Fictional Essays: The Fire by Night

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Review: The Fire by Night, by Teresa Messineo
Morrow, 2017. 306 pp. $27

If you read this book, you’ll be getting history you probably haven’t heard, about American Army nurses during World War II. You’ll see their bravery, endurance, and resourcefulness, their heroism under appalling conditions, their competence and professional dedication, the constant sexism they faced, the emotional trauma that destroyed their psyches, and the enemies who shot at them, Geneva Conventions be damned.

Army nurse washes her clothes in her helmet, Morocco, 1943 (courtesy history.army.mil)

Even when no particular crisis presents itself, Messineo re-creates the moment-to-moment tensions that afflict her two nurse protagonists:

So begins the long task of finishing the surgeries already in progress; stabilizing those just coming into the post-op tent; giving plasma, or whole blood when available; lifting the ‘heavy orthopedics’ with their colossal casts, arms and legs immobilized by a hundred pounds of plaster. The shock patients with their thready pulses; the boys with ‘battle fatigue,’ whimpering and taking cover under their cots, thinking themselves still in the field; the deaf, the maimed, and the blind, their heads carefully wrapped and bandaged, their tentative fingers reaching out in front of them, seared and melted together from clawing their way out of burning tanks.

Consequently, The Fire by Night bears witness to the unsung heroines of World War II (if not, by implication, all wars). Such a story is long overdue. And yet, despite its powerful moments, rendered so vividly that you feel as if you can’t take any more punishment, The Fire by Night feels incomplete as a novel. In fact, it’s more like a tendentious essay–or two of them, to be precise.

I say two because the protagonists’ stories hardly intersect, and if either were omitted, the plot wouldn’t change, only get shorter. Jo McMahon serves in Europe, whereas Kay Elliott is captured in the Philippines and spends years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Though each undergoes her own, somewhat different but always harrowing trials, after a while, their struggles seem like a catalog rather than a coherent narrative. Moreover, Messineo is plainly out to set the record straight, and her earnestness undermines her.

Of the two protagonists, Jo has the advantage. Abandoned at the front lines caring for a tent of six critically wounded or ill patients, she must constantly use her ingenuity to keep them, and herself, alive. I like this story better, especially its first half, when problems multiply, she keeps going by force of will, and the men she’s tending are just bodies, not individuals yet. On the other hand, Kay’s narrative, though gripping in detail–she’s captive in what’s essentially a death camp–remains a more solitary struggle. But to varying degrees, both stories suffer from the same flaw: They fall flat when the protagonists deal with men, not one of whom has any depth.

For example, take the captain whose undermanned infantry platoon holds the position where Jo’s tent happens to be. Might he insult her, demean her rank and abilities, and say that he can’t guarantee her safety? Sure. Would he throw tantrum after tantrum and shrug off the lives of the men in her tent? I doubt it. On the flip side, Kay’s husband is a flawless human, the mere sight of whom inspired her to remove her clothes–and that’s just about all we know of him. Back at the other extreme, when Kay and Jo trained Stateside, they worked with a doctor who sexually assaulted the nurses and threatened to blacklist them if they complained. Real problem? Of course. Real guy? No; he’s cardboard, and, to no surprise, his comeuppance arrives all too easily.

Male authors can and should be faulted for failing to draw their women characters as full people. But the reverse must also be true, and to call this novel “women’s fiction” would be no excuse. More importantly, to describe sexual brutalities perpetrated by cartoon men only cheapens the impact, when subtlety would serve much better. These themes deserve no less.

I also hope that Messineo (and her editor) pay closer attention next time to the words on the page; I was startled that a writer this capable should commit so many lapses. For instance, civilians and other noncombatants are interned in a prisoner-of-war camp, not interred, as the text says here, though that might also occur eventually, as it frequently does. A bomber doesn’t hone in on a target; it homes in. Finally, the redundant phrase historical fiction novel has always struck me as the mark of an amateur–and in this book, it appears in the Acknowledgments section. Yikes.

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

Destroyed by Desire: The Midnight Cool

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Review: The Midnight Cool, by Lydia Peelle
Harper, 2017. 359 pp. $27

Summer 1916, Richfield, Tennessee. Billy Monday and Charles McLaughlin, grifters who could smooth-talk just about anyone into buying a bridge, have rolled into town, normally a prelude to a quick deal and an even quicker getaway. But Leland Hatcher, the wealthiest man in Richfield–note the town’s (fictional) name–has advertised a beautiful black mare, The Midnight Cool, for sale. Charles, who knows horseflesh a little, has never seen so captivating an animal, and though he may be a vagabond, he decides he’ll have that horse. Billy, who knows people as well as horseflesh, is skeptical (and, by the way, note his name too, an ironic twist on Billy Sunday, a famous evangelist). What’s more, Hatcher’s daughter, Catherine, whom Charles meets by chance, tells him the horse isn’t worth his money.

