The Women Behind the Legend: Traces


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music, Death, Grief: The Great Passion


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Review: The Great Passion, by James Runcie
Bloomsbury, 2022. 272 pp. $28

Bad enough that thirteen-year-old Stefan Silbermann’s mother has just died. His father, a well-known organ maker, insists that the boy spend a year at music school far from home, in Leipzig, as part of training in the family business.

The year is 1726, and eighteenth-century Leipzig seems a place where people take their Lutheranism neat, forever thinking about death, expecting to suffer, and—among the strictest believers—ready to condemn others for vivacity. Stefan’s school, run by clerics, fits this self-denying mold. But Stefan, though a grieving, serious child, has more to him. The rector seems to want to beat whatever that is out of him—and his classmates, who already pick on the new boy, seize their chance to persecute him even further.

But the saving grace to this school is its choral music director, or cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach. He hears Stefan’s soprano, as yet unbroken, and sweeps him into his house, where the boy must practice music constantly but also has the chance to escape his anxieties and grief a few hours at a time. The cantor, though a hard man to please, understands something of what the boy is going through, since he himself lost his beloved first wife several years before.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann’s portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, 1748 ( courtesy Bach-Archiv, Leipzig via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Also, since the cantor writes a cantata every week, to be performed at Sunday services, Stefan learns to sing music he believes too difficult for him, and to play keyboard better than he’d ever dreamed possible. The downside, of course, is that the school bullies resent him all the more for being the cantor’s favorite, especially since he’s displaced one of his chief tormentors in that role.

Bach’s legendary large family figures here, including his second wife, Anna Magdalena, as sweet and sensitive as her husband is brusque and self-centered. She becomes a kind of surrogate mother for Stefan, though he knows he’s not part of the family. More importantly, there’s seventeen-year-old Catharina, Bach’s daughter by his late wife, with whom Stefan strikes up a close friendship, not least because they each have a lost a mother. As you might expect, he comes to feel something more for her.

The Great Passion has much to say about mourning and faith, life and death, and music as a medium to express feelings about them—as well as the joy that seems so fleeting. Runcie, whose father was Archbishop of Canterbury, knows these themes inside out. I can’t help wonder too whether Stefan’s sadistic, competitive schoolmates derive from models in English public schools.

People have wondered for centuries how Bach managed to write so much music. This book gives a hint. The man never stops thinking about music, and he permits nobody at home to be idle. One child or other is always playing an instrument. They’re used to this constant practice, but Stefan isn’t; if he’s not singing or playing the clavichord, he’s copying scores for the cantor.

I like the characterizations, not just of the principals, but, for instance, of Georg Philipp Telemann, who makes Bach look like a humble wallflower. I also like the kind oboist who takes an interest in Stefan and tries to shield him from the school’s brutalities. The description of this man typifies the narrative style:

The man was as long and as thin as one of his instruments. The buttons and fastenings on his spinach-green coat and jacket were the keys on the barrel of his body, although he seemed to take better care of his oboes than he did of his own health. When he leaned forward to light his pipe, he was so slender he looked like a human candle that was about to set fire to itself.

From time to time, Runcie uses his sharp prose to comment pithily on the human condition. Bach loves to sound off in impromptu sermons, a habit Anna Magdalena warns him about, but which often contain nuggets of wisdom. Stefan laments the human habit of summing up others in a phrase and never seeing past that capsule description, therefore never knowing another person, really. And the oboist urges Stefan to “take the music as quickly as you dare. There’s no point in playing a piece if it only needs to be obeyed.” I think that’s also true of writing; master the words, don’t let them master you.

The dreary, death-obsessed, stiff-necked Leipzigers who make others miserable, probably because they are themselves, are properly off-putting but likely true to time and place. The musicians, who share the same religious beliefs yet strive to create beauty in God’s service, come across vividly. Though I know nothing about choral music and have different ideas about religious faith, I enjoyed The Great Passion very much and highly recommend it.

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

The Pain Will Get Better: After Lives


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Review: After Lives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Riverhead, 2022. 309 pp. $28

In the 1890s, the German colonizers of East Africa suppress revolt after revolt with exemplary cruelty, meted out by their African askari troops. Over the course of years, the turmoil and hard times displace two people: Hamza, a teenage boy who flees domestic trouble to enlist in the askari corps; and Afiya, the young sister of another such would-be soldier, who leaves her in care of a childless businessman and his wife.

