An Extraordinary Author Produces a Very Ordinary Book

41UQU4aysHL._SY346_

After reading the fabulous Snow Child, I fell in love with Eowyn Ivey and wanted to immediately read everything she’d written only to find out it was one of the most fabulous debut novels in ages. So, when I heard that her second novel was now out I rushed to read it. See if this sounds like me:

  • Older man, younger woman couple
  • Historical setting
  • Military  men are involved
  • Epistolary format with diary entries and letters
  • Natural history and nature study
  • Museum and archive work involved

It should have been a perfect fit with my reading tastes. Except….except….except…. It wasn’t. Well, for starters, aspirin is given and it wasn’t on the market yet. Yeah. But the aspirin thing is not a big part of the story–it’s just a sign of an editor not doing one of the jobs they were supposed to do–fact checking.

alaska

 

 

The Story

The good stuff

Allen and Sophie Forrester are a happily and newly married Army couple. He is colonel given the task of scouting and exploring the Wolverine (i.e. the Copper) River in Alaska. The story of the expedition is mostly very compelling. This author is a very gifted storyteller.I really liked that part of the story. I also enjoyed, for the most part, the modern day story of the Great-Nephew donating Colonel Forresters diaries to a small museum in Alaska. I enjoy anything to do with first-hand account of histories and diaries are a huge part of that. Archives and museums a are favorite of mine.

I really enjoyed the ending of Allen and Sophie’s story. It reminded me very much of Hoosier author Gene Stratton Porter’s life and work.

 

See the maps from the book–and of the real journey that inspired the story.

 

So what bugged me?

In a word: Sophie. I’ve never met a character so vapid, yet able to hold some really modern views. I will say that Sophie say she got slightly more tolerable after she took up photography. Maybe she was boring because she was bored and stupid because her life was stupid and without purpose not that dear Allen was away.Maybe the raven took the stupid out of her and flew away with it? It was  a relief that she grew to more than she was in the beginning.

The whole story of the raven was just too much for me in both Sophie’s part of the story and in the story of the expedition. But it wasn’t badly told. It’s just not my thing. I’m not into animals becoming people or the spirit world–too much fantasy, but that is just a matter of reading preference, not a criticism of how it was written.

Then there was  pet peeve with so much fiction today–diversity for diversity’s sake. Diversity hammered into the story with one of those big mallets with which the coyote used to try to kill the roadrunner. Beep-Beep. Why in the world the museum guy’s sexuality needed to be introduced is beyond me. Naturally the great-nephew who donates the Colonels diaries is a elderly Trump-sort who has an epiphany and repents of his wish that everyone would just shut up about sex and sexuality. Hammering something like this into a story where it has no place bugs me no end!

Now, don’t misunderstand. Had Colonel Forrester been gay–that WOULD have added to the story. If Sophie had fallen in love with the hired girl over their shared passion for photography that would have been an interesting way to get the subject into the story. But this little exchange was just trite and silly. It sounded like a PC-mandate for publication. Both turned into pompous windbags for a while so I started to tune them out. Thankfully I payed attention again and caught the wonderful ending to their story.

9781472208606

Another element was tiresome and beaten over the head like the proverbial dead horse. That was the now seemingly-mandatory-for-publication disparaging of the Christian faith or church attendance or praying. Sophie has no regard for church or for the Christian faith, though her mother was a part of the social justice-minded Quakers. Nor does her “hired girl,” though in her case it is more understandable. She’s an apparently lapsed Irish Catholic with a large number of siblings due to her mother being a faithful Catholic. (And, what woman of any faith at that time had much of a choice over how many kids they had to bear?) It’s not so likely, though,  for a proper young school teacher of the 1880s as Sophie was. After all, teachers had morals written into their contracts even in the early 20th Century. It really didn’t matter to me if this fit the characters or not–its just so utterly predictable in today’s fiction.

And, just as naturally, the one missionary who is a blip of a sound byte in the story was unfaithful to his wife and many children with a “native woman.” And the poor wife proclaims that their prayers must not have been good enough…right. The Colonel wasn’t much for religion either, but did have the dead guy laid out in  the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, had it been a Baptist Church you can bet he’d have skipped it.This just seemed ridiculous in places.

Finally, there was my biggest pet peeve  with so much of historical fiction today–characters holding too many modern views. At the time of the Colonel’s expedition, the country was currently fighting with various Native American Tribes. Hence the term, whether it is right or wrong,  “Indian Wars.” Wounded Knee had yet to occur. The Trail of Tears was simply a government edict.  There was remarkably little sympathy for the Native Americans or for Native Alaskans in the 19th Century. The “enlightened view” of the day was to “civilize” them by sending them off to government schools for indoctrination. As much as we would like to re-write history, we cannot. What was done to the Tribes and Alaskan Natives is a terrible injustice worthy of war crimes trials and we should and must hang our heads in shame. But it wasn’t seen that way back then.You just can’t change that, no matter how desirable it would be to do so.

 

The Verdict

3 stars. The story should have been fabulous, but it just wasn’t.  It is simply an average book hyped and spun to seem fabulous because the The Snow Child was an extraordinary achievement. I want to hope that the author was pushed hard to get a second book out as soon as possible. Happily most readers won’t notice the things I found objectionable–they are more about the state of historical fiction today.

In spite of the problems I had with this one, I still love the Snow Child and I’m still anxiously looking forward to more books from Eowyn Ivey.

 

 

To The Bright Edge of the World: A Novel by Eowyn Ivey

bright

Reading Across the USA: Florida

2000px-map_of_usa_fl-svg

41MhEXGbkvL._SY346_

As Hot As It Is You Ought To Thank Me came to mind the minute I stepped out of the AC and onto the back porch this morning. I wilted just taking the few steps over to the car!

Nanci Kincaid’s book tells the story of an lackluster parenting, small town living, an unlikely friend for a 13-year old girl and HEAT. Soul-sucking, swampy, Florida heat in a neighborhood with no air conditioning. The star of the book, 13 year old Berry, is in that time between tomboy-hood and woman-hood. The heat prickles, her parents and brothers rankle and then the chain gang arrives…

Pick this one up–it’s well worth it. You’ll want to pour yourself a quart jar of iced tea first. It won’t disappoint. Don’t be surprised though if you find yourself sweating profusely even with the AC on full blast. The setting is just that vivid.

As Hot As It Is You Ought To Thank Me by Nanci Kincaid.

This post was originally published July 25, 2016 under a different title.

Reading Across the USA: West Virginia

 

 

 

We’re heading back to West Virginia today! Last week I reviewed a great memoir–Dimestore by Lee Smith (read it here)–that reflects more traditional life in state born in the Civil War. Today we’re looking at a sliver of life in the top echelon of the state in the 1950s–Keith Millard’s extraordinary novel, Gloria.

I devoured this book when it came out for a simple reason–it was so much my Mom’s story. Like my mom (Purdue ’57), Gloria Cotter, was sent off to college to be “finished” and expected to marry an up-and-coming career man. In the parlance of the day she was to earn her “Mrs. Degree” cum laude. The novel features Gloria’s final summer at home she endures the country club world of the small West Virginia steel town dominated by her parents’ “set.” She’d like graduate school, but there’s a suitable prospect at hand for marriage. Which will it be?

This is the generation who went crazy at home in the suburbs and raised the banner of Women’s Liberation. After reading this novel of that time and its claustrophobic atmosphere (funny just how many reviews use that word!) it’s easy to see why. Maillard perfectly captures the lack of oxygen in a young women’s life in that set and in that era. As I read, I could feel my stockings start to bag, my girdle pinch and I began to wonder if I’d ever get the Club waitress’s attention to have her discreetly bring me a second Tom Collins so I could endure what Mr. Bank Vice President was droning on about while the son of my Dad’s golf buddy tried to instigate a round of footsy with me under the table.

This is one women’s novel not to be missed. Book Clubs will devour it even now. I have recommended it far and wide over the years. While it is, sadly, out-of-print, it is still readily available used (buy the paperback–the hardback is getting ridiculous prices) and in many libraries.  I wish it would come out on Kindle. Perfect Book Club book.

Gloria by Keith Maillard

Reading Across the USA: Georgia

Bailey White, a long-time NPR commentator, is best known for her funny short stories about the folks in her family and in her small Georgia hometown. My personal favorite is Computer School–an essay featured in her collection Sleeping at the Starlite Motel. For the state of Georgia today I’ve chosen her novel, Quite a Year for Plums.

Roger, a local peanut pathologist and Della, a local bird artist trying to save an endangered breed of chickens, are the main folks in this story. But small town life is about everyone and this book has a wide-ranging and eccentric cast of characters–just like you’d find in a Bailey White essay.  You can read the New York Times review here.

What matters most to reading this story is the hear the author’s real voice. It’s combination of southern magnolias, sweet tea and…well, gravel. Once you catch the sound of her voice, her writing is electric. Take a listen to this NPR story:

Reading Across American–Alaska: The Snow Child–Novel and Fairy Tale

The Novel

Last Friday I posted in the Friday 56 with a few lines from The Snow Child.  You can read that post here. Today it’s time for my review.

“I don’t want to be warm and safe–I want to live.”

I understood the child’s reluctance to come inside, to be warm and safe…and controlled. While the point of this story was not to discuss the emotional struggles of older adopted children, that one line summed it up beautifully. I no longer write about my children–they are both adults now–but this line could have been uttered by one of them. Today I understand it. Back then, not so much as they say now.

Mabel and Jack fulfill a long-time fantasy of mine, to homestead in Alaska. Fantasy for me due to the hard work and, today, the cost of living in Alaska, but it’s always held a strong appeal to me. I’m an introvert and quite happy alone–most of the time. While Jack was made of the stern stuff necessary to homesteading, Mable wasn’t….or so it seemed. It seemed too that Cabin Fever had taken root over a long, dark winter. Or did it….?

dsc_0353

Esther and George and their three boys live nearby. Esther keeps a friendly eye on Mabel and her youngest son becomes a sort of nephew to Jack and Mabel. But none of them have seen the mysterious girl that Jack and Mabel say has visited them–a girl with a pet fox. A girl who lives alone in the vast wilderness. Garrett is Esther and George’s youngest son. Overshadowed by two older brothers, he finds peace and sanctuary in the wilderness.

[Photo is of the scenery that was used in the book as being around the fictional Wolverine River–photo from Letters From Alaska, the author’s blog]

Mabel has a beautiful story book from childhood–a story written in Russian that tells of an elderly couple who long for a child. They make one out of snow. Is this girl their Snow Child?  Can the heat of love and the warmth and safety of home stifle, even “melt” a person?

This is an amazing well-written book, with a story as amazing as the land in which it is set. There is hunting and trapping in this story as is normal in such a setting, but could upset some people not familiar with the life. I enjoyed the many amazing descriptions of nature–of the vastness of Alaska. Mabel’s nature drawings and her descriptions of the scenes written to her sister back East will entice nature study enthusiasts to read this book. The sweetness in this book is the right kind–not cloying, never precious. Book clubs will love this too for the theme of infertility, of motherhood and marriage and how both change lives. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

snowchild2

Did you know that The Snow Child was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013?

For more on Alaska and the locations in this book and in Eowyn Ivey’s new book, visit her blog, Letters from Alaska.

The Fairy Tale

Here are a few picture book versions of the fable of The Snow Child  to share with children or just to enjoy on your own.

51neakcrk1l-_sx385_bo1204203200_

The Snow Child by Freya Littledale

510pnwrw9xl-_sx419_bo1204203200_

Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome

snowchildeasyreader

The Snow Child retold by Harriet Ziefert

Here is the very lovely book trailer for The Snow Child

Reading Across the USA: Kansas

images

Today’s book is set in Kansas, land of Dorothy, Toto and the Wizard of Oz.  I read the Persian Pickle Club not long after it was published, but the mood of the story has stayed with me to this day. A group of ladies in Harveyville, Kansas, called themselves the Persian Pickle Club–part homemaker’s group, part sorority, they pulled together except when they didn’t! The Great Depression wasn’t bad enough–Kansas and surrounding states also got what is today called the Dust Bowl. Yes, the Dust Bowl of Grapes of Wrath–that one. This book has some unexpected twists. It’s not just a happy quilting society enduring the depression by mending and making due and standing by their men. If your book club hasn’t read this one in the past, now is a good time to suggest it.

PersianPickle

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas.

 

Toto

Reading Across the USA meets Reading Around the World: A Coming Of Age Story in Puerto Rico

map-of-puerto-rico
geology.com

Young women in traditional cultures often see their dreams evaporate as they hit puberty and their teen years. Traditional rites of passage focus on womanhood, or more specifically, wife- and motherhood. At a certain age girls are presented to society as potential brides. The girls themselves often go thru both poignant and painful floods of emotion.

51x9PG7KVvL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Verdita’s story, now being compared to House on Mango Street, is one such coming of age tale. This time the traditional culture is that of Puerto Rico. Puberty, a loss of innocence, and a threat to an only child’s self-centered world all make this a tremendous story.  The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy.

Reading Across the USA: Oregon

Map_of_USA_OR.svg.png

Previously I’ve written about tracking the books I’ve finished in Reading Around the World. (And here, too.)Today I’m beginning a look at those I’ve finished in Reading Across the USA–with a caveat. I’m skipping those books in New York City and Los Angeles. America needs more books set in other locations and more published writers who have never lived in either place. I gag on the phrase “the heartland,” and sick-to-death of “the Bible belt,” and want to gag the person who coined the oh-so-precious “Red State” and “Blue State” moniker, because how a state votes doesn’t really tell all.

IfIstayTo start us off I’ve picked one of the hippest places on Earth–Oregon and a genre I don’t often read: Young Adult. But, let me tell you, this is a novel to savor. That it has a sequel is even better. And, did I mention? It is zombie- and vampire-free? No one eats their young. There are no dystopian elements–at least not by my definition.

Gayle Foreman is a master storyteller! The world of music and teens–superb canvas. Characters? Completely believeable. Dialog? Real LIfe. I loved this. Loved the sequel. Just read it!

 

If I Stay and the sequel, Where She Went, by Gayle Foreman.