Boy Meets Girl: The Golden Age

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Review: The Golden Age, by Joan London
Europa, 2016. 221 pp. $17

Unlike nearly all their extended family, twelve-year-old Frank Gold and his parents survived the Holocaust in Hungary, after which they emigrated to Perth, Western Australia, in 1946. But shortly afterward, Frank comes down with polio, a cruel blow that overwhelms his mother and father, neither of whom has much capacity for warmth or emotional expression, which leaves the boy struggling to find a reason to live or to hope. He’s a cynical lad, in some ways, too clever for his own good, though what’s underneath is raw and vulnerable. But he needs an outlet for those feelings, and he’s unlikely to find one without help.

Perth, Western Australia, as it appeared around 1955 (courtesy E. W. Digby, via Wikemedia Commons)

At the Golden Age, a small institution devoted to young polio victims, Frank, now almost thirteen, meets Elsa Briggs, six months younger than he. Until she was stricken, Elsa was a happy, radiant child, joyful and self-directed. Her parents are even less capable of facing their family tragedy than Frank’s, especially her father, who finds reasons to avoid Elsa. During his few visits to the Golden Age, he exhorts her to learn to walk again, already.

Meanwhile, Elsa’s mother, with younger children to care for, is too overwhelmed to do much, and she’s a doormat anyway. So Elsa, like Frank, feels abandoned, especially as she gathers that her younger siblings have taken over her belongings, her bedroom, her place in the house. Never having grappled for existence as Frank did, she’s less defended against her plight, which makes her both more innocent and yet more resolved, in her own quiet, self-enclosed way. She’s waiting for someone to understand her, though she doesn’t quite know it yet.

How these two brave, suffering kids find each other makes for a touching, beautiful story. But it’s not only a romance; I admire the way Elsa and Frank begin to realize themselves, how they unfold as the adults they will become. Which is only natural, for love would otherwise be impossible–and make no mistake, their feelings are real, not puppy love.

Being close made them stronger. They sat talking on the verandah or the back lawn. Their faces had colour. For some weeks now they’d shared the lonely task of rehabilitation, doing their exercises together. The Scottish physiotherapist commented on their rapid progress and motivation. The days were not boring, but seemed to hold at every glance something to tell the other. During the night they missed each other. Each morning was a reunion.

London’s prose is sparing and her chapters short, as is the entire book. But her vision and clarity ring out from every page, and each character has an inner life, not just the principals. I’ve rarely read a novel in which the author paid so much attention to minor figures, but you never feel as if the narrative has lost its way. On the contrary; everything fits. What’s more, the story, though more or less plotless, never flags, as each small moment takes on great significance. And the Golden Age is no Dickensian horror but a warm, sensitive, caring environment, staffed by hard-working people.

Rather, the horrors are the parents, who don’t know how to deal with their children’s illness except as a slap, a shame, a comment on themselves, which only sharpens the divide the kids feel from the outside world. By contrast, Olive Penny, the head nurse, is an intuitive, empathic soul who understands her charges and refuses to judge them. Her search for love mirror’s Frank and Elsa’s, though of course she’s coming from a vastly different perspective. She doesn’t expect much, but she’s not bitter about it–she gets that life has its limits, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

Other parallels to Frank and Elsa’s tale are those of Meyer and Ida, his parents. They struggle with their feelings of displacement from Europe, the guilt of having survived, their terror that, as so-called New Australians, they’ll be perpetual foreigners–or, in Ida’s case, her refusal to accept Australia as her permanent home. Meyer unbends more easily and, as such, can help Frank more. But in the end, Frank has his own path to follow, and, true to himself, he finds it from a fellow patient, a boy older than himself who writes poetry in his head while ensconced in an iron lung.

If I have one bone to pick with The Golden Age, it’s that London sometimes tells too much. But she also shows plenty, and with such a light hand that it’s hard to find fault. What a remarkable novel.

