Book Review: Saving Amelie

AmelieIn the novel Saving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke, American Rachel Kramer’s dreams for her life do not match her father’s, so she is eager to get away and start her own life. But she agrees to accompany him for one last trip together to Germany in 1939.

Her father, Dr. Kramer, has done extensive work in the field of genetics, specifically eugenics. Motivated by a desire to eradicate tuberculosis, he argues for sterilization of those who might spread the disease. He shares his work with German scientists who want to apply eugenics much more broadly.

While in Germany, Rachel plans to meet with an old friend, Kristine. But instead of a joyful reunion, Rachel is alarmed at the changes. Kristine is cowed by her controlling husband, SS officer Gerhardt Schlick. Furthermore, Kristine is afraid for the life of her daughter, Amelie, who is deaf and thereby a blight on Gerhardt’s Aryan bloodline. Kristine begs Rachel to take Amelie away before something terrible happens to her. But Rachel has her own plans. She’s not good with children and doesn’t know how she would ever get her out, much less what to do with her afterward.

But as Rachel checks further into her father’s research, she finds that eugenics goes far beyond the prevention of disease, and the German scientists are running experiments on a wide variety people whom they deem imperfect in some way. She’s further stunned to find that she herself has been an object of experimentation, and she has a family she never knew of.

American journalist Jason Young’s reports have been censored by the authorities before leaving the country. But even though his reporting has been hampered, he’s aware of much more than he lets on. At first he thinks Rachel is a part of the Nazi regime and scientific community, then realizes she doesn’t know the full extent of it. Once she does, they join together to save Amelie and others, even crossing paths with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rachel herself has to go into hiding, with Gerhardt Schlick determined to find her.
___

This is the first book I’ve read by Cathy Gohlke, but it won’t be the last. Not only was the story was riveting, but Cathy deftly showed how some of the policies of that day are making inroads in modern times, with some less than perfect children deemed unworthy of life. I love how she wove the philosophical discussion in without weighing down the action of the story. The secondary characters are just as well-drawn as the main ones. Highly recommended.

Advertisements

Book Review: Steal Away Home

Steal Away Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey is a fictional book based on facts. It parallels lifelines of two men growing up in very different circumstances and their eventual meeting and friendship.

The two men in question are Charles Haddon Spurgeon, famous and oft-quoted English preacher in the 1800s, and Thomas Johnson, a Southern slave who was freed after the Civil War, became a pastor, and eventually became a missionary to Africa. “In 1879, there were only two Christian missionaries in the entire country, and Thomas Johnson would be the very first African-American missionary to ever step foot on Cameroon soil as an ambassador for the Good News.”

It’s unlikely that two men from such different lives would cross paths. But a member of Johnson’s congregation knew Spurgeon, knew that Johnson lamented his lack of education, and knew there were funds for students who needed them to go to Spurgeon’s college, so he recommended Johnson to Spurgeon. The story has Johnson hearing of Spurgeon while still a slave, when slave owners were burning Spurgeon’s books and papers because of his stance against slavery. So meeting Spurgeon had special meaning for Johnson. They became friends after their first meeting, even to the point of Johnson traveling with Spurgeon for a retreat and being present at Spurgeon’s death.

Though this tells the story of both men, it’s not a full biography of either. It mainly tells their stories as they relate to each other.

And because the book is fictional, we don’t know what’s real and what’s made up. I would have preferred a realistic account.

I’ve read two biographies of Susannah, Charles’ wife, and several accounts of his life. I know he suffered from depression. Most accounts portray him as joyful with occasional bouts of depression: this book characterizes him as mostly depressed with occasional bouts of joy.  The truth is probably somewhere in-between. Probably depression affected him much more than anyone knew. I knew he had gout as well, but didn’t know just how extensive the pain from that could be. But the authors seemed to play up the negative physical and spiritual effects of both Susannah and Charles.

I did not know anything about Johnson, so of course I can’t compare what was said of him. I did learn that he wrote his autobiography, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave, or the Story of My Life in Three Continents. I would love to read that some time.

