Unsheltered

9780062887047_p0_v2_s600x595   Reading Unsheltered was difficult, not only for the weaving back and forth from the post Civil War era to the present, but also for the not so subtle references to today’s politics and governmental leadership in the United States. As she toggles between the lives of the 21st century grandmother Willa Knox and the 19th century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, who both lived in the same house, the language seems stuffy in the past and glib in the present.  Most depressing is the implication of ignoring lessons from history – nothing really changes and we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

I thought of beginning this review with the note of the main character, Willa, suddenly having to take on the raising of her grandson when his mother commits suicide. Although years ago,  I clearly remember meeting a woman in her sixties who had decided to raise her abandoned grandchild to keep the boy from foster care; her harrowing story was pitiable.  But Kingsolver has so much more to reveal in this tale of a modern extended family surviving in a rundown yet historic house in Vineland, New Jersey.  Her topics include raising children but also health care and global warming, as well as Wall Street activism and relations with Cuba – among others. She has an agenda.

Willa lives in the house with her handsome husband Iano, a non-tenured college professor, her terminally ill father-in-law Nick, her rebellious daughter Tig,  her son Zeke’s baby son, and Daisy, the old dog.  Thatcher, a high school science teacher, lives in this house about 150 years earlier with his new wife Rose, his mother-in-law, and his young sister-in-law, and two dogs.  The house, constructed without a foundation, has been falling apart since it was first built in Thatcher’s time, and seems about to implode by the time Willa’s family inherits it. 

The house may seem a symbol of their lives, also falling apart.  Thatcher, determined to bring scientific inquiry into his classes by teaching Darwin’s theories, faces a stalwart and fearful body of staunch religious conservatives, determined to ignore new ideas that would topple their well structured world.  Thatcher finds a friend in his neighbor, Mary Treat, an eminent biologist who regularly corresponds with Charles Darwin, but his connection to the local newsman who sympathizes with his struggle leads to a murder and his banishment from the town.

Although Willa’s problems may be modern, they mirror Thatcher’s frustration in dealing with those circumstances thwarting attempts to have the good life.  Iona moves from college to college trying but never getting the elusive tenure track position; Willa leaves her job writing for a magazine to care for her ailing father-in-law; their son Zeke with degrees from Ivy league schools has no job; their daughter Tig, a promising biologist, dropped out of college to migrate to Cuba but returns as a car mechanic – an extended middle class family with no future prospects, no savings, a stack of unpaid bills, in a falling down house.

In both worlds, present and past, the underlying mantra is the struggle between the haves and have nots.  Darwin and new scientific discoveries pose the threat to the status quo in the past, butting against Landis, the town creator and clever entrepreneur gaining wealth at the expense of others, while the environmentalists and the socially conscious in modern times are desperately trying to hold against the empty promises and loud blustering bullies of conservative politics.

Unsheltered is not an easy read, but Kingsolver never meant to write a book with sublime references to love or with delicious twists; she’s left that to Moriarty and others.  The reference to a murder doesn’t appear until page 300, and then disappears again in deference to biology, history and the inevitable repetition of human foibles and idiocy; it’s a wonder our species has survived thus far.

Kingsolver finished this book before Trump won the presidency, and his name is never mentioned.  In fact, in her acknowledgments she notes her research on the lives of the nineteenth century persons who inspired the story, the biologist Mary Treat and the “shenanigans of Charles Landis and his role in the murder,” but “among the novel’s twenty-first century characters, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.”   But if you have any doubt to whom she is referring, she cites a famous campaign quote:

“He said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and people would still vote for him.”

And if you have any doubt where she stands, the line after he wins the New Hampshire primary – “Welcome to the Granite State…we have rocks in our heads!” – may give you a clue.

 

A Few Books About Women

October had me in and out of stories about women –  all entertaining.  A ghost narrates in the first, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has a cameo role in the second, the real socialites of New York City carry the plot in the third,  and a Greek chorus dominates the one I am currently reading.  Have you read any of them?

TCD-US-200x304   The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Morton can always be relied on for a mix of history, romance, mystery, and a touch of the other worldly.  In The Clockmaker’s Daughter she alternates between a nineteenth century mystery and a modern bride’s dilemma.  As with her other books, this story is an easy read with just enough Gothic tension to keep the reader’s interest.

Plot Summary from the Author’s website:

“In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river…

Told by multiple voices across time, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss…{with one of the voices, the ghost of} Birdie Bell, the clockmaker’s daughter.”

51czBXfdgkL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

A woman artist hides her identity in the 1920s, pretending she is a man, and Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan houses an art school.

Plot Summary from Barnes and Noble:

“Within Grand Central Terminal,  two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.

