Our Natures, and That of Love: To Calais, in Ordinary Time

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Review: To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek
Canongate, 2019. 400 pp. $27

The summer of 1348, the quiet Cotswold village of Outen Green simmers with unexpected happenings. Lady Bernadine (Berna) Corbet, daughter of the manor, is due to wed a much older man she detests, while the groom’s own daughter will wed Sir Guy Corbet, Berna’s father. A loathsome arrangement, to be sure, but Sir Guy’s word is law. Berna hoped that her preferred suitor, Laurence Haket, would spirit her away — according to the chivalric Romance of the Rose, which she adores, he should have — but Laurence seems to love his dignity more than he does Berna.

Will Quate, a plowman and archer bonded to Sir Guy, has been recruited to join a troop of bowmen raised by Laurence to accompany him to Calais, where Laurence has a fiefdom. Will’s betrothed pleads with Will to stay and doesn’t understand why he refuses. She assumes that it’s because she had a stillborn child by another man, but that’s not why. Sir Guy has promised to release Will from his bond if he serves one year, and Will, no fool, has dared demand that promise in writing, even though he can’t read.

Unlettered though he is, however, he can imagine what freedom means, and not just in the sense that leaving Sir Guy’s lands without permission is a hanging offense. An unusual, fascinating character in historical fiction of the medieval era, Will dares hope for an as-yet undefined future, what his neighbors would never dream of—though when he hears the word possibility, he has to ask what it means, which is telling.

You sense that Will and Berna will drive parallel narratives, and that the nature of love will be a significant theme. As one wise character says, “Love is whatever remains once one has made an accommodation with fate.” Since the description of the plague rumored to have afflicted France (what the characters call “the qualm”) recalls the Black Death, which also fits the timing, you can guess that how people behave during a pandemic will matter here too. The novel, published last year, isn’t prescient, though it may seem so; rather, it’s that pandemics share certain qualities. But the similarities are striking and instructive, nonetheless.

The Battle of Calais, 1350, as it appeared in Jean Froissart’s chronicles, 1410 (courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons)

With that as background, Meek’s folk hash out good and evil; the nature of gender; sin and redemption; the fear of, and violence toward, women; desire and obstacles to satisfaction; what knowledge and truth mean. Throw in sidelines like anti-Semitism and whether the English archers who destroyed the French nobility at the Battle of Crécy betrayed the social order, and you begin to see how rich and complex this novel is.

I love Meek’s characters; major or minor, they come through in full. One favorite is Thomas, a scholar who joins the expedition to Calais nominally as a churchman, though he has no power to perform the sacraments, which becomes an issue. But he serves admirably as a mediator amid the constant squabbles and moral dilemmas that arise, and he unsettles his companions — especially the archers, a rough lot — by defining and clarifying issues rather than offering solutions or justifying the behavior he’s been asked to judge. He’s a moral relativist, in other words, frightening to fourteenth-century minds. A later generation might think of him also as a therapist.

Except for the educated characters’ narration, Meek tells his story in archaic English, which he apparently culled from the OED, and which appears in unfamiliar rhythms. That takes getting used to, until the usages begin to make sense: for example, neb for nose, steven for voice, lolled for hanged. Consequently, Meek creates a language barrier between high-born and low, part of his exploration of social class. But it’s also beautiful prose poetry:

The priest said man’s lot wasn’t to choose his dreams, nor win of them, and dreams fell upon us, like wild deer in darkness, while we slept. Yet there were some folk who warded their dreams, as shepherds warded sheep, and kept them as easy by day as by night, and won of them, as of their herd shepherds won wool. These folk, he said were called writers, and they were close to the Fiend.

The cheeky humor typifies To Calais, which has its uproarious, bawdy moments. But if you’re thinking Chaucer, as I did at first, this narrative only partly resembles “The Miller’s Tale.” A great deal of casual violence occurs, and the circumstances of a gang-rape, which happened in the past, figure heavily in the narrative.

At times, I find Thomas the scholar’s moral reasoning too modern, satisfying though it is. There’s also a deathbed epiphany that strikes me as implausible. But To Calais, in Ordinary Time offers so many pleasures that flaws like these don’t get in the way. I highly recommend this novel.

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

Shame: Paris Never Leaves You

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Review: Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman
St. Martin’s, 2020. 347 pp. $18

Ten years after Paris was liberated, Charlotte Foret lives in New York but is still in chains. No one’s threatening her anymore; she has her beloved daughter, Vivi, now fourteen; and a career as an editor at a prestigious publishing house, Gibbon & Field. Her boss, Horace Field, is also her landlord, for the Forets live in his East Side brownstone.

Further, Horace and his wife, Hannah, sponsored Charlotte and Vivi to come to the United States after their internment at Drancy, the camp in the Paris suburbs that was a way-station to Auschwitz. Charlotte loves her job and is grateful for the apartment and the sponsorship, but the arrangement feels more than a little awkward, especially since Hannah, a psychoanalyst, has plenty of parenting advice to give, though she herself is childless.

