The 1918-19 pandemic


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Here’s another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

My protagonist, Rollie, returns from war in April 1919 a widower, because his wife has recently died from what people mistakenly call the “Spanish flu.”

The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which infected some 500 million people worldwide, of whom at least 50 million died, killed 675,000 Americans. According to historical analysis by the CDC, mortality ran high in very young children, adults from ages twenty to forty, and those above sixty-five.

A poster circulated by the Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association, 1918, Troy, New York (courtesy National Library of Medicine)

The twenty-to-forty age group illustrates how returning soldiers and sailors spread the disease, whether in military encampments or among the civilian population. Washington State was no exception, as two naval training stations and the most important army camp were hotbeds of infection.

Seattle officials at first downplayed the danger, after which they issued ordinances banning social gatherings, shutting theaters, closing schools, and instructing police to enforce the laws against spitting on the street. When these measures failed to slow the spread, the city’s leaders, thundering against the populace, enacted further restrictions and threatened fines for infractions.

For instance, if you wanted to ride a trolley, you had to wear a mask, and the mask must have at least six thicknesses, rather than the usual four. Acid commentary ensued. After all, if nobody understood the disease, how could anyone say how thick the mask should be?

The criticism underlined how powerless medical science was. With typical bravado, the city’s leading health authority trumpeted the effectiveness of influenza serum, which, in fact, provided little or no protection. Further, if the flu virus didn’t kill its victims, opportunistic bacterial infections might, and in those days, no antibiotics existed.

Nevertheless, the infection rate petered out. The disease did rebound in December for another month or two; announcements of weddings and funerals held in homes rather than houses of worship suggest how people coped with the ban on public functions. Toward the end of February 1919, the plague vanished from Seattle, having killed an estimated 1,400 among a population of 315,000, a relatively low mortality rate. Other cities were less lucky.

Learning to See: Swimming Between Worlds


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Review: Swimming Between Worlds, by Elaine Neil Orr
Berkley, 2018. 382 pp. $16

Tacker Hart, former high school football star and would-be architect, has gone to Nigeria on a plum assignment for a private company, only to be summarily dismissed, practically kidnapped, and sent home to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The year is 1959, and momentous change is in the wind, though Tacker doesn’t sense it.

He senses little of anything, feeling adrift and angry and missing Nigeria, a place whose ways and atmosphere swallowed him whole. He’s barely put together that the Black society he admired in Africa would be forced to the back of the bus in his hometown. Moody and distraught, Tacker moves out of his parents’ house, persuades his father to let him manage one of two grocery stores Dad owns, and doesn’t know where he’s going, or why.

Two encounters give him purpose. First, he runs into Kate Morton, whom he remembers vaguely from high school, and picks up signals of common ground:

Still it seemed he was on vacation from the real point of living, a point he could only vaguely have described, though it had something to do with putting oneself at the edge of the world and staying there long enough to imagine something absolutely new. Outside, wind herded a curve of clouds at the far edge of sky and the air smelled of tobacco. The sidewalk was dark from the night’s rain and fall leaves lay sleeping on the pavement. Here and there morning light fell in dazzling sprees. Tacker felt the key in his pocket, cool and solid against his knuckles. He’d be happy to see Kate Monroe drop by again. She’d seemed as dazed by her present life as he felt about his.

Second, Tacker defends a Black customer, Gaines Townson, from a beating by several toughs in front of his store — Gaines has crossed an invisible line by shopping there. Subsequently, Tacker hires Gaines to work in the store, not realizing that his new employee has become active in the Civil Rights movement, participating in sit-ins at lunch counters. Nor does Tacker know that Kate, to whom he’s attracted more and more, distrusts the movement and Blacks in general.

Three protesters sit in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, Durham, North Carolina, February 1960 (courtesy North Carolina state archives, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Swimming Between Worlds stands out in several significant ways. Orr does a terrific job capturing how adulthood confuses the two prospective romantic partners. They’re both difficult, oversensitive, wary, aching from loneliness, and expert at driving people away. Kate, at least, has a more conventional excuse: Her mother, her sole surviving parent, has died, and Kate lives in her house, with its memories and societal burdens (her parents possessed status and therefore a code to live up to). As part of that legacy, the place contains letters her mother wanted her to burn. Big hint: Kate disobeys and is knocked for a loop.

