Book Reviews

Review: Cradles of the Reich by Jennifer Coburn

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My Interest

Liebstraum is one of my programs used to punish the horrific Nazi eugenics ideas in real life. Whether the children were born to unwed Aryan mothers who could prove the father also was Aryan or they were born to a young, willing, Aryan woman and an SS Officer or even that they were stolen from the “conquered” lands and taken back to Germany to be adopted by SS or other high-ranking Nazi families, all brought about the same end: furthering the numbers of Aryans.

This novel is what I’ve taken to calling a “Book Twin”–two books on the same subject appearing at about the same time. The earlier book was, The School for German Brides by Aimie K. Runyan (my review is linked).

The Story

NOTE: Lots of spoilers! Sorry! I just couldn’t hide them.

The story is told in a conventional way. Characters reflect various stereotypes. The nurse who has never married and is let down by her current beau takes a job in one of the Leibenstraum houses for expectant mothers or for “mothers in training.” The young women are stereotypes, too. One comes from a proudly Nazi family with a father who ignores her, the other, you guessed it, is the picture of Aryan everything but in love with a Jewish man. Only she goes along with the program and helps her gay friend by saying he, with an impeccable Aryan family, is the true father of her child.

Instead of experiencing all the normal Nazi events as she nears her due date, X flashes back on the events. The other, sadly can’t help herself and brags to one of the holiest of holy Nazi’s about who the father of her child is. Naturally, there is a big scene in which it all crashes down.

My Thoughts

This book was so “meh” I almost threw it back. If you are about 14 and know nothing of Nazi history it might be spellbinding. I had to wonder if this author was asked to write something to “compete” with the other book. I’m sure the author has better stories than this in her, I hope she is given the chance to tell those stories.

My Verdict

2 Stars

Cradles of the Reich by Jennifer Coburn releases on October 10, but is available now for pre-order.

Book Reviews

Review: Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini

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My Interest

World War I and it’s preceding and following historical epochs are favorites of mine. President Wilson, long admired for his foreign policy ideals (he suffered a debilitating stroke trying to get the US into the League of Nations) was in truth, not what people thought. He re-segregated the government, for a start. It is a fascinating time. He had backtrack on the promise “He kept us out of war” that got him re-elected. But the war did bring some opportunities to women and gave the promise, finally, of women’s suffrage nationwide.

In addition, I enjoyed a previous book by this author, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, and, to a lesser degree, another of her books, Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters.

The Story

One of the careers that opened to provide women with careers outside of domestic service was the new telephone industry. Women were employed as switchboard operators. Like every other type of women’s employment of the period, they were subjected to morals clauses that men did not have to endure, but it was still a way to earn a living without “living in.”

In the World War I, bilingual telephone operators (English and French fluency required) were recruited for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. While treated as though holding the same rank as Army nurses, they were not granted Veteran’s Status. Our story concerns three women popularly (and annoyingly) known as “Hello Girls” or “Switchboard Soldiers:” Grace, Marie, and Valerie who all volunteer to serve. After training, they embark for France where they help General Pershing and the American “Doughboys” put down the Kaiser and help win the war. French or Belgian, or of French Canadian roots, the girls are fluent in French, well educated, and have the manners and mores of the middle class.

Once overseas the women give their all to serving our country. Along the way they make good friends, help the local community and even find love. Thankfully, they each too seriously that they were “the first” and had to obey each rule to the letter–so there is no modern day jumping in and out of beds with guys. No Spoilers, but I was left admiring one character for knowing herself. That’s all I’ll say on that.

My Thoughts

I enjoyed this story, but thought the author was a little to “prescient” in sounding the music of doom with things like the Spanish flu–it wasn’t known at the time it entered the story that it would be a worldwide killer. Also, imposing the recent COVID-era mask debate into the story wasn’t helpful. (At least I didn’t catch any references to the Republicans!).

I thought the characters were likeable and mostly believable. All behaved in a way believable for the historical era, but none of the three really stood out to me. They were fairly “generic” though, admittedly, that could really just be from my “blues” of the moment. I liked the book very well and liked that other than the mask problem, nothing “modern” seeped into the story.

