The Bootlegger Cop

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6 AUTOS AND 9 MEN HELD IN ROUNDUP ran the March 22, 1920 headline in the Seattle Times. The story breathlessly reported how federal agents had laid an “elaborate trap” to catch bootleggers—whose ringleader was Roy Olmstead, a Seattle police lieutenant.

Olmstead had spent a decade on the force, working his way up from clerk. He’d also been running liquor ever since Washington had passed a dry law in 1916, four years before national Prohibition. His arrest cost him his job and a $500 fine, a sizable sum in those days. So he became a full-time bootlegger.

Olmstead with his wife, Elise, his partner in crime, 1925 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I ran across these details while researching my novel Lonely Are the Brave, which takes place in 1919, and in which the state’s dry law influences the story. But Olmstead deserves a closer look.

Unusual among bootleggers, he forbade his employees to carry weapons and imported his liquor from Canada, rather than make his own. But he ran a large organization, difficult to keep secret, and in 1925, the feds arrested him again. This time, he went to prison.

However, they had obtained evidence through a wiretap put in place without a warrant, and he appealed the verdict. In 1928, his landmark case, Olmstead v. United States, reached the Supreme Court, which ruled, 5-4, that his constitutional rights had not been violated. FDR pardoned him in 1935.

A Story Ordained: The Yellow House

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Review: The Yellow House, by Patricia Falvey
Center Street/Hachette, 2009. 333 pp. $18

Eight-year-old Eileen O’Neill of Glenlea, northern Ireland, feels secure, despite tense adult conversation swirling around her in summer 1905. After all, her doting father has, on a whim, brought home pots of yellow paint for their house and turns the painting into a game. Also, the house sits beneath a mountain of physical and spiritual beauty that represents her proud heritage. Eileen has so much to be thankful for. Even if Da seems to have trouble making the family farm pay, the warmth of home outweighs potential threats.

But the Catholic O’Neills live in county Armagh, dominated by Protestants, the more aggressive of whom think nothing of seizing Catholic property or chasing Catholic laborers out of jobs Protestants might want. And when personal misfortunes strike the family, life comes crashing down around their ears.

Michael Collins, the charismatic Irish nationalist, addresses a crowd in Cork on St. Patrick’s Day, 1922 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The Yellow House follows Eileen’s checkered adolescent years and young adulthood through the First World War and the civil war that follows, including her employment at a spinning mill, and her attraction to two older men. There’s James Conlon, a passionate nationalist whose fire appeals to her; she appreciates a fighter, since her family claims warrior ancestry. Then there’s Owen Sheridan, scion to the Quaker mill owner, the opposite of James—measured, sensitive, harder to define, and steadier. He’s also out of bounds, as a Protestant and member of the industrial gentry.

Falvey does best, I think, conveying a society craving a place to belong, hence the value assigned to home and land, and the violence that’s partly a response to dispossession. I can recall only a couple historical novels published here about the Irish civil war, so The Yellow House helps fill that void. I particularly like how she portrays the hard-nosed romantic revolutionaries, who act as though the end always justifies the means, and who love a martyr’s funeral. She renders the mill workers with care as well; these people are trying to get by, thrive on gossip, and will skewer anybody who sticks out from the herd. Eileen provides a ready target.

Occasionally, the prose touches poetry, as with this description of her beloved mountain:

Her summer robe of bracken so thick now would soon be in tatters, exposing the scars and furrows on her surface. Crevasses formed millions of years ago by the ice age would be exposed, crossing her face like ancient wrinkles. But now the last of the summer flowers and grasses clothed her in a colorful robe. A rabbit darted past, and in the distance, waterfowl cried from the many lakes.

But overall, the novel disappoints. Eileen, though not a complex character, at least lives in an intriguing predicament, and you want her to find happiness. Theresa, her closest friend, comes through just enough. But the central male characters are types with fewer facets, the firebrand James especially. Perhaps that’s because the narrative often tells what qualities they have, and how Eileen feels afterward, sometimes in a list—anger, joy, etc. Maybe other readers don’t mind that approach, perhaps even find it helpful, but I feel cheated, fobbed off by a generic description. Why should I care, if the author doesn’t?

To her credit, Falvey smashes her heroine hard; Eileen suffers many painful reverses. I wish, though, they were less predictable, didn’t feel ordained. To cite a minor example, the night Da brings home the yellow paint, he’s forgotten the flour and meat his wife wanted. Fun but irresponsible, you think; and sure enough, paragraphs later, he reveals he’s sold some acreage without telling her. Since he’s a recognizable type (and never surprises), you expect the troubles that follow. He’s not strong enough to make a contingency plan or resist effectively. Besides, what drags him down has been dropped into conversation, so it’s inevitable.

