Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

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An unusual and fascinating novel, Tokarczuk’s book explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book.

Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages the griefs that accumulate over the years, her vocation of astrology, and the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing. Despite her various physical ailments, she looks after the other homes during the winter, making sure the martens don’t get in and the pipes don’t freeze. Only two other people live there during the winter, Oddball and Big Foot. These are her names for them, as she names almost all the characters.

Then Big Foot turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. He was a loathsome creature in her eyes, a poacher who didn’t care how cruelly he hurt the animals he snared, someone who showed no respect for the non-animal natural world either, cutting down trees for no reason. Yet his death moves her. Oddball insists that the two of them wash and dress the body before the police come. She says:

There we stood in the cold, damp room, in the frosty vacuum prevailing at this dull, gray time of night, and it crossed my mind that the thing that leaves the body sucks a piece of the world after it, and no matter how good or bad it was, how guilty or blameless, it leaves behind a great big void.

Such a powerful way to describe a death. Their call to the police is delayed because not only is the signal spotty, but they often get a signal from the other side of the nearby Czech border instead of their own signal.

Borders are a recurring image, not just between countries, but between a remote community and town, fields and forests, humans and animals, grief and love, one person’s truth and another’s, language and reality. In fields near her house the hunters from town have erected huts they call “pulpits” where they hide in order to shoot the animals that come near, lured by the food the hunters have spread. I’m jarred by the idea of doing murder, preaching murder from a pulpit. Yet it’s so true.

More deaths follow, stranger and stranger. But there are greater mysteries here. What life is worth more than another? What actions are justified by law or ethics, and which one dominates the other? Are we as helpless as we think we are? How do our homes, so meticulously described in this book, reflect us and nurture us and protect us—or not? What is our relationship with the wild, meaning the portion of the natural world that we do not manage?

The title is from Blake, as are epigraphs for each chapter, adding to the fantastical atmosphere. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship. For Janina does have friends: Oddball, her neighbor; Dizzy, her compatriot in translating Blake; Good News, who runs a second-hand store in town; Boros, an entomologist she meets in the woods.

I found this book so rich, so thought-provoking that I not only listened to the audio book, repeating many chapters two or three times, but also bought the paperback book and am reading it. I loved the narrator’s performance in the audio book, but with the physical book I am seeing different things, appreciating different things—mostly to do with language. Thus, I’m continuing the story’s exploration of borders between one sense and another, between the physical and the metaphysical.

Have you read a novel so fascinating that you immediately reread it?

Abigail, by Magda Szabó

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Szabó‘s novel The Door made a strong impression on me so I leaped at the chance to read this newly translated book, also set in Hungary. Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border.

Gina is bewildered and furious at being sent away from her father and her social life in the city, which ranges from her friends at school to the more sophisticated people she encounters at the home of her aunt, especially a young lieutenant. The General’s sister may be flighty, but she is Gina’s only other relative. Yet Auntie Mimó is not allowed to know where Gina is going. No one is.

Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. When her clothing and few possessions are taken from her, she finds a way to secret a few. She mocks the games and traditions of her fifth year class and later leads them in a series of pranks.

She can only talk to her father by phone once a week in the presence of the humorless Director and the Deaconess; Gina’s forbidden to complain to him. Only later does she come to understand his motives in hiding her away. The war is not going well for the Axis countries and there are fears that Germany will occupy its supposed ally. Thus, this book complements my recent nonfiction reading about WWII.

While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex. My book club read this, as we had The Door, and we discussed the significance of the title. Abigail is the name of a statue of a woman holding a vase in the school’s garden. The girls believe that the statue comes alive to help them, so when they are in trouble they leave a note in the vase. This legend lends a magical touch to the story.