In a fictionalized story, naturally we expect there will be a few made-up scenes – conversations that did not happen yet reflect events or characteristics of the person’s life, etc. But according to this and this review, some scenes were revised, even the details in the account of Thomas’ conversion. If that’s true, I am very disappointed that the authors would make such revisions. The authors themselves say the book is “not a biography, and it’s not a history book, but a story, based on real events that occurred in history. Many passages in the book are word-for-word quotations from Spurgeon’s or Johnson’s own writing.” They were inspired by another historical book written as fiction that brought the characters and situations to life an wanted to do the same with this book. They admit that they “take literary license, and deviate slightly from the historical record,” but assert that “the overwhelming majority of the persons, places, dates, and even the dialogue of this book are based on real events.”

But aside from those quibbles, I did enjoy learning the relationship between these two men. I felt the hopelessness of Johnson’s situation as a slave, the palpable fear as the slaves met privately late at night to quietly worship together, the long road he had to face even after freedom was granted. I appreciated that Spurgeon was a leading voice against slavery and in treating people of all colors as equals. And though I think the authors over-emphasized Spurgeon’s suffering (they often portray him as incapacitated and don’t show much of the productive aspects of his life), I did appreciate the window into what his down times might have been like.

The title, Steal Away Home, comes from an old spiritual which is referred to often throughout the book. It’s sung here by Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis

I did not start reading anything by or about C. S. Lewis until about twenty years ago. Something I read then indicated that his marriage was just one of convenience so his American wife could stay in England. Since then I’ve read varying accounts of his relationship with his wife, Joy. Patti Callahan asserts that the woman whom Lewis mourned in A Grief Observed and who inspired Til We Have Faces had to have been more than just a dear friend. The letters between the two have been lost, but Patti researched all of the other pieces of Joy’s and Lewis’ writings she could find plus biographies of them to get to know Joy. Based on her findings, she crafted a fictional story titled Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis.

Mrs. LewisJoy was something of a child prodigy, graduating from high school and college early and earning a master’s degree by age twenty. She was Jewish, an atheist, and, for a brief time, a Communist. She married William Gresham in 1942 and had two sons, but the marriage was troubled almost from the start. Bill was an alcoholic with some seeming mental issues after his military service. In one incident when Bill was drunk, despairing, and talking of suicide, Joy dropped to her knees and prayer to a God she did not believe in – and felt something of an encounter. It was enough to change her perspective and start her searching for answers. She had read and respected C. S. Lewis and knew he had converted to Christianity from atheism, so she wrote to him.

They corresponded for three years. In the meantime, due to health issues and a need for more answers, Joy took a trip to England, where she stayed with a friend, rested, wrote, and finally met Lewis, who asked her to call him Jack. By this time, Joy’s marriage was seriously crumbling, and she was beginning to have feelings beyond friendship for Jack. But she wanted to keep her friendship with Jack pure. She determined to try to save her marriage – until she learned that her husband and cousin were having an affair. Then she asked for a divorce.

Joy returned home as soon as she was able and returned to England with her boys. She and Lewis visited often. She and the boys even stayed with Lewis and his brother, Warnie, for several weeks. They read and edited each other’s writing, walked, ate, drank. Joy fell hard for Jack, but he treasured the philea (brotherly, friendly) type of love they had. He felt he was too old to start thinking about romance, and, besides, in the eyes of his Anglican church, she was still married. When Joy had to face leaving the country due to bureaucratic regulations, Jack offered a civil marriage and bought her a house. When Joy was diagnosed with cancer, Jack realized his true feelings for her and married her in earnest.

Joy was an intelligent, complicated woman. She reminds me very much of the woman at the well in John 4, “looking for love in all the wrong places,” as the saying goes. Early in her life, she was made to feel that she could never “measure up.” Her father punished her for besmirching her A report card with a B. Her mother compared her unfavorably to her prettier, more graceful cousin. She sought for acceptance and assurance of her worth in a string of sexual encounters. She came to learn that sex in itself does not equal love.

Joy is also a reminder that true Christians don’t always fit in a nice, neat box. Really, we have to look no further than our Bibles to know that. Almost every major figure in the Old Testament had serious family and/or personal issues, and the NT epistles dealt with issues in churches that we scratch our heads over these days. Yet even in the messiness of her life both before and after salvation, and the up and down pattern of her growth, there’s a steady trajectory of growing in grace and knowledge.

I must know when it is enough. And I must trust God — again and again I was learning and relearning to trust the truth who had entered my sons’ nursery. The rusty and decrepit habit of trusting in only myself, only abiding in my own ability to make things happen, died hard and slow (Chapter 40).