There was a bit too much for my taste of telling news headlines and historical scene-setting, but sadly today much of that is necessary. Does anyone even learn about World War I today? I wonder. I recall my kids doing a sound byte history of the world from the ancient Egyptians to Desert Storm in one school year, so I’m trying to not get as “peeved” by this pet peeve in historical fiction as I used to!

I did tear up (again) when the tragic story of one of my history crushes, General “Blackjack” Pershing was told. So sad. I’m glad that was included.

My Verdict

3.5

Switchboard Soldiers: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

My reviews of other books by this author:

Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters (click to go to my review)

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (from my old blog):

“I was enthralled by Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker! Elizabeth Keckly deserves a place of prominence in Civil War-era history and beyond. Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental illness is portrayed respectfully and accurately here. Mrs. Keckly’s ability to cope with “The Hellcat” as President Lincoln’s aides termed the First Lady, let alone her ability as a designer and seamstress, was vividly portrayed here.”

 

Book Reviews

Review: The Hotel Portofino by J.P. O’Connell UPDATED

Thank you to NetGalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

My Interest

If I watch tv (on my laptop–I don’t own a t.v. and don’t subscribe to any streaming service except the pretty lamentable Amazon Prime [no extra channels]) I watch PBS. Masterpiece is a favorite though I don’t watch every show–less and less of them appeal to me these days. I found this book on Netgalley (it was still available even though it was already published) and learned that it was on PBS (I’ve linked below to the trailer). I haven’t looked into whether this is a “real” novel or the “script” novel from the t.v. show. No matter–I loved the script novels of the original Upstairs, Downstairs (I still have them) and of The Duchess of Duke Street (ditto). If it tells a good story, I’m for it.

The Story

How do you cure a tired marriage being lived in a tired country? Move. What to do with an over-age son lingering in the house? Arrange a marriage for him. Bella Ainsworth, husband Cecil and “shell-shocked” son, Lucien, have upped sticks and moved to the Italian Rivera to open a seasonal hotel aimed mostly at British tourists. They’ve brought their servant and her teen-aged son to help them. Along the way, affairs are started, Mussolini’s thugs threaten, art is dubiously sold and much, much, more! And all on the gorgeous Italian Riviera just outside Portofino.

My Thoughts

I listened to the audio and it was a great story! No Dowager Countess, but otherwise fans of Downton Abbey really will like this one. This was a fun addition to my summer and I look forward to bingeing the show! And, apparently the show is going to have a season two–so stay tuned. 

My Verdict

3.5

Hotel Portofino by J,P. O’Connell

Did you watch Hotel Portofino? Have you read this book? Leave me a comment or a link to your own post.

Historical Fiction

20-books

Book Reviews

Review: The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen UPDATED

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My Interest

I used to be a big-time international politics junkie. I loved it. Until I didn’t. I realized it made me nervous and affected my sleep and concentration–like social media before social media existed.

Way back in college I had older friends–he was an Israeli by heritage and birth, born the year of independence in Haifa. She left South Bend and immigrated to Israel at age 16. Both served in the Army in the ’68 war. They introduced me to Israeli politics and taught me a graduate level course in Jewish faith, culture, and life. I am grateful.

I learned of this book via this post at A Life in Books. Won’t you click and read her post, too? Bloggers live for comments.

The Story

“The history in my regular schooling was all about progress, a world that brightened with the Enlightenment and steadily improved; a world that would continue to improve illimitably, so long as every country kept trying to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself.”

If the name The Netanyahus sounds familiar it’s due to middle boy in this book–Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu,  twice Prime Minister of Israel. He makes the US evening news sometimes. That’s why it sounds familiar.

The story here is of a fictionalized interview for a professorship at a small Liberal Arts College in New York State that Benjamin’s father went to in the 1959-60 school year. The babysitter having pulled out at the last second, Benzion Netanyaho packs up his acerbic wife and their three total hellion sons–Bibi being the middle one, and drives through deep snow in an ancient borrowed car (the car on the  cover is way too new). As Benzion struts his stuff as an expert on the Spanish Inquitions, his wife offends, his sons wreck havoc and the denizens of Corbin College are given an unforgettable course in what not to do on a job interview.

