Much to Atone For: Crane Pond


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Review: Crane Pond, by Richard Francis
Europa, 2016. 348 pp. $18

This spare, beautiful novel retells a story at once familiar yet full of surprises, that of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Samuel Sewall, a Boston merchant and a man widely respected, tells how those infamous proceedings occurred; how he became one of the presiding judges; what he was thinking during the testimony and deliberations; what the community thought of them (and him); and how he felt afterward. That premise is itself a bold undertaking, because it implies creating sympathy for a judicial murderer who thought a witch hunt was the right idea.

Unattributed illustration from 1876 depicting the Salem trials (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Unattributed illustration from 1876 depicting the Salem trials (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)


But Francis goes one better. Not only does he show Sewall at his worst and compel you to consider his protagonist fairly, he begins the narrative years before the Salem trials. There’s no prologue, no portents, no gimmick to placate a reader who might become antsy during such a lengthy backstory. Francis wants you to understand the political, religious, and emotional reasons an honest man like Sewall winds up participating in and endorsing procedures that are flagrantly dishonest. Yet despite what might seem a digression, the tension never flags. Why not?

I think it’s because Francis has entered Sewall’s everyday life, beliefs, and psyche so thoroughly that I can’t help being drawn in. Sewall’s a man who constantly wrestles with his faith. “Trouble and disgrace can come from any source; the world is composed of little things as well as great ones,” he observes. Every conversational misunderstanding, fib, nightmare, unguarded impulse, or declaration of spiritual terror from any of his beloved children sets him off on a soul-searching expedition that will inevitably lead to prayer on bruised knees. Even the bruises prompt reflection:

Would the use of a cushion to ease the discomfort be a popish luxury or simply a practical way of prolonging his devotions?
Also he thinks of his dear wife Hannah, who is somehow able to be both good and sensible at the same time, which ought to be possible for all of us, since God has not sown discord and contradiction in the world–those elements have been placed there by His enemy.

That enemy, Sewall believes, runs rife in his community, as in others everywhere. Massachusetts Bay Colony, though held to be blessed by God, may well have lost its way and fallen under the Devil’s influence. And since Sewall feels himself capable of temptation, whether by lustful impulses toward his pretty sister-in-law or the desire to please men in power, he’s not in the least self-righteous, whereas his judicial colleagues clearly are. Moreover, he’s convinced that the impieties he perceives in himself have brought God’s wrath, which explains, for example, why several of his children have been stillborn. Notice that he never blames Hannah. Rather, he’s quick to tell his wife and children that they have nothing to be afraid of before God, while he spends sleepless nights worrying about his soul.

Consequently, well before the witchcraft trials begin, you know that Sewall does nothing lightly, and that he’s trying his best to do right–if he can only figure out what it is. But aberrations like the witch hunts don’t spring out of nowhere, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the purge takes on a life of its own, and who’s the driving force. That doesn’t excuse what happens, only to illuminate it. And what a horrifying story it is, told so brilliantly that even though you know how it must end, you keep hoping that someone will have the sense to say, What nonsense.

But as the judges hunt down any who object and twist themselves into knots attempting to justify the course they’ve chosen, they silence any voice of reason. Crane Pond thus captures the smug, hypocritical rigidity of fundamentalism at its deadliest, and in that, the novel could not be more timely. With extreme religious factions exerting their muscle in our nation and around the globe, daring to think for oneself or hold a healthy skepticism can be a called a crime, even to deserve a capital penalty.

Like Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, Crane Pond springs from careful research; Francis has written a biography of Sewall, so he knows his ground. But, as I wrote about Doc, it’s one thing to go to the library, and another to weave fact into sturdy fictional fabric. Like Russell, Francis does so with utter confidence, because’s he’s imagined what his characters would say or do in any situation, and, most importantly, why. What’s more, he’s kept his prose style muted and plain, like the churches in which they pray, yet the words spring vividly to life, proving that a gifted author need not display verbal pyrotechnics to create a luminous work of literary fiction.

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

Stifling Assumptions: Among the Living


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Review: Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb
Other Press, 2016. 303 pp. $26

When Yitzhak Goldah, a Czech Holocaust survivor, lands among his American cousins in Savannah, Georgia, in 1947, he at once becomes an object of fascination and dread in the Jewish community. Most people act as if they want to know what happened to him and what he feels about it. But they don’t, really. They’re scared of what he might say, but even more of what that would force them to reckon with–their guilt at having escaped, while their European brethren were murdered.

Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia, 2015 (Courtesy Jud McCranie, via Wikimedia Commons)

Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia, which dates from 1735, as it appeared in 2015 (Courtesy Jud McCranie, via Wikimedia Commons)

So they make sympathetic noises, and when he doesn’t respond the way they hope or think he should, they ascribe his reaction to “all you’ve been through,” without an inkling of what that is. And since he’s reticent by nature, a trait that his experiences at Theresienstadt and Birkenau only reinforced, he lets them assume what they wish, unwilling to reveal more and sensing that they wouldn’t hear it anyway.