But Charles is after more than the horse, something he realizes only when he tries to buy it. He wants to be welcome in homes like Hatcher’s, to ride in a car like his Pierce Arrow, and to be well thought of, as he supposes Hatcher is. But most of all, Charles wants Catherine, as captivating a young woman as he’s ever seen, though he assumes he’s not good enough for her. Wouldn’t you know, once Charles has sunk all the money Billy and he possess into The Midnight Cool, the horse throws and tramples Billy and must be destroyed. Naturally, the pair have to stick around in Richfield, so that Billy can heal and Charles can earn some money. Of course, that also gives him time to woo Catherine.

To his amazement, he succeeds more than he has any right to expect. Not only does Catherine respond, recognizing her own dreams of escaping Richfield in her new beau’s apparent freedom, he makes more money than he’s ever had before, and it’s even honest work. The British Army, fighting the First World War in French mud, has been buying American mules by the shipload. Charles scouts them out for a military contractor, and suddenly, the town worthies, including Leland Hatcher, begin to think of him as an up-and-coming young man involved in a righteous cause.

Unsung hero: a mule on the Western Front (courtesy warmule.org, via the National Library of Scotland)

But, as Billy, an Irish immigrant who’s fallen into many troughs on the waves of life, observes:

Caveat emptor, that was the first rule. The second was to never lie. Twist the truth, yes, hide it, decorate it, do what you would with it, of course, but you never looked a man in the face and opened your mouth and spoke an outright lie. You never knew when you might come through a town again, and you wanted to maintain a reputation.

Caveat emptor, indeed. Just as Charles has bought a murderous horse from an unscrupulous man (Hatcher drugged the horse so that she would seem docile), his other desires have blinded him too. He sees only the sympathy and attraction between Catherine and himself, not their differences; for starters, she’s a rebellious individualist, while he wants to fit in and be respectable. The mismatch between desire and personality repeats with all the other characters, save Billy.

Where many, if not most, novelists would focus on how people overcome obstacles to get what they want, Peelle’s more interested in how it hurts them once they have it. Hatcher does much worse than drugging horses, and he gets away with everything because he’s rich, but he’s also miserable. Peelle’s fascinated with power, which nobody uses well in this novel, and which always burns them. The reason that Billy lies outside this realm is that he wants what most people would consider little or nothing–only to see and appreciate life in its magnitude. Nobody can give him or deny him that, so he’s safe now, though of course, it wasn’t always so.

The Midnight Cool is a fine novel indeed, but reader, beware. As with Billy’s statement about telling lies and hiding truth, Peelle never lies outright, but she does hide things, sometimes in plain sight. I hate prologues, but I’ll make an exception here, because this one tells you what you need to know. Take it at face value, and if you keep going, you’ll be treated to a riveting, potent tale with characters whose inner lives are right out there. The Midnight Cool is a literary page-turner, what reverse snobs say is impossible, but trust me, Peelle’s an excellent storyteller, and her prose can be electric.

She does rely on one or two coincidences that might be predictable or predictably ironic or both, and she also shoves bits and pieces in odd places, so that you can learn how Billy and Charles met up and what keeps them together. But hell, nobody’s perfect. What I find more annoying are the cutesy mannerisms, such as the absence of quotation marks or the consistent use of alright instead of all right, which, though technically correct, strikes me as showing off.

All the same, Peelle has written something to brag about.

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

Too Much Conscience?: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

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Review: The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers
Algonquin, 2017. 254 pp. $26

After her half-sister’s wedding in rural South Carolina, seventeen-year-old Placidia Fincher makes a bold decision. She accepts a marriage proposal from Major Gryffyth Hockaday, a widower considerably older than herself, whom she has never met before and to whom she has spoken but briefly during the wedding reception. Over the next two days, Placidia has cause to wonder whether she made a mistake but also a sense that her heart has led her to her true love. Unfortunately, she has no time to figure out which, for the year is 1863, and the Civil War claims his attention. Recalled to his regiment sooner than anticipated, Major Hockaday leaves his bride in a perilous, unsettled situation. She must put aside her fears that he may be killed at any moment; raise his young son by a previous marriage; manage their farm, something she has never done; and face various threats to which she’s particularly vulnerable, as a young woman, alone.

What a splendid premise, and what a strong way to begin a novel. However, that’s not how Rivers approaches her narrative. Rather, she picks up the story from the major’s return from war in 1865, whereupon he discovers that Placidia has given birth to a child that couldn’t possibly be his, and that the law has charged her with murdering the infant. This is a pretty good premise too.

The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, South Carolina, April 1861, from Alma A. Pelot’s stereoscopic photograph (courtesy Bob Zeller via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Nevertheless, about halfway through its short narrative, The Second Mrs. Hockaday goes wrong for me, despite having so much in its favor. I confess that I dislike epistolary novels, but that’s not my problem here; Rivers handles the form expertly, using letters, diary entries, and legal depositions to advance the plot. I also admire her prose, which captures Placidia’s voice beautifully, as when she dances with Hockaday at her half-sister’s wedding:

His hands were calloused and he held me at a distance in the way Abner [a slave] holds a fresh coonskin–like he was fixing to nail me to a shed before the smell made his eyes water. . . .He was telling the truth when he said he was a poor dancer and he was so tall I had to tilt my head back to see his jaw and his Adam’s apple while we danced. But as the music ended he guided me into the alcove in the dining room where his left hand slid down my back while his right hand pulled me to his side. I stumbled. He smoothly righted me with his hands on my waist. Didn’t I tell you I was clumsy, I said, and I must have been blushing because I fancied my hair was on fire.