Benzion’s host, Ruben, a professor forced to take the host role because he is the only Jewish professor at Corbin College,  is a humble man–he puts up with playing Santa at a Christmas party, doesn’t deck the mechanic who feels his head asking “Had your horns checked lately” and stoically other macro-aggressions served up in a WASP-y late 1950s liberal arts college. His wife can only watch in horror as the Netanyahu family destroys her home–including the brand new color TV. She has worked hard to be admitted to the society of the college, to try to make headway at the library and has to stand back and watch an acquaintance destroyed by Mrs. Netanyahu–all with out “losing it.” We won’t even “go there” on the problems of Judy–Rueben’s daughter, and what happens when the Netanyahu brothers come to town!

My Thoughts

“and yet the fact remains that the youth today is more sensitive than ever. I admit I don’t know how to understand this phenomenon and have sought to approach it “economically,” asking the question of whether an increase in sensitivity has brought about a decrease in discrimination, or whether a decrease in discrimination has brought about an increase in sensitivity to when, where, and how it occurs.”
 

The quote above was so “today”–right?

This was in parts hilarious. It was a send-up of all the pretentious b.s. of academic job interviews (been there). It is hard to convey just why so much was funny if the reader does not know Academia. The battles over status, the coveted endowed chair professorships, the endless committees and the lifetimes their meetings waste, the search for ever more arcane subjects to become an expert on–it’s drivel, all of it.

But there is an entire class of workers whose economic livelihood depends on convincing people that yes, in fact, the Spanish Inquisitions–multiple–re-converted the Jews to Judaism. [Trust me, that’s not even on the crazy-o-meter today–you should have to read some of the truly “out-there” PhD dissertations even in a relatively sane subject like business!!] The obscene over-production of PhD degree holders has made finding esoteric niches even harder to find then the long-ago mentioned darter snail in a proposed Tennessee dam sight.

While there was much to laugh at, I did feel the book lost some of its luster near the end. I have no clue what makes a book worthy of a Pulitzer Prize so I cannot comment on whether or not the book truly deserved it.

My Verdict

Summa Cum Laude

4 Stars

20-books

Historical Fiction

Book Reviews

Review: Beautiful Exiles: A Novel by Meg Waite Clayton

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My Interest

As I’ve worked my way through Hemingway (slowly–lots left to go)–a writer I couldn’t stand in high school, I’ve discovered there is an entire industry of Mrs. Hemingway novels.  Beautiful Exiles interested me because Martha Gellhorn was a war correspondent first in the Spanish Civil War and on through to even Vietnam–pretty darned bad ass if you ask me! In addition, Meg Waite Clayton is another author who has become a must-read for me (my reviews of other books by her are linked at the end of this post). I plan to read her backlist, too.

The Story

While vacationing in Key West, Florida with her family, Martha Gellhorn meets Ernest Hemingway on a night out on the town. Hemingway is married to Pauline, mother of his two younger sons at this time, and does try to keep the friendship platonic for a while. Nonetheless, he invites Martha to his home repeatedly to discuss writing. Inevitably his friendship for her becomes his usual lust that must be satisfied. Meanwhile, the two go off to cover the war in Spain. Upon their return they move in together in the house Gellhorn buys in Cuba while Hemingway writes For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Once the chase is over and Hemingway has Gellhorn, he expects her to devote her time to adoring him and catering to his every bedtime whim. She is too independent for this and begins to suffocate emotionally. Hemingway goes out of his way on several occasions to humiliate Gellhorn. When World War II starts and Martha manages to get to London Hemingway feels neglected. The end is already in sight for their relationship which is marked by a cycle (in synch no doubt with his depression) of happiness, then put-downs, too much booze, not enough to do, humiliation and emotional abuse. The pattern was in all of his marriages.

My Thoughts

It’s hard to keep in mind just how much pressure was put on women to marry and to conform to what the husband wanted. Gellhorn was a great talent but constantly had to humiliate herself to pander to and placate Hemingway. I cannot imagine letting any man, let alone my husband, call me “Stooge” or “Daughter!” (The last is really creepy given that his eldest son was accused of bad stuff by his daughters). He also liked to make anti-Semitic statements, fully knowing Gellhorn had a Jewish father and grandparents. That and that she stood there and let him call her a “dry c–t” is beyond belief. That Martha went on to continue her successful career was not surprising, but the determination it took to do that was incredible.