He’s right. His cousins and benefactors, Abe and Pearl Jesler, have done their best to make him over. They haven’t even driven him home from the train station before they’ve told him that from now on, he should be Ike, not Yitzhak (Isaac, in English); he’ll work at Abe’s shoe store; attend services at their Orthodox synagogue; and, oh, by the way, there’s a party tonight in your honor, so you’ll want to take a nap first.

Ike feels more comfortable among the black servants and shoe-store employees (who of course are the ones to fetch and haul). It’s not just that he recognizes people who have suffered, or that, like him, they stand outside the gate of what’s accepted and acceptable, though he does so by choice. He grasps implicitly their fate never to be spoken of as an equal, for he endured that too; but again, he’s left that behind, whereas they’re still trapped. But more than that, he finds that Calvin, who tends Abe’s stock room, and Raymond, Calvin’s son, who drives a delivery truck, speak directly, from the heart, and he yearns for that.

He finds it also with Eva, a young war widow with whom he strikes up an immediate rapport. But to Abe, Pearl, and their community, Eva’s the enemy, because she’s Reform, not Orthodox. Maybe you’ve heard the old jokes about the town with two Jews and three synagogues, or about the Jewish castaway who builds two houses of worship on his island, so he can have one that he doesn’t go to. But here, it’s no joke, and Rabb nails that tribal fractiousness dead-center. Ike and Eva ignore the social pressure, but they’re lucky to have an ally. Her father runs a local newspaper, and Ike was a journalist in Prague before the war. You can guess where that will lead.

However, Rabb introduces a further complication, and here’s where things get tense. A woman whom Ike knew from Prague, and whom he thought had died in the camps, comes to Savannah too. And she says he promised to marry her, and that he owes her a good life, at least an attempt at what the Nazis interrupted. They don’t love each other and probably never did. Yet, as she says, if he turns her away, he’ll have to live with that forever. So what does he do? What can he do?

There’s much to like about Among the Living. I admire Rabb’s gift for economy, conveying what remains unsaid during social interactions, and his pitch-perfect rendering of innuendo and gossip. The story offers rich material in which to explore fear, prejudice, and trauma, much of which the author suggests with a subtle hand. For instance, a subplot concerning corruption at Savannah’s docks, for which Raymond pays a gruesome price, provides a contrast to Ike: Rabb sets the hero victim who stands as rebuke to repression against a black man who remains unknown and unsung, and for whom justice doesn’t exist. It’s a nice touch, and it makes you think.

Nevertheless, this lovely novel doesn’t deliver on its promise. Rabb captures the tribal milieu, but he doesn’t persuade me that this is 1947, and that everyone’s recovering from a world war. Rather, so intent is he on separating Ike’s experiences from everyone else’s, it’s as if the war had been an event in which participation was entirely voluntary, and most people in Savannah had simply opted out. Further, though Ike and Eva are engaging characters, I don’t know them as well as I’d like, particularly why he attracts her so easily, though I can see it the other way around. Finally, Rabb does his best to keep you guessing about how things will turn out, but I think he needed to push his characters further away from the happiness they deserve. With a subject like this, it’s hard to balance fairness with a satisfying reality, and yet, I wanted more from Among the Living.

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

Get Out of Dodge: Doc


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Review: Doc, by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2011. 394 pp. $26

Imagine an 1870s southern gentleman from Atlanta, schooled in Latin, Greek, French, and the latest techniques in dentistry, such as the use of ether and restorative surgery. He treats everyone he meets with respect, though you’d do well not to question his truthfulness or mention the name William Tecumseh Sherman. He knows how to calm a frightened horse or a child, having innate empathy for both, and the hands that draw rotten teeth can play Beethoven on the piano like a virtuoso or deal faro or poker all night. But the great tragedy of this accomplished, engaging young man’s life–for he’s twenty-two–is that he’s dying of tuberculosis, the disease that took his beloved mother from him years before. He’s playing a losing hand against time, yet pretends he doesn’t know it.

John Henry Holliday's graduation photo from the Philadelphia School of Dentistry. He was not yet twenty-one (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

John Henry Holliday’s graduation photo from the Philadelphia School of Dental Surgery, 1872. He was not yet twenty-one (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain).

His name is John Henry Holliday, known as Doc. And if you read this marvelous biographical novel, which I highly recommend, you can forget anything you think you know or have heard about his reputation as a gunslinger or cold-blooded killer. According to Russell, who argues openly for her subject, there was plenty of mayhem in Dodge City, Kansas, where Holliday settles, hoping the climate will help his lungs, but few duels with six-shooters. And what Hollywood and popular legend have made of Wyatt Earp, the Earp brothers, the O.K. Corral, or Bat Masterson bears little resemblance to fact or, more importantly, a deeper, more compelling story.

