Elizabeth Bishop, by Brett C. Millier

Bishop

I’ve been tiptoeing around Bishop’s poetry for many years, intrigued but wanting to carve out a chunk of time to really concentrate on it. The last few weeks have been that time.

Subtitled Life and the Memory of It, a quote from one of Bishop’s poems, this is a critical biography, meaning that it not only tells the story of Bishop’s life, but also discusses her poems. Of course, there’s long been a kerfuffle in the literary community over the relevance of a writer’s life to her work, and in other arts communities as well. Shouldn’t a poem or film stand alone? Don’t we bring our own experiences and outlook to a book or painting?

Well, of course. Yet, many years back, when I finished school and started creating my own study programs, I found that in addition to hunkering down and reading all of a writer’s oeuvre, I wanted to know about their lives. I felt that I knew something about them through their work, but needed to know more, especially in those early years when I was figuring out what my own writing life might look like.

I’ve felt a curious tie to Bishop because I knew that she was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years, very close to her home in fact. From Millier’s book, I’ve learned that Bishop’s time there was brief. Her father died when she was eight months old and her mother was in and out of mental institutions for a few years, moving between Worcester and her family’s home in Nova Scotia, before being committed in 1917. At that point, Elizabeth’s father’s family brought her back to Worcester for a miserable few months before sending her to boarding school. Although her mother did not die until 1934, Elizabeth essentially had no family home for the rest of her childhood.

She made lifelong friends at school and later at Vassar and in the literary community at large. Two friendships in particular shaped her as a poet. While still in college she met Marianne Moore who became a mentor as well as a friend. Moore cheered on the young poet, initially critiquing her work and later suggesting places she could submit her work. Later, living in New York, Bishop became friends with Robert Lowell and the two continued to exchange poems, letters and visits until Lowell’s death.

Those of us who write stories are advised to constantly raise the stakes for our protagonist, or if we’re writing nonfiction—memoir or biography—to point out where the risks and rewards have increasing consequence, thus creating tension and suspense. Millier does this admirably for Bishop.

It’s hard enough to be a poet, let alone one without a home or family, a victim of early trauma. Let her be a lesbian in an era when homosexuals were closeted. Give her some chronic illnesses: debilitating asthma and alcoholism. Make her a perfectionist, and put her in New York’s very competitive atmosphere; then give her some early victories and very successful friends to add even more pressure.

Plenty of suspense, then, to keep this biography moving, interleaved with excerpts from letters to and from Bishop. It’s not all sad; Bishop traveled a lot, had strong relationships, created homes that she loved, and most of all wrote and revised and revised again, never letting a poem go until she was sure it was the very best she could make it.

Plus there are Millier’s insightful discussions of the poems. I was glad I had a copy of The Complete Poems 1927 – 1979 at hand to dip back into. I will discuss the poems themselves and Bishop’s thoughts about poetry in another post.

One of the things I enjoyed here was seeing the humorous side of this poet, as in this excerpt from a letter; Bishop was living in Brazil and had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

Lota went to market, to our regular vegetable man, and he asked her if it wasn’t my photograph he’d seen in the papers. She said yes, and he said it was simply amazing what good luck his customers had. Why, just the week before, one of his customers had bought a ticket in the lottery and won a bicycle.

If you haven’t read her poems, this biography will make you want to read them. If—like me—you feel that there are layers in her poems that you are missing, this book will help open them up for you. Most of all, if you are curious about the life of a poet, particularly one who stands alone, not part of a literary movement, or the life of a brilliant but challenged woman in the mid-twentieth century, this is the book for you.

Have you read a biography that you’d recommend?

A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

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Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

Fluent in French, German and Italian, she initially worked for the US Consular Service before moving to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an early UK intelligence organisation. The US had not yet joined the war and she’d previously been turned down by the US State Department because of her disability. She had lost a leg below the knee after a hunting accident and had a wooden prosthesis, yet that did not hold her back from her active work first in Vichy France, primarily Lyon which she made into the most extensive and effective center for Resistance and intel in France.