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

Two Young Men: Valiant Gentlemen

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Review: Valiant Gentlemen, by Sabina Murray
Grove, 2016. 489 pp. $27

This superb, engrossing novel derives much of its considerable charm from a rare feat. Valiant Gentlemen explores utterly serious subjects with insight and compassion, yet the author doesn’t take herself too seriously, nor do her characters. And this must be intentional, because when one character begins to look too hard at his reflection in later life, this shift marks his downfall.

The three stars in Murray’s constellation are Roger Casement, Herbert Ward, and Ward’s wife, Sarita. All three were historical figures, and Casement is particularly significant, a man who campaigned against colonial abuses in Africa and for Irish independence. If you’ve heard of him, you’ll almost certainly know his tragic end; but in this book, the journey counts more than the destination, so don’t let that deter you. (That said, skip the jacket flap, a hodgepodge that accomplishes nothing except to blab what should be withheld and hide what should be revealed.)

Herbert Ward, left, and Roger Casement, as young adventurers in the Congo in the late 1880s (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The journey here begins in the Congo in 1886, where young Casement and Ward meet. Both are looking for gainful employment and adventure, but since the work pays little, adventure keeps them going. At first, they toil for King Leopold of Belgium and his so-called International Association of the Congo, but then for British trade interests, both of which carry political consequences. However, at this point, those considerations still percolate below the surface. Ward, a former circus acrobat, seasoned traveler, dead shot, and gifted sketch artist, is at heart a deeply lonely man who wants to make good. Casement, a skilled linguist, brilliant organizer, charismatic, and possessed of boundless energy, is lonely too, but for a different reason. He’s homosexual, a fact he must conceal, and he’s hopelessly attracted to Ward.

I find Valiant Gentlemen irresistible, the African scenes especially, because I’ve lived in Central Africa and researched Leopold, his hireling Henry Stanley, and the colonial plunder of that region. So it’s a particular pleasure to run across names of peoples, places, and historical figures I haven’t seen in years, more so that Murray captures their essence. For instance, when Ward remarks of Stanley’s latest book that it’s full of bravado, Casement ascribes that to the “typical writing style of short, ill-tempered men.” Touché. And when Murray describes the weather, and its “usual blanket of heat,” she re-creates what it feels like to be in that place:

Casement might welcome rain, but that would transform the path into a river, which would, in turn, give way to a mud track. And the brief relief from the insect population that happens in the wake of these torrential downpours would only offer up the intense humidity that mosquitoes love so well. One discomfort merely exchanged for another, which makes the absence of choice about such things almost tolerable. Or at least promotes a philosophical stance regarding his lack of control.

The two men’s paths diverge, as each gets what he’s been looking for. Casement sets his sights on becoming British consul in one African colony or other, and Ward leaves Africa and gets married. His bride is an Argentinian-American heiress, so you may well ask how a penniless, erstwhile acrobat manages to attract her and earn her father’s consent. But I won’t tell you, except to note that Sarita Sanford is a woman ahead of her time and says what she thinks. When two such irrepressible spirits meet, the results are bound to be hilarious.

The marriage gives Ward what he’s always wanted, respectability. But, unlike Sarita, he calls that an end in itself, the mirror-gazing I referred to above. She’s less conventional than he, perhaps because she recalls her early girlhood, and what it was like to be poor, differently from how Ward holds onto his past and a father who had only contempt for him. So he doesn’t quite know what to make of Casement the muckraker, who earns fame publicizing Leopold’s brutalities, a gripping subject that Murray handles with skillful economy yet raw power. Ward’s always happy to see Casement and drink with him–and the Ward children love their Uncle Roddie–but you sense the growing rift between the two old friends, and a betrayal in the wind. Sarita, meanwhile, understands Casement perhaps better than her husband, though the two men have a bond she can’t share. The First World War brings matters to a head.

Murray dazzles you without being self-conscious; it just seems natural. So it’s startling to come across phrases like “tipping point” or “I’m fine with that,” which I doubt were current in 1910, or careless errors, like council when the text implies counsel. All the same, I’m fine with unbridled zest and a bubbling, potent narrative; Valiant Gentlemen is a brilliant, magical book.