After excruciating years in military service, including the First World War, Hamza returns to the town he left and meets Afiya, now nineteen. Her physical sufferings don’t match his, but she’s paid a high price for being female. Before she settled with the businessman, her then-guardians took the money her brother had left for her upkeep, only to treat her like a slave, even beat her for knowing how to read and write.

Karl P. T. von Eckenbrecher’s 1896 painting depicting askaris under German command trading fire with rebels (courtesy via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Afiya’s current situation, though kinder physically, has its perils nevertheless. The businessman’s wife restricts her social activities in the name of Muslim female modesty and imposes religious devotions that the young woman performs dutifully while looking for small ways to rebel, both for respite and to hold onto a sense of self.

The mistress of the household also plans to marry Afiya off, preferably as second wife (read: plaything) to a man much older than herself. Consequently, the nascent attraction between Afiya and Hamza must pass unnoticed.

The story bears similarities to Cinderella, except that Hamza’s no handsome prince, and he’s rootless. Both lovers are. As he once observes about a war wound that troubles him greatly, “The pain will get better.” How that happens for the two of them provides the question the narrative aims to resolve.

After Lives therefore explores how cruel humans can be, and how we withstand it, or don’t. Gurnah recounts in precise detail the brutality shaping the askari existence, whether from training, the German officers’ contempt, methods of instilling discipline, or colonial philosophy. The Great War, which has no name as far as the askaris are concerned, feels like a confused, bloody mess:

The askari left the land devastated, its people starving and dying in the hundreds of thousands, while they struggled on in their blind and murderous embrace of a cause whose origins they did not know and whose ambitions were vain and ultimately intended for their domination. The [baggage] carriers died in huge numbers from malaria and dysentery and exhaustion, and no one bothered to count them. They deserted in sheer terror, to perish in the ravaged countryside.

I’m somewhat familiar with the colonial history of Africa, but I’ve never read anything about it as vivid or compelling as After Lives. By the time Hamza finally gets free, his body and soul have been punished terribly, yet he’s quietly unbowed. He’s withstood routine brutality and occasional help from unexpected quarters, but even the latter feels condescending, delivered from the pretense of moral and intellectual superiority. You have to admire a character as steadfast and dignified as Hamza, who can withstand injury and insult. But be warned: there’s no character arc to speak of, no change.

Afiya, though she copes with hardships she’s even less responsible for—she didn’t enlist in anything—travels a path less fraught, if no happier. I find her somewhat idealized, even a male fantasy in certain scenes, and, like Hamza, she doesn’t change. But she’s also appealing, and for similar reasons: she has the patience to endure until the pain gets better. A little guile also helps.

Gurnah’s storytelling style keeps its distance. This takes getting used to, but at least he shows plenty of feelings, unlike other omniscient narrations that tell them, with far less depth. The novel has much to say about colonialism, war, and, to a lesser extent, feminism, which sometimes reads like nonfiction, as with the passage quoted above. But again, it’s the story that counts, which packs a wallop.

I do find the first thirty pages confusing, full of back story I’m not sure is necessary, and the novel ends rather abruptly, with more of a political point than a personal one. But these obstacles shouldn’t deter you.

Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. I mention that because it seems silly to glide over it; but I think that awards, even the most prestigious, often say little about an author’s true significance to literature, a judgment that changes over time, anyway. Read any Per Lägerkvist or Mikhail Sholokov recently? Rudyard Kipling’s white man’s burden sounds offensive today. Several years ago, I stumbled on a fine historical novel about the time of Charlemagne, The Days of His Grace, by a Swedish author I’d never heard of—Eyvind Johnson, who shared the Nobel in 1974 with Harry Martinson, whom I’d also never heard of.

So I won’t say that After Lives is deathless literature. But it is a good novel, about a time and place few Western readers know about, and for that, I recommend it.

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

The Commission for Relief in Belgium


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

Why the Belgians chose an American regiment that had spent mere weeks fighting on their soil rather than French or British units that had fought for years, speaks to political loyalties. I suspect that Herbert Hoover’s gift had much to do with the decision.

In autumn 1914, after German forces had overrun nearly all Belgium and the British had blockaded the North Sea, Belgium was sealed off from the outside world. Famine threatened.