Kate also has a suitor who’s doing his medical residency, and whom she’s not sure she wants to marry, yet doesn’t see what other choice in life she has. Marrying the doctor would give her social position and security but pigeonhole her as her husband’s reflection. I like how Orr portrays this dilemma while introducing Kate’s growing interest in photography, the pursuit that gives her something of her own, without overplaying it.

As you might surmise, the author shows you her characters’ flaws straight out. You lose patience with Tacker and Kate regularly, and nothing between them goes neatly. For instance, there’s a great scene when the medical resident shows up unexpectedly at a birthday party to which his rival has also been invited. Nor does the author protect her characters in other ways, for they suffer deep losses.

From a moral point of view, essential in a story like this, the sit-ins narrative doesn’t try too hard, just the right touch. Tacker’s no better than he should be, no liberal in hiding. It’s not immediately apparent to him how Blacks endure bigotry as second-class citizens, and how, if they seek ordinary pleasures he takes for granted — sitting down to eat at a lunch counter, for instance — they take their lives in their hands. Kate, too frightened even to contemplate what segregation means, argues with Tacker about it, though she comes around, eventually.

I’m less taken with Gaines’s portrayal. He seems one-dimensional, passionate about the cause and little else, as though he were merely a plot device. Indeed, he brings Tacker messages from the front lines and articles from Black newspapers, all of which prompt action. It’s also curious how easily Tacker, who has a quick temper that often gets him in trouble, tolerates Gaines’s jibes and lets him act as his conscience, his goad.

Then again, Tacker’s characterization in general sometimes feels stilted, particularly toward the beginning. The text often “explains” him, which strikes me as odd, given the care Orr takes with emotional resonance, as with her artful descriptions. Regarding the storytelling, though I like the Nigerian narrative in itself (and am reminded of my years in Africa), both the unnecessary prologue set there and one later section feel shoehorned in.

Still, Swimming Between Worlds is a thought-provoking novel, a human story full of feeling with an unexpected twist or two. It’s well worth your time.

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

Lost Child: We Must Be Brave


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Review: We Must Be Brave, by Frances Liardet
Putnam, 2019. 452 pp. $27

When German bombs fall on Southampton, England, in December 1940, the stream of homeless refugees reaching Upton, fifteen miles away, includes a six-year-old girl. According to the tag on her clothes, she’s Pamela Pickering, but no one accompanies her or shepherds her to Upton. It seems a couple women told her to get on a particular bus, or maybe it was her mother.

But circumstances don’t immediately matter, for little Pamela has nowhere to go and, as you might expect, is very upset. Consequently, young Ellen Parr, recently married to the much older owner of the local grain mill, takes the child in, along with other evacuees. For the moment.

Lower High Street, Southampton, after German bombing raids, early December 1940 (courtesy Ministry of Information and Imperial War Museum,, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

You need not be clairvoyant to imagine how long that moment will stretch. Ellen’s attempts to trace Pamela’s surviving kin come to nothing, except to learn that the child’s mother died in an air raid, and her father hasn’t been in the picture for a while. Ellen’s husband, Selwyn, tries a little harder to find Pamela’s family; he doesn’t want the girl to remain, even after the other people they’re sheltering leave.

But he’s the soul of kindness, and he can’t help notice how attached Ellen has become to Pamela. He’s also keenly aware that he’s nearly twice Ellen’s age, and since the previous war left him impotent because of shell shock, she won’t have a child any other way. Nevertheless, you still need no crystal ball to guess that Pamela’s a borrowed child.

Like Selwyn, We Must Be Brave is kind and gentle despite the trying, bloody times, a reminder that war often brings out the best in people, not just the worst. The theme is rescue, what it means and how it works in two directions, for the motherless Pamela rescues Ellen too. To Liardet’s credit, she makes Pamela a difficult, if rewarding, charge — willful, disobedient, mercurial, capable of selfishness, yet passionate, resilient, and creative, the sort of child adults love to learn from. Ellen, though unsure of herself as a mother, understands right away that parenting is the art of the possible.

I like Liardet’s prose too, which, without attracting attention, conveys Ellen as a keen observer. This is warm, practical writing, like the narrator herself:

Somewhere in her sleeping mind she’d found a place without grief and knowledge, huddled into it like a mouse into a bole of a tree. I encircled her with my arms for five minutes or so, and she smelled of warm dry brushed cotton, and something else, that somewhat salty aroma of newly baked bread I had noticed when I lifted her off the seat of the bus. What was it? Her heated skin, her hair at the nape of her neck? I didn’t know.