At first, I wondered whether Falvey was trying to create a fatalistic universe in which tragedy is inescapable; but no. However often Eileen tells herself that as a poor, Catholic woman she has no standing, she acts differently. She’s a scrapper, never seriously embraces the chance that her circumstances might trap her forever. Nor does she reflect overmuch on her hard life, even less on choices she’s made. When things go wrong, she shouts her anger and pain—she shouts frequently—but moves on afterward in haste. She expresses shock at her reverses, but I’m not convinced; it’s as though she knows what’s in store.

This sense of life ordained bleeds into the historical background. Falvey has people anticipate general European war, not only in 1914 but years beforehand, and speak of it in terms nobody used back then and with prescience they couldn’t have possessed. But careless historical research doesn’t undo The Yellow House. What hurts this novel are the generic characters and situations, such that you don’t need tea leaves to guess where the story will go next.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Theater of Abolition: The Underground River

Review: The Underground River, by Martha Conway
Touchstone, 2017. 340 pp. $27

May Bedloe has two serious problems, about to be multiplied by a third in this year of 1838. First, she takes care to speak the precise truth as she perceives it, and not a word more or less, refusing to countenance a lie, in herself or anyone else.

Her concrete approach to life amuses some and puzzles or puts off others, but in either case, leaves May feeling as if she’s not fit to make friends or be among people.

Secondly, she’s in thrall to her actress cousin, Comfort Vertue, who’s as self-absorbed and exploitive as they come. When Comfort isn’t abusing her younger cousin’s pliant nature, as in draining her life savings or demanding that she use her superb dressmaking skills to fix up the elder’s wardrobe, she lectures May about her character and tells her what she, May, wants.

But the cousins are abruptly sundered (and left destitute) when the Ohio River steamboat on which they’re traveling blows up near Cincinnati. All you need to know is that May saves a little girl she’s never met, whereas Comfort doesn’t even bother to let her cousin know she’s still alive, having been looking out for Number One.

Her skill at this game has led her to the home of a well-to-do abolitionist, Mrs. Howard, who promptly informs May that her presence is unwelcome. Elder cousin will now be retained as a stump speaker for the abolitionist cause, by which she’ll earn her keep; May should simply go elsewhere, right away. Home, maybe.

But home, in Oxbow, Ohio, no longer has anything to sustain May, and—you guessed it—Comfort doesn’t speak up for her. However, Thaddeus, a roguish actor of Comfort’s acquaintance, coaches May in her first lesson in lying, with which she pries twenty dollars out of Mrs. Howard, presumably for travel expenses back to Oxbow. Instead, that twenty goes to repair a certain boat in which the actor has an interest. Captain Cushing’s Floating Theater, which sails up and down the Ohio, mooring at towns where the citizenry might wish dramatic entertainment, now has a new seamstress/pianist/ticket taker.

Joseph Jefferson, a star 19th-century actor, as young Rip Van Winkle, probably 1860s or later, artist unknown (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

No longer relegated to her cousin’s dressing room (from which Comfort often locked her out), May now lives and works among theater folk, eight of them. Consequently, her difficulties with artifice emerge and cause conflict with people who live by pretending to be what they’re not. Much humor ensues, and this unusual coming-of-age story boasts a raft (almost literally) of delightful stage types, from the acquisitive, overbearing Mrs. Niffen, whose husband never says a word, to Thaddeus, the trouper past his prime:

When I first met him, Thaddeus seemed to me like an opportunistic man with most of his opportunities behind him. For all his long yellow hair he was aging: there were small wrinkles around his eyes and laugh lines at the corners of his mouth. But he was not unattractive, and if he worried about his own prospects, he never let on. He had a way of looking straight at a woman as though he could see her hidden self and he liked it. I’d seen him look this way at Comfort whenever he wanted something from her. A loan of money, usually.

But there’s much more here. As May slowly wakes to the life of emotion and gray realities, she also wakes to slavery’s impact and the necessity to act against it. I won’t say more, except to note that her knowledge brings great danger, rendered with hair-raising vividness. And to keep the suspense, don’t read the jacket flap, which gives away too much, as though the publisher feared that potential readers would otherwise find the story lightweight.