Much of what I’d done — mistakes, poems, manipulations, success and books and sex — had been done merely to get love. To get it. To answer my question: do you love me? . . . From that moment on, the love affair I would develop would be with my soul. [God] was already part of me; that much was clear. And now this would be where I would go for love — to the God in me. No more begging or pursuing or needing. Possibly it was only a myth, Jack’s myth [Til We Have Faces], that could have obliterated the false belief that I must pursue love in the outside world — in success, in acclaim, in performance, in a man.

The Truth: I was beloved of God.

Finally I could stop trying to force someone or something else to fill that role (Chapter 44).

Jack: I’ve spent all my life in an attempt to find Truth and moral good and then to live it. I can’t discard my moral habits for feelings, which are just that — feelings (Chapter 42).

I enjoyed getting to know Joy and seeing Jack as a normal person in everyday mode. And I loved the truths quoted above that Patti incorporated into the story.

However, even given Joy’s penchant for looking for love through sex at first, there seems to me to be more of a sensual aspect of the story than needed to convey Joy’s misdirection. Even a hill is unnecessarily described as appearing “like the breast of a woman in recline.” Another friend mentioned the preponderance of alcohol in the story. Even allowing that different Christians have different convictions about whether and how much a Christian can consume, alcohol seems the major drink of choice for any occasion here. It’s mentioned even when we really have no need to know what the characters are drinking. I’m left wondering why. I don’t know how much of these things are the author’s choices and how much of it is integral to Joy’s story. Because of these issues, this book won’t appeal to everyone. While I don’t endorse everything in the book,  I think if one can set aside some of the objectionable elements, Joy’s growth as a person, as a Christian, and her impact in Jack’s life and work can be seen and appreciated. The choice whether to read it or not must be left to individuals.

Linda is currently hosting a four-week book club to discuss this book. Week one’s discussion is here: week two is here. Week three is here., just posted today, with one more session coming next week. So it’s not too late to join in if the discussion if you’d like.

Linda also pointed us to a couple of nice videos. In this one, the author shares her thoughts and shows photos of Jack and Joy and videos of Jack’s house, the Kilns.

This one shows aspects of Oxford, integral to both Jack and Joy:

An interview with the author is here (HT to Linda).

Book Review: Murder in an English Village

EnglishIn Murder in an English Village by Jessica Ellicott, Beryl Helliwell seeks adventure all over the world in the 1920s. Brash, impulsive, and outspoken, she’s become famous as newspapers cover her exploits. “Beryl had a great deal of experience with people in the throes of shock. It tended to happen to others at an alarming rate when she was in the vicinity.”

But she has become bored and restless. After a while “one camel caravan is very much like another.” Finding an ad for a room to rent in the small English village of Walmsley Parva, Beryl decides to take a break and rest a while.

Edwina Davenport has been a quiet pillar in Walmsley Parva for decades, but the economy after WWI has greatly reduced her resources. When she decides to rent a room, she’s delighted when her old school chum, Beryl, asks to rent it. As the two get reacquainted, Edwina admits that she’s embarrassed to go into the village and face scrutiny and gossip because of her financial constraints. Beryl takes it upon herself to help out: she tells the chief rumormonger in town that she and Edwina are secret agents, and “Ed’s” seemingly reduced circumstances are just a front.

Edwina’s dismay at Beryl’s storytelling morphs into deep concern after someone makes an attempt on Edwina’s life in her own back yard. Who in sleepy little Walmsley Parva would have a secret that they don’t want investigated?

I had not heard of this book or author until I was sorting through a 2-for-1 sale at Audible. I had found one book I wanted, but couldn’t find another among the sale items. Then I saw this title. Normally I am wary of modern fiction, because usually it contains bad language or sexual scenes. But I perused a few reviews that said this was a clean story, so I took a chance on it.

As a “cozy mystery,” it’s a lot of fun. Well, except for a murder investigation and several sad tales connected with it. But Beryl and Edwina play well off each other. The story has a cast of distinctive characters. It dragged just a bit for me in the middle as the two women interviewed several people, but as the clues unfolded, the mystery came together satisfactorily. The ending left the possibility open for more Beryl and Edwina stories, and I found that a sequel has been written. The two have good potential for a running series.

I don’t recall that there was any bad language except Beryl uses one word as an idiom which I didn’t understand. Edwina didn’t, either, but her sensibilities were “shocked.” (I wasn’t about to look it up…). Besides that one incident, and the mention of a man having “octopus hands,” the book is clean. Someone is found to have had an adulterous relationship, but nothing explicit is discussed or shown. Beryl does have a penchant for alcohol and divorce.

