Tag Archives: coming of age

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.

 

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.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…

In the Unlikely Event

9781101875049_p0_v2_s260x420When reading Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event, I remembered a writing prompt from Sister Eugene Marie’s composition class – listing ten people, with short biographies; only five would survive a catastrophe.  The writer decides not only who will live or die, but how the event affects others.  In Blume’s book, actual air crashes near Newark airport in the 1950s trigger a fictionalized version of survivors and those whose lives were accidentally cut short.

The story revolves around Miri, a fifteen year old girl who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey –  a small town on the flight path of the airport and the site of three fatal airplane crashes within three months.  The lives of Miri’s family and friends intersect with some of the passengers, creating dramatic possibilities and unlikely heroes, sometimes changing lives. True love blossoms and fades; panic draws a disparate community together.  As Blume jumps from one character’s thoughts to another, the relationships between the chorus of players can be hard to follow, but eventually her constant return to Miri saves the narrative.

Although Blume uses real dates for the air crashes (and in her afterward refers to her own experience living in the area at the time),  the time frame of the fifties lends a surreal value to living with unexpected terror.  This is the time of McCarthy’s relentless campaign seeking Communists, Sputnik heralding the possibilities of outer space and possible extraterrestrials, the draft of young men into the Korean War – and Blume weaves all of them into the story.  These New Jersey school children who were taught to duck and cover, cowering under desks to avoid a bomb, were suddenly in the path of a crashing plane.  The news is dramatic, and Henry, Mira’s uncle, finds his vocation as a newsman reporting the facts, and interviewing relatives of the victims.

Blume’s strength is getting into the heads of her characters, especially children.  When they are confused and terrified, when they are juggling the uncertainties of the world around them, and when they discover each other’s flaws, the story is at its best.  The airplane crashes are just the vehicle for following their lives.  Blume begins the story with the promise of a reunion thirty years after the events, flashes back to the time of “the umbrella of death,” and finishes by revealing how all the surviving characters grew up to lead productive lives.

The story moves slowly, but if you are a fan of Judy Blume, you’ll find yourself once again immersed and empathizing. “Terrible things can happen in this life…” warns one of the characters, but Blume suggests that how we get through them matters.

 

A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam’s “A Long Way from Verona” has the same British flavor and intensity as her more well known books (Old Filth) and she is one of my favorite storytellers. Ten year old school girl Jessica Vye’s world during World War II includes trying to understand her parents while navigating the expectations of her teachers and friends. Her perspicacious attitude and independent spirit had me cheering for her and wondering about her determination “to always tell the absolute truth.”

When the story opens, a famous writer visiting Jessica’s school tells her she is “beyond all doubt,” a writer, after she gives him some of her work to read. This validation fuels her defiance when her teachers feed her treacle in class, and prompt her to find the classics from Bronte to Dickens and Hardy instead of he class assignments.

Gardam’s supporting cast includes a boyfriend for Jessica, an understanding teacher, and a commiserate friend. An extraordinary scene has her far from home when a bomb explodes, but most of the action revolves around family and school.

When I saw this slim volume in one of the last bookstores in my neighborhood, I decided it would fit neatly into my carryon. As I am about to land in Gardam’s home turf of Britain, her language and wit have been the perfect segue to the beginning of my British adventure.