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A Long Walk to Water–impactful

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.

Rating:  5/5

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

Memorable Lines:

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

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

by Geraldine Brooks

Year of WondersOur 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.

Rating: 2/5

Category: Historical Fiction

Notes:  This book includes an afterword, interview with the author, and discussion questions.

Publication:   April 30, 2002—Penguin Books

Memorable Lines:

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.”

Gilead–coherent ramblings

Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson

GileadI 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.”

Rating: 4/5

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

Memorable Lines:

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.

Lady Clementine–frustrated power

Lady Clementine

by Marie Benedict

Lady ClementineI 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.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Historical Fiction

Publication:   January 7, 2020—Sourcebooks Landmark

Memorable Lines:

“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–“Mother of Oregon”

This Road We Traveled

by Jane Kirkpatrick

This Road We TravelledThe 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.

Rating: 5/5

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

Memorable Lines:

“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–disgrace for two nations

The Oceans Between Us

by Gill Thompson

The Oceans Between UsA 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.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Historical Fiction

Publication:   March 21, 2019—Headline

Memorable Lines:

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–post World War I England

Penny for Your Secrets

by Anna Lee Huber

Penny for Your SecretsI 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.

Rating: 4/5 

Category: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Notes: #3 in the Verity Kent Mystery Series, but works as a standalone

Publication:   October 29, 2019—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

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.”

A House Divided–historical tale by a Lincoln scholar

A House Divided

by Jonathan F. Putnam

A House DividedI was surprised to find myself trudging through A House Divided by Jonathan F. Putnam, an author with an outstanding legal and historical background. This is the fourth book in this series, but I did not feel that my not having read the previous books was a hindrance. There just seemed to be a disjoint between the history and fiction of the tale. None of the characters were fleshed out with emotion for me, and so I did not identify with any of them. I really wanted to like this book, but it was difficult when  the characters’ motives were rarely disclosed. Lincoln and his friend Speed are competitors for the affections of Mary Todd, but even Mary’s character holds no depth.

The mystery was interesting and based somewhat on history, although the narrator Speed, a major actor in the story, was actually not a part of the real events of the crime and trial. Perhaps that alteration of the facts added to the difficulty of creating an interesting work of historical fiction. Perhaps the problem lies in timidity in assigning thoughts and feelings to major historical figures. Authors may find that easier to do when the main character is either a minor figure on the historical stage or the creation by the author of a composite character based on what a person in that role at that time of history would be like. 

I did appreciate the author’s efforts to include the plight of Irish workers and their families. They were caught in the middle of a web of corruption and greed on the part of politicians and bankers. Another positive of the book is the writer’s style which is appropriate to the period.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Crooked Lane Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5

Category: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Notes: #4 in the Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series 

Publication:   July 9, 2019—Crooked Lane Books

Memorable Lines:

The Globe…As a feeding station for hungry village residents or residence for travelers, it was inferior in every respect to the sparkling new American House. Its only advantage at this point was familiarity, like a pair of shoes that slipped on easily despite worn-away soles.

Springfield…But citizens hoping to find entertainment that did not arrive in a bottle or cask were destined to be disappointed. Except when the circuit court was in session to adjudicate the county’s legal disputes. Then, the entire human condition, comedy and tragedy alike, was on display and free for all to watch.

Every turn in the road, every little rise of the prairie, might reveal a clutch of deadly and determined men, ready to hazard their own lives and reckless to mine.

The Medallion–for the love of a child

The Medallion

by Cathy Gohlke

The MedallionWhat is worse than being a Pole during World War II?  Being a Jew.  

And what is worse than either? Being a Polish Jew, a target for abuse, humiliation, torture and destruction.

