Dante and Derring-Do: The Master of Verona


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Master of Verona, by David Blixt
St. Martin’s, 2007. 561 pp. $28

In 1314, Verona’s master, Cangrande della Scala, extends patronage to Dante Alighieri, who has been banished from Florence, and his two surviving sons, Pietro, seventeen, and Jacopo, fourteen. The poet has recently published Inferno, to great renown and no little fear of heresy or impiety. But della Scala quickly realizes that Dante’s not the only gifted member of the family, nor the most useful.

Rather, he fixes on Pietro, who longs to escape his father’s shadow (while hoping pater will actually notice him one day and approve). And when Pietro falls in with two other youths — one noble, one from a merchant family pretending nobility — military adventure offers. Della Scala, a twenty-three-year-old wunderkind, dreams of uniting Italy under his banner. His approach to war, diplomacy, and familial politics has much to do with an ancient prophecy that says a figure called the Greyhound will realize that far-fetched scheme. He’s magnetic, generous, and apparently scrupulous, a rare combination. Pietro’s enthralled, and his passion takes him places, often alongside his new friends, the first he’s ever had in his life.

Equestrian statue, no date, of Cangrande della Scala, Museo di Castelvecchio,
Verona (courtesy Eggbread, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Between the derring-do, battle scenes, court intrigue, and the question of occupying many thinkers on the cusp of the Renaissance — do the stars foretell fate, or does free will have influence? — The Master of Verona makes for epic adventure. The thrumming plot, larger-than-life characters and perilous twists and turns evoke an approach like that of Dumas. The pages turn rapidly, numerous though they are. Astrology, poetry, chivalry, prophecy, and love figure here, all entertaining subjects, and I enjoy many of the characters, who take them seriously.

Besides Pietro and della Scala’s sister, Katerina, I particularly like Dante himself, who unfortunately drops out of the narrative. Blixt portrays him as a self-absorbed narcissist conscious of his genius who has little time for his children, except when they disappoint him. The exception? His daughter, Antonia, who, at thirteen, keeps the booksellers in line and acts as self-appointed caretaker of her father’s career. In letters, he calls her Beatrice, which she treasures. Katerina and Antonia are women ahead of their time, seeking power and influence denied them because of their gender.

Otherwise, the novel has wars, a horse race through the streets, trysts, duels, and every action conceivable. Not all are credible, and Pietro’s powers can test belief, especially as he’s received little schooling in the martial arts; but never mind. As an added conceit, Shakespearean characters and situations waft through the narrative, whether the plays belong to Vienna (Romeo and Juliet), or not (Othello, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing). Note that Blixt is an actor and director, and you can tell: His approach is theatrical, to say the least.

As a storyteller, he offers brio, panache, and a command of historical detail:

Inside the city walls, the streets were all but impassable. Spectators, gamblers, merchants, peasants, petitioners — all had traveled for days to vie for what lodging they could find. The decent rooms were already rented out to triple or quadruple capacity.… Many visitors, even noble ones, were forced to sleep on dirty floors, or in stables, where the beds were somewhat more comfortable. But fully half the people in the city were not sleeping. Other attractions called — treats and spectacles and mythical beasts, lights and sounds and smells.

However, as this passage suggests, Blixt sometimes trowels on the detail, drawing back the authorial focus and distancing the reader. This narrative technique, which can seem static, undermines the drive he achieves with the storyline and makes you work to stay connected. The author also indulges in information dumps, swelling the dialogue with facts and background, at which the reader’s eye grows impatient. Or this reader’s does. If these facts matter to the story, and I’m not sure they always do, better to show them through action, rather than have people explain them to each other.

I doubt fourteenth-century people, or those anytime, would speak the way Blixt has it, unless they’re all pedants. Then again, these folk often think like moderns, however intently they hew to the philosophical framework of their era. Present-day vocabulary dots the dialogue, and when characters discourse on various subjects, they occasionally refer to knowledge that lies in the future. They also speak incorrect French, admittedly a minor quibble, though indicative of carelessness of writer or editor that emerges elsewhere.

But it’s the discursive, lecturing quality that hampers the novel most. The final chapters are particularly striking for that, as the narrative struggles to wrap up convolutions and contradictions through speechmaking. It’s an unsatisfying, melodramatic conclusion.

For a wild, evocative ride, in which action carries the day, The Master of Verona makes for entertaining reading. Less would have achieved more.

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

Love and Murder: Death of a Showman


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Death of a Showman, by Mariah Fredericks
Minotaur, 2021. 276 pp. $27

Jane Prescott, lady’s maid to wealthy socialite Mrs. Louise Tyler, has just returned from an exhausting trip to Europe in June 1914, during which they attended a wedding. Much to Jane’s dismay, the pros and cons of marriage are on her mind, considering that Leo Hirschfeld, a musician who might or might not have been courting her the previous summer, has married, after insisting he wouldn’t. Then too, the Tylers seem, well, maybe not unhappy with each other, but out of sorts. Bored, maybe.