Rivers further excels at creating a wartime ambience, based on painstaking research and telling detail. South Carolina was the first state to secede, and Major Hockaday’s Thirteenth South Carolina Regiment fights with stalwart pride, but the landowners she portrays strike poses while shirking their contribution to the cause. Deserters pretending to gather supplies for the army rob the countryside blind, and Placidia suffers their depredations.

So where’s the beef? Simple: Rivers gives the game away too soon. The reader sees how the case against Placidia will go, and though the why comes later, to me, that’s disappointing. I wish the author had let the crime and the mystery surrounding it hold center stage throughout. But maybe that’s the drawback of the epistolary style, whose very economy, though it drives the narrative at a good clip, undoes any chance to linger or spread out, so that the resolution comes too quickly.

But Rivers has something else in mind too, and that’s where I begin to lose confidence. Slavery gets a light touch here; too light, in my opinion. The racial divide tinges the narrative but doesn’t infuse it, as if Placidia were holding it at arm’s length, much as Hockaday held her during their first dance. And yet, this is the Civil War. Brutality against slaves occurs, but, with one exception, never at her hands (and she regrets it as an economic necessity). It’s always someone else, somewhere else, who supports the evil institution and will kill to preserve it, whereas Placidia, and the people she loves, at times sound like 1960s liberals, working for change.

Not only do I find this hard to believe, I see only the feeblest connection between this narrative and the crime of which Placidia stands accused. No doubt, it must be uncomfortable to write a novel in which otherwise good people are slaveowners, and I understand the urge to redeem them. But Rivers would have convinced me more readily had she not bothered and let the main story, which needs no adornment, carry The Second Mrs. Hockaday.

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

East African Gothic: Leopard at the Door

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Review: Leopard at the Door, by Jennifer McVeigh
Putnam, 2016. 385 pp. $26

Ever since her mother died, and her father sent her to live with her grandparents in England, Rachel Fullsmith has dreamed of returning to Kenya, where she was born. Now, at age eighteen, against her father’s advice, she has spent her meager savings for her passage to Mombasa. As Rachel quickly learns, she finds hostility rather than fond memories of what she loved as a child.

That hostility comes in two forms, personal and political. The year is 1952, and the independence movement known as Mau Mau has been gathering force. Thus far, the Mau Mau have refrained from attacking white residents, though they have murdered and mutilated Africans who refuse to swear their loyalty oath. But as the violence and British countermeasures ratchet up, Rachel will have excruciating choices to make.

A detachment of the King's African Rifles, on patrol against Mau Mau forces, ca. 1952-56 (courtesy Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

A detachment of the King’s African Rifles, on patrol against Mau Mau forces, ca. 1952-56 (courtesy Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As the opening scenes make clear, the instincts her mother taught her stress compassion toward fellow humans over race loyalty and its inherent prejudice. Right off the boat, she’s delighted to realize that she still speaks good Swahili, and that the port of Mombasa looks and feels like heaven, despite the filth and bad smells. Her father’s Kikuyu foreman, who meets her and drives her upcountry, calls her Aleela (“she cries”), a pet name she had as a child, which touches her. But her father hasn’t come to greet her, and when Rachel reaches the farm, she sees another woman there, Sara, whom he never mentioned in his letters. It takes no time for Sara to let Rachel know that she shares her father’s bed, runs everything (including him), and plans to marry him. And rather than ease the shock, Sara takes the first chance to ask Rachel privately, “Why did you come?” Aleela will be doing a lot of crying, it seems.

I love McVeigh’s premise and the way she sets it up, with potent economy and subtlety. She knows how to spin a riveting narrative so that the tension never flags, and she devotes this skill to advance her political themes, embodied in Sara, who grew up in Nairobi, hates rural Kenya, which she calls “barren,” and holds herself distant from and superior to anything African. That makes her as different as she could be from Rachel’s mother, and the young woman pays the price, both in what she’s lost and her putative stepmother’s authoritarian regime. Sara forbids her to spend so much time outdoors on the land, urges her to dress in a more “feminine” way, and openly questions whether Rachel’s absence of fear or hatred for Africans means she’s been spoiled or tainted. McVeigh wants you to see that colonialism exists because of people like Sara.

Since I’ve spent time in Africa myself, though never had the good fortune to visit Kenya, I was delighted to read descriptions like this, of Rachel’s impressions of Mombasa:

Bougainvillea tumble over white walls, purple, orange, crimson red, amidst the trumpets of white datura flowers and clusters of pink hibiscus. Dhow captains spread their intricately woven carpets on the street for sale, beating out the dust in thick clouds. Porters in bare feet and white lunghis pad across the hot cobbles between piles of old newspaper and fish bones, past the Arab men dressed in white robes, who sit on low wooden stools drinking tea.

