Tag Archives: historical fiction

COLOR of LIGHTNING: a novel

VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

 

North Texas was a good place to be a black man; slave or free, they were all expected to carry arms… a person could pretty well do what he liked and he could be whatever he took a mind to as long as he had a strong back and a good aim.

 

Color of Lightning, published seven years before the bestseller, News of the World,  illuminates the untamed frontier with its Indian raids, legions of wagon trains determined to settle the land, and the heavy presence of military forts to enforce taibo or “white man’s” laws on the indigenous peoples. 

This is not a made-for-TV setting with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in face-paint and feathers. It is a graphically violent story of two cultures; one struggling to maintain centuries old traditions and the other determined to expand and subjugate the earth and native populations. The book is heavy with emotion and should be read with an eye to each side’s perspective.

In the real-world of 1860’s west Texas lived a newly freed slave, Britton “Britt” Johnson and his wife, Mary. The Johnsons built a home in a settlement along Elm Creek, not far from the Brazos River, and about 10 miles from Fort Belknap. It was a peaceful place with nice neighbors and a promise of new life. The smart and enterprising, Britt, soon established a successful freight wagon business serving the civilian and military communities.

October 13, 1864, Britt Johnson was away buying supplies when over six-hundred Kiowa and Comanche Indians made a murderous raid along Elm Creek. Britt’s wife, Mary and two of their children, Rube and Cherry were among those captured. Britt’s oldest son, Jim, was murdered. The specific details of Mary, Rube and Cherry’s rescue by Britt do vary but his valiant efforts and success are without question.

Through the author’s imagination, Britt is brought to life; a man’s man- proud, brave, courageous, fearless- strong in will, dangerous to his enemies and tender in heart to those in need of compassion and understanding- and capable of mistakes.

We ride alongside Britt as he sets out to rescue his family, making an unlikely friend along the way with a temporary outcast Comanche named Tissoyo. We feel the freedom of riding alone in the unfettered  land and smell the danger that lies in every shadow and thicket.

Our hearts break as we follow behind Mary Johnson and Elizabeth Fitzgerald as they are force marched to faraway Indian villages, suffering unprovoked violence, starvation, and inhumane living conditions. We yearn to offer support as they fight to survive; working long painful hours in the daily rigors of subsistence life with rudimentary tools and ingenuity. We feel each mother’s pain as their children are adopted by tribal families; enchanted by the simple lifestyle, the loving attention and for Britt’s son, Jube, the sense of belonging and power as a warrior. 

Meanwhile, Samuel Hammond, the newly appointed Indian agent, arrives in Texas, armed with good intentions and deep spiritual convictions. The newly redesigned Indian Bureau has turned over management of the frontier to various religious denominations. The Quakers have been given control of  Comanche and Kiowa-Apache territory. Sure of his God and sure of his mission, Samuel forbids armed guards to be present when distributing monthly rations of food and supplies fulfilling the agreement of a recent peace treaty. The efforts to force the tribes into submission with garden tools, calico and Bibles fail; the natives determined to maintain their territory, independence, and freedoms to their last breath. Samuel becomes entangled in the orders from his religious leaders to avoid violence and the reality that religious conversion will not happen, that war is inevitable, and that force is the only way to destroy the will of the tribes.

Samuel looked all about himself on the bare plains and thought what a miracle of endurance it was to live like this solely on God’s bounty, on whatever came to hand, in this sere country… People of great courage and fortitude, born with an unsatisfied wanderlust… And he must bring this to an end. That was his job. That was why he was here.

The Comanche and Kiowa leaders and warriors -unduly cruel, seemingly heartless, devoid of civilized morality, and terrifying to behold – are justifiably distrustful of the “Americans” and their threadbare peace treaties and broken promises.The tribes are caught between worlds; one world, that of the past, with no borders or boundaries, free to follow the seasons and the new world with its imaginary borders, fenced in properties, and self-centered landholders. The new people have brought deadly illnesses like smallpox that have decimated their ranks. The majestic buffalo, a vital resource, are being hunted to near extinction. What choice do they have but to rail against an enemy intruder?

Tissoyo said they were near the estado of Colorado… What is an estado?
The name of a place.
There is supposed to be a line nobody can see.
That’s right.
How do you make a line if it can’t be seen?
It’s only on paper.
You never know what the taibo will think of.

THOUGHTS

The book struggles a bit in the beginning but once the characters reach the panorama of Texas it takes off.

Samuel’s story is the weakest link. His character is naive and it is no surprise the tribes have no respect for him.

The unvarnished descriptions of the gang rapes, unwarranted brutality, and dehumanizing murders, necessary to authenticity, led me to the Rolaids bottle more than once.

I was most affected by the inability of some captives to return to their old life, forced by circumstance to be forever stuck between worlds.

And ending on the beauty of the author’s writing and the peace that solitude on the plains can bring, I leave you with an early morning view from horseback.