Meg Waite Clayton captures “my” version of Martha well, even better than the rival book, though I did not count on quite such humiliating terms being used by Hemingway toward her. I could feel the humiliation of his words and of the way he tried to tear her down to embarrassed drinking buddies. I had tears in my eyes when he threw back at her the advice she’d given that got him to London. Despicable. I could smell the waft of the after-sex scent when Mary Walsh came into the hospital room in London, her bra-less breasts bobbing free to entertain the men. I have never liked women like Mary, always eager to take someone else’s man.

Clayton’s Martha (and my version of Martha) was too smart–she KNEW that if you marry the mistress you create a job opening. Hemingway’s “poor me” feelings during the down cycle of his depression (no meds back then) made him too eager to be comforted by whoever was available. His passive-aggressive actions were a recipe for the breakdown of any relationship. But, pathetically perhaps,  I also felt the attraction of Hemingway–a big, strong, masculine, guy but with talent to the moon. Who wouldn’t be swept off her feet? Clayton made all of that real.

What impressed me most though was that Clayton has Martha worry about her sex life in a different way–that it was painful. That was very poignant. It was not done in a tacky way, but in her thoughts. Martha thinks how she’d like to ask some other women if this was normal. In that day and age it just didn’t happen. Now, I did not really need to know the nickname for Mr. H’s little Mr. H, nor did I need to know that an iceberg looked just that little guy when it was “in repose,” but it was a love affair and then a marriage–this stuff is there to embarrass all of us our whole lives, right?

My Verdict

4.0

Beautiful Exiles: A Novel by Meg Waite Clayton is currently available with Kindle Unlimited on Amazon.

My Reviews of Other Meg Waite Clayton Books

Last Train to London One of my favorite books of that year. Click the link for my full review.

Race For Paris Scroll down in the post for the review

The Wednesday Sisters My review, from my old blog:“If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a writer….If you’ve ever wished for a writer’s group in your own backyard….
This is the book for you! A novel of my Mother’s generation–when it wasn’t taken for granted that women SHOULD, let alone COULD make their own dreams come true. The husband’s dreams–well, of course! This is a book of sisterhood, of motherhood, neighborhood and, if such a word exists, wife-hood. I loved it. Yes, there are stereotypical things….So what? is what I say this time. My one and only complaint was that the only negative character was a Christian. Otherwise, I loved it cover-to-cover.”  The Wednesday Sisters, by Meg Waite Clayton. (Sorry, I did not like sequel, The Wednesday Daughters, at all. It happens…..)

Book Reviews

Review: The School for German Brides: A Novel of World War II by Aimie K. Runyan 

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My Interest

I had this on hold at the library, but reading Davida’s review on her blog The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog, made me certain I would want to listen to it and finish it. In the end, I agreed completely with her review and add a few more thoughts. Won’t you be nice and click on the link to her review, read it too, and leave her a comment?

I’ve read a ton the lives and education of girls and women in Nazi Germany. Their indoctrination was an odd mix of the ultra-conservative plus a solitary liberal touch (the need for “pure” babies outweighed the need to shame single mothers being the liberal touch) so this book caught my eye instantly. While Hitler was venerated and worshipped instead of God or Christ, there is so much similarity with the American Quiverfull movement, whose purpose is to “outbreed” their opponents (and so much similarity with EVERY extremely conservative religion or society–even Stalin’s USSR during World War II) that I just kept looking for more and more information. For more on the Nazi Bride Schools read this article from The Daily Mail.

The Story

Three young women, just at the age of entering adulthood in Hitler’s Germany in 1938. Hanna embarks on a new life with her Uncle and Aunt, party stalwarts in Berlin, following the death of her mother. A midwife and herbalist, her mother had been a natural healer whose practice was outlawed by the regime. Hanna’s father has sent her Berlin to get her on the correct, safe, path for adulthood. Klara, the daughter of her Uncle and Aunt’s friends, becomes her first friend in Berlin. Both are expected to make advantageous marriages to ranking Nazis. Tilde, half Jewish, is the daughter of a dressmaker who serves both families, and is friends with Klara who apparently has not figured out her heritage.