After being betrayed and hunted Javert-like by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, she made a daring and arduous trek over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees to Spain without even a walking stick to help. Once the U.S. joined the war she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), returning to Occupied France to organise Maquis units to harass the enemy, gather intel, and assist the Allies before, during, and after the D-Day invasion. Her intel was crucial to the D-Day planners.

I can’t begin to list all she accomplished despite her wooden leg and, more importantly, despite being held back every step of the way by male superiors who couldn’t accept that a woman could do useful work other than typing or making tea, hence the title of this book. This discrimination persisted after the war when she eventually found work with the CIA after the OSS was disbanded, yet was belittled and confined to desk jobs by men with no combat or espionage experience.

Yet, her intelligence and adaptability, her drive and charisma, her intense love of France and determination to drive out the Nazi invaders together won her the loyalty of the people she worked with on the ground. Only Virginia thought to use a brothel as a safe house and its workers as intel-gatherers. Only Virginia had the organizational and planning ability to organise jailbreaks from the Nazis’ most forbidding prisons.

It’s a stunning and inspiring story, brilliantly presented here. I learned much that was new to me about conditions in Vichy and Occupied France and the Resistance, things I thought I knew pretty well. The action is as breath-taking as any thriller. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favorite actors, and often couldn’t bear to stop. I fumed about the discrimination, grieved for the losses, raged at the Nazis’ torture of captured spies, and rejoiced in her victories.

What a woman!

Have you read a biography of a “forgotten” historical figure?

In the Wake, by Per Petterson

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It’s curious how the somewhat random choice of what to read next can bring two books into conversation with each other. This 2000 novel by Petterson, author of the marvelous Out Stealing Horses, has been lurking in my to-be-read pile for a while. I pulled it out primarily because of its stunning blue cover and the comfort of knowing I could count on this author for a thoughtful read.

Imagine my surprise on discovering that it begins with the same situation as the last novel I reviewed: with the protagonist struggling to come to terms with a traumatic disaster. Yet the two books could not be more different.

It has been six years since the ferry accident that took the lives of 43-year-old Arvid’s parents and younger brothers. He is still consumed by grief, unpacking memories of his father and mother, wrestling with both the past and the terrible present, questioning everything. He starts a new file on his computer and thinks “I am writing myself into a possible future.”

Since the accident, his marriage has fallen apart and his work as a writer has dried up, his novel-in-progress abandoned. He drinks too much—we first meet him surfacing from a blackout—and has almost no human contact. There’s his Kurdish neighbor from upstairs who has one word of English: “thanks”. And a woman in the opposite apartment block whom he sometimes sees in her window.

He’s had little to do with his remaining brother, three years older and a successful architect who lives with his wife in a gorgeous home he designed himself. That is, until his brother calls him at two in the morning, drunk or getting there, to say that he too is getting divorced, a conversation that quickly devolves into sibling sparring.

Here we are deep in Arvid’s consciousness, carried by his voice—so calm and forthright, so candid, so obviously containing oceans of emotion. The contrast is irresistible. You might think this novel is more narration than dramatic scenes, but the narration is so vivid and in the moment—present or past—that it creates scenes we experience with Arvid. They accumulate, relentless as the waves, pulling us in.

Petterson also uses very specific descriptions to ground all this ruminating. Here’s a wonderful example; Arvid has shown up at his twelve-year-old daughter’s school and, instead of getting on the bus, she’s gone with him to a cafe.

After a little while the man comes back with our order on a big tray he carries high above his head as if the place was crammed with people, but we are still the only ones there, and he lowers the tray in a sweeping circle and with a flourish sets white cups and plates of waffles on the table and a bowl with a silver spoon and jam. He pours the cocoa from a big white jug and when the cups are full he puts the jug down on the white cloth. He does not spill a drop. We just sit quietly watching. Everything is so white and sumptuous that half would be sufficient, and the waffles are lightly toasted and make the jam glow in the light from the window . . .