I saw some reviews criticizing the narrator of the audiobook, Barbara Rosenblat, for some odd hesitations. But I did not find them distracting and thought she did a great job.

Overall I thought it an enjoyable story.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Marilla of Green Gables

MarillaWhen I first saw mention of Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy, I was intrigued but wary. So many dearly love the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery: how could anyone in our day add to the story? Would it just be fan fiction? Would the author make Marilla’s story too modern and politically correct? Somewhere, in a link I forgot to note, I read that the Montgomery family was also wary of McCoy’s book, but liked it in the end. So that gave me impetus to read it for myself.

In this interview, McCoy tells how she searched and marked the Anne books for clues about Marilla herself. This interview shares some other background information as well.

The book opens with a scene right before Marilla and Matthew decide that he needs help with the farm, and they discuss sending for an orphan boy. The next chapter takes the story back to Marilla as a thirteen-year-old girl. Her brother, Matthew, is in his twenties, still living at home and helping on the farm. Her mother is expecting her third child. Green Gables is being built but is not finished or named yet.

Marilla and Matthew work hard on the farm, and we see each of their personalities as they might have been. Matthew is quiet and shy. Marilla is sensible and practical, but she is a teenage girl and not an older spinster at this point. So she has hopes and dreams and enjoys idle time reading a magazine.

She makes friends with the chatty and opinionated Rachel White (later Lynde) and meets a young, strong John Blythe. Marilla’s first unusual opportunity to travel with Rachel’s family to another town to deliver shawls knitted by the ladies of Avonlea for orphans broadens her horizons and opens her eyes to people and needs outside their small community.

Tragedy strikes at home, which colors Marilla’s decisions for the rest of her life. Suddenly she has to work harder than ever. But she finds outlets for other causes when she’s tapped to lead the newly formed Ladies’ Aid Society.

Political issues in their region pit neighbor against neighbor and cause ripples of unrest. And Marilla finds that helping others sometimes involves risk and sacrifice.

I felt that the author did a good job with the setting and characters. The story did have a familiar Avonlea feel. Most of the main characters seemed reasonable representations (Rachel seemed the least like her LMM counterpart to me). It was bittersweet watching Marilla and John’s romance unfold, knowing it was not going to work out. But I liked that the author presented the break-up as sad but not unrecoverable. Marilla did fine as an independent single woman. I wasn’t thrilled with the political aspects of the story: I don’t remember there being much of anything political in the Anne books. On the other hand, the author researched issues that would have been important in PEI at the time, and it’s reasonable to think those issues would have impacted Avonlea. I liked the fact that each section of the contents echoed the titles of the Anne books (Marilla of Green Gables, Marilla of Avonlea, Marilla’s House of Dreams).

My one main objection centers around Marilla and John’s kiss scene. I felt that a sweet, chaste kiss would have been more in keeping with the setting and style of the books. Instead, the author has John falling in a brook, taking his wet shirt off, and Marilla’s sensation of her hands on his “naked body” (even though we was only shirtless, not naked.) The whole scene was written much more sensually than it needed to be. Sure, Marilla would have been a normal teenage girl with normal sensations and urges, and I suppose that’s what the author was trying to convey. Even still, I would venture to guess that most people’s first kiss even in our day would not border on erotic.

There was also a scene early on where someone thinks a bee is in the house, and the reaction from the other ladies was tremendously overblown, in my opinion, with ladies fleeing the house in panic, and the owner giving the house a thorough cleaning, even calling for the county inspector.

But for the most part, I enjoyed the story and the visit back to Avonlea.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: The Lost Castle

Lost CastleIn The Lost Castle by Kristy Cambron, Ellie Carver’s Grandma Vi had raised her since her parents’ deaths when she was a child. Now her grandmother was in a care facility suffering the ravages of Alzheimer’s, often not even knowing who Ellie was.  But one particular day, her grandmother seemed especially agitated and could hardly keep herself from the window. While Ellie gently attempted distraction, her grandmother pulled out a book of The Sleeping Beauty in French. While wondering  why her grandmother had such a book in French and flipping through the pages, an old photo fell out. The picture was WWII-era vintage of a young woman sitting on a stone wall smilingly staring up at a young man who was definitely not Ellie’ grandfather. Ellie learned that there was a castle called The Sleeping Beauty in France, and Vi was supposed to have met this man at the castle to tell him whether or not she would marry him.

