Unions, Exploitation, and the Kitchen Sink: Gilded Mountain


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Review: Gilded Mountain, by Kate Manning
Scribner, 2022. 445 pp. $28

In April 1907, Sylvie Pelletier’s Québecois family uproots from Rutland, Vermont, to join her father in Moonstone, Colorado, where he works as a marble quarryman. Sylvie, just short of her seventeenth birthday, has trouble speaking up for herself, perhaps suggestive of her mixed legacy. Her father’s vigor and zest for life have encouraged romantic dreams and a wish to be daring, whereas her mother’s always telling her what girls can’t do and reminding her to pray her rosary.

Right away, you understand Sylvie’s yearning and fanciful notions:

Even as they melted, the stars of snow in my hand provoked my secret longing, impacted like a boil behind the sternum. A red, unspeakable greed. For what? To have, to keep it. The crystal beauty and the oxygen, ferny diadems of lace in the air.

Home will stifle her; rescue comes from a job offer from Katrina Redmond, newspaper editor and publisher, a true-blue friend to unions and the working person. More important, K.T., as she’s known, tries to teach her young charge to answer questions, steer clear of the wrong men, and stick up for her principles. And since Moonstone belongs to the Padgett Fuel and Stone Company, speaking one’s mind can be dangerous.

Padgett withholds wages in lieu of scrip, good only at the company store, which charges extortionate prices. Clearing snow from the tracks so that stone may travel to market is unpaid labor. The company charges high rents for workers’ shacks that don’t keep out the wind, yet step out of line, and you’ll be evicted, owing money you can’t pay. Shifts run twelve or fourteen hours, fifteen minutes off for lunch or dinner—go a minute over, and you’ll be docked.

Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, union organizer, as she appeared between 1910 and 1915 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Sylvie needs no education in these practices, only in how the company gets away with them, and how to take notes. So when Inge, alleged Belgian countess and mistress of the Padgett manse, hires Sylvie as a private secretary because she types well and speaks French, K.T. isn’t that upset. The newspaper publisher figures she’ll have a source within the seat of plutocracy.

I admire Gilded Mountain for the prose, the themes, and the narrative about Padgett as an exploitive corporation, unchecked by law or common decency. The story about the fight for a decent wage never goes out of style. However, a lot gets in the way, in part because of a kitchen-sink approach to corporate abuses, which feels over the top—and is needless, given the novel’s strengths. And despite all that, there’s something missing, oddly enough.

The kitchen-sink problem includes two romantic plot lines when one would have done just fine. Jasper (Jace) Padgett, ne’er-do-well company scion, is drinking his way through college, where he dabbles with great thoughts, and apparently returns to Moonstone so he can break promises. I’d have thought Sylvie would reject him after the second or third meeting, if not sooner, particularly when she has interest from George Lonahan, itinerant union organizer, who’s easier to talk to, more reliable, and sees her more clearly than Jace does.

Even less explicable, Sylvie swallows the company line that the reports Inge writes about the workers’ living conditions will lead to improvements. I don’t see how. Sylvie knows the squalor in which the quarry families live, and she also knows that it persists despite previous reports.

Consequently, I can’t help thinking that Sylvie must appear hopelessly naïve on one side but a perceptive observer on the other so that our heroine—and the reader—may be instructed, grain by grain, in just how despicable the company is. It’s as if Padgett’s cold-blooded practices, vividly described and embodied by its loathsome foreman, don’t get the message across.

Furthermore, I hear an authorial voice behind Sylvie’s sometimes tendentious statements about the moral, political, and economic problems she sees, and in portents like “These were the laughable dreams from which I was soon to be waked.” Manning’s narrative needs no gloss, and her storytelling requires no devices to pique the reader’s interest.

Another excess is King Leopold II of Belgium’s visit to the manse. I don’t mind fictional uses of real historical figures, so long as they serve a genuine purpose; I loved the scenes with Mother Jones, the self-avowed hell-raising union advocate. But Leopold seems dragged in to evoke his infamous plunder of the Congo, which has nothing to do with the main story, and to tempt Sylvie to sleep with him and make her fortune. That’s the stuff of melodrama, which unfortunately taints other aspects of the novel.

What’s missing in all this is an authentic villain, one whose character is fleshed out enough so that he’s not merely a mouthpiece for villainy. But that doesn’t happen in Gilded Mountain. While I read the book, I hissed the bad guys and cheered for the heroines and heroes, but once I closed the cover, I got to wondering whether I’d been entertained or lectured.

Gilded Mountain has fine elements, but I wish Manning had backed off enough to let them work better.

