the author to delve perceptively, knowingly into the “drag of poverty.” Washington Post reporter, Michelle Singletary, recently denounced people who “talk about the poor, especially people who haven’t experienced poverty, [yet] it’s often without context or compassion.” Definitely not the case here. Watts hails from around this geography, so her writing rings authoritative, authentic, and raw emotionally.

The range and nature of these feelings – chronic strain, disappointments, regrets, anger, hurts, betrayals, and concerns of characters who feel very real – also comes from first-person dialogue that jumps out fast and furious.

Two of the most resounding voices dramatize the novel’s other profound theme – motherhood. A mother and daughter pair. They’re also connected to Jay’s past, so they’re also the most stirred by his reappearance.

Heavyhearted Sylvia is approaching seventy having “spent her whole life tensed and waiting for the worst to happen.” Fears she’ll end up miserably unhappy and lonely like her mother appear to have come true. Ava is almost forty, a wicked age for someone desperate to be a mother. Sylvia walks on eggshells around her, doesn’t know how to ease her pain or why her daughter is so distressed. Ava has a good job and dresses the part, working as a loan officer at a bank. Yet Ava’s all-consumed with her failures of trying to conceive and the constant praying she will. For Ava childlessness is a burden equivalent to a “moral mistake.” Ava laments “maybe in heaven you get back all the time you lost hoping.”

Mother and daughter have “sorry husbands,” even sorrier marriages. Both men expendables of the factory shutdowns. Depressed and lost, that doesn’t excuse their weak behaviors. Be it the drip, drip, drip or the sucker punch of their absences – physical and emotional – Watts gets us inside the heads of these women as to why it’s brick hard for them to let go of their pasts. “The hardest thing you’ll do is keep moving forward,” Sylvia prods Ava.

Both are jolted by Jay’s arrival, breaking the pattern of nothing ever happening. He causes mother and daughter to examine what’s become of their lives. He too can’t get beyond the past.

Another unusual event is announced on page eight. An outsider, Marcus, has been mysteriously calling Sylvia from the county jail. Black, twenty-five, he reminds Sylvia of her son, Devon, whose presence hovers but we don’t find out what’s up with him until we’re almost three-fourths through. His begging Sylvia for help speaks to someplace deep within her she keeps hidden. To underscore her “heaviness,” Watts imagines her as fat, adding more weight to her self-reproach and feelings of disregard.

Imagine how bad things have turned out when a “segregation-era chic” restaurant named Simmy’s near one of the closed factories stands as a dark reminder of when blacks couldn’t even enter the front door, yet the two husbands (and others) still hang out here.

It’s not just furniture jobs that have gone by the wayside. Gone are extended families and extended gatherings when hours of cooking special foods “meant celebration.”

Now the best anyone can do is just get by. Except for the promise of Jay.

And the one colorful character we must celebrate. Lana, Sylvia’s glass-nearly-full sister, who takes great pride in her beauty salon and cares about her downtrodden sister. She brings “brightness, her humor, her unmuddied outlook of the world.” Lana’s someone who has successfully reinvented herself.

Naturally, we wish others could do the same. We too can’t help but want happy endings.


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The Barrowfields 2

Haunted house, mountainscape, characters – a Southern Gothic novel (Appalachian region, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina; three generations spanning the 20th century): For a blog that prizes prose above all, The Barrowfields is a stunner. It wins for beautiful, atmospheric, sorrowful prose. A blend of formal, literary/poetic, Appalachian dialect, conversational, and a bit of legalese. Versatile prose that rhythmically evokes “eloquent sadness” set in a beautiful, forlorn place with a heavyhearted clan.

To get a feel for the melancholy tone, listen to a piece of classical piano music played by our narrator, Henry Aster. Chopin’s C-Sharp Nocturne, he says “begins in sadness, moves to bittersweet remembrance, and then returns again to sadness.” Much like this standout debut:

Frédéric Chopin – Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor, Op. Posth

A concise, tantalizing Prologue hints at someone’s existential angst. As opening lines go, it grabs like the opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance novel, Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Why is that line so famous? For one thing, the unknown narrator’s voice flows poetically, and it enigmatically forewarns. Compare Lewis’opener: “The desk is the same as he left it.” In case we don’t notice a similarity, he repeats the cadence and unease with two closing lines, first from the opening line of Albert Camus’classic The Stranger: “Mother died today” followed by “I’m beginning to understand.” Which, of course, the reader doesn’t, hooked to figure it out. That doesn’t happen until page 346 of a 348 page book, keeping us in the dark as to the novel’s overshadowing mystery: Where did the character who abandoned his writing table go? The scant details the Prologue offers inform us that the he in question was working on a novel, apparently cast-off nine years ago.

The significance of the unpublished novel is examined within the larger context of three-generations of the Aster family, recounted for us by third-generation narrator, Henry. They all come from “an achromatic town high in the belly of the Appalachian mountains,” evidently inspired by the North Carolina mountain town region the author is from.