These revelations sent Ellie to the Loire Valley in France, uncovering a story that spanned hundreds of years.

In 1789, Aveline Sainte-Moreau was much more interested in the politics and current events of the day than a lady of her station should have been. Though she did not condone all the actions of the disenfranchised poor, she had compassion on them and helped as she could. To keep her in her place and divert her attention, her father arranged her marriage with a man she had never met. On the night of her debut and the official announcement of her engagement at her fiance’s home, the castle was attacked. While the castle crumbled and burned, Aveline was rescued, but not before being scarred by the flames. Her rescuers had to keep her hidden while she recovered: unrest had been fomenting into revolution, and the nobility in general was in danger.

In 1944, Viola Hart was a linguist caught in France, having escaped the Nazis. Taking refuge in a chapel, she was discovered by a neighboring vigneron, Julien, who secreted her to his family’s home. Eventually she learned he was part of the French Resistance, and her skills would be valuable. Having no way to safely get home, she stayed to help. In their preparations, they painted a large red V on the walls of a deserted castle.

When Ellie came to the Loire Valley, she wanted to search for the castle wall where her grandmother’s picture had been taken. She was distressed to learn that the castle grounds were closed to the public. Her host and tour guide, Quinn, was reluctant to push any further into the mystery, wanting to respect the castle owner’s wishes. But at Ellie’s  and his own grandfather Titus’s insistence, Quinn took Ellie where she needed to go and helped her unravel the clues. She learned that the castle’s nickname, The Sleeping Beauty, came from a legend of a member of the nobility hundreds of years before who seemed to disappear in the area. As Ellie uncovered more of her grandmother’s past, she unlocked more of her own story as well.

My thoughts:

I loved the three women’s stories and how Kristy wove them together. I loved the strength of each character in her circumstances. I enjoyed some of the touches in each timeline: the castle itself, a brooch passed down to each woman, a fox that lives in the woods and visits the castle grounds, the various shades of lavender and purple, from Aveline’s shawl and love of violets to Grandma Vi’s cardigan. The faith element is subtle but steady.

And isn’t that cover gorgeous?

One quote that encapsulates the book’s theme:

Titus says the land is a witness of the generations who have come before. That it stands resolute. It’s the same yesterday. Today. And who knows what tomorrow will look like. He likens it to God’s influence over creation. That He’s immovable. Steady. Watching from a distance, yet ever involved. A bit like your lost castle, hmm? (p. 244).

I’ve read many books with two timelines: this is the second in recent months that had three. It wasn’t confusing to keep up with them, as each setting with its characters was distinct. The only confusion within a timeline came when a new chapter opened at a time earlier than where we had last left those particular characters – a flashback within a given timeline. But it only took a few moments to get oriented.

With elements of mystery, the fairy-tale quality of Aveline’s story in particular, historical elements, and above all a lovely story and testimony of God’s faithfulness, Kristy has another winner here. So far I have never been disappointed with any of her books, and I hope she writes many more!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Book’s You Loved)

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

GuernseyIn the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, Juliet Ashton had begun writing a lighthearted newspaper column during WWII under the name Izzy Bickertstaff. Her editors thought the country needed a bit of humor and uplift. After the war, the columns were collected and published as a book, making Juliet and her publishers a lot of money.

But now the war is over, and Juliet wants to write something more meaningful under her own name. She’s not sure what, though, until she receives a note from someone on Guernsey named Dawsey who had somehow ended up with a book she had given away about Charles Lamb. During WWII, Guernsey and surrounding Channel islands were occupied by the Germans. Most of the children were evacuated off the island, and for five years the island didn’t have contact with the outside world. As the island had been isolated during the war and no booksellers had come back yet, Dawsey can’t find other books by or about Lamb, and he  wonders if she might have access to some. In their correspondence, he mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Understandably curious, Juliet asks to know more about the society. It was invented one night when a few neighbors out after curfew were stopped and questioned by a guard (why they were out was another interesting story). One of them made up on the spot the literary society that they had supposedly just come from and even mentioned a German book. Thankfully the guard was a literary type and let them go. But now they had to implement such a society to avoid suspicion, so they began to meet regularly to discuss books they were reading. Some of the members were not avid readers, but they found at least one book to read and talk about.