I like how Conway has portrayed the towns along the Ohio River, whether on free soil or in Kentucky, a slave state, and how she doles out period details with a deft hand. I also admire her gift for characterization; I love tales about the theater, and these performers ring true to that lively art.

I also like how Conway refrains from granting May a full-character makeover. Our heroine learns a little, tasting the pleasures of suspension of disbelief and glimpses of human warmth. But she remains herself, ever concrete, seeking rules to live by, which seems psychologically accurate.

Comfort may be a little over the top, but there again, psychology holds sway: a masochist like May will invent reasons to bond to a narcissist, so Comfort’s excess has a purpose. I mind more that the author, though normally careful with language, occasionally uses words like feedback, which don’t fit the era, and inserts the rare modern thought pattern. But these are quibbles. The Underground River is a wonderful book, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Empathy?: The Welsh Girl

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Review: The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 333 pp. $10

For Esther Evans, seventeen, June 1944 in Cilgwyn, her village in North Wales, brings sights and sounds of the wider world she dreams of: BBC broadcasts, radio performers from London, English soldiers building an encampment. Living with her sheep-farmer father, who’s a Welsh nationalist, and an ill-tempered young evacuee, Esther has little to excite her except her job at the pub, where she rubs elbows with “foreigners,” including the English corporal with whom she’s stepping out. Don’t tell Dad.

Meanwhile, Karsten Simmering is taken prisoner defending a Normandy beachhead on D-Day. He doesn’t know what to think of himself for surrendering; his fellow prisoners, neck-deep in admiration for the Führer and certain of final victory, shame him for it, conveniently forgetting that they too put their hands up.

You know that Esther and Karsten are destined to cross paths, so you can guess that the encampment being built is for prisoners of war. Their relationship is an intriguing premise, and Davies shapes it well, conveying alliances and resentments with subtlety and aplomb, whether in Cilgwyn or the prison camp. He also colors his narrative with wistfulness, desire for escape, and search for a comfortable, fitting definition for the word nation, which several of his characters seem to lack.

Rudolf Hess, 1933, unknown photographer (courtesy German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I do question how Karsten speaks such fluent English. I also dislike the unmentionable trope that changes Esther’s path, both for itself and its predictability and borrowed from a humorless Victorian novelist (the offending work even rates a mention). But at least Davies makes it his own.

A chief attraction here is the prose, as with this vivid, emotion-laden description of Karsten’s barracks at the camp:

The hut stinks of men, of sweat and feet and damp wool and arseholes, and he rolls over to catch the sporadic scent of the sea. He can make out the smell of the damp trees on wet days, or of dry heather on fine ones. . . .The evenings, once it gets too gloomy to play football, once the dusk deepens and the white dots of sheep on the hillside vanish, are a slow, anxious prelude to this confinement. It makes him feel like a punished child . . . sent to bed early, and he dreads the winter when the days will get shorter and they’ll be locked in even earlier.

Unfortunately, Davies buries the Esther-Karsten narrative under a subplot connected to it only vaguely through the nation-belonging theme, an infelicitous addition at best. The novel begins with Joseph Rotheram, a British intelligence officer of German birth, assigned to observe and question the infamous Rudolf Hess. Hess, Hitler’s righthand man until 1940, when he flew an airplane to England, has spent four years under heavy guard. The Allies contemplate war-crimes trials, at which Hess would be a star defendant. Yet he claims amnesia, and no questioner can penetrate that mask.

Rotheram hates his assignment, especially for the reason he’s there: he’s considered Jewish, an identity he hotly (and accurately) denies, since his mother is Christian. But his superiors insist on saying he is, and they suppose that Hess will detect his “race” and react, whereupon they’ll have their prisoner in a bind. What an anti-Semitic trope, heightened when Rotheram’s officer comrades speak as if he has no country, only a tribe.

Davies knows how to set a scene, and he’s imagined a couple notable confrontations between Rotheram and Hess, especially during a screening of Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda film. It’s like Hamlet’s play within a play, hoping to catch the conscience of the king.

But to wade into anti-Semitic tropes requires insight, and Davies’s narrative suggests he knows little or nothing about Jews or Judaism. Rotheram’s Jewish only to the extent that others think he is and scorn him for it; he has no thoughts about that identity or his family’s past, other than rejecting it. You might as well say the Welsh characters are Welsh only because the English make bigoted jokes about them.

