Monday, March 20, 2023

The Trackers by Charles Frazier takes a propulsive journey across Depression-era America

Following Varina (2018), Frazier is in top form for his fifth novel, which traverses America in its portrait of contrasting Depression-era lives.

“The Trackers” is the name that New Deal artist Valentine “Val” Welch gives the mural he’s commissioned to paint in the post office of Dawes, Wyoming. He aims to inspire small-town pride by showcasing regional highlights.

While lodging at the expansive ranch of aspiring politician John Long and his younger wife, Eve, Val gets pulled into their drama. Not long after a stressful dinner party, Eve takes off, a small Renoir from Long’s collection in hand, and doesn’t return. Long asks Val to find her. Events turn more dangerous and puzzling than expected.

From an exhausting trip to wild rural Florida to the newly constructed, cinnabar-hued Golden Gate Bridge, the locales feel period-authentic, and the writing hums with spectacular word-images. While Val narrates, using a light folksy style that Frazier’s fans will recognize, the novel’s primary hero is Eve. An inscrutably captivating woman from impoverished origins who became a teenage hobo and sang in cowboy bands, she has reasons for fleeing wealthy married life, and the mystery ignites the plot.

The Old West still lingers in this propulsive tale of individualistic characters striving to beat the odds.

The Trackers will be published by Ecco/HarperCollins on April 11th, and this review was originally written for Booklist's Feb. 15th issue. You can find my review of Varina in an earlier blog post.  Read more about the background to The Trackers  and the author's long writing career, in his interview with Publishers Weekly. I love the illustration on the cover, too, which suits the material.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Review of T. Greenwood's Such a Pretty Girl, a daring novel of childhood fame, responsibility, and family in 1970s NYC

Click. Ryan Flannigan still flinches at the sound of a camera shutter, since it recalls her formative years as a child model and actress and the unwelcome attention she received from adults wanting to exploit her pre-teen prettiness. Now, in 2019, Ryan is a single mother in her early fifties living in rural Vermont, where she’s helped run a summer stock theater and quietly raised her daughter.

When an old friend alerts her to a news article with a risqué portrait from the worst night of her life, one taken during the New York City blackout of 1977, Ryan is shocked and confused. How did the photo come to resurface in the Paris apartment of billionaire Zev Brenner, a man recently unmasked as a pedophile? And why does it bear an affectionate inscription from Ryan’s mother, Fiona, on the back?

The subsequent suicide of Henri Dubois, an elderly photographer who’d been a father figure to young Ryan, draws her back to Greenwich Village for his memorial and in search of answers. Ryan never knew Brenner, but now she wonders how much her mother knew about his crimes. Fiona, however, has disappeared.

As the story shifts between eras, tension keeps this question open as Greenwood explores the fraught relationship between Ryan and Fiona, a would-be actress who moved the pair to New York in 1976 and lived through her daughter when her own auditions led nowhere. Adult novels with child narrators can be tricky, but Greenwood mostly stays within 10-year-old Ryan’s worldview in the 1970s sections. Introverted and anxiety-prone, Ryan adjusts well to the Westbeth complex, a real-life artists’ community, where she lives with a Hispanic American family who cares for her during Fiona’s too-frequent absences.

Ryan takes joy in doing kid things, and we feel her disconnect with the roles some adults manipulate her into, alongside her reluctance to disappoint. Alternately loving, neglectful, protective, and jealous of her daughter, Fiona herself is multifaceted and disturbingly drawn, a woman whose “need was like a balloon, stretched to its limits.”

Several elements distract from the mystery, like the adult Ryan’s unwillingness to read a note left for her by Fiona, thus delaying some revelations for plot convenience. Also, the name Ryan was almost never used for girls born in ’66, and I wish Greenwood had let Ryan ponder some of Henri’s actions in greater depth.