As the novel opens, these threads threaten to unravel, first via a letter from Bogotá that she can’t bear to read. (Melodramatic, but okay, I’ll bite.) More plausibly, Vivi asks about her heritage, specifically about her father, killed in the war, and what it means to be Jewish.

But Charlotte has always said that it took Hitler to make her a Jew, and she wants no part of such explorations. Charlotte’s so adamant, so resolutely opposed to reflection on or discussion of her past — their past, for Vivi lived through the war too — that you have to wonder whether psychoanalyst Hannah has a point. Charlotte’s not only too tightly wrapped, she’s a lousy mother, forbidding her child to discover her identity. To all and sundry, however, Charlotte says, with truth, You weren’t there, so you don’t know.

Even now, in her dreams, she heard Vivi crying, not the childish whimpers and sobs of temporary discomfort but a shrieking rage born of an empty belly, and chilled-through bones, and the agony of rashes and bites and festering sores. Sometimes the crying in the dream was so loud that it wrenched her awake, and she sprang out of bed before she realized the sound was only in her head.

But Charlotte’s memory of Vivi’s sufferings is by no means the whole truth. Paris Never Leaves You excels as a moral tale, for Charlotte’s secret feels so shameful to her that she believes — with reason — that to confess it would make her a pariah. Specifics here would spoil the suspense; once more, I advise against reading the jacket flap, clever and subtle though it is.

Feldman brings alive Paris under the Occupation, as she does New York publishing, some scenes of which are positively delicious. In Charlotte and Horace, she’s created two memorable characters, and the dialogue between them crackles like a moral duel, full of challenge and riposte. Horace wants, nay, demands that Charlotte think and reflect on who she is and what she believes, and as a result, the novel pushes the reader to do the same. That’s what Paris Never Leaves You has to offer.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll have to overlook several flaws, starting with the bland title, which sounds like the compromise offspring of a deadlocked editorial meeting, and the cover, which says nothing except, “See, here’s the Eiffel Tower, so guess where this story takes place?”

More seriously, a key aspect of Charlotte’s secret seems historically implausible, despite what the author maintains in an afterword. I don’t believe the circumstances permitting the premise could have existed for so long, if at all. And even if you take Feldman at her word, there’s Vivi, who’s too sweet, calm, and reasonable for fourteen, and who bears nary a psychological scratch from her wartime early childhood. No nightmares, no tics, no fears, just perfectly adjusted.

As for psychological thinking, I’m tired of reading about dictatorial, heartless psychoanalysts, especially those who sleep with their analysands. It’s also unnecessary, here. Feldman didn’t have to make Hannah an expert—it takes no letters after your name to know that teenagers are trying to figure out who they are–and Hannah’s involvement in Charlotte’s life, particularly her friendship with Vivi, give her standing to sound off.

It’s also odd that nobody, not even Horace, asks Charlotte how she can feel so intensely about literature, an art that lives within reflection and self-examination, yet refuse to look at herself. To do so, of course, would reveal the exact cause of her shame, and though Feldman derives tension from that secret, Charlotte can’t even think about what she has to hide, or the reader will know. That contrivance makes me ask whether Charlotte could have spelled out the secret in interior narrative early on, which would invite the reader deeper into her dilemma, a more generous approach, and perhaps a more genuine characterization.

Still, I think the moral framework stands out, and Paris Never Leaves You may be worth your time because of it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Rough Work: The Molten City

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Review: The Molten City, by Chris Nickson
Severn, 2020. 224 pp. $29

When we last met Detective Inspector Tom Harper in these pages, in Gods of Gold, it was 1890. The young man from the Leeds slums worked a grim job in his gritty native city, splitting his energies between keeping watch over the impending violence from a gasworks strike and scrambling to search for a missing child. Harper sympathized with the strikers, but the law was the law and favored gentlemen of property, against which he was helpless; more immediately, he feared that if he didn’t find the child soon, she’d die. Not all was pain and suffering in his life, however. He worked with a devoted sergeant, Billy Reed, who became a friend. And Tom was about to marry a widow, Annabelle, of independent mind and income.

Now, it’s 1908, and Detective Superintendent Harper is the number-two man in the Leeds constabulary. Annabelle and he have a sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary, active in the woman’s suffrage movement, as is her mother. Billy Reed has died. Harper no longer hears as well as he used to, and his reflexes have slowed. But little else in his landscape has changed. Having arranged security for a royal visit — receiving a signed appreciation from His Majesty, Edward VII, no less — his reward is to protect Prime Minister Asquith when he gives a speech in Leeds.

Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (date unknown), whose face, the historian George Dangerfield later wrote, was “bland and weary . . . in which frankness and reserve had long fought themselves to a stand-still.” (The Strange Death of Liberal England, p. 4; photo courtesy George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress; via Wikimedia Commons)

Where few Britons would dare shout insults or complaints at their king and queen, many would jump at the chance to throw brickbats at Mr. Asquith for his broken promises. Poor workingmen and suffragists are the most likely to riot—including Mary, perhaps, or so her parents fear. Meanwhile, Harper has stumbled over evidence that, fifteen years ago, two children were snatched from their parents, perhaps “purchased” to live in a wealthy home where the mistress of the house has been unable to bear her own.