“Kidnappings not half bad when you get waffles,” says my daughter . . .

There are a number of cool things about this excerpt: the humor, the sentence variety, the specificity. One of the brilliant aspects of it is the way Petterson bypasses the emotions one would expect from these two—the guilt, the resentment, the sadness—and goes for the unexpected: a luxurious, sensual joy. As Donald Maass (literary agent, writer, and writing teacher extraordinaire) points out: we readers can fill in the commonplace emotions while the surprise grabs us.

This is an intense book, made bearable by moments such as this and by the steadfast voice, recounting ordinary events, dreams, memories, moments of violence and betrayal, joy and communion all with the same calm and with no self-pity. It feels genuine, more so than usual. No wonder, perhaps, since Petterson himself lost family members in the 1990 Scandinavian Star disaster, like Arvid. His description of the video Arvid watches to identify bodies in the ferry is particularly chilling.

Yet the story does not seem self-indulgent. It is a deep dive into the question of how we find or create meaning in our life, how we bear tragedy, how we begin to find the faint threads of connection.

Have you read one of Per Petterson’s books? What did you think of it?

Mouths Don’t Speak, by Katia D. Ulysse

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A member of my book club heard Ulysse speak and was fascinated by her descriptions of Haiti and the experience of living in a new country, far from family. My friend recommended this book—Ulysse’s first novel; her previous book Drifting is a collection of short stories—to our group, and we happily agreed. We’d previously read novels set in Haiti by Edwidge Danticat and Madison Smartt Bell, and were eager to read another, especially a book by someone from Haiti.

The story opens days after the devastating Haitian earthquake that occurred on Tuesday, 21 January 2010. Now living in Baltimore with her husband and three-year-old daughter, Jacqueline is desperate to contact her parents who still live in Haiti. “She had not changed her clothes since she learned about the earthquake three days prior. She had not eaten, and she had forgotten to sleep or bathe.” All this time she has been watching the repetitive tv coverage and compulsively dialing and redialing her parents’ phone number. She hasn’t bothered to go to work (she teaches at a public school).

I found this unrealistic. Yes, I remember after the World Trade Center attacks how we couldn’t stop watching the coverage, even though there was nothing new. Some of us tried to contact family or friends. I also sat out the first days of the tsunami and Fukishima disaster with a woman from Japan. So I’m not unfamiliar with the reaction to a catastrophe. Still, Jacqueline’s stupor seemed extreme to me, especially when there’s a three-year-old in the home.

Jacqueline continues in this vein for a month before finally going outside–not bathing though; she just “put her coat on top of the clothes she’d worn for days.” And the school holds her job for her, not pressuring her to return as month follows month. Really? I taught in the Baltimore Public Schools for a few years and can’t imagine such leeway granted to a teacher. A month later, when she is almost ready to give them up for dead, her mother Annette suddenly contacts her; she and Paul, Jacqueline’s father, have been in Florida all this time, not bothering to let their daughter know that they are alive.

While some aspects of the story are hard to believe, the essential story question is not just timely, but important. How can Jacqueline forge a relationship with the parents who, fixated on their own pleasures, essentially abandoned her? Forced to practice the despised piano until her fingers bled in order to impress her parents’ friends at parties and then sent to boarding school in the U.S. when only ten, Jacqueline has had almost no contact with her parents in the intervening years. Suddenly her mother will not leave her alone, needing Jacqueline’s help now that Paul has been permanently disabled because of the earthquake.

A good story question, yet the story itself seems insubstantial. It’s narrated quickly, skipping over much that could have been explored, leaving it feeling superficial. Characters make abrupt changes for no reason. There are a number of subplots alluded to but not really explored: Jacqueline’s husband has PTSD; she’s stopped attending church after—for some never-explained reason—throwing a hymnal at the new pastor; Jacqueline instantaneously becomes BFFs with a white woman who teaches Haitian dialect. Disturbing and sometimes tragic incidents are inserted, apparently to goose up the plot rather than growing organically out of the characters and their interaction.

