Tag Archives: Historical fiction

Sunday Review: Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning

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. 

Highly recommended.

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Sunday Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have mixed feelings about this novel. On the one hand, I recognize its brilliance. On the other, I developed no emotional connection to it or to the characters.

The plot is deceptively simple. The narrator, Stevens, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades. Most of that time, he served Lord Darlington; now in the mid-1950s, he works for an American and has a tiny staff compared to the house’s past glory days.

Stevens is the son of a butler and has given years of thought to what constitutes a “great” butler; he concludes that what defines a butler at the top of his profession is not a polished manner or administrative tricks to ease the running of a great house. No, the important quality is dignity: the ability to serve with efficiency, aplomb, and a reserved demeanor even in a crisis and, above all, never reveal when one is dealing with personal difficulties of a physical or emotional nature.

The novel opens in 1956 with Stevens’s current employer offering to let him take time off for a brief vacation: a road trip through the West Country of England. Stevens hesitates at first—he is not accustomed to taking a holiday or indeed doing anything for his own pleasure—but then he justifies the excursion by deciding to visit a former housekeeper with whom he worked for many years. Lately certain inefficiencies and mistakes have crept into the running of the house, and Stevens has decided that augmenting the staff is the answer to the problem. The former housekeeper’s correspondence has led him to think that she is unhappy in her marriage and perhaps has brought it to an end. Therefore, he convinces himself that she would welcome an invitation to resume her old position, and satisfied by that rationalization, he sets off on his trip.

During the several days of motoring, Stevens reviews his past career. In this novel, Ishiguro uses a similar device as in the recent Klara and the Sun: an unreliable and somewhat clueless narrator. Slowly over the course of Stevens’s reminiscences, the reader becomes aware that the true story of the events he recalls, the character of his former employer, and Stevens’s relationship with the housekeeper are somewhat different than Stevens has permitted himself to admit. The message of this story can be found only by reading between the lines.

Which brings me to my ambivalence. I’m not the type of reader who is satisfied by wholly cerebral books. For me, reading should be more than an intellectual exercise. To love a book deeply, I must love the characters. I don’t mind if they are flawed. I do mind if I find them inaccessible. Throughout this novel, I always felt removed from Stevens. And for that reason alone, I consider it a 4-star rather than a 5-star read.

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Sunday Review: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

I really enjoy well-written Indian novels. The country is so vast with an ancient history and a wide diversity of regions and peoples. A few years ago, I read and loved Alka Joshi’s first novel, The Henna Artist, the story of Lakshmi, a determined woman who fled a bad marriage and found a way to use her knowledge of herbal remedies and the art of henna painting to support herself, a servant boy named Malik, and the sister who showed up unexpectedly on her doorstep. (The premise grabbed my interest right away because when I was in my late twenties, I attended the wedding of a beloved Afghan friend and got to experience having my hand painted with henna before the ceremony.)

This week, I read The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, which is a sequel to the first novel. Set 12 years after The Henna Artist, it focuses on Lakshmi and most especially Malik. The novel grabs the reader’s attention right away; 20-year-old Malik is in Jaipur learning the construction business from the renowned Singh-Sharma Construction Company, which has been building a world-class cinema for the Maharani Latika of Jaipur. At the grand opening, a disaster occurs when the balcony collapses, killing several people.

The novel then backtracks two months to allow readers both to catch their breath and to catch up with what’s happened to Malik, Lakshmi, and her sister Radha in the intervening years. Malik is now in love with a young woman who is every bit as strong, self-sufficient, and determined as Lakshmi. She’s also a recent widow who comes from a tribe of nomadic hill people, and she has two young children. Lakshmi is not at all sure this is the right partner for her protegé.

Then there is the mystery of why the building collapses. Inquisitive, streetwise Malik is the only person who doubts the official explanation, and he may be the only one who can save family friend Manu Agarwal from unjustly taking the blame for shoddy workmanship.