Other cultural references to a ‘70s childhood – decorating shoeboxes for school Valentine’s Day activities, the Hall of Gems at the American Museum of Natural History, watching American Bandstand on Saturdays – all check out. It wasn’t surprising to learn the author is my age and lived through the time she re-creates.

With Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes and Brooke Shields’ painful childhood experiences still circulating in the news, the novel’s theme of the “battle against a world in which girls are still often in peril” continues to strongly resonate. The novel offers much to ponder about what it means to be complicit.

T. Greenwood's Such a Pretty Girl was published by Kensington in October 2022; this was a personal purchase.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

In the Upper Country reveals aspects of Black and Indigenous histories on both sides of the Canadian border

In 1859, in an all-Black town in Canada West (now called Ontario), a hub for the Underground Railroad, a female journalist agrees to interview an old woman who was imprisoned after killing a white slave catcher on her trail. Their conversation reveals much in the way of unexpected history.

A writer for The Coloured Canadian, Lensinda “Sinda” Martin doesn’t know what to make of the woman, who speaks in riddles, or her perplexing situation. The old woman and her companion, a young seamstress named Emma, had been hiding at a farmer’s cabin when a white man and his Indian partner showed up, claiming the pair were fugitive slaves from Lincoln County, Kentucky. Strangely, the woman was seen talking to the Indian and somehow convinced him to back off.

Profoundly frustrated (“Would I ever get anything of value from this woman?” she wonders), Sinda proposes a “tale for a tale,” bartering her own stories for the woman’s revelations about the past. These tales involve love, family, painful separation, and multiple quests for freedom—and the drastic lengths people will go to obtain it.

Stretching from 1795 Montreal through the pivotal War of 1812 to the characters’ present day, this debut novel paves a previously uncharted path through North America, uncovering deep affinities between Black and Indigenous peoples, who shared the pain of bondage and “quietly celebrated each escape; it mattered not whence they fled.”

The writing isn’t uniformly fluid. Some pages move speedily, while others require careful, slow perusal in order to make connections with earlier events. Many of the secondary characters—including Sinda’s employer and landlady, an abolitionist speaker; the seamstress Emma; and Sinda’s father, Dred, who can “talk Indian”—are intriguing enough to potentially carry their own novel.

While In the Upper Country isn’t an effortless read, it makes an original and valuable contribution to the historical fiction genre.

Kai Thomas's In the Upper Country was published by Viking in January; I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

Being female is treacherous in these ten new and upcoming novels about historical witchery

Witches are an increasingly popular subject in historical fiction. Incorporating themes of misogyny and women's power, strength, and wisdom, these ten new and upcoming historical novels are set at various times in history. Many dramatize actual events. In some of them, the women's magic is real.

The Witches of Vardo by Anya Bergman

To secure her own liberty from the fortress on Vardø Island in remote northern Norway, the disgraced former mistress of Denmark's king agrees to help identify suspected witches... but the accused women won't make it easy for her. Set in the 1660s, about historical events. Bonnier, Jan. 2023.  [see on Goodreads]

The Weaver and the Witch Queen by Genevieve Gornichec

The two main characters here are Gunnhild, soon to be Queen of Norway in the 10th century, and Oddny, her childhood friend, in this novel of spells, sisterhood, and survival in the dangerous Viking age. Ace, July 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Devil's Glove by Lucretia Grindle

Set in what's now Maine in the late 17th century, The Devil's Glove looks at the historical events that led up to the Salem Witch trials from the viewpoint of a young woman caught between the worlds of the Puritans and local Native American tribes. Casa Croce, May 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Weyward by Emilia Hart

Three Englishwomen are linked by the gendered violence they've faced, and perhaps by something else. This multi-period tale spanning five centuries takes place in 2019, 1619, and during the WWII years.  St. Martin's, March 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Burnings by Naomi Kelsey

This debut novel dramatizes the North Berwick witch trials of late 16th-century Scotland through the story of two women, one Scots and one Danish, and the quest for power during a time of fear and superstition. HarperNorth, June 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Witch of Tin Mountain by Paulette Kennedy

