Miracles in MN and ND

Peace Like a River     Leif Enger     (2001)

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Most of the religions of the world have in their histories or traditions the working of miracles, perhaps because humans want to believe that the usual unrelenting laws of the universe can sometimes be subverted. Peace Like a River is a book about miracles, but novelist Leif Enger doesn’t proselytize. Right up front, on page 3, his narrator, Reuben Land, writes, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

Reuben is an eleven-year-old asthmatic boy living in rural Minnesota with his younger sister (Swede), his older brother (Davy), and his father (Jeremiah, the one who performs the miracles) in the year 1962. After their small town’s two bullies engage in an escalating series of episodes of battering and vandalism, Davy strikes back and ends up in jail. When Davy’s trial seems to be going against him, he escapes, managing to evade both officers of the law and a civilian posse. His family sets off to find him, figuring that he might be hiding out in the rugged Badlands of the neighboring state of North Dakota. The family encounters several distinctive characters on their quest, and the story—after taking turns toward love, fear, hope, and loss—builds to a shocking conclusion.

This forward-driving narrative line alone would be sufficient to keep the interest of many readers, but Enger adds much more. Jeremiah’s miracles, some of which might be odd coincidences, appear when they’re least expected, as the family’s road trip to the Badlands takes on qualities of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Reuben is an unpretentious first-person storyteller who inspires reader confidence in his truthfulness, and his version of 1962 is accurate without feeling forced. His language can be rich: “Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” (54) He frequently includes galloping verse, based on the lore of the Old West, which he presents as written by Swede, who is unusual in both her name and her precocity.

I sought out Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s debut novel, after placing his most recent offering, Virgil Wander, on my Favorite Reads of 2018 list. Enger’s prose style has developed in seventeen years, but his writing was already powerful in 2001, and if you’re familiar with the Upper Midwest, you may feel an extra zing. For the record, you don’t  have to believe in miracles to love this novel.

Two Novels by Quindlen

Anna Quindlen is a bestselling American writer who moved into fiction in the mid-1990s after winning a 1992 Pulitzer for her essays in the New York Times. I recently read two of her novels, Alternate Side (2018) and Miller’s Valley (2016) and found them so dissimilar that I wouldn’t have guessed that they were written by the same person. Here’s a look at each.

 Alternate Side     Anna Quindlen     (2018)

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The surface story in Alternate Side centers on a family living in present-day Manhattan: Nora and Charlie Nolan plus their twin children who are off at college. Nora and Charlie have a reasonably satisfactory marriage, but as they progress through middle age, their attention is increasingly focused on externals in their affluent lives: Charlie’s disappointments at work, the offer of a new job for Nora, Charlie’s obsession with parking spots near their townhouse, Nora’s unremitting revulsion at the neighborhood rats. (By “rats” I do mean the small rodents, not human criminals.) The parking issue comes to the fore with a violent incident on the Nolans’ block, which powers the narrative for most of the novel and draws in the neighbors and the local handyman and his family. Family history is filled in along the way as Nora remembers incidents from the past: “Certain small moments were like billboards forever alongside the highway of your memory.” (184)

The underlying story in Alternate Side is the class divide in New York City. Nora truly enjoys living there, but . . . “even loving New York as she did, Nora sometimes felt it was like loving an old friend, someone who had over the years become different from her former self. Of course, Nora and Charlie had become different, too. It was a though, as the city had prospered and become less dirty, less funky, less hard and harsh, the Nolans and their friends had followed suit, all their rough edges and quirks sanded down into some New York standard of accomplishment. The price they had paid for prosperity was amnesia. They’d forgotten who they once had been.” (79-80)

Though some of Quindlen’s characters are faded stereotypes, others come to life, and the plot carried me along to the end. The title of the book, on first take a reference to parking regulations, actually points up both the family issues and the sociological issues. Quindlen seems to be writing both a paean to a glorious New York and a satire of its more prosperous denizens. “The dirty little secret of the city was that while it was being constantly created, glittering glass and steel towers rising everywhere where once there had been parking lots, gas stations, and four-story tenements, it was simultaneously falling apart.” (55-56)

For more novels set in, and dominated by, New York, click on the “New York Novels” line in my Archive in the right-hand column. Or, for something totally different, read the following review of another Quindlen novel.

Miller’s Valley     Anna Quindlen     (2016)

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In rural Pennsylvania, Mimi Miller gives a first-person narration of her life, from her childhood in the 1960s through her early adulthood and, in an Epilogue, into her seventh decade. The story is set against the backdrop of a federal program to buy up all the property in Miller’s Valley so that the area can be flooded and turned into a reservoir for a nearby dam. Mimi, herself a well-drawn character, is surrounded by other characters whom Quindlen develops beyond the level of the standard type. Mimi’s mother is a no-nonsense nurse at the local hospital. Her father is a farmer and general repairman for the entire valley. A wacko aunt lives in an adjacent house and refuses ever to leave it. Mimi’s two older brothers are polar opposites of each other, much like the Prodigal Son and his hardworking brother. Her two successive boyfriends are also a study in contrasts. Quindlen excels here in showing the complicated family dynamics at play in even the most mundane of interactions.