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

A Pox on Those Borgias: In the Name of the Family

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Review: In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant
Random House, 2017. 429 pp. $28

The best fiction portrays larger-than-life characters as real people, and you couldn’t ask for larger figures than the Borgia clan. Here, the sequel to Blood and Beauty, Dunant gives us a fifteenth- and sixteenth-century pope who raises corruption to a high art, even for the papacy, and two of his infamous, illegitimate children. Cesare’s a murderous, charismatic military genius of absolutely no scruple who terrorizes half of Italy. He also has, shall we say, deeper than brotherly feelings toward his beautiful, younger sister, Lucrezia, whose marriages he arranges and whose husbands he disposes of according to whim.

Bartolomeo Veneto’s portrait of a young woman, possibly Lucrezia Borgia, ca. 1510 (courtesy National Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.)

What Dunant does with these remarkable figures–and, by the way, throw in Niccolò Machiavelli, Florence’s envoy to Cesare–is itself extraordinary. I won’t say she makes Cesare sympathetic, which would be asking too much. He’s not the only politician who can wield a knife blade, either himself or by proxy, yet Dunant makes no excuses for his particular brand of viciousness. But she does show his passionate attachment to his sister (the incestuous current largely omitted in this book, oddly enough), and his attempts to end brigandage and corrupt taxation. He even earns the loyalty of certain people, at least those not related to the bodies dumped in the nearest river. Likewise, though his father, Pope Alexander VI, is the definition of venality, he also loves his children deeply, as well as the courtesans who bore them. So he’s a real person too, with a sense of humor, a cheerful outlook, and more avarice than most, but again, not alone, there.

However, Lucrezia holds the center. Only twenty-two but on her third husband, the heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, she’s well aware that she lives in a house of cards. Her presence in Ferrara pacifies the powerful Este family and keeps them grudging allies of the Borgias; the immense dowry she brought doesn’t hurt, either. But her aging father-in-law, the current duke, makes no secret of his disdain for her, and should she fail to produce an heir, the only thing standing between her and a sorry end is Cesare’s army. And Cesare, though he seems never to lose a battle, is dying a slow, miserable death from “the French pox,” also known as syphilis.

Dunant excels at small moments, and she renders her characters’ inner lives with a sure hand, no mean feat when they’re historical personages whose psychology may or may not emerge in sketchy contemporary sources. Take, for example, Lucrezia’s first official meeting with her husband-to-be, Alfonso, who unfortunately shares a name with her predecessor, the one she truly loved:

Noblewomen are early connoisseurs in the art of the courtly kiss, and over these last weeks Lucrezia has been gobbled and pecked, dribbled on and stubble-scraped, has even felt the nibble of teeth and odd teasing flash of a tongue. But this, this, she thinks, is more like a wet dog flopping down onto a hearth. As he [Alfonso] lifts his head, she takes in a lungful of sweat and leather. If perfume has been applied, it is long lost in the dust between here and Ferrara.

Dunant intends to show not only that Lucrezia’s a pawn in the Borgia’s power game, but how all women of that time are invisible except as sex objects. It’s not just that men succeed in labeling women as temptresses, the embodiment of sin, the weaker vessel, and all that. It’s that women are unworthy of serious notice, so that, for instance, medicine hasn’t bothered to study whether men can transmit the French pox to women, and what happens when they do. Or, on a more intimate level, Alfonso and Lucrezia feel strain in one another’s company, yet he sees no reason to learn how to talk to her. Even Machiavelli, who lives to talk politics and history, refuses to do so with his wife, Marietta, whose only legitimate role is to endure his long absences and infidelities.

All this is excellent, sometimes brilliant, even, and always interesting. Yet In the Name of the Family doesn’t quite hold together for me. The narrative depends on episodes, many of which could drop out of the book and leave the plot unchanged. Nothing that Macchiavelli does or says, really matters, for instance. Each episode may keep the pages turning, but they don’t always feel connected, except by chronology, so there’s no crescendo of tension, no climax. The end just peters out.

To an extent, Dunant has little choice, because history doesn’t cooperate with timely cataclysms, and, to her resounding credit, she’s faithful to history. Nevertheless, reading In the Name of the Family sometimes feels like fictionalized history rather than a novel. I still recommend it; I think it deserves wide readership; but I liked Blood and Beauty more.

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

A Tender Plant: The Ballroom

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Review: The Ballroom, by Anna Hope
Random House, 2016. 313 pp. $27

Ella Fay feels so oppressed by the Yorkshire textile mill at which she works that she breaks a window in a frenzied fit. For her crime, and because this is England in 1911–when the lower classes aren’t deemed to have feelings, let alone to be worth understanding–she’s bundled off to Sharston, an institution on the moors.

West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, (later High Royds Psychiatric Hospital), was the model for Sharston. One of Hope’s forbears was an inmate, for a time (courtesy highroydshospital.co.uk, 2006, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sharston is a desperate place that mingles the mentally disturbed with people who only seem so or who plainly aren’t, and whose only offense is poverty. But no matter how they got there, they know that no one leaves except feet first, about which there are many terrible rumors and some hard evidence, for a few men are assigned to dig the common graves.

John Mulligan is one, a man weighed down by promises he broke and wrong turns he made. But he’s sensitive and intelligent–far more than the asylum officials who keep him locked up–and you sense that something within yearns to break out and, if necessary to break heads.

But Sharston has one redeeming activity. Though the men and women are strictly segregated, once a week, those who’ve behaved themselves are allowed into the ballroom to dance. Through John’s eyes, you see the anticipation:

The men on John’s side disappeared off to the washrooms, and when they came back they had scrubbed faces and hair spat on and smoothed down. You could taste their excitement, thick and sticky, filling the air and leaving room for little else. It disturbed the far-gone ones on the other side, who got restless in their chairs and moaned and shouted out. John sat himself in the corner and took small shallow breaths, trying not to let it in; it was a terrible dangerous contagion, hope.

John and Ella dance, and from that springs an unlikely romance. What a tender plant it is, their love, for, if discovered, it will be uprooted; and meeting outside dancing hours is strictly against the rules. But John contrives to write Ella letters and smuggle them to her. At first, he only describes the sky and trees he sees during his work, because he knows Ella’s shut inside, as are all the women, which he considers an outrage. But what he doesn’t know is that Ella can’t read, and that she must ask her friend Clem to help her. (Clem is short for Clemency, an ironic name, for she receives none.) So Clem becomes Fay’s scribe, deriving perhaps too much vicarious pleasure from her role and inevitably forgetting where the boundaries lie.

It’s a brilliant touch, but no less so the character of Charles Fuller, the assistant medical officer. Fuller believes in eugenics, and as the novel opens, he’s struggling against the main intellectual current of his scientific faith, which says that enforced sterilization is the only way to preserve England. Otherwise, the nation will be overrun by the poor, the unfit, and the mentally ill, too depraved to know better than their savage ways, or even to care. It’s blood-curdling to read this tripe–even worse to know that such luminaries as Winston Churchill actually agreed–but at first, Fuller objects, because he believes that he can “save” John Mulligan and burnish his own career by doing so. So he makes many observations about John, intending to write a paper contesting that certain promising asylum inmates may, in fact, be rehabilitated.

However, Fuller has a deeper conflict. He’s a repressed homosexual, and he believes that if he followed his desires, not quite expressed but tangible nonetheless, he’d be filthy, dangerous, and depraved. In other words, he’d be no better than Sharston’s population, whom he holds himself above with a tenacity that shows how inadequate he feels (and once you meet his parents, you know why). Consequently, since he can never follow his heart or be happy, he hates anyone who can. John and Ella, be warned.

I criticized Hope’s previous novel, Wake, for the shallowness of the male characters. Nothing could be further from the truth in The Ballroom. Fuller, John, and John’s friend, Dan Riley, are complete people, and several minor male characters come across strongly as well. I think Hope relies too heavily on coincidences, of which one’s okay, but three’s a crowd. Similarly, Fuller’s behavior doesn’t always seem consistent with his character, as if his erratic boomerangs served the author’s purpose too conveniently. And, as usual, I wonder why Hope needs her prologue, which, also as usual, compromises the tension somewhat.

Nevertheless, The Ballroom is a marvelous novel, full testimony to the power of love, and I highly recommend it.