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

What a State They’re In: Homestead


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Review: Homestead, by Melinda Moustakis
Flatiron, 2023. 256 pp. $28

In 1956, without even a proper map, Lawrence Beringer stakes claim to 150 acres in the Alaska Territory and is called a tenderfoot for his trouble. No surprise that shortly afterward, he sets eyes on Marie Kubala at a tavern and immediately asks her to marry him. She accepts.

What an arresting, unusual premise, which parallels the main characters’ surroundings. If marriage is a frontier, consider that the Alaska Territory has been lobbying the federal government to grant statehood. But just as Alaska’s residents can’t predict how that change will affect them, neither Lawrence nor Marie have a clue what lies in store, whether it concerns homesteading or each other.

President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Alaska Statehood Act, July 1958 (courtesy U.S. National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Lawrence, son of a failed Minnesota farmer who has also failed at managing diners, is determined to succeed. Life has brought him nothing to call his own, but he’ll satisfy the requirements to prove his claim if it kills him.

A Korean War veteran in his midtwenties who received an early, honorable discharge under hazy circumstances, he carries a shameful secret from that experience. But he doesn’t talk about it—or anything—and probably smiles, oh, maybe once a month. However, he knows he wants a dozen children, or thinks he does. That’s a secret too, and, it seems, the reason he wishes to marry.

As for his bride, Marie’s Texas childhood was loveless except from her sister, Sheila, who lives in Anchorage with her husband. The girls’ mother left when they were young, and their grandmother, who took them in, gave them nothing but lectured them on the vast debt they owed her. Marie, visiting Alaska to see Sheila, jumps at the chance to escape. And Lawrence seems physically strong and capable in practical matters.

But her new husband shies away from sex or even affection (though he does make her pregnant rather soon), dislikes conversation, and shows no interest in Marie or her past. He also discourages questions, so that, even after a few months, she thinks she knows nothing about him.

Two flashpoints upset her. As she nears her time to give birth, she asks to do so in a hospital, and he refuses, saying they don’t have the money—only to dream, out loud, about buying costly farm equipment. He doesn’t dare reveal he shudders about being “trapped” in a building where she’s bleeding. (Tough luck, big guy.) Moreover, when Marie asks that when they prove the claim, her name goes on the deed too, Lawrence resents this mightily.

By making Lawrence over-the-top cold, nasty, and ungiving, Moustakis has set up a peculiar dynamic. Luckily, she doesn’t have him undergo an earthshaking (implausible) change. Nor has she written a female fantasy in which woman civilizes male savage and lives with him happily ever after.

Rather, Homestead shows how Marie summons up the courage to ask for what she wants and to push back when Lawrence refuses. I like those scenes, but the groundwork fails to convince me. Where did Marie get the emotional strength, growing up without love, abandoned by her mother and abused by her wicked grandmother? Maybe that’s the part that sounds like a fairytale setup, though focusing on Marie’s efforts and not their result is at least a fresh take.

But Lawrence is the weaker characterization, by far. I don’t see how he can be so self-absorbed, treat his wife like a tool, and act amazed when she resents it, unless he’s psychologically damaged. But he’s not; he’s simply stubborn and criminally obtuse. Moustakis harps on the Korean War trauma, but there’s no evidence he was warm and fuzzy before then.

Even more puzzling, when his father, Joseph, shows up to help build a cabin, you have to wonder whether the son is really somebody else’s child. Joseph’s a kindly, sensitive, generous person—my favorite character—and he tries gently to take his son in hand. Guess how far that goes.

Moustakis writes beautifully, even better without the occasional breathless, Proustian sentences that call attention to themselves and can be hard to follow. But she does render the toil and ingenuity that go into making a homestead with remarkable vividness and precision. I admire those sections and have never read anything like them.

Then there’s Alaska, whose natural beauty can sweep you away:

She should turn back, but above the ridge is a distant glow, as if from another, fuller moon. A soft tick, tick, tick crackles in her ears, the break of a radio. . . .As she crests the top, the air thickens, a charge runs up her spine and hums at the back of her skull, and the nightgown clings, molds to her body. A green blaze is twisting and roping in the sky, a witching spell threading through the stars and coming for her. Waves of light above and below and then all around, pulsing and pressing in on her throat.