The underdeveloped characters are a large part of the problem. Instead of multi-faceted individuals, the characters are two-dimensional, each sounding their one note over and over. One member of my book club observed that they are all broken people, thrust together. And broken people do obsess over and over about their point of fracture, bending your ear with the same story over and over. No matter how accurate psychologically, though, it does not make for interesting reading or a convincing plot.

I so wanted this story to be good. How many children today are suffering the effects of growing up with distant, distracted, or self-absorbed parents? The bones of a great story are here. Some of the descriptions are vivid, though there’s actually very little about Haiti itself. Jacqueline’s parents are super-rich, Annette in particular loathing the worthless poor. I did appreciate that Ulysse stepped outside the stereotypes to write about the rich in Haiti and how the earthquake might have affected them, yet I had hoped for more about Haiti and its people.

Writing a novel is hard. It’s different from writing short stories. I wish the author had taken more time with this book, so she could have made it the great novel it promises to be. Dave King wrote an excellent blog post on WriterUnboxed.com about “The Practice Novel”. He says:

The problem is that novels are huge. They involve moving parts you may not even be aware of and require skills with language and tension building and insight into characters that take years to develop. You don’t just have to master these skills, you also have to develop a feel for how they all work together.

So my sympathies are with Ulysse. She’s got the emotions and the plot structure. She’s got good descriptions, strong and varied sentences, and a genuine understanding of human nature. More work with developing characters would go a long way, as would less narration and more dramatic scenes; as readers, we prefer to learn about characters from what they do rather than from what they say about themselves. Maybe this novel feels a bit rushed because she was pressured to publish it quickly. I’d like to read her short stories now, and will look to see what happens with her next novel.

What novel have you read about the immigrant experience? What did you think of it?

Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle

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These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort. I welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father.

In this collection of short essays—a form he excelled in—Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the darkness; in “The Sin” he describes losing his temper with his son, grabbing his shirt collar and roaring at him, frightening them both. He doesn’t avoid his own responsibility or pretend it didn’t happen. Instead, he confronts himself, “ashamed to the bottom of my bones.”

Then he goes big: “I do not know how sins can be forgiven.” As he ponders that question, and the further one of who must do the asking and who the forgiving, he is led to consider the grace alluded to in the book’s title.

Doyle is a Catholic and makes clear in his Prologue that many of these essays “use . . . Catholicism as a prism, a way of being, an approach”. Yet he keeps these works accessible for those of us who do not ascribe to that or perhaps any religion by using terms we can all believe in. Like Mary Oliver, whose work he much admires (and vice versa), he links prayer to attentiveness. And when he talks of grace, he speaks not of the Catholic God but of the experiences we all yearn for: the unearned gifts, the moments of being, the love that descends on us.

I call his essays unforgettable because each pierces me in ways I cannot describe. I often use his essays in my writing classes and, reading aloud an essay I’ve read fifty times, still, as I near the end, my voice trembles and tears start in my eyes.

How does he do it? In just two or three pages he builds a world that fills my heart.

Partly it’s his word choice, the unexpected verb or adjective that surprises and transports me. And there are the startling images he uses. Both can be seen in this excerpt from “Cool Things”:

. . . the way the young mother at the bus-stop has her infant swaddled and huddled against her chest like a blinking extra heart, and the way a very large woman wears the tiniest miniskirt with a careless airy pride that makes me so happy I can hardly squeak . . .

A blinking heart. Airy. Squeak. They shock us, these revelations; they draw us in to the world of the story by linking it in new ways to the world we know.

