Too Much Conscience?: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East African Gothic: Leopard at the Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fathers and Sons: Ithaca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Darktown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, this is a terrific book.

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

Struggle for Redemption: I Will Send Rain

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victors and Vanquished: The Translation of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Price Glory: To Conquer Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hustles and Bustles: To Capture What We Cannot Keep

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Review: To Capture What We Cannot Keep, by Beatrice Colin
Flatiron, 2016. 289 pp. $26

Imagine meeting the love of your life on a hot-air balloon ride, and that he happens to be the chief lieutenant to Gustave Eiffel, just then (1886) about to begin construction on the tower that will become famous. This is the engaging premise to a well-plotted, hard-edged romantic novel of literary credentials that vividly delivers both the luxury and seamy side of Paris during the Belle Époque. What more could you want?

Newspaper caricature of Gustave Eiffel, reflecting the storm of criticism for having compared his as-yet unbuillt structure to the pyramids (Le Temps, February 14, 1887; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Caricature of Gustave Eiffel, who compared his unbuilt tower to the pyramids (Le Temps, 14 February 1887; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Well, a couple things, actually, but I don’t want to carp, since I thoroughly enjoyed To Capture What We Cannot Keep and suspect that you will too. Even so, let’s get one thing out of the way, the unfortunate title, which evokes All the Light We Cannot See. Authors don’t always decide their titles, and if this one sounds like pandering, Colin succeeds in at least one respect where Anthony Doerr, her presumed predecessor, failed. There’s no treacle here, nothing that even remotely resembles it. The only obvious similarity is that both books take place in France.

Caitriona Wallace (a histrionic name, I think), is a thirty-year-old Scottish widow reduced to playing chaperone for the beloved niece and nephew of a wealthy Glaswegian industrialist on their grand tour of Europe. Shortly before the trio are to leave Paris, Caitriona, known as Cait, takes that fateful balloon ride and meets–or sort of meets–Émile Noguier, an engineer whose direct appraisal seems less than wholly gentlemanly and thus very exciting.

And so things turns out, but, as in any worthwhile romance, the course of true love never does run smooth. The memory of Cait’s marriage pains her, but where most people assume that her husband’s untimely death is what troubles her, that’s not what hurts most, the details of which take a good while to emerge. More importantly, though Cait recognizes the unfairness behind the sexual double standard and dislikes corsets and bustles, she feels bound to uphold propriety, especially since her two young charges are determined to find trouble. As for Émile, he too feels pressured, with a domineering mother and a family tradition on one side, and a taste for Montmartre artists’ models on the other.

I like how Colin uses Paris, a city she understands and loves, to embody her characters’ outlook and desires:

Children threw rocks into dirty brown puddles, while girls only a few years older, with strings of imitation pearls around their necks and jewels of rain in their hair, waited in doorways for customers. It had shocked Cait at first, the poverty, the brazenness with which young women sold themselves, the casual attitude toward destitution and morality.

For Émile, building the tower, to him a work of art unlike any known before, requires a lot of ugliness before beauty can arise:

The men had quarried down through damp clay and wet sand, through mud studded with broken crockery and shards of glass, with splinters of animal bone and flakes of flint, and now the air reeked of decayed things, of sulfur and rot. Cutting across everything, however, making your eyes water and the world intermittently gray and indistinct, were clouds of woodsmoke. The fires seemed to burn day and night, purifying and polluting in equal measure.

With prose like this and a keen eye for psychological moments, Colin conveys the fullness of her protagonists’ inner lives and how convention keeps them from seeking what will make them happy. Several secondary characters also emerge in full, such as a conniving beauty of easy virtue and a gift for manipulating the naive, and Eiffel himself–narcissistic, generous, but always looking out for number one. Colin turns a few clichés inside out and keeps you guessing as to the resolution; “no; and furthermore” flourishes here.

But sometimes to resolve the obstacles she places, she leans on a minor contrivance or two of her own, most particularly the cardboard niece and nephew. Alice is a twit of great beauty but no culture or manners who seems completely obsessed with getting engaged at age nineteen. If she’s to be a twit, at least she can show some individuality about it. Ditto her brother Jamie, a spendthrift wastrel who causes a great deal of harm without even trying.

Finally, I wish Colin had fleshed out one point of history, a scandal regarding an attempt to build a canal in Panama, which ruined Ferdinand de Lesseps, entrepreneur behind the Suez Canal, and almost dragged down Eiffel too. The failure bankrupted an entire swath of French society, involved government bribery–causing no end of trouble for the still-young Third Republic–and incited a wave of anti-Semitism. I understand why Colin didn’t want to get enmeshed in the Panama affair, yet I think she might have hinted at how deeply the scandal roiled the country, beyond mere mention of lost fortunes and how Eiffel suddenly lost his social cachet.

