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When We Were Young and Brave
by Hazel Gaynor
During our current tumultuous times, When We Were Young and Brave was somewhat of a difficult read for me, but I’m glad it is now a part of my personal reading journey. Hazel Gaynor’s latest book relates a fictional version of the events following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor as they play out for the students and teachers at the China Inland Mission School in Chefoo, China. With Japan’s invasion of China, the Japanese seize and occupy the school, later interning the residents in the much larger prison camp known as the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center where sanitation facilities are disgusting and meals are meager, nutritionally inadequate for growing children, and almost inedible. Despite the harsh conditions, the teachers protect the children as best they can while rallying them with insistence on routines, cleanliness, and a hearty “chin up” attitude. Of particular note is the role of their Girl Guide troop and standards that help the students in maintaining a positive outlook.
The last sections of the book, “Liberation” and “Remembrance,” are remarkable in the beauty of the skillful writing that describes the impact of the American liberation on the camp residents. They gain relief from the fears that haunted them daily, but endure the substitution of new anxieties and questions for the future. Where will they go and what will they do? Is anyone waiting for them at home?
The story is told by alternating narrators. Elspeth is a competent, well-organized, and kind teacher who has a special motherly feeling for Nancy, the daughter of missionaries in China. Their relationship is always teacher and student, but as months of internment become years, Elspeth takes on increasingly more of the commitment for safe care that she made to Nancy’s mother as they departed by boat to sail to the school, both as first-timers. We view their ordeals from both Elspeth’s and Nancy’s points of view.
There are a lot of themes in the book including resilience, relationships, releasing the past, and looking to the future. Symbolism is also important in the kingfisher that becomes the emblem of the new Girl Guide patrol and the sunflower which holds a special meaning for teacher and students.
The characters emerge as three dimensional figures as they are well developed. Realism comes into play with descriptions of the harsh conditions; no one’s story is fairytale like or even positive. The setting is well-executed with vivid word pictures. As the Chinese workers slosh through the camp, the odor of the filth of “honey-pot” buckets they pull from the latrines makes an unforgettable olfactory experience. There are also more pleasant descriptions of the beauty outside the camp, but glimpses are rare for those interned. The last two sections make the book a winner for me, but the first sections are also well written and essential to the success of this historical novel.
Category: Historical Fiction
Notes: There is a very informative section at the end of the book that describes the author’s research and thought processes and some historical background. The author has also included a brief history of the Girl Guides as that organization plays an important role in the girls’ lives. Other additions are a list of books and websites for further reading, including original source documents found at weihsien-paintings.org, and some questions for discussion.
Publication: October 6, 2020—Harper Collins
When she was cross, Miss Kent spoke in a way that reminded me of brittle twigs snapping underfoot on autumn walks. I felt my cheeks go red. Without giving me a ticking-off, she’d done exactly that.
I knew the smile she gave us that morning was the sort of “we must be brave” smile adults use when they’re trying to pretend something awful isn’t happening.
But, as I’d come to realize about life during a war, nothing stayed the same for long. Just when you thought you’d adjusted and adapted and found a way to cope, the situation changed.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
by Willa Cather
Every well-read person should have read at least one book by Willa Cather, an American Pulitzer Prize winning author famous for her novels set in the frontier. When my book club decided recently to read Death Comes for the Archbishop, I had not read any of Cather’s books. I was delighted that the choice was one that focused on the history of the Catholic church in New Mexico where I currently live. The novel provides as a backdrop a tour of cities, towns, pueblos, and open deserts inhabited by foreign priests, Mexicans, and Indians. Cather paints beautiful word pictures of the landscapes while depicting the difficulties of life, and especially travel, as two French priests attempt to revive the Catholic religion in the region. Churches had been planted over three hundred years earlier but did not receive much attention from Rome. With the annexation of new territories by the U.S., things begin to change in a land viewed as “wild” for many reasons. It is ruled over by the Bishop of Durango located in Mexico, fifteen hundred miles away from Santa Fe where the missionaries headquartered.