Despite all this brilliance, however, the characters ring false. Sara has no redeeming qualities whatsoever; at one point, Rachel even wonders why her father would have her around and ascribes it to sexual power. But that’s never developed enough to seem real. Moreover, making such a hateful, disagreeable person the mouthpiece for colonialism undermines takes the low road to simplicity and undermines what the author’s trying to say.

Ditto Steven Lockhart, the corrupt, abusive district officer who likes torturing Africans and warns Rachel that he’ll rape her one day. Of both Sara and Steven, I kept thinking, “They’re not really going to say or do that, will they?” only to slap my head when they really do. What’s more, for these characters to be as vicious as they are and get away with it requires Rachel and her father to be as passive as bricks. Not only don’t I believe that–each has taken bold steps in life–I find passivity uninteresting as a literary device.

What that means is that Leopard at the Door must sustain the tension via melodrama. I won’t go into the perils that McVeigh unleashes, which are truly terrifying. Even so, the novel’s Gothic aspects make it less powerful than it should be. That’s a terrible shame. As McVeigh notes in a postscript (and contrary to widely held belief), the facts suggest that the colonial administration wielded far more terror than the Mau Mau did, and in a manner flagrantly belying the rule of law the British pretended to uphold as a “civilizing” mission. I only wish this book had set the record straight in a more nuanced, three-dimensional manner.

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

Fathers and Sons: Ithaca

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Review: Ithaca, by Patrick Dillon
Pegasus, 2016. 264 pp. $26

Imagine a boy reaching the age of sixteen, never having met his father but having heard the most incredible stories of his heroism in battle, strength, daring, leadership, and cleverness. The boy is certain he shares none of these qualities, except, perhaps, the last. But cleverness alone won’t protect his mother, who’s besieged by oafish, ambitious suitors she can’t get rid of, and who eat up whatever wealth the father left behind when he went to war–the boy’s inheritance. The only hope the son can cling to, and it’s not much, is that his father will, no, must return and put things right. But that hope competes against anger at the father’s irresponsibility and selfishness for staying away so long. And when an old friend passes through, he lets drop a remark like a lightning bolt: Your father’s a liar.

Slaughter of Penelope's suitors by Odysseus, Telemachus, and Eumeus, ca. 330 BCE (Courtesy Louvre, via Wikimedia Commons)

Slaughter of Penelope’s suitors by Odysseus, Telemachus, and Eumeus, ca. 330 BCE (Courtesy Louvre, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is the premise to Dillon’s inventive, gripping take on Odysseus’s return to Ithaca following the Trojan War, except that the key figure here is Telemachus, the son. At once a coming-of-age story and a narrative about martial charisma, Ithaca asks, What is the measure of a man? Fighting is the way of Telemachus’s world, but he’s never learned how; Odysseus wasn’t there to teach him. To be sure, the warriors who plague his mother and drive her deeper and deeper within herself give their calling a poor reputation. They’re vain, pompous, rude, and coarse, abusive to their subordinates (or those whom they’d like to make subordinate), and, if they perceive a slight, will kill by way of answer. Naturally, young Telemachus hates and mistrusts them, and would never want to be like them:

I . . . look down at. . . the washing lines festooned with young men’s clothes, at the tents made of carpets draped over furniture dragged from the great hall, at the targets daubed on the walls, the piles of smashed jars, broken sticks and abandoned wine-skins. I breathe in the stench rising from the pit they use as a toilet, and the fire of sawn-up furniture whose smoke is already dirtying the clean morning air. . . I don’t want to think about what I’ve just seen: a man killed casually in a knife fight over a girl, his body left lying in a pool of blood. I try to remember what the courtyard looked like when I was little.

But he also fears them and hates his powerlessness, and he worries what will happen to his mother and himself should these quarrelsome guests ever put aside their rivalries to act in concert. Reluctantly, he leaves Ithaca to search for Odysseus, and his first stop is Pylos, where old Nestor rules, his father’s good friend and comrade-in-arms. Nestor has no news, but he wants to help. He sends his daughter, Polycaste, a girl of Telemachus’s age, to guide the boy to Sparta and its king, Menelaus, the victor of the Trojan War. His ships range all over Greek and foreign waters, so if anyone knows what happened to Odysseus, Menelaus will.

The journey entails much more than a visit to a powerful lord, however, and Dillon turns his skill and insight toward a main theme of the novel: how the ability to fight defines masculinity and sexual power. In a switch, Polycaste is the warrior, whereas Telemachus hardly knows how to hold a sword. (Wouldn’t it have to be that way, or Nestor would never have put them together?) The author portrays Menelaus as a braggart and a bore, but he’s also a miserable soul who possesses everything in the world except happiness. It’s a terrific characterization.

The narrative shifts into Odysseus’s frame, as he lodges with a Phoenician trader and his wife, recovering until he’s fit to make the final voyage to Ithaca. Again, Dillon explores the sexual power theme, as he shows the trader’s daughter, Nausicaa, drooling over the shipwrecked hero. But the others react very differently, and though they feel the draw of Odysseus’s words when he tells of his travels and wars, they privately reserve judgment. Is it possible that he’s lying about details or even entire exploits, an uncertainty that goes back to the question that plagues Telemachus? And even if what Odysseus says is true, do his adventures always suggest cleverness and a deft hand, or do greed, bungling, and poor seamanship play a part?