Old Buckram is a fictional “town of ghosts and superstitions,” population in the hundreds. The “streets and sidewalks are lonely and seldom traveled” as this is a place of “unrelenting poverty” where decent people persevere like Helton and Maddy, Henry’s grandparents, because “mountain folks have a hell of a lot of character and ruggedness.” The landscape right outside of town – the novel’s namesake – is equally ominous. The Barrowfields is a mountainous area “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss which climbs over mounds of rocks and petrified stumps.”

Already, dark features of a Southern Gothic novel unfold:

  • premonition about a deflated character
  • woebegone, small southern town
  • eerie landscape
  • strong sense of place
  • mournful passages

Exploring what it means to call a novel Southern Gothic is even more germane to The Barrowfields because the narrator’s father, also named Henry, is all-consumed with the gothic works of Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and William Styron. His highbrow fanaticism with the great books of literature starkly contrasts with the dirt poor, remote community barely eking by, thereby setting him apart. The outsider character a gothic feature. Picture him wearing a “long black rider’s coat,” à la Poe.

We come to know father and son in another sinister setting: their out-of-place “immense house of black iron and glass.” A haunted house another characteristic of the genre. The rest of their immediate family includes Mother (yes, Henry refers to his parents old-fashionedly) Eleonore, and Threnody, his sister nine years younger. Her odd name signals she’s another character out-of-step with the community. Their “lonely old house” (and Old Buckram and the Barrowfields) all loom large, like characters.

The house is an “architectural curiosity” once owned by a tobacco magnate of R. J. Reynolds. Shadowed in the mountain hollows, turns out Henry has good reason to view the house as a “vulture house.” At the end of Part 1 (the novel is retrospectively structured in four parts), he swears to himself: “I’m not coming back here … This place, with all its bleakness and sorrows, is not for me.” Years later, we see how “a place where your soul resides and where all your ghosts and demons still persist will remain for all the years of your life no matter how far away you travel.” (Apparently, quoted from his mother’s favorite book by the aviatress Beryl Markham.)

Fortunately, Eleonore has other interests – horses, flowers, birds – that nurture her optimistic, sweet spirit like the “soul of a little songbird.” She needs bolstering as our sense of foreboding becomes a reality for a family cooped inside a “monstrous gothic skeleton” of a house with a ghostly past. Henry’s father is an absent presence, devoting every waking (and drinking hour) when he’s not small town mountain lawyering sequestered in a “cubical chamber” surrounded by his coveted library of rare books. Meanwhile, everyone else – innocents – must bear the brunt of his “unspeakable melancholy.” Innocent characters another element of Southern Gothics.

Whereas Eleonore is the hardiest soul, her son denies the heavy burden weighing him down; Threnody, who idolizes her brother, is the most transparently affected. Brother and sister share their father’s intense need for reading and storytelling. A lifeline for this isolated family.

Phillip Lewis is a lawyer from these rural mountain parts. By creating two lawyerly characters – father and the son who becomes one – he has found a novelistic way to pay tribute to small town southern lawyers who “quietly do more good for people and communities than probably anyone would realize.”

The author has also conceived of another key character who combines darkness, mystification, innocence, and romance – another gothic element – Story. An apt name for she has a baffling backstory Henry gets entangled with. They meet in his senior year of law school; for Henry its love at first sight. She’s beautiful, but he seems also attracted to her as he recognizes “some distant sadness from wounds afflicted long before.” As a consequence, their relationship moves tentatively, though the dialogue is crisp and charged. Whenever Henry is around her he’s “melting” or “desires her to the point of delirium.” When he’s not, he can’t sleep or concentrate and drinks heavily. The reader can’t help but think: like father like son.

Googling, I learned gothic literature also contains a comedic component. Admittedly, I struggled with that one as nothing seemed in the least bit funny or darkly humorous until Henry adopts a giant, unruly, loveable dog whose witty antics include destroying Henry’s collection of “Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge …” Of Buller Henry amusingly observes, he “apparently preferred the romantics.” Picture a devoted alpha dog barreling at you, all licks, comfort, and lightheartedness.

Before law school, even at college, Henry endured a “cloistered existence.” In law school he makes friends, particularly with J. P., whose coarseness sticks out, reminding us how different Henry really is from his peers.

Henry’s passionate about timeless things – literature, music, night-gazing. So while the novel has a brooding spirit, there’s also an inspiriting thread about enjoying all that’s beautiful before time runs out.

An overarching theme, highlighted by citing Thomas Wolfe on several occasions, is whether any of us can truly go home again. For years Henry did leave the macabre house – to Connecticut for college, Chapel Hill, North Carolina for law school, and Charleston, South Carolina where Story is from. You’ll see, though, that “no one can never leave a place completely.” Perhaps, the most potent message of all.


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