Both Hanna and Klara are “guided” (forced) into the role of perfect German wives by their aunt or mother. But neither is a 1930’s version of a Stepford Wife-to-be. Particularly not Hanna. When the women are given the “honor” of attending the most exclusive of Hitler’s Bride Schools, the fit with the school’s ethos is less than perfect.

My Thoughts 

First the picky stuff 

  • Who used the word “trope” in 1938?
  • Swearing–girls like that were NOT brought up to swear. Saying “God” or Damn or Hell even in private would not have occurred to them.
  • “It’s complicated….”
  • In 1939 Nazi Germany, where professors were under total scrutiny would any professor have spoken out so clearly to a student? Maybe, if he was stupid.
  • Did people really say “go to Uni” [University] in 1939? [Since Americans say “college” not “uni” I’m not sure, but I doubt it].

Characters in historical fiction using modern speech or behavior is a pet peeve. Happily, while there were a couple of other things like this, overall it did not lessen my enjoyment of the story. I point it out to show, for the millionth time, that skimping on REAL editors and (apparently) relying on spell check does not produce as wonderful a book as a real, experienced, human editor would.

My Thoughts on the Story

SPOLERS

As a modern woman with 20/20 hindsight, I liked Hanna’s spirit. She knew her own mind and didn’t want to marry anyone at that age, let alone an SS Captain in his mid-30s (with her Uncle’s connections she could have landed a much older Colonel, so it wasn’t as bad as all that). She was interested in becoming a doctor or at least going to college–a perfectly normal ambition to someone today. Many young women in the 30s did go to college, but not in all countries.

Klara, too, had spirit. Perhaps because she was with her parents, lifelong habits of obedience let her be more accepting of their influence on her future. Regardless, she was the bolder of the two in reaching out to help Tilde once she admitted knowing her secret. That was admirable. She could be a typical young woman and be both catty to her friend and loving. Her advice to “try to make the best of it” was sincere and very good advice. Once she got over the loss of her potential excellent marriage, and accepted an only slightly lesser one, she at least got a man who seemed sincere and decent in spite of his high party affiliation. But, she took the greatest risk–showing both maturity and immaturity in so doing. Maturity in refusing to see someone as less than human or less than deserving, but immaturity in the way she chose to help. A more mature woman would have done so with much greater discretion.

I have no sympathy for the Nazis, but I do realize they were, in part, educated to be the way they were with the party hyping up the anti-Semitism that was present in all societies then to a fever pitch. Still, the SS were fanatics, so I found it interesting that Friedrich occasionally evidenced some genuine humanity. Of course, his finance,  Hanna, was an Aryan and a “good catch” in so many ways. But not many men of that era (or any era), regardless of nationality, religious or political beliefs, would have put up with a finance embarrassing them, though, of course, not all would react in a bad way. I thought Hanna, again, took the risks only the young and naïve would take. A more mature woman would have worked against him in more subtle and more effective ways.

Tilde’s story was nearly miraculous in the way her mother was so swiftly gotten to safety. At that point, lines at the U.S. Consulate were days-of-waiting-long. I also found it tough to believe she fell for Samuel that quickly. Through the mother-right, she was born Jewish, but in Nazi terms, she did not “look” Jewish. She was hiding in plain sight. The young take risks so lightly no matter how noble and honest it was of her to embrace her heritage.  

Nevertheless…

I found this book well written–the story was so compelling I kept listening in the evenings at home–I just HAD to hear more! Even so, I was very disappointed though, that little to nothing of the actual Bride School experience was in the book–that was just a “hook” of a title and a handy location for the ending. I would like to have read much more about that experience which was meant to make fanatical followers of Hitler and perfect German wives–especially for S.S. officers like Friedrich. In that, the book failed to deliver. Regardless, I still found it a very good story. 

My Verdict

3.75

For more on the Nazi Bride Schools read this article from The Daily Mail

See Also:

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Nazi Wives by James Wyllie

Book Reviews

Review: We Band: A Novel of Angels by Elise Hooper

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My Interest

I read and enjoyed the author’s previous books, Fast Girls, and The Other Alcott (links are to my reviews). I devoured the book, We Band of Angels, about the real nurses on Bataan that is linked at the bottom of this post. That I finished the story of a Filipina heroine in Asian American Pacific Islander month is just something nice, but totally unplanned. So many Filipinos have served the United States proudly in the past, in spite of the Colonial relationship forced upon them in the now mostly forgotten Spanish American War.