Toward the novel’s end, Rotheram starts thinking like his anti-Semitic superiors: “The Jews, he knew, had no homeland, yearned for one, and yet as much as he understood it to be a source of their victimization, it seemed at once such pure freedom to be without a country.” I suspect Davies has no idea his character appears to find liberation in thousands of years of expulsion, enforced statelessness, expropriation, and murder, justified by the slander that Jews owe allegiance to no country.

A critic quoted on the jacket flap praises Davies’s “all-encompassing empathy.” Not quite.

To my fellow historical novelists, please: If you must write about the Holocaust, make sure you treat your Jewish characters as full people. Please don’t deploy them like paperweights to keep themes or plot points from blowing away. Tropes and stereotypes hurt.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Salem Affair: Hester

Review: Hester, by Laurie Lico Albanese
St. Martin’s, 2022. 336 pp. $28

In 1829, nineteen-year-old Isobel Gamble emigrates from Scotland to Salem, Massachusetts, partly because neither she nor her apothecary husband, Edward, have prospered, but also for a reason she must hide. Edward, who at first gave young Isobel the impression of a kind, thoughtful husband, has turned into a selfish tyrant, rather too fond of certain drug preparations and further addicted to get-rich-quick schemes. As a lover, he has the style of a bull elephant, though maybe I slight that species in saying so.

Serving as the ship’s doctor on the passage to Salem, he signs on again in that capacity for a respectable merchant captain, leaving his bride to fend for herself. He remains on shore long enough to arrange her living conditions without consulting her and will brook no discussion; he also issues strict orders that hamstring her efforts to get along in his absence.

Matthew Brady’s portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken in the early 1860s, well after the author added the w to his name (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Said absence, as you may have guessed, leaves Isobel with mixed feelings. She worries how she’ll cope, knowing nobody in Salem, which seems a closed, exclusive society, especially mistrustful of immigrants. Moreover, she’s got almost no resources save her nimble fingers and a needle, and seamstresses are a penny a dozen. Potential employers, who depend on the carriage trade, are as snobby as their customers and exact draconian terms of service against which Isobel has no recourse.

There’s yet another secret to hide. Isobel possesses the rare cognitive ability to see letters and words as colors, which lends her embroidery a singular flair. But this phenomenon, known today as synesthesia, frightens her, because the world calls it unnatural and evil; indeed, the female ancestor who passed it on was accused of witchcraft. Consequently, as a child, Isobel was taught never to reveal her gift.

I didn’t want to fall into the Devil’s snare. I didn’t want to be put in an asylum or hanged from the gallows. I wanted to be a dressmaker, to live in a city and have a shop and embroider dresses with flowers and birds. I loved the needle and thread; they let me put my visions into cloth in a way that no one questioned, in a way that brought me praise. They let me keep my secrets in plain sight, where I prayed they would hurt no one, least of all myself.

Well, you say, she’s in Salem now, and we all know what happened there. Not only that, she meets Nathaniel Hathorne, whose ancestor was an unrepentant judge at those infamous trials. That history has haunted the up-and-coming writer so deeply he’ll later add a w to his name, hoping to differentiate himself from his predecessor. And any novel titled Hester evokes the heroine of The Scarlet Letter.

Accordingly, I don’t have to tell you that the gloomy Nat, who feels like an outcast, and the desperate, lonely Isobel, who is one, bond instantly. Without putting too fine a point on it, and at the risk of repeating the publicity copy, the two bewitch each other. And I might not have to tell you that Isobel sees the letter A as red, or that her skill with a needle, as well as her passionate nature, impresses Hathorne.

Albanese writes beautifully, and Hester has much going for it, despite several events whose literary predictability is a given. That’s because Edward’s pending return, Isobel’s ambivalence about it, and the price she’ll pay if anyone discovers her with Hathorne throw plenty of fuel on the fire. So do the two principals, who talk past each other, quarrel, and withhold the way lovers do.

A couple minor characters stand out too, notably one employer who pays Isobel a pittance and threatens to blacklist her if she tries to get more money elsewhere. Black characters and the slavery theme they embody feel shoehorned in, at first, but they make sense eventually. Albanese pulls no punches with either the major or minor characters, who suffer setbacks, and the reader senses long before Isobel does that her author swain is more complicated than she believed.

I could have done without the brief, italicized backstory chapters about Isobel’s alleged witch ancestor, which I think add nothing and try to wrap the theme in a pretty bow. We’ve already got Salem, where they still talk about witchcraft in 1829 and ostracize women who so much as appear to test societal constraints—though those with enough money get away with it, which makes the point clear enough. We also have Hathorne, who walks around with the guilt his forbear never admitted. Enough said.