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

South African Tragedy: Who Killed Piet Barol?

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Review: Who Killed Piet Barol?, by Richard Mason
Knopf, 2016. 362 pp. $28

Despite the title, this remarkable novel is no whodunit, unless you take the death implied in the title as a more symbolic accusation, in which case we’re all guilty.

Now that I’ve confused you thoroughly, let me explain. Piet Barol, last seen in The History of a Pleasure Seeker making his way in Amsterdam through roguish charm, has broadened his horizons and his debts. Styling himself a French viscount, he’s living large in Cape Town with his American wife, Stacey, a former opera singer blessed with charm and diplomatic cunning more than equal to his own. But the Barols’ furniture business is failing, partly because Piet can’t bring himself to collect what he’s owed, but mostly because they spend money they don’t have to keep up appearances. Things look desperate, especially as the year is 1914, and Europe plunges into war, which puts Piet in a bind. Had he represented himself truthfully from the get-go as a Dutch national, he’d be in the clear, since the Netherlands remains neutral. But as a French aristocrat, surely he should be fighting for la patrie?

The South African Native National Congress delegation to the British Parliament in 1914 tried unsuccessfully to reverse colonial land policy (courtesy historywiz.com)

So it’s altogether convenient that he disappear for awhile, and when he hears that there’s a forest full of high-quality wood available for the taking, he sees how he can restart his furniture business with practically no overhead. However, to find the wood and remove it, he must hire two Xhosa men, Luvo and Ntsina; and therein hangs a tale.

First of all, this is no ordinary forest, but one dating from the time of Jesus, fecund in its density:

The grove was almost a single being, so bound were its member trees to one another, and yet each was wholly individual. They had grown together from saplings and forged a union without conflict, free from betrayal and viciousness. In their crowns were gardens of fertile soil, several inches deep, dropped over centuries by passing birds. In these gardens earthworms wriggled, grown distinct from those that churned the forest floor. Their branches began thirty feet above the ground, and this refuge from predators made them desirable residences for all sorts of creatures that relished distance from the great cats.

The forest represents a society of interdependence, in other words, a metaphor for that which white colonists have set about destroying among the Bantu peoples whose land they have stolen. More specifically, the noblest trees serve a religious purpose for the Xhosa, who believe their ancestors reside within them, whereas Piet doesn’t even know that the trunks are as old as Christianity.

But Mason, who managed to make Piet a sympathetic character as an Amsterdam imposter, does so here as well. Not only does Piet befriend Luvo and Ntsina in a true sense and grow to trust them, he lets himself see things from their perspective and corrects his behavior accordingly. He also entrusts his young son, Arthur, to them so that the boy can learn the ways of the forest, which Piet correctly judges will help him grow into a man. That said, Piet nevertheless sets out to take the Ancestor Trees, and though he fully intends to compensate Ntsina and Luvo for the loss, he’s a plunderer. And his failure to stand up to Stacey, especially where his African associates are concerned, makes him a weakling.

Then again, the degree to which he comes to love and understand life in the wild frees him from many prejudices. It also releases the artist in him, so that the furniture he carves adopts African themes and is absolutely gorgeous. Morever, Mason takes care to show the village politics among the Xhosa, many of whom, in their own way, are just as rapacious as the colonials.

But in the end, you know that all this will go wrong, that the scale of destruction the white men wreak will be far greater than that of the black, and that only one side will profit. That systematic destruction answers the question of the title, and that’s why I said we’re all guilty for condoning or participating in the crime. But how Mason arrives at this conclusion makes a fine tale, and that he renders the Xhosa in ways that ring true is no accident. For a year, he lived among them in a tent, learning their language and culture, and establishing a center for green farming. Who Killed Piet Barol? is a worthy result, a wide-ranging discussion of morals and racial tensions, and a pretty good yarn besides.