The young mining engineer in Perth, Western Australia, 1898, photographer unknown (courtesy State Library of Western Australia, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Hoover, a wealthy mining engineer who happened to be in London, vowed to act–and by telling Britain and German leaders that public opinion would blame them if Belgium starved, he convinced them to let him attempt to feed a nation under military occupation. His Commission for Relief in Belgium, paid for by private charity and administered in-country by young Americans as neutral citizens, captured imaginations around the world.

The CRB saw seven million Belgians through the war and, in 1916, added three million French people in German-occupied territory to the program. To feed them all, day in, day out, the CRB brought in millions of tons of wheat, corn, dried peas and beans, powdered milk, and other basics. These were rations, calories for survival, bare sustenance.

But to Belgium, the Americans’ presence brought another precious commodity: hope of liberation.

More to come.

Sold!: The Shinnery


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Review: The Shinnery, by Kate Anger
U. of Nebraska, 2022. 253 pp. $22

The year 1894 has been hard for the Campbell family, Texas farmers struggling to withstand drought, losses from sick livestock, and debt. Seventeen-year-old Jessamine (Jessa), the eldest child still at home, finds out she must leave the farm she loves to take up a position as maidservant to the Martins, owners of the mercantile in Rayner, the nearest town. Jessa can’t understand why her stern but loving father would demand this—while brooking no discussion—when she’s his right hand on the farm.

Nevertheless, Jessa goes to the Martins’, where her employers find fault with her about once a minute, and where she learns the humiliating reason Papa shipped her off. However, that’s not half the story, for the pianist who comes to the Martin residence to teach the elder son his scales takes a shine to Jessa. Since Will Keyes (unsubtle name) is twenty-two, good-looking, glib from experience in the world—his main gig is at his elder brother’s saloon—you know he can play Jessa any tune he likes, and she’ll think it’s beautiful. You can also guess the consequences, even if you haven’t read the overly revealing blurb on the jacket flap.

Too bad about that blurb, whose clumsy phrases fail to convey the novel’s drive and fresh aspects, the chief attractions of The Shinnery (so titled for the shin oaks on the Campbell farm). You’d never know how the author twists the predictable, makes it her own, and ratchets up the tension. “No—and furthermore” thrives here, and the pages turn. Part of that comes from how the reader can spot Will as a fake from a country mile off, but Jessa can’t.

Shinnery oak, Quercus havardii, along a west Texas highway. A shrub rather than a tree, the plant is poisonous to livestock during a phase of its growth cycle but also protects the soil from erosion and provides habitat for wild animals (courtesy Dylan W. Schwilk, 2011, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

And when she does pick up currents that seem unjust or threatening, she can’t say so, as when her father tells her she’s heading to the Martins’:

She wasn’t quick with words like her sisters. Feelings and ideas would get stuck on the other side of her voice, no words to carry them across. Or she’d start talking and her words would fail, trail off, evaporate, everyone staring at her, waiting. Papa wasn’t in a waiting mood. He seemed uncomfortable, brushing dust that wasn’t there from his britches.

Unfortunately, the characterizations fall short, particularly those of the numerous villains. Martin’s wife, to name one, has another dimension behind her hectoring, social-climber facade, but her husband, though suitably threatening, has none. Other depictions feel inconsistent, even of the good guys, and the conflicts I’d expect either dissipate or never emerge. For instance, if Jessa’s that starved for warmth and affection, leaving her easy pickings for Will—perhaps too easy—I don’t see how she can connect with her parents as wholeheartedly or deeply as she does.

I can believe she’d redouble her efforts to please them, because emotionally hungry children do. But that longing—and resentment—have to go somewhere, and though Will offers an outlet, I wanted more of her feelings of betrayal kicking around.

That’s why the novel’s resolution, whose events seem mostly credible, still doesn’t quite work for me; I think the characters accept what befalls them too easily, maybe predictably. The story has ugly elements the author wishes to redeem, but that must be earned, and it shouldn’t happen simply to please the reader.

I also sense that Anger wants to explain everything, as though the reader won’t believe the words otherwise, a tic that comes through in the storytelling. Often, a character will say or do something, and the text will provide a reason, when it’s already clear.

To be fair, The Shinnery offers an utterly gripping feminist narrative: men treating women like chattels, even their own daughters. It’s hard to beat that, and to her credit, Anger keeps raising the stakes for Jessa, meanwhile conveying the social and political atmosphere in which the woman’s always to blame. As I read, I compared this university press novel with others I couldn’t finish from major commercial houses, whose mix-and-match hodgepodge of typical characters and situations seems like recombinant DNA.