All the same, To Capture What We Cannot Keep will satisfy legions of readers.

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

Traitor or Dreamer?: Judas

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Review: Judas, by Amos Oz
Houghton Mifflin, 2016. 305 pp. $25

It’s not every novelist who can write a talky narrative based on three irritating characters and expect readers to sit still for it. But if anyone has earned that right, Amos Oz must be on the list. With such authors as A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, Oz is the conscience of Israel and a bold, critical voice whose refrain is what nobody wants to hear: There are no easy answers.

Raising the new flag of the State of Israel, drawn in ink, at The ink-drawn national flag of Israel flies at Um Rashrash (now Eilat), 1949, Misha Achad (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Raising the new flag of the State of Israel, drawn in ink, at Um Rashrash (now Eilat), 1949, Micha Perry (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Consider Judas, then, a musing about men and women, power and treason, and the inevitable bloodshed that ensues when a reform movement believes it can solve the world’s problems. Don’t count on a plot or even a captivating premise, but do expect provocative ideas that demand a hearing.

What story there is could be called a coming of age, set in Jerusalem in 1959. Shmuel Ash, a graduate student in Biblical studies, has lost his way, literally and figuratively. His father’s business has failed, which means that the parental stipend keeping Shmuel in school will no longer be forthcoming. But, partly because his girlfriend has left him to marry another man, he’s lost his fire to complete his master’s degree, and drops out. At loose ends, he accepts a job as companion to an elderly man, Gershom Wald, for which he receives room, board, and a modest wage from Wald’s daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel. Shmuel’s job is to talk to Wald every evening–or, more usually, listen, for the older man has much to say about the formation of the state of Israel, then little more than a decade old, and the state of the world. Wald is cranky, obstinate, and often rude, whereas Shmuel, though he has a kind heart, has never learned to listen or handle his many anxieties, which is why his girlfriend left him. Meanwhile, Atalia, a forty-five-year-old widow who combines the sexiness and aloofness guaranteed to drive a younger man wild, teases her houseguest, whom she can plainly see is attracted to her, often cutting him down in the process.

If this sounds like a real drag, gentle reader, I understand completely. I kept reading because it’s Oz, who writes from deep insight in terrific prose, and because the novel takes up issues as crucial now as they were in 1959. First, as Wald says (and, I believe, speaking for the author):

Judaism and Christianity, and Islam too, all drip honeyed words of love and mercy so long as they do not have access to handcuffs, grills, dominion, torture chambers, and gallows. All these faiths, including those that have appeared in recent generations and continue to mesmerize adherents to this day, all rose to save us and all just as soon started to shed our blood. Personally I do not believe in world reform.

According to Atalia, however, Zionism is just such a faith. Though she never gets drawn into the dialectic–she speaks with her presence–her husband was killed in the War of Independence in 1947, and she’s angry about it. She’s also angry that her late father, among the idealists who helped found the state, was dismissed from its highest councils and treated as a traitor for suggesting that Jew and Arab could live in peace and hold the land in common. He’s the Judas of the title, or one of them; but again, this is Oz, and things aren’t so simple.

Before Shmuel left graduate school, he was studying Jewish views of Jesus, a focus that led him to reexamine Judas. Shmuel believes that Judas loved Jesus, admired his teachings, and lobbied for his crucifixion as a means of perpetuating them, attempting to elevate him to the status of messiah, which Jesus never claimed for himself. Just as Judas feared that unless he acted, his master’s lessons would be lost, Atalia’s father assumed that because his Arab friends would never hurt him, all Arabs would welcome independence from Britain as allies of the Jews. Both men miscalculated, of course. Jesus became a Christian symbol, and Judas, a Christian excuse for anti-Semitism; and Israel’s War of Independence was one that the Jews could not afford to lose.

Having won, though, the victors committed their own excesses and remain in control through military power. Consequently, Oz places Israel between a rock and a hard place: Disarm, and you die; remain armed, and you’re doomed to oppress. Interestingly, he plays out this theme in the sexual dance between Atalia and Shmuel. Having suffered terrible losses, she’s scarred and distant, but Shmuel appeals to her, a little, because he lacks the self-absorbed, macho-infused ambition of the war heroes rising to the top of Jerusalem society.

I wish I could say Judas is for everybody. Even so, I’m likely to remember what’s in it.

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