Ithaca is a fascinating tale, even–especially–if you’ve read the Odyssey or know the myth.

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

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Darktown

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Review: Darktown, by Thomas Mullen
Atria, 2016. 371 pp. $26

Atlanta, late 1940s, a dark night. Two police officers on foot patrol see a black woman in a car driven by a white man, who appears to have struck her. The woman manages to escape the car, but soon after, she turns up dead in an abandoned lot.

If this premise reminds you of a conventional mystery, Darktown is anything but. First of all, the two officers are black, part of a grudging concession by the postwar city government to a small but growing presence of African-American voters. And when I say grudging, I mean that the Atlanta Police Department would rather collectively bite the head off a rattler than accept the presence of these men, who number eight in all. If there’s a way to see them dismissed, convicted of spurious crimes, or left for dead in an alley, the unreconstructed Confederates will find it.

Atlanta Negro Voters League, 1949 (Courtesy New Georgia Encyclopedia; not in public domain)

Atlanta Negro Voters League, 1949 (courtesy New Georgia Encyclopedia; not in public domain)

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, the two officers who witness the woman’s attempt to flee, have already been bound and gagged metaphorically. Like other police, they wear uniforms and badges and carry weapons. But the rules restrict them to black neighborhoods, where they patrol on foot; they have no squad car. They may not investigate crimes, only report them. They may not arrest white suspects—even to try to detain them would be futile–and to have anyone booked, they must call for backup, which may or may not arrive. They may not enter police headquarters, and their “station” is a YMCA basement, where rain leaks down the walls inside.

At the same time, leading voices within the black community demand that they combat the many brutalities white society inflicts, whereas the people the officers arrest accuse them of doing the white man’s job. Why can’t they just look the other way? It’s a no-win situation. Lucius and Tommy not only feel weighed down by competing expectations, they suffer the knowledge that every interaction between black and white may combust at any moment–and if it does, they’ll be blamed.

They were silent as they rode through downtown. They passed restaurants that would not have served them, some of whose waiters or chefs would attack Boggs if he dared walk in. . . . He passed office towers that only granted admittance to Negroes who shined shoes or cleaned bathrooms. He passed white women who would no doubt scream if he made eye contact with them. ‘Reckless eyeballing’ was the official charge police filed in such cases. . . .

Despite all this, however, Lucius and Tommy investigate the young woman’s death and run into heaps of trouble. They do have one ally, though, Dennis Rakestraw, a white rookie cop who may just be more progressive than his peers, and who does some of the inside work that Lucius and Tommy are forbidden to undertake. But their partnership, such as it is, remains uneasy–Mullen conveys that tension very well–and Rakestraw faces significant obstacles of his own. Moreover, every step of the investigation puts more people in jeopardy, several of whom become victims.

For Lucius especially, the son of a prominent preacher, the cost becomes so heavy that he can no longer see where true justice lies, or say for certain that it’s worth the price. And yet he’s aware that he’s a symbol, for his lineage and his uniform, and that if he were to give in, the loss would affect everyone. For his partner, though, the issue is less ambiguous. Tommy’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was lynched for wearing his uniform and marching in a veterans’ parade. To the son, a man who calls himself a man demands justice.

Among the many pleasures and nuances of Darktown is how Mullen compares these two characters’ views, social backgrounds, and dreams. When Tommy attends a party at Lucius’s house, he’s glad he’s dipped into his savings to buy new clothes:

He felt newly conscious of his dropped g’s and propensity for cursing as he spoke with this doctor and that owner of a barbershop empire. He noticed watches and cuff links. More than once a mildly disdainful look faded when he mentioned that he was one of the city’s new police officers, at which point his unpolished qualities suddenly became praiseworthy.

I don’t want to quibble with such an extraordinary novel, but I wish Mullen had found different, less miraculous ways to resolve the story. That’s a drawback, I suppose, of creating drop-dead desperation, but with everything else seeming so real, I had to wonder at how things work out. I also object to a couple of cheap tricks Mullen inserts at the end of two cliff-hanging chapters; he’s too good a writer to need theatrics.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific book.

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

Struggle for Redemption: I Will Send Rain

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Review: I Will Send Rain, by Rae Meadows
Holt, 2016. 253 pp. $26

It’s 1934 in Mulehead, Oklahoma, and the Bell family, having watched their crops and their neighbors’ wither and die in perennial drought, now face another, undreamed-of terror: the dust that destroys whatever the heat and grasshoppers have missed. As other families give up and head to California, the Bells stay put; it’s as if Meadows has reimagined The Grapes of Wrath, depicting a family born to suffer. Samuel, the good-hearted but rigid-thinking father and husband, believes that God is punishing them, and as he loses himself in religion, his wife, Annie, drifts away. Trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, she dreams of a different life, a different man, anything to escape the crushing, gray sameness.

