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]