Partly his essays are unforgettable because he does go big. He doesn’t hesitate to take on huge ideas, universal themes, and look at them in new ways, connecting them to our ordinary, our extraordinary lives. For instance, in “On Miraculousness” he uses an exquisitely described encounter with a little girl who is terribly crippled, out on the beach with her family, to—implicitly—look at the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Another technique he uses is to take on the voice of someone else, easing into it with the slightest of transitions, but giving us this genuine voice, this glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. For instance, here is the beginning of “A Child is Not a Furniture”:

One time when I lived in Chicago I spent an hour talking to a woman who was wearing a dress of the brightest red I have ever seen in all my born days and I have lived fifty years. This was on the Cicero Avenue bus at three in the morning. She said she was returning to the apartment where she lived with her husband. I inquired after children and she said,

My husband and I trying to welcome children but as yet we have not been blessed. I would like to have five children. I am myself one of five. My husband however an only child of complex circumstances. He have misgivings and forebodings.

Most of all, though, what makes Brian Doyle’s work so profound is that, as dancers say, he leaves it all on the stage. He doesn’t hold anything back. He lets us into all his secrets, shows us his warts and his wonder, his deep appreciation for our flawed and amazing time on earth.

He is missed.

What books are you turning to for comfort and courage?

The Hunting Party, by Lisa Foley

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For their annual New Year’s reunion, nine friends travel to a remote lodge in the Scottish Highlands. It becomes even more remote when cut off by a massive blizzard on New Year’s Day, just as Heather and Doug—the two staff who live at the lodge—discover the body of the missing guest.

The bruises on the neck indicate murder, which means the murderer must be one of the people at the lodge, though there is a serial killer on the loose and the possibility of local poachers. The lodge sits on a loch far from the nearest town, with only three staff: Heather the manager, Doug the gamekeeper, and a third staff person who lives in the now-inaccessible town. For this weekend, the exclusive lodge has only two other visitors: an Icelandic couple who keep their distance from the rowdy group of friends.

In their thirties, the nine of them are starting to pull apart, mostly because of the changes that come with aging. The tensions between them become obvious on the train from London. Katie and Miranda have been friends since childhood, Miranda the queen bee who enlivens any gathering and Katie the plain friend. Seven others congregated around them at Oxford: Julian, now married to Miranda; two couples—Giles and Samira with their new baby, Nick and Bo—and Mark who always had a crush on Miranda. The ninth is Emma, Mark’s girlfriend of three years. She’s the one who organised this plush weekend.

The settings—the loch, the trails up the mountain, the glass lodge, individual cabins, the relentless snow—are beautifully and vividly described. Foley keeps up the suspense, not only about who the murderer is but who has been murdered. The suspense is also fed by the gradually emerging backgrounds of the characters. They have secrets, as do we all but some of theirs are pretty ugly. Old resentments, betrayal, and shifting alliances cloud the air.

The narrator changes with each chapter, giving us different insights into all the characters. There are flashbacks filling in the characters’ backgrounds and illuminating the difference between the accepted story about an incident and an actual memory from someone who was there.

I generally dislike multiple protagonists. I’m easily confused and they can blur together if the voices are not distinctive. Plus moving around keeps me from bonding with any one character, though that may not be a bad thing in a locked-room story like this, where anyone could be an unreliable narrator. I can also get confused when, as here, chapters bounce back and force between several time periods, in this case the several days around New Year’s.

I wasn’t confused here, though. Each chapter immediately clarifies who is speaking and what day it is. Also, I listened to the audio version which has a different actor for each point-of-view character, so it was more like listening to a play. Their voices did the necessary differentiation; I don’t know how well it would have worked if I’d read the book.

It’s been promoted as a classic locked-room mystery, which it is. I found the puzzle interesting; the characters less so. If you saw gamekeeper and thought D.H. Lawrence, you wouldn’t be far wrong. If you saw queen bee with plain friend and thought of stereotypes, you’d be on target, not just for those two but for everyone.