A farmer and his two sons brave a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936; Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

A farmer and his two sons brave a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936; Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Her children are what tether her to Mulehead and Samuel. They have Fred, a bright, exuberant eight-year-old who can’t speak but communicates by writing notes and with gestures. Like many children, he sees more than he understands or can express (and Meadows uses him expertly as a catalyst to derive tension from secrets kept or revealed). Fred’s older sister, Barbara Ann, known as Birdie, is almost sixteen, and she takes after her still-attractive mother in her looks and urge to break free. Headstrong and sensual, Birdie convinces herself that she’s in love with Cy, the boy next door. But she also wants to live and can’t wait for the future, a state of mind that Meadows describes perfectly:

Life was mostly about remembering or waiting, Birdie thought. Remembering when things were better, waiting for things to get better again. There was never a now, never a time when you said, ‘This is it.’ You thought there would be that time–when you turned sixteen, when Cy finally kissed you, when school got out–but then you ended up waiting for something else.

Take Birdie’s desires for freedom and experience, throw in a callow boy, and you can guess what will happen to her, even if you don’t read the jacket flap and its ominous, obvious hint. Likewise, since Fred has asthma, for which there’s no known cure or treatment–even if the Bells had the money to pay–you have to wonder what havoc the dust storms will wreak on the poor lad. And as if that weren’t portent enough, Annie has already lost one child, who lived a week after birth. Not a day passes that she doesn’t feel the pain.

I feel two ways about the overly predictable, heartbreaking story. First and foremost, I admire I Will Send Rain for its fierce honesty. The Dust Bowl was a tragedy, and Meadows refuses to make nice with it, which means that nobody escapes. The characters have to struggle just like anyone else and can’t expect a benevolent authorial hand to bail them out. The writing, though spare, packs a wallop, and the author uses her skilled economy to convey a remarkable depth and breadth of one family’s experience, capturing the universal in the specific. Beautifully done.

However, once the sequence of tragedies grabs you by the throat, what then? Since they’re predictable, the only question is how the Bells will deal with them, and here, Meadows has a difficult choice. Does she keep the pressure on, showing no more quarter than Nature, or does she relent? If she keeps the pressure on, does the book become too painful to read and ultimately unsatisfying? But if she relents in hopes of letting her characters find redemption, does that compromise the fierce honesty that put them in trouble in the first place?

I think Meadows wants it both ways, but read the book to see whether you agree. Specifically, I find the resolution illogical, given that Samuel’s a Bible-thumper and Annie’s a minister’s daughter. After all, Samuel takes it into his head that God is testing him, as with Noah, and that he must build an ark. As a literary conceit, that one’s dubious, but it also suggests that Samuel’s morality has been fired in an ancient kiln and is therefore unlikely to bend. Then again, I understand Samuel less than any other character; he seems to have little or no inner life, nor to want one. I do like how he tries to involve Fred in his projects and share small secrets, which makes him more human as a father. But the way the novel unfolds, I expect a confrontation or two that somehow don’t happen, and I think that’s a mistake.

All the same, I Will Send Rain has a lot going for it, and even its flaws are worth thinking about.

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

Victors and Vanquished: The Translation of Love

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Review: The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake
Doubleday, 2016. 318 pp. $26

Before the Second World War, thirteen-year-old Aya Shimamura and her parents lived in British Columbia, and though they weren’t rich, they had each other and enough to get buy–a house, a little land to farm, a community. But when war came, the government shipped them to an internment camp in the interior, confiscated their property, and drafted Aya’s father to help build the Trans-Canada Highway:

They gave him a pick to dig out the boulders and a shovel to scrape at the earth–only the white foremen could set the dynamite–and they paid him twenty-five cents an hour because, after all, this was Canada where they did not believe in slave labor. . . . But then they deducted the amount he owed for his food and bunk in the road camp, and because he had a wife and child, they further docked his pay to help cover the cost of their internment in a ghost-town camp in the interior mountains that no one had ever heard of.

Matters only get worse. Aya’s mother dies, and in 1946, her father must choose between moving east of the Rockies or “returning” to Japan, the country Aya has never seen. Grieving and distraught, her father signs the paper acquiescing to their deportation, and so they travel to Tokyo, seat of the postwar American occupation, led by General Douglas MacArthur.

From this riveting, heart-breaking premise comes an uneven, scattered novel that nevertheless gives off sparks. You just know that Aya, a quiet, troubled child whose only defense against her father’s (or anyone’s) attacks is to shut down even further, is headed for pain and isolation. And so it happens. Her schoolmates, brutal at the best of times, turn viciously on the shy newcomer, who struggles to learn their ways and routines and to understand their rapid, idiomatic Japanese. Most important, however, as native to the victor’s country–they mistake her for American-born–she’s both the object of envy and a traitor.

A licensed brothel that the Japanese opened for U.S. servicemen, hoping to protect the rest of the female population. MacArthur later closed all licensed brothels (Courtesy Yokosuka City Council, via Wikimedia Commons)

A licensed brothel that the Japanese opened for U.S. servicemen, hoping to protect the rest of the female population. MacArthur later closed all licensed brothels (Courtesy Yokosuka City Council, via Wikimedia Commons).

Kutsukake excels at portraying these cultural divides and ambivalent feelings, which she casts from various perspectives. There’s Matt, an American soldier of Japanese descent who translates the carloads of letters addressed to MacArthur from Japanese of every walk of life, containing gifts, advice, praise, or, most usually, appeals to help trace such-and-such a person or aid in small business matters. Matt takes his job seriously, much to his colleagues’ amusement, because they all know that MacArthur is unlikely to read them and surely won’t act on them. But Matt understands their desperation, pride, and sense of shame, and he feels guilty wearing an American uniform, especially when many soldiers behave badly toward the Japanese, at worst, trading food to a starving population in return for sexual favors.

Then there’s Fumi, a classmate of Aya’s assigned to mentor her but torments her instead. Fumi herself is twisted by loss; her older sister, the only person who has ever given her tenderness or kindness, has disappeared. Fumi wants to write a letter to MacArthur, hoping to trace her sister, and she cultivates Aya to write it, because, after all, the newcomer speaks fluent English.

Where Kutsukake lets the story unfold, the narrative works. But after a while, The Translation of Love begins to feel too much like a collection of vignettes, intended to show different perspectives on cultural and social issues. Part of the problem is the sheer number of narrative voices, which include every character I’ve mentioned plus a raft of others, even–bizarrely–MacArthur’s son. I like Aya’s, Fumi’s, and Matt’s voices, and that of the girls’ schoolteacher, Kendo. But the others sometimes seem like talking heads, contrived to explain the way life was and either to put the characters in hot water or rescue them from it.

All the same, I was glad to read The Translation of Love. I didn’t know that Canada had perpetrated the same bigoted, shameful crime on its Japanese residents as the United States. Kutsukake also renders everyday Japanese society of that time in vivid ways, penetrating the complex social politics of shame, pride, and public persona. Consequently, though The Translation of Love falls short as storytelling, the subject matter compelled me to finish it.

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

What Price Glory: To Conquer Hell

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Review: To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918, by Edward G. Lengel
Holt, 2008. 491 pp.

When I started this book, I never thought to finish it, let alone review it. I was looking for a few paragraphs of background information I could use for a character in a novel I’m writing, and I figured To Conquer Hell would give them to me. But it gave me so much more that I kept reading, and what I read moved and angered me so much that I couldn’t let go.

Let’s get one thing straight. Few people other than historians–maybe even military historians–will be tempted to learn in agonizing depth about the Meuse-Argonne, which lasted the final six weeks of the First World War and was the bloodiest campaign American soldiers have ever fought. In a sense, Lengel’s thoroughness tests the reader, for he covers every single engagement (there were dozens), often down to platoon level, always from eyewitness sources. His research is more than voluminous; it’s heroic.

Destruction at Argonne, 1920 (courtesy U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons)

Destruction at Argonne, 1920 (courtesy U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons)

But just as Georges Clemenceau, premier of France at the time, observed that war was too serious a matter to leave to the generals, what Lengel has to say about war, citizen-soldiers, and the responsibilities of government are too important to leave to military historians. By setting these facts and arguments down, Lengel has done a true service. Reading his narrative, you see how the failure to prepare for a war nobody wanted made it even more horrible than it needed to be.

In telling this story, it’s not just that he breathes life into names well known (John J. Pershing, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur) and obscure, or that the words of ordinary soldiers drive the narrative. Nor is it only that you see, feel, and smell the battlefields, sense the tension and terror in the participants, and empathize with their heartbreak. Most importantly, I think, Lengel conveys how poorly they were led at every level, including the highest, with an appalling indifference to their sufferings that amounted to criminal negligence. Citizens of a democratic nation expect better, and the United States failed.

Start at the top. President Woodrow Wilson had no inkling of how to conduct a war, nor any desire to discuss strategy, political goals, or general objectives with his chief field commander, Pershing, whom he left completely in the dark. The only imperative was rushing as many soldiers as possible to France as quickly as possible, which meant they arrived with little or no training or equipment. I shuddered to read of the poor young soldier, about to go into battle for the first time, who didn’t know how to fire his rifle; or another, who, when the command came to fix bayonets, kept staring at his, as if it must be broken.

Speaking of bayonets, Pershing believed that it was the ultimate weapon, and that neither artillery nor machine guns mattered. Firepower didn’t win battles, he thought; spirit and will to victory did. That was what the French and British had believed in 1914 and had spent three costly, bloody years unlearning. But Pershing was convinced he knew better, and that the Western Front hadn’t seen what American bravery could do. As a consequence, he stubbornly and repeatedly ordered frontal assaults against heavily entrenched positions, to be taken regardless of losses. The results were predictable–units mauled, not to say murdered, sometimes cut down to half strength, demoralized, isolated from one another and from supply lines. Yet the attacks continued, as men went into battle having gone without food or water for days, lacking ammunition or other essential material–and when they failed to take their objectives, headquarters blamed their lack of drive.

Commanders who told the truth were replaced. But few even bothered; more typical were the likes of Patton and MacArthur, who cared only for their own glory. Patton, whom Lengel calls “insane,” claimed to have killed a soldier who refused to attack by hitting him over the head with a shovel. MacArthur’s vanity vastly overshadowed his grasp of military tactics; he twice promised his superior that either he’d capture an assigned objective, or his entire command would die trying.