I recommend the book highly, as I do its prequel. It isn’t absolutely necessary to read the two in order, although the second book does contain some spoilers for the first. (P.S. Isn’t the cover absolutely gorgeous?)

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Teenage Boys, 1940s

While doing research for my current work-in-progress, I wanted to find vintage photos of teenage boys in the 1945s. Fortunately for me, Life magazine published a photoessay on teen boys in 1945. Fast forward to the 1.54 mark of the this video.

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Sunday Review: Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati

This novel is the sequel to the 2015 novel The Gilded Hour, which I also enjoyed.

Where the Light Enters takes place in New York in 1884, and through it, the reader gets to glimpse both those who are comfortably well off and those who are struggling just to survive. As in the previous novel, the two main characters are Doctors Anna and Sophie Savard. Anna is a surgeon. Sophie is a double rarity—not only a female physician, but also a multiracial one—which causes her to experience double-pronged discrimination. 

Anna and Sophie are cousins, but because both were orphaned as children, they were raised together by an aunt and are as close as (or possibly closer than) sisters. The story opens at a particularly difficult time for Sophie; she is returning from Europe, where her husband went to be treated for tuberculosis—without success. Now, as a widow who has inherited a substantial estate, she must decide whether to return to her medical practice and how else to carry on with her life when all she wants to do is grieve the man she has loved since they were children.

In the previous book, the two doctors—and their midwife aunt—came under the scrutiny of Anthony Comstock because of his crusade against the propagation of knowledge about birth control. Comstock appears in this novel as well, falsely accusing one of the cousins of urging a patient to have “an illegal operation,” i.e. an abortion.

Anna is married to Detective-Sergeant Jack Mezzanotte, whose large Italian family plays an important role in both books. Shortly after their marriage, Anna and Jack take in three Italian immigrant orphans, but the Church objects to the children being raised by people who aren’t “good Catholics.” The fate of the three Russo children is a thread that continues into Where the Light Enters.

Jack’s work as a police detective is another thread that ties both books together. In the first novel, he and his partner Oscar try to solve a series of six grisly murders that were apparently intended to punish women for seeking an abortion. The investigation of those cases continues into the second novel and grows more urgent when new cases arise that appear to be related to the earlier murders.

For me, the characters are what make this book an unforgettable experience. I loved Anna, Jack, Sophie, and Rosa especially, but all of the main and secondary characters are vividly drawn. The author does an adequate job filling the reader in on the essentials from the earlier story, so it’s not necessary to read the two novels in sequence, but I recommend doing so.

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The Railway Express Agency

Photo Credit: Michael Rivera

When I was a teenager, every summer we would go to a picnic hosted by the company my mother worked for. One of the features of the event was a watermelon-weight-guessing contest, and it was because of this game that I learned about a peculiar skill of my father’s.

Anyone who wanted to play would pick up the designated watermelon and guess its weight. I clearly recall the first time it happened. Dad walked up to the watermelon, picked it up, moved it up and down a few times, and said, “Twenty-seven and a quarter pounds.” People laughed at how precise his number was. After everyone had a turn, my mom’s boss revealed the melon’s weight. It was exactly 27.25 pounds. Dad’s on-the-noses guesses happened several years in a row.

You see, in the decades before UPS became a nationwide shipping service, the United States had the Railway Express Agency, and sometime in the years before I was born, my father worked for them. So he handled a lot of packages in his day and learned to judge their weight with uncanny accuracy.

My parents, decades after Dad worked for Railway Express, but still enjoying watermelon!

The agency was founded as the American Railway Express Agency in 1918, soon became American Railway Express Inc, and for most of its existence (1929–1960), operated under the name Railway Express Agency.

The agency shipped packages all across the United States by way of special railcars attached to passenger trains and by trucks to the nearest train depot from towns that weren’t on the railroad. After World War II ended, a coal shortage hit the nation, forcing the railroads to cut back on passenger service. That made the agency’s job of routing shipments more complicated because Railway Express didn’t have trains of its own.