No boredom allowed when Leo invites Mrs. Tyler to a rehearsal of a ragtime musical for which he’s written the score, and whose cast so happens to include his new bride. Mrs. Tyler has no idea she’s being cultivated as a potential investor in the show. But Jane, who wasn’t born yesterday, realizes that the flirtatious Leo, who can’t abide the idea that someone might resent him, especially if she has every reason to, hopes to get back into her good graces.

Naturally, she has no intention of joining Mrs. Tyler at the theater; just as obviously, she must, because her employer needs a chaperone, and Louise relies on her. Further, you know that one visit won’t be enough, so Mrs. Tyler begins regularly attending rehearsals, while Jane works backstage. She also has to sit through watching Leo’s better half, a voluptuous airhead whose only talent seems to be walking downstairs in a suggestive way. Mrs. Tyler really has no idea how much Jane puts up with for her sake.

Readers familiar with the Jane Prescott mystery series know that someone will soon wind up dead, and Jane will solve the crime. You don’t need a crystal ball (or the jacket flap) to guess that the victim will be Sidney Warburton, the show’s producer. A ruthless, exploitive tyrant who takes pride in seducing other men’s wives, Warburton gets shot in a bathroom stall at Rector’s restaurant during a cast party.

This backdrop may sound familiar for a mystery, but Fredericks makes it her own. Warburton’s not a pure monster; he’s helped many people, given them a chance in a cutthroat theatrical world. Not only does his generosity, however self-interested, flesh him out, it complicates the question of motive. Though just about every member of cast and crew has suffered his vitriol and humiliating behavior, he’s also their bread and butter; even, in cases, their rescuer.

For decades, David Belasco was the high priest of the American theater, complete with clerical collar, his trademark. (1909, unattributed; courtesy J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington, Seattle, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Moreover, Fredericks knows her historical and theatrical ground, whether we’re talking about what the theater district looked like in 1914, or what went on there. To this theater historian and lifelong devotee, she’s conjured up what makes actors tick, the glamour and what lies behind it, and an unsophisticated public’s fear (and admiration) of the theater as institution and lifestyle. Several characters’ names or reputations evoke stars from the era. For those readers familiar with that theatrical age, see if you recognize a hint of David Belasco, a hack producer/director and playwright but technological innovator, in this description of Warburton’s theater:

Only seven years old, the Sidney Theater was equipped with the most modern advances — hydraulics, a lighting board, and set workshops on the lower floors with an elevator to carry the results up to the stage — as well as the most lavish of interior design. Its creator had said he wanted the audience to feel as if they were in someone’s home, and so they might, if that someone were a Vanderbilt. Glossy oak paneling shone as red-brown as a setter’s coat, alongside Tiffany stained glass and murals of the more titillating Greek myths.

I like Fredericks’s re-creation of Rector’s (a real place) and the cast-party murder scene, in which the killer must be present, yet plausibly escapes notice. It’s a clever blend of two mystery traditions, the locked room and the clue in plain sight. For further depth, always welcome, the author explores whether love is what it looks like, and whether you can separate it from physical passion. Along the way, the dialogue crackles with wit — I don’t recall laughing as much reading the other Jane Prescott mysteries — as you might expect from theater folk.

Accordingly, Fredericks has loosened Jane’s corset a notch, and though that makes sense for the story, I stumbled over that, remembering her from previous episodes as a more cautious, demure woman of her time. Another significant character reveals a different sort of shift, which feels contrived — a rare slip for the author. The unnecessary, perhaps deliberately misleading, prologue is at least short enough not to annoy too much. And though the narrative includes the approach of the European war, which makes sense, the mixture doesn’t always flow smoothly, nor are the details always historically accurate.

But Death of a Showman remains a delicious, poignant treat, and I highly recommend it.

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

A Woman’s Place: Girl in Disguise


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Girl in Disguise, by Greer Macallister
Sourcebooks, 2017. 301 pp. $26

Kate Warne’s up against it. Chicago in 1856 is a rough town for a young widow with no money, no job prospects, and no desire to remarry. Mistreated by parents who never loved her, exploited her, and taught her never to love or trust anyone, Kate has learned to lie and dissemble, as circumstances seem to require. That skill, at least, she picked up from her father, a down-on-his-luck actor who, when not putting on stage makeup to perform, tried his hand at con games.

Alexander Gardner’s photo at Antietam, September 1862, of Allan Pinkerton (seated, right) and a woman believed to be Kate Warne, standing behind him. (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Which explains why, when Kate reads a want ad run by Allan Pinkerton looking for an operative to join his agency, she applies. After all, doesn’t she have the natural talent? Pinkerton nearly throws her out of his office; his profession is no place for a woman, he says. But Kate perseveres, of course, and Pinkerton reluctantly gives her a trial run — which doesn’t work out too well.

How that happens, and what she does about it, I’ll leave for you to find out, for Girl in Disguise is well worth your exploration. Be warned, however: Readers expecting a whodunit or thriller or even a unified plot will be disappointed, but, I expect, not for long. Such is the brio with which Macallister tells her story, and the loving attention she pays her protagonist, that it hardly matters.

Girl in Disguise is a coming-into-her-own novel, as Kate settles into her profession and masters it. Sometimes that process feels too easy, but rest assured, “no — and furthermore” resides here. The chapters represent cases, some of which are connected, especially in the narrative’s latter stages. But most stand alone, showing Kate’s progression, the professional and personal obstacles she faces, and, above all, how she handles a line of work that excites and fascinates her, yet leaves little or no room for a private life, let alone intimacy.