That said, Anger’s editors could have helped The Shinnery in small but important ways—get rid of the pointless, one-page prologue; do justice to the story with a more enticing, smoother blurb; catch errors like a character’s name changing in the middle of a scene; and maybe deleting the explanatory passages.

Still, this novel tells a bold, original story—not for the faint of heart—and I recommend it.

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

Magic in Manhattan: The Golem and the Jinni


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Review: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
HarperCollins, 2013. 484 pp. $16

The year 1899 witnesses two occult events, unnoticed by ordinary folk but with great potential for mischief. A Polish businessman sets sail for New York with a female golem in a crate, a creature made of clay through Kabbalistic magic. But he dies during the voyage, leaving the golem, who knows nothing about life, to cope once the ship reaches its destination—she walks ashore and takes up residence on the Lower East Side. She’s a newborn adult with immense physical strength and an ability to hear unexpressed human thoughts and desires.

Mikuláš Aleš’s 1899 rendering of the golem which, according to legend, was created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in 16th-century Prague (courtesy via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, blocks away, a tinsmith repairs an antique copper flask, unwittingly freeing the jinni trapped inside. A very different being, he’s lived for centuries, mostly in the Syrian Desert, and will probably live several more. And though he’s strong and quick, what sets him apart is the light he radiates and the warmth of his touch, which allows him to melt most metals, as the tinsmith soon discovers. But this jinni grants no one three wishes. He’s no slave and will fight hard against any attempt to change or modify his behavior.

The narrative of The Golem and the Jinni, besides telling the (somewhat) magical realist tale of how these two characters adjust to the New World—and whom they influence, and how—is much larger than that, wherein lies its charm. In vigorous, vivid prose, the novel explores what freedom, conscience, empathy, and pleasure mean to human existence, and how difficult it is to balance them.

The golem, who acquires the name Chava (via the Hebrew word for “life”) gets a job in a bakery, where she works like three women and tries hard to fit in, unnoticed. But she feels cursed by her gift of hearing what people would rather hide; a chorus of desire clamors in her head, and it seems to her that humans never stop wanting, especially what they can’t have. Aware of her terrifying strength and the need to act justly and carefully, Chava dares not let herself go, ever. What’s more, if an unscrupulous person ever learned her true identity and uttered the correct incantation, she’d be bound as slave to that master, likely for evil purposes.

By contrast, the jinni, called Ahmad, has no particular love for humans, sees nothing wrong with taking pleasure or profit where he may find it, and has little or no loyalty to anyone. Consequently, when he meets Chava, the two irritate each other no end, yet, as in the attraction of opposites, each realizes what the other represents and is curious. They seek each other’s company at night, because neither likes or needs to sleep, and there’s a lot of time to spend. So they take nocturnal walks, as with this excursion along the rooftops of Prince Street:

The rooftops were like a hidden thoroughfare, bustling with nighttime traffic. Men, women, and children came and went, running errands, passing information, or simply heading home. Workingmen in greased overalls held parliament around the rims of ash-barrels, their faces red and flickering. Boys idled in corners, eyes alert. The Golem caught the sense of borders being guarded, but the Jinni, it seemed, was a familiar face. Mostly their doubts were directed at herself: a strange woman, tall and clean and primly dressed. Some of the younger boys took her for a social worker, and hid in the shadows.

Naturally, there are complications; The Golem and the Jinni is an intricate book, maybe to a fault. There’s the rabbi who mentors Chava; the bakery; the social worker smitten by her; and the mysterious man-of-all-work who pretends to do his bidding but is really biding his time. You’ve also got the tinsmith; neighborhood characters like a physician turned ice-cream maker; a beautiful, young socialite; and Ahmad’s long back story in the Syrian Desert, often hard to distinguish from a dream—or, sometimes, to place accurately within the time frame of the novel.

Wecker’s rendering of the Lower East Side works well enough, but, though I get a sense of certain places or neighborhoods, the scenery sometimes feels more like a stage set than a lived-in place. I also note a few minor anachronisms, facets of life that didn’t yet exist in 1899, though would a few years later. The presentation of Jewish life stumbles in places—for instance, the rabbi doesn’t seem entirely rabbinical, and the bakery likely would have closed during Passover—but again, not enough to question authenticity.