Rather, Russell portrays a Holliday who wishes to live to the fullest. He loves poker, waxing philosophical about “the enchanted moment” when a bet is placed, when “anything is possible” and a “man’s debts and regrets and limitations disappear.” But true satisfaction comes in his dental office. For instance, having intuited that Wyatt Earp never smiles because of damaged teeth, Holliday deploys all the art and science he commands to ease his friend’s pain and make him happier. Lonely for people who understand Dostoyevsky, Austen, and Brahms, he’s ecstatic when he meets a former Prussian aristocrat turned Jesuit priest, with whom he discusses Scripture and music. When Father Arnsperger says that he heard Chopin himself play, Holliday dramatically flings himself back and responds, “I am prostrate with envy, sir!” It figures that the woman Doc takes up with, Mária Katerina Harony, known as Kate, comes from a Hungarian noble family and can quote Latin and Greek right back at him.

In less skilled authorial hands, a narrative like this could sound cute, superficial, or elbow-in-the-ribs obvious, quirky for its own sake, gimmicks to lure the reader with anecdote after anecdote about the rollicking Old West. Not here. Russell provides plenty of funny, poignant stories, and she’s combed the historical record for one-liners, a few of which are memorable. But the characters seem so completely themselves, and the time and place so fully lived in, that she achieves a portrait of Dodge in a wide, deep swath.

Front Street was alive with young men. Sauntering, staggering. Laughing, puking. Shouting in fierce strife or striking lewd whispered bargains with girls in bright dresses. They were giddy with liberty, these boys, free to do anything they could think of and pay for, unwatched by stern elders, unseen by sweethearts back home, unjudged by God, who had surely forsaken this small, bright hellhole in the immense, inhuman darkness that was west Kansas.

But it’s not just the vigorous prose; the characters’ stories illumine so many facets of life. For instance, Wyatt’s unsmiling, unflinching code of right and wrong forms a counterpoint to the rest of Dodge. The story behind Bob Wright, who owns the general store (and much else), captures local politics and business ethics. How people treat Mr. Jau, the Chinese laundryman who gives Doc herbal medicines for his TB, shows how racial prejudice plays out. And Kate, a whore like almost every other woman in town, exemplifies the unequal struggle against men, their desires, and self-aggrandizing misperceptions–she’s just more astute, if crazier, than her sisters.

Russell has researched so much about everything that it would be easy to ascribe her achievement to what she’s learned and how she’s deployed it. That’s certainly the public perception about historical fiction; tell someone you’ve just met that you write in that genre, and nine times in ten, you’ll be told how hard the research must be. But any good novelist, historical or otherwise, must have psychological insight, and you won’t find that in the library. What puts Russell in a different class, I think, is how she tackles issues like Doc’s feelings about death or Wyatt’s about bullies, which makes these characters–and the narrative–richer and fuller, not just another rollicking tale about the Old West.

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

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: The Chaperone


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Review: The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty
Riverhead, 2012. 371 pp. $27

The summer of 1922, fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks can’t wait to leave Wichita, Kansas, for a month-long New York tryout with an avant-garde dance company. Given the political and social tenor of Wichita, Louise’s parents seem unusually liberal and open-minded, but, to their daughter’s disgust, they give out that they’re looking for a respectable woman to chaperone her. Cora Carlisle, mother of two sons about to enter college, volunteers for the job, and the Brookses accept, while making it seem as if they’re doing her a favor. As for Louise, she promises to be absolutely horrible:

But there was no mistaking the contempt in the girl’s eyes. It was the way a child looked at the broccoli that must be eaten before dessert, the room that must be cleaned before playtime. It was a gaze of dread, made all the more punishing by the girl’s youth and beauty, her pale skin and pouting lips. Cora felt herself blushing. She had not been the subject of this sort of condescension in years.

However, that’s not half of it. No sooner have the two travelers boarded their train than Cora begins to sense what she’s up against. Louise has read all the books Cora has, and then some. She’s even brought Schopenhauer along, which would seem pure affectation, except that she’s marked passages where the philosopher’s observations move her. Unlike Cora, Louise disdains Prohibition, wears no corset (but plenty of makeup), and sees nothing wrong with letting men flirt with her, some of whom are old enough to be her father. Cora assumes that naive, inexperienced Louise is merely acting out, an adolescent unaware of consequences, and that her parents have been negligent in raising her. That they have, but she’s no innocent, nor do appearances fool her, as when she wonders how someone as dull and restrained as Cora could have attracted a man as handsome and successful as her husband. Naturally, the remark cuts the older woman to the quick, especially because, as the reader soon learns, Cora’s marriage isn’t what it seems.

Louise Brooks, circa 1929 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Louise Brooks, circa 1929 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Cinemaphiles may recognize Louise Brooks as a star of the silent screen; her bobbed hair helped make that style a symbol of the 1920s, and she was the film incarnation of the flapper. So in casting her opposite Cora, Moriarty has drawn the battle lines, for Cora is a fictional representation of a Midwestern Progressive who fought for woman suffrage but has the social and sexual prejudices common to her time and class. At first, therefore, The Chaperone promises to be a funny, sharply observed clash of outlook, to which the splendid sequences in New York, full of feeling and atmosphere, lend zest. Then, to Moriarty’s further credit, the narrative takes off to a higher level altogether.