Two aspects of We Must Be Brave trouble me. The first is Selwyn. I don’t understand why Ellen marries him; he seems more like a kindly, older brother, occasionally paternal, than a husband. Moreover, without a second thought, the night of Pamela’s arrival, Ellen places her in the marital bed — perhaps not surprising, but she keeps doing so. Maybe that persistence doesn’t surprise, either, but Selwyn has no reaction. That’s peculiar.

His sexual incapability resulting from the war — a trope, there — would make objections more difficult to lodge, yet he should have feelings about the interloper, I think. Is Ellen afraid of or repelled by sex? Not clear, so it’s hard to say whether she’s just not interested. The narrative suggests that, but for the war, the newlyweds would have happily led a childless life, traveling often, unencumbered. But exactly where her feelings lie never comes through, except when, years later, a friend makes a tactless, if accurate, remark about him.

Perhaps to explain Ellen’s attraction to Selwyn, the narrative backtracks to her excruciating childhood with a snobbish mother, a deadbeat father who falls into financial ruin and abandons them, and the grinding poverty that follows. That’s problem number two. I get that Selwyn’s kindness and stability offer Ellen what she lacked, and her hand-to-mouth existence then, told in unsparing detail, hits home. But that section, rather too long by half, still doesn’t persuade me about Selwyn — or at least, Ellen might entertain regrets, now and then — and slows the narrative.

In a novel like this, endgame matters perhaps more than in most, and though I get uncomfortable when the story wanders too close to modern times — not my taste —Liardet brings her narrative to a satisfying conclusion. We Must Be Brave is one of those novels that will speak to you after you’ve finished it.

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

Blackmail and Murder: Hot Time


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Review: Hot Time, by W. H. Flint
Arcade, 2022. 267 pp. $27

August 1896 witnesses a record “hot wave” in New York City, as the newspapers call it, searing temperatures that kill thousands of people as well as horses that drop in harness, blocking the streets. Political temperatures run almost as high, as a presidential election campaign prepares for its autumn stretch. William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate opposing William McKinley, will speak at Madison Square Garden, expected to draw an overflow crowd, and the police have uncovered purported plans by anarchists to stage a violent demonstration there, maybe even to kill Bryan.

Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who makes little secret of his ambitions to ride McKinley’s coattails to a coveted government post, perhaps with the Navy Department, is also trying to weed out the corruption among New York’s constabulary. Aiding him in this Herculean task is Otto (Rafe) Raphael, the first Jew to wear the uniform of New York’s Finest, and Minnie Gertrude Kelly, the department’s first woman stenographer.

Jacob Riis and Theodore Roosevelt tour the slums, 1894 (from Riis’s book, The Making of an American, 1901, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Complicating matters is William d’Alton Mann, whose dead body has been found near the Brooklyn Bridge. The police report ascribes the motive to robbery, and Commissioner Roosevelt accepts the judgment, even when Rafe, who’s had the chance to investigate on his own — overstepping his authority — points out a key fact. Mann’s gold cufflinks, likely the most valuable items on his person, remained untouched.

What’s more, Mann was an infamous blackmailer, gathering poisonous secrets about the rich and powerful, perhaps even Commissioner Roosevelt himself, and threatening to print them unless sizable sums are paid. Rafe, who admires Roosevelt without being blind to his faults, doesn’t know what to think — and keeps digging.

For me, the chief pleasure of Hot Time is the political and social atmosphere. Flint, a pseudonym for a well-known historian of the Gilded Age, has lovingly re-created that era and many of its figures, well-known or otherwise, the latter including the blackmailer, our inquisitive constable, and ground-breaking stenographer (though the author has taken license with biographical fact).

It’s not just that J.P. Morgan, Mark Hanna (senator, kingmaker, and McKinley’s handler), Bryan, and Jacob Riis, the reporter who exposes the degradation of New York’s slums (and wrote How the Other Half Lives), float through these pages. Flint has underlined how even reformers like Riis disliked and distrusted immigrants, Jews especially, and how the populist Bryan wanted the United States to close its borders.

I’m a little surprised that Flint has ignored Tammany Hall, which ran the police department like a fiefdom and brought about the corruption Roosevelt’s trying to counter. (I’m also curious about how Tammany, a Democratic machine, would have viewed a candidate who wore the right party emblem but opposed immigration, to which the organization owed its roots and power. Maybe too complex for a mystery novel.) But otherwise, the author portrays an engaging portrait of a time when bigotry and fears sound all too familiar to us today.

I also like the depiction of New York itself, of the Lower East Side and what was then “uptown,” the area in the lower Thirties. Flint brings to life the hard existence of newsboys, usually homeless young children, whose welfare was one of Roosevelt’s pet causes. One boy, called Dutch, figures heavily in the story:

At the Bowery, [Rafe] crossed under the elevated tracks, grateful for a moment’s respite from the sun. His usual newsboy was on the corner. Brown hair stuck out from under his woolen cap, and he stood with a habitual hunch, like a stray dog wondering whether the next passerby was good for a handout or a boot in the ribs.

But Hot Time, though intriguing as a historical novel, falters as a mystery. The narrative implies the killer’s identity fairly early on; only the motive remains unclear, and though it turns out to be politically satisfying, I find it somewhat hard to credit. The real tension comes from remarkable chase scenes involving Dutch’s acrobatics, and though they’re hair-raising, I wanted more of a puzzle. It’s as though the narrative can’t decide whether it’s a mystery or thriller.

As a detective, Rafe is dogged, intelligent, and good-hearted. There’s a whisper of attraction between him and Minnie, the stenographer, which can go nowhere, for religious reasons. For the most part, I believe Rafe’s Jewishness — thank you, Mr. Flint — and his family’s living conditions seem real too.

However, certain conversations feel like information dumps, and I wish Rafe’s interior narration depended less on rhetorical questions, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a row. Whenever an author resorts to that device, I sense a perceived need to remind the reader what’s been learned (or not) and uncertainty as to how best to convey this, except in shorthand.

Consequently, if you read Hot Time, concentrate on the atmosphere and the derring-do, and you’ll see the narrative in its best light.

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

Soft-Rock Sixties: Songs in Ursa Major


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Review: Songs in Ursa Major, by Emma Brodie
Knopf, 2021. 324 pp. $27

It’s summer 1969, and the Island Folk Fest awaits the arrival and performance of Jesse Reid, the hottest up-and-coming star of the folk-rock music scene. The fictional Bayleen Island, perhaps a look-alike for Martha’s Vineyard, has always been a tourist destination, and the festival is jammed, having drawn musical artists from all over.

But the locals have serious talent to boast too. Jane Quinn, nineteen, blonde, and preternaturally gifted as a singer and acoustic guitarist, leads her band, the Breakers, to open for Jesse Reid. Except that Jesse crashes his motorcycle, leaving the Breakers to hold center stage — and suddenly, the out-of-town music honchos want to know who this girl is. Assuming she’s marketable.

But as Jane quickly learns, the path to stardom is paved with broken bottles and barbed wire. Yes, once Jesse’s injuries have healed, Pegasus, his label, hires the Breakers to go on tour with his band, opening for them once more. But when it’s rumored that she and Jesse are an item, she can’t tell whether the Breakers, and her, have value for themselves or as the satellite revolving around planet Jesse.

Woodstock, August 1969 (courtesy Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

At its best, Songs in Ursa Major offers an intimate view of the cut-and-thrust politics within the music industry, especially those chapters told through the eyes of a Pegasus executive and a sound engineer. I also like the passages in which Jane searches for musical inspiration; the lyrics she composes not only reflect her life and experiences, they remind me of the songs I listened to as a teenager. I see more than a hint of Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell, credibly rendered, and I catch an occasional phrase that seems borrowed from my favorite Mitchell album, Blue. The book title, after one of Jane’s songs, is catchy and spot-on. Brodie knows her music.

The author also captures the artist’s dilemma, how to receive the attention and validation she deserves because of her talent while fending off all attempts to own her, reshape her, and turn her into cash, with no regard for aesthetics or her sensibilities. That seems all too real. Less real, perhaps, is how Jane, with no musical training whatsoever — Jesse teaches her to read notes — can pick up almost any instrument and make sophisticated music with it. At age nineteen. Even Mozart took lessons, though I suppose poetic license covers that contingency.

