Monthly Archives: November 2017

A PIECE OF THE WORLD: a novel

A PIECE OF THE WORLD: a novel

by CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE

Morrow/Harper Collins |2017
Hardcover: 320 pages
HISTORICAL FICTION/
Christina Olson/Andrew Wyeth
Source: Library Book

★★★★☆

Shortly after completing her popular work, Orphan Train in 2013, Kline visited the NY Museum of Modern Art and viewed Andrew Wyeth’s iconic work of mid-century realism, Christina’s World (1948). Unlike Orphan Train with its vast list of characters, A Piece of the World‘s story focuses on one woman, Anna Christine Olson, a crippled spinster who lived her entire life in the harsh terrain of Cushing, Maine in a home without electricity or running water.

Andrew Wythe met Christina when he was 22, newly married and summering in Maine. The reclusive Christina, then 46 lived with her slightly younger brother, Alvaro, and together they maintained the centuries old family farm. The Olsons instinctively found themselves at ease with the painter and he soon spent every day he was in Maine at their house. Andrew, himself inflicted with disability, spent the next 20 summers lurching up the grassy slope, lugging his art supplies, to Christina’s house to paint undisturbed in a third floor room.

In 1948, when Christina was 55, Wythe observed Christina, now unable to walk at all, crawling through the field using her forearms and elbows. That sight inspired him to create Christina’s World, so named by Wyeth’s wife, Betsy. Christina is portrayed as a young woman and viewed from the back as she slowly and painfully crawls toward her home on the hill. I cropped the young woman out of the painting so the reader can see her determination  to propel herself on those withered limbs through her piece of the world.

Kline, in A Piece of the World, turns Christina around so we can face this incredible strong-willed woman head-on as she tells her life’s story. First believed to have contracted polio when she was 3 years-old, it is now thought that she had CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth), an incurable, inherited disorder that progressively degenerates muscles tissues and touch sensation throughout the body. As this is a work of fiction based loosely on facts, Kline spares us the worst side effects of Christina’s life as her painful disease progresses through the years. Spared those details, it is still hard to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped in her steadily closing conch shell of a body.

Christina tells her story flipping from her childhood with her large extended family to her isolated and debilitating adult life.

Who are you, Christina Olson? he asked me once.
Nobody had ever asked me that. I had to think about it for awhile.

If you really want to know me, I said, we’ll have to start with the witches. And then the drowned boys, the shells from the distant lands, … The Swedish Sailor marooned in ice. [The]false smiles of the Harvard man, and the hand wringing of the Boston doctors, the dory in the haymow and the wheelchair in the sea.

Chistina Olson, Prologue

And that is all Kline and I will tell you about this remarkable woman. It is best you travel with her to find out the answer to Who are you, Christina Olson? As winter is fast approaching in Cushing, Maine, it is the perfect time to grab a hot chocolate, a warm blue knitted blanket, a comfortable chair and A Piece of the World.  A woman crawling through life moves at a snail’s pace.  Take the slow walk through Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the author’s simple yet beautiful prose.

Recommended reading for book clubs.

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Lilac Girls

 

 

 

 

LILAC GIRLS

by MARTHA HALL KELLY

RANDOM HOUSE-BALLANTINE | 487 pages
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION | HOLOCAUST
Source: ARC e-book from EDELWEISS

★★★

Don’t be fooled by the lovely cover photo.  This book will be rough on the emotions.

Author Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was inspired by two real life women who represent the yin and yang of the Nazi era – New York socialite Caroline Ferriday and Dr. Herta Oberheuser of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for women.

Kelly spent nearly 10 years researching the background story for Lilac Girls and based on war crimes tribunal reports, survivor interviews and family records, the fictional Kasia Kuzmerick emerged  to tell her story about life before, during and after the Germany invasion of her native Poland. The three narrators alternate chapters and present the war from three vastly different perspectives.

America, still reeling from WWI, wanted no part of unrest building in Europe. It’s 1939 and a frantic wave of immigrants arrives daily in US ports hoping for safety. Most are sent back; often to their deaths. Caroline Ferriday, a retired stage actress, has found volunteer work at the French Consulate assisting wealthy refugees obtain documentation to stay stateside. The Ferriday’s are Francophiles and have a vacation home in Paris. Caroline is aghast that America has turned a blind eye to those in need and hosts fundraising galas to help French orphans. Her generous spirit is admirable but her lack of understanding what the children need goes without saying.

Meanwhile, Herta Oberheuser has received her medical degree in Dusseldorf, Germany and has found that gender bias prevents her from furthering her education as a surgeon.  While working well beneath her education, Herta spots an advertisement that will change her future:

I picked up The Journal of Medicine and noticed a classified ad for a doctor needed at a reeducation camp for women. . .near the resort town of Fürstenberg on Lake Schwedt. There were many such camps at the time, mostly for the work-shy and minor criminals. [It] had an appealing name. Ravensbrück.

Herta’s naivety upon arrived at Ravensbrück is abruptly shocked. She adapted  quickly to become a sinister criminal but left me thinking of so many in that time period that swallowed the party line – what makes a person become incapable of seeing the humanity in others? In the end, one has to wonder if those perpetrators of such horrific crimes could ever receive adequate justice.

Kasia Kuzmerick’s carefree childhood ends when Hitler declared war on Poland in 1939. Kasia and friends are spying on Jewish refugees hiding in a potato field when German bombers arrive and massacre everyone. The horror motivates Kasia to join the underground movement; a step that ultimately costs her dearly. One misstep and Kasia along with her mother and sisters are captured and sent to RavensbrückKasia and her sister, Zuzanna, were selected for medical experimentation surgery by Dr. Herta Oberheuser. The mutilated women were known in the camp as “Rabbits”.

The author softens the story with Caroline’s adventures in love and luxury but it is hard to look away from Ravensbrück with its inhumanity, pain and death. Caroline’s post-war efforts on behalf of the Rabbits is much stronger than her initial foray into war-time charity with her homemade gifts for the children. Her relationship with her married love interest felt oddly out of place weighed up against the horrors of the concentration camps; it did not occur in real life.

The strongest part of the story lies with the Ravensbrück inmates for their efforts to survive. The stories of the compassion and friendships they showed toward one another and the attempts to “normalize” their lives with little things like hair ribbons and lace collars is heartbreaking. The post-war lives of Kasia and Zuzanna illuminates how long-term trauma of malnutrition, torture, PTSD and disease has changed the arc of their futures.

It was difficult to rate the book. I gave it high marks for several reasons. The author’s research exposed the depth of depravity exhibited by the Nazi doctor’s and camp guards. As unsettling as the subject is, it happened; and stepping away from our creature comforts into that unimaginable horror reminds us that it could happen again – anywhere. The book reminds us that charity begins at home, suppressed hatred is corrosive, and that discrimination of “others” does not make a society stronger.

As a debut work, Kelly did a remarkable job of exposing a little known horror of the Holocaust and the generosity of the Americans for the surviving Rabbits.

Post-War Photo of Surviving Ravensbrück Rabbits living in America

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The Book of Polly: a novel

 

THE BOOK OF POLLY

by KATHY HEPINSTALL

Pamela Dorman Books | 2017
Hardcover: 322 pages
ISBN: 9780399562099
Genre: FICTION/COMING-OF-AGE
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

EXCERPT

I’m not sure at what age I became frozen with the knowledge, certainty, and horror that mother would die one day. . . One of my earliest memories was reaching up and trying to snatch a cigarette from her lips. Even then I knew my enemy.

[Polly] had conceived me in something close to a bona fide miracle, when she and her soon-to-be-late husband of thirty-seven years consummated their love for the last time. From the absurdity of that union came the news that my mother received from her doctor three days after my father’s funeral: Polly, [58], was due to have one more child in the year 1992. [Me.] Willow.

Eight months later I  was born, my family already gone like a train pulled out of the station: my father dead, my brother and sister grown and gone. . . 

Don’t you love a book that latches onto your funny bone? My first impression of Polly Haven reminded me of my favorite cartoon character, Maxine; brash, fearless and prickly. This is truly a southern tale filled with a small cast of unique characters much like Fried Green Tomatoes’s Iggy Threadgoode or Steel Magnolias’ “Ouiser” played by Shirley MacLaine.

Willow narrates the book beginning when she is a 10-year-old sharing her feelings, thoughts and emotions about living with a gun-toting, Virginia Slims smoking, foul-mouthed, Margarita slurping mother who loves her dearly; but Polly’s actions, viewed through a child’s eyes make you wonder if she was a spawn of the devil. The novel covers the next six years of their lives. Six years filled with tit-for-tat conflicts between a septuagenarian mother and a teenage terror with a propensity for lying. The narration in a child’s voice is a softening agent for adult topics like alcoholism, marital disharmony, religion and terminal illness and engenders sympathy for teenage angst and budding first love.

One of Polly’s traits that drives Willow crazy is her unwillingness to share her past life – life before Willow – one that includes deeply held dark secrets.  Willow is determined to peel the onion on that story and other guarded truths in order to find a place for herself in the family timeline. Some place where she understands where she came from and where she will be in the future. She is terrified of finding herself alone in the world without – her mother.

Polly’s cigarette habit frightens Willow the most. She does everything she can to make her mother miserable in attempt to ward off the “Bear”, her mother’s term for cancer.  Her efforts to prolong her mother’s life produce some deeply touching moments and some rather explosive reactions between them.

Polly’s over-the-top reactions to perceived or actual attacks rankles school authorities, her equally cantankerous neighbors and the world at-large. That includes the squirrels that invade her precious pecan tree.

I loved this coming-of-age story and I had more than a few hearty chuckles over the neighbor’s cat straddling the rickety fence, the next door neighbor’s free-range undisciplined Montessori twins, Dalton and Willow’s budding romance, and the bond between her brother’s friend and Polly.

Underlying all the spats and bluster lies the meaning of life for all of us. And the feel good ending, seen coming a mile away, reminded me of the last verse of Desiderata:

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Desiderata by Max Ehrman

 

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