Sunday Review: Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair

Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair is the story of a family nearly destroyed by Stalin’s Great Terror, the purge by which the dictator imprisoned or executed not only his enemies but also anyone who, in his growing paranoia, he thought might become enemies. Zhenya, the daughter of the family, is the single thread running through the tale. Her father was a rising official awarded an apartment in the House on The Embankment in Moscow, a place where the Soviet elite lived in luxury that was unimaginable to most citizens. However, life there came with the terrible price of greater scrutiny by the secret police. Historically, a very high proportion of residents were dragged off, charged with treason, tortured, and killed or imprisoned. The author has created an almost surreally Kafkaesque scenario to explain why so many residents were disappeared—to borrow a term from Argentina’s dirty war. (I did search to see if the method of spying St. Clair describes was real but without success.) The novel follows Zhenya through the arrest of her parents and down the unexpected path she takes to and through the horrific Gulag system.

This project was an ambitious undertaking for a debut novel, and to a large extent, St. Clair pulls it off. The horrors inflicted by Stalin’s regime are vividly portrayed without gratuitous descriptions of brutality. The five main characters caught up in the story are sympathetic and distinctive. The themes of the novel remind me of The Lives of Others, the brilliant 2006 German film about the Stasi. There is also a touch of magical realism used effectively to enhance the story rather than distract from it.

I have two minor quibbles. I was hoping for an author’s note to explain what was real and what was fictional invention. If St. Clair ever issues a second edition, I think he should consider adding one. The second quibble is that the language was a bit stilted for my personal taste. I suspect this was intentional to evoke both the past and the foreignness of Russian culture. I’d have preferred a lighter hand with that technique, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to slow my reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Sunday Review: The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

According to family lore, one of my older brothers had the wrong date on his birth certificate. The nuns wrote down the next date instead and refused to believe my mother when she pointed it out. Whether that story is true or not, I have long been intrigued by the idea that someone’s chances of dying in Vietnam might have been determined by a clerical error.

I kept remembering that as I listened to this novel. It doesn’t deal with such a mistake, but it does examine how the draft lottery was an arbitrary gamble that the government played with people’s lives. The book focuses on Judy Talton, a college sophomore in 1969 whose mother pressured her into enlisting in the army in exchange for college tuition and a nursing degree. But after her first year in the program, Judy begins to have qualms about the Vietnam War, so she embarks on a careful plan to determine exactly what she believes. Since only one other student on campus knows about her military commitment, she decides to “go undercover” and join a group of freaks (AKA hippies) who oppose the war and are increasingly vocal about it.

Judy quest to resolve her crisis of conscience is complicated by conflicts among various student groups, an attraction to one of the freak leaders, a friendship with a young man who shares the same birth date as hers (causing her to identify with his anxiety over the lottery), a trip to Washington to participate in the largest protest the government had ever seen (at least until then), the mounting tensions over the pending first draft lottery, the explosive news of the Kent State shootings, and the constant fear that either the army or her new friends will discover the double life she is leading.

I enjoyed the book. I’m 8-10 years younger than that generation, so I wasn’t very aware of the explosive events of 1969 at the time, and it was enlightening to live it through Judy’s perspective. There were times I felt that I wanted more descriptions of setting; the book was inside Judy’s head a lot of the time, and I could have done with more concrete details.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, fiction

Love Song for a River

Photo: MrHarman, Wikimedia Commons

From the age of six until the time I went away to college, I lived about three blocks away from Cobb Park in Kankakee, Illinois—significant to me because Cobb Park is bordered by the curve of the Kankakee River. Children had more freedom in the 1960s than they do now, and from the time I was nine or ten, I was allowed to walk or ride my bike to the park on my own during summer vacation. Sometimes my little brother came with me. I remember spending unsupervised time on the bank of that river, which I came to love with an abiding affection that has never left me. My brother and I knew we should never wade in it, although we did creep close to the water or walk out onto the square concrete block that was all that remained of a long-vanished boat house. The photo above shows a view similar to the one that greeted me on those idyllic summer days.