Reading this description whetted my latent wish to see the aurora borealis before I die. But whether such passages alone can pull you through Homestead, I leave to you.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

Bad Mother: This Lovely City


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Review: This Lovely City, by Louise Hare
Anansi, 2020. 384 pp. $18

Lawrence (Lawrie) Mathews, a young Jamaican whose brother died fighting with the RAF in World War II, has emigrated to London, believing the blandishments from the British government that he can make his fortune in the mother country. But he hasn’t reckoned on the racism, expressed in the most vicious, direct terms; or that most desirable material goods are still rationed in 1948; or that housing is in short supply, thanks largely to German bombs.

Nevertheless, by 1950, when the story begins, things are looking up. He plays clarinet with a jazz band, which he loves, and which brings in a little cash. As a day job, he delivers mail for the Post Office. And he’s found lodging with a kind, motherly woman who treats him with fond respect. Not just that: Lawrie digs the girl next door, who likes him back. What could go wrong?

Plenty. One day, while making a drop of black-market merchandise to help a friend (and make ends meet), he happens on a dead infant by a pond. Since the child is “coloured,” as the kindest word in common use puts it, an accusation against Lawrie fits all too neatly, especially since he can’t explain his presence at the pond without revealing he’s an accessory to illegal activity. But even a more legitimate excuse probably wouldn’t have helped Lawrie, for Detective Sergeant Rathbone hates Black people, immigrants, and most anyone else on two legs.

Worse, the case creates a sensation in the press, arousing white Londoners itching to blame outsiders for the hardships that haven’t eased much since V-E Day. Lawrie and his Jamaican friends must now watch themselves carefully on the street, while patronizing stores and—most especially—when the jazz band plays dance music for a hard-drinking crowd.

Nelson’s column, London, seen through the Great Smog, December 1952. The climatic disaster lasted five days and caused many thousands of deaths. (Courtesy N T Stobbs via Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite aspect of This Lovely City is the plot, which twists in unexpected ways, particularly in the final third. Both Lawrie and his girlfriend, Evie Coleridge, have secrets from the other. Evie also has a hard-hearted mother, an apt parallel to England. Mrs. Coleridge has suffered its whips and scorns herself, though that’s why—at least in part—she’s as tough as she is.

I also like how Hare re-creates postwar London, pinched and yearning to let loose, but also violently racist, in which what we would call micro-aggressions quickly flame into just plain aggression. The prose, though simple, occasionally rises to illumine emotional moments particular to that environment, as with this passage about Lawrie playing jazz before an audience:

The nerves would pass soon enough, but the moments before they started playing, before the music took over, always made him feel like one of the tigers at London Zoo. He’d gone there with Evie the previous autumn. She had leaned against the railing and stared in awe at the big cats, lounging lazily in their compound, but all he could think of was how sad they looked, those magnificent beasts now tamed and cowed by their conquerors. If anyone could understand the tigers it was him, trapped in a foreign land and reduced to parading himself before a paying audience. But then he’d raise his clarinet, the reed rough against his lips, and feel like a king.

I wish the characterizations worked with any consistency. Lawrie and Evie seem too good by half, and the terrible secrets they possess never credibly threaten their happiness. At times, quick resolutions—much like Lawrie merely lifting the clarinet to his lips, in the above passage—make me wonder whether Hare’s trying too hard to rescue her characters.

She also portrays Lawrie as a sexual innocent in ways I find hard to believe, particularly when a young woman invites him to take a bath at her house (in the days before he moves next door to Evie), and he has no idea she has plans other than cleanliness. At times too he seems generally clueless about his surroundings, as with his surprise that so much of London was bombed. Not much of a secret, that. What did he think his brother was doing in the RAF?

The two principals often have trouble locating their spines, to the extent that I lost patience with them and wondered what they saw in each other. Wouldn’t each lover seek out someone more forceful than themselves? They’re trying to be pleasant, sure, perhaps hiding behind that to avoid confrontations. Or maybe they confuse asking for what they want with meanness; it’s hard to tell. But whatever the explanation, I wanted more push from each of them, the lack of which might just be convenient to the plot.

As for the villains, the cops are faceless and horrid, without a single redeeming feature, including intelligence, so it’s a surprise to discover they actually know a thing or two. The most complex character in the book—perhaps the only one with sharp edges and kind impulses, both—is Mrs. Coleridge. She’s a piece of work, yet I understand her.

For all that, though, This Lovely City provides a glimpse of London as I’ve never read of it. Despite its flaws, the novel depicts the struggle to get by and dreams of a fuller life in real, day-to-day terms. That’s worth something.

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

Advance review copies came in!


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Even the third time around, holding a book of mine fresh from the publisher gives me a thrill. And Lonely Are the Brave is my debut novel, fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager.

An advance rave review came in too!

