Historical Fiction: 3 Reviews

The 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and the 1945 Atomic Bomb: what a trio of topics for historical fiction! Each of these three novels has some flaws, which I note below, but each kept my attention to the end.

The Revolution of Marina M.     Janet Fitch     (2017)

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Marina Marakova starts her first-person bildungsroman with a brief prologue set in California in 1932, so we know that she survives the Russian Revolution. The rest of this mammoth novel is set in Russia, 1916-1919, with the aristocratic Marina prescient from early on: “How precious all this was, how soon it might be gone. It only made it more poignant and beautiful in my eyes.” (183) Marina experiences a sexual awakening against the gruesome backdrop of (a) World War I grinding on its bloody way, (b) the czarist regime toppling, and (c) the victorious revolutionaries battling each other. She’s a poet who seeks out other poets and gets involved in communist activism seemingly accidentally.

Getting through this 800-page novel takes great patience, but I was borne along by Janet Fitch’s amazing range of vocabulary and imagery. For example, in a train station packed with people trying to escape Petrograd, Fitch writes, “The metallic scent of panic, soot, and trains stained the air.” (419) She tosses off hundreds of such evocative comparisons, especially in describing the smells of places. Marina’s analyses of her own actions and of the dramatically shifting society around her are trenchant: “Why did everyone want a boy to hurry up and become a man, but nobody wanted a girl to become a woman? As if that were the most awful thing that could befall her.” (181) I did waver considerably in my reading commitment as the plot went truly wacky in the latter half of the novel. Marina’s wild forays into communal living, smuggling, sadomasochism, astronomy, mysticism, and animal trapping caused my head to spin. I was also disappointed, when I finally reached page 800, to find that no wrap-up was provided. The Revolution of Marina M. is only “Book I” of Marina’s story!

As Bright as Heaven     Susan Meissner     (2018)

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In the Philadelphia of World War I, Pauline and Thomas Bright and their three daughters take up residence with Thomas’s uncle, who is an undertaker. Pauline, reeling from the recent loss of an infant son, has what can only be described as a morbid obsession with death and joins her husband and his uncle in mortuary work. As if the war weren’t providing enough mortality, a virulent influenza strikes in 1918. (Historically, Philadelphia was particularly hard hit by the influenza pandemic, with more than 12,000 deaths, primarily among young adults.) The struggles and successes of the Bright family play out against the ravages of the disease.

I read Part 1 of As Bright as Heaven, about the first two-thirds of the book, to find out who would succumb to influenza and who would survive. Part 2 skips ahead to 1925, and I kept reading in hopes of getting some insight into the long-term effects of the losses on the human psyche. Sadly, the plot resolutions in these chapters strain credibility, veering well into melodrama territory via coincidences. As Bright as Heaven shares some themes with another novel that I’ve reviewed, The Light between Oceans, by ML Stedman, which is the better historical novel.

The Atomic City Girls     Janet Beard     (2018)

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In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a makeshift city sprang up during World War II, built with federal funds and shrouded in secrecy. This was where uranium was enriched to supply the Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear weapons deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The title of Janet Beard’s book is somewhat confusing; men and women alike labored in this “atomic city.” Readers view Oak Ridge through the fictional lives of four of the workers there: two rural women who take jobs as machine operators, a male physicist from New York who troubleshoots the industrial-scale electromagnetic process, and a male sharecropper who becomes a construction worker on the site. The intertwined stories of these characters draw in several difficult social issues, including racial discrimination in America and the morality of unleashing nuclear energy to destroy civilian targets.

There’s no lyrical prose here, just basic exposition, but I found Beard’s descriptions of the inner workings of Oak Ridge intriguing, especially because her text is enlivened by dozens of remarkable period photographs of ordinary Americans living and working in Oak Ridge, the great majority of them totally unaware of the US Army’s goals in building the complex. In a quiet corner of the middle South, the horrors of the battle fronts and of the Holocaust could seem remote, but the people at Oak Ridge are deeply affected by world events.

After the Civil War

Varina     Charles Frazier     (2018)

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By page 3 of Varina, you know that you are in very competent hands. You can trust that Charles Frazier will imprint the landscape of the Civil War era on your brain for a long time. You will see into the souls of the characters and perhaps learn some truths about the issue of race in the United States. And his telling of the tale may break your heart.