Nevertheless, despite occasional obscurities, particularly where the narrative’s disparate parts fail to fit together seamlessly, I recommend The Golem and the Jinni. It’s a wonderful tale, full of passion, adventure, and inquiry, told with imaginative flair.

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

A Heroine Revisited: Joan


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Review: Joan, by Katherine J. Chen
Random House, 2022. 343 pp. $28

One summer day in 1422, ten-year-old Jeanne d’Arc gathers stones for a fight between the boys of her village, Domrémy, against their Burgundian neighbors. The singular, disturbing ending to that brief battle will stay in the girl’s memory forever. But that day ends like any other; her father beats her, this time for dropping a bowl.

She is using her palm to ladle as much stew as she can into her mouth, so that she can’t be accused of wasting food. . . . Also, she is eating from the floor because, in spite of her grief or owing to it, she is starving. In her haste, she has swallowed a bit of the bowl itself, a hard and tiny crumb. . . . Fresh rushes are spread on the floor, and somehow she has chewed a bit of them, too. There’s the taste of grass in her mouth, along with everything else she has gulped down already.
The room has turned sideways. It takes her a moment to understand why, until she pins down the source of her pain: her ear, her left ear, is inside her father’s fist.

Over several years, his blows harden her, both to the pain and because her efforts to elude him lead her to perform useful, physically demanding chores for neighbors, which take her out of his reach—carrying sacks of grain, patching a roof, lifting a cart from the mud.

Jeanne grows tall and powerful, but she’s also a thinker. She’s drawn to her ne’er-do-well uncle because he’s kind and has traveled. She too dreams of going elsewhere, but how, to do what? And could she ever leave her beloved older sister, Catherine, who’s tried to protect her?

This is Joan of Arc, unwittingly preparing for her role in history. You know she’ll leave Domrémy, pass numerous tests that let her penetrate the inner circles of power in a divided France burdened by constant, unsuccessful war against the English invaders. She’ll meet the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, who’ll allow her to lead his soldiers.

Jean Fouquet’s 1444 portrait, oil on wood, of Charles VII, called the Victorious or the Well-Served, the latter more accurate (courtesy Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Except that this Joan is secular. Chen’s creation hears no saints’ voices, has little use for the Church, and comes belatedly (and reluctantly) to claim divine sanction. In her way, this Joan has religious faith, but I think from a perspective rare, if not unknown, in fifteenth-century France. Rather, she’s a soldier, first and foremost, and how she becomes a fighter and strategist makes a compelling, epic story.

Chen’s approach will offend those who believe historical fiction should render history as faithfully as possible, and since the sources on Jeanne d’Arc are many, these critics will decry the book as revisionism. Readers who have particular affection for the traditional story, perhaps for cultural or religious reasons, will also take exception; I know because I’ve discussed the book with people from both camps. I respect their sensibilities, though I don’t share them.

But I don’t accept how certain naysayers ascribe unsavory motives to the author, whether the urge to trample values others hold dear, or the lure of making money, and to hell with history. What utter nonsense, which suggests how threatening iconoclasm is. Too bad.

Chen is not only a brilliant novelist, she clearly loves her characters and has great respect for the time period, especially the politics and certain aspects of daily life, which she renders beautifully. From the field at the stone fight in the beginning to a town fair to a room at the Dauphin’s castle at Chinon where an enemy tries to entrap her into treason, the narrative imbues physical spaces with mood and character.

Tension thrums throughout, though I particularly admire the court scenes at Chinon and the characterizations that emerge: the Dauphin, his mother-in law, and Joan’s future comrades-in-arms, Dunois and La Hire, to name a few.

Admittedly, I don’t sense the fifteenth century in Domrémy—too much friendliness, not enough superstition. But it’s not twenty-first century either, and however old these events and characters really are, they seem entirely coherent among one another, complete, and logical. One measure of this understanding is how Chen has Joan argue for making artillery—fanciful, I suppose, yet intriguing, given that the king who shrugs off this notion in distaste would later accept it from the mouth of another famous commoner, Jacques Coeur.

Another measure of completeness is how all the expected issues come into play—the Dauphin’s weakness of character, the prejudice against a peasant woman, the soldiers’ devotion, France struggling to become a nation, and so on. They just happen without religion driving the narrative. Impossible in the fifteenth century? Yes, but that’s just about the only difference between the traditional story and this one.

Call it revisionism, if you like, but I recoil at what a few of my colleagues have said, that to describe this book—which they haven’t read—you’d have to drop the historical from historical fiction.