That, in turn, leads her toward self-discovery, because she must ask herself what she wants, and whether she’s lied so well to the world, she has fooled herself as well. As such, her character drives the narrative, an essential, given that the plot is episodic and fragmented. It’s an unusual way to approach a suspense novel, but here, it works.

Kate Warne was a real person, but little is known about her. Macallister does an impressive job re-creating her in plausible fashion. I particularly like the family history, which both brings out her character and influences the story line. Better yet, she lets Kate remain emotionally scarred. No miraculous transformations mar this book, for the author is too psychologically astute for that. The most exciting parts involve what few traces the real Kate Warne left in the historical record, and what tantalizing bits they are. She helped spirit Lincoln safely through Baltimore just before his first inauguration, foiling an assassination attempt. Later, during the Civil War, she performed surveillance on Rose Greenhow, a Washington socialite and clever Confederate spy.

Greenhow not only makes a worthy opponent, she comes across with particular vividness:

Artfully, she flirted, and I watched how she flirted. Her hands were deployed like soldiers to any front where they were needed: stroking a man’s sleeve to create intimacy, resting on the piano to reinforce her wealth, trailing along the side of her neck to draw attention to her body. She was not a young woman, but she was a beautiful one, no mistake. Her beauty alone was not all she had to offer. She gave off some kind of energy that drew men to her. Her gift, I saw, was attention. There was nothing more intoxicating to these men.

I wish Pinkerton’s characterization reached this level, but I don’t see his inner life or motivations as clearly as Kate’s or Greenhow’s. I wanted more from this major character. Lincoln’s cameo appearance provides just enough detail, I suppose, though I could have used a little more with him too, and George B. McClellan gets even shorter shrift, which I understand, yet which sets off my historian’s itch. During the war, McClellan would later command the Army of the Potomac and employ Pinkerton to run informants, who invariably offered inflated estimates of Confederate strength. McClellan swallowed them whole and used them as an excuse not to fight, driving Lincoln crazy. Maybe some other novelist will tackle that triangle.

The relative shallowness of the male characters is the most serious weakness of Girl in Disguise. With one exception, a suave, dapper colleague at Pinkerton’s agency who has a secret to protect, the men don’t measure up to Kate, Greenhow, or two women whom Kate trains as operatives.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Girl in Disguise, which richly imagines a complex tale based on a sketchy historical record.

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

A Fairy Tale Made Real: While Beauty Slept


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: While Beauty Slept, by Elizabeth Blackwell
Putnam, 2014. 416 pp. $16

When fourteen-year-old Elise Dalriss loses her mother and almost all her siblings to the plague that nearly kills her too, she must make a desperate choice. She sees that she has no future on her father’s farm, which has been failing for years, and he’s a cruel, bitter, hard man, whom she fears. He’s also not her real father—Elise was born out of wedlock—and she doesn’t know who is, so she has that shame to bear as well.

Given courage by her mother’s last words and finding a few precious coins sewn into the dead woman’s skirt hem, Elise seizes her chance. She flees home and throws herself on the mercy of her mother’s sister. Receiving more kindness there than expected, Elise prepares to ask for employment as a chambermaid at the castle, where her mother once worked, and where King Ranolf and Queen Lenore hold court. It’s a terrifying proposition, especially for a girl of humble birth who knows nothing of court etiquette and little of the work for which she claims to be qualified. Symbolic of Elise’s anxieties, the castle itself threatens her:

I expected it to be large and well fortified. But . . . I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the fortress that sprawled defiantly atop the hill before me. Thick walls of rugged stone seemed to have burst forth from the earth to encircle the towers within. Behind the battlements, turrets stabbed the sky, with a few narrow windows giving the only indication that people lived within. For a moment, the weight of it chilled my spirits, and I was seized by a sudden reluctance to enter. Raised in the open air, with land extending in every direction, I had never considered what it would mean to live enclosed within walls.

This is the premise for an ingenious retelling of Sleeping Beauty, stripped of its romance and all the more captivating for it. Gone are the homage to chivalry, the rarefied sensibility, the obsession with instant physical attraction (though it does occur), or a royal perspective. Elise’s narration, though emphasizing the king, queen, and, later, their daughter—those fixtures of the legend remain—delves deeply into unpleasant realities no fairy tale ever concerned itself with. And I don’t mean the evil witch, though here she is.

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1899 pencil-and-watercolor rendition of Sleeping Beauty (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Rather, Blackwell tells her story through the power imbalance between men and women, the snobbery of social rank (reveled in by those who have none), and the harshness of everyday life in an era that approximates the Middle Ages without too-specific detail. Typical of that time and any seat of power, the politics of court and realm take center stage, which believably grounds the narrative and offers credible, deeper motivations than the original. When Ranolf and Lenore bemoan the lack of a child, they’re not just parents but rulers seeking an heir; foreign enemies menace the kingdom. Consequently, though Blackwell derives suspense from changing what we think we know, providing that contrast to expectations that draws us in, she’s also showing us a more plausible, harder-edged version than the original.

While Beauty Slept delivers a strong feminist message, but the novel revolves around the power of love—again, not courtly love or the powdered, happily-ever-after variety (in which you just add water and stir). She means abiding love, one that weathers years and trials without recompense asked or offered, that between parents and children, or between clear-eyed adults who’ve had enough time in life to rack up regrets.

Elise rises within the servant pecking order with perhaps too much ease—the story requires her to—though the author does her best to portray the fallout from her rivals, witness social snubs, jealousy, and backbiting. I don’t mind that so much, though I do question how a girl battered by life and a violent father could bloom so, once given the chance. That’s the downside to psychological realism versus fairy tale—once you throw down that gauntlet, you have to fulfill the challenge—and I’d have expected Elise’s losses to deduct a higher toll from her emotional resources.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t bother me as much as the moments when she announces that trouble’s a-coming, and, in retrospect (she’s retelling the story to her great-granddaughter), she wishes she’d done things differently. Such heavy-handed portents accomplish nothing except to pull the reader out of the story.

But I highly recommend While Beauty Slept, which adds realistic flesh to legendary bones in a thought-provoking way that speaks to the modern reader without compromising the time and place.

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

Sister, Friend, Rival: Shanghai Girls


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See
Random House, 2009. 336 pp. $17

Pearl and her sister, May, live the good life in Shanghai, in 1935. They earn money posing for an artist friend, who puts their faces on commercial calendars, so they are known as “beautiful girls.” They get good tables at clubs and restaurants and party at all hours, hardly noticing the vast ocean of poor surrounding them. Pearl, elder by three years, feels herself the less favored sister, though she’s gone to college, and May won’t ever. Their parents, traditional and strict, dote on the younger, prettier, daughter, to the point that Pearl doubts they even notice her, except to criticize, which her father does constantly. May’s not above using her favored position to twist him around her finger.

However, all that’s about to become irrelevant. To the sisters’ shock, their father says he’s had severe financial reversals. Not only does that mean the party’s over, he’s arranged marriages for them, to sons of his most important creditor, who lives in Los Angeles. After the wedding, a ceremony that pleases nobody, May and Pearl are to sail to Hong Kong, after which they’ll rejoin their new husbands in the United States. That’s it; no argument.

Needless to say, the sisters hate every part of this, and they tell each other they’ll do what no Chinese daughter ever does, disobey their father. They have no intention of leaving Shanghai. Their husbands are ridiculous matches for them, especially May’s groom, who’s only fourteen and seems not all there. But their father hasn’t told them the hardest truth, which is that he’s flat broke and in debt to loan sharks, who’ll throw the family onto the street in a couple days. As if that weren’t enough, May and Pearl don’t even have time to plead, because the Japanese attack. Leaving Shanghai now becomes a necessity as well as a chore.

The bombing of Shanghai, August 1937. This image captures the scene outside the Palace Hotel (courtesy Institut d’Asie Orientale, Lyon, France, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

You may wonder, as I did, how traditional Chinese parents—the mother binds her feet—have raised two daughters most people of that time and place would have called libertine (and only if they were being polite). But never mind. See writes with the force of gravity, and when the worlds she creates collide, the shock waves are enormous. Not only that, duty and tradition versus modernity and independence poses a crucial conflict, embodied in the sisters, so if their relative freedom seems a trifle convenient, See keeps returning to that struggle. Pearl feels that May is impetuous, selfish, self-centered, and brazen; May believes that Pearl is staid, masochistic, and too accepting by half. They’re jealous as hell of each other, and they’re both right.

But there’s a cultural context to every action or feeling, whether having to do with being female in a society that worships sons and despises daughters; having to obey a male authority, no matter who or how weak; and what money means. See spares no detail, sanitizing nothing, excusing nothing, and the cruelties of life are ever-present:

The Whangpoo River slinks past us to our left like an indolent snake, its grimy skin writhing, pulsing, slithering. . . .Sampans—hung with ropes, laundry, and nets—cluster together like insects on a carcass. Nightsoil boats jostle for right-of-way through ocean liner tenders and bamboo rafts. Sweating coolies stripped to the waist clutter the wharves, unloading opium and tobacco from merchant ships, rice and grain from junks that have come upriver, and soy sauce, baskets of chickens, and great rolls of rattan matting from flat-bottomed riverboats.

Many horrors happen to the sister, involving violence, heartache, bigotry, and degradation, whether as women, as Chinese, or as the newly unfortunate. Throughout, See dwells on the sister bond in which love, jealousy, protectiveness, and resentment reside as uneasy partners. As such, the author explores, again with unflinching focus, what it means to be Chinese, and how Pearl and May struggle to reconcile what they want for themselves with what their culture demands, which in turn must be regulated because of public pressure and the threat of censure or disclosure. What a bold, searing depiction.

I have doubts about Pearl, particularly some of her doormat moments, which I’d think her experience might have led her to rise above, at least on occasion. That question arises most particularly because she’s astute enough to recognize how Chinese women know how to endure without falling apart, whereas men seem more fragile, having to spend so much energy shoring up their stoic facades. Why, then, doesn’t Pearl try to move beyond the role she’s accepted, at least outwardly?