In the Ozarks during the Great Depression, three women are linked by family connections and an evil presence that threatens to overshadow them all.  Lake Union, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer

Fictionalizing the witch trials of mid-17th-century East Anglia, this debut centers on a village healer, a woman unable to speak, who gets drawn into assisting a traveling witchfinder and who must search her own conscience for a path forward. Scribner, July 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Last Witch of Scotland by Philip Paris

Two newcomers to a remote locale in the 18th-century Scottish Highlands, a mother and daughter, face unpleasant scrutiny and worse in a novel about the last person put to death for witchcraft in Britain. Black & White, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Solstice by Helen Steadman

This third novel in a trilogy, all of which deal with historical events, looks at the Riding Mill witch trials of 1673 Northumberland, in which a young servant girl gave testimony about suspected witches. One of the accused, in this version, is a woman whose family members had been executed for witchcraft. Bell Jar, Sept. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Scandalous Confessions of Lydia Bennet, Witch, by Melinda Taub

Even Jane Austen's characters are dabbling in witchcraft. The youngest Bennet sister from Pride & Prejudice, Lydia, is a witch and gets entangled in an entirely different sort of trouble. Mr. Wickham, for example, is a demon (literally). Grand Central, Oct. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Dark Waters Rising reveals a complex web of mysteries in atmospheric 14th-century Yorkshire

In Clark’s twelfth and last mystery in the Hildegard of Meaux series, set in 1394 Yorkshire, tensions are nigh at breaking point.

The novices at Swyne Priory, where Hildegard is a Cistercian nun, are unhappy, and Hildegard can’t settle them down. A young royal minstrel, Master Leonin, appears on the convent’s doorstep in a terrible state, alleging his life is threatened—and he refuses to say much more. Richard II has just lost his beloved queen, and the nuns worry his barons are agitating again. Even more troublesome is the unnatural death of a lay sister.

Events in the natural world mirror the turmoil within: the rain is incessant, and the eccentric, bookish Sister Josiana predicts the Humber will break its banks, flooding the land. The priory is on high ground, but can they prepare in time, and will Hildegard solve the crimes?

It feels odd to describe a medieval mystery involving nuns as frenetic, but there’s so much physical movement that the plot gets muddled at times. Hildegard spends considerable time on the road, riding to and fro among Swyne, the monastery at Meaux, and nearby Haltemprice Priory during her investigations.

The Prioress suggests she wants Hildegard to succeed her, but it’s unclear why, since Hildegard is rarely there; plus, there are unresolved romantic tensions between her and Hubert, lord abbot at Meaux. The story and characters hold interest, though, and it comes through clearly that with limited options for women, many found homes in convents regardless of vocation (or willingness).

The sense of place is superb and appropriately eerie, with a full moon overhead as waters begin rising. Superstitions are rife, and many folks “trust portents more than facts,” but when Josiana’s measurements prove accurate—not really a spoiler—it’s a triumphant moment for all women of science.

Dark Waters Rising by Cassandra Clark was published in 2022 by Severn House, and I'd reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review. Unlike many readers, I don't mind beginning a series in the middle if the setting and storyline intrigue me, or at the end in this case, and this one stands alone well enough. Although Hildegard's sleuthing has wrapped up, Clark is continuing to explore medieval crime through her Brother Chandler mysteries.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Thread Collectors interweaves Black and Jewish perspectives on the U.S. Civil War

A collaboration between two longtime friends has resulted in a unique historical novel about two couples – one Black and one Jewish – whose stories come together during the chaos and destruction of the U.S. Civil War.

The feminine cover is somewhat misleading, since The Thread Collectors gives equal time to the male perspective. In 1863, Private Jacob Kling, a Jewish cornet player in the Union army stationed at Camp Parapet in Jefferson, Louisiana, is ordered to help with the intake of Black recruits for the Louisiana Native Guards. It’s in this role that he first meets William, a gifted flutist who took considerable risks fleeing enslavement to join the Union forces. Their fellow soldiers disparage interracial mingling, but the two form a bond over their passion for music.