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

Nineteenth-Century Noir: By Gaslight

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Review: By Gaslight, by Steven Price
Farrar, Straus, 2016. 731 pp. $28

William Pinkerton has much more than his reputation to make a thief uneasy. Not only is he an accomplished detective, son of the famous Allan (and director of the agency that bears his name), William grasps implicitly that revenge and justice are reverse sides of the same coin, and the difference doesn’t trouble him overmuch. If a man’s a criminal, he must be stopped, and proof or evidence are mere tools toward that end. That makes Pinkerton as relentless as he is unpredictable, and if there’s one thing a careful, professional criminal dislikes, it’s an adversary who makes his own rules with the daring calculation of a fanatic.

Allan Pinkerton’s obituary in Harper’s Weekly, 1884; even in death, he cast a deep shadow on his sons (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

So it is that in 1885, Pinkerton has traveled to London to track down Edward Shade, a figure from his late father’s past. Why Pinkerton père spent so much effort trying to find Shade, whose elusiveness fits his name, isn’t entirely clear. But William has inherited the quest, which he pursues with every ounce of his considerable energy. And when the trail leads him to a woman believed to be connected to Shade, she literally slips from his grasp to throw herself in the Thames.

I wouldn’t dream of summarizing further. At 731 pages, By Gaslight is a weighty novel, but that’s like saying the pyramids are large and made of stone. Rather, imagine said pyramid built by dropping pebble upon pebble, and you have Price’s narrative technique. As you read, each mote falls into place as if there were no other suitable niche, and just when you think you might have uncovered the secret you’ve been waiting to see revealed, there’s another hidden inside. I defy anyone to start this novel and not finish it.

So I won’t tell you more about the plot, but I will mention three other characters. There’s Adam Foole, a gifted man of the “flash” (criminal) world, with a checkered past that has taken him around the globe, like as not in desperate straits. Master thief and con artist he is, but where most novelists would make such a character a likeable rogue, Price reaches higher. Foole’s neither rogue nor Robin Hood, though the men he robs are brutal types who amass wealth for its own sake and hide behind it, a tacit comparison that works in Foole’s favor. More importantly, though, love and friendship matter most to him, including his affection for his two partners in crime.

They are Japheth Fludd, a mountain of a man whose suspicious worldview provides a counterpoint to Foole’s more romantic nature, and whose bond to Foole seems at first hard to explain. But never fear; Price gets to it, eventually. Foole and Fludd look after Molly, a street urchin and pickpocket extraordinaire, whom Foole treats like the daughter he’s never had, and whom he patiently instructs in manners and the right way to treat people. They’re a marvelous triumvirate.

But a story of this heft wouldn’t take flight without winged prose, and this is where Price dazzles. A certain tone of voice is “cold and brutal as a steel cable”; William loves his wife’s name, “the aristocratic lace of its syllables, the knot it made of his tongue.” And then there’s London, which Price renders in its filth and splendor like a latter-day Dickens, minus the sentimentality:

He did not go directly in but slipped instead down a side alley. Creatures stirred in the papered windows as he passed. The alley was a river of muck and he walked carefully. In openings in the wooden walls he glimpsed the small crouched shapes of children, all bones and knees, half dressed, their breath pluming in the cold. They met his eyes boldly. The fog was thinner here, the stink more savage and bitter.

The novel ranges from England to India to South Africa to the United States, both the Western cow towns where desperadoes rob banks, and Virginia during the Civil War. (Allan Pinkerton runs spies for General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and William joins his father there.) But everywhere the narrative goes, you sense the place and time as if they entered through your fingertips touching the pages.

I like intricate books, though I must confess I got twisted around so that I’m not sure I understand everything in this one. But I don’t mind that as much as the two annoying tics in which Price indulges himself. By Gaslight has no quotation marks, and sometimes you have to parse out where dialogue ends and narrative resumes. He’s not alone–Lydia Peelle did the same in The Midnight Cool–but I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. It’s as if the authors are pretending that they’re so good, their prose needs no punctuation. Silly. Similarly, Price uses commas so sparingly that his longer sentences sometimes have a breathless, full-of-themselves quality, like a more loquacious Hemingway. I don’t get that, either.

But By Gaslight isn’t just good; it’s spectacular, in every sense of the word.