The Story

Tess is a Army nurse in the Philippines as the Japanese are saber-rattling and getting ready to plunge the USA into World War II. Flor, a Filipina college student, is set to leave for the USA on December 8, 1941. When the Japanese attack Tess and her colleagues are sent to Bataan to serve in a “jungle” hospital where their health severely deteriorated. Next they were moved to the Malinta tunnel on Corregidor. When the Japanese forced General Wainwright to surrender, the nurses were imprisoned at the former University of Santo Tomas campus in Manilla.

The nurses had been given no Army basic training, knew nothing of handling weapons (unless taught to shoot a rifle back home) but survived their harrowing ordeal through grit, determination, and the bonds of true friendship–relying upon each other to stay strong. Along the way, as often happens in war time, even in captivity, romance happens.

Flor, from Manila, turns to helping the resistance–using an ingenious technique to smuggle messages out of Santo Tomas. Her family’s loyal servant helps her, but is clearly her own person–not just taking on the risk of the resistance to keep her job. Flor, too, continues the ‘other’ side of her life, continuing to live with her family and enjoying a romance

My Thoughts 

I’ve done a poor job of conveying all the emotion that is in this story! The characters were well developed and I came to care about all of the main characters. Yes, there is romance, but it does not in any way diminish the heroism of these women. Tess must make a horrible choice at one point, but proves herself up to the task and then some. Flor, too, faces harrowing choices, but does so resolutely and decisively. I admired both of these women even though they were fictional.

I did find Don’s story a little weird. When reading that storyline I did not feel enough emotion for him and X (no spoilers) to predict that conclusion. It still seems a little “out there” to me. No matter, it is one small minor storyline.

Of the three books by Elise Hooper that I’ve read, I think this did the best at conveying the emotion and atmosphere of the story.

My Verdict

4.0

Angels of the Pacific: A Novel by Elise Hooper

My Reviews of Other Books By This Author:

Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team

The Other Alcott

The Nonfiction Counterpart to this Book

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We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman

My review was lost on my old blog, so the link is the Amazon. I do not make any money if you click.

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Book Reviews

Review: The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

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#netgalley

First, thank you to #Netgalley for a copy for this book in exchange for a fair review.

My Interest

This book is the sequel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by the same author. It is the book that involved author JoJo Moyes in an accusation of plagiarism due to the similarity of some passages of her book on the same subject. I have also read nonfiction books on the pack horse librarians–those books are at the end of the linked post.

The Story

In first book, we met Cussy Mary Carter is a “Blue,” a person with a rare condition that turns her skin blue. This time we are treated to the story of her daughter, “Honey.” This time both miscegenation and eugenics rear their ugly heads in the hills and hollars of the Eastern Kentucky of the early 1950s. Cussy and her husband are arrested for miscegenation–the marrying of white and black, and are thrown in prison. That leaves their daughter, Honey, a little short of 18, with having to have a guardian or face being sent to reform school until age 21. Her first guardian dies, leaving her vulnerable. But will a job with a new version of the pack horse librarians help her to win legal emancipation? Elsewhere in the community, someone is terrorizing the new female forest service fire-watcher. In prison, near Louisville, Cussy is subjected to lingering eugenics laws and forcibly sterilized while her husband rides out isolation from a prison polio epidemic.

My Thoughts

If anything, I thought this book was as good as the first one. There was plenty of action, a few good friendships for Honey, and lots of ways to see society trying to change. I loved all of that. Firewatcher Pearl, widowed single Mom and trailblazing female miner, Bonnie, and store clerk. Francis open up new vistas for Honey and help her take those last few steps out of childhood and into adulthood.

My only dislike was the insistence that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Lady Chatterly’s Lover were put into the court scene. It was not only in the “back woods” of Kentucky that people objected to these books. This was the 1950s–not today, people were much more conservative (even though my paternal grandmother bought Lady Chatterly). I would not have been shocked if someone had ended a library outreach program in the 1950s over even one of those books–even if they were not owned by the library itself (as was the case in the story). I thought that was cramming a bit too much of 2022 into the story. [For those new here, I am a librarian. I am very well-versed in the censorship debates].