In 1928, twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.”

Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined and is the center of a fierce lawsuit: demolition or preservation. Virginia, recently divorced, has just accepted a job in the information booth to support herself and her college-age daughter, Ruby. When Virginia stumbles on the abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, she is drawn into the battle to save Grand Central and the mystery of Clara Darden, the famed 1920s illustrator who disappeared from history in 1931.”

636540551254787991-Caitlin-Macy-Mrs-HC-cover-image     Mrs. by Caitlin Macy

Following the model of Big Little Lies, Mrs. has a cast of women with disparate personalities and backgrounds coming together as the mothers in a prestigious New York City preschool. Secrets drive the plot, with a big reveal and a death at the end.

Plot Summary by Publisher’s Weekly:

“Gwen Hogan, Philippa Lye, and Minnie Curtis are all married to powerful men and send their children to the prestigious St. Timothy’s preschool. Gwen, married to a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, recently moved to Manhattan and is uncomfortable living in New York City. Philippa, married to the owner of an investment bank, seems both effortlessly stylish and aloof. Minnie, the wife of a wealthy financier, takes an unapologetic pleasure in her financial security that makes the other mothers uncomfortable. The three women bond over school gossip and the difficulties of parenthood, unaware that Gwen’s husband is conducting an insider trading investigation that implicates both Philippa and Minnie’s husbands. “

t_500x300The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

I just started this book – recommended by one of my favorite librarians – and the story and language have already captured my attention.  Have you read it?

Plot Summary from NPR:

“Reimagines “The Iliad” from the perspectives of the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War, as Briseis, conquered queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, becomes caught between the two most powerful Greek leaders.”

 

 

 

Never Caught – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge

never-caught-9781501126390_lg   With every day exposing another revelation about someone famous – now infamous – Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s National Book Award Finalist, Never Caught, adds to the list of politicians who are not who they seem.  If you think of George Washington as the stalwart leader of the Revolutionary troops, the fatherly first President, or even the boy who chopped down the cherry tree and would not lie about it, Dunbar’s story of Ona Judge may change your impression.

Modern accounts of history sometimes conveniently forget the founding fathers used slaves to run their households and, in the case of Southern aristocrats, kept thousands to run their plantations and farms.  Ona Judge was born into slavery and came to Mount Vernon with Martha Custis as part of her dowry.  When the Washingtons moved to the Philadelphia White House, she was among the trusted household slaves who came with them as Martha’s personal dresser and attendant.  Ever the politician, Washington maneuvered around Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition law, sending his slaves back from Philadelphia to Virginia every six months to prevent them from claiming freedom.  Pennsylvania law required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than six months.

On May 21, 1796, as George and Martha Washington ate their supper in the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, their twenty-two year old house slave, Ona Judge, walked out of the house and into freedom. With the help of the free black community in Philadelphia, Judge made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the free black community and white supporters provided refuge.

Dunbar’s history exposes the Washingtons as slave holders who adamantly believed in keeping their human property, and she notes their shock at the “ingratitude” of Judge; the President wrote she had fled “without any provocation.” Later, Judge recounted she had “never received the least moral or mental instruction” while with the Washingtons, and had been treated as property, just like all her family.  Despite being viewed as a privileged household slave by the Washingtons,  they determined how and where she lived.  Martha Washington’s gift of the slave to her newly wed granddaughter triggered Judge’s escape.

When Judge runs away before the group returns to Virginia at the the end of the Presidency, Washington uses his political influence and substantial power, sometimes illegally, to find her and bring her back.  Washington was willing to abuse his office and power to hunt another human being, while Martha Washington’s outrage fueled her husband’s pursuit of Judge.

Amazingly, Judge is able to negotiate with one of Washington’s abolitionist friends when she is first found in New Hampshire, but ultimately she must run again, always living in fear of being found. Judge remained firm that she would “‘rather suffer death’ than return to slavery” as Dunbar exposes the emotional toll of separation from family and the physical and economic realities of day-to-day living for black women.  Her life of freedom costs her security and left her in poverty, but her progeny are finally rewarded with a better life.

As a fugitive, Dunbar remained hidden throughout her life, and she protected the people who gave her refuge. Dunbar’s account uses Judge’s 1845 interview in the Granite Freeman and 1847 interview in the Liberator, the only recorded interviews Judge gave about her life, after many who had helped her had died.  Well-referenced manuscripts, letters, journals and approximately 130 secondary sources add to her documentation as she convincingly immerses the reader in the life of Ona Judge and changes the perception of George Washington.