Beyond that, I simply could not work up sympathy for any of them, especially the nine friends trying to clutch at their youth, their golden days at Oxford. Drinking too much, taking pills, playing childish or teenage games, making risky impulsive decisions: maybe I’m just not the right audience for such characters. On top of that, some of the more extreme antics—no spoilers—seemed implausible to me. The person would surely have died or fallen into a coma.

Still, I enjoyed the twists and turns of the story. Some I saw coming; others took me by surprise. And I loved the descriptions of the loch and surrounding forests.

Do you like a good locked-room mystery? What’s one you can recommend?

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

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A book by Strout is a balm just now, when we are so traumatised by grief and fear and anger. Yes, she takes us into the terrible crimes human beings, even those in quiet Midwestern towns, visit upon one another, yet she also shows us the complicated people that we are. Without dwelling on the ugliness in the almost pornographic way of many modern novels, Strout evokes in us the emotions of these characters, their trials, their loneliness, and sometimes their quiet redemption.

These nine linked stories build on 2016’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, setting them mostly in Lucy’s hometown of Amgash, Illinois and populating them with people who know or knew Lucy. Lucy herself does appear in one story, “Sisters”, when she takes a break from a book tour to visit her brother, still living—if you can call it that—in their childhood home.

Strout’s graceful transitions between the stories take a peripheral character from the previous story as protagonist of the next. Whether they grew up in poverty or not, prospered or not, are loved or not, all are damaged; what saves them is what a character in the previous book calls an “imperfect love”.

For example, in “Windmills”, Patty Nicely is a high school counselor, widowed and overweight, who had been one of the Pretty Nicely Girls. Hurt by cruel remarks from a students, who happens to be the daughter of Lucy Barton’s sister, and from her own mother, who now suffers from dementia, Patty struggles not to reply in kind. She turns to her best friend, but Angelina only wants to talk about her own marital problems. Managing these relationships calls for Patty to find a deeper well of understanding in her soul.

One comfort to her is seeing Charlie Maccauley around town. An older man, married, he interests her, despite Angelina’s revelation that he’s a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. This exchange between the two when they run into each other outside the post office captures Strout’s masterful use of dialogue and character description.

Eventually Charlie said, “You doing okay these days, Patty?”

She said, “I am, I am fine,” and turned to look at him. His eyes seemed to go back forever, they were that deep.

After a few moments Charlie said, “You’re a Midwestern girl, so you say things are fine. But they may not always be fine.”

She said nothing, watching him. She saw how right above his Adam’s apple he had forgotten to shave; a few white whiskers were there.

“You sure don’t have to tell me what’s not fine,” he said, looking straight ahead now, “and I’m sure not going to ask. I’m just here to say that sometimes”– and he turned his eyes back to hers, his eyes were pale blue, she noticed – “That sometimes things aren’t so fine, no siree bob. They aren’t always fine. ”

I think it is that precision of tone, the words, the details, that keep these stories from being sentimental. There’s no mawkish sappiness in Strout’s astringent prose. She gives us characters who mean well but are too busy or shy or reserved to listen to someone else or to help them. She shows us how the dark places inside them can make them do horrible things. She surprises us with their strength and compassion and with what summons these qualities.

But no matter what, she always treats them with respect and with understanding. Isn’t this in the end what we would like from each other? Isn’t this a large part of the healing we’re all seeking just now?

People seem to either love or hate Strout’s books. What’s your reaction?

The Famous Five, by Enid Blyton

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Just what the doctor ordered: three adventure stories of children in rural England. The five are siblings Julian, Dick and Anne along with their cousin George (aka Georgina) and her dog Timmy. They actually think they are just going to explore or hike or perhaps camp out, armed with torches, lashings of sandwiches, and ginger beer, but inevitably stumble upon a mystery to be solved.

Five Go to Mystery Moor, the first story in this fifth FF collection, has Anne and George, and Timmy too, spending a week at Captain Johnson’s riding school while the boys are away at a school camp. Anne loves the horses, but George is bored and annoyed that there is another tomboy there. Henry (aka Henrietta) doesn’t have curly hair like George, so seems even more like a boy. Then the news comes that George’s father is ill, so they have to stay longer and the boys are to join them.