The more Juliet hears, the more she feels maybe this is what she needs to write about. The book is made of of correspondence mostly between Juliet and her publisher, a few friends, and the various members of the society.

Some of their stories are comical, some are poignant, others are quite sad. Some were helped by the books they read; others were helped more by the camaraderie and community. And a fair bit of drama occurs in Juliet’s life as well, and her life changes in several ways she could not have predicted.

It seemed like everyone was talking about this book a few years ago, and I had always intended to read it “someday.” When I saw a film was being made of the book, I decided now was the time. I have not seen the film yet, but I knew I wanted to read the book first.

Epistolary novels are not my favorite form of story, but it works for this novel. You would have thought that it would be hard to “show rather than tell” through letters, which are a way of telling. But Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows, do this masterfully.

Unfortunately there is a smattering of bad words, including the Lord’s name taken in vain. There are no sexual scenes, but one woman has a baby out of wedlock, a couple of men are characterized as homosexual, and mention is made of women who fraternize with the Germans sexually.

But the characters are charming, and I love the way the story unfolds. I hated to see the story come to an end.

I’ve read much WWII fiction, but nothing that I can recall from this period of recovery just after the war. Amid the joy and relief of the war ending and the Germans retreating, there were still shortages, missing people who had been sent off to camps, buildings defaced or marred by Germans who had taken them over, not to mention the emotional trauma many carried with them for a long while afterward.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by a number of people. At first it was a little hard to distinguish between some of the characters, but after a while I got them straight. I ordered the book as well, and it contains a wonderful afterword by Annie Barrows. Most of the book was written by Mary Ann Shaffer, but her health began to fail during the rewrites, and she asked Annie to step in. Evidently Mary Ann had always been a wonderful storyteller, and the family was so pleased that her work was received so well.

I’ll close with a few of my favorite quotes:

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.

All my life I thought that the story was over when the hero and heroine were safely engaged — after all, what’s good enough for Jane Austen ought to be good enough for anyone. But it’s a lie. The story is about to begin, and every day will be a new piece of the plot.

Because there is nothing I would rather do than rummage through bookshops, I went at once to Hastings & Sons Bookshop upon receiving your letter. I have gone to them for years, always finding the one book I wanted – and then three more I hadn’t known I wanted.

Your questions regarding that gentleman are very delicate, very subtle, very much like being smacked in the head with a mallet…it’s a tuba among the flutes.

Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Before We Were Yours

Truth is stranger than fiction, the saying goes. It is also more heartbreaking. One of the saddest and strangest situations in history is the story of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society she operated. Georgia would abduct poor children by various illegal means: outright kidnapping, taking children born to unwed mothers for “medical care” and then telling the mothers their babies died; tricking parents into signing their children over to the home, and others. Policemen, family court judges, a crime boss, and others were a part of Tann’s network. The children they obtained would be adopted out to unsuspecting couples or sometimes sold to high-profile, wealthy families. Records were often destroyed or falsified. Even though Tann thought the children would be better off in their new situations, ultimately her enterprise was a money-making scheme. Tann died while she and the home were investigated, but before she could be brought to justice.

Before we were yoursLisa Wingate sets her novel Before We Were Yours in these circumstances.

Avery Stafford is a senator’s daughter being groomed to take his place. On a trip with her father to a nursing home, a resident pauses before Avery, seems to recognize her, and calls her “Fern.” An aide hustles the woman away, chalking the incident up to dementia. But the woman made off with Avery’s heirloom bracelet, and when Avery goes back to the woman’s room to retrieve it, she sees a framed photograph of a woman who looks remarkably like Avery’s grandmother. Conversations with the resident, May, lead Avery to look into her grandmother’s journals. Every scrap of information uncovered produces more questions. Avery isn’t sure what she will ultimately find or what the consequences will be, but she feels compelled to know the truth. And the process causes Avery to question whether she is living a “role” in life set out for her by others.

May’s story is told in flashbacks. She was born Rill Foss, the oldest of five children who lived with their parents on a houseboat. When Rill’s mother goes into hard labor, the midwife insists that she be taken to the hospital. While Rill’s parents are gone, a policeman comes to pick up the children, saying he will take them to see their parents. Instead, he takes them to a woman waiting in a nearby car, who whisks them away to a children’s home.

Children in the home are neglected, not well fed, and abused. But when potential adoptive parents come, the children are dressed up and threatened to be on their best behavior. One by one Rill’s siblings disappear, but when she protests or tries to thwart their removal, she is punished and her remaining siblings threatened.

