Historical Diversions: Chevalier and Jewett

  A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier has the talent to inform while entertaining, and her latest historical novel – A Single Thread – is a well researched testament to the “surplus women” of the nineteen thirties, caught between two major wars.

With Winchester Cathedral as the backdrop, Chevalier uses the broderers, women who created the embroidered kneeling cushions, and the cathedral bellringers, usually consisting of men only, to tell her story with a little romance, some drama, and a wealth of enlightening information. Based on the work of Louisa Peel and Winchester Cathedral embroidery, Chevalier creates a lovely story full of history few readers will know.

As an ardent embroiderer, I relished some of the intricacies of her descriptions, but I also appreciated the revelations, and will be looking for fylfots among the flowers.

Read the NPR review for more details:  https://www.npr.org/2019/09/21/762825554/a-stitch-in-time-saves-a-life-in-a-single-thread

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

I found this old treasure on a list of recommended classics. The only copy in my library system was in large print – all 150 pages – and I was curious about the Thoreau of Maine and the precursor of Elizabeth Strout (“Olive Kitteridge”).

The novella is a series of vignettes describing the narrator’s summer in a fictional coastal town in Maine at the turn of the twentieth century. Each short chapter builds on a sense of peace and quiet, as she describes open fields, dark woods, and rocky shores. She booked rooms in the house of an old herbalist, expecting to shut her self away in solitude but Mrs. Todd and the villagers tempt her out.  She spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens, carefully cataloguing their mannerisms and stories. With wit and astute observation, Jewett brings old Maine to life.  She leaves at the end of the summer with a refreshed mind and a sense of nostalgia. 

“…there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over -the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance…”

Jewett’s writing has been described as realism, but sometimes it seems like poetry. 

 

 

Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?

Off the Library Shelf

Although I tried linking to another writer’s “Library Lust” list, I was not successful, but here are a few books from my library I read in a sitting, so I could get back to the library for more books waiting for me:  The books all seem to come at once sometimes.  Have you ready any of them?

Never Have I Ever by Joshlyn Jackson

A complicated murder mystery drama, reminding me of Finn’s The Woman in the Window, with unreliable characters and a twisting plot.  A page turner full of betrayal, romance, and deception.  Amy Whey has started a new life but is soon battling to keep her past a secret when the devilish Angelica Roux shows up at book club. The two match wits as the drama continues into a surprising ending.

 

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

When Eve leaves her job with a publishing company to become an assistant to a prominent and prolific New Yorker writer, summering in Cape Cod, secrets, sex, and the New England literary vibe emerge to create a quickly readable and entertaining story.  Aside from her coming of age journey and her romps in bed, Eve meets a number of literary stars.  She also references a number of books; I had to stop to jot a few down I plan to find: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (with the suggestion to read beyond the first 150 pages to be hooked), Zaleika Dobson by Max Beerbaum, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

 

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

After a slow start, Davis transitions the story of two young women who met on a USO tour during World War II into a dramatic exploration of the McCarthy hearings targeting stage actors, directors, and producers in the nineteen fifties in the United States.  The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is the fulcrum of the story, where the women lodge with an assortment of artistic hopefuls.

The story follows Maxine Mead, the beautiful diva, and Hazel Ripley, the talented writer, as their lives change from their wartime friendship into a competitive challenge of spies and deceit.  In the end, both get their due, but along the way Davis offers a look into how McCarthyism overpowered democracy and ruined lives.

 

Reading Now:  The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I may take a little longer to read this story of the artist Harriet Burden.  Hustvedt had me believing it was based on a true person in her clever “Editor’s Introduction,” and I stopped to find reviews about this 2014 work of fiction, doubting  the library’s FIC designation.

Using journals and interviews, the author presents the life of Burden, a talented artist ignored in her time, who decides to conduct an experiment she calls “Maskings” in which she presents her own art behind the names of three prominent male artists, masking her female identity.  Of course, the three shows are successful, but when Burden reveals herself to be the artist, critics doubt her.  The novel promises to not only be ambitious in its revelation of prejudice against women in art, but also a clever exploration of a complicated character, who seems real to me.  I plan to savor it.

 

Books Waiting for Me at the Library:

  • Chances Are by Richard Russo
  • The Darwin Affair by Timothy Mason
  • The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
  • Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
  • The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood
  • This Tender Land by William Kent
  • Why You Like It by Nolan Gasser

 

 

Jefferson’s Daughters – fact and fiction

When a book club picked the 2016 Dray and Kamoie’s America’s First Daughter, a fictionalized historical drama about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, I looked for reviews and found the authors’ discussion of their book in Five Lies We Told in America’s First Daughter and  How We Got Away With It.

Curious to know more about the historical facts,  I was redirected to a nonfiction book written in 2018 by historian Catherine Kerrison – Jefferson’s Daughters.  I decided to read the facts first before the fiction.

Although stories about Sally Hemings have resurrected and revised Jeffersonian history in recent years, my only recollection of Jefferson’s first wife Martha was the sweet singing Blythe Danner in the musical 1776, before she had children.  Kerrison reveals how a constant state of childbirth, miscarriages, and infant death took its toll on her.  The accurate depiction of Blythe as Jefferson’s wife evolved into a weary and sickly woman, often left alone to manage a household, or fleeing from the War, who eventually died prematurely at thirty-three.  Patsy, the eldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Martha, was ten years old when her mother died.