Backing up a bit, let me explain that Frazier’s novel is a fictionalized version of the life of the second wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The teenaged Varina (“V”) Howell marries the widower Jefferson Davis, who is the age of her parents, and goes on to social prominence in Washington, DC, in the 1840s and 1850s as the spouse of Congressman and then Senator and then Secretary of War Davis. The secession of the southern states in 1861 upends her life.

The bulk of the novel is the story of Varina’s incredibly difficult trek from Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, toward Florida in the spring of 1865, as the Confederates surrender to the Union to end the war. Varina, her children, and a small entourage (not including her husband), hope to reach Florida and then cross over to Cuba to escape retribution from Union soldiers or prosecution by the federal government. Varina’s trip is recounted in flashbacks from the standpoint of 1906, when a middle-aged man of mixed race, James Blake, tracks down the elderly Varina, living in upstate New York, and asks her how he happened to be part of her household for a few years during his early childhood.

Is this plot vaguely reminiscent of the plot of Cold Mountain, Frazier’s 1997 international bestseller and winner of the National Book Award? Oh, sure. Both books present in grisly detail the wasteful destruction of life and land during the Civil War; both involve treacherous journeys against the backdrop of the ravaged American South; and both feature strong, educated female characters. The story is one that encompasses multitudes and can be told from countless points of view. Although many events in the novel Varina hew closely to the biographical facts of the actual life of Varina Davis, Frazier has invented the character of James Blake and has speculated about Varina’s analyses of master-slave relationships and about her intellectual struggles with the institution of slavery. Here are a couple of samples of Varina’s (fictional) thoughts:

“Even very young she saw slavery as an ancient practice arising because rich people would rather not do hard work, and also from the tendency of people to clench hard to advantageous passages in the Bible and dismiss the rest.” (102)

“. . . they—she and Jeff and the culture at large—had made bad choices one by one, spaced out over time so that they felt individual. But actually they accumulated. Choices of convenience and conviction, choices coincident with the people they lived among, following the general culture and the overriding matter of economics, money and its distribution, fair or not. Never acknowledging that the general culture is often stupid or evil and would vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous.” (328)

Although I learned a great deal about Varina Davis and her family in this novel, I see the heart of the book as the American South.

“V thought about how the landscape would never be the same after this war even if the blasted battleground healed with new green growth and burned farms were either rebuilt or allowed to rot into the dirt. The old troop movements, battles and skirmishes, places of victory and defeat and loss and despair. Slave quarters, whipping posts, and slave market platforms. Routes of attack and retreat. Monumental cemeteries of white crosses stretching in rows to the horizon, and also lonesome mountain burials . . .” (212)

I agree with Varina, and presumably with Charles Frazier, that the wounds of the Civil War are still festering in the United States today.

For another novel about the aftermath of war, this time World War II, see my review of The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017).

Family Drama in the Florida Heat

Heart of Palm     Laura Lee Smith     (2013)

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I wanted to read Laura Lee Smith’s 2017 novel, The Ice House, but my local library hasn’t bought it yet. So I checked out Smith’s 2013 novel, Heart of Palm, to see what her writing is like. I was confused at first by the cover of Heart of Palm, which looks like the front of a cheesy romance novel, but I decided to dip in anyway. Then, right off the bat, I encountered a horrific accident in the Prologue. Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t care for scenes of horror, and the grisliness of this episode almost kept me from continuing. But I’m very glad that I stuck with Heart of Palm.  

This is a novel of the American South, populated with gun-totin’, hard-lovin’, rip-roarin’ Southerners—but stopping short of stereotypes. In 1964, the wealthy and sophisticated Arla Bolton up and marries penniless bad boy Dean Bravo in the fictional Utina, a backwater town near St. Augustine, in northeastern Florida. There’s our set-up for marital difficulties, sibling rivalries, and various brawls. As we move from the 1960s to the present day for the main action, the adult children of Arla and Dean are faced with the extraordinary appreciation of their real estate, which happens to be situated on the Intracoastal Waterway. Being a Midwesterner, I was unfamiliar with this important shipping route along the Atlantic Coast, made up of both natural rivers and artificial canals. The Bravo clan is accustomed to living amidst the swampy tangle of vegetation that lies along the Atlantic and the Intracoastal, and they struggle with whether to sell to the real estate developers who want their parcels of land.