Had I read the intervening volumes since City of Gold, The Molten City might seem like yet another entry in a familiar formula, what some series can devolve into after a while. (Incidentally, all the volumes bear titles with metallic metaphors.) Yet this novel, like its progenitor, has so much going for it that you have to give it, and the author, their due.

First, there’s the atmosphere — political, social, physical, familial, you name it — which, to me, does far more than set the scene. Tom Harper, as the incorruptible, hard-working utterly dedicated police officer, with nary a social prejudice to his name and a firm belief in feminism, at times seems a little too good to be true. However, his feelings for and about Leeds, conveyed through these descriptions, show me that he loves his city and its people, and that his desire to serve is completely genuine. He stands for something.

That makes his perfection easier to swallow, and Nickson takes care not to let Harper’s halo shine among the populace, who wouldn’t see it, anyway. The rich treat him like a hireling, whom they’ll indulge with an audience if it suits them, not acknowledging that a criminal inquiry compels them to; the poor hate him on sight, because coppers are coppers. They’re none of ’em trustworthy.

Nickson uses simple language to set his scenes, with sparing economy:

The smoke and stink from the tanneries and factories rose up the hillside. Identical, anonymous streets of back-to-back houses. Away from the moor, there wasn’t a tree or a splash of colour to be seen. Someone’s washing hung from a line high across the cobbles, already turning grey from the soot in the air.

Attention to the character of Harper’s environment achieves one other storytelling goal of note. Since this is a mystery, which must live on “no — and furthermore,” many such narratives rely on plot points to deliver the obstacles, sometimes smoothly, otherwise seeming contrived. Nickson’s focus on Harper and his city means that the tension need not result from exterior forces, and that what’s within may raise the stakes. For instance, child snatching means more than a morally repugnant crime to Harper’s corps of detectives, several of whom suffered childhoods full of fear and violence that the authorities did nothing to assuage. Finding the missing children therefore becomes a personal quest, not just part of their job.

I also like how Nickson fuses the political and social issues of the day with the crime, his protagonist, and the Harper family. On every page, you see some aspect of how privilege influences or defines justice, and how each Harper works to change that, even as they remain pessimistic, to varying degrees, about the long-term outcome. And while they agree in sum about the importance of social change, the details get in the way, so that though they love one another, they don’t always get along.

As a consequence, The Molten City, despite its heroic paragon, delivers a satisfying mystery and a vivid portrait of a socially fragmented England.

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

Music in the Silence: The Yellow Bird Sings

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Review: The Yellow Bird Sings, by Jennifer Rosner
Flatiron, 2020. 294 pp. $26

During the summer of 1941, fortune chews up and spits out the Chodorów family, Jews living in a rural Polish town. The Germans arrest most of Róża’s relatives and shoot her husband, Natan. Barely escaping with her five-year-old daughter, Shira, she throws herself on the mercies of Henryk and Krystyna Wiśniewski, Christian neighbors who are very frightened themselves. But their reluctance is just half the problem. The only hiding place they can offer is the barn, unfortunately sited near a busy road, and the Wiśniewskis have their own children, naturally curious, liable to blurt out the secret to the wrong people, as young children are.

But very young children, like Shira, don’t keep quiet at all, and Róża’s at her wits’ end to entertain her daughter in complete silence. She spins a tale about a girl forbidden to make a sound, and how a yellow bird sings for her, all that’s in her head. Since Róża’s a musician — her whole family was musical — she’s not surprised that Shira has notes weaving through her mind like a constant, melodic tapestry. Soon she realizes that Shira may even be a prodigy. What a powerful image: This innocent child, who loves music and has a rare talent for it, can’t understand that if she opens her mouth to sing, there are evil men who will kill her or betray her to the killers.
What’s more, even to have hidden safely that long has resulted from pure happenstance — and lust. At first, Henryk told Róża that mother and child could hide for one night only. But his decision changes, because Krystyna takes a shine to little Shira, and Henryk takes Róża nightly, climbing up the ladder to the loft and using her. Though the Wiśniewskis are risking their lives to shelter two Jews, what they’re giving and what they’re taking become blurry. I like that moral ambiguity, one hallmark of The Yellow Bird Sings.

Another hallmark is the constant tension over small events — soldiers passing on the road, the Wiśniewski boys’ attempt to explore the barn, Shira’s difficulty remaining quiet. But the real test comes when the Germans tell Henryk that they’re requisitioning the barn; Róża and Shira must now flee, immediately. Do they try to go together through the forest? Or does Róża give Shira up to the nuns at the local orphanage, who’ve agreed to take her? Much follows from that decision, of course.

Rosner’s vivid prose conveys the physical claustrophobia, life lived inside the head:

Does Shira truly remember her father, gray speckled and musky, his embrace warm and soft but not like her mama’s, or is she making him up, mixing him up with her visions and dreams? A star-backed violin at his bearded chin, notes undulating like a tuning fork come to pierce her mother’s heart. The dancing stopped short, the violin boxed and buried after he didn’t return. Upon waking, she thought that if she could just lie with an ear to the ground, she might hear her father’s notes floating up through the rooted earth.