But Hester’s worth your time, whether or not you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Trouble Amid the Magnolias: The Help

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Review: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Putnam, 2009. 444 pp. $17

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, recent 1962 graduate of the University of Mississippi and daughter of a well-to-do cotton planter, feels uncomfortable back home in Jackson. Unlike other young women in her social class, she doesn’t even pretend to like football or the young men who love it.

Skeeter (short for “mosquito,” a childhood nickname inflicted by her empty-headed older brother) has never even had a date, doesn’t know how to chat up a prospective mate, and more or less resists her mother’s attempts to make her over and see her married. Rather, she wants to be a journalist and write important stories.

Skeeter wishes she could talk to Constantine, the Black maid who raised her and would surely understand her dreams, unusual though they are. But Constantine has left the Phelan household under circumstances no one will reveal.

Federal marshals escort James Meredith to class at the University of Mississippi, October 1962 (courtesy U.S. News & World Report and the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, two other Black women serve Skeeter’s erstwhile high school friends—or, rather, one does, because the other’s fired for unjust cause. Minny’s a fabulous cook, but she speaks her mind, and white employers don’t like that, or even the suggestion that she has a mind to speak. Her friend Aibileen moves heaven and earth to find her another job, which occasions the telling of lies.

Further, Aibileen, who loves the white children she brings up—seventeen, altogether, over her years of service—is grief-stricken and angry. Her beloved son, a college graduate, was beaten to death because he inadvertently used a bathroom reserved for whites—and his employer looked the other way. Consequently, Minny and Aibileen, though well schooled on how to cope in the white world, are tired of taking blows.

You know that Skeeter’s path will somehow intertwine with those of Minny and Aibileen, improbable though that sounds on the surface. You also know that Skeeter must make the approach, because she’s the only one who can do so and live to tell about it. Without giving anything away, I’ll simply say that the consequences are farther-reaching than she could have imagined, and that the racial animosity that pervades every social interaction in Jackson comes into full focus.

This setup takes a while to come together, and the narrative sometimes feels top-heavy, with three narrators, their secrets, home lives, and social connections, not all of which fit seamlessly. But Stockett keeps the pot boiling throughout, and her story, if it seems implausible at odd moments, packs a punch.

I like how she re-creates the 1960s, rare authenticity for an author who didn’t live through that time. But she grasps the Sixties vibe, the notion that change is in the air, like it or not—and these characters don’t, for the most part. Stockett senses what’s worth including and what isn’t, and I never think she drags in details, which convey a coherent worldview, the ultimate test of historical fiction and arguably its most important component. Faithful to that mindset, she makes Skeeter, though relatively enlightened by comparison to her peers, no better than she should be.

All three principal characters appeal, if in different ways and voices. Minny, the saltiest, steals the show, as with this trenchant commentary about her new employer, Celia:

. . . Miss Celia stares out the back window at the colored man raking up the leaves. She’s got so many azalea bushes, her yard’s going to look like Gone With the Wind come spring. I don’t like azaleas and I sure didn’t like that movie, the way they made slavery look like a big happy tea party. If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green drapes up her little white pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.

Too bad the minor characters don’t measure up. Skeeter’s former high school friends, now the faceless villains running the Junior League, seem like devices to aid the convoluted plot. A potential suitor of Skeeter’s hardly registers a pulse, so I don’t understand why she looks twice at him.

Her father and brother are placeholders, though her mother, who at first comes across as a stereotypical steel magnolia, achieves a little depth as the story progresses. More would have helped. I wonder whether the busyness of the narrative gets in the way; there’s just not enough time and space for development.

But The Help is a courageous, powerful novel, the kind that might not get published today, I fear. With our present emphasis on authors telling only those stories that belong to them, as judged by unknown but omnipotent arbiters, we’ve surrendered to appearances, as though they mattered more than truth. But you can still read this novel, which surrenders to nothing, and I recommend that you do.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Year of the Thriller: Novelhistorian Turns Eight

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Another blog birthday and recap of my favorites from the last twelve months. I can’t remember a year in which they included so many thrillers, all literary. For a genre that’s supposed to fly on high-octane action, it’s remarkable how much thrust these authors achieve by putting character in the cockpit.

Not that these novels lack compelling plots; on the contrary, they have propulsion to burn. It’s just that the depth of characterization increases the tension, rather than getting in the way, as the common notion of thrillers would have it.