Jean Marie Latour, a parish priest based in the Lake Ontario region is elevated to bishop arriving in New Mexico in 1851 after a difficult and dangerous year long journey. He is accompanied by his childhood friend Father Joseph Valliant. Despite its title, Death Comes for the Archbishop is not a murder mystery nor does it focus on the death of the Archbishop. Instead, it is a triumphant tale of strong, wise, and intelligent men who against all odds form friendships with peoples of various tribes, cultures, and languages in a harsh but beautiful land. The descriptive language is exquisite and serves to enhance and further the plot. This book celebrates the usually successful struggles for survival and the somewhat successful attempts to share the Catholic religion. In the Archbishop’s passing, it becomes evident that he was much loved and respected by the peoples of the many cultures in his diocese.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a tale I would enjoy rereading for the breadth of its descriptions and the depth of its topics. The two Fathers were men I would enjoy meeting. Quite unalike physically and in disposition, they were fast and loyal friends with different means of evangelism, but suitable to their characters. Although this book has a specific setting in terms of time period and location and has characters with a religious profession, its themes of devotion, strength, and friendship transcend the New Mexico frontier of the 1850’s and the Catholic priesthood. Although the specifics were interesting and an effective vessel for the themes, the novel proves Cather to be, above all, an able storyteller. I had no regrets in reading this work of historical fiction based on the lives of two missionaries, and I highly recommend it.
Category: Historical Fiction
Publication: June 15, 1927—Reading Essentials
Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth—brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree, before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.
There was a reassuring solidity and depth about those walls, rounded at doorsills and windowsills, rounded in wide wings about the corner fireplace. The interior had been newly whitewashed in the Bishop’s absence, and the flicker of the fire threw a rosy glow over the wavy surfaces, never quite evenly flat, never a dead white, for the ruddy colour of the clay underneath gave a warm tone to the lime-wash.
This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau.
The Engineer’s Wife
by Tracey Enerson Wood
Historical fiction is a difficult genre for both writer and reviewer. The writer has to juggle how much history should be included with the amount of fictitious information needed to establish the setting and especially to flesh out the characters. The reviewer then must judge the book based less on plot, which is to some degree predetermined, than on the author’s ability to combine history and fiction into a package that is both believable and pleasing.
In many ways I appreciated Tracey Enerson Wood’s The Engineer’s Wife. The subject is interesting. Emily Warren Roebling, a woman restricted by the social conventions governing the women of the mid to late nineteenth century, marries a Union officer. After he resigns his commission, he dedicates his life to his father’s project, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. This is a controversial project that proves dangerous to many, including her husband Wash who is an engineer. Rather than choosing to devote herself to the project after Wash is injured, Emily is subtly and progressively sucked into supervising the construction to completion.
The author has a wonderful way with words, and her research into the engineering aspects of the bridge is thorough. My only complaint of this work of historical fiction is the inclusion of Emily’s extended friendship and romance with the famous P.T. Barnum. Given that they lived and worked in the same city, their paths probably did cross, but in her notes at the end of the book the author freely admits that she had no basis for the creation of their relationship. It is such a major part of the story that I felt cheated as a reader. This is a work of fiction with a real setting rather than fictionalized history. Perhaps this work simply lies at the opposite end of a continuum from my preferred reading tastes in this genre.
I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Sourcebooks Landmark for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Historical Fiction
Notes: Contains two added sections: Reading Group Guide and A Conversation with the Author
Publication: April 7, 2020—Sourcebooks Landmark
Autumn had painted the trees with brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows. Soon, cold, clear nights would rob the forest, leaving the trees to face the winter stark and barren.
Her lips were drawn tight enough to sling the arrows her eyes aimed at us.
The panic I had successfully tamped down returned like a lion for the kill.
A Long Walk to Water
by Linda Sue Park
You have probably heard of the Lost Boys of Sudan. In A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park tells the story of one of those lost boys, Salva Dut, who even as a refugee himself, took on a leadership role for 1500 boys in their very long, dangerous, and seemingly hopeless journey for survival. Salva, as a young adult, was chosen out of a refugee camp to emigrate to the United States. This book tells how he transformed his desperate situation into a life giving project for the people of Sudan based on hope, faith, and most especially perseverance.
Told in two timelines with apparently disparate plots, this book moves back and forth with both stories progressing forward in each chapter. It begins slowly, but soon picks up the pace and the reader’s interest. The book starts with the tale of Nya, an eleven year old girl in southern Sudan in 2008 who spends her day traveling from her village to a pond to collect dirty water in a jug which she then carries home on her head. She does this twice a day in extreme heat, traversing with bare feet a thorny path to bring home enough water for her family to survive.
Salva’s story also begins in southern Sudan, but much earlier, in 1985, when his village and school are attacked by armed men during an ongoing confrontation between the Muslim government in the north and the rebels of the south. Thus begins Salva’s separation from his family and his struggle for survival.