I also like how the narrative resists earnestness and gives nearly all the characters recognizable flaws as well as virtues. If anyone’s idealized, it’s Shira — I wish she had faults not explicable by her ordeal or forgivable for her age. Throughout, she remains a victim, so you feel sympathy for that; but victimhood wears thin, skating close to pity, less compelling than Róża’s portrayal, for instance. In the main, however, The Yellow Bird Sings protects nobody, least of all the Germans and their many fellow anti-Semites among the Poles; no whitewash, here.

Holocaust stories about children are legion, but this one stands out, all the more as a debut novel.

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

Stick-Figure Holocaust: While the Music Played

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Review: While the Music Played, by Nathaniel Lande
Blackstone, 2020. 437 pp. $30

About halfway through this novel, sometime in 1940, the protagonist’s best friend asks him, “Max, exactly how stupid are you?” Since I’d been wondering the same thing for a couple hundred pages, I had to laugh.

Lande aims to tell how the Holocaust unfolded in Czechoslovakia, especially in Terezín (Theresienstadt), but Max Mueller is a rickety vehicle for that story. What fourteen-year-old growing up in Prague during those catastrophic years would not know what the Gestapo did for a living? How can Max, who counts Jews as his closest friends, not know what a rabbi is?

Further, when he asks these pat questions, an adult tells him he’s getting good at conducting interviews. (Max makes his inquiries as a would-be reporter; the power of a free press is a theme that Lande swings at the reader like a two-by-four.) Throw in that pianist Max, before he volunteers to live in Terezín, was somehow, at age twelve, the best piano tuner in Prague; that this job led him to befriend Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi intelligence officer; and that Max’s father, Viktor, a famous orchestra conductor, befriends Heydrich too, gets attached to his staff, and uses his alleged influence to mitigate the Holocaust when he can. I don’t think so.

Heydrich, as he appeared around 1940 (courtesy Bundesarchiv, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lande relies heavily on figures like Heydrich, Winston Churchill, Hitler, the rabbi and thinker Leo Baeck, and Raoul Wallenberg. But the narrative embracing them proceeds without tension or conflict to speak of, in which the villains pull punches right and left, and the characters are opinions, placards without inner lives. Instead of natural dialogue, While the Music Played offers lectures, which is how Max’s cluelessness comes in handy. People are always informing him, and he’s remarkably slow to learn.

It’s not just that the lectures include state secrets, propping up the conceit that places a young boy at the epicenter of history. These information dumps do no service to the themes involved, which include politics, history, the nature of Judaism, and philosophy; the most breathtakingly glib treatment concerns Heydrich. Heydrich’s father was a composer, and Lande invokes that lineage to portray the son as a music lover too, which allows Max to wonder how the man whose passion he shares can also appear to sanction objectionable policies.

The power of music despite degradation and suffering and the disconnect between a cultured Germany and its murderous activities are worthy themes. But Lande could have written them by, say, giving Max a beloved piano teacher who turns out to be a rabid racist and ultranationalist. Rather, the author has chosen to illustrate his themes with historical “stars,” who make up such an improbable constellation, you have the feeling that the novel takes place in an alternate universe.

To return to Heydrich, known as “Hangman Heydrich” by the people he oppressed, Nazi contemporaries described him as “diabolical” and “icy.” Just what you’d expect from one of the two or three most ruthless figures in the Third Reich: the head of the SD, or Sicherheitsdienst, a rival security service to the SS, Heinrich Himmler’s organization, with whom Heydrich had a famous power struggle. Heydrich framed top generals to destroy their careers, masterminded Kristallnacht, devised the Einsatzgruppen (the death squads sent east), and convened the top-secret Wannsee Conference, which codified the until-then haphazard policy of the Final Solution and organized its further implementation, a fact that only emerged after the war.

He would never have befriended Max, “bargained” with his father, or even hired him. More likely, he’d have had the Muellers killed, if he sensed free-thinking or disloyalty (and they’re none too swift at dissembling). In any event, he certainly wouldn’t have told Max in summer 1939 that Germany was about to invade Poland, or conveniently dropped the news that the Final Solution was coming, leaving Max, ever breathlessly inquisitive, to wonder what that meant.

While reading, I went back and forth as to whether the narrative intends this innocence, taking a childlike worldview. You have to wonder about a fictional atmosphere in which nobody even thinks about sex, let alone has any; nobody swears; and where nineteen people in twenty have only good intentions. Lande’s characters love (or hate) on sight, escape fist-shaking villains with regularity, succeed at whatever they turn their hands to, and receive much-needed medical supplies and food by pulling invisible strings. Toward the teenage characters, adults are remarkably pliant and encouraging, acceding to all demands, enlisting them in the fight against Nazism without hesitation, and offering fulsome praise for all they say or do, as with the question about rabbis. But teenagers don’t act the way Lande portrays them and probably wouldn’t recognize themselves in this narrative, whose unreality feels neither whimsical nor compelling.