Cora, it turns out, was an orphan, raised by a Catholic home for abandoned girls, and shipped by train westward, traveling station to station until someone liked the look of her and took her in. Several novelists have written about these trains, and no wonder (see, for example, My Notorious Life); what a heart-breaking story, and Cora’s had me cringing in pain. But the surprise of The Chaperone is that it’s not just Louise who’s looking forward to a taste of freedom in New York. Cora, who has been dutiful all her life, has undertaken to search for her birth mother, and though many obstacles get in her way, she won’t take no for an answer. She could never explain this to Louise, but of the two of them, she winds up having the more satisfying, successful trip.

The Chaperone is a wonderful book, beautifully written, the characters well drawn, even the minor ones. Moriarty thrusts them boldly into situations from which they don’t always emerge proud of themselves, and I like that–except when her earnestness gets the better of her. For instance, when Cora’s horrified to attend a theatrical performance where black and white sit together and the performers are African-American, the author immediately drops in a scene in which a more tolerant Cora talks to black activists in the 1970s. It’s as if Moriarty fears that we won’t like her heroine anymore and has to rescue her.

If there’s one problem with The Chaperone, it’s that discursiveness, the desire to tell all of Cora’s life. I don’t think Moriarty needs to, and the book runs at least fifty pages too long. They’re not bad pages, but they lack the substance of the rest, and the narrative has the feel of looking in vain for a strong ending. I think the story could have stopped years earlier, letting the reader imagine the rest. But still, it’s a terrific book.

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

Too Much, Yet Too Little: The Last Road Home


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Review: The Last Road Home, by Danny Johnson
Kensington, 2016. 324 pp. $15

As a young North Carolina boy in the late 1950s, Raeford Hurley loses his parents in a car accident. He goes to live with his grandparents, who farm tobacco in Chatham County, not far from Durham. They’re kind to him, and he loves them, but he misses his mother and their brief joyful moments:

We laughed, jumping around and making fools of ourselves, until we had to sit down on the floor. Her happiness would flow out like a circling wind and wrap me up, pulling me into her joy, letting me know it was okay to be alive and be silly. Daddy was the only one I ever saw who could make Momma’s eyes water. I think he would sometimes be mean to her on purpose just to show us life was serious and hard, and not to be wasted being childish. My momma was too gentle to die.

Right away, you understand what Raeford, known as Junebug, is looking for. And where he tries to find it, or, rather, with whom, makes for a gripping premise. Junebug’s only friends are two African-American twins, Lightning and Fancy Stroud, whose sharecropper parents work for white families. By the time they’re fifteen, in the early 1960s, Fancy and Junebug realize their attraction for one another. Despite the threat of exposure and violence in a community where the Ku Klux Klan holds sway, they have a passionate, all-consuming affair.

Evicted sharecroppers, Parkin, Arkansas, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Evicted sharecroppers, Parkin, Arkansas, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

What’s more, Fancy’s the sexual aggressor, making so many passes at Junebug that there’s no doubt she’s willed them to be together. Hasn’t she been raised to fear such impulses, especially where white boys are concerned? She says she has, yet her romance with Junebug feels inevitable. You know they’ll sleep together; you just don’t know exactly when.

Johnson writes as if Fancy and Junebug were like any two teenagers, who, given time and mutual attraction, will do what comes naturally. There’s naive charm in this, to be sure, but it’s also hard to believe. Surely, they’ve been taught that their relationship is anything but natural, so you’d expect them to struggle against that constraint and get to where they can embrace one another and damn the bigoted world. Instead, the process unfolds externally, based on facts rather than psychological depth–they’ve known each other since they were kids, they find warmth and laughter in each other, and their hormones are overflowing.

Consequently, The Last Road Home feels too self-conscious by half, and the failure to evoke time or place suggests a rootlessness, much as with the orphaned Junebug himself. Johnson excels at interiors; you see the tobacco farm, the chores, the general store in town, and so forth. But you don’t see the town itself, the red dirt by the roadside, or the Confederate flags on the license plates; you don’t smell the tobacco curing when you drive the highway; and the 1960s never emerge, at least not to suggest that the characters live and breathe in their milieu. Even civil-rights protests rate barely a mention, and then only so that a character can predict that the racial landscape will surely change one day.

Rather, Fancy and Junebug exist in a private vacuum. They have no other friends to provide a context or influence their outlook, and Johnson has kept their families small–and, except for Junebug’s grandmother–mostly out of sight. This may seem convenient, because there’s nobody around to upset the grand design, but that’s precisely the difficulty. Rather than explore the interracial love to which other people object, Johnson stuffs the plot with extraneous obstacles, as if blind hatred and the risk of lynching weren’t enough trouble. Without giving anything more away, I’ll paraphrase the jacket flap (too revealing, as is typical). Junebug gets involved in a business deal that goes wrong, leaving him “with a dark secret” he can’t tell anyone. Later, he goes to war, and though the flap doesn’t say where, you know it must be Vietnam.

