Texas, 1870 in ‘News of the World’

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Harper Collins, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A 70-year-old former soldier and itinerant news reader is asked to return a young girl kidnapped by the Kiowa Indians to her remaining family. Jiles beautifully paints a picture of the land, their growing relationship and the challenges they face.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Texas
  • Time: 1870
  • This book, based on actual historic figures, captures the hardship and beauty of life in Texas at the cusp of statehood. It was deserving of National Book Award consideration.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is tell a straightforward story simply and with beautiful language. News of the World is such a success.

Texas in 1870 was a very rough and unforgiving land. Paulette Jiles’s poetic skills are everywhere in the sparse yet descriptive language she uses to bring the story alive. In a surprising small novel, Jiles tells the story of a young girl taken to live with the Kiowa Indians after they murdered her parents and sister. Rescued by the army, she is entrusted to a seventy-year-old former military officer who commits to bringing her back to her surviving relatives.

While this is historical fiction, both of the primary characters are grounded in fact. Knowing this gives the reader a platform to better understand the dynamics of life during this period.

Both are outsiders. He is an itinerant news reader, paid to read selected stories from newspapers around the world to audiences in saloons around the country. He has a keen awareness of schisms in the country and picks and chooses what he shares to avoid creating additional unrest. She no longer speaks English and is completely acculturated to the Kiowa way of life. He becomes her teacher and protects her from men who wish to victimize her further. She, too, feels a responsibility towards him and uses the skills she gained to save them both.

This is a turbulent time in Texas. There is great lawlessness with predatory alliances, some as an outgrowth of the Civil War, others familial or opportunistic. Few women live in the towns and many of them are in brothels. The Captain and Johanna are forced to travel under cover of darkness for their own protection. The land itself is a major character in the book. Jiles language is so precise you can see the terrain and feel the dust as they travel.

Despite the seriousness of their circumstances, this is not a doom and gloom novel. As they come to know and understand one another, there is a genuine affection that develops. There are cultural differences that must be bridged and there is humor.

It is rare to find a book that tells its story so well in such a compact package. For that reason, I hesitate to divulge any additional elements of the plot. As Captain Kidd’s and Johanna’s journey together draws to an end it is difficult to read because these are characters I would like to spend much more time with. This is a book I can recommend without reservation.

 

Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock’ is contemporary and biting

  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Commissioned as one in a series of Shakespeare’s plays reconceived as contemporary novels, Jacobson skewers the “reality TV”  rich while Strulovitch, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, questions his Jewish identity and worries about his daughter, all under the eyes of Shylock.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: England
  • Time: now
  • This book showcases the timelessness of Shakespeare’s characters and themes with Jacobson’s keen language and sardonic wit.

Simon Strulovitch lives in the countryside near Manchester, England. On a winter’s evening, he visits the grave of his mother, Leah, only to meet Shylock, still in mourning and speaking to his wife, Leah. Strulovitch invites him home and thus begins a contemporary recasting of The Merchant of Venice. Howard Jacobson is well-known for his biting assessments of his characters and their social standing.

Venice plays a major role in the story. On his honeymoon with his first wife, Strulovitch quickly realizes her idealized vision of him doesn’t mesh with his conflicted Eastern European roots. Strulovitch was angry and saddened at his father’s disownment of him for marrying outside of the faith. Upon his second marriage, there was a reconciliation and Strulovitch became a great collector of Jewish artists though his ambivalence about his Jewish identity remained.

Tragically, Kay, Simon’s second wife was felled by a stroke when their daughter Beatrice was young. Kay was left a wordless invalid and Strulevich effectively became a single parent. Shylock and Strulovitch have much in common in dealing with their daughters and as outsiders in the communities in which they live.

A mash-up of reality television elements – food and advice tv – along with a Kardashian-like figure and her acolytes are satirical devices that draw Beatrice, an aspiring performance artist, to her rupture with her father.

Woven throughout the novel is overt anti-Semitism in the community and among those Beatrice has chosen as her associates. When Beatrice, just turning 16, runs off with a football player suspended for his Nazi hand motion, Strulovitch wants him to pay.

Shylock is the classic foil to Strulovitch as he wrestles with his values and where he draws the line on taking action. It does take a leap to accept Shylock’s presence in 21st century England. However, the essential issues that these men, both as fathers and as Jews, face have changed little over the centuries. For this reason and because Jacobson can turn a phrase, that this reimagining of The Merchant of Venice is well worth reading.

