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.

 

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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.

 

My Notorious Life

Unknown-1In contrast to the saving graces of the characters in Call the Midwife, the BBC Masterpiece series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her experiences in postwar London, Kate Manning’s heroine in My Notorious Life earns a fortune by helping women give birth and sometimes helping them stop it.  Manning’s midwife is based on the real life of Ann Trow Lohman, known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a “female physician” in New York City in the late eighteen hundreds.

Like Restell, Axie had no medical training and had little formal education.  Manning weaves a story around her poor background and her longing to reunite with her brother and sister after their mother’s death forces them on the orphan train.  Axie eventually lands in the home of an older midwife who teaches her the trade.  Eventually, she marries Charlie, another orphan train victim, and they start a business peddling powders and concoctions to cure women’s ailments.  Soon the business expands to midwifery and abortion.

Although the fictionalized life of the real woman is embellished with romance, adventure, and a great deal of angst, the story stays true to the misery of Victorian times.  When I found the Smithsonian article on Madame Restell, I was amazed at how close Manning came to appropriating her life in fiction.  Manning offers a different ending for her character, and you should read the Smithsonian article after you read the book – no spoiler here, for Restell’s real life was just as compelling as the fictionalized one created for her by Manning.

In an interview, Manning noted her purpose for writing was to produce

“a rip-roaring tale from the 19th century. I wanted to write a good old-fashioned story with plot and character and depth, and I don’t want it to get hijacked by a current political debate that really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you know.”

She succeeded in 434 pages of vivid Dickensian characters with a commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights.  If you missed it when it first was published in 2013, you might consider reading it now.

 

Anticipating Alternative History

What if?  Powerful words turned into fictionalized accounts of history can be so much fun.  Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate, his reimagining of the famous debacle that brought down Nixon’s presidency, offers a list of alternate history in fiction in his essay for The New Yorker – Never Happened.

My favorite includes Monica Ali’s An Untold Story, imagining Princess Diana faked her own death, started life over as Lydia Snaresbrook,  and created a new life in a Midwestern American town, appropriately  named Kensington.  Stephen King’s 11/22/63 also captured my attention when he used time travel to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Now Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife which channelled First Lady Laura Bush,  creates a life for Hilary Rodham as if she had never married Bill Clinton.

hillary-clinton-2016-election-biography-photos-111

Publication date is set for 2019 – we will have to wait for this thriller.

Reviews:

Edna Ferber’s So Big

510bo6vlmhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_   Needing an old classic to soothe my brow from the news of political appointments, I found Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, So Big.  Although written in 1924, the story addresses the disparity still felt today as we juggle the meaning and price of success in the world.

The adaptations of Edna Ferber’ work into movies and plays are as famous as her books: among them, Giant, Showboat, Stage Door, Dinner at Eight.  The 1932 version of So Big, starring Barbara Stanwyck motivated me to find the book in the library. So Big is the story of Selina, the schoolmarm turned farmer who never lost her view of nature’s beauty from the moment she saw the plains outside of Chicago.   I may have read it in school years ago, but this time, So Big brought its message and comfort to me with the reminder of what is really important in life.  For those who would disregard music, art, and literature, and see them as inferior to hard science or practical engineering, Ferber’s story is a lesson in integrity.

Although So Big focused on the spiritual and financial struggles of a farm wife, similarities to the author’s life lay the foundation.  Ferber’s parents were Jewish shopkeepers who ran a general store in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her mother took over the family business when her father began to go blind, just as Selina takes over and improves the farm after her husband Pervus dies.  Within 283 pages, Ferber spans Selina’s life, aging her from a young girl who travels from place to place with her gambling father to a young schoolteacher and then wife of a farmer, then widow, and finally an old wrinkled woman on her farm.

As she raises her son, Dirk – fondly called So Big – she tries to model the value of hard work and the appreciation of beauty, giving him education and opportunities she never had (remember this is the turn of the twentieth century).  Ideas and being able to create are important – even if it takes years of work and pain. Sadly her reward is not a bright son curious and inventive, but a money-grubbing bond salesman who wears bespoke suits.

Roelfe, the young boy she mentored when she was a schoolteacher, returns years later as a middle-aged artist still struggling but content with his work and his life –  representing the strong contrast with her son who never has enough and never is happy, and, as a result, cannot get the one thing he really wants.   Because despite what  we hear lately, real life isn’t about who can yell the loudest or make the most money, but the satisfaction of a life well led.

“I want you to realize this whole thing called life is just a grand adventure. The trick is to act in it and look out at the same time. And remember: no matter what happens – good or bad – it’s just so much velvet.”