More seriously, I don’t see the Sixties. Vietnam might be referred to twice, parenthetically, and the assassinations and upheavals of ’68 not at all. Since much music from that era spoke with political intent, I’m startled, but it’s not the headlines I’m missing. I don’t sense that Sixties vibe, the feeling in the air that once-accepted beliefs and ways of living must either be thrown away or reinforced. Not everybody wanted change, but you took a position, one way or another. In this narrative, though, no one even cares.

Much else in Songs in Ursa Major feels generic, beginning with the prose. Consider the first page, when a music groupie offers a visiting correspondent a joint:

His exhale became a brushstroke inside an Impressionist painting; swirls of smoke rose in the salty air, tanned limbs and youthful faces interweaving like daisy chains across the meadow. He handed the joint back to the girl and watched her skip into a ring of hippies. Someone had a conga; thrift-store nymphs began dancing to an asynchronous rhythm.

The language, though vivid, feels empty, without emotional resonance. It’s a formulaic rendition of a scene, shorthand for an era in some people’s minds—especially those who didn’t live through it—and though it’s just one descriptive paragraph, it’s representative. So many sentences begin, “She felt…” that at one point, I flipped back to the title page to make sure this book had come from Knopf, the quintessential literary publisher. If a writer can’t show why her protagonist is hurt or angry or what that looks like, I don’t feel it. Involving a reader requires complexity, not shortcuts or buzzwords.

The same holds for the love interest between Jesse and Jane. For a while, I thought I was reading a formula romance — girl and boy lock eyes, go to bed shortly thereafter — but luckily, significant shifts occur, and much goes wrong. Even so, the sex scenes read like a Hollywood fantasy, and, within the love affair, the author withholds the truth behind a crucial secret so as to derive maximum shock value. That’s a trend, these days, I guess, but it’s not credible, and though the revelation surprises me, I feel cheated.

Read Songs in Ursa Major, if you will, for its seamy, appalling glimpse of music moguls. In other ways, I find the novel a disappointment.

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

Parenting advice, World War I era


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Here’s another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

My protagonist, Rollie Birch, returns from Over There in 1919 and scandalizes the town that reveres him as a war hero by choosing to raise his infant daughter by himself. So I looked for a parenting book from those years to see what advice the experts were dishing out.

The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children’s Nurses, appeared in multiple editions before, during, and after the war, the most popular guide of its time. The author, L. Emmett Holt, MD, offered rigorous instructions for pasteurizing raw milk—the only kind available—at 155˚ F. for thirty minutes, in which case you had to use it within twenty-four hours, or boiled one hour, in which case the milk would keep two or three weeks.

Luther Emmett Holt, MD, eminent pediatrician, championed pasteurization, unusual for his time, and eugenics, a more mainstream position (no date; courtesy National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Either way, the stuff must have tasted mighty appetizing. Such were the days before flash heating, but you had no choice; back then, so many babies died from milk containing pathogens.

As for hands-on childcare, Holt counseled feeding on a strict schedule and deplored the instinct to pick up a fussing infant; no healthy baby, he averred, would cry for more than twenty minutes. (Rollie’s daughter ignores this rule.) Further, the doctor warned against playing with children younger than six months, which would make them nervous and irritable, and disliked the notion of playing with infants at all.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he cautioned against kissing infants, even on the cheek or forehead, for fear of transmitting diphtheria, tuberculosis, syphilis, and other diseases.

Rollie reads this and laughs.

Love Triangle: If You Leave Me


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Review: If You Leave Me, by Crystal Hana Kim
Morrow, 2018. 418 pp. $27

When Communist-aided forces in northern Korea invade the south, sixteen-year-old Haemi, her mother, and young brother, Hyunki, who’s tubercular, flee for their lives on foot. A year later, in 1951, the refugee family lives a precarious existence in Busan, a seaport nestled in the tip of the Korean Peninsula. Haemi goes to school and is bright enough to stay with it, if she wants.

But education is makeshift, and in a country invaded and a war that seems destined to remain a fruitless stalemate, even educated women have little scope. Besides, who can imagine a rosy, far-off future when tomorrow, and the next day, hunger will wrack your body and spirit the same way it does today?

The Busan-Seoul road, a supply lifeline–but mostly for the military (courtesy U.S. Army and via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As a form of escape, Haemi sneaks out at night to drink moonshine with Kyunghwan, a handsome, slightly older boy she’s known all her life. These risky outings, which she has to balance with her responsibilities for Hyunki’s care — the boy’s cough is alarming — provide another danger. Physically attracted to Kyunghwan, Haemi believes he shares her feelings and wants him to declare himself.

But he won’t, and when her mother pushes her to accept a marriage proposal from Jisoo, Kyunghwan’s cousin, because he has more money and better prospects, the girl agrees. The boys go off to war, and Haemi waits for her life to begin, though as a nurse’s assistant at a military hospital, she glimpses a path that she wishes she could follow.

An old story, a love triangle, and for at least the first half of If You Leave Me, Kim makes her narrative seem like a fresh take. It’s not just Haemi’s existence that’s precarious — it’s Korea’s — and the presence of the American “liberators” cuts in several directions. I like this part of the novel the best, in which Korean aspirations for freedom and prosperity, represented by the characters’ dreams, run up against poverty, desperation, and brutal circumstance. How these people carve out niches for themselves, or try to, makes compelling reading. Throughout, those who have money can skate through; those who don’t may well be beating their heads against a concrete wall.

Kim’s prose, sparse, carefully observed, and devoted to moment-to-moment gesture and feeling, fits the story like a glove. Consider this passage early on, when Jisoo becomes Haemi’s suitor, and the girl’s living situation moves him:

On my earlier visits, I’d never been allowed beyond the front door.… The sitting room was spare, more miserable than I’d expected. The hanji paper had been ripped off the walls and windows, revealing bare clay and open frames. But I appreciated their effort to make it a home. A bowl of dried flowers decorated a small desk. Straw floor cushions were piled neatly in a corner. The open windows brought in a soft breeze. I smiled. “A real home. You’re lucky.”

Unfortunately, If You Leave Me loses momentum a few years after the war, when Haemi and Jisoo have children, while Kyunghwan has searched about for a successful career. Part of my impatience comes from how I see the characters, whose appeal wears thin after a while. Haemi, frustrated by her role as wife and mother, wants more and dreams of Kyunghwan, even though she knows it’s not a man she needs but a larger life. Her bitterness and mercurial moods upset everyone, and you want her to act. But this is midcentury Korea, so she’s trapped.

Jisoo, marked by his wartime experiences, can’t listen to her (or anyone else) and expects obedience. That’s an important cultural and political comment, and perhaps why Kim wrote her novel, but a theme isn’t a story, and I want to see other sides to him, to have this conflict go somewhere. As for Kyunghwan, he can’t befriend anyone for real, pleasant as he can be sometimes, so he too remains at a distance. Will he or won’t he visit his old friends? And if he does, what will happen? The answers are fairly predictable, yet still constrained by societal rules.

Finally, as the characters settle into their prescribed roles, the narrative presents a lot of back-and-forth, especially marital quarrels, that feels repetitive, both in action and theme. The almost constant argumentation seldom gets beyond You’re selfish; no, you’re selfish. That’s too bad, because the historical background, unfamiliar to me and probably to most Americans, furnishes an excellent atmosphere for what Kim wishes to say, and if she pushed the envelope a little, maybe the characters would have taken a leap.

If You Leave Me is her first novel. I hope the author’s future efforts develop her readily apparent gifts.

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

“Lag”: Shepherd


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Review: Shepherd, by Catherine Jinks
Text Publishing, 2019. 226 pp. $30 AU

New South Wales, 1840. Tom Clay, transported to Australia at age twelve for poaching in Suffolk, has always loved animals and been good with them. It’s people he has trouble with, especially the murderous types British courts have inflicted on their infant colony in the name of justice. But as long as Tom can stick to tending sheep at the outpost station, he’s got a loyal dog, Gyp, and life’s not so bad.

John Oxley’s chart of part of the New South Wales interior, 1822, from Moreton Bay to Port Philip (courtesy State Library of New South Wales Z/Cc 82/1-3, via Wikimedia Commons)

Trouble is, Dan Carver, a fellow employee of the same rancher, has killed a couple of their coworkers and seems to be just getting started on the others. Consequently, young Tom, who, by rights, should be learning his letters in an English school, has to move fast to save his skin and that of Rowdy Cavanaugh, a glib jokester whose crime in England was passing counterfeit coin. His garrulousness, which he either can’t control or doesn’t care to, makes stealthy movement difficult if not impossible, and may cost Tom and him their lives.