This is the second of these novel riffs on Shakespeare I have read. I may give another a try.

(My earlier read was Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew and here is my write-up. My take on recent theatrical riffs on The Merchant of Venice is here.)

Making amends, making friends

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Seven-year-old Elsa and Granny are best friends. Precocious and a misfit among her peers, Elsa gains strength from the magical stories Granny weaves. After Granny’s death, Elsa is sent on a quest connecting people Granny met throughout her life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Non-specific Sweden
  • Time: 2012
  • This book is for you if you enjoy quest literature. Some characters are reminiscent of those in the Harry Potter books. Be aware that suspending belief about the sophistication of a seven-year-old is necessary. It is definitely NOT like A Man Called Ove.

Fredrik Backman made a splash on the literary scene when A Man Called Ove was first published in the U.S. in 2014. His third title, Britt-Marie Was Here, was released last summer. When I had the chance to speak with Backman at Book Expo America last May, I asked which of his books he’d suggest for some book groups I facilitate. His recommendation was My Grandmother… precisely because people seemed to either love or hate it. And he was right.

I am a sucker for a quest. I recommend Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger at every chance I get. Backman does an admirable job of connecting the reader to Granny and Elsa. While it is very hard to imagine that seven-year-old Elsa really has read all the Harry Potter books multiple times, it is no stretch to understand why her eccentric, anti-establishment Granny is her anchor in her confusing family. Elsa’s mother works constantly and is pregnant with Halfsie, soon to be Elsa’s half brother. Everyone seems to adore her stepfather but they have no special connection.  And her father and his new family are not very involved in her life. When Granny isn’t getting into scrapes with the local police and businesspeople she devotes all her attention and imagination to Elsa.

Granny’s unexpected death leaves Elsa bereft and adrift. The small apartment building that Granny and Elsa lived in is filled with characters. Some are a part of daily life, whether Elsa likes it or not. Others are disconnected and often far from view. Delivering an envelope written by Granny to a neighbor sends Elsa on a journey to learn about them all.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is alternately humorous and touching. The imaginary world Granny created to ease Elsa’s night fears is complex with memorable elements. Some of Backman’s descriptions of Elsa’s neighbors are reminiscent of people met in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

As Fredrik Bachman told me, some love the book, others really not. Having Elsa be a seven-year-old is a real sticking point for many. Backman used the timing of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia to bring Granny back home to care for her granddaughter, a choice that created unnecessary hurdles. For those who can buy into the intellectually precocious Elsa, Granny’s imaginary world, and the quest to find Elsa’s true family, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry may be a worthy undertaking.

My visit to ‘Station Eleven’

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) Audiobook – Kirsten Potter, narrator (Random House Audio)
  • In 40 words or less: A famed actor collapses on stage as a worldwide flu pandemic that destroys civilization begins.  Twenty years later, the survivors struggle. Despite desperate conditions, they cherish fragments of life before and seek family and community connections in their new world.
  • Genre: Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction
  • Locale: Toronto, Great Lakes region
  • Time: Near future
  • Read this if you think post-apocalyptic fiction is not your thing. A beautifully crafted story with compelling characters that will likely surprise you.

I admit it. I steer way clear of classic science fiction and dystopic literature. There are so many books I’ll never have the chance to read in my preferred genres so why bother. Last month we took a road trip to visit family in South Carolina. As usual, we explored out of the way places (good material for another post) and avoided radio roulette by downloading audiobooks. I’d been hearing about Station Eleven for two years and thought it might bridge the differences in our reading tastes. It turned out to be a great decision.

Emily St. John Mandel uses the stage to open Station Eleven. Arthur Leander, a noted actor, is starring in an unusual production of King Lear which includes a few child actors. During the performance, he collapses in full view of the audience and one of the young girls. Despite the best efforts of an EMT in attendance, he dies. The lives of these three characters – Arthur, Kirsten, and Jeevan- are inexorably linked across more than three decades, from the earliest days of Arthur’s film career to twenty years after the earth’s population was virtually destroyed in a flu pandemic.

