Category Archives: American history

American history

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.”

 

 

 

The Wright Brothers

After someone berated me for publishing a negative review of a book being discussed the next day at one of my book clubs, I decided never to again.  In this case, I am waiting to publish after I hear what others, who may be more likely to connect with nonfiction, have to say about David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.  To be fair to myself, I needed to write what I thought first.

Reading nonfiction often feels like reading a textbook, with dates and facts clogging the forward motion. The eerie feeling of being tested always lurked in my mind, as I blithely skipped over mathematical formula and engineering theory, intruding on McCullough’s easy storytelling style.  Overcoming the urge to stop reading several times, I did finish the book, and was glad of it.

9781476728759_p0_v3_s192x300  The history of flight and the Wright brothers clear claim to overcoming man’s resistance to air are well documented.  I too have visited the site of flight in North Carolina and wondered at the sand dunes where Wilbur may have fallen over and over until he captured the magic.  With McCullough’s version, the brothers’ story became human and relatable, and their genius revealed – creating the engineering marvel of an airplane without a degree in physics or mechanical engineering.

Avoiding their personal stories until the Epilogue, McCullough focuses on their difficulties and successes and reveals the same obstacles many overcome when  they imagine a new idea:  someone else tried to take credit, the government would not provide backing until a foreign agent became interested, money was tight and trust outside their inner circle was nonexistent.  The year in France and their contemporary and rival Alexander Bell were surprises to me, as was Wilbur’s death at a young age, and Katherine’s late marriage.

Orville died in 1948 – not so long ago – and lived to see their invention become a weapon in wars, but not long enough to witness the evolution to jets and rockets. Perhaps someday we will not even need a mechanical contraption to get us where we want to go – Star Trek’s “beam me up” facility is always a possibility.

McCullough captured the moments of innovation and creativity and grounded them with realistic sweat and problem-solving to give the Wright brothers their rightful due.  I look forward to someone writing historical fiction about Wilbur’s year in Paris.