The origin of the word Kankakee (pronounced KANG•kuh•kee) is Native American, although records differ as to the people who originated the name and its possible meaning. According to an early fur trader (1822), the original Pottawatomi name was Ti-yar-ack-naunk and meant “wonderful river.” However, a priest who visited the region in 1721 recorded the original name as The-a-ki-ki, which meant “wolf.” (Houde, M. J., & Klasey, J. Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County, pp. 2-3.)

Whatever its exact origin, I appropriated an approximation of the native name for the river in my novel Katie, Bar the Door, which is coming out on September 22, 2021. (It can be preordered here.) I dubbed my river the Theakia (pronounced Tay•AH•kee•uh) and didn’t bother to assign an original meaning.

My main character Katie lives in a small community consisting of about a dozen houses and a general store out in the countryside of fictional Bishop County, very loosely based on Kankakee County. The river doesn’t run past her home, but it is close enough that she can pass it when she goes out running, and like me, she loves it with a deep, instinctive love. Here is a description from her point of view:

Up ahead, a flock of starlings wheeled in a huge cloud against the white sky and then settled in a field. I lifted my braid from my neck. Sweat poured down my face, and I tasted salt on my lips. Already I was beginning to sense the almost mystical sense of rhythm that possessed me when I ran. Sometimes, I imagined my veins sucking up strength from this ancient prairie where I’d been born. I loved it here, even though the land was flat as a table.

Turning the corner, I passed a white farmhouse whose yard displayed a silver milk can surrounded by orange marigolds. Half a mile farther, I turned onto Eagle Island Road. On my left, a tangle of wild shrubbery followed the line of the Theakia River. In places, openings broke through the green wall. After running another mile, I halted by one of those clearings.

From here, I could see Eagle Island, a long sandy oval overrun with thin trees and dense undergrowth. On mornings when mist from the river curled up around the island, the view made my heart ache.

Often, people sat fishing here when I ran past. The spot where I stood was empty that day, but down near the water’s edge stood a table made from a large wooden spool and two rusty metal chairs with scalloped backs.

A breeze moved across my sweaty skin, and I pulled at the tank top plastered to my chest and then turned back.

Kankakee River: ©Shutterstock/Tolk83

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

Sunday Review: You Belong Here Now

Set in Montana in 1925, You Belong Here Now by Dianna Rostad is a beautiful story of relationships that bring healing. The “you” in the title refers to three young people who are sent from New York City on one of the orphan trains transporting children out west to be taken in by families and set to work on farms. Each of the three has been battered by life: Charles, a strapping young man who learned to get by on the violent streets after his father died in WWI and his mother took to the bottle; Patrick, an Irish immigrant orphaned by the Spanish flu epidemic; and Opal, a tiny, mostly silent, little girl taken from an abusive mother. In town after town, these three are picked over and rejected until they’re the only ones left. On their way to the last town on the line, they take desperate action and jump off the train rather than be sent back to New York.

Fate leads them to the Stewarts, a ranch family that is in many ways as scarred as they are. Nara, the unmarried daughter in her 30s, is a capable ranch hand and wants nothing so much as to be Papa’s righthand helper and heir—but he refuses to accept that the family’s only son has left permanently for the life of an artist in New York. And Mama, caretaker of everyone else, still nurses a deep wound inflicted by the death of her oldest daughter as a small child. Although the Stewarts desperately need help around the place, Nara doesn’t trust the children because of rumors about crimes committed by other train riders. Mama takes Opal under her wing, but Nara works the boys hard so they will be too tired to get into mischief. But trouble finds them anyway in the form of prejudice by the community, Children’s Aid Society officials looking for the runaways, and dangerous ghosts from the children’s past lives.

Rostad delivers the setting masterly, evoking the language, scenery, and customs of rural Montana with a deft touch. The story is heartwarming without being saccharine. None of the difficulties are glossed over, and each character’s growth is hard won. I recommend this debut novel highly.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Book Trailer for Katie, Bar the Door

I am so excited to share the trailer for my soon-to-be-published novel. I hope you enjoy it! (If you want to preorder a Kindle copy, go to https://bit.ly/KBtD_preorder. If you want to preorder a paperback, go to https://www.amikapress.com/books/katie-bar-the-door.)