But if that’s a weakness in Shanghai Girls, a necessity to maintain the sibling conflict throughout this narrative and the next—there’s a sequel—it’s a small price to pay. Shanghai Girls is a terrific novel, one that will stay with you.

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

For Whose Glory?: Cathedral


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins
Europa, 2021. 618 pp. $28

In 1229, nineteen-year-old Reichard Schäffer’s father dies, leaving him the head of the family in a quiet, out-of-the-way sheep herding village. Deciding that serfdom and sheep no longer suit him, the boy, known as Rettich, leaves his village with his younger brother, Emmerich, for Hagenburg, the (fictional) Alsatian town that gleams like a marvel in their eyes. It’s anything but, of course, but both boys will understand its depths and complexities in time, though from very different perspectives.

Right off, Rettich seeks to buy their freedom so that they may remain city-dwellers, a reminder that in thirteenth-century Europe, birth determines not only who you are and what profession you may follow, but where you may live. What Rettich desires is nothing less than revolutionary, and people who hear his plan shake their heads. But one person who listens is Meir Rosenheim, the Jewish moneylender, to whom the Schäffers appeal for the ready coin they need. Serfs normally wouldn’t prove worthy debtors, but Meir perceives something in them that decides him to take a chance, and besides, Emmerich’s remarkable capacity to calculate intrigues him. Rettich gets his money; the boys buy their freedom; and Emmerich has a job with the house of Rosenheim.

Théophile Schuler’s reimagining, in 1850, of the construction of the western wall of the Strasbourg cathedral, late thirteenth century (courtesy Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg, Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From such small beginnings great things emerge. Rettich, a gifted woodcarver, earns an apprenticeship to the stonecutters working on the Hagenburg Cathedral, very much in its infancy. Emmerich learns how to handle money and proves himself an astute businessman. From them, and the many characters that come in contact with them, spins a beautifully imagined tale of greed, politics, skullduggery, sex, bigotry, and piety, often in mystical terms. As this order of importance implies, for most of Hagenburg, building a cathedral is a religious enterprise in name only. Rettich is an exception.

But he can’t say so, at least not in the way he would like, because nobody would listen. As an artist, he believes in reproducing figures from nature, a heretical notion, especially when it comes to cathedral artwork. He does find an outlet for discussion with an architect, a true visionary, whose views are equally controversial. But change is in the air. Witness Emmerich, who learns banking—though it’s not called that—and the power that money wields in politics, when noblemen are perennially short of cash. They fear and despise him but know he’s absolutely necessary.

Both brothers embody a strain of the coming Renaissance that no one foresees—and so does their sister, Grete. She marries up, to a struggling merchant in town, of whom she quickly proves the equal. Naturally, that makes him uncomfortable, but the results speak for themselves. And Grete thinks large. She works toward the day when money will allow people of her social class—her new, acquired social class–to have a say in how things get done, elbowing her way among the aristocracy. This avant-garde feminist attempts to break several barriers, and the manner in which she goes about it makes all three siblings’ stories compelling.

Inwardly, outwardly, and sometimes both, these characters and others act with great daring. Those among the large cast who can afford to—and a few who shouldn’t—speak their minds freely, which lends the narrative zest and fire. The novel’s resident cynic is Eugenius von Zabern, a church canon and the bishop’s secretary, who has the unenviable task of finding money to build the cathedral:

The world needs clerks and lawyers in the same way as it needs leprosy, plagues, earthquakes. Without them, life would be a colourless stroll toward death. But here they are, proliferating and multiplying over the face of our earth, and taking ever more prominent positions in the chambers of power. In the olden days, virtuous rulers would surround their thrones with the flower of chivalry, but today the leaders of our world are ringed by advisers, counsellors, clerks and Jews.
I should know. I am one of this new cursèd class of quill-scratching, shadow-skulking literati. . .

Reading such prose is one delight of Cathedral, and though there’s a lot of it, I find nothing extraneous. Scenes move smartly, and the dialogue clips along, perhaps testament to Hopkins’s career as a screenwriter and director. I also admire his grasp of historical detail. Whether describing Hagenburg (a character in itself), the glimmers of change and how people react to it, or endemic belief in conspiracy theories, especially about heretics or Jews, Hopkins renders time and place with complete authority. I defy anyone to start this book and put it down.

Cathedral is a masterpiece.

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

Class Warfare in Spokane: The Cold Millions


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter
Harper, 2020. 337 pp. $29

Spokane, Washington, in 1909 makes a volatile mixture. Some townspeople get by, a few live in luxury, while a vast army of loggers, miners, prostitutes, and hobos struggles to exist. Into that cauldron leaps the I.W.W., the International Workers of the World, known as Wobblies, whose stated goal is to organize workers into a union that capital must recognize, and to do so without violence. For that, they are called anarchists, revolutionaries, subversives, and agitators, chiefly at the behest of Spokane’s wealthiest citizens, who own the mines, logging companies, real estate, flophouses, saloons, and brothels. But the Wobblies won’t back down and have planned a Free Speech demonstration; the local constabulary, corrupt to the core, will be ready.

