Louisiana’s Way Home

9780763694630  The openng lines of Kate DiCamillo’s new book for middle schoolers – Louisiana’s Way Home – reminded me of a resolution I have yet to complete:

“I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatver happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? They will have an answer. They will know.”

I usually avoid reading memoirs, assuming the writer’s memory will have been embellished and cleaned up. But writing my own story for posterity is appealing, especially because I could embellish and clean it up. What has been stopping me? Probably the suspicion of my story being only interesting to me.

Louisiana’s story begins with the curse her grandfather set in motion; mine would mirror it with my grandmother’s power of bestowing a curse, passed through generations.  Be assured, I have not tried wielding her power – not consciously, anyway – and not yet.

Louisiana’s story is “discovering who you are – and deciding who you want to be.”  For fans of DiCamillo, Louisiana may bring back thoughts of Raymie Nightingale, and Raymie is mentioned, but Louisiana has a more compelling story, leaving her friend behind in Florida and starting over in Georgia with a new friend, Burke, who can climb trees and outsmart the vending machine to get free peanuts.

After Granny and Louisiana drive off for a new life, so much happens: Granny loses all her teeth, tells about finding a baby on a pile of rubbish, and deserts the twelve year old. Nevertheless, Louisiana’s steady and optimistic outlook leads her to a new family, a new life, and a happy ending.  The story is at once a sad lesson in hope and a caution to not wallow in fate.  Destiny is what you make it.   Louisiana is abandoned by someone she trusts, tries to work things out on her own, consults with a minister, and finally chooses forgiveness with a new family.   Burke’s grandfather sums up the point of the story when he tells her to  “Take what is offered to you.”

The curse?  Turns out Louisiana never really had one –    only Granny has to contend with that problem.

And DiCamillo delivers another poignant tale of a brave little girl who gets the support of friends from unlikely places and in unexpected ways.  We all need that now and then.

Related ReviewRaymie Nightingale

Book Club Bait – A Novel and a Nonfiction Study by the Same Author of Where the Crawdads Sing

What an opportunity – same author, two books – a fiction and a nonfiction book.  Read both but read Where the Crawdads Sing first.

Where the Crawdads Sing

51ZnaGuoiiL._AC_US218_How could a child survive alone in a North Carolina coastal marsh?  Why did the local townsfolk ostracize the child instead of helping her? What survival lessons are to be learned from the natural world of plants, insects, and animals in the wild?  Who killed Chase Andrews? What is a crawdad, anyway?

These are only a few possible questions to discuss after reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdad Sings, an amazing coming of age story intertwined with science and observation of nature  – with a compelling unsolved murder mystery thrown in to keep the pages turning.   A respected scientist and winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, Owens successfully inserts scientific observation within this compelling fictional tale of a young girl who effectively raises herself after she is abandoned in a ramshackle shack in the Southern marshland.

Five year old Kya’s mother walks away one day and never comes back.  One by one her four older brothers and sisters leave too; only her abusive alcoholic father is left, and eventually he is gone.  Although she tries attending school for one day, the taunting she receives is unbearable to this sensitive and shy child; she never goes back, and lives in solitude for most of her young life.  Her social interactions are limited to the seagulls and the fish.

A born naturalist and observer, Kya becomes an expert in the natural life of the marsh, taking samples and creating precise drawings to document her findings. Owens cleverly connects Kya’s observations to lessons and secrets she adapts for survival.

“Kya honed her skills of harvesting mussels by watching the crows; she learned about dishonest signals from the fireflies; she learned about loyalty and friends from the seagulls.”

As she grows into a wild beauty, she attracts two young men from the town – Tate, who shares her love of nature and teaches her to read, and the former high school football captain resting on his laurels, who lies to her with promises of marriage to get her to sleep with him.

The story alternates years from Kya’s young life as the “Marsh Girl” and her present day (1969) trial for murder.  The storyline is easy to follow, and the ending is satisfying, but the story offers so much more.  Owens is painlessly educating the reader while teasing out a possible murder mystery.

I really wanted a book in my hands, so I bought the hard cover, but I did check the audible version first (sadly I had no credits available) and the sample had endearing Southern accents in the dialogue.  Either way – a good book with an unlikely combination of being both informative and suspenseful.

51DPKT-EQEL._AC_US218_Cry of the Kalahari

Owens has co-authored three non fiction nature books with her husband, Mark Owens: Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savannah, all  based on their research in Africa.  Where The Crawdads Sing is her first foray into fiction.  I found Cry of the Kalahari in my library system, and am now reading through this nonfiction account of two American zoology graduate students who embarked on their own research study in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970’s.

“After selling virtually everything they owned to fund their daring trip, they flew to Africa with only $6000 in their pocket, determined to live in the wild and study animals that had never encountered humans before. This is the tale of their seven years spent in the desolate wilderness of Botswana, with only the animals for company… camping out in the Kalahari Desert with lions, jackals and hyenas regularly wandering into their camp.”

The book has a conversational style almost like reading their diary – but also includes scientific observations and over thirty amazing close-up pictures of them with lions sleeping nearby, jackals investigating their tents, and other wild animals looking at home in their camp.

Suggestions for Next Year’s Book Club

unknownLooking forward to next year, some books clubs have already finalized their monthly reading list. Others are having parties to discuss possibilites, or desperately asking their members to host a book – any book.  As I reviewed the books I’ve read in 2017, I thought about those I would be willing to reread for a discussion, and which would offer some value for expanding knowledge, nudging introspection, or just be fun to revisit.

 

With its inherent possibilities for comparison to what really happened, historical fiction is strong on my list.  Requiring the host to research (but google is so easy), the fictionalized lives imagined by the author compared to facts recorded in history could make for a lively discussion.  Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life adds the possibility of comparison to the popular PBS series “Call the Midwife,” based on its own memoir.   Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate opens a hornet’s nest but also addresses foster care.  News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post Civil War Texas and nominated for the 2016 National Book Award, with its “True Grit” flavor, is an easy and direct tale of a young girl and her gritty escort but with surprising twists.  All four books are easy to follow and carry the weight of information worth knowing.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is another of my favorites based on historical fact and is well worth reading, but may be too ambitious for some book clubbers (there – I’ve thrown down the challenge).

Meeting new authors, especially if the book is short, a little frivolous, but with a smattering of philosophy, is always good for mixing up the list.  Joanna Trollope, an author new to me but who many already have read, has a new book – City of Friends.  Lisa Allardice describes Trollope’s books as “tales of quiet anguish and adultery among the azaleas; Trollope created the original desperate housewives.” Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will be welcomed by readers who enjoyed The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.  Rooney adds a dash of New York City as she reminisces on her New Year’s Eve walk through the city.

Not a big fan of nonfiction, I still feel compelled to include one on my list.  Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies offers enough scientific inquiry with relatable anecdotes to  be readable.  The National Book Awards recently published their longlist for best nonfiction, but they seem too political for me.  You can decide for yourself – National Book Awards nominees for Nonfiction.  I have yet to read Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris, but I expect to like it – more a memoir, but could fit the nonfiction category.

When bestsellers are not in the library system, classics are usually available, and this year I reread Edna Ferber’s So Big – with an amazingly contemporary message.  Wallace Stegner’s books Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose should be required reading for everyone, but this year I read one of his earlier, shorter books – Remembering Laughter – a good book to start a discussion of this famous author.

For my final two, I nominate a coming of age story – Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, and a story about an abandoned child – Leaving Lucy Pear.  

My list has 11 books, one month off the year for the annual luncheon or decision-making party.  If you click on the title, you will be directed to my book review.  What books are on your book club list for next year?  What books would you recommend?

MY LIST:

  1. My Notorious Life
  2. Before We Were Yours
  3. News of the World
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo
  5. City of Friends  
  6. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
  7. Why Time Flies
  8. So Big
  9. Remembering Laughter
  10. Ordinary Grace
  11. Leaving Lucy Pear

Books from 2016:

I have not included books from earlier years, but, if not yet discussed, I would point to:

Ordinary Grace

9781451645859_p0_v4_s192x300    A coming of age story with power and sentiment, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace follows the summer of a thirteen year old boy as he reflects on the circumstances that formed his character as an adult.

Frank Drum, and his brother, Jake, romp through the summer days in the Minnesota countryside, jumping into the cool quarry waters, playing ball with their friends, dangling their feet over the railroad trestle, and surreptitiously listening in on adult conversations.  Their carefree summer suddenly turns into drama, when they find a an old Sioux leaning over a dead body below the railroad tracks.  As Frank tells the story, he warns of more deaths to come that summer in the early 1960’s, yet the flavor of the plot and dialogue remains unexpectedly normal as everyone continues with their uneventful lives.

Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Conner series about a former Chicago cop living in the Minnesota woods, is a master of mystery, and he does include three deaths and a murder with red herrings to distract from the real killer, who is eventually revealed.  With a mix of anticipation and tension, Krueger paces the story with the evenness of the boys’ lives as they live through the idyllic summer that forces them to grow up.

Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor.  Frank’s father,  having changed careers from being a promising trial attorney after he survived the horrors of war, carries the novel’s theme of basic goodness despite the world’s misery and genuinely bad things happening to good people.  But Krueger is never preachy, and his minister’s thoughtful comments seem more philosophical than religious.  Frank and his brother grow up with him as their model, facing life and death with his perspective:

“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”

Despite its moral compass constantly pointing North and its tangential bucolic descriptions of the Minnesota woods in summer, Ordinary Grace is a compelling coming-of-age novel, exploring events propelling its characters from childhood to adulthood.  Although the ending is somewhat predictable, some of the characters’ words will stay with you:

“My heart had simply directed me in a way that my head couldn’t wrap its thinking around…”

“It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps up upright and connected until the worst is past.”

I found this book on a friend’s book club list for next year.  The author of Ordinary Grace includes a a few topics for book club discussion at the back of the book, but one seems to summarize the book’s intent:

How do small moments help deal with larger-than-life trouble?

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

225x225bb     In telling the story of a small community overrun by gossip, prejudice, and secrets, Joanna Cannon humorously reveals the dangers of obstinate righteousness through the voices of two ten year old girls.  In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a series of mishaps and strange occurrences threaten to upset the quiet row of British country houses in a small neighborhood – small enough that every knows every one else’s business, and if they don’t, they are willing to create their own versions of reality.

The driving focus of the story is Mrs. Cleasy’ s sudden disappearance.  As the search for her continues throughout the story, Cannon introduces a series of related incidents as possible clues to the mystery through the voice of ten year old Grace.  Mrs. Cleasy’s disappearance could be simply escape from her life or something more sinister.  The neighbors fear she may have uncovered a secret that could expose their past shameful action.  Ignorant of the adults’ trepidation,  Grace, a resourceful 10-year-old convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.

Posing as Brownies seeking badges, Grace and her friend Tilly, pursue their own investigation, and as they interview each neighbor they slowly uncover the neighborhood’s secret – an insidious plot against one resident that happened nine years earlier.

The title refers to a biblical verse:

“…He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…”

The trouble, Grace discovers as she interviews her neighbors,  is deciding who are the goats and who are the sheep.  Under the guise of a quiet existence, each has a secret misery:  Dorothy, bullied by her husband, Eric; Brian, who cannot escape his overbearing mother; John Creasy, husband of the missing woman, who fears his wife has discovered what he has done. Each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect.  In addition, two unexplained scandals lurk in the air – a kidnapped baby and a house fire – as well as the neighbors anxiety and anger over two who do not fit into their expectations – an Indian family newly moved in and a bachelor with long hair who likes to take photographs.

With so many diversions, the story may seem overwhelming.  Cannon’s wry humor, however, manages to expose human frailty while cautioning the reader to beware of making assumptions.  Her diversion into a creosote stain on a drainpipe that looks like Jesus is hilarious, with the neighbors keeping watch and fighting over the placement of lawn chairs to keep vigil.   In her review for the New York Times last year, Samantha Hunt noted:

Jesus’ manifestation births a driveway vigil, a Chautauqua of folding chairs and a struggle. Who sits closest to Jesus? This caldron of neighbors grows hot. At what temperature will community boil over into mob violence? Fear is contagious in small spaces… What belongs where? Who owns what? And what hollow treats will be developed to distract us from the real crimes committed in the name of safety?

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, privy to many secret fears; she has said her book was inspired by her patients and by the story of Christopher Jefferies,  the retired teacher and landlord who was falsely implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in 2010, and later won libel damages for the way he was portrayed in some newspapers.

In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon may be sharing her insights about inner miseries and hypocrisies,  and their manifestations on others – and perhaps, cautioning that we may not know our neighbors as well as we think.

Although a friend recommended this book a year ago, I returned my library copy unread – just could not get to it.  I was reminded of it recently from an interview on By the Book, and glad I read it – a book full of humor and profound moments worth thinking about and discussing.

Cannon has another book due to be published in January – Three Things About Elsie.  This time I’ve preordered it.