Jeevan, the EMT, leaves the theater into a Toronto snowstorm and learns of the virulent flu from a doctor watching patients sicken and die in the emergency room. With great descriptive detail, Mandel follows Jeevan as he stockpiles cart after cart of supplies from a closing store and then drags them to his brother’s high-rise apartment where they seal themselves in, hoping to escape unscathed.

Almost twenty years later, Kirsten is traveling the Great Lakes Region with a group of musicians and actors that perform concerts and Shakespeare when they encounter other small groups of survivors. Without electricity or other measures of modernity, daily life requires foraging and scavenging through buildings and cars abandoned as the owners died. Kirsten has blocked out the early years after the pandemic but continues to seek out information about Arthur, who showed her great kindness and gave her a book that’s her constant companion.

Also traveling the region is a young cult leader known as the Prophet, controlling his followers by force and intimidation. The encounters between the groups are classic good vs evil, with some twists. And it all began with Arthur.

Station Eleven is filled with comfortable individuals. Fully-drawn, they are far from perfect beings. Heroic actions come from innate humanity and personal growth, not superpowers. This combination of story and character makes this a genre-busting winner. The audiobook version, narrated by Kirsten Potter, seamlessly shifted from character to character allowing the story to shine brightly.

A delicate balance in historical fiction

  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (Ballantine Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Ravensbrück and the medical experimentation there are among the lesser known atrocities of WWII. Kelly’s book tells of the female doctor charged with doing these experiments and an American socialite who supported the Free French and brought the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück to the US in 1958.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York, Paris, Poland, Germany
  • Time: 1939 – 59
  • Read this for a skilled portrayal of the horrific and little-told events of Ravensbrück during WWII.

Caroline Ferriday was an exotic creature in New York on the brink of WWII. A socialite and former actress, she was a true francophile, volunteering her efforts to aid French citizens seeking entry to the US and orphaned children sheltered in French convents. In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly aptly captures her vivacity and generosity of spirit, as well as the differences between her and many of the other upper-class young women in New York at that time.

The selflessness of Ferriday is contrasted in the other real women portrayed in Lilac Girls. The Ravensbrück labor camp was a model facility for the Nazis. Primarily populated by Polish political prisoners, it quickly became a showpiece for the Red Cross and the laboratory for horrific experimentation into the effects of untreated wounds and infections. Herta Oberheuser was completing her medical training as the war broke out and was the only woman doctor assigned to the medical staff at Ravensbrück. Initially assigned to minor ailments, she wanted to use her surgical training. Already set apart from the male doctors, she was the perfect choice for a clandestine project to infect and maim healthy young women to simulate battlefield infections and wounds. Over 70 young Polish women became test “rabbits”, intentionally untreated and reinfected to see the course these injuries and illness would take.

Herta Oberheuser was joined in her mistreatment of prisoners by a sadistic matron-like figure and an assistant out to get her. Wherever possible, Kelly has used actual names and information, made possible by the extenisve recorkeeping of the Nazi regime. After the war, Dr. Oberhauser was one of few women brought before the Nuremberg tribunal. Found guilty, she excaped execution and was imprisoned, only to be released after about 5 years.

Although the names of many of the “rabbits” are known, Kelly chose to create fictional women and in doing so provides rich backstories and intricate relationships among the sisters she has highlighted. The complex mix between real and fictional characters begs the reader to search out more about the people and Ravensbrück.

There is a vast continuum of titles that fall under the historical fiction genre. Historical figures make cameo appearances in fictional stories, and well-reasearched narratives have augmented dialogue to move actual events forward. In telling the stories of Ravensbrück and of the hardships of the Free French, Martha Hall Kelly has broadened the understanding of those beyond the Jews who were subjugated and often killed by the Nazis. If fault lies in the telling of the story, it is the conflation of Caroline Ferriday’s deeds with a love story involving her with a fictional French actor. This thread is a major element in the novel though it does not seem to have any historical basis. It does enrich the reader’s connection to Caroline and provides a view into what did occur in France during and immediately after the war. I would have preferred to see Caroline’s strength shown on her own.

Many readers I know have no interest in reading any more books, fiction or nonfiction, on the Holocaust. Though the events portrayed are horrific, there is benefit to reading the lesser-known stories. Martha Hall Kelly has done a great service by bringing to light the tragedy of Ravensbrück. And Caroline Ferriday should not be relegated only to archives.