The focus of America’s First Daughter is the eldest daughter Martha (Patsy) but she is one of three sisters in Kerrison’s analysis.  Patsy had an eclectic education, first learning to read and write with her mother;  later in Paris with her father, she had five years of rigorous convent education, with forays into French society.   She later stressed the importance of educating her own eleven children, giving her daughters more than lessons in drawing and needlework, as expected from society at the time. She established a school on the grounds of her home, near Monticello, with study in “mathematics, history, literature, and languages.”

Kerrigan connects Sally Hemings to the family by identifying her as the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law and his mulatto slave, Elizabeth Hemings.  Martha, Jefferson’s wife, had inherited the Hemings slaves from her mother and had brought them to Monticello when her father died.   Later, Sally accompanied Maria (Polly), Patsy’s younger sister when Jefferson brought them to Paris.  As she matured into a beautiful sixteen year old, possibly pregnant with her first child by Jefferson, she considered staying in Paris with her brother, an aspiring chef.  Knowing returning to America would take away the freedom she had in France, she negotiated freedom for herself and all her children, who were by parentage seven-eighths white.  I found an interesting historical note relating to Patsy, making me wonder about that promise.

“In 1834, Patsy dictated an informal addendum to her will, instructing her children that she wished that her half-aunt Sally Hemings would be given her freedom, but that would also mean that, according to state law, the now-elderly mistress of Jefferson would be forced to leave Virginia. It became moot since Sally Hemings died a year before Patsy.”

Although Kerrison spreads her research across all three sisters, Martha, Maria, and Harriet (Sally’s daughter), I focused on Martha, since she is the heroine of the fictional tale in America’s First Daughter.  I wondered if Martha’s determination to become a cloistered nun, thwarted by her father’s spoiling her with luxurious clothes and fancy balls, would be in the fictional tale. I wondered about her marriage at seventeen to Randolph, two months after returning to Virginia from Paris.  I wondered how Martha’s relationship to her father would appear in fiction.  I wondered if Harriet would appear at all in the fictional story of America’s First Daughter.

Martha holds the focus in Kerrigan’s research.  Maria, her younger sister died young giving birth to a child and not much information is available about Harriet as a young slave in the household.

An interesting note, however, has Kerrigan trying desperately to locate Harriet’s descendants, noting in her article for the Washington Post –  “How Did We Lose a President’s Daughter?” that Harriet assumed the role of a white woman when she was finally freed from plantation life.  In her book, Kerrigan details Harriet’s education, clothing, and contacts, as well as money from Jefferson for a coach to carry her to Philadelphia and away from slavery when she was twenty-one – all helpful for making the transition into a new secret life.  Like Kerrigan, I could only find conjecture about Harriet’s life and descendents – the secret seems well kept.  But I wonder if a fictional account might be forthcoming someday about Harriet, who she became, and how she thrived in her new world. It would be a book I’d like to read.

I’ve satisfied my curiosity.  Full of Kerrigan’s research, I am ready to read the fictional tale of America’s First Daughter.  Knowing the facts,  I know I will enjoy the story more, despite the authors’ tangent into a murder mystery.  If you are about to read America’s First Daughter, you might consider Kerrison’s book as a companion read.  Kerrigan’s book is full of facts and research but she delivers the information in an easily readable format, despite its length – 450 pages.    (First Daughter has 624 pages.)

Reluctantly Returning to Reading

When I read a book a day, I never imagined not wanting to read.  Most of my life revolved around stories professionally and personally but when my own story became the drama, it’s plot was too complicated to let any other in.  Needless to say, I won’t reveal the personal – those who know me already have it – but my unexpected separation from bibliotherapy taught me to savor moments of inspiration and not take them for granted.

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription survived the purge of my bookshelves with two boxes of notable reads sent to the library annual booksale.  I uncovered its red cover under the dust jacket and it followed me until I gave in and opened to the first pages.  Many of you have already read this complicated spy novel with a twist I almost missed at the end, and Atkinson has already produced another book published last month.  But if you haven’t read Transcription, its story holds enough historical information to tease you into wondering what is indeed fact, as well as Atkinson’s trademark knack for plot twists to keep you  reading between the lines of the characters’ lives in this tale of espionage and treachery.

Juliet Armstrong flashes back to her life as a secretary secretly transcribing conversations for the British spy organization MI5.  Jonathan Dee neatly summarized the novel in his 2018 review for The New Yorker with enough detail to satisfy your curiosity if you are still deciding if you want to read the book – Kate Atkinson’s Spy Novel Makes the Genre New.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book led me to more books.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices is listed as  one of Atkinson’s references.  Firzgerald’s 1980’s novel tells “the fictionalised experiences of a group of BBC employees at Broadcasting House, London, in 1940 when the city was under nightly attack from the Luftwaffe’s high explosive, incendiary, and parachute bombs.”  I became a fan of Fitzgerald after reading The Bookshop.

Atkinson’s newest publication revives her detective series with Jackson Brodie as the star Cambridge detective.  Of course, I need to backtrack to the first book – Case Histories – and maybe proceed to the other four before my library waitlist number for her latest, Big Sky, comes up.

So I have books to anticipate, and more.  A friend sent me hardback copies of the newest Elin Hildebrand and Jennifer Weiner books; my stack is growing again.

What have you read lately?

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