The Medallion by Cathy Gohlke tells the story of two families whose lives and deaths become joined through the horrors and hardships of life in Poland in World War II. Janet is a Polish fighter pilot married to Sophia, an English citizen, alone in Poland, but with a heart for Jewish children. Rosa has to make the most difficult decision possible to save her beloved daughter’s life. Her husband Itzhak, an electrician, endures the most horrific task assigned to any person by the Nazis, digging up mass graves with his bare hands. Can anything good possibly emerge from the desperation of this story?

Many of the characters in The Medallion are fictional, but are inspired by interviews and textual research. Some are found in history, including Irena Sandler who rescued 2,500 children and Dr. Janusz Korczak who ran an orphanage.

The tales of these two families are difficult to read but also inspiring. Towards the end of the book, when the war is over and all should be well, it isn’t. Sophia finds herself in a moral and personal crisis of faith that intimately affects the lives and futures of herself and those she loves most.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Tyndale House Publishers for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Christian, Historical Fiction

Notes: The end of this book also includes discussion questions, notes to the reader about the writing of this book, and historical notes.

Publication:   June 4, 2019—Tyndale House Publishers

Memorable Lines:

“Adonai makes a way when there appears no way. It is His specialty. Remember the Red Sea.”  The words of her old friend came back to her, just as they did so often when Sophie felt at her wits’ end.

The Germans wanted to make certain that Poles were equipped only to follow orders, mostly for menial labor. They espoused the belief that a thinking Pole was a dangerous Pole. Hence, Polish schools were closed and thousands upon thousands of children did not learn to read or write—unless they were taught in secret.

“We’re not meant to handle life alone, Sophie. It’s too hard, too unpredictable, too messy and big. There is One who is willing and ready to help, to travel with us, if we let Him.”

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek–the blue librarian

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

by Kim Michele Richardson

The Book Woman of Troublesome CreekTwo tales woven seamlessly into one—that’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, a work of historical fiction carefully researched and crafted by Kim Michele Richardson. Cussy Carter is a blue-skinned young woman, strong, determined, and the subject of suspicion, hatred, and discrimination in the backwoods of the Kentucky Appalachians in the 1930’s. She is also a Book Woman, a librarian who travels by mule to deliver books to the far reaches of the mountains to patrons who otherwise would have no reading options. Cussy, also called Bluet, knows her place in society as does her Black friend Queenie. They are both considered “colored.” Most people are disgusted by looking at Cussy and certainly avoid any kind of touch.

Richardson paints a moving portrait of Cussy and what it must be like to be an object of ridicule and perhaps the last of her kind. You will be hoping for the best for Cussy who, as a coal miner’s daughter, lives in poverty but shares freely with her even more impoverished patrons. Her father, also a Blue, suffers from lung issues and horrible working conditions.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a work you will read with your heart in your throat, amazed at the struggles and sufferings of Cussy, her pa, her patrons, and those who dare show kindness to her. At the same time, the book is uplifting because there are good people included in the story and Cussy always stands as a model of someone who does what is right because it is right and in spite of those who would hurt her.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Sourcebooks Landmark for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Historical Fiction

Notes: There are helpful Author’s Notes at the end of the book discussing the rare condition called methemoglobinemia. Richardson also gives background on the Pack Horse Library Project and courting candles. She explains that she altered one fact regarding dates so that she could include certain medical information.

Publication:  May 7, 2019—Sourcebooks Landmark

Memorable Lines:

I lived for the joy of bringing books and reading materials to the hillfolk who were desperate for my visits, the printed word that brought a hopeful world into their dreary lives and dark hollers. It was necessary. And for the first time in my life, I felt necessary.

I couldn’t help notice again how the students waited for me, looked up at me, all quiet and not a single fidget or wiggle, as hungry for the stories in these books as they were for the food that always seemed sparse in this real land.

Nary a townsfolk, not one God-fearing soul, had welcomed me or mine into town, their churches, or homes in all my nineteen years on this earth. Instead, every hard Kentucky second they’d filled us with an emptiness from their hate and scorn. It was as if Blues weren’t allowed to breathe the very same air their loving God had given them…

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