I especially liked the Epilogue, in which readers get to see how the whole crew ends up in the present day. But then, I’m a sucker for such Epilogues when I get attached to the fictional folks in the main body of a novel.

 

Three Books about the Little House Series

Caroline:  Little House, Revisited     Sarah Miller     (2017)

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Sarah Miller, an established American author of historical fiction and nonfiction, received authorization from the Little House Heritage Trust to produce this novel about the pioneer life of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura was the author of the famed series of Little House books, which fictionalized events from her family’s years as pioneers in the Upper Midwest and on the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century.

In this spin-off novel, Caroline, we see most of the same events that Wilder portrayed, but through the eyes of Laura’s mother.

In recounting the early adventures of the Ingalls family, novelist Miller treads a path somewhere between the historical record and the fictionalized version that appeared in the Little House books, specifically the title Little House on the Prairie (published in 1935), which tells of the family’s trip by covered wagon from Wisconsin to Kansas to stake a new land claim in 1869-1870.

I first read Wilder’s Little House series as an adult and was captivated by the details of daily life that she lovingly described. Miller’s novel Caroline paints a less bucolic picture, meticulously chronicling the grueling toil that pioneer families endured. In this version, Caroline Ingalls worked hard, even when she was heavily pregnant, and survived with an irrepressible good humor and positive attitude. Her husband, Charles, was certainly no slacker, either, but his search for the perfect land claim in the expansionist days of the United States must have worn thin on his wife and children.

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books will not want to miss Miller’s take on incidents that they know well. (Be sure to read her Author’s Note at the end of Caroline, about the prejudices against Native Americans that contributed to Wilder’s account of the Osage Indians.) Miller writes skillfully and with a clear affection for her topic, presenting the beauty of an unspoiled American landscape but not stinting in her depictions of the diseases and dangers that pioneer women faced.

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books    Marta McDowell     (2017)

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Devoted readers of children’s novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder often seize on any book that provides background about her Little House series. This nonfiction book focuses on the flora and fauna mentioned in Wilder's novels. Marta McDowell structures the text chronologically around what she calls Wilder’s “Life on the Land,” going book-by-book through the sites where Wilder lived, in places that are now in the states of Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri. (The landscape of upstate New York, where Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, grew up, also gets a chapter.) The style is chatty, with many quotations from the Little House books. The illustrations that McDowell has selected are sometimes excellent complements to the text, especially when they’re maps or period photos. At other times the illustrations are rather pointless; I didn’t need a half-page color photo of wintergreen berries, as just one example.

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If you’re a diehard Laura Ingalls Wilder buff, you might want to page through McDowell's book, but I can recommend a much better read: editor Pamela Smith Hill’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography (2014), a meticulous and comprehensive analysis of how the Little House books differed from the actual life of the author, as presented in Laura’s previously unpublished memoir and as unearthed by historical research. This is an exceptionally fine book.

Novels about Paintings, Part 1

A Piece of the World     Christina Baker Kline     (2017)

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Novels that prominently feature a painting (fictional or real) are not a new idea. In 1891, Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a horror story about a portrait that ages while the subject of the portrait remains youthful—but gets nastier. More recently, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring takes a different tack. In her 1999 novel, Chevalier imagines a life story from the actual portrait of an anonymous young woman. In this case, the art work, by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, is real, hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The fictional story by Chevalier evokes the period of the painting’s creation beautifully. (See the Vermeer portrait here.)

Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World has an approach similar to that of Chevalier. Baker Kline conjures up a fictional memoir by the subject of Christina’s World, a 1948 painting by the American artist Andrew Wyeth that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In this case, some facts about the actual subject, Christina Olson, are known. Olson really was descended from one of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials of the late seventeenth century. She was born in 1893 and lived on a farm near Cushing, Maine, suffering all her life from a disability that affected her ability to move her limbs. In 1939, she became friends with Andrew Wyeth, who summered in Maine and frequently painted her, her brother, and scenes from their farm. As Olson grew older, she became more disabled and moved from place to place by crawling. In his painting Christina’s World, Wyeth places Olson on the ground, with her back to the viewer, clawing the soil as she twists to look at her farmhouse, which is up a hill from her. (See the Wyeth painting here.)

Beyond the historical facts, Baker Kline weaves a fictional life, narrated by a fictional Christina Olson but quite believable. (The only parts of the narrative that I found somewhat strained were the dialogues between Wyeth and Olson.) Baker Kline invents a full life for Olson, from her birth until the unveiling of Wyeth’s expressive painting of her. The onus of disability for those in rural areas and without access to current medical treatments is clear. (For another novel about disability, see my review here.)

Christina Olson and her family live a life of austerity, particularly during the Great Depression, without electricity or running water in their house. Their daily existence is like that of a pioneer family in the nineteenth century. Baker Kline describes their chores in detail:  the stoking of the wood burning stove, the lighting of the kerosene lamps, the hand harvesting of the blueberries. These activities, and the grim farmhouse, attracted the eye of Wyeth, who painted a vanishing way of life with its surrounding stark landscapes. It strikes me that A Piece of the World has many characteristics of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, albeit set in Maine and written for adults.

As I was reading A Piece of the World, I turned frequently to the reproduction of the painting Christina’s World bound into the back of the book. This tender novel about a woman’s simple life complements Wyeth’s haunting work of art.