Even though May’s history is heart-rending, ultimately the book ends redemptively and hopefully.

Lisa’s scenes on the river are so real, I could almost see and smell and feel the surroundings. I ached with May through her story and the ultimate hard choice she had to make, and rejoiced at how things wrapped up for her. And I enjoyed Avery’s story as well.

A very well-written, excellent book.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Mozart’s Sister

Mozart's Sister Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser tells the story of Maria Anna Mozart, known as Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister by four and a half years. The two of them were the only surviving children of seven, the other five having died in infancy. When their father started giving Nannerl lessons on the harpsichord, Wolfgang, then three, wanted to learn, too, to be like his sister. He picked it up quickly, as well as other instruments, and was composing by age five, completing his first symphony by age eight. Their father took them on tours from their native Salzburg to various royal courts and other venues in European cities like Munich, Vienna, Paris, London, Zurich, and others as the Wunderkind – Miracle Children. Their father, Leopold, even lied about their ages, making them out to be even younger than they were so as to play up the “Wunder” even more. Nannerl received top billing at first and was well-known for her playing, but “Wolfie” seemed even more a prodigy, being so much younger, and eventually most of the attention went to him.

Leopold was a composer, violinist, teacher, and finally the assistant director of music (Kapellmeister) for the archbishop of Salzburg. He eventually laid aside his own composing and performing and poured himself into promoting the children’s talent, then just Wolfie’s, then seeking out a position for Wolfgang. They made money on the tours, but Leopold was only paid for his position when he was actually there is Salzberg, understandably, and he almost lost his position due to so much time away. Thus there was always a tension between what they wanted to do and the need for finances.

The story is told from Nannerl’s point of view and begins with the various experiences with travels and concerts, delighting to play, interactions with royalty, expectations to play dressed up as little adults with adult-looking clothing and massive powdered wigs. Both she and Wolfie became seriously ill with smallpox, and once he had rheumatic fever.

Their parents encouraged Wolfie’s composing but discouraged Nannerl’s on the grounds that it was hard enough for men to get music accepted and published; for women it was considered impossible. Wolfie was groomed for a musical career but Nannerl was expected to lay all of that aside to marry and bear children. When she was of marriageable age,  Leopold and Wolfgang went on tours together, leaving the women behind.

When Nannerl fell in love, she was not allowed to marry the man of her choosing, but there’s no evidence to explain why. Some sources, according to Wikipedia, think Leopold did not allow it. Nancy portrays it as the archbishop, who employed Nannerl’s intended and from whom they had to receive permission, denying it as part of his adversarial relationship with Leopold. Whatever the reason, the two remained close friends.

Wolfgang, though a genius musically, seemed egocentric, lacking in common sense, and unwise in money matters. The author played up the tension she thought Nannerl felt as the dutiful, obedient daughter whose life did not turn out as she wanted it to, even though she did everything “right,” as opposed to Wolfie, who was irresponsible and self-willed, yet seemed to get everything he wanted, including marrying the girl his father did not at first approve of. Yet, whereas a number of modern people seem to leave it as “poor, Nannerl, born in the wrong time period and kept down by the oppressive customs of the times,” from the brief bit of reading I have done online since finishing the book, Nancy portrays her as having to wrestle through all those disappointments while maintaining her love for family and coming to a place of acceptance and even finding her own place of worth, even though it was not what she originally planned.

A few quotes:

To Papa, getting Wolfie back in Salzburg, safely ensconced in a salaried position, would save our family’s finances. I couldn’t see that he was wrong in this, but I knew keeping Wolfie in such a position would be like trying to cage a hummingbird.

Having no musical challenge—as was the case in Salzburg—sapped his life breath and made him suffocate for lack of creative air.

If only Wolfie didn’t have to think about money but could concentrate on creating and performing for the sheer joy of it. If only we all could do what we wanted to do.

Wolfie had to adapt the music to the limitations and egos of the singers, which was both frustrating and time-consuming.

“Will that boy ever understand the world does not revolve around him?” I did not mention Papa’s part in creating that belief.

A few small criticisms:

At the end the author has an extended list of what was fact, based on historical records and family letters, and what was fiction based on the best information she had. A lot of Nannerl’s inward wrestlings were based on what the author would have felt in her position or what she “felt sure” Nannerl felt, but I think she may have overdone it a bit. Nannerl seemed a bit whiny at times in the first half of the book.