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

More Subversion, Please: Wolf Hollow

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Review: Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
Dutton, 2016. 291 pp. $17

Eleven-year-old Annabelle McBride learns to lie because a sadistic newcomer to her rural Pennsylvania town pushes her to it. Betty Glengarry is several years older and uses her superior size, strength, and aggressiveness to work her will. She demands money, threatens Annabelle’s younger brothers if Annabelle doesn’t comply, and dishes out punishment that suggests what she’s capable of. Since it’s 1943, and everyone’s thinking about the war effort against Germany, it’s a nice touch to portray a young girl confronting a bully at home.

War Food Administration poster by Morley, 1945 (courtesy War Food Administration, Agriculture Department, via Wikimedia Commons)

In this engaging, evocative novel meant chiefly (but not solely) for children, I wish Wolk had taken more care to connect the dots, of which the bullying theme provides one example. Annabelle never once thinks about what purpose the war might have, or whether the adults around her live up to their patriotism. She doesn’t even recognize that the McBrides, as a farm family, can feed themselves more generously than city folk, whose lives are more strictly rationed–another opportunity missed.

Even so, Wolk derives power from small moments writ large. The key character here is Toby, a veteran of the previous war who’s never recovered from whatever he saw and did in battle. Toby strikes most people as odd, but, never having hurt anyone, he lives as he likes, as a hermit in the woods, and his eccentricities have never roused anything more hostile than gossip. Now, however, as Betty’s cruelties multiply, Toby becomes a convenient suspect. Annabelle gathers that Betty’s trying to frame him, and most people implicitly accept his guilt, preferring to blame a misfit rather than a sweet, innocent girl.

Annabelle therefore takes it upon herself to protect a man she knows as fragile and frightened, kind when you allow him to be. It outrages her particularly that her Aunt Lily ranks among his most outspoken (and wrongheaded) critics. But to protect Toby requires more and more deceit, which makes Annabelle uncomfortable, so there’s that. And as the net around him tightens, the more she discovers that adults whom she’d trusted to believe in fairness or justice seem ready to let their prejudices guide them instead. This too is a nice touch; she faces down a bully, whereas they attack the victim.

I like both the moral meat implied here and the manner in which Wolk serves it. Her clear, lucid prose makes me think that she believes in E. B. White’s rules for cherishing the English language; and her careful, loving portrayal of rural life evokes one of his favorite subjects and philosophy. Consider this passage:

Our old barn taught me one of the most important lessons I was ever to learn: that the extraordinary can live in the simplest things.
Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.
Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.
In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.

But, as White also understood, children’s literature is no good without a strong element of subversion. Children see adult hypocrisy, cruelty, irrationality, and faithlessness more clearly than anyone else, because they’re tuned to it and suffer from it the most–think of Huckleberry Finn, Alice puzzling her way through Wonderland, or, more recently, Harry Potter’s struggles with evil incarnate. Wolk has the moral setup, for sure, delivered with admirable economy. Without fuss or heavy lifting, she gives you good versus evil, truth versus lies, the suffering of the innocents, and betrayal. What more could you want?

Answer: depth and ambiguity. Toby, Annabelle, and just about all her family are 100 percent good, despite a minor failing or two, whereas Betty is all bad, without a redeeming feature. Moreover, it’s not just that she’s bad; she’s a sociopath, a cliché that has ruined many a novel. As my seventeen-year-old astutely observed–he read the book over my shoulder during a long plane ride–Wolf Hollow would be far more gripping and believable had Annabelle rejected Betty’s friendly overtures, prompting a reaction. That would have redressed the balance between the characters, which Wolk could have fleshed out further had Betty’s cruelties seemed more like acting out or an attempt to get attention rather than cold-blooded violence. Instead, Betty has an accomplice in her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, with whom she gets up to who knows what, so she becomes that kind of girl–another cliché. And to overturn this axis of evil, Annabelle pulls off some rather improbable stunts, especially miraculous from so young a protagonist.

I give Wolk credit for daring to hurt her characters, both good and bad–she’s willing to show that life isn’t fair. But she’d have written a much better book had she not ducked two subversive truths: Good and bad aren’t always easy to see, and doing the right thing is usually more complicated than it appears.

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

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.