 

 

A Book for Your Next Book Club Discussion – Before We Were Yours

Unknown-1The picture of Beulah Georgia Tann, who used her Tennessee Children’s Home Society to sell children, hides all the horror and misery Lisa Wingate uses as the framework for her fictionalized tale of a family of river gypsies caught in the net of children stolen for profit – Before We Were Yours.  Although the corruption was exposed in the media (Sixty Minutes) and nonfiction (Raymond’s 2007 The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgian Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption), the appalling history was new to me.  I remember my grandmother cautioning me about baby stealers, but Tann’s grand scale child trafficking seems more like fiction than the reality it was until the ninety-fifties.  The history is worth discussion.

Briny and Queenie were poor river gypsies with a brood of blond curly-haired children, ranging from a two year old boy to four girls, with twelve year old Rill as the oldest. They live aboard an old boat, the Arcadia, fishing and bartering  with other riverboat people.  When Queenie’ s latest pregnancy ends in the premature birth of twins, the family is suddenly torn apart.  With Queenie in a nearby hospital, the children are stolen from their river barge and sent to one of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society collection sites; it would be a disservice to call it an orphanage.  One by one, each child is bartered out to a new home.

Wingate mixes adventure and romance, cleverly creating mystery and suspense as the story shifts back to the present day investigation of a thirty year old grandchild of one of the stolen children, Judy Stafford.   The Stafford family background remains a secret, and with Judy, the grandmother now suffering from dementia, it might have remained so.  Circumstances trigger Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past, while she struggles with her own future as the possible successor to her father’s political legacy, and her marriage to a longtime friend she is not sure she loves.

As the chapters alternate between 1939 and the present,  the background of the river family and the consequences of Tann’s actions slowly emerge.   The two time frames converge to reveal the children’s fears and hopes.  By using a fictionalized aggregate of the children targeted by the corrupt Tann, Wingate makes the story real.  By teasing the reader with the identity of the grandmother until the end, she creates a page-turner; I read the book in one sitting.

Although Wingate offers her commentary on how lives of privilege may not always be as they seem, the historical context of poor children kidnapped and sold to wealthy families throughout the country from the 1920s to the 1950s carries the importance of the drama.

 

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

9780812989885_p0_v3_s192x300  I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this story of guns and violence but its author Hannah Tinti wrote The Good Thief, one of my favorites, and in her interview for National Public Radio (NPR) she compared her main character in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to Hercules and his twelve Labors.  The first lines – “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.  He had a case full of them in his room, others hidden in boxes around the house” – sounded like an ad for the National Rifle Association, but I persevered and found a moving story of a young vulnerable girl and the father who would protect her.

The story unfolds in layers, moving back and forth to reveal Samuel’s life and the cause of each of his scars – bullet holes marking major events, hurdles he overcomes.  Samuel is a crook but not a villain.  He makes his living moving merchandise for other criminals as well as stealing cars and money.  His circle of friends include only one who is true, Jove, another comrade in arms, and he moves constantly from place to place to avoid the law.

When he meets Lily, he finds true love and his reason for living, but after her death by accidental drowning, he is left with Loo, not yet one year old, and the responsibility for her life.  The story is as much about Loo as it is about Samuel.  Feisty and determined, Loo knows about her father’s guns, his drinking, his nefarious way of life, and accompanies him from motel to motel, wondering what it would be like to stay in a school longer than a year.  When Loo becomes a teenager, Samuel decides to try to give her a steady life in the town where her mother grew up.  He stashes his substantial savings in a licorice jar hidden in the toilet and becomes a fisherman.

Lily’s mother lives in the town and knows all about Samuel.  At first, she rejects Loo, but as the story unfolds, reasons for her attitude become clearer – more than the obvious one of her daughter marrying a crook.  The author never gives too much away, holding back information, teasing the narrative, until slamming an event into the reader’s head – where did that come from?

As Loo grows into a woman, the author uses the coming of age theme as a way to understand those around her.  Loo’s boyfriend, Marshall, may not be the hero Loo imagines, but she tries to help him and win the approval of his bitter mother by forging signatures on a petition for saving the shore from overfishing.  The specter of a whale emerges, literally, in the story, a few times – marking another possible allusion to the author’s penchant for myths.  It would be easy to connect mythological heroes and villains to each of Tinti’s characters, given her admission of Hercules as her inspiration, but the tale stands on its own as a forthright modern saga of guns and roses. Book clubs would find so many possibilities for discussion but my favorite might be Samuel’s first aid kit, complete with stapler.

The story has a wonderful and powerful ending, but getting there is just as much fun.  Following the trail of Samuel Hawley and Loo is like watching a spaghetti western – thrilling, suspenseful, poignant – with lots of guns.