Although this book is aimed at a younger audience, as an adult I am so glad I read this story which is based on the lives of real people, Salva and Nya and their families. It reads quickly and lays out the need for clean, accessible water for South Sudan, pointing out the many rippling effects of pure water on a community. It also shows how diverse tribes can work together for a common good. The website noted at the end of the book provides more information and gives a practical way for those of us blessed with plenty to help those without the basic necessities.
Category: Children’s Historical Fiction
Notes: 1. The suggested ages and grade levels vary according to printed reports, but in general: Grades 5-9 and Ages 10-14. The book does a good job of recording hardships and violence without graphic details. Because of the subject matter, I would not recommend it for younger children.
2. The reader will find links to lots of videos about Salva and his project at www.waterforsouthsudan.org.
Publication: October 4, 2011—HMH Books for Young Readers
No one in the group had eaten anything for two days. Their water was nearly gone. Only the vision of leaving the desert kept them moving through the heat and the dust.
It did not seem as if the camp could possibly hold any more, but still they kept coming: long lines of people, some emaciated, some hurt or sick, all exhausted.
He felt as though he were standing on the edge of a giant hole—a hole filled with the black despair of nothingness. I am alone now.
It was hard to keep hope alive when there was so little to feed it.
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
by Geraldine Brooks
Our book club undertook Year of Wonders by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. There are many things to recommend it, especially the depth of character development. Also prominent is the ability of the author to immerse the reader in the year 1665 in a small town in England where women of all classes were subject to the whims and humiliation of men.
We divided the reading and the discussion into two parts. The first half of the book was well received even though graphic descriptions of the Plague were tough to read. Several of us had to put the book aside for a time because of the horrors of the Plague and the difficult lives of the characters.
The ending of the book was met with a consensus of disappointment. After detailed and extensive exploration of the characters, author Brooks turns everything upside down leaving a shambles of motivations and actions that are disjointed based on expectations drawn from previous descriptions of their personalities. There is a baseness and meanness rising to the surface of characters who have been portrayed as admirable. The theology exposed by the ministers is not Biblically sound, but if one were to read the notes at the end of the book, it would not be surprising as the author refers to herself as having a “secular mind.” This is a dark book and not one that I would recommend mainly because the ending tries to provide closure much too quickly and, in the process, rather bizarrely changes the essential characters of all the major actors in the story.
I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Historical Fiction
Notes: This book includes an afterword, interview with the author, and discussion questions.
Publication: April 30, 2002—Penguin Books
I liked her, too, because it takes a kind of courage to care so little for what people whisper, especially in a place as small as this…She was a rare creature, Anys Gowdie, and I had to own that I admired her for listening to her own heart rather than having her life filled by others’ conventions.
And so, as generally happens, those who have most give least, and those with less somehow make shrift to share.
“…we must take stock of these herbs and such remedies as the Gowdies may have left here. The key to defeating this Plague, I am convinced, must lie here, in the virtue of such plants as can be used to nourish those who remain in health. We must strengthen our bodies that we may continue to resist contagion.”
by Marilynne Robinson
I do most of my reading and reviewing as a solitary occupation until I publish my thoughts on a book. I was glad to have read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson as a part of a book club where we could all bounce our reflections on the book off the mirrors of the impressions of others. The member of our group who suggested this book had read it several times. When I first began the book, I could not imagine enduring more than one reading. I have never liked stream-of-consciousness as a style of writing, and this book is a good example. John Ames, a Congregationalist minister, puts pen to paper to share his final thoughts with his young son, the things he would have told him as he grew, were their age difference not so pronounced. Having finished the book, I reread the first page to gather my thoughts and was amazed at what a perfect beginning it holds, carefully crafted and full of promise.
Although I still don’t favor the stream-of-consciousness style, I appreciate how appropriate it is to this epistolary novel with its many themes. The setting is the Midwestern town of Gilead that was once part of the underground railroad. Racial issues keep popping up at the most unexpected times in this book. Much of the story deals with relationships across generations. Without strict attention, it can be difficult to sort out which generation is being referenced. There are many ministers in the family line, but father and son bonds can be troublesome as the characters struggle to answer for themselves what is required to have a good life. Another level of complication is added in the thread of John’s namesake, Jack, the son of his best friend Robert who is also a pastor. There are undertones of the Biblical story of the “Prodigal Son” in some of those difficult associations. John, who never says anything bad about anyone, will leave behind a loving wife with a mysterious past, a much loved son, and boxes and boxes of sermons. How will he be remembered?