Before that happens, however, a policeman is killed, and suspicion immediately falls on the migrant workers, tramps, and other “undesirables” who’ve floated into town. But the newcomers, among whom are sixteen-year-old Ryan (Rye) Dolan and his older brother Gregory (Gig), don’t know this yet. In fact, they know very little of what’s in store:

They woke on a ball field — bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Seasonal work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps, filled every flop and boardinghouse, slept in parks and alleys in the pavilions of traveling preachers and, on the night just past, this abandoned ball field, its infield littered with itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans.

Gig’s a Wobbly (and a drunk), while Rye devotes himself to one cause, trying to keep his older brother out of trouble. Pigs will fly before he succeeds. And even after a violent confrontation with vigilantes who offer them the choice between getting flung in the river or a broken head, the brothers have seen nothing yet. After all, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn will come to lead the Free Speech demonstration.

Joe Hill wrote this song about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1915 (courtesy NYU Library via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Perhaps the most famous labor organizer in America at that time, Flynn, as Walter portrays her, is about the best stump speaker this side of Teddy Roosevelt and more than a match for any man foolish enough to debate her. But even the Wobblies’ labor allies wonder what a pretty, pregnant, nineteen-year-old “girl” is doing (a) away from her husband, and (b) speaking to workingmen, often in terms no modest wife would ever utter, even in private. The Dolan boys are smitten, especially Rye. I don’t blame him one bit.

With exceptional economy, prose, and storytelling punch, Walter justifies his considerable reputation with The Cold Millions. The narrative reads like a thriller about labor strife, with “no — and furthermore” thriving everywhere. Life’s a fight to the finish, and so much wrong blankets the landscape, you seldom know where right is hiding itself, let alone how to act accordingly. In other words, the novel captures the divisions and desperation of a bygone era that seem remarkably like the present.

Flynn is pure electricity, and you can see the sparks; the novel crackles whenever she appears. The Dolan brothers represent Everyman, men who’ve had hard luck and want only a fair chance to improve it. But as Ryan observes, “Hell, it took only your first day in a Montana flop or standing over your mother’s unmarked grave to know that equal was the one thing all men were not. A few lived like kings, and the rest hugged the dirt until it cracked open and took them home.”

What powerful stuff, and Walter deals it straight. There’s no sugarcoating, only an occasional kindness or flash of decency. Sometimes, you can tell the good guys and bad guys apart too easily, yet in the author’s defense, the stakes are such that there’s no straddling allowed. I do wish that Rye had more flaws; he makes mistakes, but usually out of naïveté, which he does his best to address. You pull for him, but I want to do so not just because he’s a trusting innocent. I want him to struggle more with evil instead of skirting it by instinct. I also get impatient with digressions into the backgrounds of minor characters, a few of whom wind up dead shortly thereafter, which feels unfair to the reader. Yet I’ll give Walter credit for insisting on fleshing everybody out, even if the back story becomes intrusive.

There’s also no arguing with the overall effect, which is breathtaking. Walter captures a time, place, and mindset with such brilliance, he makes it look easy. And as a fellow Washingtonian, I salute his effort to portray the Wobblies, who left their mark on the Pacific Northwest a century ago and more.

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

Convict Ship: Dangerous Women


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Dangerous Women, by Hope Adams
Berkeley, 2021. 320 pp. $26

The Rajah sets sail from London in 1841 with one hundred eighty women on board, all convicted of crimes bearing the punishment of transportation. In what’s widely seen as great mercy, they’ll get a chance to redeem themselves in Australia. The modern reader considers that and wonders what kind of society banishes people for petty thievery; Adams wants us to see that irony.

Not that these convicts are easy to like. They’re a rough lot, most of them, cynical about the world that has given them the back of its hand and the men who run it, with good reason. Combative, hard, and schooled not to show tender feeling, they expect cruelty and can dish it out. And indeed one does, for a woman is stabbed, and as she lies comatose, her life in the balance, wheels turn.

Augustus Earle’s watercolor, ca. 1826, of a so-called penitentiary factory, where transported women worked and/or were kept imprisoned until further assignment, and where free women also labored (courtesy National Library of Australia via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Captain Ferguson decides that before the Rajah reaches Van Diemen’s Land, the attacker’s identity must be found. To assist him, he has Mr. Davies, a clergyman; Mr. Donovan, a naval surgeon; and Kezia Hayter, a proper middle-class woman who serves as matron for the women aboard, and through whose eyes Adams tells much of the narrative.

Kezia had always thought of Hell as a place of leaping fire and demons with pitchforks, but the first time she’d entered a prison, she’d changed her mind. The damp, squalid cells in Millbank Prison, where women cried out and uttered obscene words, where there was no bright color, only gray and brown and black, that had seemed a new kind of Hell, the opposite of everything that was pleasant and good. The sunshine, when it found a way through the high, grimy windows, had cast no more than a pale glimmer on floors filthy with dropped food, spilled slop buckets and rat droppings. What light there was illuminated tear-streaked cheeks, lank hair and eyes full of grief.