That’s a lot of heavy lifting just to separate star-crossed lovers. Johnson could have accomplished the same thing had he not restrained the town bigots, who take their time to react and pull their punches when they do. As a result, though The Last Road Home sometimes hits its stride (the Vietnam combat sequences are especially vivid), the novel seems like an explanation rather than a story, a collection rather than a synthesis.

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

Cultural Borrowing: The Last Brother


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Review: The Last Brother, by Natacha Appanah
Graywolf, 2010. 164 pp. $14

Do authors have the right to tell stories from a culture to which they don’t belong? That question has roiled the literary world recently, though I’m not sure why it should. I believe in freedom of expression, which includes not having to ask permission to tell a story that nobody owns anyway. Condemning any work out of hand, especially on cultural grounds, sounds like an attempt to muzzle a voice with which you fear you may disagree, but to which others, less erudite or correct than yourself, may fall prey. It’s as if the old saw, “write what you know,” has assumed the force of literary law, which one breaks at his or her peril, and that there’s only one way to know anything: by direct experience.

Port Louis, capital and largest city of Mauritius, 2011 (courtesy Peter Kuchar, via Wikimedia Commons)

Port Louis, capital and largest city of Mauritius, 2011 (courtesy Peter Kuchar, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fie, I say. And yet, I also believe that if you’re going to write about anything, whether you’ve lived it or not, you’d better do your homework. That’s why The Last Brother, an otherwise accomplished novel in two important respects, leaves me shaking my head.

The premise, seemingly utterly improbable, actually isn’t. It’s 1944, and Raj, a young Mauritian boy, learns that a nearby prison contains white people, which would be strange enough, except that these prisoners seem too beaten-down and harmless to be criminals. What the reader understands, but Raj doesn’t, is that the prison serves as a displaced persons camp, and the inmates are Jews, though how they got there remains a mystery until the end.

Raj’s father, a terrifying brute, works at the camp as a servant. One day he beats the boy so badly that he must be hospitalized, and the camp possesses the only facilities. While there, Raj befriends David, a refugee from Prague his own age, the first friend he’s ever had. It’s a clever conceit, since both boys have lost everything. David’s whole family have been killed, whereas Raj’s two brothers both died in a mud slide, a tragedy that shadows him constantly. Understandably, Raj believes that meeting David gives him the chance at having another brother, hence the title.

So there’s a story here worth reading, and Appanah’s prose sings it:

For here, at Mapou, the glistening rain which falls from heaven, fine and gentle, almost like a caress, the rain that refreshes and for which one thanks heaven, such a manna did not exist. At Mapou the rain was a monster. We could see it gathering strength, hugging the mountain like an army rallying before an assault, hear the orders for battle and slaughter being given. . . We would raise our eyes toward the mountain while the dust granted us a respite, and the sighs of our elders would prepare us for the worst.

How, then, can things go wrong for The Last Brother? First (and I hate playing a familiar tune, but it’s unfortunately apt), the author chooses to tell the whole story in retrospect, starting with a prologue that falls absolutely flat. Not only does the opening give away what Raj has become and, to an extent, how, it reveals that David dies at age ten. Right away, that undercuts the tension, but it’s to serve a purpose, one I don’t agree with, but more of that in a moment. The older Raj, looking back, feels such intense grief over David’s grave that it seems overwrought, because the context only comes much later. I suspect that Appanah does this because she wanted to close with the story of how these Jews wound up interned on Mauritius, as though that were the climax, and so she turns the narrative on its head.

As for revealing straight out that David dies, I further suppose that she wants to underline what the older Raj says later. Toward the end, he observes that he coopted David as a replacement brother, completely ignoring whatever his friend must have gone through, as if the other boy existed only for him. This seems too authorial for me, interposing an adult thought in a scene narrated by a child. But that’s only half the problem.

The other half is that Appanah has borrowed the Holocaust without knowing a thing about Jews. The Holocaust gets thrown around quite a bit, and I wish it weren’t, but, as I said, I’ll defend Appanah’s use of it so long as she’s done her homework, and its evocation seems honest rather than cavalier. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced. The Jews are shadow figures at best, even David, of no significance other than their difference from anyone Raj has ever seen. The few details of dress or language ring false, and the crowd of prisoners might be anyone, as if they, like David for Raj, were a mere convenience, in this case, for the author’s purposes.

I never knew there were displaced Jews imprisoned on Mauritius, and I salute Appanah for recounting this story. I only wish she’d bothered to make them real.

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

Friend, Ogre, or Both: Napoleon’s Last Island


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Review: Napoleon’s Last Island, by Thomas Keneally
Atria, 2016. 423 pp. $30

This engrossing novel imagines Napoleon’s final years, when the Royal Navy escorts him to St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic, where he is to live out his days. Since the British assume that their famous prisoner has other hopes, if not explicit plans, for escape, they’ve chosen St. Helena for its lack of beaches and position athwart key trade routes, including that from India.