Pieces of eight, otherwise known as the Spanish dollar; date unknown, but after 1497 (courtesy Numismática Pliego via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

How? I think it’s because the protagonists carry around an internal “no—and furthermore.” They don’t need an antagonist threatening them—though that happens, often—because they have so much to hide, and their sense of shame drives them to take risks.

Exhibit A has to be Hour of the Witch, Chris Bohjalian’s tale of a battered woman in 1667 Boston who brings suit to divorce her husband. That makes her suspect in this Puritan town, if not criminal—and she can never admit her great shame, which is that she has sexual desire.

A different secret to hide drives An Unlikely Spy, Rebecca Starford’s novel about a young woman hired by MI5 in 1939 to track British Nazis. From the wrong side of the tracks, the new operative is brilliant at dissembling—she’s pretended all her life she comes from a higher social class than she does—but the self-deception comes at a price.

Social class also pushes the envelope in A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Jago’s story about cut-and-thrust intrigue at the court of James I. An herbalist and fashion consultant, hired to rouse a young, beautiful countess from her depressed stupor, quickly gets in over her head, betrayed partly by ambition but mostly by the ruthless aristocrats she serves.

In M, King’s Bodyguard by Niall Leonard, Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 attracts Europe’s crowned heads and anarchists who’d like to kill them. Since Kaiser Wilhelm is a likely victim, the head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch must work with his German opposite number, who’s probably lying about his identity. Our hero bows to convention outwardly yet holds subversive ideas, among them a sense of decency he knows others don’t share. That makes him fascinating and gives his enemies an edge: they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goals, whereas he draws back.

The World That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman, ventures into mystical territory via a female golem created in 1941 to protect Jewish children from the Holocaust. Much more than a page-turning survival story, this novel, set in France, portrays human characters trying to transform themselves—and a nonhuman character wondering what life means. A beautiful, passionate narrative about life and death, love as miracle and sacrifice, and the nature of grief.

Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky offers a contest between good and evil through a single character and often reads like a thriller. A young Chinese girl kidnapped in the 1880s and sold into sex slavery in San Francisco fights to free herself. But her face and gender are inescapable, and her shame at how people treat her sharpens her pain to the breaking point. This novel is bleak but essential reading.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff, isn’t a thriller, whatever its title suggests—it’s about Marie de France, an author of fairytales appointed in 1158 by Queen Eleanor of England to run a failing abbey. Marie deploys her considerable social and political skills attempting to put the place back on its feet and to create a haven where the women in her charge can escape men’s influence altogether. That may sound like a fairytale too, but Groff makes you believe, and her prose is spectacular without calling undue attention to itself.

Peter Manseau takes up similar issues in The Maiden of All Our Desires, except that the convent he portrays, though run under similar principles and rendered in similarly tactile prose, is about faith—where it comes from, what it means, and what gets in the way. The residents have secrets, desires, and questions, as well as a different take on dogma—and the bishop’s coming to decide whether rumors of heresy are true. A thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining novel.

So long as we’re talking about women challenging church doctrine, consider The Myth of Surrender, Kelly O’Connor McNees’s story set in 1960 about two pregnant teenagers resigned to giving their children up for adoption at a Catholic home for unwed mothers. But these young women, who think they’ll outrun their shame and bypass a youthful mistake, have unpleasant surprises in store. An old story, to which the author gives fresh punch and stunning twists.

I’ve never read a mystery quite like I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni, in which the detective’s character and outlook drive the story, also a page-turner. Set in 1930s Naples, concerning the murder of an opera star, the narrative shows why hunger and love are the motives for all crime. That truth affects the brilliant, moody, yearning protagonist, who has the reputation of being cold, yet feels more deeply than anyone around him.

Fine novels all, with more than a few thrills to spare.

The Northwest woods

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When Theodore Roosevelt signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906, the law granted him and successive presidents the power to create national parks and set aside forest lands. During his presidency, he preserved 150 national forests, totaling 150 million acres, and created the U.S. Forest Service to administer them.

Ever since, Washington has benefited greatly. I’m comforted to know that my home state’s magnificent forests are protected under law and count as a delightful respite from city life the hours I’ve spent hiking in them, watching birds, and listening to flowing creeks and waterfalls. When I see a tree trunk measuring yards in diameter, as in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, I stand in awe; I’m looking at a living monument older than many events that have shaped the modern world. And when I crest a steep hill in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and view a sun-dappled valley where wispy fog burns off at the treetops, I’m glad to be alive.