We wondered why this statue, significant as it is in the story, should be the title. I believe it’s for the same reason the author includes several flash-forwards, brief messages from a future Gina telling us how a particular thread will turn out. At first I was surprised that the author would give away these endings; surely the goal should be to build suspense rather than deflate it. Then I realised that the author didn’t want these threads to run away with the story. She wants us to stay with Gina and how she learns to recognise and admit when she is wrong, not least about the Abigail legend which works as a symbol of Gina’s arc.

One of my book club friends asked if this book is for adults or young adults. Publishers and bookstores may categorise it as a Young Adult book simply because of the protagonist’s age, but I would say it is also for adults.

While it’s obviously a book that would appeal to young adults, there’s plenty to interest those of us who are no longer in that age group. There’s the vivid reminder of what it was like to be 15, so sure of things and so often wrong. There’s the vivid evocation of time and place: an ancient monastery turned boarding school in remote Árkod in the last years of WWII.

There’s also the experience of a mind gradually opening to new ideas, to seeing her own mistakes, adjusting her worldview, understanding people from their own point of view rather than what we think they must be feeling.

I can’t think of anything more relevant to this particular moment we find ourselves in. This book has made me recognise how my own outlook and opinions have hardened as I’ve aged. As a result, I’m trying to cultivate again the kind of mental resilience that Gina demonstrates—not an easy task!

There is much more to this book—the subtle use of symbols, the remarkable shifts in characterisation, the minimal yet effective evocation of setting—all of which I plan to examine more thoroughly in hopes of improving my own writing. Still, Abigail is a fun and poignant story for non-writers, adults and teens alike.

Have you read a story set in a boarding school that lingers in your mind?

Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, by Dorothy Gilman

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My mother and I had a complicated relationship. We were never close. I had a passel of younger siblings and, what with one thing and another, she seemed largely absent as I was growing up. Looking back I can see and appreciate the small, generous things she did for me, but at the time she seemed like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons: offstage, uttering strange quacking sounds.

Once I had children, I appreciated her more, not surprisingly. We developed a casual friendship where we emphasised the things we had in common and didn’t discuss the many areas where we disagreed. We both liked watching ice skating competitions and Masterpiece Theater. I became infected by her love of dark cherries and sandwiches made of parsley and cream cheese. In return I taught her to use mushrooms in cooking and to make bread. Together we learned how to can peaches from Baugher’s in Westminster, Maryland.

We both liked reading Georgette Heyer’s novels, she for the romance and me for the wit and historical accuracy. And we both loved Dorothy Gilman’s series of Mrs. Pollifax novels. Although we believed ourselves to be complete opposites, my mother and I both saw ourselves in Emily Pollifax. If we were a Venn diagram, Gilman’s character sits firmly in the sliver shared by our two circles.

Becoming somewhat bored with her New Brunswick, New Jersey life, her Garden Club and nosy neighbors, Mrs. Pollifax, a widowed senior citizen, decided to do something new, something she’d always wanted to do. She walked into the CIA and applied to be a spy.

As it turned out, the CIA had a use for someone who didn’t look or sound like anyone’s idea of a spy.

In this seventh book in the series, Mrs. Pollifax is sent to Hong Kong to check on an agent, one well known to her from a previous adventure. This agent has gone curiously silent, and the CIA has become convinced that his superior in Hong Kong is compromised.

On the flight out she meets a gentle man who turns out to be a psychic, though he can never see his own future. And in the hotel, to her surprise, she runs into a reformed cat burglar she met in an earlier story, now posing as the third richest man in the world.

One of the fun quirks in these stories is the way Mrs. Pollifax meets odd people, some of whom turn out to have skills she needs. I love discovering the interesting qualities they are hiding and also her thought process as she decides whom she can trust. Another wonderful aspect of the series is the exotic locale of each, astutely described: just enough to give you the flavor without overwhelming you.

In Hong Kong Mrs. Pollifax is taken aback by her reception at Feng Imports, where the agent she is looking for should be working undercover. Complications ensue, with danger around every dark corner. Suspense builds to a nail-biting climax.

If I can ever hold off being gripped by the story, maybe someday I can work out how Gilman manages to balance humor with these dark and dangerous adventures. Mrs. Pollifax herself is one way: the surprise of a suburban grandmother who enjoys gardening and espionage, who has tea with her neighbors and takes karate lessons.

I think it is this clear-eyed view of how complex an average woman can be that appealed to both my mother and me. We loved Mrs. Pollifax’s normality, her practical and no-nonsense understanding of right and wrong. We liked these tales of an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary situations, bringing to them the same courage and common sense that women everywhere display when faced with concocting a dinner out of what’s in the frig or dividing a pie among a horde of hungry children.

My mother has been gone for 13 years now, but I still buy cherries for her when they first appear at the grocer’s in June. And I still get the urge to pick up the phone and ask her if she’s read the latest adventure of Mrs. Pollifax.

Do you and your parents or children share books with each other? What are some that appeal to both of you?

Passing, by Nella Larsen

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There is much to be unpacked in this brief novel, first published in 1929. As it opens, Irene is reading a letter from Clare, someone she knew as a child, asking to see her. For some reason this letter angers Irene.

It turns out that while visiting her father in Chicago two years earlier, Irene had run into Clare by accident at a Whites-only hotel. Irene had been feeling faint and the kind taxi driver who’d taken her there hadn’t realised that the light-skinned Irene was Black. Needing to rest, Irene was confident she could pass at the hotel restaurant.

Unlike Irene who lives in Harlem and is married to a dark-skinned man, Clare has been living as a White person ever since she’d left Chicago after her father died, when the two lost touch, and is married to a wealthy White man who does not know she is Black. Clare presses Irene to visit her, seeming desperate to reignite the friendship, but the visit doesn’t go well, as Clare’s husband appears and, taking Irene to be White, launches into racial invective.

Now, two years later, Clare has turned up at Irene’s home in Harlem and, when Irene pretended to be out, sent this letter begging to see her, saying that she needs a break from her husband’s racism. Irene agrees but continues to be wary of the beautiful and charismatic Clare, who rapidly inserts herself into Irene’s private and social lives, winning over Irene’s husband and sons, attending parties and dances whether she’s invited or not.

Irene is afraid of what might happen if, seeing her at Harlem events, Clare’s husband were to learn she was Black. Irene is also afraid for her own marriage, as her husband spends more and more time with Clare when Irene is absent. Although unspoken, there seems to be a fear as well for herself. Irene’s awareness of Clare’s sensuous beauty and her own inability to say no to the woman signal a deeper attraction.

The story revolves around this issue of pretending to be someone you are not. We see Clare’s frustration and weariness at the pretense she must maintain and her yearning to explore the Black life she might have lived. We see Irene’s attempts to maintain her façade of perfect wife, mother, hostess and civic volunteer, knowing she must do more than any White woman if she is to live up to these ideals.

I was reminded of Du Bois’ idea of the double consciousness Black people must maintain, always seeing yourself not just as you but also as Whites see you, and modulating your behavior accordingly. A White friend pointed out that we all do this to some extent, for example, behaving differently at work than at home. This particular example was brought home to me some years ago when I had to take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment twice, once at work and once at home for a class. My results were diametrically opposite. As a result, I began consciously bringing the two closer together.

However, these mild experiences don’t begin to compare to the soul-crushing constancy of the watchfulness Black people must maintain in navigating a world designed for and controlled by White people. The stakes are higher; the potential consequences more dangerous: handcuffs, a gunshot, a noose.

There is so much in this seemingly simple story of two women: the questions around identity, the effects of secrets and lies, the tradeoff between freedom and safety, the absurdity of racial categorisation and the appeal of racial belonging. Larsen offers no easy answers, instead leaving room for the reader to ponder these ideas, indeed to be haunted by them for a long time after closing the book.

Have you read a book by a Harlem Renaissance author that provides insight into today’s issues?

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?

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

daughter

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?