In spite of this one little blip, I thought this was an excellent read. I honestly hope there will be a third book.

The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

My Verdict


4.0

Historical Fiction

Book Reviews

Review: River of Earth by James Still

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“Father looked darkly at her, and she ran out of the garden, ashamed of her vain-wishing”

My Interest

On my new job another librarian told me about the Kentucky Virtual Library and mentioned author Janice Holt Giles, whose book The Believers I admire (and recommend to anyone visiting Kentucky’s Shaker home), so I decided to check it out. I was browsing the University of Kentucky Press’ holdings on the KYVL and ran across author James Still. I wasn’t interested in poetry, but took a look at this book and in a few minutes I was hooked. It was a strange coincidence that, at the same time, my audio book for my commute, How Green Was My Valley, also looked at the devastation of coal mining on the land and on the soul.

A lot of it sounded similar–though not as in plagiarism. And, no surprise there. Much of Appalachia was settled by the Scots-Irish and Welsh (my ancestors). In the 1980’s PBS series, The Story of English, it was revealed that some of the dialect STILL spoken resembled the English of Shakespeare’s day. Hmmmm….maybe by really old folks. Mostly today that dialect is a mess of bad grammar and what we used to call “cussing.”

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Map of the USA showing Kentucky, The coal mines are mostly in the eastern counties.

The Story

“‘I was born to dig coal,’ Father said.” (p. 241)

Seen through the eyes of the elder (eldest at the start) son of a a Kentucky hill family, River of Earth tells of the struggle to make a living in the coal mining region of Kentucky seemingly at approximately the end of the 19th Century or early in the 20th (no cars, telephone, etc). His mother Alpha, and his father, Brack, have a good marriage and, at the start of the story, 3 sons and a daughter: the unnamed son who tells the story, Euly, the only daughter, Fletch and Green, the younger sons.

“This [meat] box holds nothing but a hungry smell.” (p.59)

Alpha longs for a real home–a homestead, where she can always be sure of having a garden to provide food for her family, and to have a cow for milk for her children. She wants to have a home inhabited just by her own small family-herself, her husband and their children. Brack, though, has coal in his veins. He lives to mine coal and takes satisfaction from it. He also feels the ties of family very fiercely and likes having relatives with them even when they eat them out of house and home. Time and again Alpha builds up the supplies, growing a nice garden and puts it up for her family only to have the mines reopen and Brack haul them all away from the parcel of rented land again to another company house at a coal mine.

Both parents want their children to have an education–at least in keeping with their time. But too often, when they move to the mine the school is shuttered and the children get nothing. But they learn through the folklore of the tales their ribald uncles tell. And he wants to read a tract that the tract lady sells for a donation–that’s all the literature he knows can be bought.

The environmental devastation of coal mining is represented in the burning slag heaps that cause a fog and miasma around the company town. The fetid air, made worse by poor sanitation, poor hygiene, tobacco spit (still a problem in Appalachia in spite of all the Mt Dew bottles pressed into service as spittoons today).

My Thoughts

I can imagine in 1940 this book probably set some people off–much like JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy did a few years ago, although one is a novel, the other a memoir. The “charming” folksy dialect would make some back then cringe–especially those who have just escaped that life and made their way to a high school and possibly a decent job outside the mines.

Today, we appreciate that the dialect is “folklore”–possibly the most maligned academic subject ever, especially belittled by Conservatives who see it as a “do-nothing” degree that never leads to a job. But part of folklore is the way language is used and changes. It also looks at kinship patterns, a food, at superstitions and at traditional medicine. All of that is in this book to some degree. Language, too, is part of folklore. No one today may say “Mounty-cat” for a [animal] catamount, for example, but that is just one example from the story.

This is an incredible story. It truly does make a fine pairing with How Green Was My Valley–the themes, the people, the values–all of it works so well together.