In addition to this main plot about real estate, each of the Bravos has a subplot, and several of the other quirky characters in Utina also get subplots. Novelist Smith develops all the storylines with a deftness that invites immersion in the text. She supports her narrative with descriptions that plop you right under the drooping fronds of palmettos, wiping your brow and sipping a cold brew. With Smith’s pervasive portrayal of the Florida heat, I could feel the suffocating air that makes your clothes stick and your head spin. No wonder the Southerners in Heart of Palm are a bit crazed. They need better air conditioning equipment!

Smith treats her characters—even the scoundrels—with empathy as they make the best of their situations, and she works their tales to a satisfying conclusion. So, will I still be looking to check out Smith’s The Ice House when it arrives at my library? You bet.

Living with an Anomaly

Miss Jane     Brad Watson     (2016)

In this delicate yet intense novel, Brad Watson tells the life story of Miss Jane Chisholm, who comes to terms with a serious genital birth defect. Miss Jane was born in rural Mississippi in 1915, so her case is indeed difficult, since there was no medical remedy for her condition at the time. Still, Miss Jane approaches each phase of her life with determination and optimism, despite the disappointments in love and career that are imposed by society’s reaction to her disability.

Watson’s starting point for research on this novel (as he explains on his website) was the life of his own great-aunt, who was born with a genital anomaly that was only vaguely alluded to in his family. Watson finally figured out what his great-aunt’s condition must have been, and in the novel he doesn’t shy away from explaining the physical issues, revealing pieces as the story progresses. These medical facts are usually in dialogues, with the local doctor (who attended Miss Jane’s birth and follows her case), speaking to Jane. Watson pulls the narrative out of the realm of the bizarre into normality, breaking down barriers that separate people because of their physical characteristics.

The reader comes to respect Miss Jane for her courage and to love her for her sweetness. Both as a child and as a woman, she’s beautiful in appearance. Men are attracted to her, and she must make decisions about how to handle their attentions, as she also finds ways to work around her incontinence.

The lush natural surroundings of Miss Jane and her family are described with striking language. For example, here is what Miss Jane’s mother sees as she sits on her porch, worrying about her daughter: “Late fall blackbirds swept in waves to the oaks at the yard’s edge, and their deafening, squawking, creaking calls, the cacophonous tuning of a mad avian symphony, drew the grief-borne anger from her heart, into the air, and swept it way in long, almost soothing moments of something like peace.”

I can’t help comparing Miss Jane, to Middlesex, the 2002 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which is a very different story about living life with a genital anomaly. In Miss Jane, the continuing advice of a kindly and knowledgeable doctor softens the suffering that Jane inevitably goes through. In Middlesex, the protagonist lacks this support.

The American South has often been a literary location for sadness, beauty, and extraordinary events under the graceful drooping Spanish moss. You’ll find those qualities in Miss Jane. And be sure to watch for the peacocks, which the author tells us (in the Acknowledgments) were added on the suggestion of his young granddaughter.

 

 

A Trip Across Texas

News of the World     Paulette Jiles     (2016)

Before the news of the world arrived on little screens, it came in newspapers. But in North Texas in 1870, even newspapers were scarce, and some people couldn’t afford them or didn’t have sufficient reading skills to get through the articles.

Enter Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes a meager living by giving public readings from newspapers. At age 71, Captain Kidd is tall and distinguished looking. A veteran of two wars who has also lived through the Civil War, he has the skills to survive traveling around rough and tumble Texas. Native tribes are still violently resisting the incursions of white settlers, and brutal Reconstruction policies have led to anarchy out on the dusty plains and hill lands.

After a newspaper reading in the North Texas town of Wichita Falls, Captain Kidd is asked to take on the task of delivering a ten-year-old orphan to her aunt and uncle, way down in South Texas, near San Antonio. This orphan has been redeemed from the Kiowa Indians, who had abducted her four years previously, when they slaughtered the rest of her family. The Captain is an honest and kindly man, the widowed father of two adult daughters, so he agrees to make the perilous trip.

The girl, who was named Johanna by her biological parents, has been thoroughly acculturated into Kiowa ways. She can’t speak English, but she makes her displeasure at being removed from her Indian family clear with acts of sabotage at the start of the journey. As the Captain and Johanna travel southward, the Captain realizes that the skills Johanna learned while living among warriors can come in handy on the dangerous trails.

