Tag Archives: historical fiction

A Book for Your Next Book Club Discussion – Before We Were Yours

Unknown-1The picture of Beulah Georgia Tann, who used her Tennessee Children’s Home Society to sell children, hides all the horror and misery Lisa Wingate uses as the framework for her fictionalized tale of a family of river gypsies caught in the net of children stolen for profit – Before We Were Yours.  Although the corruption was exposed in the media (Sixty Minutes) and nonfiction (Raymond’s 2007 The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgian Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption), the appalling history was new to me.  I remember my grandmother cautioning me about baby stealers, but Tann’s grand scale child trafficking seems more like fiction than the reality it was until the ninety-fifties.  The history is worth discussion.

Briny and Queenie were poor river gypsies with a brood of blond curly-haired children, ranging from a two year old boy to four girls, with twelve year old Rill as the oldest. They live aboard an old boat, the Arcadia, fishing and bartering  with other riverboat people.  When Queenie’ s latest pregnancy ends in the premature birth of twins, the family is suddenly torn apart.  With Queenie in a nearby hospital, the children are stolen from their river barge and sent to one of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society collection sites; it would be a disservice to call it an orphanage.  One by one, each child is bartered out to a new home.

Wingate mixes adventure and romance, cleverly creating mystery and suspense as the story shifts back to the present day investigation of a thirty year old grandchild of one of the stolen children, Judy Stafford.   The Stafford family background remains a secret, and with Judy, the grandmother now suffering from dementia, it might have remained so.  Circumstances trigger Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past, while she struggles with her own future as the possible successor to her father’s political legacy, and her marriage to a longtime friend she is not sure she loves.

As the chapters alternate between 1939 and the present,  the background of the river family and the consequences of Tann’s actions slowly emerge.   The two time frames converge to reveal the children’s fears and hopes.  By using a fictionalized aggregate of the children targeted by the corrupt Tann, Wingate makes the story real.  By teasing the reader with the identity of the grandmother until the end, she creates a page-turner; I read the book in one sitting.

Although Wingate offers her commentary on how lives of privilege may not always be as they seem, the historical context of poor children kidnapped and sold to wealthy families throughout the country from the 1920s to the 1950s carries the importance of the drama.

 

The Scribe of Siena

Unknown-3Melodie Winawer creates a compelling adventure with time travel back to medieval Italy in The Scribe of Siena – history, romance and art mingle with an historic mystery.

Beatrice, a neurosurgeon from New York City inherits a thirteenth century mansion when her brother, a medieval scholar dies suddenly in Siena, Italy.  Soon after she arrives to settle her brother’s estate,  she discovers the journal of the fourteenth century artist, Gabriel Accorsi in her brother’s research paper, and finds her own face in one of his paintings.  Suddenly, she is mysteriously transported to Siena in the year 1347, months before the Bubonic Plague is about to eradicate the city.

Yes, there is romance; yes, the heroine knows more than she can tell; and yes, the parallel between worlds is conveniently accommodated with much of the fourteenth’s century’s inconveniences sublimated.  Yet, despite the trite plot underpinnings, Winawer manages to create a captivating tale full of well-researched historical trappings.  Most of the story takes place in fourteenth century Italy when medieval life was primitive, with Church and art providing respite from the misery of everyday life.  Italian paintings from the Middle Ages were darkly mystical, and Winawer uses this artistic mysticism as the conduit between the modern world and a mysterious 700 year old conspiracy to destroy the city of Siena.  Political intrigue with the Medici family offers a sinister subplot, threatening Accorsi’s life as well as the possible extinction of Siena’s population.

When Beatrice meets Accorsi, of course she falls in love, but her new medieval life also offers her a chance to reinvent herself as she works as the city’s scribe, creating contracts, recording lists, even writing a copy of Dante on parchment.  Winawer creates a strong character – a brilliant neurosurgeon clearly in charge of herself but also with empathy for her patients – who manages to maneuver the unexpected difficulties of her new environment.   Although Beatrice does conveniently revisit the present in time to be saved from the Plague by modern antibiotics, clearly her heart is in the fourteenth century where she eventually finds a new life.