I think that historical novelists have a duty to history, to grasp what the record means even as they reinterpret it or blur its actuality. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy or alternate history, but this novel fits neither category; and its careless, superficial approach trivializes its subject.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, in return for an honest review.

If Music Be the Food of Love: Simon the Fiddler

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Review: Simon the Fiddler, by Paulette Jiles
Morrow, 2020. 337 pp. $28

Simon Boudin, though a Southerner by birth, doesn’t care about the Civil War, nearing its bloody end in March 1865. An itinerant fiddler who lives by and for music, he plays at weddings, garden parties, and, when he has to, saloons, staying one step ahead of the Confederate conscription men. But a bar brawl makes him a captive, and he’s quickly hustled into a ragged butternut uniform and sent to Texas. Nominally part of a regimental band, he’s nevertheless involved in a firefight in May — a month after Appomattox — because of a vainglorious Union colonel named Webb. But afterwards, Colonel Webb gives a party, and who should the hired musicians be but Simon and his friends?

It’s a dangerous assignment, because these men have no discharge papers, and the martial law that obtains in these parts treats such wanderers unkindly. Not only that, Colonel Webb treats everyone unkindly and seems to enjoy it. Nevertheless, he has also engaged an Irish governess for his daughter named Doris Dillon, for whom Simon falls, hard. Based on the limited communication that passes between them, he believes — hopes — that she feels similarly. That does it: From that moment, he resolves to woo her. However, he’s conscious of who he is and what he has to offer. Without land or a promising future, he believes he has no chance with her, so he sets out to make himself respectable.

The obstacles are enormous, and setbacks, even tragedy, befall the group of musicians. But Simon is nothing if not resourceful in his single-mindedness, and he expects the path to true love to be bumpy. “No — and furthermore” lives here, and the story sails along; but no matter how rough the water, Simon keep swimming. His hard-working character and determination are part of his charm, but without music, he’d be lost:

Music is clean, clear, its rules are forever, another country for the mind to go to, and so this search for employment among the drinking places of Galveston did not bother him. To Simon, the world of musical structures was far more real than the shoddy saloons in which he had to play. Nothing could match it, nothing in this day-to-day world could ever come up to it. It existed outside him. It was better than he was. He was always on foot in that world, an explorer in busted shoes.

Music and such prose are two pleasures of Simon the Fiddler. Jiles knows folk music the way she knows Texas of that era, which is to say, inside out. Many songs that Simon plays have faded from popularity or current memory, but the author builds scenes around a couple I love, like “Shenandoah” and “Red River Valley,” so that the music itself becomes a character.

I wish I could say that Simon the Fiddler equals Jiles’s previous novel, News of the World. I’m reminded of the old baseball joke about the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who insisted he didn’t want to win twenty games in a single season, the mark of excellence, because then everybody would expect him to do it again. So I don’t mean to carp when I say that to me, Simon never achieves the breadth or depth that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the protagonist of News of the World, does. (Interestingly, Kidd appears here too, in a cameo.) Where Kidd has flaws and edges, born of experience, observation, and crotchets, Simon just has a bad temper, the only blemish to his otherwise sterling character — and, as it happens, a plot device.

As for Doris, she’s perfect — beautiful, sweet-natured, strong, witty, passionate, a young man’s dream. She may be a bit vain, hating to wear the eyeglasses she can’t see without, but that’s hardly a serious complaint against such a paragon.

Meanwhile, Colonel Webb has no redeeming features, and to craft her villain, Jiles has ticked every box. He’s a lech who makes known his intent to have Doris; a ranting alcoholic; a vicious, controlling husband and father; a liar; and, it’s suggested, involved in graft. Webb’s villainy increases the pressure on Doris, and therefore on her white knight. But it also feels melodramatic, weakening the novel, even as it motivates Simon to move faster. What price page turning?

News of the World is a more fulfilling, memorable book. But Simon the Fiddler makes a good yarn; and, after all, the world loves a lover. Take it for that, and you’ll enjoy it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher; this post previously appeared in Historical Novels Review in different, shorter form.

Kinder, Küche, Kirche: The Vanishing Sky

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Review: The Vanishing Sky, by L. Annette Binder
Bloomsbury, 2020. 278 pp. $27

In 1945, Germany’s enemies are pulverizing the country with high explosives and pounding its armies from east and west. Yet the government-controlled radio continues to promise final, total victory, demanding ever-greater sacrifice. Etta Huber, who has one teenage son with the Hitler Youth, Georg, prays for his safety, willing with all her heart that he’ll only be sent to build fortifications, not to fight. But at least her elder son, Max, is coming home to stay, after serving on the Eastern Front. Etta doesn’t ask herself why, if the army is ready to conscript fifteen-year-old Georg, Max would be discharged. All she knows is that Max is coming home to Heidenfeld, their small, rural town, and that she’ll take care of him, as always.