This novel could have become a sentimental version of the American journey narrative, so I ventured past Chapter One warily. I was rewarded with Paulette Jiles’s spare prose that beautifully evokes the frontier, and also with her intriguing conjectures about the psychology of victims of abduction, both during and after their captivity. In an author’s note, Jiles directs readers to The Captured, a nonfiction book by Scott Zesch, which recounts the struggles of some of the children actually abducted by Plains Indians during the nineteenth century. I had not been aware of this page of American history.

I was intrigued by Jiles’s representation of the way Captain Kidd teaches Johanna English, with a little German thrown in, since her birth family was German American. As Johanna becomes more and more adept at English, the phonetic transcriptions of the bright child’s pronunciations change. Jiles values words—spoken words, unspoken words, cruel words, kind words, English words, Kiowa words.  

News of the World reminded me very much of the 2014 movie The Homesman, which is set on the Northern Plains in the same era and involves a similar journey. News of the World and The Homesman share a grittiness, and both explore the fragility and complexity of the human mind. Unlike the movie, however, News of the World takes us forward in time in the final chapter, offering a glimpse of the characters’ future, after the denouement of the central story. When I’ve become attached to fictional characters, I want to see how their lives play out, and this last chapter left me fully satisfied.

Conroy, a Poetic Prince

The Prince of Tides      Pat Conroy  (1986)

When Pat Conroy died in March 2016, I ran across many heartfelt tributes to his writing. I felt guilty. How had I missed reading an author so beloved by so many readers?

With a few clicks, I figured it out. Conroy wrote about the American South and about the experience of being a male Southerner who was subjected to brutality in both family and school environments. I find much fiction about the South painfully depressing. In high school, when Carson McCullers was assigned, I ate up The Heart is a Lonely Hunter but then had nightmares for weeks. Heretical as it sounds, I’ve never been enthralled by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor.

I decided, however, to give the South another chance by reading Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. It took me several days, since this is a long—and longwinded—novel. I kept thinking how some of the lengthy dialogues could have been edited down considerably without diluting the power of the story. The narrative is complex, certainly, and I was willing to follow it to the end, but I was tempted to skip entire sections just to get on with the plot.

Briefly, that plot follows about forty years in the lives of the three Wingo siblings, who were born in the South Carolina sea islands during World War II. Their father is a successful shrimper who wastes all his earnings on get-rich-quick schemes. He flies into rages and beats his wife and children. That’s the least of the horrors that the Wingo kids endure. Slowly, very slowly, the reader gets the full picture as Tom Wingo, the first-person narrator, explains the family history to a psychiatrist who’s treating his suicidal sister, Savannah, in New York City in the early 1980s.

Despite the hundreds of scenes in this novel that feature Tom Wingo, I didn’t ever grasp his personality in full. Tom is a jokey guy, often spouting self-deprecating retorts and constantly whining about male Southerners with a grim fatalism. He reads widely and finds fulfillment in coaching adolescents in sports. But when he opens his mouth, ridiculous statements spew out.  I never figured out Tom’s mother, either. Is her repeated repression of trauma a form of abuse or of self-preservation or both? Does she exploit or regret her renowned beauty? Isn’t Conroy’s portrait of her as a young mother inconsistent with his portrait of her as an older woman? And Tom describes his brother, Luke, as a hero who’s much larger than life, which is perhaps Conroy’s way of showing how much Tom worshiped Luke.

All that aside, I found much to admire in The Prince of Tides. Conroy’s vocabulary is enormous, and his words are deployed to great effect in evoking the fragile glories of the semitropical saltwater marshes of the South Carolina coast. He tosses off striking metaphors with ease and moves actions forward with powerful verbs. He doesn’t use an ordinary noun when a fanciful one can be found; a song becomes a “canticle,” which will be the exactly right term for that sentence. The smells of the Low Country fishing industry often have metallic descriptors that succeed in recreating the place. The flora and fauna thriving in the thick, humid atmosphere are portrayed with particularity and reverence.

Conroy gives his character Savannah Wingo the vocation of poet, and he seems to envy the way Savannah can transform the stories of her troubled youth into paeans for a disappearing way of life. You can read The Prince of Tides if you want a sprawling Southern melodrama. I read The Prince of Tides for the poetry of the language.