I’m not arguing (nor does Lengel try to suggest) that the country should have prepared for war much earlier, thereby avoiding these problems. After all, Wilson won reelection in November 1916 on an antiwar platform, and it took repeated German blunders to persuade him and the nation to intervene in a conflict widely considered a European imperial blood feud. Rather, Lengel argues that once the United States entered the war, vain, incompetent leadership doomed the American common soldier, and that their sacrifice–125,000 casualties in six weeks–was unnecessary.

While reading To Conquer Hell, I kept thinking of those thousands of men who’d either enlisted in good faith or been coerced, whether through the draft or by vigilante pressure against “slackers” or “cowards,” only to be treated as cannon fodder. The home front never did learn the truth.

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

Eccentrics at Love and War: The Dust That Falls from Dreams

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Review: The Dust That Falls from Dreams, by Louis de Bernières
Pantheon, 2015. 511 pp. $28

To his 1939 comic drama The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan added an end note, as if he worried that his audience would miss his all-too-obvious theme: “In the time of your life, live. . . . Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed.”

The Dust That Falls from Dreams reminds me of Saroyan, providing a cast of (mostly) lovable and often hilarious eccentrics. Whether they realize it or not–and someone will eventually tell them–they’re searching for goodness everywhere, which they manage to find with surprising frequency. In other words, The Dust That Falls from Dreams bears only a passing resemblance to real life, though de Bernières has taken pains to re-create the Edwardian era and the First World War in precise detail. What matters most, he plumbs his characters’ inner lives. The apparent divide between the scrupulously accurate everyday and the fairy-dust plot is at once the novel’s charm and chief drawback; the earnestness with which de Bernières tells his tale fails to persuade me that his characters are plausible, much as I’d like to meet them.

 

A fashion plate from 1909 shows well-dressed ladies in front of Harrod's (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

A fashion plate from 1909 shows well-dressed ladies in front of Harrod’s (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

That said, it would be churlish to dismiss The Dust That Falls from Dreams as mere fluff, and even if it were only that, it’s a lot of fun. The premise, loose as it is, supposes that the children of three neighboring families in the countryside south of London have formed such a strong attachment that even the First World War can’t shake it–if anything, the bonds become stronger. How that happens, and what tragedies get in the way, make for a wide-ranging narrative that explores social class, love, sex, religious faith, valor, family relations, and a once-established morality uprooted by war. The chapters are short and episodic, a format I dislike, yet de Bernières usually succeeds with it, because his characters carry the day.

There’s Hamilton McCosh, father of four daughters and husband to Mrs. McCosh, a vicious snob, bigot, and altogether impossible woman. “What mortification and inconvenience it was to live in such terror of one’s wife,” he muses, “and to be obliged to stand up to her so often.” The only way he (or anyone else) can get around her is by telling her that a royal personage or duchess has endorsed a particular activity or behavior, in which case it passes muster. Mr. McCosh survives by playing golf, inventing gadgets, and keeping mistresses (though these are hardly mentioned and don’t figure in the story). The four daughters–Rosie, Christabel, Ottilie, and Sophie–are each irrepressible; my favorite is Sophie, whose malapropisms send everyone, this reader included, into hysterical laughter.

De Bernières takes you into all manner of nooks and crannies, whether how to fly a Sopwith Camel, what it was like to clean and maintain an Edwardian house, attend a séance, or talk philosophy with Bertrand Russell during a chance meeting on a train. You also learn what it was like to live and die in the trenches in 1915 or work in a hospital tending the wounded. But the narrative seldom shows the fighting or the chaos of triage as the stretchers are unloaded, only their aftermath, usually recounted by a witness or participant. I believe this is a conscious choice, and that de Bernières wants the reader to focus on the aftermath and effects, described with an eye to the individual, the peculiar, because it’s individuals who matter above all to him.

Where The Dust That Falls from Dreams rubs me wrong lies with Mrs. McCosh and her eldest, Rosie. Mama McCosh abuses people right and left, almost all of whom rush to excuse her. She’s maddeningly funny in her ridiculous social prejudices, but she also causes immense damage. I get that The Dust That Falls from Dreams is about the milk of human kindness, but the narrative squares up to other cruelties without making excuses for them. She, however, gets a pass.

I find Rosie irritating for similar reasons; priggish self-denial is seldom interesting, and she won’t let herself dream of what she’s missing, which makes her even duller. She remains fixated on her fiancé, killed in battle, in a plodding mysticism that surpasses understanding, and her sense of duty threatens to strangle her and everyone else. Since the fiancé was a well-liked, kind, noble-hearted romantic of no particular accomplishment or talent–a beloved nonentity, if you will–I suppose that de Bernières is trying to use the pair to represent the Edwardian age, golden but doomed, irretrievable. But Rosie’s obstinacy, which forbids even any mention of what’s happening, can be tiresome.

Consequently, I think The Dust That Falls from Dreams succeeds best as a discursive, sometimes antic take on its subject that delivers its most serious impact when, paradoxically, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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