I’ve tried to portray wonder at and love for natural beauty in Lonely Are the Brave, my novel set in a fictional Washington logging town in 1919. Both main characters love the woods as their Northwest heritage; the irony, which they recognize, is that one’s a former home builder turned woodworker, and the other’s an heiress to a timber fortune.

I’m pleased to share the cover, above, which I hope conveys the novel’s spirit.

The Last Southern Knight: Cold Mountain

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Review: Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
Grove, 2017 (reissue). 449 pp. $17

In September 1864, wounded Confederate soldier W. P. Inman leaves the rural Virginia hospital where he’s been convalescing and lights out for home, without furlough papers. It’s a risky move. Irregulars comb the countryside for deserters, and if they catch him, the only question is whether they’ll kill him immediately or bring him to the nearest town for execution. But he hates the war, which he feels never had purpose, aside from protecting wealthy slaveholders’ property, and combat has scarred his psyche so badly, he’s ready to take his chances.

He hopes to meet up with Ada Monroe, a woman back in Cold Mountain, western North Carolina, whom he hasn’t seen since the war began. They’ve exchanged letters, but Inman doesn’t know whether they ever had an “understanding,” or, if they did, whether Ada will care for him now, in his emotionally damaged state.

But Ada has her own troubles—and a journey to make. Her father, a preacher, has just died, leaving her with a farm gone to seed because of wartime labor shortages and no skills or resources to maintain the place. The late Monroe encouraged—nay, required—his daughter to cultivate her mind and sense of gentility, so that she must never lift a finger in anything remotely resembling physical labor.

Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina (courtesy James St. John, https://www.flickr.com/photos/47445767@N05/51363496155/, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As a consequence, Ada’s extremely literate, plays the piano (stolidly), and can draw, but she hasn’t a clue about raising crops or animals, or about the natural environment on which her existence would depend if she operated the farm. However, she has only one alternative: returning to Charleston, where she was born, throwing herself on the mercy of relatives she never liked, and settling for a husband who’d probably not appreciate her independent mind.

Cold Mountain bears a slight resemblance to the Odyssey, in that Inman, as Odysseus, must endure myriad misadventures and combats to return to Penelope, whom he dares not presume is waiting for him. His narrative is therefore episodic, full of “no—and furthermore” and derring-do. Like Odysseus, he’s clever and needs to be; unlike him, though, he’s not malign. Not ever. Rather, he assists people in distress as he meets them and never surrenders to temptation. He’s more of a knight-errant than an adventurer, and maybe too good to be true.

Meanwhile, Ada has received a tremendous stroke of luck in the form of Ruby Thewes, who shows up because a friend has said Ada needs help. Ruby has no refinement, book learning, or soft feelings but knows all there is to know about the soil, the barnyard, and how to read the seasons. I like that Ada’s tutelage comes hard and that her journey is both internal and external, unlike Inman’s, who seems fully formed. Rather, Ada must shed her old life, and this minute wouldn’t be too soon. I also like how she reads to Ruby, her turn to pass on what she knows, and how they disagree as to what happiness is, or whether it’s even worth bothering about.

Her story moves me more than Inman’s, by far. Ada grows as a character, whereas he doesn’t, and whatever changes he’s gone through, you see them hazily in aftermath rather than in transition. During his odyssey, one physical conflict is much like another, and none stand out for me, either in themselves or what he learns from them. Conversely, her narrative feels more cohesive, and she transforms before your eyes—not without a struggle, which adds to her portrayal. Her obstacles, though daunting, seldom feel ridiculously insurmountable, so she seems more human, less larger than life.

Maybe the greatest pleasure of Cold Mountain is the prose, which has been justly celebrated, and which conveys the characters’ physical and emotional realms with vividness and precision:

In his mind, Inman likened the swirling patterns of vulture flight to the coffee grounds seeking pattern in his cup. Anyone could be oracle for the random ways things fall against each other. It was simple enough to tell fortunes if a man dedicated himself to the idea that the future will inevitably be worse than the past and that time is a path leading nowhere but a place of deep and persistent threat.

I admire Frazier’s refusal to sugarcoat human nature, and his depiction of lawless, bloodthirsty, and greedy behavior is both real and appalling. If ever a novel did justice to the brutality Americans visited upon each other during those years, this one does. This is a vision of the Civil War that has rarely, if ever, appeared in fictional form.