“[An] affecting historical novel . . . .The prose is tight and direct, imparting dread around people’s persistent secrets. . . . Lumberton is a compelling setting for the book’s drama, which reflects the powerful, lasting impacts of overseas combat—both on those involved and those left behind.”

Searchers: The Sun Walks Down


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Review: The Sun Walks Down, by Fiona McFarlane
FSG, 2023. 352 pp. $28

September 1883 witnesses spectacular sunsets in South Australia—and in Fairly, a small town in the outback, every parent’s nightmare has just occurred. Denny Wallace, age six, has gone missing, having walked only a short distance from home and apparently become disoriented during a dust storm. The town, and several strangers, sets out to look for him.

This simple premise prompts a tale more about Fairly and the searchers than it does about Denny, who has relatively little to say. A quiet, reserved child, something of an odd duck, he gets drowned out in this novel amid many loud voices. I think that’s the author’s intention—the searchers and onlookers, most of them, act out of selfish motives, which take center stage. Several characters, when they want something, simply take it, a recurring motif.

But even the unappealing characters are unintentionally funny, even hilarious. That makes an unusual juxtaposition with a child at risk, to say the least; the opening chapters of the book led me to wonder whether I was reading a comedy. Throughout, humor is seldom far away—welcome, but occasionally jarring.

Alexander Schramm’s painting A Scene in South Australia (ca. 1850) shows an idealized version of relations between colonials and indigenous people (courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The characters’ thoughts and actions are meant to recount Australia’s story at that time. The lack of rain makes wheat growing an iffy proposition, and sheep and cattle ranching fare little better. The white community looks upon the indigenous peoples whose land they’ve taken as barely human, certainly not their equals, despite lifetime loyalties to individuals. Their suspicions of outsiders, class consciousness (so much for the democratic frontier), and religious and sexual attitudes come to the fore in the hue and cry after Denny.

McFarlane pays minute attention to social interactions. Take The Sun Walks Down as a panoply of characters revealing themselves, often in subtle ways, and you’ll appreciate its essence. In the author’s hands, even the most mundane actions reveal character, as with this passage about Sergeant Foster, a police officer summoned from a larger town to take charge, and Jimmy, an Aborigine tracker he’s employed:

Finally, the sky turned red and the sun went down and here they are, having made tense camp around a fire built large enough to attract attention, in the hope that the boy might see it and seek them out. Jimmy didn’t like the idea of attracting attention, which is, Foster thinks as he smokes by the fire, typical of natives; their every word and act is directed by some dreadful superstition. The local men produced a supply of rum and offered it around, and Foster refused for both himself and Jimmy. The men objected to this refusal on Jimmy’s behalf, grew boisterous, then maudlin, and are now asleep and snoring—one with a courteous squeal, and the other like a church organ. Foster perches, disgruntled, in the front pew.

The novel contains a raft of people, and McFarlane portrays nearly all of them brilliantly. I particularly like Denny’s fifteen-year-old sister, angry at everyone and everything but more capable than many of the adults around her. Foster, the pigheaded sergeant, takes an outsize role in the narrative and an even larger one in his head.

Minna, newlywed at eighteen, has a good heart but resents Denny for getting lost, because that means her constable husband is called away, and she can’t sleep with him. Two artists float through the story, one English, one Swedish; the locals don’t know quite what to make of them.

However, the one character I don’t get is Denny. He has the delusion that nature is a god that speaks to him, occasionally embodied in various adult rescuers, whose presence he flees. Really? Is he psychotic? Doesn’t seem so otherwise, and though his father scares him—an ill-tempered soul, to be sure—his mother’s tender, and four sisters dote on him. I don’t see great trauma; resilience, more like.

I wonder whether Denny has to avoid his rescuers to let the story go in particular directions, which, if true, makes his visions too convenient. In any case, the novel lacks a coherent plot building to a climax, though many scenes provide tension in themselves.

Then again, The Sun Walks Down offers significant commentary about colonial Australia involving racism, the struggle to earn a living, misogyny, social rivalries, and the influence of religion. McFarlane depicts the landscape beautifully, not least the sunsets—which, toward the end, you learn have come about because of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption.

Just as Denny’s a bit odd, perhaps not entirely believable, so too the narrative in which his disappearance forms the center. If you will, read the novel for its characterizations, descriptions of nature, and as a snapshot of Australia at the time, and you’ll be satisfied.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

Love Letter to Pulp Fiction: Paperback Jack


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Review: Paperback Jack, by Loren D. Estleman
Forge, 2022. 224 pp. $27

Jacob Heppleman returns to New York from World War II in 1946, thinking the world has changed beyond recognition and wondering whether he has a place in it. A hack writer for pulp magazines, he quickly discovers that these markets have dried up.