I should add that the phrase by rights doesn’t exist for criminals like Tom, or for anyone else sent to Australia for punishment — “lagged,” it’s called. Therefore, even if Tom somehow manages to evade Carver and alert the rancher, he’s likely as not to hang for Carver’s murders. Nobody believes a “lag,” and when it’s one lag’s word against another, the stronger, older man will likely prevail.

As you may have guessed, this excellent thriller — I defy you to start it and put it down — has more to offer than unending sequences of “no — and furthermore,” gripping though they are. Shepherd tells the grisly, heart-breaking story of how lags come to Australia, or how Tom does, and the various stratagems he must employ to stay alive, let alone avoid flogging or any other casual brutality his masters may devise.

In beautifully crafted, brief flashbacks that seamlessly flow with the main narrative, you learn about the boy’s harrowing sea journey from England, the filthy so-called majesty of the law, and his dreadful childhood in a family of poachers: “I don’t think I’ve slept easy since I was in my mother’s womb.” Shepherd spares nothing, yet I never find the violence gratuitous or sense it’s included for shock value.

I wish the novel didn’t start with a prologue, and Jinks doesn’t need to tell the reader what’s coming, because her first chapter pulls you in right away. However, I like the writing in the prologue, which shows you much about young Tom in few words:

When I first came here, I thought it a cruel affliction to walk through a wood and not know what bird was singing, or which plants were safe to eat. Now I understand it’s more than an affliction; it’s certain death.
I see nothing around me that I can properly name. Ferns. Vines. Bushes. Trees that shed their bark instead of their leaves. Flowers with spikes instead of petals.
I’m going to die wordless, in a lonely hollow in a strange land. I’m going to die among beasts that I don’t understand and plants that have killed me.

The passage suggests both the author’s gift for spare, direct prose and characterization: “I’m going to die among beasts I don’t understand and plants that kill me.” For Tom’s a born tracker, the one advantage he possesses in his attempt to escape Carver or get the drop on him — plans and circumstances change rapidly. How the boy copes with the natural world would make a novel in itself, for his knowledge and ingenuity constantly surprise; yet, as the prologue says, he’s conscious of what he doesn’t know.

His skill and humility set him apart from the other colonists. He’s also alone in his admiration for the Black indigenous people and their understanding of the land, flora, and fauna. He fears them too, because of what they might do, though Carver’s and their boss’s treatment of them troubles Tom. There’s muted social commentary in that as well, and though the indigenous folk linger on the fringes of the narrative, you sense them watching the whites act like maniacs.

This slim volume has a lot going for it — a lightning-paced story, a landscape physically rendered in emotionally resonant detail, and a teenager fighting not only for his life, but to live decently, in a place where no one understands the concept. Few Australian novels reach our shores, unfortunately, unless a major house picks them up. I wish more Americans knew about this small press in Melbourne, Text, which has given us Shepherd and also A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville.

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

Firing a Seattle teacher


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Here’s another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

In late February 1919, the Seattle Times reported that someone had run an advertisement attacking a West Seattle High School history teacher for being a “Hun” and “un-American.” The first charge almost certainly stemmed from ignorance concerning his name; he was Swiss, not German. As for his “Americanism,” he had declined to salute the flag, a refusal he ascribed to the ceremony itself, and which he’d later recanted.

However, he was also an avowed conscientious objector; his enemies said he “fed ideas” to his classes.

A blind poll among his ninety or so students showed a twenty-to-one margin of support. Nevertheless, the school board fired him, saying that they couldn’t have a conscientious objector as a teacher; what if everyone had been a conscientious objector when the nation declared war?

The newspaper reports leave much unsaid, as they always do. But you sense that the teacher’s real crime was encouraging his students to think critically, which the vast majority of them appreciated.

Men registering for the draft in New York City, June 5, 1917 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

What’s more, according to the Selective Service Act of 1917 and its revisions, he’d most likely done nothing wrong. If he’d passed his thirtieth birthday, he wouldn’t have had to register for the draft until mid-September 1918, and not at all if he’d reached the age of forty-five. Further, failing to register would have attracted attention and left him open to punishment, yet the newspaper reports said nothing about this. Finally, the act did allow for conscientious objection, though only on religious grounds.