But when Max steps off the train — and in succeeding days, when his strange behavior draws notice and gossip, as at church — Etta realizes something’s wrong with him. Since he’s thin, with no sign of physical injury, she decides that if she feeds him enough, he’ll get better. The reader, like the doctors who try politely to tell her what she refuses to hear, knows this once-vibrant, intelligent young man who loved nature and laughter is now mentally disturbed and unlikely to recover.

The Vanishing Sky reveals the German homefront as I’ve never seen it in fiction, a small town where nobody asks too many questions or unburdens herself, so that neighbors who’ve known one another all their lives are strangers. One unforgettable instance comes after Etta visits her closest friend Ilse, who shows her a basement full of belongings she’s keeping for Jewish friends against the day when “they return”:

Maybe it was the liquor or maybe the coming rain. The road looked narrower than usual when Etta walked home. The wind bit through her scarf. She thought of those dolls in their patent shoes and all that fine silver and the clocks ticking in the cellar and Ilse keeping watch, just Ilse and her whiskey jars. How hard to be in that house, along with all those things. The air must be thick with ghosts. How little she knew about Ilse. More than forty years together and church every week. They drank their coffee and birthed their babies and knelt together at their family graves, and they were mysteries one to the other.

Ilse must trust Etta to confide such a secret, because there’s plenty of war spirit running around, and plenty of ways to punish defeatism, disloyalty, or violations of any rule. Etta’s husband, Josef, in fact, would be such a man to turn in even his own children. He takes absolutely no interest in Max’s return, only in his son’s medals, of which he’s jealous. Josef believes in final victory and chuckles at radio reports of German victories resulting in thousands of hapless Allied prisoners captured.

But, as a former schoolteacher sent into retirement because he’s no longer mentally sharp enough to manage his lessons, Josef represents a comment on the Reich’s ideology. He’s no superman, and you have to wonder whether Binding means to suggest that Max’s psychological illness has a hereditary component. More apparent is Georg’s infirmity; he’s never reached puberty and remains pudgy, physically inept despite rigorous training, and “soft.” He knows he’s not the youth in the Nazi propaganda posters, and that he wouldn’t last five minutes in battle, which is why he dreams of escape.

With Etta, Binding evokes another ideological trope, the phrase Kinder, Küche, Kirche, “children, kitchen, church,” women’s place in Reich society. Nobody could have accepted that role or performed it more faithfully than Etta, but it’s not enough to restore her elder child. At times, her insistence that one more letter, plea, or bribe will spring him from the hospital can be wearing, because the narrative runs in circles: You know the result will always be the same, and that it will make no impression on her. Even so, you have to admire her determination in the face of doom. She’s a true tragic figure.

Binding tells her story patiently, like an artist placing tiny pieces into a mosaic. The Vanishing Sky is no novel to race through. But I find it thoroughly gripping, powerful, and a brave narrative unsparing in its honesty.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher; this post appeared in Historical Novels Review in shorter, different form.

Nurses Under Fire: Blame the Dead

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Review: Blame the Dead, by Ed Ruggero
Forge, 2020. 330 pp. $28

When the army assigns military police Lieutenant Eddie Harkins to investigate a surgeon’s murder at a field hospital outside Palermo, Sicily, in August 1943, it’s the last thing he wants. A former beat cop in Philadelphia, Harkins knows next to nothing about detective work, and the internecine warfare at the hospital threatens to overwhelm him — as if fighting the Germans didn’t cause enough trouble.

No one misses the victim, an arrogant lech who sexually abused the nurses, bunked alone and had no friends, but wielded a scalpel like a genius, which, to the hospital commanding officer, was all that mattered. The all-powerful first sergeant, responsible for making the hospital run, resents Harkins on sight and won’t cooperate with the investigation. The CO wonders why a beat cop should lead the inquiry — couldn’t the provost’s office send anyone better? — and Harkins is inclined to agree.

Nevertheless, orders are orders, and Harkins quickly discovers that wherever he probes, something stinks, which leads him further on. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s say that the surgeon’s murder and the sexual abuse are just the beginning. Working on little sleep and facing obdurate officers who seem to have plenty to hide, Harkins finds his moxie. His stubbornness and sense of justice take hold, and he now insists on solving the case. He fears that if he doesn’t, the corruption will spread, and he gets wind that the brass wants to send him packing. Sensing resistance, he digs in and keeps fighting.

Such headaches have compensations, however. Eddie gets to talk to his older brother, Patrick, chaplain to a nearby regiment, their first conversation in more than a year. Also, a childhood friend, Kathleen Donnelly, is a nurse at the field hospital, and Harkins has always had a thing for her. But the way he recalls her from their school days bears no resemblance to her now:

The woman who let her arms fall from his shoulders looked nothing like he remembered. Her dark hair was chopped short and threaded with dust, a few lonely grays wiring out from her temples. Like every other GI in Sicily, she was drawn and sickly-thin, dirt ground into crow’s-feet beside eyes that did not flash, barely looked blue anymore. She wore a man’s fatigue uniform cinched tight at the waist. The legs of her trousers stood clear of her own legs like stovepipes; the uniform was dirty enough to stand up in a corner on its own.