My Verdict

4.0

River of Earth: A Novel by James Still

 

 

 

Historical Fiction

Book Reviews

1954 Club Review: Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier

My Interest

I love doing these [Year] Club challenges! 1954 is the year this time.The Club is hosted by Karen and Simon. 1954 is around the time my Dad and my (maternal) Uncle Bob started at Purdue (I should know the exact year, but….) and my Mom was finishing high school. That made it interesting. For publication dates I’ve used Wikipedia’s 1954 in Literature and similar. Dates can differ between U.S. and U.K. publication. When I saw Dear Daphne’s name in the list I was pretty sure I’d read her book–I’m working my way through all of her books, so why not? You can read the about the other possibilities in my 1954 Club introductory post HERE.

The Story

The Duke of York involved in a scandal?

A Royal “girlfriend” needing a hand-out?

Graft and Corruption at all levels of government?

A Prince of Wales who….

Oh never mind! LOL. No, this isn’t a contemporary account of today’s House of Windsor! The scandals involve the sons of America’s last king–George III. The run amok Hanovers (aka Brunswicks). Americans don’t learn these little ditties, but this one is too wonderful:

George I was reckoned vile

Viler still was George II

Who ever heard any good of George III?

When George IV to hell descended, God be praised the George’s ended.

That’s them! George, Prince of Wales living in sin with Mrs. Fitzherbert, had his wife arrested when she tried to enter the coronation to be crowned with him! The Duke of York and Albany commanded the Army (just as, a generation or so later, the first Prince George of Cambridge did). Just HOW scandalous were George III’s offspring? He had 15 children–FIFTEEN and not one son had a legitimate heir! The Duke of Clarence jettisoned the mother of his many illegitimate children to try to begat an heir to the throne, but failed. The Duke of Kent finally fathered Victoria, and The Duke of Cambridge fathered the above mentioned  George–who, had he been born a little earlier would have been King. Instead the Queen Victoria got he throne. (Her uncle, Leopold–also Albert’s uncle, was married to Princess Charlotte, the heiress presumptive who died in child birth causing the need for a legitimate heir). Queen Mary was a great-granddaughter of  George III through her mother, George Cambridge’s sister.

But, back to the book. So, Mrs. Mary Anne Clark. She was what is politely known as a “courtesan” or royal mistress. But a royal mistress who didn’t limit herself to just dear old Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany. She had a regular stable of “backers.” Like Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela Digby (later Mrs. Averil Harriman) she was good at getting information out of men and good at keeping her mouth shut and using it to her own advantage. She lived in the style she felt the man expected–and deserved, and to hell with the bills. (Ask Brook Hayward how this worked out in the 20th Century when dear Pammy played Mary Anne to Brook’s father, producer Leland Hawyard). Sadly, the edict, “no one MARRIES Pam Churchill” was the same as that applied to “poor” Mary Anne. And, just like the mistress of the future Edward VIII, poor Mrs. Dudley Ward in the 1930s, Mary Anne was told by a flunky what her fate was. The more things change, the more they stay the same! Unlike a certain royal wife of today who pined for someone to ask if she was “ok,” Mary Anne landed on her feet every time until she didn’t. She was very clever and very good at grasping politics–just like dear Pammy who would end up as U.S. Ambassador to Paris. Of course, like a certain royal mistress.…sorry “wife” today, she was tripped up telling “her truth” to Parliament (one can hope…) And like the modern day Duchess of York (but not Albany), Mary Anne turned to interesting means to get the bills paid. And, the Duke of York and Albany–old Fred? He was too honorable. Now, doesn’t that ring a bell? (No word on whether he could sweat).

My Thoughts

Now this, THIS, was a royal novel to sink your teeth into!! Dear old Frederick Augustus, in his well-worn, if bespoke, drawers had a mistress who adored him, but took him at his word that when he wasn’t in her house her life was her own. Dear Bill was there as were others.

I am holding out hope that a certain royal ….(wife is just not the right word for That Woman) might meet the same ending. How sweet would justice being served at least be? No matter, this is a novel, not real life. I hope Dear Daph, in her role as Lady Browning (her married title) got to spend time in the Royal Archives at Windsor for this book. It was very, very well done. I loved the whole book! It’s very close to overtaking The King’s General as my favorite by DDM.

My Verdict

4.5

Mary Ann by Daphne Du Maurier

I am also counting this book toward the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Neither her husband, nor her other daughter, are shown.

Historical Fiction

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