Gilead is not an easy or quick read. Be prepared to reread passages, especially those with theological depth. Some I just had to walk away from; others benefited from group discussion. I plodded through the first half of disparate pieces; I was fascinated with the second half as those pieces came together to form a beautiful design. At some point I probably will reread Gilead after I stand apart a bit and allow the characters of Gilead to become a comfortable part of my vision of “the good life.”
Category: Historical Fiction, Christian
Notes: 1. 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
2. There are three other books that involve many of the same characters, but Gilead was written first.
Publication: November 15, 2004—Picador
A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever image.
When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?
I have decided the two choices open to me are (1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord. There is no earthly solution to the problems that confront me. But I can add to my problems, as I believe I have done, by dwelling on them.
by Marie Benedict
I had to work hard as I read Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict to differentiate my feelings about Clementine Churchill as the wife of a historical figure, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England during World War II, and Clementine, a character of historical fiction fleshed out by the author based on background information. In this book, which was both interesting and informative, I struggled because I just didn’t like Clementine. The story of her fight to be a changing force in a time when women had no power seems genuine, but I just could not identify with her inner turmoils. Part of her stress is a result of the “poor little rich girl” syndrome. For example, she complains multiple times of the difficulties of trying to live the rich life style her husband’s rank and tastes demand while on a limited budget and with an inadequate number of domestic servants. My biggest moment of disgust was when, for her nerves, she has to get away from it all for an extended retreat by herself at a facility in France and bemoans the fact that she can only afford to take her personal maid with her to care for her needs. She has to leave the rest of the domestics at home to care for the house, Winston, and the children. I realize that as I am not part of the aristocracy, understanding her dilemma is a reach for me, but I find it ironic that Clementine focuses much of her time and energy on helping women who can’t take fifteen minutes to themselves much less several months. The part I can empathize with is her struggle to balance efforts to promote and aid her husband with her own self-efficacy and the responsibilities of her family. Her family, except for her youngest daughter Mary, turn out to be the losers in this battle.
Although not a page turner, Lady Clementine is well written and prompts me to want to read some nonfiction about the Churchills. There is no doubt that they played a pivotal role in the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. If I don’t find them very likable, despite the more intimate conversations between them as “Pug” and “Cat,” the fault may be that they are both politicians, but in different ways. Politicians, in general, are self-concerned, and Winston and Clementine live that out in the pages of this book. They do good works but are always concerned about how those works reflect back on them.
I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Sourcebooks Landmark for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Historical Fiction
Publication: January 7, 2020—Sourcebooks Landmark
“Since I was a young boy, I’ve had the unerring sense that my future and that of Great Britain were inextricably intertwined. That I would be called upon to rescue our nation in a time of tremendous turmoil.”
My husband’s discerning eye perceives all but the threats standing right in front of him, and it seems that I may have to serve as the sentinel of his personal landscape and the gatekeeper of our shared ideals and our marriage.
If he had slapped me, I could not have been more wounded. He only thinks about my identity and my worth in terms of the possessive, in terms of what I mean and what I do for him. I realize for the first time how dependent I’ve been on Winston for his admiration and how reliant I am for his permission to assume my own power, even if it is power derived from his own. No longer.
This Road We Traveled
by Jane Kirkpatrick
The wilds of the western United States were conquered by the strengths, sacrifices, and sometimes deaths of women as well as men who left the security of their homes for adventure and, for some, a better life. Women often made the dangerous journey solely because their husbands made that decision for them. Women of that day had no vote and no right to apply for the free land being apportioned in Oregon. Oftentimes heart wrenching decisions were made for them, leaving them to trust in God for the consequences.
Jane Kirkpatrick researched the history of Tabitha Brown carefully and then brought her story to life in a fictional account of her actual travels from Missouri to Oregon in 1846. Never wanting to be dependent on her grown children, or perhaps because her independent nature carved from early widowhood drew wedges between her and her sons, Tabitha (Tabby) took responsibility for her decision to accompany part of her family on a harrowing journey and also care for her elderly brother-in-law on this long and dangerous trip.
This Road We Traveled gives insight into the physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles the various characters endure as seen through the eyes of Tabby, her daughter Pherne, and Pherne’s daughter Virgilia. These three generations of women are united in their love for God, family, and each other. Each struggles with different challenges and their characters are formed in the forge of the many tests they endure.
Kirkpatrick is a skilled storyteller cycling through the main characters’ points of view revealing the events occurring in each life without getting bogged down in any one character’s difficulties. None of the issues are simple, varying from choosing the correct fork in the road to discovering God’s will for the future. One woman dealt with reining in her tongue so that her words matched the kindness in her heart. Another struggled with the importance of possessions, and the third had difficulties with friendships.