There are no mornings anywhere like mornings in Texas, before the heat of the day, the world suspended as if it were early morning in paradise and fading stars like night watchman walking the periphery of darkness and call out that all is well.

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BENEATH A SCARLET SKY: a novel

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE
February 2006

At a dinner party in Bozeman, Montana…I heard the snippets of an extraordinary, untold tale of World War II with a seventeen-year-old Italian boy as its hero. My first reaction was that the story of Pino Lella’s life could not possibly be true… I [later] learned that Pino was alive some six decades later. The story you are about to read is not a work of narrative non-fiction , but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945. – Author, Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan, true to his word, gives us the harrowing story of a World War II teenage “Forrest Gump” – a child whose courage would have challenged the most stalwart adult. The story was not an easy one to obtain from him; he had buried it very deep in his memory. Pino was mentally crippled for the rest of his life by the spit-second decision he had to make late in the war – a choice to live or die for the one you love.

Giuseppe “Pino” Lella was ten-years-old when Nazi Germany and Italy’s fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, formed an alliance in 1936. By early 1943, Pino was now a pimple-faced seventeen-year-old focused on girls, food, and music; he and his brother Mimo’s attention still centered on themselves and growing up.

Mussolini’s power was waning and Nazi Germany was flooding Italy with troops and supplies to slow the Allies advance from Sicily. The rising scent of war permeated Italy, Pino’s home, and his family’s businesses in the fashion district of Milan. The boys were familiar with and comfortable around the friendly high-ranking Nazis that drove through the city and frequented local shops and restaurants. The evilness and cruelty that lie ahead still dormant in the Italian psyche.

Pino and his younger brother, Mimo, had been fortunate to have been raised in wealth. With foreign born nannies, each had become fluent in English, French, and Italian. Each summer and a month each winter were spend frolicking high up in the Alps at Father Luigi Re’s Casa Alpina, a Catholic boys school. The boys loved their time there skiing and climbing the steep mountain trails.

The trajectory of their carefree lives changed the day Pino “fell instantly in love” with a stranger on the street and asked her for a date. Hoping to meet her at the movies that night, Pino and Mimo headed to the theater (she reneged on a promise to meet him) placing the two boys at the epicenter of the Allies first bombing run of Milan. Both were able to escape major injury but their childhood ended that night.

The boys were sent into the mountains for safety to Father Re. Mimo first, then Pino later when the family home in Milan was destroyed. Pino was soon to learn that the deadly war had reached even the solitude and treacherous slopes of the Alps. At Father Re’s direction, Pino, only seventeen-years-old, spent eight months guiding a multitude of Jewish refuges and downed Allied pilots to safety in Switzerland. Every trip was fraught with danger from the mountains themselves, Nazis, and the murderous partisans preying on the travelers. It is a wonder that the unprepared and inexperienced refugees made it to safety, but they did with the extraordinary help from Pino and other guides that he trained.

Weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Pino’s father ordered him home for a family meeting. At eighteen-years-old, he would be drafted into Italian military service and undoubtedly sent to the Russian front as cannon fodder. Pino’s father and Uncle Albert had, what they considered a better option, albeit one that would require Pino to endure the wrath of the community – enlist in the German Army. With his Uncle Albert’s deep connections, Pino would spend the war in a non-combat Nazi unit.

On July 27, 1944, Pino, aghast at his predicament, donned his uniform of the German Army in the Organization Todt. Everything I have told you about Pino to this point – his courage, his strength of character, his patriotism – pales in comparison to his unexpected role as a prominent spy for  the Allies throughout the remainder of the war in Italy.

It all began at a serendipitous meeting with Major General Hans Leyers, one of the most powerful Germans in Italy overseeing Armaments and War Production and the General’s disabled staff car outside his Uncle Albert’s store. Pino arrived home wearing his Organization Todt uniform on a ten-day convalescence leave for a war injury. The General’s driver stared helplessly at the engine. Pino, grabbed a screwdriver with his good hand, adjusted the carburetor, the vehicle started, and the rest is history.  The General fired his driver and put Pino in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the war.

Uncle Albert, a member of the Italian Resistance as a secret Freedom Fighter, saw the potential of Pino’s close proximity to everything Nazi:

“You’ll go where Leyers goes. See what he sees. Hear what he hears. You’ll be our spy inside the German High Command.”

So began Pino’s life as an Allied spy. Code name: Observer

It is remarkable that this young man could witness the murders, the mutilations, the despair and hopelessness of enslaved captives and pillage of his own country and still retain his composure to relay valuable information that helped lead to the end of the Nazi presence in Italy. He found true love, faced numerous dangers, saw horrors that would scar him for life, yet, Pino held true and served his country well.

It is not an easy read. Many times I felt my stomach get queasy. But read on I did, I owed it to all the Pinos out there that place country over self.

Recommended reading.