Not only do I admire this novel, I plan to study how the author has written it. Joan touches a nerve, but maybe that’s a good thing.

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

Death in Singapore: The Frangipani Tree Mystery


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Review: The Frangipani Tree Mystery, by Ovidia Yu
Constable, 2017. 312 pp. $14

Singapore, 1936. Chen Su Lin, only sixteen, nevertheless faces a crossroads. She has a certificate from the Mission School—first in her class—which, in theory, would entitle her to a good job, if she could find one. Her dream is to become a secretary, but she’s revealed that to nobody, because such positions are rare, whereas her relatives would object on principle to a woman working outside the home.

Sure enough, as the story opens, Su Lin’s uncle, a wealthy merchant with a finger in many pies, wants to marry her off, probably to some dutiful, boring minion whose sole virtue is his ability to earn a living. But Uncle Chen hasn’t reckoned on Miss Vanessa Palin, sister to the acting governor of Singapore and a presence at the Mission School, who tells him his niece is cut out for better things. However, the “better thing” Miss Nessa has in mind involves housekeeping or caring for children—being a servant—and Su Lin doesn’t want that.

G. R. Lambert & Co. photograph of the port of Singapore, 1890 (courtesy Leiden University Library, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Enter Chief Inspector Thomas Francis LeFroy of the CID, who needs a housekeeper—at least, that’s what everyone tells him—a most intriguing fellow who owes much of that intrigue to a famous reserve. He signs papers taking legal responsibility for Su Lin’s employment—how that works isn’t entirely clear—but, more immediately, he has a possible crime to investigate at the acting governor’s mansion.

Charity Byrne, the eighteen-year-old Irish nanny to the governor’s developmentally delayed daughter, has fallen off a balcony to her death beneath a frangipani tree. The Palins, who apparently had mixed feelings about the beautiful, flirtatious deceased (also of a low social class) want LeFroy to rule the death an accident. But he’s not so sure, and his insistence on conducting a proper investigation involves Su Lin as unofficial eyes and ears within the mansion.

She takes over for the late Charity in caring for seventeen-year-old Deborah Palin, called Dee-Dee, who acts like a seven-year-old, with all the difficulties that implies, and who instantly takes a liking to Su Lin. But LeFroy holds his cards so close to his chest that Su Lin doesn’t always know whether “unofficial” means useless or forgotten, and Miss Nessa Palin has begun to show a side of herself the girl never saw at the Mission School. Su Lin doesn’t want to admit it, but her mentor is gradually proving herself cold and hard, perhaps even a racist.

What’s more, Su Lin, who chafed under her traditional Chinese upbringing, finds that life among ang mohs, the Europeans, has its drawbacks. At her home growing up,

Uncles and aunts invited friends, acquaintances, and potential business partners to the table, and the guests usually stayed on after dinner to repay the hospitality with stories and gossip. . . . Full of Miss Nessa’s instructions on ladylike deportment, I had despised their raucous anecdotes, especially re-enactments of confrontations they had supposedly had with ang mohs—standing up to Europeans was considered daring and reckless, considering the law was almost always on their side. Now, the reserved, well-bred silence of my British employers left me feeling isolated and lonely.

To Su Lin, Dee-Dee, despite her often irritating behavior, seems like the most authentic person in the household.

A chief charm of The Frangipani Tree Mystery is Yu’s portrayal of the racial, ethnic, and cultural conflicts of polyglot Singapore, with the Europeans running everything in hit-and-miss fashion. You see the superstitions about bad luck among the Chinese, set against the Europeans’ social snobbery, and the notions about shame and pride, strength and weakness upheld by the different groups. I particularly like how Su Lin, though proud of her heritage, shows rather too much admiration for the colonials, and how that changes over time—accurate, I think, given her education and circumstances.

The novel takes a minute to sort out Su Lin’s place in the governor’s residence, Miss Nessa’s role, LeFroy, and the crime. But if you read The Frangipani Tree Mystery, and I suggest you do, bear with this ballet despite the step or two that might seem too convenient, and you’ll be rewarded. The mystery takes yet another minute to hit its stride, chiefly because an antagonistic character seems like a stock figure, at first, only to deepen as the narrative progresses. But in the end the story satisfies.

Yu pays close attention to cultural and social markers, which inform the narrative and enrich the background. The publisher pretends that the novel portrays the world of 1936; it doesn’t. But it does explore the barriers to women, whether European or Asian, the frequent emphasis on power or money to the exclusion of empathy, and a protagonist caught between a world she admires and the one she grew up in.