Napoléon at St. Helena, by François-Joseph Sandmann, undated (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Napoléon at St. Helena, by François-Joseph Sandmann, undated (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

From the moment Napoleon arrives in Jamestown, the only town on St. Helena, he casts a spell:

The dread that seized the port in that instant was not only for the man’s devilish reputation, not only for the fact that he was the Great Ogre, but once more that his tread would rock the earth, and that the escarpments above Jamestown would shatter, and boulders the size of God’s hand would descend on the town’s humble roofs. Many indeed must have felt like that, since when the cutter was not so far off, the crowd, which had been vocal all day, grew near to silence, and what had been shouts became whispers. . . .

Like many Englishmen in St. Helena, William Balcombe is fascinated beyond mere curiosity. Known to intimates as Billy, he works for a trading firm doing business with the East India Company. He’s been granted a sizable residence, with orchard and lands surrounding, and a separate house that, with minor alterations, provides a suitable home for Napoleon and his small retinue. Indeed, Billy, a man who likes giving dinner parties where wine flows freely, is delighted to have such close acquaintance to the prisoner, whose charm quickly wins over all the Balcombes–save one.

That one is daughter Betsy, about to enter her teenage years. Known as “impudent” or “wild,” Betsy–to the special horror of the emperor’s retinue–uses her growing skill at the French language to ask him how, for example, he could abandon one army in Egypt and another in Russia. These are excellent questions, and you’d think that the people who’d dubbed him ogre would applaud her acumen. But no; she’s punished instead for her willfulness, though the ogre himself insists that he likes her frankness, even if it takes him up short.

Naturally, Betsy’s less interested in great campaigns than the battle for her own dignity, and she’s trying to figure out whether, say, the games of blind-man’s-bluff she plays with Napoleon are fit for a person such as herself on the verge of womanhood. But that only adds layers to this most unusual story. I can’t think of any other coming-of-age novels in which the mentor character is such a famous, controversial figure, and Keneally uses this relationship to masterful effect. At times the narrative, with its intense focus on manners and social signals, reminds me of Austen, but with a twist: You can feel the dust of lost empires and passionate enmities that would flame at the slightest provocation.

Betsy seeks Napoleon out not just because he’s famous or charming. If Betsy looks to a Bonaparte for her education, it’s because the Balcombes provide none. She has an older sister, Jane, who’s so straight and narrow, forever hoping to set a good example, that even Betsy, who loves her, tires of her; one reason Betsy must test everything and everyone around her is that Jane won’t. (Is it coincidence that Daughters of Mars, Keneally’s fine novel about Australian nurses in the First World War, also featured two sisters, one impulsive, one restrained?) But the Balcombes, chalking Betsy’s behavior up to an ungovernable character, miss the point completely. Napoleon’s got spine, a quality the girl’s father sorely lacks–to his family’s great detriment–and it never occurs to Billy that his younger daughter would even want or need to know what this substance is all about. And in her quest to understand feelings that lie just beyond her ken, she learns about truth-telling, secrets, and power.

The latter lesson comes painfully to the fore when a new governor comes to St. Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe. What a nasty piece of work he is–petty, sadistic, self-righteous, paranoid, and determined to punish Bonaparte any way he can. Since by now the exile is Our Great Friend to the Balcombes, this makes their connection a matter of state, with potentially disastrous consequences for William and his family. The narrative drops hints about this–Betsy narrates from retrospect–so it comes as no surprise. But if I can say this about a writer I admire as much as Thomas Keneally, I’d prefer he just tell the story. No portents necessary, here.

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

The Late Victorian Underworld: Gods of Gold


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Review: Gods of Gold, by Chris Nickson
Severn, 2014. 212 pp. $29

The gasworkers’ union of Leeds, England, has walked off the job, and management has called in scabs (“blacklegs,” in British parlance) to break the strike. The union men will defend their turf with their fists, if necessary, whereas the owners have no qualms calling in the army and having the police read the Riot Act, which would allow the troops to fire on anyone refusing to disperse. That prospect appalls Detective Inspector Tom Harper, who grew up in a poor Leeds backstreet, and whose loyalties lie with the strikers. But such are the social tensions of 1890. And in a city where gas lights industries and the more affluent homes and shops, the police are there to support the rights of property, with justice often coming a distant second.

Harold Gilman's painting of Leeds Market, 1913 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Harold Gilman’s painting of Leeds Market, 1913 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

If Tom needed any further lessons in that hard truth, he has them in the case of Martha Parkinson, a nine-year-old girl who’s gone missing, and whose drunken, deadbeat father has been murdered. Desperate to find the girl alive, Tom enlists the aid of the Parkinsons’ neighbors, who’d normally look on the constabulary as enemies. But because it’s a missing child, who could have belonged to any family–and because Tom used to walk the beat in that neighborhood, where he built a reputation for honesty and fairness–the locals agree to help. But information comes in minuscule grains, and people fear even to reveal that little, which tells Tom that someone powerful is behind the crimes against the Parkinsons. Sure enough, that power causes ever-increasing mayhem, as more murders follow. But though Tom’s immediate superior sympathizes with the detective’s dedication (though not his politics), orders are orders, and Tom has to devote himself to protecting the strikebreakers when he fears that young Martha may die, if he doesn’t find her soon.

