This historical novel is based on the life of Elizabeth Bentley, an American who was recruited into the American Communist Party by friends. Soon thereafter, Bentley discovers a valuable role she can play for the party, a role that she believes will also help her country. Bentley falls in love with her handler, Jacob Golos, and together they form the largest foreign spy ring in the United States. All through World War II, she tells herself that she is not a traitor to her country because the Soviet Union is a U.S. ally so to help one is to help the other.
Things become much more perilous after the war when the United States and Soviet Union enter the period of hostility known as the Cold War. Events test Elizabeth’s loyalties until eventually she must irrevocably choose sides.
Bentley’s life is fascinating, and she certainly played a pivotal role in the mid-twentieth-century history. However, my enthusiasm for the novel was blunted a bit by its format. It is told as a dialogue between Elizabeth and a young woman who is searching for answers about her biological mother, whom she believes was one of Elizabeth’s associates. I think the story would have been more vivid if it hadn’t been spun in this retrospective way.
Despite that quibble, I recommend A Most Clever Girl to anyone interested in the era of Red scares, McCarthyism, and the Cold War.
Because I am a novelist, I tend to read mostly fiction. However, my husband and I are also big Brandi Carlile fans, so when I heard that she had written a memoir, I immediately put myself on the wait list to get the audiobook from our library. A friend told me that the audiobook version is the best one for this memoir because the author narrates it herself and sings at the end of chapters. Sometimes more than one song.
Carlile is the oldest of three siblings born to young parents; she grew up in Washington State, moving from house to house and changing schools constantly. Her family was loving but dysfunctional. As Carlile herself writes, she experienced several brutal things in her childhood—but she experienced inexplicable miracles too. She has a strong streak of mysticism that permeates the book.
During her formative years, she dealt with several important identity issues. She idolized Elton John and wanted to become a star singer, but the singing contests available to her awarded only the big-haired, prettily dressed girls embodying the traditional femininity typical of country music of the time. As someone gradually growing aware of being a lesbian, Carlile had little interest in that type of conformity. She developed a deep belief in God, but when she tried to make a public profession of her faith, she was humiliated by a Baptist minister who couldn’t accept LGBTQ christians. The book also chronicles the course of her career and her journey toward finding a happy, fulfilling family life.
It’s an incredible story, one that will be appreciate by any fan of her music and also people who are interested in LGBTQ memoirs.
I was first drawn to this historical novel because it’s about an artist. As it turns out, the subject of painting plays less of a role in the story than I’d hoped, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.
Ida Russell has been battered by life’s storms. Before the story opens, every member of her family of origin has died from drowning: her father and two brothers by accident, her mother by suicide. Before these tragedies, Ida was a promising painter and art student in Boston. However, lonely and weighed down by grief, she decides after an all-too-brief courtship to marry Ezra Pease, a sheep farmer from Martha’s Vineyard.
After the marriage, Ida discovers to her chagrin that Ezra is a lazy farmer, an unkind husband who alternates between inattention and disparagement, and a habitual gambler who takes part in nightly poker games in town. The charm he displayed during their courtship has vanished, along with her family property, which he sold as soon as he had the legal right as her husband to do so. The running of the household and many of the duties of the farm fall to Ida, leaving her no time to paint. Two years into their marriage, Ezra and Ida are barely on speaking terms.
Ezra and a friend named Mose open a salvage company, and the work occasionally takes them away from home—absences that Ida relishes—but that business doesn’t prosper any more than the farm does. Shortly after the novel begins, Ezra and Mose leave for a salvage job in Rhode Island. While they are away, a terrible storm hits, and their company boat catches fire and sinks. A ship named the Portland traveling to Rhode Island also sinks with great loss of life. A few days afterward, Ida is stunned to receive a letter from Ezra written just before he and Mose were about to board the ill-fated vessel. Although their bodies never wash ashore, they are presumed dead because only a small portion of those lost in the Portland are ever recovered. Although Ida retains little love for her husband, losing another person to drowning feels like an unnecessarily cruel trick of fate.
As Ida sets to work trying to make sense of her husband’s assets, she encounters Mose’s brother, Henry Barstow, a man she’s met before and liked. They team up to settle the estate and see if anything remains for either of them to inherit. Ida’s financial situation is dire. Ezra’s lies and deceptions—and the destruction of the salvage boat—have left her with nothing to live on but the grudging support of her husband’s aunt. Complicating matters, Ida finds herself more and more attracted to Henry, who is married but also in a foundering relationship.
Ida makes many discoveries through the course of the story—about her husband, about secret schemes, and about the island residents it takes her so long to come to know. Most importantly, she learns to rely on herself and to feel confidence in her own opinions rather than society’s dictates.
Readers’ Favorite Gives The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the Gold Medal!
You have reached the author website of Ruth Hull Chatlien, author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, and Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale, based on the tale of Sarah Wakefield, taken captive during an Indian war.
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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte and Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale may be ordered at Amika Press or Amazon.
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte Blood Moon: A Captive's Tale
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