From the get-go, Davies, who looks down on women in general and female convicts most of all, wonders why Kezia even has an opinion about the inquiry or why she should be allowed to express it. Donovan and Ferguson, pointing out her knowledge of the women, seem more thoughtful and accepting — rather too much, I think — but for most of the novel, it hardly matters. All the women questioned give the same account of the stabbing, and the investigators uncover little they didn’t already know.

Nothing like a shipboard murder — or murder attempt — to propel a narrative, and among women who’ve led desperate lives and have no idea what awaits them in Australia, there’s much potential for tension. Kezia has also come aboard with a mission: to select enough capable needlewomen among the convicts to make a quilt. She hopes that producing a work of beauty will uplift her charges, and that communal labor (accompanied by hymns) will lead them on a more righteous path.

However, despite the possibilities, Dangerous Women founders, maybe because Adams tries to do too much. She wants us to know, in detail, how the women come to be there, and how the legal system discriminates against the poor, women worst of all. Fair enough. But these biographies neither advance the plot nor create much tension; they’re often intriguing, but no more than that, and sometimes rely too heavily on interior monologue. That makes me wonder whether pieces of that information, and certainly the themes and attitudes depicted, could have been replicated on board ship, skipping much of the back story.

Rather, to accommodate these women’s histories, the narrative keeps cutting away from the present, the tried-and-true diversion to create tension, but which here proves false, merely annoying. The mystery plot, which begins with such promise, loses steam and never really recovers. I get the impression that Adams cares more about the quilt and the women’s pasts. But if so, why have the mystery at all? It only sets up expectations that a hasty, convenient confession toward the end does little to satisfy, a trite convention unworthy of such a premise.

I’d have liked Dangerous Women better had the novel concentrated on two or three characters, deepened them, intertwined their shipboard lives, and played out the mystery concurrent with revelations about the past. All the suspects have every reason to mistrust their fellows and the law. Had Kezia assumed a more active (or effective) role as sleuth, admittedly difficult for a Victorian woman who takes her religion neat—but nevertheless possible given her character—she’d have discovered truths about the women’s lives. That would have given her the chance to wrestle with more challenges, let her grow more fully.

As it is, Adams focuses on Kezia’s own reasons for wishing to leave England and her struggle to make her voice heard as a woman. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that limitation holds back the narrative, which never rises above an occasionally enlightening window on poor women’s lives in mid-nineteenth century England. The novel could have offered so much more.

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

Wandering Minstrel: Billy Gashade


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Billy Gashade, by Loren D. Estleman
Forge, 1997. 351 pp. $12

One broiling day in July 1863, a sixteen-year-old Manhattan youth wanders into riots sparked by Irish workingmen angry at Lincoln’s new conscription law. Pushed by corrupt politicians, they nevertheless have a serious gripe. Men with three hundred dollars to spare may pay for a replacement if their name is drawn; everyone else must serve in the Union Army. This injustice should have no immediate bearing on our teenage interloper, not yet of military age and born to a sheltered existence as the son of a prosperous judge. But for the first time in his life, he steps forward into the breach and uses his soft, musician’s hands to stand up for someone else.

For his trouble, he earns a wicked concussion. A brothel madam takes the boy in, and when the grateful convalescent manages to restore and play the house’s damaged piano, he makes friends. He’ll need them, because there’s now a price on his head—during the riot, he wounded an ally of the infamous, powerful Boss Tweed, and getting out of town is the only answer. Taking the name Billy Gashade, he goes west.

Jesse James as a young man, undated, photographer unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Billy gets a job playing piano in another brothel, this one in Lawrence, Kansas, where he again winds up in a melee, this one between Federal forces and rebel militia. But though violence shapes much of Billy’s story, and its misuses and lust for it furnish key themes, the narrative really describes the character of the Old West, and the difference between the romantic legends and the truth, as Billy sees it. And he witnesses much firsthand, for he makes the acquaintance of many well-known figures, most particularly Jesse and Frank James, but also Jim Bridger, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, and a raft of others. However, Estleman properly resists the temptation to let Billy witness the best-known scenes (the Last Stand, for instance), which would have twisted the story into a pretzel; the author knows how to make first-rate drama out of less iconic material. This narrative, though with plot aplenty, gets its drive from character.

Billy Gashade is a yarn par excellence, yet it’s more than that, continually pointing out the differences between haves and have-nots in the eyes of their fellow creatures and the “law,” like as not a corrupt, blunt instrument. Billy’s music seems the only voice of peace and understanding, and the locales in which he plies his art are beautifully conveyed. Depicting those circumstances is one way the narrative takes a bristle brush to the sheen of romance, scuffing it mightily. The Kansas sections in particular revise notions about which side has the moral high ground, abolitionist or proslavery, for the warriors fighting for each are murdering scum. Estleman forces us to take a harder look at the received wisdom we’ve been handed about the Civil War, always a useful exercise.

The author tells his tale in retrospect from 1935, a technique I’ve never liked, but it doesn’t intrude here, because only the very beginning and end take place then. The beginning sets Billy up as the man who’s seen it all and establishes his authority, as reliable narrator and a voice you want to listen to. The story also contains as many coincidences as any three Dickens novels combined, but I don’t mind; often, I’m just as happy to meet old friends as Billy is.