The use of modern phrases – like “hard for me to wrap my mind around” something, “It seemed that Wolfie was settling,” “purple prose” – seemed jarringly out of place in a historical context.

“All musicians feel this bond with the Divine.” I wasn’t sure how that was meant. Feeling God working in and through them – that’s fine and I can understand that. But if it’s meant to convey a “spark of Divinity” in the individual, I would disagree. I think from what I have read of the author that she would mean the former, but the statement was vague enough to make one wonder.

Otherwise, I very much enjoyed learning about the Mozarts and appreciated the author’s encouragement to “Take Nannerl’s story as an impetus to look at your own life and make it the most it can be. You too have a unique, God-given purpose. The trick is to find out what it is.”

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carol’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Washington’s Lady

Washington's Lady Washington’s Lady by Nancy Moser is a fictionalized biography of Martha Washington, wife of the U.S.A.’s first president.

The story opens with Martha at age 26 having just lost her husband of seven years, preceded by the deaths of two children. One of her two remaining children was sick with the same illness that took her husband. Despite her grief, she had to deal with the affairs of their plantation, including the complications of her husband’s neglect to leave a will.

Because she was “the wealthiest widow in Virginia,” “expected to remarry in a timely fashion,” it wasn’t long before a number of suitors sought her hand. No one interested her, however, until she met Colonel Washington. They conversed easily and were drawn to each other, eventually marrying. George tried to help her sort out the issues at her plantation, but eventually they moved to his smaller estate at Mount Vernon.

Trouble was stirring, however, with “Mother England.” Ludicrous laws and taxes, low quality goods sold to colonists at inflated prices, and a number of other issues were moving the populace from dissatisfaction to revolt. George left Mount Vernon as a representative, but eventually became the leader of the armed forces, not returning home for six years.

The story is told from Martha’s point of view, so we hear of battles through letters and occasional visits Martha made to wherever the troops were camping. She put herself to good use, sewing and repairing uniforms, organizing sewing circles to do the same, and visiting the men. Once she and the family had to flee Mt. Vernon as British forces approached, but a storm kept the enemy back. Two schemes to kidnap her failed. Other times newspapers spread lies, such as one stating that she was loyal to Britain.

At one point, overwhelmed by the suffering of the men and the lack of food, clothing and supplies for them at Valley Forge, she lamented that she could not do more. But she realized “the fate of many men depended on the fate of this one. And this one I could help.”

As the conflict drew to a close, many realized the revolution was all for nothing if the fledgling country could not get off to a good start, so talks began as to how best to achieve that. The result was George’s being elected president, not something he wanted at first. He longed for nothing more than to go home and be with his family and get his neglected house in order. But many felt that, as he had unified an army of untrained disparate individuals, he was the best to try to do the same with the thirteen colonies.

Martha was not pleased. All she wanted was for both of them to go home, too. Plus there was nothing for her to do as the president’s wife. She couldn’t even take a walk with her husband without being mobbed, the price of fame neither of them wanted. Perhaps because of all this, the book skips ten years over the time of George’s presidency to the last day of his life, then sums up the couple of years that Martha survived him.

Like most people, Martha had a mixture of qualities. She was unpretentious, strong, feisty, practical, capable in many respects. She had a constant stream of visitors and enjoyed hospitality until it became almost constant as they became more well known. She was also a self-proclaimed worrier. Her one main weakness was her son, Jacky. Perhaps because her husband and other children all passed away, and this son had been dangerously ill, plus for reasons unknown she and George were not able to have their own children, she was over-protective of him, and not only did she not discipline him, she did not let George do so, either. Jacky ran into all kind of trouble as a teenager and young man, seemed to settle down somewhat when he married, but then went back to his undisciplined, self-willed ways later on, and died leaving a wife and four children, the youngest two of whom George and Martha took in. Martha blamed herself, but then she repeated the very same mistakes with her one grandson while being strict with her granddaughters.

After George’s death, she destroyed all but a couple of their letters, perhaps to keep at least that part of their private lives from public view, understandably.

I also enjoyed the author’s several pages at the end explaining her interest in Martha and what things were made up or compiled and what things were real. Conversations, of course, needed imagination to recreate, but she based the story on as much fact as she could discover.

Besides learning more about Martha and George, it was also neat to see glimpses of other historical figures as well and to get the feel of those times. This was a fascinating and enjoyable book.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)