Nevertheless, the narrative compromises that vision with a romantic underlay, and Cold Mountain is less satisfying for it. As with Varina, Frazier appears to argue that nobody really wanted secession or believed in the war except for a slim majority who held wealth and power. Somehow, I don’t think that’s how the Civil War lasted that long. But in any case, Frazier’s perspective whitewashes his characters while trivializing the history.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

No Possession, Only Determination: Hour of the Witch

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Review: Hour of the Witch, by Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 2021. 400 pp. $29

Mary Deerfield leads what many people in Boston in 1663 would call an enviable life—though they’d never admit it, because envy is a sin. Her father, a leading merchant, imports many useful items like furniture, cloth, and cutlery. Mary’s husband, much older than herself, is a prosperous miller, a man others look up to. However, she’s still childless at twenty-four, which arouses suspicions of possession by Satan.

But Mary’s only possessed by qualities a woman must not have—a strong will informed by intelligence and desire. She dares want a better life than the one her brute of a husband allows: he beats her mercilessly, and his idea of sexual relations is equally violent and shaming. For every insult he endures, or thinks he endures, Mary pays; and when he’s drunk, which is often, he imagines slights everywhere.

One of the many reasons I’m glad I didn’t live in seventeenth-century Boston.

Worse, he knows how to dissemble. Though familiar at the tavern, he’s never earned the constable’s reprimand for drunken behavior or punishment in the stocks. He beats Mary in private and makes up outlandish excuses when friends or family ask about the occasional bruise that shows. She wonders whether their young servant, Catherine, sees through the lies—not that she’d sympathize, because Mary suspects the girl lusts after her husband.

Mary understands lust. She feels it when she’s around her son-in-law, Jonathan, married to Thomas’s daughter by a previous marriage, and for Henry Simmons, a man who works in a merchant’s warehouse. At night, after Thomas has rolled off her and begun snoring, she touches herself and struggles to rationalize the pleasure, half-believing that the devil has, in fact, taken hold.

Nevertheless, when Thomas stabs her hand with a fork hard enough to break a bone and draw blood, Mary has had enough. Despite the odds, she decides to file for divorce, ignoring all counsel to desist. It’s not just that a woman has no chance against her husband, particularly one as clever as Thomas. It’s also the fork, which her father imported—a fork that has three tines, the extra tine suggesting, to some, an instrument of the devil.

I admire so many aspects of this brilliant novel that it’s hard to know what to name first. So I’ll start with the voice opening, which establishes the Puritan mindset and beliefs about sin. Few authors, particularly thriller authors, display the confidence to pull this off—where’s the action? Won’t I bore the reader?—but Bohjalian delivers.

These few pages wax terrified at the temptation lurking everywhere, implying that terror will recur in the following narrative. Most important to historical fiction, the author shows how people think in seventeenth-century Boston, and how that contrasts with today’s mores—or does it? Aren’t people still scared of their desires, and doesn’t the tremendous shame they carry prompt them to behave their worst?

Whoops; I’ve just praised a prologue. In my defense, I’ll point out that this one reveals no forward action.

But it does prepare us to see Mary as decent, mostly kind person struggling with being a vessel of desire and, though she wouldn’t recognize the word, a feminist. An early description of her down by the wharf shows how she tries to cast herself:

The men were tanned and young, and though it was autumn and there was wind in the air, the sun was still high and the crates and casks were heavy, and so she could see the sweat on their faces and bare arms. She knew she had come here to watch them; this was the reason she had walked this far. But she didn’t believe this was a sin or the men had been placed there as a temptation. Visiting the wharf was rather, she decided, like watching a hummingbird or a hawk or savoring the roses that grew through the stone wall at the edge of her vegetable garden. These men—the fellow with the blond, wild eyebrows or the one with the shoulders as broad as a barrel and a back that she just knew under his shirt was sleek and muscled and hairless—were made by God, too, and in her mind they were mere objects of beauty on which she might gaze for a moment before resuming her chores.

But Boston’s a place where every move is watched and judged, and this is how Hour of the Witch turns the screws. It’s not just that the threat may emerge anytime, anywhere, and often does. Nor is it only that “no—and furthermore” blooms here like dandelions (Mary’s image for envy), or that Bohjalian pushes his heroine to the absolute limit. With Thomas, he creates an antagonist who’s truly despicable yet apparently normal, which makes him that much more dangerous. While reading this book, I often thought of my favorite Hitchcock films, for the natural relentlessness of his villains and the manner in which ordinary objects, like the three-tined fork, become charged.

Hour of the Witch is a sterling example of a literary thriller, unafraid to dwell in emotional moments and use them to connect to the reader. I leave it to you to read this gripping narrative and ponder to what extent the Puritan scourge has marked our country to this day.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.