But that scarecrow is an exceptionally competent, confident professional, and the reader will be awed, just as Harkins is. Her story, and those of the other nurses, is one reason to read Blame the Dead. With impressive authority, Ruggero conveys the impossible conditions in which these women work heroically to save horribly mangled men, only to have to dodge unwanted advances (and worse) by men protected from complaint or protest. As you might imagine, the army is the last place where a woman’s word carries weight, and this is 1943, so forget notions of respect, let alone equality. Whatever happens must be their fault, anyway, saith those in charge.

That authorial authenticity extends to the soldiers’ dialogue and interactions. Ruggero graduated West Point and served as an officer, but he’s also researched his ground thoroughly, re-creating the hierarchy, atmosphere, and workings of a World War II field hospital, as well as the city of Palermo, which emerges vividly. As for “no — and furthermore,” rest assured that nothing comes easily for Harkins, who’s continually out of his depth. The pages turn rapidly. As a sidelight, I also appreciate the criticisms the author has his characters make of General George Patton’s callousness toward his soldiers, for which the field hospital picks up the pieces—literally.

Much as I like the story, though, Blame the Dead feels cluttered, with at least a couple too many voices, nonstop everything, and no time or space to reflect on intense, earth-shaking events. Partly that’s the genre, and Harkins is working under tremendous pressure of time, which Ruggero cleverly squeezes. Yet I hope that in future adventures (this novel promises a series), the author shows the confidence to slow down a little, especially when the addition of still more stuff begins to seem contrived.

The villain’s a contrivance too, unraveling toward the end into lunacy, a cop-out I dislike. As for the villainy, that takes such elaborate, baroque turns that I kept wishing that Occam’s razor, to which one character refers, applied here. Those complications further require the resolution to become a sequence of derring-do that evokes more than one cliché.

That said, I find Blame the Dead an arresting, compelling story, and I hope the sequels find a more compatible balance between character and plot.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.

King and Councillor: The Mirror & the Light

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Review: The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel
Holt, 2020. 754 pp. $30

Following Anne Boleyn’s beheading in May 1536, chief advisor Thomas Cromwell’s star has never shone brighter in his royal master’s eyes. But Henry VIII, as Cromwell knows better than anyone, is nothing if not changeable, usually for the wrong reasons and in disastrous ways. Not that His Majesty lacks intelligence, learning, or shrewdness. Rather, his childish temper and make-the-earth-stand-still behavior when he expresses a desire threaten to undo good governance or prevent it altogether. So though the king has just gotten rid of an unwanted wife and married Jane Seymour, who promises to be more pliable than her predecessor, if not more fertile, other troubles emerge immediately.

Financial and religious grievances spark a popular rebellion in the northern shires. France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor trade phrases of amity; even a temporary truce among these rivals could leave one or more free to invade England. Henry’s daughter Mary, fiercely loyal to her late Spanish mother, is a rallying point for foreign and domestic enemies seeking to destroy Henry’s recently instituted control over the English church and return primacy to Rome. And though the king is happy with his new bride, she has always been sickly.

But The Mirror & the Light, the third, triumphant volume in the Cromwell trilogy, involves far more than a throne in peril. The history, politics, and backstabbing would provide a feast for any historical novelist, and indeed, many have written about these events. Mantel’s sense of which details matter or her gift for dramatic portrayal set her apart, but there’s more. Cromwell is what a later generation would have called a master psychologist and deep thinker who understands how to protect Henry from himself, and so the councillor’s maneuverings make a fascinating, tension-filled narrative. Cromwell institutes reforms, keeps the king from imploding, and protects the royal reputation at home and abroad, all while convincing Henry that His Majesty has done everything himself.

Cromwell’s singular success derives partly from a concept extraordinary for the time: Offer a rival a reward to do what you want, and you need not hit him or her over the head to show who’s in charge. Fancy that. Cromwell also has a far-sighted vision in which a wise, forbearing monarch, aided by experts chosen for their ability rather than lineage, will govern the nation without having to depend on an uneasy coalition of noblemen who itch to occupy the throne. You can see why the king’s councillor collects enemies.

You can also see how Mantel has thought deeply about power, its use and abuse, and cast the king-councillor relationship as a matter of preserving England. As my favorite novel-writing guru likes to say, your protagonist must have private stakes at risk (what happens to him or her) and, even more importantly, public stakes affecting the world at large (which is why we care). Here, Henry’s and Cromwell’s lives and interests are the private stakes, whereas the public stakes involve a philosophy of life and government essential to the modern age—and, if you will, progress from medieval mayhem.

You can hardly get more compelling than that. Yet Mantel doesn’t play favorites or grant Cromwell the earnestness that mars so many novels about progressive figures. He remains a man of his time, perfectly willing to deploy the executioner’s ax or the power to seize assets, and if he can’t influence Henry’s more odious whims, he bows to expediency and fulfills them to the letter.

Further, this erstwhile blacksmith’s son from Putney lives up to his age (or any other) by allowing ever-increasing power to seduce him, much as he tries to keep himself in check. In a brilliant stroke, Mantel shows how helpless Cromwell felt as a boy, abused by his violent father, learning early to live by his wits. Now, the higher he rises, the more he thinks and speaks about his origins. In a sense, he’s still that struggling, mistrustful, hard-edged boy.