The pacing of the plot is good and the characters are well developed. Although there are many Christian themes emphasizing moral choices, the book is not about a cookie cutter religion; the characters have various attitudes about their relationship with God and how they should live out their faith. The author describes the desert landscape, the treacherous mountain passes, and the homes, both humble and more luxurious with equal skill. Slavery, an issue that is being stiltedly worked out during that time period, crops up several times. The various Indian tribes are not stereotyped. Some are quite generous to the travelers who are in the throes of desperation and others are violent and aggressive. Politics also play a role as the U.S. is afraid the British will cut off routes in the west.
This Road We Traveled brings to life an important part of history. Tabitha was a real person who actually made this journey at the age of 66. She had hardships on the journey and went on to help many in the state of Oregon which publicly acknowledges her contributions with the title “Mother of Oregon.” I learned a lot about her life, travels in the 1840’s to the west, and the difficulties of settling into a new community. Tabby’s story is an inspiration, and I am grateful to Kirkpatrick for sharing it.
Category: Christian, Historical Fiction
Notes: 1.Questions for discussion are included.
2. I read this book as the first book chosen for a book club newly formed by friends at church and held via Zoom meetings. I think the consensus was that we all enjoyed the book. There was plenty of depth for discussion on a variety of topics.
Publication: September 6, 2016—Revell
“Your sadness, your anger at Orus, at me, those are losses reaching out like the gnarled hands of Shakespeare’s witches. They seek something to hold on to, but there is only air.”
Oh, she’d prayed and asked for guidance but didn’t see the clarity she would have liked. Some choices were like that. God left her to step into uncertainty. She guessed that’s where faith grew strongest.
“In the end, things don’t really matter. We think they do, but they don’t. What matters is keeping those we love alive.”
The Oceans Between Us
by Gill Thompson
A very good storyteller, Gill Thompson discovered a story that needed to be told and related in such a way that it reached past the bare facts. In The Oceans Between Us, she has done just that.
I was pulled into the story relating to each of the characters as we explored them and their part in making history. Molly and Jack are British mom and son separated when a wartime bomb is detonated destroying their home. They end up oceans apart and although the thread flowing through the book is their longing for each other, their lives continue on with highs and lows. Other themes are institutional abuse and racial discrimination. Those are hard and cold terms that come alive as we watch them played out in this story. The events are a part of history I was unaware of. You’ll want to read this book to see one author’s view of how it may have played out on a personal level and discover if justice was actually ever served.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Headline for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Historical Fiction
Publication: March 21, 2019—Headline
Everything seemed out of kilter. Like when she’d tried for hours to do a jigsaw here at Warlingham, only to realize half the pieces came from another set.
Jack was a frozen child, forever trapped in her mind in his five-year-old body. Molly could no more imagine him at eighteen than she could fly.
But the lawyer in him resisted the child. He couldn’t risk his career before it had started. Bindoon had given him brawn but it hadn’t robbed him of a brain. Besides, you didn’t fight violence with violence. You fought it with cunning.
Penny for Your Secrets
by Anna Lee Huber
I do so enjoy historical fiction with more than a touch of mystery. Penny for Your Secrets by Anna Lee Huber is that kind of book. Unfortunately, and perhaps it was just me, but this novel seemed to drag a bit. The premise is interesting and becomes increasingly complicated as more murders occur. The Kents, Verity and Sidney, can’t get away from their heroic pasts. Each played a critical undercover role in World War I, and their friends, the media, and their own souls will not let them forget it. In this book, issues from World War I resurface in various ways and involve current MI5 operatives as well.
Although I like the Kents, their relationship issues play a role that is too prominent at the expense of the plot. I understand their angst over past decisions, but sometimes I just wanted to tell them how lucky they are: they emerged from a horrific war with no major physical injuries, considerable financial wealth, and a marriage intact. So many could not claim any of those benefits after World War I.
Kudos to the author for an intricate plot, an appealing setting, and historical accuracy. It will be interesting to see what adventures await the fashionable Kents next.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Notes: #3 in the Verity Kent Mystery Series, but works as a standalone
Publication: October 29, 2019—Kensington Books
My skin prickled at being in such close proximity to so much anger, as if the daggers aimed at others had been deflected on to me.
“…my father always did have a different standard when it came to what he and his peers were allowed to do as opposed to the rest of the world.”
“In some situations, there is no winning. No right way. You can only make the best choices you can, and hope the people your decision might have harmed will forgive you in the end.”