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SOLD ON A MONDAY

2 children for sale sign

SOLD ON A MONDAY

by KRISTINA MCMORRIS

depression era childrengreen quote markSometimes we have to make sacrifices for the ones we love…

sold on a monday cover[The detective pulled a chair over to me in the hospital.] I heard, “Can you tell me how it all started?” The reporter in my head blended with the detective before me. I wasn’t entirely sure which of them had asked…
1930s cameraI nodded at him slowly, remembering as I replied.
“It started with a picture.”

Sold on a Monday, like many popular works of historical fiction set in the 1930’s Great Depression is based on an iconic photograph. My favorite being, Mary Coin by Marissa Silver based on Dorothy Lange’s photograph entitled, Migrant Mother. four children for saleSold on a Monday was inspired by a photograph (later questioned as authentic) of a mother and four children on a porch. A sign near them reads – 4 children for sale, inquire within.

sold on a monday graphic.pngAuthor, Kristina McMorris, nudged by the writer’s innate question…what if… has created a world where a dramatic photograph, taken for personal use by a newspaper reporter on his own time, is found drying in the darkroom by the editor’s secretary, Lily Palmer. The moving picture shows two children near a sign reading – “2 children for sale. Recognizing the work of Ellis Reed, Lily shows the photo to the editor.

1930s reporter.jpgThe editor, recognizing the dramatic impact the picture will have on newspaper readers, instructs Ellis to write a story about it. Sniffing a chance to advance himself, perhaps leading to his own column, Ellis obliges. Puffed up proud, Ellis is brought down quickly when he is told that the negative and photo have been damaged and he must replace it immediately. Returning to the house, he finds the sign leaning against the porch and the family gone. (We never learn what happened to the original family; something that nagged at me long after I finished the book.)

ARC NetGalleyIn that instant he panics. He spots 2 children playing nearby at another house. Grabbing the “children for sale” sign, and with their mother’s reluctant permission along with a handful of money, Ellis stages a new photo. Thus begins a spiral of disquiet that follows Ellis into his new career at a larger newspaper; a success launched by this story. As he rises in notoriety, he is constantly aware it is based on a lie. Lily, also observes, he has lost that special something that reaches the common man.

Lily Palmer, harboring a deep secret of her own, is reminded time and again of the deception when letters and gifts continually arrive at her newspaper for the exposed children. The gifts and letters are placed on the porch in the dead of night, the deliverers unable to face the family. The innocent children were never for sale.

After a time, and independently, Ellis and Lily seek to find out what consequences their individual actions have had on that misused family. They are both rocked to learn that the mother has been confined to a sanitarium and has died. The children were placed in an orphanage. The now infamous photograph led to the sale of the two children to a wealthy family.

Using his newspaper network, Ellis finds the family and scouts the new home. Peering through a window, he spots the young girl, Ruby, neatly dressed, and sitting near a smiling woman. He believes he hears a young a boy giggling in another room.

He tells Lily that all seems wonderful at first glance. But further efforts reveal that appearances don’t necessarily define reality. Ellis and Lily set out to right their consciences and dredge up darkness they never dreamed possible. Their lives and the lives of the children are in danger.

Sold on a Monday is a fabulous 1930’s era “Agatha Christie” mystery with some really sharp edges. The suspense moves slowly at first, careers sputter, personal relationships simmer, and all along we are aware that this is the Great Depression. Desperate times where desperation can lead a person to the “Dark Side.”  The novel does come to a spectacular moment that then settles down to a “happily-ever-after” finish.

Good read for a rainy day!

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LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES: a novel

LOVE AND
OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES

by JAMIE FORD

In 1909, Seattle hosted a world’s fair known as the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, The long forgotten extravaganza was featured in a 2009 DVD celebrating the fair’s 100 year anniversary. The narrator, Tom Skerritt, while discussing human oddities featured at the fair, mentioned that a one-month-old baby boy, named Ernest, was donated by the Washington Children’s Home Society, to be a prize at the world fair’s highly publicized raffle. The ticket was drawn, but no one claimed the baby.

Gobsmacked by a society willing to use an orphan as a contest prize, Jamie Ford draws the winning numbers and does what didn’t happen in reality – he hands over Ernest, as a 12 year-old, to the prize winning ticket holder.

The story unfolds in Seattle in 1962 as Ernest Young’s daughter, Juju, a reporter, discovers a family secret about her father while researching the history of the 1909 world’s fair, a past her father is very reluctant to share. Ernest begins to remember events and people he had submerged years ago. As his past comes flooding back, he realizes that sharing his secret would hurt his wife, Gracie, now sidelined with memory issues. Juju is relentless and the battle with her father to spill the beans is a backdrop to an extraordinary life filled with both pain and happiness in the most unusual of circumstances.

Ernest’s memories take us back and forth from 1962 to 1909; his earlier years described so vividly they feel in technicolor compared to the muted colors of his older years.

Ernest Young, known then as Yung Kun-ai’, was born in China around 1900. Yung Kun-ai’s father, a white missionary, was murdered and his mother, near death from starvation, offered her son a chance to live selling him to smugglers. As a bi-racial child of a white missionary and a Chinese mother, Yung Kun-ai had no future in China; no matter how unpleasant his future would be in America, he would be alive.

His journey to America was fraught with peril dodging death along the way. After a very rough start, a wealth patron, Mrs. Irvine, sponsors Ernest, sending him to an expensive boarding school where he is discriminated against by staff and students. Ernest remains silent about his treatment but tells Mrs. Irvine he is ready for a change. She obliges. She surprises him with tickets to the world’s fair to celebrate his twelfth birthday; traveling to the fair she tells him three things:

 . . .that he would finally be given a good home, . . he would see the President of the United States and that his legal name was now Ernest Young.

Mrs. Irvine, ignoring his pleas to stop and look at the exhibits, walks him to the area where highly popular daily raffles are held. She whispers to him, they are all here for you! They’ve all come to see you and find out who has the special ticket. . . As she steps away from him she says gleefully, someone is taking you home with them. Ernest then realizes – he is today’s prize.

Mrs. Irvine nearly dies of apoplexy when she discovers the winning ticket is held by Florence Nettleton, recognized in Seattle’s prosperous brothel trade, as Madame Flora. The winner never in doubt, as Flora rigged the raffle; she wanted a house boy.

As Miss Maisie May, Madame Flora’s little sister, welcomes him to the Tenderloin, Ernest stands in the doorway stunned; all his senses were on high alert. Whatever my life holds for me now, he thinks, it is not going to be like anything I have ever experienced. That felt like hope; an emotion foreign to him in the past. He asks himself, what goes on here?

The building’s entrance was magnificent, with a glittering voltaic chandelier, the foyer accented with finely polished mill work. . . Everywhere he looked there were tapestries, lace-covered walls, plush French furniture in crimson and gold . . . There was a black man in blue tuxedo playing a piano. He smelled perfume, flowers and savory spices roasting in some unseen kitchen.

Fast friends are made, first kisses shared, and a true family develops supporting everyone when the moral crusaders and powerful community leaders reveal their hypocrisies and lust. Tears are shed and tragedy strikes, but Flora’s family of misfits and outcasts endure together.

It would seem odd to describe a novel where teenage girls are auctioned off for their virginity or succumb to dangers of the trade as heart-warming but Jamie Ford pulls it off. Much like his previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, he scratches the surface and reveals their humanity and emotional needs. His descriptions of Seattle and its culture in the early 20th century- both good and bad – seem real and draw the reader into the novel.

You will not forget Ernest, Fahn, Maisie, and others.

Recommended reading.

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WINTER SISTERS: a novel

 

WINTER SISTERS

        Robin Oliverira

Child after child was scooped into welcoming arms, but no one claimed Emma and Claire. Stunned by the cold, the two girls (7 and 10 years old) shivered on the iceberg of snow blown up against the school steps until Emma took hold of Claire’s hand and forged a mountain goat path over frozen drifts in the direction of their home.

Penguin | Feb 2018
Hardcover: 368 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / 19th Century Women’s Rights
ARC e-book from Edelweiss

In Winter Sisters, Dr. Mary Sutter [My Name is Mary Sutter (2010)] returns and is now married to her Civil War colleague, Dr. William Stipp.

BLOGGER’S NOTE:

The catastrophic 1879 blizzard that ravages the lives and landscape of the American Northeast in the opening chapters of  Winter Sisters is based on the Great Blizzard of ’88

On this day in 1888, one of the worst blizzards in American history kills more than 400 people and dumps as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas. . .

On March 10, 1888 temperatures in the Northeast hovered in the mid-50s. But on March 11, cold Arctic air from Canada collided with Gulf air from the south and temperatures plunged. Rain turned to snow and winds reached hurricane-strength levels. By midnight on March 11, gusts were recorded at 85 miles. . .

★★★★☆

REVIEW

It is early March of 1879 in Albany, New York and 13 years after the Civil War. The Reconstruction period saw many new “families” formed from the remnants of the carnage; neighbors, distant cousins, siblings and orphans found comfort and solace creating a whole from their broken individual pieces. One such post-war family includes Drs. Mary (Sutter) and William Stipp and longtime family friends Bonnie and David O’Donnell along with their two beautiful young daughters, Claire (7) and Emma (10).

The Albany weather is balmy for early March and the O’Donnells head out for the day dressed for early Spring; Bonnie to her millinery shop, David to the lumber yard and the girls to school.

By mid-morning, snow flurries suddenly appear. By mid-afternoon a catastrophic blizzard cripples the town. Temperatures plummet. Winds rage. Snow, measuring in feet not inches, races sideways striking windows and any unfortunate being outside like silver bullets. Visibility zero.