Consequently, I’m guessing this teacher’s viewpoint was entirely theoretical, maybe spoken of in class to spark discussion. With nothing else to hang him for, his enemies fixed on it, and the school board went along.

So much for academic freedom and the war to make the world safe for democracy.

The Price of Revenge: The Blood Covenant


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Review: The Blood Covenant, by Chris Nickson
Severn, 2021. 212 pp. $29

Leeds, 1823. Simon Westow, a thief-taker, meaning someone who retrieves stolen goods for a fee, hears from a doctor friend about two deaths that disturb him deeply. A pair of young boys has been murdered, apparently by a factory overseer. Leeds, starting to gain a reputation for its textile mills, witnesses a great deal of industrial child abuse. That’s because children, hired to scoot below the machinery to perform certain tasks, rebel against the long hours of exhausting labor, and the foremen don’t spare the rod.

J. M. W. Turner’s 1816 watercolor, Leeds (courtesy Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons)

Since Simon himself just managed to escape that life and has two young boys of his own, the news of the deaths causes him sleepless nights. On one such, he goes for a walk and happens on a young man, throat cut and hand severed, being pulled from the river.

Despite Simon’s curiosity and principles, none of this need have anything to do with him. Leeds mill owners are beyond the law, for this is early nineteenth-century England, and money buys many things, including constables and magistrates. And Simon, though he’s investigated murders before, prefers to stick to thief-taking, a less dangerous, better-paying proposition — not to mention he’s recovering, slowly, from an illness for which a doctor friend has no name.

But when circumstances connect the boys’ deaths and that of the man pulled from the river — none too convincingly, I might add — Simon begins to probe all these crimes, hoping to find a measure of justice in a society where the word has little meaning. Before he’s done, many bodies will fall, mostly in hand-to-hand combat, of which The Blood Covenant provides many scenes. Leeds is one rough town, and if you wish to live out your portion of natural days, you’d best keep a well-sharpened knife in your pocket and know how to use it.

Nickson, the author of the excellent mystery series featuring the Leeds policeman Tom Harper, set toward the end of the century, has once again shown the gritty side of a cruel city. How people managed to live in that place back then makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That the disenfranchised receive no protection from the law goes without saying. Further, Nickson reminds readers about the evils of the factory system, which remain with us, if in different forms, if in sweatshops overseas.

Nevertheless, though the first three installments in this series may deserve the name mystery — I haven’t read them — this fourth volume doesn’t. Few puzzles emerge demanding solution, or, to put it another way, every question has an answer easily obtainable by putting a coin in the proper palm. Rather, the narrative offers a progression of violent confrontations, as the evildoers will stop at nothing to have their way. That requires our hero to remain vigilant, constantly looking over his shoulder, and he must dig deeply into his resolve and skill. Consequently, given that framework and the public stakes of justice for those who never receive any, The Blood Covenant feels more like a thriller.

Mystery or thriller, the chief pleasure here, aside from the historical atmosphere, is the plot, which moves rapidly. The characters, though, seem flat to me, either all good or all bad, with one crucial exception — Jane, Simon’s friend and associate, whose street smarts, surveillance skills, and knife handling put his in the shade. A nice reversal, there, and Jane’s inner conflicts offer complexity too. Raped by her father at a young age, then pushed onto the street, she has a particular view of life that stands out in even this novel of death and heartbreak.

As for the storytelling, I prefer the Harper novels, though again, I admit that The Blood Covenant may be an outlier within its series. The narrative tells far more often than it shows, sometimes to state or repeat the obvious. The descriptions have little or no emotional resonance, precise though they may be in detail, as with this one, about a mill owner’s home:

It was a room to impress guests, decorated in the finest taste that money could purchase: a wallpaper of pale, comforting blue and white stripes, an oil painting of a naval battle hanging over the mantel, long-clock ticking soft and serene in the corner. The chairs were upholstered in deep blue velvet. A plush Turkey rug covered the polished floorboards. It was all understated, a dignified announcement that Arden had arrived, that he was respectably rich these days. It was exactly what people expected from a house in Park Square.

Nickson plainly has a cause, and a worthy one, about wealth perverting the law. The pages do turn easily, as you wonder how Simon will finesse or force his way past the barriers that keep getting placed in his path. But if you read The Blood Covenant, you may find the theme and story the most rewarding aspects of the novel.

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