But his agent has taken the liberty, while Jack was in the army, of selling one of his novels to Blue Devil Books, for publication in paperback. Cover approved and everything, with the promise of an advance against royalty Jacob sorely needs—though his name now appears as Jack Holly.

September 1929 issue of Black Mask, featuring the first serial episode of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, quintessential hard-boiled fiction. Illustration of detective Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy (courtesy Popular Publications Inc. via Wikimedia Commons; copyright lapsed, therefore in public domain)

Since Jacob never signed a publishing contract—never even heard a whisper of the deal—this is patently fraudulent (and perhaps incredible). And since he rejects the made-up moniker and the anti-Semitism that makes it commercially advisable—what did he fight for, after all?—he has no intention of permitting his book to appear with Blue Devil. Paperbacks? Ugh. Hardcover’s where it’s at, and Jacob intends to become a “real” writer, learn his profession the proper way.

However, when the only place that will pay him for his words turns out to be a second-rate tabloid that hires him as a rewrite man—no byline, low salary—he wonders how he’ll make a living. And when he takes a writing class under the GI Bill, hoping to nurture his art, the teacher’s a nasty, arrogant 4F who has it in for veterans (natch), which thwarts Jacob’s plans for study.

The class does help him in one way, though. He meets Ellen Curry, a beautiful redhead who’s hoping to improve her writing so that she can find a secretarial job.

Eventually, Jacob agrees to become Jack Holly to the public, and Robin Elk, Blue Devil’s British publisher, promises that he can’t go wrong. Jacob, though he respects Elk’s war record—he survived a German POW camp—thinks the man has a slimy side and doesn’t trust him.

Jacob also insists that if he’s to write gritty crime stories, he needs to meet a gangster or three. Elk sends him to his star illustrator and convicted felon, Phil Scarpetti, whom Jacob befriends (no easy task), and from whom he learns a great deal, thanks, in part, to a few crucial introductions.

The jacket flap calls Paperback Jack a thriller. That’s news to me; only intermittently does the narrative’s “no—and furthermore” push our hero to the brink. Yes, there’s a gangster who wants a cut from Jacob’s royalties in return for his advice, but he never feels that threatening.

More significantly, a congressional hue and cry in 1952 against the immorality peddled to American youth by paperback writers and publishers ropes in Phil and Jacob and could wreck their careers. I love those scenes, outrageous assaults on First Amendment rights and human decency that read like House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. But I still don’t think “thriller” because of them.

Nevertheless, Paperback Jack is a wonderful book, a delightfully evocative rendering of hard-boiled fiction and its practitioners in the 1950s. And as you would expect—demand—from such a story, Estleman has the language, culture, and attitudes down cold. From the opening lines, in which Jacob admires a hip, slick, and cool typewriter in a pawnshop window, you know you’re in the hands of a master:

The typewriter—for that’s all it was, despite the trimmings—compared to his old gray Royal standard like a spaceship parked next to a hay wagon. In a pawnshop window it was absurdly out of place, surrounded by egg-beaters and pocket watches, bouquets of fountain pens, a Chock full o’ Nuts coffee can filled with wire-rimmed spectacles tangled inextricably like paper clips, a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia (outdated emphatically by events in Munich and Yalta). It looked proud and disdainful, a prince in exile.
And it spoke to him.

Estleman, last seen in these pages with Billy Gashade, writes propulsive, unexpected prose that actually means something and doesn’t sell out to cuteness. Consider this thought of Jacob’s, as he struggles to find his feet: “The army spent six weeks training a man to act on reflex, without thinking, and no time at all retraining him to use his brain when the crisis was over.” A concise description of a veteran having trouble fitting into civilian life.

Despite all that, the characterizations can be hit-and-miss. Jacob’s memorable, if opaque in spots; for instance, I don’t quite believe his Jewishness, and I wonder if this tough-guy writer has been rendered as too emotionally remote. Ellen seems at times a male fantasy. I wish the narrative showed more of her life separate from Jacob’s, though she does have strong opinions, a mind of her own. But the supporting cast is first-rate, starting with Phil, who steals most scenes in which he appears, and Elk, the smarmy publisher, whom Jacob never entirely warms to.

Paperback Jack is a love letter to a style of fiction and the authors who produced it. I was looking forward to reading it and am glad to say it’s as advertised. Enjoy.

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

Mississippi Mayhem: Any Where You Run


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Review: Any Where You Run, by Wanda M. Morris
Morrow, 2022. 382 pp. $29

Neshoba County, Mississippi, is in upheaval in summer 1964. Three civil-rights activists have been murdered, and pressure on the federal government gets the FBI involved, because local law enforcement takes no interest. But the infamous case concerning James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman is merely background story here, a gauge by which to measure Neshoba County at that time.

Violet and Marigold Richards don’t need to read the newspapers to know what it means to be Black. Each sister runs afoul of a man, the law, or both. A white man sexually assaults Violet, who shoots him dead. That sends her fleeing from Jackson to Chillicothe, Georgia, a small town where she has kin, worrying that any second, the local police will trace her to the shooting. (Why they haven’t already is never explained.)

Meanwhile, Marigold, the supposedly smarter sister, the one good in school—there’s much sibling rival over family perceptions—makes the mistake of her life. Working for the Mississippi Summer Project, trying to help Blacks register to vote, she has an affair with a handsome lawyer from Harlem. When Marigold tells him she’s pregnant, he splits. And when Violet splits too, without having told her where she’s gone, Marigold wonders what to do next.

FBI missing-persons poster showing Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, June 1964 (courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Any Where You Run offers a compelling story that will keep you turning the pages. It’s not just that each Richards sister has reasons to run; they have persistent pursuers with varied motives for catching up to them. Bad choices multiply, and circumstances conspire against them, usually because bigotry has narrowed the number of possible solutions down to zero. “No—and furthermore” lives here, in other words, and Morris has no qualms about punishing her characters.

I also like the sense of time and place. The author excels at portraying everyday situations in which a white person can expect help, respect, or just simple acknowledgment, whereas a Black person knows she can only hope to escape punishment for an imaginary offense. A Black woman may not try on a wedding dress; it’s take it or leave it, and be quick. A Black person mustn’t look a white person in the eye. And so on. As Violet recalls of her childhood:

We weren’t blind. We knew that the books we used in school didn’t look like the ones the white kids used. We knew we couldn’t use the local libraries or swimming pools like the white kids. How do you tell a child that life will be better for them, when everything in the world told them something different? I had to force my mind to stop thinking on those things because they always took me to a bad place.

However, those bad places, and how the characters react to them (or don’t) hold this novel back, I think. The sisters’ plight and sufferings make you want to find out what happens to them, but the next “no—and furthermore” seldom evokes deep reflection or emotional reckoning. Instead, Violet and Marigold react in set, predictable, logical ways, bouncing between two unpleasant alternatives, too often expressed in rhetorical questions (“How could I . . . .?), which feels like lip service rather than grappling.

For instance, I kept wanting Violet to wrestle with the sexual assault and the murder she commits in revenge. But the small extent to which she dwells on them seems to suggest a plot point—why she’s on the run—not traumatic events.

Rather, it’s on to the next crisis, until the end, when violence erupts everywhere, much of it in melodrama, yet the survivors appear to dig themselves out from under—no, not by snapping their fingers, but still without the turmoil you might expect.

Too many characters here are all good or all bad, especially the men, who are either saints or devils. With one male character, Morris presents a slightly more nuanced picture, trying to show how the racist culture and power structure put poor whites at a disadvantage. But even he tips over the edge, partly because the triple murder of the activists influences the narrative.

Consequently, Any Where You Run stands or falls on the plot and setting alone. The writing, simple and direct, as with the passage quoted above, seldom gets in the way but never takes flight, either. Often reading like nonfiction with occasional, pithy folk sayings, the prose plays toward the action, and when it must take center stage, as with the emotional transitions, I wanted words I could hold onto.

To be fair, the tension never flags, and the story is often gut-wrenching. But the emotional impact could have gone much deeper. This might be one novel in which less—as in fewer twists, especially violent ones—might have counted for more.

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

Commission for Relief in Belgium, Part II


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In Lonely Are the Brave, my novel due out in April, a war hero warmly recalls parading through Brussels in December 1918 to celebrate the city’s liberation from four years of German occupation.

Belgians had a soft spot for Americans too. The Commission for Relief in Belgium, which fed the country throughout the war, placed American delegates in major towns and cities, mostly collegians on leave of absence.

This CRB poster, 1917-19, requested donations of clothing for Belgium and northern France, by that time also receiving relief (courtesy National Archives, College Par, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

CRB delegates were essentially glorified accountants who pored over cargo manifests and inventory sheets while having to fight their way through red tape and withstand hazing by German soldiers convinced they were spies. Berlin tolerated the CRB as a means to keep Belgium placid and for public-relations value. But in Belgium, that tolerance wore thin.