If you are missing the swashbuckling adventure and time travel back to another century of Diane Gabalon (Outlander) or Deborah Harness (Discovery of Witches), try Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena.  

Related Review:   Discovery of Witches

 

 

The Miniaturist

37-Petronella-Oortmans-dolls-house-Rijksmuseum-Amsterdam_grande

Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse on display at the Rijksmuseum

Using a cabinet currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam built in the late 17th century to replicate Petronella Oortman’s luxurious townhouse in the center of the city, Jesse Burton creates a tale around a poor eighteen year old girl in an arranged marriage to a wealthy Dutch merchant in The Miniaturist.

As Nella struggles to find a place in her new opulent home, her husband, Johannes, leaves her alone, disappearing for days, never consummating the marriage, while her new unmarried sister-in-law bristles at the competition for control of the household.  To appease her loneliness, Johannes buys Nella a replica of their house – a large doll house – and instructs her to find a craftsman, a miniaturist,  to fill it with miniature furniture.

9780062306845_p0_v2_s192x300Suddenly, the Miniaturist takes control of the plot.  With eerie foreshadowing and obscure messages the Miniaturist predicts Nella’s life, sending her new pieces for her dollhouse before she requests them.  A sudden shocking revelation changes the momentum and story evolves into a cross between an Alfred Hitchcock mystery and Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

I enjoyed every bit, anticipating the next surprise – a betrayal, secret lovers, a baby – with a warehouse of sugar both sweetening and decaying the characters. To be immersed in the drama, you must suspend belief.  Burton paints an authentic picture of the old Dutchmen: the burgermeisters with their forbidding rules of the city, the power and wealth of merchants, and the strict Calvinist Minister dictates – all adding to the intrigue.

Review: The Night Circus

 

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

 

 

Queen Victoria

Without a time machine, historical inaccuracies about personal lives are hard to prove, and the practice of selecting only the best for posterity sometimes shades perception. Jane Austen’s sister conveniently burned the famous author’s diaries; Jacqueline Kennedy famously engineered the Camelot legacy through Theodore White; biographer Julia Baird notes “Victoria’s daughter Beatrice transcribed her mother’s journals and edited out everything that seemed to reflect poorly on her, then burned the originals.”

Until Julian Fellowes created the  movie “Young Victoria” in 2009, most readers thought of Queen Victoria as the short, heavy, frumpy monarch in black who made infrequent appearances.  Although history notes Victoria had nine children, her romantic inclinations and Albert’s courting of the young queen were usually overwhelmed by her later years.  Berated by the royal family for inserting inaccurate scenes to increase the drama – Prince Albert never really took a bullet for Victoria – Fellowes never blinked as he introduced a new look for Victoria and went on to create Downton Abbey the following year.

9781410495877_p0_v1_s192x300A new Masterpiece Theater series on the Public Broadcasting System promises more of the younger queen, and author Daisy Goodwin – creator and writer of the series – offers a glimpse with her new novel Victoria.  Goodwin begins the book with the sixteen year old hoping her uncle, the king, will live to her eighteenth birthday, so she can rule without a regent, most probably her estranged mother.  She gets her wish, becoming queen soon after she comes of age.

Goodwin elaborates on a few vague historical tidbits to provide drama and interest – embellishing the young queen’s infatuation with her prime minister and capitalizing on her accusation of Lady Flora Hastings as a catalyst in her waning popularity.

Though fictional, Goodwin manages to tear away the historical image of a prudish moralistic matron to reveal Victoria as human after all.  Descriptions of her early insecurities about her appearance, her fiercely independent determination, along with happy moments with her little dog and carefree rides on her horse – all transform an icon into flesh and blood.  Amazingly, knowing Victoria and Albert will eventually marry does not detract from the breathless anticipation as Goodwin concludes the novel with Victoria’s proposal.

Goodwin’s Victoria is an easy digestible history lesson, with added spice.  Like her novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter, Goodwin’s Victoria immerses the reader in the world of the heroine, and, if all the facts are not exactly correct – as Julian Fellowes says, “What does it matter?”

Related Articles: