News of the World

9780062409201_p0_v5_s192x300 What a ride – with a seventy-one year old and a ten year old on the road together in Texas soon after the Civil War.  Paulette Jiles’ short book – News of the World – has the fast paced adventure of an old Western.

When Captain Kidd agrees to deliver a young blond girl back to her German family in San Antonio, he creates an unlikely partnership.  Captured by the Kiowa tribe when she was six years old, the girl only knows the ways of her adopted family. She speaks no English and bridles at the uncomfortable clothes she is forced to wear.  Captain Kidd, a seasoned army sergeant and former printer, works like Mark Twain on the road,  reading newspaper stories on stage to the interested and illiterate, as he tries to make money in his retirement.

Although the girl, named Johanna by the Captain, is wary and angry, her intelligence and skills in tribal warfare help the Captain overcome their first adversaries, men from another tribe intent on capturing and selling her into child prostitution (“blond girls are premium”).  As they continue their journey, Johanna and Kidd bond, with her calling him Grandpa and he protecting and teaching her through a series of adventures – some humorous, some frightening.

The plot line is direct and Jiles provides a satisfying ending, but Jiles’ vivid descriptions are the real story.  Her historical notes of the unrest and hardships after the Civil War immerse the reader into another time – the wild West just as it is beginning to develop.  Through the relationship between the Captain and the girl, the author cleverly reveals their two disparate  backgrounds, while maintaining the common denominators of human kindness and priorities for values worth having.

I came across Jiles’ book just as I finished reading the first book of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  The densely packed Justine had left me wanting a story more readable and with a less cynical view; News of the World delivered.  Jiles’ book is short and focused, and redeemed my notion of books delivering  an escape and possibly some wisdom.  One of the phrases I will remember:

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we  are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

The News of the World was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.

Literary Maine

Overwhelmed by the beauty of the foliage as I drive through Maine, I’ve decided Brunswick is my favorite place, maybe because it’s a college town. Although Longfellow wrote his first published poem at twelve years old, Bowdoin College was where he studied Latin and Greek, and became familiar with the rhyme scheme he later used in “Evangeline,” the sad tale of lovers torn apart when the British banished the French Acadians (now known as the Cajuns) from Nova Scotia. It seemed like a good idea to download the poem (free online) to reread it while here.

Brunswick also claims Harriet Beecher Stowe who lived in a house near campus with her professor husband for only two years before moving to Andover in Massachusetts. During his tenure at Bowdoin, Harriet wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to supplement his low salary. Their house has changed through the years and the college now uses it as a dorm. I’ve never read this famous book (I do remember the play rendition in the movie “The King and I”). Have you read it?

Of course I’ve been seeking and finding bookstores: the Bowdoin College Bookstore, The Gulf of Maine in Brunswick, and Sherman’s – Maine’s oldest bookstore – in Bar Harbor. And the weather is great for reading.

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I Shall Be Near To You – Women Civil War Soldiers

Quilt camp intimidates me more than it should. Watching all the talent around me, I sip coffee, pretend to nod knowingly through the lectures, and hope I’ll be able to at least complete a placemat while everyone else finishes their queen-sized works of art. But the women around me are kind and generous, and one offered to trade books when I noted I had just finished mine. The book – Erin Lindsay McCabe’s “I Shall Be Near To You” – was a happy surprise and I read it in one night (when I probably should have been sewing).

Based on the real experiences of women who fought in the Civil War disguised as men, this fictionalized account of a young newlywed who follows her husband into war, has humor and realism. Using the letters of the real Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, McCabe’s narrative is easy to follow as she imagines the life of a woman pretending to be a male soldier. Although the down-home dialogue is distracting at times, Rosetta’s life as Ross Stone offers an important historical note – informative and entertaining.

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The Technologists

Using the ongoing rivalry of the Harvard elite and the MIT futurists, Matthew Pearl mixes post Civil War Boston with a slow-moving historical thriller.  The story opens with compasses gone awry causing boats to collide in Boston harbor; then bank windows melt with an unsuspecting customer leaning against the pane toppling to the street.  A promising opening, but the action slows immediately.  The search for the perpetrator suddenly switches to the confrontation between  Harvard old-school classical learning vs the new school in town – MIT with its suspicious sciences and new technology in the nineteenth century.

A team of MIT seniors (the first class about to graduate from the fledgling school) drives the action: scholarship student (known as “charity scholar”) Marcus Mansfield, a Civil War veteran and former factory worker with a brilliant mind; Robert Richards, blue-blood Boston dropout/transfer from Harvard; Edwin Hoyt, the quiet brains of the outfit; and token woman scholar, Ellen Swallow, who manages to rise above the trials of being among the all-male nineteenth century class.  To demonstrate that MIT students can think and solve problems as well as their Harvard rivals, the group works secretly to uncover the villain and save the reputation of their alma mater.

The historical context uses the then-new controversial revelations of Darwin and the suspicion  of machinery to add to the fear, with the underlying supposition that technology somehow is behind the city’s destruction. After the thrilling opening events, however, Pearl settles into flashbacks of the recently ended Civil War, and the culture of the late 1860s in old Boston.

After more catastrophes, a little romance, and continued drama among the collegiate, the mystery is solved and the unlikely genius behind the technological crimes is uncovered – but the revelation is a long, tortuous journey.  I tend to like my thrillers – historical or otherwise – to be fast paced and hard to put down; this was not a page turner.  Although I finally did finish The Technologists, it took longer than it deserved. I’d had the same feeling with Pearl’s other bestseller, The Dante Club –  the end was worth getting to, but also a relief to get to the end.

The Red Garden – Alice Hoffman

… for events are as much the parents of the future as they were the children of the past…(John Galsworthy)

I kept waiting for the events in Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden to come together, connecting characters and historical incidents as she follows the town of Blackwell from inception to middle age.   Instead, her chapters become a series of short stories,  following each generation in this small town in the Berkshires with a leap into the next.   It really doesn’t matter if you remember the names of who was married, who died, or whose daughter married the one-legged man.  Each chapter could stand on its own, and Hoffman will mark them somehow if you need to know – with a strange name like Azurine or an other worldly gift like shapeshifting.  This is Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and Blackbird House.  You should expect strange, mystical, sometimes weird – but always fascinating.

Historically, Hoffman stays true to the time for each chapter – colonial hardships, Civil War trauma, the Depression, World War II – but never really lingers on the facts of that era; she uses history as a place marker.    Although I could suspend belief when reading about floating ghosts, bears becoming men, eels turning into women, red blossoms from yellow rose bushes, I found her purpose hard to follow and  her chapters seemed to stall in the middle of the book, some resembling children’s fairy tales – like Kate, the beauty, a kind friend to the monster beast poet in the woods.

Strong women sprinkle the narrative, beginning with Hallie Brady, the founding mother of the town, who communicates with bears and helps the small group of the town’s first settlers survive their first hard winter with bear’s milk.  Lots of messages here in stalwart women and brave children; many seem to reach a turning point into maturity at age ten; some are dead by 25.  No one character is revealed completely; rather, the book has a series of vignettes with a cast of characters – lots of heroes, heroines, and villains – not quite enough information about any of them.  Sometimes, the chapter would end with no resolution, until you’d find a grandson or niece in the next chapter.

Did I like it?  Alice Hoffman has a writing style that draws me in – simple, lyrical and soothing.  I can connect to her phrasing:

“Don’t worry, I’m not afraid of words…when you read, the time flies by…”

“A story can still entrance people even while the world is falling apart…”

and she talks of cake

The Red Garden is a change of pace – but not for everyone;  after I stopped trying to place the characters together and make sense of a plot, I lost my frustration.  When magic came into the stories, I was drawn in.  If you decide to read the book – like other Hoffman books –  just go with her flow and believe whatever she tells you.

And the red garden that can only grow bloody red flowers and vegetables in red dirt? It’s mystery from the beginning of the book returns in the next-to-the-last chapter with that title, and all is revealed – sort of…