The CRB never violated its neutrality pledge, but that didn’t matter. CRB vehicles drew cheers from Belgians, which annoyed the occupiers, as did the Americans’ casual confidence. As one delegate wrote, “The German stalks about Belgium as if he owned the country and the American as if he did not care who owned it.”

I can just see those twenty-somethings excited by the power to act for a humanitarian project the like of which history had never seen—and bearing witness to a military occupation the outside world knew only by rumor.

As far as I know, the CRB story has never been told in fiction—I’m working on that now—but I’ve also got a book coming out in a couple months. It’ll be a while!

Avenging the King: Act of Oblivion


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Review: Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris
Harper, 2022. 458 pp. $29

Two soldiers sail in 1660 from London to Boston under assumed names, because an act of Parliament has condemned them to death. Their crime? Former colonels in Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary army—one is even the Great Protector’s cousin—signed the death warrant of the late king, Charles I.

Now, the regal son of the same name, restored to rule, seeks revenge on the fifty-nine who signed off on his father’s execution, despite a previous promise of amnesty. The Act of Oblivion has sealed the regicides’ fate.

The future Charles II in exile, painted in 1653 by Philippe de Champaigne (courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Colonel Ned Whalley, Cromwell’s cousin, and his son-in-law, Colonel Will Goffe, hope to find sanctuary with their Puritan brethren in the New World. But they have learned to lie low, understanding that the Crown has spies everywhere, and that their families in England are likely being watched.

Ned and Will don’t know half the danger they’re in. A clerk to the Privy Council, Richard Nayler, has both royalist sentiment driving him to see all the regicides executed and a personal animosity against these two men in particular.

Nayler’s colleagues in the manhunt respect his unrelenting energy and passion for the task, though they think he’s obsessed. Even they are unnerved by his complete lack of scruple. He makes a formidable enemy to Ned and Will.

Act of Oblivion is first-rate Harris, which says something after An Officer and a Spy, Dictator, and The Second Testament. The current novel offers an elegant premise, unremitting tension (our old friend, “no—and furthermore,” thrives in these pages), and an enthralling grasp of history and the contemporary physical surroundings involved in the tale.

These include Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the wild tracts of Connecticut, re-created as they appeared in the 1660s, as well as shipboard life, Puritan meeting houses, and London—stinking, plague-ridden, and overcrowded:

The Thames flowed past sluggishly barely a hundred yards away. The tide was out, exposing black humps of oozing mud streaked with green weed. In the hot sunshine, it reeked of the sea and of decay. Figures were picking through it in the hope of finding something they could use or sell. Gulls wheeled and cried above their heads, occasionally swooping down, settling for an instant and lifting off again.

Rest assured that the characters have received excellent authorial care as well, not to say strokes of genius. The two men on the run differ greatly and have many angles and corners. The English Civil War was fought for religious causes, among others, and as high-ranking officers in Cromwell’s Puritan forces, you could expect the fugitives to think and speak of God’s will constantly.

Nevertheless, Ned has lived long enough to temper his fervor with doubt about his own character and actions. Late in the novel, he muses that “God was not to be pressed into service to suit the needs of men, however righteous they believed their cause to be . . . such presumption itself was a sin.” He also realizes that the revolutionary he once was may not have known everything, and that Cromwell was no saint but a complex figure tempted by power.

Will, however, lacks his father-in-law’s self-reflection. He tosses off biblical quotations that presumably explain and predict their circumstances, as if to demonstrate that God has decided everything, so they don’t need to alter their plans. Consequently, he can be pigheaded about the divine support he’s certain they possess, or the need to take precautions.

So there’s plenty of conflict between the fugitives, who must naturally spend much time in one another’s company. And their diverging viewpoints force the reader to reckon with what radical political action means, and whether you can ever be confident that you’re doing right. As Ned recalls the back story of his military service, you see that rightness seldom appeared in black and white, no matter what anyone thought at the time.

Then there’s Nayler, who has no use for prayer and knows only his loyalties, not the passages in Scripture that supposedly justify them. I like that contrast, which I think is inspired. He’s a terrific foil for the godly regicides, especially when his associates urge him to leave off, already—order him to, even, at points. But you know he won’t relent. And when I tell you Nayler is willing to play the long game, that’s an understatement.

Meanwhile, Harris casts his keen eye on colonial New England and, especially, the various clerics who’ve led their flocks into that wilderness, hoping to be left alone. Good luck. Naturally, Ned and Will find out how long an arm the Crown has, with the older man grasping the danger first, and Will having to restrain his impulse to attend public prayer meetings with a price on his head.

Act of Oblivion is marvelous.

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

The Women Behind the Legend: Traces


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Review: Traces, by Patricia L. Hudson
Fireside/Univ. of Kentucky, 2022. 278 pp. $28

One night in 1760, Daniel Boone returns unexpectedly to the cabin he’s built for his family at the fork of the Yadkin River in North Carolina to tell his wife, Rebecca, they have to leave. Now. Native American warrior bands have attacked nearby settlements and are surely headed the Boones’ way. There’s not a moment to lose; while Daniel tends to the livestock, Rebecca must gather the children.

Rebecca’s furious, because her husband’s always away, and because she never wanted to move to Yadkin in the first place. But after their wedding, he insisted, so there they are. To uproot seems natural to Daniel, another source of conflict, and as Rebecca quickly assesses what she must leave behind, she hates every second of it:

Her mother’s prized pewter platter—too heavy. The rug beneath the rocker was her sister Martha’s handiwork, but hardly a necessity, no matter how much her heart ached to leave it behind. She focused on packing foodstuffs—bags of dried beans, a slab of salt-cured fatback, her best iron stewpot—even as her eyes continued to circle the room, saying a silent goodbye to possessions she’d thought would be lifelong companions.

You can guess that this scene will recur throughout Rebecca’s life. Her husband has wanderlust, and despite his charm, patience, and tenderness, she wishes he could settle down—or keep his promises about how many months he’d stick around each year before traipsing into the forest. Since Martha has married Daniel’s younger brother, Ned, who’s more responsible and a homebody, this interconnected family has intriguing conflicts.

A 1907 photograph of a cabin on one of Boone’s tracts, Jessamine County, Kentucky (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Hudson has done a great service illuminating the women behind Daniel Boone’s legend, his wife and, as the story progresses, his daughters. You can’t help admire their spirit, dedication, and strength of character, whether to put up with male vanity or imperiousness, or simply to will their family to survive.

Hudson also knows eighteenth-century frontier life intimately, which her physical descriptions vividly re-create. I come away with a greater appreciation of how demanding and perilous that life was. The author portrays Boone as a man who respects and has some understanding of Native American life and customs; what a contrast to everyone else, whose bigotry forms another theme.

But as a novel, Traces doesn’t work well. There’s no particular question that the narrative must resolve, unless you count Rebecca’s smoldering anger toward her often-absent husband and what might result. Even there, you know how that’ll go, not least because her physical attraction for Daniel works against her (perhaps too easily, at times). Rebecca’s nascent attraction for her brother-in-law offers potential, but that too fades in substance, even if its legacy hangs around.

Generally, I like how Hudson has portrayed her two principal characters, though I think she’s done a better job with Boone–odd, considering he has no narrative voice. But he’s thought about the world and his place in it, whereas Rebecca, though you understand her conflicting desires, feels more limited in scope. (Many emotional moments also end with the narrative telling what Rebecca feels rather than showing it, which would have been an opportunity to expand her range.) One poignant aspect of their marriage is that he’s literate, and she isn’t; he’s tried to teach her, but she can’t keep the letters in her head.

However, their interactions feel repetitive, as they state (or, as Rebecca sometimes does, swallow) their wishes. There’s no unified plot or climax. Rather, Traces has episodes, each with its own external threat (disease, enemies within or without the settlement), perhaps under slightly different circumstances but, in the main, much like its predecessors. I would have wanted widening internal conflicts, not just external ones. And though the Boones suffer painful losses, I would have wanted at least two of those to be less predictable.

Maybe the storytelling style results, in part, because Hudson seems to hew closely to Boone’s biographical history. Such novels, I think, risk lacking a coherent, tightly woven plot or climactic punch because few lives lend themselves to drama, except in disparate moments. History’s unkind to novelists, that way. Also, to carry her story into angles and corners Rebecca might not have seen, Hudson has a couple Boone narrate daughters a few sections. Unfortunately, their voices don’t sound age-appropriate and remind me of Rebecca’s.

As for the political themes, I accept Daniel’s sensitivity toward and fascination with Native Americans and Rebecca’s friendship with a slave woman (though I suspect the white woman would have had lingering doubts and prejudices). But the last few sections seem determined to embrace forgiveness, capital F, a neat wrap-up that may be too easily earned—and, as with Rebecca’s voice occasionally, feels modern.

Read Traces, if you will, for the setting, the taste of frontier life, and the women behind the great man’s legend. For the rest, I can take it or let it alone.

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