But it’s not just the ride through Billy’s life that leads you on. It’s that irresistible voice:

I have ever been curious, an incurable affliction and nearly always personally disastrous. When I was five I climbed by means of a construction of ottomans, pillows, and the works of Sir Walter Scott to the top of an eighteenth-century chifforobe in my parents’ bedroom, only to burn my hand badly in the pretty blue flame of the gas jet that had inspired the ascent. Alas, it was not a learning experience. As many times since then as my Need to Know a Thing has landed me in foul soup, I would in my present extremity sooner chase a siren than dine on pheasant. In 1863 I nearly died of this condition.

At times, however, I feel that Estleman has replaced one romantic view with another. I don’t find Confederate guerrillas-turned-bank robbers appealing in either guise, so Jesse James repels me. I’ll grant that Billy’s quip about James’s gift for singing is one of the best lines in the book: “I’ve always believed that the world lost a good tenor when Jesse James took to robbing stages instead of appearing on them.” To an extent, Estleman’s trying to tell us our romantic heroes don’t deserve our admiration. Yet Billy’s fond of James and worries that the law will get him, though he knows better than most people what the man has done.

Still, Billy Gashade has much to offer. The wandering minstrel’s travels provide wit, humor, and an education, a tale you can wade into with gusto, and a vision of the Old West you might not find anywhere else.

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

Create Expectations: Martin Dressler


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser
Random House, 1996. 293 pp. $17

Martin Dressler is nine years old in 1881, when he has his first business idea, to dress the window of his father’s Manhattan tobacco shop in a distinctive way. The boy works hard for the shop and has for several years; the Dresslers are dour German immigrants to whom work and thrift come naturally. Pleasure, affection, or satisfaction have no place, suspect as the harbingers of ruin.

From these humble beginnings, Martin makes his way in the New York in the 1890s, earning astonishing success, even as a teenager. Through clever anticipation of customers’ wants, constant willingness to revise his approach, and an innate grasp of what constitutes service, young Martin constructs an empire. He learns how to tap into expectations and, later, to create them.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building on Manhattan’s Park Row, which opened in 1890, was the city’s tallest at the time (undated image, but older than 1920, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Millhauser excels at presenting New York, a city under rapid expansion, so that it appears almost like a child learning to walk and talk, and from whom we anticipate great things. Everyone has an idea, it seems, as though entrepreneurs stand on every corner, awaiting their chance at the big time. Consequently, though Martin may seem larger than life, he fits right in, except that he thinks more boldly than most.

He personifies several themes, one of which involves fascination with modern technology, which promises to make daily life easier, alongside a contradictory desire to remain in the past, anchored to what people already know. Accordingly, architecture and decorative styles figure heavily, and the author details them down to the smallest brick. His people hunger for the newness and their ability to possess it, yet fear what they might have lost, leaving behind what they grew up with.

I admire Millhauser’s finely wrought depiction of these changes, which feel both exterior and personal. Martin Dressler won the Pulitzer Prize and has been rightly celebrated for its prose and descriptive marvels, making the New York of bygone years into a character. One passage, when Martin brings three friends, a mother and her two daughters, for a ride on the Elevated (the aboveground precursor of the subway), conveys this well:

With its peaked gables and its gingerbread trim, the station looked like a country cottage raised on iron columns.… Sunlight poured through the blue stained-glass windows and lay in long blue parallelograms on the floor. Outside on the roof platform they looked down at rows of striped awnings over the shop windows of Columbus Avenue, each with its patch of shade, and watched the black roofs of passing hacks. Suddenly there was a throbbing in the platform, a growing roar — people stepped back. Mrs. Vernon gripped Martin’s arm, white smoke mixed with fiery ashes streamed backward as the engine neared, and with a hiss of steam and a grinding sound like the clashing of many pairs of scissors, the train halted at the platform.

I like Millhauser’s deft, subtle touch, in which he plumbs nascent, unexpressed desires, followed often by rapid, impulsive action. You never know quite what to expect — for the first half of the novel, anyway — which keeps the pages turning.

However, the narrative depends entirely on one character, and Martin grows tiresome. In the beginning, you want him to break his restraints, venture out on his own, find his fortune. But nothing ever satisfies him, and he doesn’t know why, nor does he bother to think about it, much. That may be true to life, especially for someone who grew up with nothing but work and duty.

But past a certain point, there’s a diminishing return. As Martin grows ever grander in his visions, longing to create something so splendid, even he’ll be happy, you know what will result. You also know that in courting a particular woman — and what a bizarre courtship — he’s heading for trouble. Where the first half of the narrative feels volatile, the second half settles into predictability.

More significantly, Martin’s the only character whose inner life comes across, and success erodes his appeal, which leaves the reader nowhere to go. Our hero talks only of his business plans, get easily annoyed if anyone criticizes them, and seems to understand, or want to understand, people only in relation to himself. A narcissist, in other words, bent on greater and greater grandiosity. In keeping with that portrait, there are only so many descriptions of decorative garishness that I can take, so I wound up flipping through some of them.

Martin Dressler the novel is beautifully written and evocative, but Martin Dressler the man is hard to approach, full of much, yet empty. I think that’s the point, and it comes with no surprise.

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