Both men have left behind the women they love for the cause. Jacob’s wife, the former Lily Kahn, is the daughter of a German Jewish immigrant who made his fortune selling sheet music. From her Fifth Avenue apartment, Lily writes tender letters to Jacob expressing her pride in his service and recounting her work supporting abolition and the war effort. William’s beloved is Stella, a mixed-race free woman forced to become the mistress of a white Confederate officer – the same man who bought William and brought him to Louisiana from his home on Georgia’s Sapelo Island as a child.

With four viewpoints and many flashbacks to the recent past, the novel is a detailed collage of Civil War experiences, ranging from the domestic arena to battlefield courage and carnage. All are stitched together tightly into a coherent narrative, although since Lily’s viewpoint is shown through letters initially, it feels a touch unbalanced. A young woman of conviction, Lily finds a strong role model in suffragist Ernestine Rose, among others, though her stated admiration for Isabella of Castile feels odd, given her religion.

In addition to portraying the characters’ survival skills relative to gender and race, the novel exposes the racial prejudice they endure, some of which may be surprising – like General Grant’s anti-Semitic views and the slurs against Jews that pervade the army camps, as well as the Union army’s cruelly unequal treatment of the Black soldiers in its ranks.

Without losing sight of the big picture, the story emphasizes the varied means of communication that draw the characters together. These include Jacob and William’s shared love of music; Lily’s mailing of letters and new tunes, which boosts morale at the camp; Jacob saying Kaddish (the Jewish mourner’s prayer) for the souls of Black men; and, most of all, Stella’s dexterity in stitching maps with colored threads, unpicking stitches from other fabrics to create visual guides pointing the way to freedom.

Civil War-era novels are common, but this isn’t a story that’s been told before. In all, this book speaks to the courage to trust and how the ties of friendship can make people stronger.

The Thread Collectors by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman was published last August by Graydon House (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Stealing by Margaret Verble, set in the 1950s, introduces a courageous, unforgettable young Cherokee heroine

This short, compassionately written, and powerful novel is told in the unquenchable voice of Karen “Kit” Crockett, who is raised by her white father in the 1950s South after her Cherokee mother’s death. At nine, Kit spends much time alone, fishing in the bayou and eagerly awaiting each bookmobile visit; she has an abundance of sorrows but knows her family loves her.

When she spies an unfamiliar car at her late Uncle Joe’s cabin, Kit grows intrigued. Her attractive new neighbor, Bella, is divorced and has two “boyfriends” she doesn’t much like (“Kit, you won’t understand this yet, but they pay the bills,” Bella says). Despite the age difference and the hostility of a reclusive old woman down the lane, the pair become good friends.

It isn’t to last. From the beginning, Kit makes clear that she’s no longer home and is setting her thoughts to paper years later, after being taken (stolen) from her family and enrolled in a religious boarding school, where other schoolkids are cruel, and teachers lecture them about original sin. Even worse, the director, Mr. Hodges, is an unctuous hypocrite who saves his worst punishments (sexual abuse) for the Indian students.

An enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and a Pulitzer finalist, Verble is a magnetic storyteller – the book is difficult to put down – who has created an indelible heroine in Kit, who gradually unspools the tragic backstory of how she landed in such a despised place. The themes of prejudice and of religion as a controlling force are strongly felt.

Kit’s personality bursts through every line: vulnerable, traumatized, honest, scrappy, and resolved to survive and escape. While she’s raised to be respectful to adults and doesn’t always understand their world, she can tell in a second if they’re lying. You won’t forget meeting her.

Stealing was published by Mariner/HarperCollins this month; I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for February's Historical Novels Review.

Margaret Verble is the author of three previous historical novels: Maud's Line (a Pulitzer finalist in 2016), Cherokee America (a Spur Award winner for Best Western), and When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky.