Not All ‘Enchanted Islands’ Are Paradise

  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend (Doubleday), 2016
  • In 40 words or less: Loosely based on a woman who lived with her husband on the Galapagos Islands prior to WWII,  a novel of a woman striving to overcome the poverty of an immigrant home, using her skills and life-long secretiveness to become a US spy.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco, Galapagos Islands
  • Time: 1890-1964
  • Readers who enjoy exotic settings will find the descriptions of life on the islands fascinating. The lives of the fictional Frances and Ainslie Conway are far more complicated than just their intelligence mission and likely than their real lives.

Allison Amend had taken a lovely nugget, two memoirs of Frances Conway’s experience in the Galapagos Islands, and used it as a springboard for this novel of hardship, transformation, and love. Amend imagined Frances as one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants to Duluth in the 1880s. The early portions of the novel contrast her family life with that of her friend Rosalie, the only child of educated German immigrants. Despite the relative comforts of Rosalie’s home, dark secrets propel the two to leave for Chicago at fifteen.Woven into the plot are historical details about the roles young women on their own could take at the turn of the 20th century. Franny and Rosalie sought out the Jewish community to provide a lifeline as they first arrived in Chicago but had no interest in assimilating into that life. In the course of her secretarial work, Franny also becomes involved in the surreptitious publication of early Zionist newsletters, not out of interest but rather through happenstance.

Franny and Rosalie take differing paths to securing their futures. After a blow-up with Rosalie, Frances heads west, initially to live on a farm, later to California as a secretary in military intelligence.  These experiences become the qualifications she needs to enter into an arranged marriage with an intelligence officer who is to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to keep an eye on the German residents suspected of providing information to the growing Reich. Before leaving San Francisco, Franny and Rosalie reunite. Rosalie is now a wealthy society matron, involved in the civic and Jewish community, living a life she’d like to share with Franny, her oldest and only true friend.

Franny’s marriage to Ainslie Conway is a creation of spycraft. Neither had been married or expected to. The cover story for “going native” was to remove Ainslie from the temptations of alcohol, apparently one of the facts this story hangs on. As the narrator, Franny’s vulnerability and desire for all levels of intimacy are revealed. Reading with 21st-century sensibilities, the challenges to their marriage are clear.

Amend does a wonderful job of describing the daily challenges that the rough terrain, limited supplies, and communications cause during their time in the Galapagos. On an island with less than a dozen residents, most of whom were German,  privacy was highly valued and there was little cushion between basic survival and potential disaster.  Medical care and any other services from more populated areas were days, if not weeks, away. Given the intelligence operations, using the hidden military radio was limited to specific purposes. As the war approached, US naval vessels periodically approached the island for reconnaissance purposes.

As is clear from the start, Franny and Rosalie are destined to reconnect again and the story comes full circle. Amend has an ambitious agenda with Enchanted Islands. She takes on the Jewish immigrant experience, the exploitation of young women, early feminism, spycraft and life in an exotic locale. Throughout it all, loyalty and friendship are key. While there is a lot to learn about life just before the war in the Galapagos, don’t expect to meet the real Frances, Ainslie or Rosalie.  Knowing this up front is good enough for me.

 

 

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Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

Reading local, Cape Cod style

  • UnknownThe Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: Lyddie Berry, widowed after a whaling mishap, asserts her rights to one-third of her husband’s estate. Though legal, this decision has harsh consequences within her family and community. Gunning provides a detailed portrayal of the difficult life in mid-eighteenth century Cape Cod.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Satucket, MA
  • Time: 1760s
  • Read this to see the hardships of life in colonial America and the tremendous strictures of the society.IMG_4340

On my recent vacation to Cape Cod and the Berkshires, I visited Eight Cousins bookshop in Falmouth. As is my custom, I asked the bookseller for suggestions on a fiction title by a local author with a local feel. Her recommendation of The Widow’s War was right on target. Sally Gunning’s love for the Cape and its history comes through from page one. What differs in this novel from many others is the focus on the legally subservient role of women in the colonies and the prejudice against Indians living among the settlers.

Lyddie Berry is a strong woman who has run a household for months at a time while her husband, Edward, was at sea. Theirs was a loving relationship despite the strains of multiple miscarriages and the deaths of all but one of their children in infancy. Mehitable, their daughter, recently married a respected widower in the community and was establishing her own household.

When whales are spotted in the bay, the ships leave in a flurry and all the men return safely except for Edward. Their neighbor and friend, Sam Cowett, an Indian, makes every effort to save him but is unsuccessful. Now the Widow Berry, Lyddie is forced to recast her life.

Unknown-1

Edward’s will provided for Lyddie as best possible at that time. The home and all properties go to the nearest male relative, Mehitable’s husband Mr. Clarke, with Lyddie to be given life tenancy to a third of the home plus support to come from the proceeds of the legacy. Edward’s solicitor, Mr. Freeman was a fierce advocate for Lyddie’s rights which Mr. Clarke sought to subvert. To support herself, Lyddie  nursed Sam Cowett’s ailing wife and served as his housekeeper for a period after her death. As an Indian, Sam was an outsider in the community and her alignment with him damages Lyddie’s reputation. Day to day survival overtakes her observance of the Sabbath which further estranges her.

The strengths of this novel are the detailed descriptions of daily life and the societal hierarchy within the community. Using the conflicts within the Berry/Clarke family as the background, the roles of wives, mothers and widows are clear.  Gunning carefully portrays the shrinking of the Indian presence in the local area as the consequence of selling land for supplies. Sam Cowett remained the lone reminder of the Indian landholders and his friendship/partnership with Edward Berry a thorn in the side of the community.

Whether your interest is in colonial America, whaling in Cape Cod, feminism in early America or just a good story, The Widow’s War holds its own.

Seeing the moon differently


There is little like the play of the moon on endless water to remind me I’m an infinitesimal particle in the vast universe. This view is of the moon on a bay leading to the ocean in Falmouth, MA, on Cape Cod. This has been a lovely change of pace with a friend at her home. Next stop, the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. For those unfamiliar with either area, both are rich with natural beauty, culture, and endless opportunities to explore or just sit and relax.

So far, I’ve finished two books on this trip (write-ups for another time.) I’ve made a stop at the local bookstore, as I always do wherever I travel.  My purchase included a historical fiction title by a local author.

With the moon still almost full, I know I’ll be searching it out each night as we travel, much like Fieval in An American Tale.

Participating in the Daily Post “Moon”

My to-be-read list is summer ready!

Ahhhh! Even if your student days are far in the rearview mirror, somehow summer has its own unique rhythm. Now’s the time to change your reading horizons in all sorts of ways. Grab a book and head to a park bench at lunchtime – your desk can manage without you. Try out an audiobook for that road trip. Negotiating a title with your fellow passengers may introduce you to an author or genre you’d never have selected on your own.

For me, summer is the time to queue up books that take me to another place and imgres-2time. Last summer, two particular titles really fit the bill. The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows’ novel of small-town West Virginia in the summer of 1938, just out in paperback, has an enticing combination of family drama, labor unrest and explication of the New Deal program that brought writers to small communities across the country to preserve their histories.

In The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck brings the reader along as he and his brother follow the trail from imgres-3Missouri to Oregon using equipment and tools of 150 years ago. Buck, a seasoned journalist in the midst of a personal crisis, decides this is just the change he needs. As a child, he and his siblings were taken on unusual journeys by their father, an accomplished, loving but difficult man. Needing another skilled horseman for the trip, Buck invited his brother who was dealing with physical and emotional problems of his own. Not particularly close since childhood, the extraordinary physical challenge of the undertaking tested and strengthened their relationship.

Page after page, the reader joins them on the trail, often within spitting distance of 18-wheelers. Along the way they take meals and spend the night with locals in small towns across the route; on farms, in dying communities set aside after an interstate usurped their role as staging point or provisioners. They meet old-fashioned craftspeople that keep their rig going when repairs are beyond their skill. Weather, rough terrain, exhaustion, and injuries leave them minutes from abandoning the quest. It was a joy to accompany them from the air-conditioned comfort of my home!

So what’s on the list for this summer? First up, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, ChrisUnknown-5 Cleave’s latest about Europe in 1939. Mary North takes on the task of teaching students that were not accepted in homes in the countryside as most children were sent for safety from London. Tom, charged with supervising the school, and Alistair, Tom’s best friend now serving as a military officer, both fall for Mary.

On a more serious note, Tribe, Sebastian Junger’s Unknown-4assessment of the damage we have brought on ourselves by loosening the communal bonds of society. He contends that combat veterans overcome their fears and insist on returning to their units after injuries because of the tribal ties they create.  Junger suggests it is the breaking of these bonds that fuels PTSD.

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, 2012 National Book Unknown-2Award winner, is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Her latest, La Rose, is another family-centered novel of contemporary Native American life with a storyline drawn from tragedy.  Erdrich brings a unique perspective to the complexity of the tribal and state justice systems. Snagging a copy of La Rose at the library was a real coup!

Another Louise is near the top of my TBR pile. Louise Penny has created the  magical hamlet of Three Pines in Quebec. Unknown-3With an assortment of quirky locals, poor internet and cell coverage, a cafe, bookstore, and a B and B, it is the perfect retreat except for the occasional murder. Chief Inspector Gamache is the warm, intuitive yet analytical detective who uncovers the culprits and the underlying stories. Through the course of the Three Pines series, his wife and his second (now his son-in-law as well) add a comfortable and familial tenor to the stories.

Now that I’ve shared the top of my pile, I hope you’ll do the same. Please go to the bottom of this post (on the website) and click on COMMENTS so that I (and others) can see what you are reading.  I’ll keep sharing if you will!