Consequently, The Frangipani Tree Mystery is one of those deceptively slight novels that offers much more than the sum of its parts. I recommend it.

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

His Last Duchess: The Marriage Portrait


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Review: The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, 2022. 333 pp. $28

It’s 1561, and Lucrezia, the not-quite-sixteen-year-old duchess of Ferrara, refuses to believe that Alfonso, her husband of one year, means to kill her. She can see no cause for offense, and at certain moments, he seems tender and thoughtful, maybe even loving. Yet when Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici and no stranger to the forms and unwritten rules of cutthroat court life, reconsiders how Alfonso has brought her to a deserted castle, she has to wonder.

A remarkable premise, this, and at times The Marriage Portrait reads like a thriller, written in O’Farrell’s trademark sumptuous prose. But this novel isn’t merely another tale of a child at risk, though Lucrezia is that; innocent, empathic by nature, a sensitive soul who loves animals, she’s ill suited to her time and station in life. Her father and husband care only to extend and preserve their power, which means that daughters exist to be sold in marriage for political advantage.

Like Hamnet, therefore, O’Farrell’s triumphant novel about the Shakespeare household, The Marriage Portrait deals with matrimony. But where Agnes Shakespeare worried about her husband’s constancy and their children’s health and struggled against the sexual double standard, here the stakes consider survival when a husband, not the plague, is the enemy. Lucrezia’s expendable, and as the novel opens, she’s coming to realize that.

Alessandro Allori’s portrait of Lucrezia de’ Medici, 1560 (courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The back story, which narrates her upbringing and bewildering early months of marriage, imagines how a young girl must have felt to be torn from home and thrust into the bed of a man almost twice her age. But Lucrezia’s much more than a victim. She has enough willfulness to want to ask why things must be how they are, even if she holds her tongue, and she likes to test the rules.

In that vein, there’s a terrific childhood scene in which she contrives to be alone with a tigress her father has imprisoned in his basement menagerie:

She saw how the animal lifted her lustrous muzzle, nosing the air, sifting it for all it could tell her. Lucrezia could feel the sadness, the loneliness, emanating from her, the shock at being torn from her home, the horror of the weeks and weeks at sea. She could feel the sting of the lashes the beast had received, the bitter longing for the vaporous and humid canopy of jungle and the enticing green tunnels through its undergrowth that she alone commanded, the searing pain in her heart at the bars that now enclosed her.

Not only is Lucrezia like the tigress; her father, the kind of man who’d imprison the beast for his own amusement, treats his daughter similarly. That relationship foreshadows the Ferrara court, where all eyes focus on her, as though she too were a beast on display, yet no one really sees her. She craves understanding and friendship but, to her shock, can trust nobody, not even—maybe especially—her sisters-in-law. If she takes small pleasures, such as opening a window to watch a storm, her husband scolds her, often dragging her around. So he’s not just a tyrant; his violence makes him a sociopath.

Such extreme character disorders can, in the wrong authorial hands, function in an exaggerated way to create tension. But here, Alfonso’s not just an erratic personality. The narrative shows his motives, fears, and overweening pride—from his young bride’s perspective, to be sure—but nevertheless depicts him so that the reader understands what drives him, even if Lucrezia doesn’t always.

I usually dislike cliff-hanger openings, a prologue by another name, followed by lengthy back story. But again, O’Farrell goes one better, using that device to achieve several goals. First, she introduces the mystery Lucrezia’s trying to decipher, whether Alfonso truly means to do away with her—and her confusion, not just the threat, propels the narrative. Secondly, I believe that novels should start where the protagonist realizes that life will never be the same—and in Lucrezia’s case, that life appears to be short.

Moreover, O’Farrell doesn’t abuse the reader’s patience. She returns frequently to the scenes of 1561 and Lucrezia’s duress, while the back story advances rapidly, and I never feel manipulated through the withholding of secrets. Quite the contrary; a historical note before the first chapter establishes the premise, apparently inspired by a Robert Browning poem I’ve always liked, “My Last Duchess,” quoted there. That forthrightness marks the story throughout.

The resolution is predictable, based on a couple one-sentence clues dropped into the text. That bothered me, a little, though how the story gets there is anything but ordained.

Hamnet is a deeper novel, I think, offering at once a view of Elizabethan daily life, exploration of mortality and its impact on the living, and the themes of marriage referred to earlier. But The Marriage Portrait, though it has a narrower focus, is still a superb novel, and I highly recommend it.

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

Fit to Print?: Gutenberg’s Apprentice


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Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie
Harper, 2014. 401 pp. $28

Peter Schoeffer, scribe, thinks he has it made. He loves Paris, his adopted city, where the Seine smells “of chalk and stone, a sharp and thrilling city thriving.” At twenty-five, he sees a path upward, because the Church will pay for manuscripts penned in a fine hand such as his.

But in September 1450, his stepfather, a wealthy merchant and bookseller, summons him home to Mainz without saying why, and you sense Peter’s resentment at the peremptory recall.

The reason makes Peter feel even worse. He’s to accept an apprenticeship—at his age, with his accomplishments!—to aid an effort that feels both socially beneath him and blasphemous. But he can’t say no, because stepdad has raised him, educated him, and made him who he is. But to be shackled to a stinking, cellar workshop and its forge alongside half-educated smiths offends his pride and aesthetic soul. He’s also uncertain where he belongs socially, so he’s free to resent those above and below him.

Fifteenth-century illustration of Peter Schoeffer, artist unknown (Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Furthermore, and most important, his new master is Johann Gensfleisch, known as Gutenberg, who’s undertaken a sacrilegious project out of arrogant greed—to produce scores of books at once, selling holy texts for profit. No wonder that everyone’s sworn to secrecy, for if the Church found out, they’d seize everything and have the printers arrested.

Not just that; Gutenberg represents all that Peter has learned to detest. The master belongs to Mainz’s upper crust, called Elders, one of the thirty leading families who treat the city like a fiefdom. The Elders act hand-in-glove with the archbishop to bleed the merchants, guilds, and less exalted citizens for their own gain.

Consequently, that Peter’s stepfather has chosen to bankroll Gutenberg seems corrupt, and his own presence designed to keep an eye on stepdad’s investment—until the young scribe realizes how ruthless, manipulative, and controlling his new master is. Maybe Peter’s there as Gutenberg’s pawn against his chief creditor. In any case, Peter feels like a slave, with no respite from either quarter.

Even so, he admires artistic talent, and Gutenberg never lets anyone forget he’s a genius. Christie has done a terrific job rendering the era, the political machinations, and the process of printing as its inventors devise it on the fly. Most of her characters are historical figures, including Peter, and she reimagines them with flair and attention to detail. The scenes of fashioning, failure, and gradual surmounting of obstacles are as gripping as any; I never appreciated how difficult or painstaking it was to print a book in the fifteenth century, or how many years it took.

Peter’s coming-of-age story, in which his growing technical skill and innovative sense mirror his emotional maturation, works nicely. He also comes to terms with his religious objections to the project, gradually understanding that the Church’s presumed opposition derives partly from its role as sole representative of God on earth, so its guardianship of scribes has both economic and political significance. Reproduce religious texts that any literate person can read, and the printer not only makes scribes superfluous, individual people can seek God for themselves, a gauntlet thrown down to church power. Accordingly, this narrative foreshadows the Reformation, mere decades away.

At its best, Gutenberg’s Apprentice reads like a thriller. Tension arises from the need for secrecy, compromised by the length of time the project takes, the ever-increasing number of participants, and Gutenberg’s indiscretions—he’s constantly cutting deals with clerics and merchants, infuriating Peter’s stepfather and squeezing the young man between two powerful men he’s doomed to displease. Throughout, Christie captures the mindset, the strivings, and the fixation on social class, as with this description of a scriptorium where monks gather to write:

The faces were all known to him—in the way that any face, in a place as small as Mainz, was known. They didn’t change: the jowls just spread, the noses grew redder and more bulbous. Elders all, patricians from the city or the minor nobles from the land: the clergy was made up of second sons from wealthy families, stashed and suckled by the Mother Church for life. . .He was a stranger, with a stranger’s anonymity, which brought both freedom and a certain risk.

In such a complicated narrative, it’s not always easy to penetrate the politics, despite Christie’s gift for depicting the power struggles. I’m also not persuaded, in a couple instances, that Peter would either forgive his stepfather his hard hand or feel warmly toward him; these crucial transitions seem rushed or simple.

But overall, Gutenberg’s Apprentice does what excellent historical fiction should do, and I highly recommend it.

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