The young people are fascinated by nearby Mystery Moor, even more so when they learn from Old Ben the blacksmith how the name originated. Exploring the moor, they come across the group of travellers who had been camped near the riding school and are warned off by the threatening men. Weird lights, blinding mists, and long-buried secrets draw the five and Henry into dangerous encounters.

The other two stories take place at George’s home, a cottage beside the sea. Julian, Dick and Anne usually go to Kirrin Bay for the summer holidays to stay with George, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin.

In Five Have Plenty of Fun, George’s father has been drawn into a top-secret government project. A highly respected scientist, his absent-mindedness is just mild enough to fuel humorous episodes without seeming stereotypical. The daughter of one of his colleagues is foisted upon the other children who have to adjust to the much younger American and her little dog. Mysterious lights at night lead to a boat trip to Kirrin Island in the bay where surprises and danger await.

The final story Five on a Secret Trail has the children camping out when they stumble across a ruined cottage and an old archeological dig where a very strange boy is continuing to excavate. Wailing noises and strange lights in the night set them investigating.

This collection of three middle-grade novels by beloved author Enid Blyton provide a little respite from today’s grim news. No surprise then that the first Famous Five book was published in 1942 with more coming during the war years and the lean time afterwards. These three were first published in 1954, 1955, and 1956.

Blyton is less well-known in the U.S., which is a shame because these are delightful stories that bring mid-20th century rural England to life. The children provide a range of personalities for young readers to try on. Julian is the oldest and most responsible, while Dick is much like my younger brothers: always ready for a game or a new adventure. Unlike George, with her vehement determination to be as capable as any boy, Anne loves horses, setting things to rights, and keeping everyone on an even keel. The main thing, though, is that they are realistically presented, acting and speaking like children we know.

I wondered if there were a real Kirrin Island, since the riding school’s Milling Green is a real place in Gloucestershire. The answer is no. Two candidates for its inspiration are Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, where Blyton spent a lot of time, and Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, Dorset, visible from where Blyton played golf at Godlingston Heath. A National Trust property, Brownsea is better known as the home of the Boy Scouts.

If you know some young readers or yourself want a break, dip into some Famous Five stories.

What middle-grade (aimed at ages 8-12) stories do you like?

Daughter of the Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird

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What an absorbing read! Bird takes the bare bones of a forgotten slave, Cathy Williams, who posed as a man to join Sheridan’s army near the end of the U.S. Civil War and was the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers. Then she fleshes those bones out in this captivating novel and clothes them, not just with uniforms but with fully imagined bindings.

When Sheridan on his quest to starve out the Confederate army raids the already-depleted Missouri tobacco farm, he finds little left to take: a scrawny chicken, some sweet potatoes, and a slave to help his cook. He thinks the slave he’s confiscated is a boy because of his britches, and Cathy quickly discovers that she needs to keep up the disguise if she’s to survive. Glad to be free of her cruel mistress but miserable at being torn from her mother and little sister, she calls herself William Cathay.

As a writer, I was intrigued by the choices the author had to make. What kind of woman could not only survive, but become an integral part of an army of men? Bird’s answer: a woman whose mother never let her child forget that she was the daughter of the daughter of an African queen, a mighty warrior who may have been captured and sold into slavery but never lost her pride and spirit.

How would the author handle the bathroom issues, often ignored in historical fiction, but so important here to Cathy’s disguise? Bird comes up with creative, believable solutions, not just for bathing and peeing, but also for Cathy’s “monthlies”.

How much historical context of the Civil War and the Buffalo Soldiers campaign against the Indians would she include? Bird makes the smart choice to tell the story as a memoir, in Cathy’s distinctive and engaging voice. In keeping with that choice, she concentrates on the vivid details of daily life—the size of cooking pots, tea with blackstrap molasses and condensed milk, training new recruits with hay and straw, the things that Cathy would have noticed—and leaves out the big events that Cathy wouldn’t have been aware of.

What about real historical figures? Too little is known about the real Cathy to guide how she is portrayed. I’m no expert on Sheridan and Custer, the only other real figures besides a glimpse of Lee at Appomattox, but the way they are shown here is consistent with their actions.

If I have one quibble with this novel, it is in the characterization. Cathy herself is brilliantly brought to life, and two other characters, Sheridan and the cook Solomon, are complicated men who evolve during the story. However, the other significant characters are either all good or all bad. The remaining black soldiers have no moral sense beyond immediate gratification and are easily led. The Indians, whom the Buffalo Soldiers are sent to quell, are an undifferentiated vicious and terrifying horde, though to be fair that is probably all Private Cathay would have known of them.

Of course there is a love story—it’s rare for female characters to be allowed any other plot—but luckily it is but one strand in the many stories of friendship and courage and leadership.

If you’re looking for a tale of a strong woman succeeding against terrible odds, if you want to be immersed in a time other than our own suddenly grim one, check out this novel.

What issues have you encountered with historical novels? What historical novels have you enjoyed?

Jordan County, by Shelby Foote

Foote

It was the author’s name that caught my eye. Shelby Foote is of course the author of The Civil War. I didn’t know he wrote fiction, but this is only one of several novels. Well, it is subtitled A Novel. In reality, it is that always fascinating hybrid: a novel in stories.

Here it is in a novella and six other stories, all set in the fictional town of Bristol in Jordan County, Mississippi. They are the opposite of a traditional historical narrative because they start in 1950 and go backwards in time to 1797, lending a curious perspective, an unfolding of causes, each absorbed in its present moment, but leading up to the time when Foote was writing.

The first story is begins with Pauly arriving in Bristol on the train. A 25-year-old veteran, presumably of the Korean War, he walks through the town, perplexed by the new names on stores, the traffic lights, the new parking meters. A distracted man approaches.

“They changed it,” he said to the man. “They changed it on me while my back was turned.”

“How’s that?” The worried look did not leave the man’s face.

“The town. They changed it. It’s all new.”

These are stories about change, adjusting to it, creating it, fighting it. Some characters are caught in the shredded remnants of the past while others launch themselves into the future, all while we move through the Jazz Age, across the turn of the century, into Reconstruction, the war itself, the beginnings of the town, all the way to the clearing of the Choctaws.

Almost nowhere is more haunted by dreams of the past than Mississippi, home of William Faulkner who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In giving the life of Hector Sturgis, the novella tells of several generations of the Wingate-Sturgis family, centered in the mansion built by his grand-grandfather in 1835. On the first page we’re told that the mansion has been torn down after the death of Hector’s mother, as specified by her will, and turned into a public park.

Introduced almost as an omen of what is to come, the county is in the grip of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when Hector is born. The description is eerily familiar: railroads and steamboats shut down, people confined to their homes.

Growing up, Hector inhabits a liminal space. Dressed by his doting mother as Little Lord Fauntleroy, he has no friends. The boys in town are briefly in awe of him but quickly turn to jeering at him. His domineering grandmother wins the power struggle over him leaving his mother seething with resentment. Spoiled, untrained in any practical skill, he is poorly equipped to take his place as a man. Yet he does have one remarkable skill.

As the story weaves and turns it began to remind me of Faulkner’s Wild Palms, that fever dream of the South, of unexpected love, of omens and tragedy and hauntings. Still, just as in the larger novel, we can see the unspooling of whims, decisions, and actions whose long tentacles entangle Hector and his family and threaten to drown them.

There’s brilliant choreography, within each story and in the novel as a whole. Foote releases information, ties things together with the most gossamer allusion, gives us the taste and feel of life in the past. These days I’m a vessel brimming with sadness for our world; Foote helps me see how we got here.

Have you read a novel in stories? How did the form work for you?