Category Archives: historical fiction

Meeting the Authors

How could I meet the authors without having read their books?  When the Literary Orange conference in Southern California invited a range of authors – many I had not yet read, I began binge reading to prepare, starting with the keynote speakers.

Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, based on the true history of thousands of children shipped to the American Midwest in the 1930’s was a fast read, with the two characters – a ninety year old train orphan telling her story to a seventeen year old girl in foster care.  Amazingly, they have a lot in common – misery, heartache, and the luck of a wonderful new life.

9780870708312_p0_v1_s192x300Her latest novel,  A Piece of the World,  imagines the story of Christina Olson, famously portrayed in Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting.

Fannie Flagg

9780399590733_p0_v1_s192x300Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is my favorite story by Fannie Flagg.   Her latest book, The Whole Town’s Talking, has that same country flavor as Flagg tells the story of Lordor Nordstrom, his Swedish mail-order bride, Katrina, and their neighbors and descendants as they live, love, die in a small Minnesota town. As life goes on,  ghosts are chatting in the cemetery, observing lives, catching up on the news as the newly dead join them over  a century of changes – reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  But the ending reminded me of  Lincoln in the Bardo – we all have to move on.

Marcia Clark

9781503954007_p0_v1_s192x300Marcia Clark, the feisty attorney from the OJ trial came back into my radar with the recent televised “The People vs OJ Simpson” series.  Since then, she has written a series of murder mysteries. Blood Defense is her latest, with an ambitious, hard-charging Los Angeles criminal defense attorney as the star.

Other Authors Who Will Be There  (hope I can get to all their books before meeting them):

  • Martha Hall KellyLilac Girls
  • Victoria PetersonThis Vacant Paradise
  • Jessica Vogelsang – All Dogs Go to Kevin
  • Shanthi Sekaran‘s Lucky Boy
  • Shilpi Somaya Gowan‘s Secret Daughter
  • Stephen Rowley‘s Lily and the Octopus
  • Sherri Smith‘s Fly Girl
  • Jonathon Evison‘s This Is Your Life Harriet Chance!   

 

 

 

 

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

9781101906750_p0_v2_s192x300Although Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir begins with lovely letters and seemingly benign characters, her story quickly escalates to a baby kidnapping and a testament to the power of women.  With the men of the town off to war, the women of the little town in England form their own women’s choir, their catalyst to independence and determination.

Letters and journal entries move the action, a nod to Britain’s Mass Observation project referenced in Ryan’s Acknowledgments; the social research organization encouraged keeping diaries and journals to document ordinary citizen’s coping with the war.  Members of the choir reveal their thoughts as well as the action of the story through the journal of a precocious twelve year old, Kitty; letters from her older and beautiful sister, Venetia to her friend in London; the menacing letters of Edwina Paltry, the conniving town midwife; the journal of Mrs. Tilling, widow, nurse, town conscience and the short entries of Sylvie, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret.

The men are heroes and villains – a brutish husband bribing a midwife to switch babies, a handsome dilettante with a mysterious mission, a gruff widowed Colonel with a lot to offer, and assorted swains – some rich, some connected, some just handsome.  Ryan highlights the strength of the women on the home front as each struggles with her own destiny, grows stronger through adversity, and, in the end, lives happily ever after – with the choir as the bonding agent throughout.

With the same charming flavor as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir includes romance, adventure, and mystery with a touch of the horrors of war.

A Piece of the World: Wyeth’s Christina’s World – Explained

9780870708312_p0_v1_s192x300Although Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of the woman crawling through the field to a house in the distance has long evoked a sense of mystery, Christina Baker Kline attempts to explain the life of Christina Olson in her novel – A Piece of the World.  The woman crawling through the grass in the famous painting “Christina’s World” was Andrew Wyeth’s neighbor in Maine.   In discussing this work, Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless…she was limited physically but by no means spiritually.”  The image suggests a story, and Kline fills in the unknown details of Christina’s insular life, and her role as muse to a great artist.

Although Christina suffered from a progressive crippling disease, she refused treatment or leg braces, crawling along the ground to get from place to place, amazingly without self-pity or the pity of most who knew her well.  Kline fills in the background of her childhood and creates an ill-fated romance doomed by her disability and her poverty before meeting Andrew Wyeth in her forties.   Living without electricity or indoor plumbing, and kept from school by her father to work the farm, Christina continued in the dilapidated house that eventually became Wyeth’s studio.

Although Christina Olson is the focus of the story, the painter, Andrew Wyeth comes to life just as convincingly.  Kline connects the painter to his subject by comparing their childhoods  and their outlook, and offers to fill in the blanks of their relationship. Wyeth sees beyond the rundown house and the austere restricted lives of its tenants, Christina and her brother, and produces a portrait of longing and determination not unlike his own.

At times the narrative can be as slow as the lives of the characters, perhaps reflecting the stillness of the Maine landscape, and I found myself skipping over some of the protracted dialogue.   Almost like staring at the painting, reading the novel requires a patient eye to reveal more than what is obvious.

Kline summarized her research in her “Author’s Notes” at the end of the novel, and it would be wise to read both her notes and her Acknowledgments first before the novel.  Her extensive reading on the lives of both the Wyeth family and Christina Olson provides a number of references worth noting, and her short summary adds meaning to how she embellished their lives in her fiction.  Her description of her own young life living with her parents in a thirteenth century Cambridge cottage without central heating and on an abandoned Tennessee farm, connects her to her subject.  But, the best part is the color print of Wyeth’s painting on the last page.   Start from the back of the book and then begin Kline’s story.

Revisiting Arthur and George

MV5BMjA2OTg4NjQ4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzE3Mjk5NDE@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Julian Barnes’ novel used a famous early twentieth century case of a man sent to prison for mutilating animals as inspiration; the resulting historical novel – Arthur and George – was recently aired as a three-part series on the American Public Broadcasting channel (PBS).  Barnes fictionalized some of the story and PBS gave its own spin, but the historical basis in both was true and still shockingly relevant.

Although Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle shared many of his talents.  When George Edalji, the 27-year-old son of the vicar of Great Wyrley, wrote to Holmes asking for help, it was Doyle who took up his case and ultimately proved him innocent.

George’s father, a man of Parsee ancestry, married an Englishwoman, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became the Anglican minister of a small town in Staffordshire and the target of cruel prejudice. When George was 16 years old, the Edaljis began receiving threatening letters in the post, and other Staffordshire clergymen received abusive letters over Edalji’s forged signature. George shared in the family’s troubles, but eventually became a successful solicitor.

Following several incidents of animal mutilation throughout Great Wyrley, the police received anonymous letters accusing George Edalji of the crimes. The local Chief Constable decided – with no evidence – that George had written the mysterious correspondence himself and has now escalated to killing animals.  George Edalji was tried on 20th October, 1903, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in jail; the verdict effectively destroyed his law career.  Released after three years, Edalji wrote his own version of the incident, which was published in the papers. He posted a clipping of the article to Arthur Conan Doyle, asking for his help to clear his name.

The novel and the televised series follow Doyle as he pursues the case, ultimately proving Georg’e innocence.  The real culprit was never prosecuted, but PBS satisfyingly kills him off, after revealing a surprise connection to George.

I reposted my review of Arthur and George.  Barnes’ version of the story has the notes and wording of the famous Man Booker winner, and the themes of intolerance and bigotry still ring true. In addition, the story is a great mystery thriller.  Have you read the book?

Review: Arthur and George

 

 

Conclave

9780451493446_p0_v1_s192x300  In Conclave, Robert Harris tears away the illusion of the Pope’s selection as the sacred inspiration of holy men and exposes the political machinations and corruption behind the scenes.  Although he dots the scenes with familiar Latin invocations and old-fashioned prayers, the inside debates and secret maneuvering are worthy of a political party convention.

Four candidates vie for the top job in the church: Tremblay, a Canadian who knows how to spin the media; Adeyemi, a charismatic Nigerian conservative; Tedesco, an archconservative Italian from the old school of Latin Masses; and Aldo Bellini, an intellectual Italian who would continue the Church’s reform.  Cardinal Lomeli, the well-meaning Dean of the College of Cardinals, manages his colleagues and the vote, as behind the scenes revelations threaten the process.

As the plot slowly builds to what seems an inevitable conclusion – the naming of an obscure third world cardinal who miraculously appears almost too late for the closed meeting – Harris turns the plot upside down.  Like the reference Harris makes to the painting of Peter, the first Pope, who hangs feet up on the cross, the papacy flips head over heals.  The last impenetrable glass ceiling is cracked but almost no one knows.

I read Conclave in one night – a thriller without a murder.