Claire and Emma O’Donnell are trapped, along with their classmates, in the Van Zandt Grammar School; their parents unable to retrieve them. As the storm finally abates, desperate parents race to the school to bring their children home. No one notices the two little girls amid the sky-high drifts left waiting for their parents in the bitter cold.

The O’Donnell family has disappeared. Bonnie’s body is found in a snow drift outside her millinery shop. David O’Donnell’s frozen body is found in the street near home. Claire and Emma are never found.

Like many other devastated families, Mary Sutter Stipp begins a desperate search for the girls; her now famous take-no-prisoners style testing the ire and patience of the male dominate community. Mary’s life’s exposes the struggles of women in general, and poor women in particular to survive and thrive in a patriarchal society. As she turns over every leaf in her search, she exposes life’s underbelly.

With the warmer weather returning, the Hudson River ice breaks-up and the melted snows from the blizzard cause record setting flooding. In the midst of this new crisis, the girls are found – alive, alone in the freezing waters, and traumatized. As the mysterious whereabouts of the girls is unraveled, the story becomes painful and unspeakable. Yet, the story doesn’t lose its sense of hope as the extended family surrounds the girls with love and patience allowing them to regain a brighter future.

There are some very positive and touching moments that seem especially necessary for the little girls and for the recovery of the other extended family members suffering their own life’s trials.

The story is painfully slow when the blizzard overshadows the lives of the characters but picks up steam when the girls are discovered and diabolical secrets are exposed. I found myself cheering at justice, albeit poorly rendered, when it arrives.

As much as society would like to think that women’s rights and roles have improved over the years, there’s a contemporary awareness that achievements toward equity are balanced on a knife’s edge.

Recommend reading. Many timely themes for book club discussions. The book should be as popular as My Name is Mary Sutter.

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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 Other Einstein

Rated: 3/5 stars 

Author’s Quote

I confess to beginning this book with only the most commonplace understanding of Albert Einstein and hardly and knowledge of his first wife, Mileva Marić. In fact, I had never even heard of [her] until I helped my son…with a report on…Albert Einstein and it mentioned briefly that…his first wife was also a physicist. I became intrigued.

Marie Benedict’s research about Mileva, her education and scientific promise, and her marriage to the Albert Einstein led her to create a fictionalized account of her life. In telling her story, she has revealed the cultural schism alive and well in the 1900’s world between women defined as breeders and caregivers and men as providers and authority. The author stipulates “whenever possible, in the overarching arc of the story – the dates, the places, the people – I attempted to stay as close to the facts as possible, taking necessary liberties for fictional purposes.”

Mileva Marić  was born December 19, 1875 in what is now Serbia. Much to her parents chagrin, Mileva was born with two handicaps that would make her future difficult – a strong independent spirit and a deformed hip causing her to noticeably limp. From her mother’s perspective, her superior intelligence and headstrong ways coupled with an unappealing physical deformity precluded marriage and children- the only options for women at the time. Her father saw that her precocious mind and unlikely marriageability could lead her to pursue a meaningful life in the scientific world; if they would let her in the all-boys club world.

Mileva’s sheltered life with her parents did not prepare her for socializing with others in a more sophisticated setting. She was quickly manipulated by a narcissist classmate, Albert Einstein, who took advantage of her brilliance and naivete. Albert, flagrantly violated social norms of student behavior, skipping class and defying authority. Discriminated and isolated by her male classmates and professors, Mileva was vulnerable to Albert’s attentions and charms. Trapping her in his web, Albert drew on her strengths to finish his education- leaving Mileva, a shell of lost potential, pregnant and without a degree.

Mileva and Albert were passionately in love in their early marriage and reveled as partners in scientific discovery. Mileva openly shared her thoughts and revelations on topics such as relativity; only to see Alfred positing them for himself and singularly receiving awards and accolades. After graduation, Albert’s slipshod work ethic and laissez-faire attitude in college led to poor recommendations and employment rejections. Mileva, during this time, struggled to hold her marriage together.

Over time, Albert’s charm offensive disintegrated as his ambitions were stymied, his flagrant infidelity was discovered by Mileva, his cruel mental abuses and repeated betrayal of  Mileva’s intellectual contributions finally reached a tipping point in a violent physical attack that led Mileva to find the strength to regain control of her own future despite the stigma of divorce and raising children outside of a “normal male dominated household”.

There were moments in reading the book where I just had to get up and do something constructive around the house. My frustration and anger at the meekness she demonstrated and the continued subordinate way she submitted to Albert made me want to reach into the pages and slap her silly. Wake up woman! After dedicating years of her life to scientific study, mere steps from cracking the glass ceiling, she allows Albert to distract and destroy her future.

Mileva Maric Einstein died alone and unknown in a Zurich clinic in 1948.

It was hard to see how many times Albert destroyed her self esteem and self worth. It became a burden to walk in Mileva’s shoes. In the end, we are left without a clear awareness of the impact she left in the scientific world. However, on the plus side, books like The Other Einstein have done much to restore Mileva’s talents and impact on the gender discrimination and scientific contributions. Young women today should read this book to understand what it took to give them the freedoms they enjoy today.