Among the many pleasures Gods of Gold offers is this strong sense of time and place. This is a short novel, and Nickson spends few words on description. Yet he shows the grit underfoot, how the poor age prematurely because of hard work or drink, the darkness that envelops their homes, or the filthy air of Leeds:

From November to March soot lingered around town in clinging, harsh palls of dark fog. It made men cough and spit black phlegm, the stink of industry the price of the town’s success. The snow was grey before it even touched the ground.

In such a place, life has sharp edges and crime its attractions, as with the man “who’d never held a real job but made his living like a magpie, stealing the shiny things he saw.” Images like that stay with me.

Nickson takes care to sketch in the background characters. Tom’s sidekick, Billy Reed, is an ex-soldier who drinks too hard–trying to forget the war in Afghanistan–and who loses his self-control, beating a witness who refuses to talk. This is the stinking guts of police work, and Nickson papers over nothing. The difficulty of apprehending a criminal, and the lack of resources that limits the police, come through loud and clear in small details, as when Tom is forever having to walk places to conduct his investigations, should the horse-drawn tram not be running, or he’s feeling too light in the purse to pay for a hackney.

On a lighter side, Tom’s engaged to marry a widow, Annabelle, who owns a tavern and a couple bakeries. She’s a businesswoman with a mind of her own, and she constantly surprises him with new ideas. When first introduced, she’s installing light bulbs in her tavern and tells Tom that electricity is the future–which is not only correct, it’s an understated comment on the strike, a suggestion that what Leeds is fighting over will soon pass, no matter which side wins. More importantly, she’s got more money than Tom does and greater financial security, a gender-role reversal that feels different from what he was taught to believe. But wise, loving soul that he is, he sees nothing wrong in it. Feminism in late Victorian England; how refreshing.

Gods of Gold promises to be the first of a series, and that’s good news. But if I had my druthers, I’d want Nickson to pay attention to a couple literary tics. His narrative sometimes repeats itself, as with “how-could-he” questions (“how could Tom prove such-and-such, if. . . .”), which I take as authorial worries that the reader won’t connect the dots. Rest easy, Mr. Nickson; your narrative speaks for itself. And though he excels at the “no–and furthermore” aspect of storytelling, fashioning the case one bit at a time, as with a mosaic, a few setbacks get resolved a mite too easily, as with the consequences of Billy Reed smacking a witness around too hard.

But I look forward to further installments of Detective Inspector Harper’s exploits.

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

Happy Birthday: This Blog Is Two Years Old


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Once more, thank you for visiting. Whether you’re a regular reader or just dropping by, I’m glad you’ve come and hope you take away something that stays with you. You’re the reason I do this; without you, there’d be no point.

As I did last year, I’ll briefly recap my favorite books from the last twelve months. They belong to different genres within historical fiction, but from each I’ve taken away something that stays with me.

In no particular order, I particularly recommend these:

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave, tells a marvelously observed, wrenching tale of a love triangle during World War II. Think you’ve been there, done that? You haven’t, until you’ve read this one.

Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth, explores Britain’s eighteenth-century slave trade to depict the human urge that puts profit before morality, decency, or empathy. So many novels have overdrawn, flat antagonists, but this book has two utterly real, compelling villains, one of many facets to this brilliant work of literature.

Stewart O’Nan’s thriller, City of Secrets, set in Jerusalem in 1945, portrays in elegant, tense economy the struggle to liberate Palestine, both against the British and among the Jewish organizations fighting them, with a political romance at the center.

Rush Oh!, Shirley Barrett’s delicate, lovely story about whaling in Australia around the turn of the twentieth century, surprises with its humor, compassion, and home truths about selflessness and its opposite.

Long Man, Amy Greene’s elegy for a dying town in 1936, tells how the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dam building raises issues of blood, land, and power. Greene’s rugged, potent prose and deceptively simple premise deliver a haunting novel.

You don’t have to like stories of wooden ships and iron men to appreciate Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, the first installment of the famous series about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Yes, O’Brian knows so much about the sea, it’s effortless, like breathing, but he shows the same touch with the English language and his main characters’ inner lives.

Andrea Molesini’s Not All Bastards Are From Vienna deals squarely with the First World War’s injustice, cruelty, and stupidity, yet is thoroughly engaging, thanks to the characters’ ingenuity, forcefulness, and mordant wit. They’re larger than life yet wholly plausible, the secret of great fiction.

Mary Renault’s classic, The Bull From the Sea, tells the story of Theseus, in such a way that the well-known myth becomes a deep, thought-provoking manifesto on the use of power and the virtue of forbearance. I wish our politicians were half as sensible.

Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, the first of many volumes in another famous series, tells about an eighteenth-century iconoclast in Cornwall who tries to reform his life and lands–and then meets a young girl who’s an absolute firecracker.

In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes re-creates the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer who just manages to escape’s Stalin’s purges and often wonders whether he made the right choice. A riveting, darkly funny story.

Paul Goldberg, in The Yid, also revisits the Stalin years, supposing that the Great Leader was planning a second Holocaust in the 1950s, and that his antagonist is a former actor from the state Yiddish Theater. Fiction doesn’t get any bolder–or more absurdly real–than this.

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, and he deserved it. A riveting-to-the-eyeballs tale about the Vietnam War, told in flawless prose from the vantage point of a Communist mole within the South Vietnamese intelligence service, this novel skewers both sides and everyone connected with them. Superb.

Anything you particularly liked during the last year?


Adventure on Ironbottom Sound: The Commodore


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Review: The Commodore, by P. T. Deutermann
St. Martin’s, 2016. 296 pp. $27

Ever wonder what it was like to command a U.S. Navy vessel in the South Pacific during World War II? Read this novel, and you’ll know.

It’s 1942, and Japanese land and naval forces are pressing the Marines dug in on Guadalcanal. The learning curve for the U.S. Navy, charged with maintaining and protecting that fragilely held Solomon Islands outpost, has been steep and costly. So many ships have been sunk that one sea lane has been nicknamed Ironbottom Sound. But Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey has been charged with winning the naval battle, and to do so, he’s assembled a task force and hand-picked his captains.

Cruiser U.S.S. Portland in dry dock for repairs in Australia after a naval battle off Guadalcanal, 1942 (Courtesy Australian War Memorial via Wikimedia Commons)

Heavy cruiser U.S.S. Portland in for repairs in Australia after a naval battle off Guadalcanal, 1942 (Courtesy Australian War Memorial via Wikimedia Commons)

Among them is Harmon Wolf, a Native American who, before the war, overcame bigotry to graduate Annapolis with a solid record, though his temper, as well as prejudice, have held back his career. For instance, Wolf once entertained notions of entering the Navy’s aviation program, but when a superior officer tossed a racial epithet his way, he tossed the officer through a window. That was deemed bad for business, but Bull Halsey likes aggressive punchers who’ll take the battle to the enemy, and Wolf promises to be that. Soon, he’s promoted to commodore, responsible for a squadron of destroyers.

The lone wolf is a well-worn cliché in military fiction, and by naming his protagonist as he does, Deutermann’s hardly subtle. Likewise, his prose is workmanlike at best (and sometimes repeats itself). Nevertheless, he does a good job portraying the naval mindset that Halsey and his protegés must struggle against. Wolf chafes against the military dictum that junior officers don’t challenge orders, because he senses that doing things by the book will only cause disaster. He quickly realizes that the Imperial Japanese Navy is much better than the office pen-pushers suppose–specifically, that the Japanese excel at night maneuvers; deploy more accurate, reliable torpedoes; have faster ships; and, most importantly, never fall for the same ruse twice. It’s as if the American brass have succumbed to their own propaganda about an inferior, incompetent enemy, a viewpoint that Wolf risks his reputation to correct.

Halsey is different, of course, and lucky for Wolf that he is, for Harmon’s plans don’t always work; as always in war, plans change almost immediately on contact with the enemy. Moreover, the Japanese score their victories too, which adds to the tension and makes The Commodore truer to life. The battle scenes in particular come across with intense vividness; Deutermann conveys what it’s like to be on the bridge or in a control room when high explosives fill the air, and he clearly knows his way around a warship:

J. B. King palpably jumped when the snipes opened the throttles and hit the turbines with a bolus of steam for fifty thousand horsepower. The forced-draft blowers screamed as they spooled up to feed fuel oil going into the fireboxes. King was the lead ship, so if the other two didn’t get the message, there was no danger of King driving over the top of a destroyer still loafing along at fifteen knots.

If you read The Commodore simply for the thrill of action or for a taste of the South Pacific Fleet, you’ll do fine, because you haven’t expected too much. The narrative could have assumed a whole extra dimension had Wolf connected the prejudice against himself with that against the Japanese–or, for that matter, the African-American stewards aboard ship–but Deutermann doesn’t care to go there. The Navy lingo can fly too thickly at times, with COMSOPAC and Div212 and the DRT in the CIC, and I’m still not sure what a Mike boat is. But those details don’t matter, and I’m not the kind of reader who throws a fit just because there’s a word I don’t understand. The action’s pretty clear, and that’s enough.

Also, Wolf’s outspoken way and maverick thought processes make him an agreeable companion, and Deutermann drops in the “no–and furthermore” device enough to keep you guessing. But he also undercuts the tension by having Halsey intervene, just when you think that Wolf has overreached once too often. And it’s no surprise when a pretty, willing nurse shows up, a war widow who seems to spend little time or energy mourning her late husband, another timeworn cliché.

For what it is, though, The Commodore makes the grade.

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