Then, of course, there’s the justifiably famous Mantel prose, which creates authority, mood, and feeling as well as descriptive beauty, as in this passage about Cromwell’s late wife’s possessions:

Her jet rosary beads are curled inside her old velvet purse. There is a cushion cover on which she was working a design, a deer running through foliage. Whether death interrupted her or just dislike of the work, she had left her needle in the cloth.… He has had the small Flanders chest moved in here from next door, and her furred russet gown is laid up in spices, along with her sleeves, her gold coif, her kirtles and bonnets, her amethyst ring, and a ring set with a diamond rose. She could stroll in and get dressed. But you cannot make a wife out of bonnets and sleeves; hold all her rings together, and you are not holding her hand.

When a servant, observing him at this moment, asks whether he’s sad, Cromwell replies—typically—that he can’t be. He’s not allowed; he’s too busy.

Readers of the previous two volumes may be pleased to hear that the author has taken greater care to identify the ubiquitous he that refers throughout to her protagonist. Occasionally, you hit bumps, most notably when Cromwell reminisces to himself, but you can’t stay lost for long. If you count pages, The Mirror & the Light is a long book, but the only trouble I had was making it last. This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

The Maid Knows: Death of a New American

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Review: Death of a New American, by Mariah Fredericks
Minotaur, 2020. 289 pp. $18

Louise Benchley would be too polite and constrained to say so, but she believes her forthcoming marriage to William Tyler, the social event of the season, will be a disaster. Not in the sense of the Titanic, which has just sunk — this is 1912, the New York of the Four Hundred — but the confidence of everyone around her that the match is unsinkable has her especially worried.

And why not? Louise knows nothing about marriage, certainly nothing about sex, for her mother has made sure not to tell her. Consequently, the young fiancée turns to her maid, Jane Prescott, who’s rubbed elbows with life in very close quarters. Yet there’s a limit to what the anxious, self-effacing bride-to-be can absorb, and Jane hesitates to enlighten when her employer won’t.

But that problem soon fades in light of another: A nanny hired by the groom’s uncle has been found dead, her throat cut. Since said uncle has earned notoriety for arresting members of the Black Hand, an underworld group of Italian origin — and since the murder victim was Italian — the family immediately assumes it’s a gang revenge killing, and so does the press.

However, Jane’s not convinced, and as a lady’s maid, she has access to information, domestic conflicts, and secrets that the family wishes to cover up, and which the newspapers can’t penetrate. Jane also has several motivations to pursue the case. She’s determined to do justice by the victim, whom she liked, and whose only crime, she thinks, was loving the children she cared for. The prejudice against immigrants in general, Italians in particular, offends Jane to the core, as does most of the gentry’s refusal to grant the crime any importance, especially compared with the anticipated nuptials.

Conversely, she’s convinced that Louise’s desire to call off the wedding, perhaps using the tragedy as an excuse, would deny the young woman her first and best chance at happiness. Note the character-driven aspects to our sleuth’s quest, which informs the novel throughout, not just when it’s convenient, and perhaps run deeper than those of your average mystery.

Moreover, Fredericks handles these motivations with subtlety. Jane cares passionately, but the author knows better than to let her protagonist lecture or indulge in earnestness; rather, she’s quietly persuasive, mostly for the reader’s eyes alone. Jane’s outlook has been forged by life and takes a practical, rather than a crusader’s, view, so she has no need to trumpet anything—which fits her discretion as lady’s maid. That’s one reason Death of a New American stands out, but there are others.

With gentle humor, Fredericks pokes fun at the mores and beliefs of the upper crust, whether their fears that the new tunnel from Manhattan to Queens under the East River will collapse — what a horror, since they can’t swim. I love the scene where William’s younger sister, a sophomore at Vassar, enjoys shocking her elders with the outlandish ideas of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and how the conversation evolves into discussion of “unpleasant emotions.” A true lady, say the matriarchs, simply refuses to feel anything like envy or resentment. Jane, who knows better, also knows to keep her mouth firmly shut.

Everywhere, Fredericks folds the time and place deftly into the characters’ lives and the story, so that the era feels inhabited. She clearly loves and knows her native city, whether to describe the evolution of Herald Square, its rival (and successor) Times Square, or the streets of Little Italy:

Finding any one man on Mulberry Street was not going to be easy. Doing anything on Mulberry Street was not easy, as it was not so much a street as a throng of humanity, horses, and wagons. To make your way through, you were often obliged to step from pavement to cobblestone and back again when the path was blocked by café dwellers, vegetable stalls, barrels of wine, or a fistfight. Some might have called it Little Italy, but they would have been wrong. Mulberry Street was Neapolitans. Sicilians resided on Elizabeth Street, Calabrians and Puglians on Mott.

With admirable touch and generosity, Fredericks lets you think along with her sleuth, hiding nothing, resorting to no tricks or sudden revelations. Death of a New American is an utterly satisfying mystery.

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