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Sunday Review: Fast Girls by Elise Hooper

Reading this novel during the 2021 summer Olympics added a new layer of insight for me. The furor over Simone Biles’s decision to step away from certain events for the sake of her mental health made me realize that the pressures suffered by Black runner Louise Stokes in 1932 and 1936 haven’t really eased. Although Black female athletes today don’t have to overcome as many obstacles just to compete, they still face more scrutiny and harsher judgment than their male and white counterparts. Louise’s story was very poignant.

The other two athletes who are prominently featured—Betty Robinson and Helen Stephens—each have amazing stories too. Betty was an Olympian in 1928—the first ever gold medalist in the women’s 100m event—but suffered a devastating injury she had to overcome to race again. Helen had personal obstacles to overcome, including an obstructive father. And all three of the athletes and their families were affected by the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Elise Hooper has done us all a great service by shining a light on the early history of women’s track and field. Plus, it’s an engaging novel, well told and perfectly paced—just like a well-run race.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

A Long Odyssey

I have a long, painful, and winding odyssey to share with you. With a happy ending.

Thirty-eight years ago, I wrote a short story about a young woman who was leaving her husband. I felt I didn’t know the characters well enough, so I decided to explore their history. The main character’s name was Katie, and she seized my heart. By the time I was done exploring, I had a manuscript that was 1,187-pages long! (I was teaching myself how to write novels. It was a necessary phase.) I cut it to 750 pages. I cut it again.

Then I tried to get an agent. And pretty consistently, I heard that they liked the writing, liked the characters, didn’t think they could sell the story.

So after sixteen years (!) of living with Katie et al, I put the manuscript away and went on to write other things.

About three years ago, I felt renewed grief over this unrealized dream, so I took out the manuscript and revised it. I sent it to a round of beta readers. Then I revised it again.

On Saturday, September 5, 2020 it went to my publisher. I fully expected that it would take a least a month to hear anything. The answer came after six days. They loved it!

Now, nearly a year later, my novel Katie, Bar the Door is about to be published. It’s coming out on September 22, 2021.

cover of Katie, Bar the Door

SYNOPSIS

From a childhood of parental loss, religious repression, and sexual shaming, Katie Thompson suffers deep wounds and persistent self-doubt. Her desire to find meaning through education and a career is threatened by those who push her to conform to a more traditional path. In her desperate search for love, Katie makes disastrous choices about men, leading her to the brink of self-destruction. Her journey through Katie, Bar the Door is the universal quest for healing and hope as she struggles to save herself and her dreams.

You can preorder the book here.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Sunday Review: Klara and the Sun

It’s interesting to see the world through the eyes of a robot who has to infer so much about the behavior of the human family with which she lives. I found Klara a surprisingly endearing character (more so than most of the humans). Part of her relationship with the sun is obvious, but the deeper part is mysterious and unexplained. At a broader level, I thought the novel had a lot to say about throw-away culture—how this future society (and our own) view humans and technology as disposable because it’s just too much trouble to to find useful roles for those we have “outgrown.” This is a thought provoking book but not a comfortable one.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

Sunday Book Review: Women of the Chateau Lafayette

Stephanie Dray has outdone herself this time. Often when I read multiple timeline books, I have a favorite that I can’t wait to get back to, but with this novel, I was invested in all three stories. The three main characters are each compelling in very different ways. And the time periods! The French Revolution, World War I, and World War II—each full of drama and human tragedy. Highly recommended. https://smile.amazon.com/The-Women-of-Chateau-Lafayette/dp/0593335937/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1627819414&sr=8-1

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Sunday Book Review: A Thousand Ships

This is a fascinating patchwork of chapters recounting the stories of the women named in the epics and myths about the war. It’s not purely chronological. Occasionally, the author flashes back to give an important back story. For instance, Iphigenia came fairly late in the story as did the story of the golden apple disputed by the three goddesses. Some of the stories are very painful, while others show resilience. I love that the women are finally getting their due. https://www.amazon.com/Thousand…/dp/1509836195/ref=nodl_

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Uncategorized