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Wilderness: A Novel

olympic-mountainswilderness-cover

Wilderness

Author | Lance Weller          easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR
Bloomsbury USA| 2012
Hardcover: 304 pages
ISBN: 9781608199372
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review Source: Personal Copycivil-war-quote
Rating: ★★★★☆
old-hunter-and-dog-circle

 


The old man began to tremble, though the wind was still mild and the rain still warm. He could not help but see, once again, war’s sights and hear war’s sounds and know, once more, war’s hard gifts that are so difficult to live with after the war.

After Lee surrendered in 1865, Abel Truman raced westward hoping to outrun the memory of the sights and sounds of war. When he found himself as far west as possible on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, he built a driftwood shack. For many lonely years he lived surrounded by the memories of the now long dead from his previous life.  His sole companion was an old dog that wandered into his life and they loved each other unconditionally.

On what would be his last morning in that idyllic setting, while scouring his beach for washed up treasures, Abel came across a blue door that triggered a tsunami of emotion and loss that drove him to the edge of despair. As casually as picking a flower, Abel burned his home and began to walk without purpose or forethought into an unknown future, dragging with him his heavy past.

“A fire burned from the little stone-lined pit…the night before he left…The old man did not yet know that he was going but he felt something inside him shift. The dog sensed his despair and knew what the old man did not… that he would soon try a thing and fail…The dog also knew that they would not return.” 

Abel’s story is complicated and must be savored slowly to capture the author’s true purpose. The story is so much more than the Civil War. Yes, the Civil War scenes are severe but hidden in the carnage is the individual humanity of each soldier. The reader is made to lie down in the dirt, crawl inside the mind of each character, and become a witness to history. When Abel’s torturous nightmares flare, it is as though you are remembering with him. We find in the heat of battle that each man reveals his true nature. Here’s a snippet from a battle scene with the battle-hardened Abel and David Abernathy, a young man, facing his first fight.

David’s knuckles were white upon his rifle, barrel and stock. His eyes stung with sweat…He was distantly aware [that] his spectacles had slid down the long thin line of his nose until he eyed the coming battle over their moon-round tops. A spattering of bullets sent sprays of dirt over him…[Abel] reached out one grimy finger and gently pushed David’s spectacles back up his nose, then patted his shoulder with an air of the paternal…Abel, good-naturedly nodding toward the field said, ‘When you do fire, point it thataway.’

Let’s head back to Abel’s last journey as he encounters others for the first time in many years. He finds that mankind hasn’t changed. The world is still a dangerous place and his body, scarred from war, is repeatedly mauled by miscreants, tossed aside like a broken doll. But he also finds good Samaritans willing to nurse him back to health often jeopardizing their own safety.

As Abel fights his aging body and the elements, he too, exhibits his strength and courage – his ability to spit in the eye of death. And as often as he has been dragged back to the land of the living, he offers the same care to others.

Weller has crafted each secondary character so well that you smell their fear, recognize their intentions and applaud their courage and sacrifice. As Abel faces winter’s wrath, keep a sweater handy as you will feel the frigid elements to your core.The story is riddled with loyalty, caring, brutal savagery, racism, pain, redemption, and finally, peace.

Lovers of the movie and/or the book, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, will be drawn to Wilderness.  I forgave the author for challenging this old man and his dog with so many perils. At times, it did seem so over the top, but I will admit to a few tears and flushes of frustration, anger and futility as I struggled to embrace Abel and offer comfort and friendship.

Highly recommended for those willing to take on life’s roughest edges head-on.

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Second Mrs. Hockaday


The Sesecond-mrs-hockaday-covercond Mrs. Hockaday

Author | Susan Rivers
Algonquin | January 2017
Hardcover: 272 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61620-581-2
Genre: Historical Fiction/Civil War

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★★★☆☆

August 19, 1865

Dearest Mildred, Of all the misgivings to which we women are prone, none is more pernicious than the suspicion that we were too easily won.civil-war-woman

Much like Fair and Tender Ladies (Lee Smith) or the Color Purple (Alice Walker), The Second Mrs. Hockaday is told in letters, diaries and correspondence. The book is loosely based on fact.

The book opens with a letter written by Placidia Fincher Hockaday from the Holland County, South Carolina jail dated July 20, 1865. The letter is addressed to her cousin, Mildred. The details of her incarceration are left out of the letter.

She reminisces in that letter about the memorable April day she first met her husband, Major Gryffth Hockaday, when she was 17. “On my deathbed I shall remember that April day if I remember anything at all…”

She had spent most of the memorable day riding a spirited horse and arrived back at her father’s farm, sweaty, dirty and wild-haired. She discovers her father talking to a mysterious Confederate officer, taller and thinner [than father] with a wind-burned face as craggy as a shagbark stump.

The Major stays with the Fincher family overnight to attend Placidia’s step-sister’s wedding. We learn that Major Hockaday’s first wife, Janet, died recently leaving a child, Charles. The morning after the wedding, Placidia’s surprised father tells her the Major has made an offer of marriage. Placidia’s relationship with her step-mother and step-siblings is strained and her father is dying. Believing a better future lies with the Major she accepts the offer of marriage despite only meeting him hours before.

The newlyweds arrive at the Major’s farm and it is not the vision Placidia expected.  The farm is failing, rundown, and too few slaves to work it properly.  Two days after they arrive, the Major is called back to war service leaving the 17 year old bride alone in this new strange world to tend an infant and manage the affairs of a failing Southern farm.

Two years pass before the Hockadays reunite. The Major, headstrong and trigger-tempered arrives to discover that his wife has born a child in his absence. The child died. His immediate reaction was fury and he accuses Placidia of murder. He presses charges and she is arrested.

Placidia’s life and that of the Major’s over those two years of separation are told in correspondence that flips back and forth in time between wartime and their lives after the war, producing a somewhat disjointed story line. The truth behind Placidia’s accused crime isn’t revealed until near the end and is as heartbreaking and ruthless as you imagine it must have been.

As a reflection of the times, the story poignantly describes the plight of the slaves, the horrors of war and the struggles of all Southern families to survive during and after the war. Their stories are heartbreaking. There are secondary characters that will turn your stomach. There are moments that will leave you filled with hope for the future. I found the final chapters had the most meat and were worth the long tease to what really happened to Placidia. The “crime” would prove to be a dark personally held secret that percolated behind the ether of daily life through three generations.  In the end, the reader is left to wonder if Placidia’s final decision was wise.

My overall opinion was very positive. The violent scenes were handled carefully; accurate enough to be honest but not extreme enough to be overly graphic. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in historical fiction.

I would like to thank Netgalley.com and the publisher, Algonquin Books/Algonquin Young Readers, for the ARC e-reader in exchange for my unbiased review.

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News Of The World

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NEWS OF THE WORLD

by Paulette Jiles

Harper Collins | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-240920-1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: ARC E-book from edelweiss

★★★★cowboy

 

There has always been a soft spot in my heart for stories best read around a campfire. I have shared time in the woods, fire crackling, sipping hot cowboy coffee with the Virginian, Rooster Cogburn, and now Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd.

It’s 1870, the late, great War of Northern Aggression or Civil War, depending on your allegiance has ended. The Captain, now 70, like most of the men of his era, having survived the war, must now find a way to endure the hardships of postwar life. In his younger years he had been a printer but the war had taken this life from him. These days, he finds the alluring smell of printer’s ink on his hands on papers printed by someone else. His wife, long dead, his children now grown, he makes his living drifting through Texas frontier towns reading the news of the day to news hungry townsfolk willing to pay 10¢ to escape Texas for an hour.

Known to be a man of honor and respectability, Captain was approached at one of his readings in northern Texas about returning a recently recovered orphan, captured 4 years earlier by Indians, 400 miles south to her family near San Antonio.

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Johanna Leonberger was six years old when she was taken captive by the Kiowa after witnessing the savage murder of her parents. Now four years later and fully assimilated into tribal customs, Johanna has been torn from her loving Kiowa mother, and ransomed for fifteen woolen blankets and a set of silver dinnerware to the US Army. This blond haired blue-eyed ten year old having locked all memory of her first life in that dark place in the mind where horrors hide finds herself alone in a strange world where people sleep with roofs over their heads and wear shoes.

Agreeing to deliver the young girl to her Aunt and Uncle’s care, Captain Kidd begins the three-week trip with the challenge of harnessing Johanna’s trust. The arduous journey through flash floods and hostile territory is filled with marauding bandits of all stripes. Along the way, the limits of loyalty, friendship, bravery and honesty are tested. Many endearing side characters will warm your heart and a few bad men get western justice along the ride. Pure Western with heroes and heroines that will leave you smiling You might even learn something new in the news of the world.

Recommended!

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The Book of Harlan

 

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The Book of Harlan

by Bernice L. McFadden

Akashic | 2016
Paperback: 400 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61775-446-3
Genre: Historical Fiction

Review Source: ARC from publisher for unbiased opinion.

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★★★★☆

Harlan Elliott arrived on Christmas Eve, right there on the parlor floor between the piano and the Christmas tree [1917]…
[He] kept his eyes closed for two whole months…Considering how his life would turn out, perhaps Harlan knew, even in infancy, just what the universe had in store for him.

I have struggled for days over this review.  Not that I didn’t like the book or had any trouble finishing it; the pages seem to turn themselves. I loved it. The chapters were short (and presented in the third person).  The difficulty arises because there is so much to discuss! The book’s timeline spans everything from the end of slavery to the moon landing. There were so many themes! Blues/Jazz, Racial discrimination, Abandonment, Drugs, Cultural Identity, War/Holocaust et al.
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Harlan’s life is sprinkled through world events like one of those children’s popup books. Each time he pops up, it’s been years since we last heard about him. Harlan repeatedly faces life altering challenges, mostly brought on by himself and a few hoisted on him by society. As he plows through other people’s lives in his devil-may-care attitude, he leaves heartbreak and sorrow in his wake. There were times I would like to have reached through the page and played wack-a-mole to get him to grow up.

A number of interesting characters intersect Harlan’s path. Gwen, a naive girl, misunderstanding that sex is not love. Lizard, lost in his cultural identity but tied to Harlan through their mutual love of music. Lucille, his mother’s best friend whose living large life plays an important role in so many ways. His “Banty rooster” mother, Emma and his hardworking father, Sam, desperate to help Harlan overcome his demons. John Smith, a childhood friend, who Harlan loves like a brother from another mother. And my favorite, Louis Armstrong, whose heart and soul makes everyone’s day beautiful.

colored-only-sign[The Harlam band bus arrived in Augusta, Georgia and discovered all the colored-only hotels full. As the band prepared to settle in their bus seats for the night, Harlan sleepily says…]

“We passed a hotel not a mile down the road with a vacancy sign!  Boy, this ain’t Harlem…This here is Jim Crow territory…That sign is for white-folks only.”

Storyline
Harlan’s grandfather, The Reverend T.M. Robinson of the Cotton Way Baptist Church in Macon, GA had come a long way from his slavery days in Charleston.  The Reverend had hitched his star to Jesus and in no time his successful ministry provided a high quality life for his wife and children in the “highfalutin” colored section of town.

The Robinson’s youngest child, Emma, a gifted pianist, enjoyed the niceties provided by her father’s success but somewhere in the mystery of conception had picked up some stray gene that drove her to sample the seamier side of life.  When her biological timer went off in her teen years, she began a secret relationship with Sam Elliott, a local carpenter. The lovebirds kept their tryst going right up until she blew her father’s mind with the news she would need a shotgun wedding.

The teenage newlyweds weren’t ready for adulthood let alone parenting. Emma’s itch to leave Macon was stronger than her need to care for her new child. They had no clue where they were headed but it had to be out of Georgia and that meant leaving little Harlan to be raised in the same environment she was escaping.

Harlan, much like his mother, enjoyed a carefree life in the Robinson home. He learned early on that he liked getting his own way and to hell with everyone else’s feelings. His grandparent’s failure to hold him accountable for his behavior or to develop empathy and compassion would haunt all his future relationships. He achieved his happiness by modeling his grandfather’s self-important behavior. (This self-aggrandized manner would later drag friends into situations they would most likely never do otherwise.) When he was 11, his beloved grandfather died.  This death and the unexpected decision by his grieving grandmother to hand him over to his parents care marked the first of many times he would be forced to forge “a new life.”

Sam, Emma and Harlan moved to the epicenter for Negro jazz and blues music, Harlem. Emma had big dreams of emulating her best friend,  Lucille, a popular Negro recording singer, making her mark in the heady world of the Harlem Renaissance.

jazzmenWhile living in Harlem, Harlan discovered his inherited music talent following in love with the guitar. When he dropped out of school at 16 to pursue a musical career, Lucille took him on band tours through the United States. With little supervision and poor adult role models, Harlan found drugs, alcohol and sex. These new vices drew him deeper and deeper in their grasp until he no longer was reliable to the band. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you; Lucille fired him.

While nursing a grudge, Harlan befriends another musician named Lizard and in time the two form the Harlem World Band.  In 1940, the band headlines at a cabaret in France. The group is shocked to see that Paris is colorblind with no whites-only barriers. But there is the unsettling concern among the French citizenry that the marauding Nazis might choose to invade France. Harlen sees the music still playing and the booze flowing and believes he will be long gone before trouble arrives.

When trouble arrives shockingly quick, the Nazi flag and soldiers fill the streets, Harlan refuses to take it seriously. He has a ticket booked on a steamer for New York in a couple of days. Harlan sweet talks his terrified friends into partying heartily right up until the time to leave. Heading back to the hotel after a crazy night of partying, a man steps from the shadows and asks for a light. The rest of the group recognizes the Nazi uniform and senses the danger but Harlan, as usual, has to pull the tiger’s tail. In the may-lei, the women race away but Harlan and Lizard are beaten and taken captive.

Harlan and Lizard are sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp where they encounter the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, the wife of the Commandant. Ilse Koch loves to torture and she does it so well. This portion of the book is heavy and hard to read. Harlan survives five years of torture before the Allies rescue him.

The feisty Harlan has been replaced by a shell of man finding it safer to bury the horror. To talk about it would be reliving it. His parents and friends do what they can to try to reach him but he has retracted into a world none of them can comprehend.

The ending is bittersweet with a twist of revenge and shred of hope.

Highly recommended.

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