The shipping agency faced other difficulties during the postwar years. Toward the end of the war, the federal government authorized the creation of a system of interstate highways, which would make truck shipments more feasible than before. Also, during the postwar boom, more families bought automobiles, and family road trips became increasingly popular. This caused a further decline in rail travel.

To keep its indispensable place in the nation’s economy, the agency acquired a fleet of refrigerated rail cars, known as reefers, for express shipments of perishable goods. That strategy bought the agency only a short-lived reprieve, however. Shipping by truck increased, and UPS began to ship by air. Railway Express failed to keep up, and in 1975, the agency (by then called REA Express, Inc.) terminated operations.

Because of the family history, in the new novel I’m writing, I’ve decided to have the father of my main character work as a package handler for good old Railway Express. The novel is set in the 1940s and 1950s, the last glory days of a bygone American institution.

Photo Credit: Rian Castillo

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Sunday Review: The Paris Hours by Alex George

This literary novel, set in Paris during a single day in 1927, entranced me with its beauty and its intricate interweaving of four stories.

Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust during the last years of his life, has two deep secrets, one of them a serious betrayal. Her husband, jealous that she still honors the memory of the great writer, takes something of hers and sells it, unaware that by doing so he may destroy their lives. Desperately, Camille seeks to find what was taken before it’s too late.

Souren is an Armenian refugee who made his way to Paris after escaping the genocide that destroyed his entire family. There, haunted by survivor’s guilt, he entertains children in the Luxembourg Garden by performing puppet shows in a language they cannot understand but which portray events so raw and vivid that somehow the audience comprehends the stories intuitively.

Guillaume is an artist who has yet to win fame or fortune and who is in debt to a terrifying criminal. He dreams of attracting an influential collector—and of reuniting with a lost love and the child she bore.

Jean-Paul is a journalist haunted by the terrible loss he endured during the Great War. He spends his days telling other people’s stories and his nights dreaming of finding the one person who would make his life whole again.

As the novel switches back and forth among the lives of these four characters, we gradually learn their secrets and also the threads that link them without any of them suspecting it. As the day wears on, each attempts to find what was lost and, in the process, they unknowingly draw closer together. The climax of the novel brings all four of them to the same cabaret, where their lives collide in shocking ways.

Appropriately for such a glamorous period in history of Paris, the novel is also populated with brief and not-so-brief appearances of famous people: Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Maurice Ravel, Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach. They add glamour to an already stunning story of humanity at its most poignant.

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Bringing Home the WWII Dead

After the end of World War II, the first shipment of the remains of U.S. military dead arrived in the United States in October 1947. Congress had authorized the U.S. Army to spend $200 million bringing back the dead of all the armed forces as well as civilian federal employees. As I mentioned last week, families had the option of having their loved ones buried in cemeteries overseas, which is also where those remains that could not be identified were buried (except for one that was returned to be buried in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington). The majority of families, however, wanted their loved ones brought home.

The army stationed people at military terminals located in two U.S. ports—Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York—to coordinate the unloading of the ships and the routing of remains by rail to fifteen distribution centers across the country. The army used its own fleet of mortuary cars, converted primarily from wartime hospital cars.

The military made every effort to treat the fallen with dignity. The remains of soldiers, sailors, and marines were not listed or handled as cargo; they were considered passengers. Military guards, who were recruited from regular troops, accompanied every train.

Once the remains reached the intended distribution center, they either went by hearse to the final location, if it was close enough, or on a passenger train, following the same procedures that railroads used for normal shipments of human remains.

Each of the dead had a military escort, who would be from the same service branch and of the same rank, sex, and race as the deceased. These escorts were not the same personnel as the troops who worked as train guards. The escorts were the only members of the military to interact personally with the loved ones of the fallen, so they went through five weeks of training on what to expect, how to answer questions, and what emotional and psychological reactions they might encounter. Some of their duties included:

  • Making sure no caskets were lost
  • Ensuring that railroad personnel handled the caskets with dignity
  • Verifying locations and identities
  • Seeing that the caskets were draped with flags whenever they were in public view
  • Carrying a new flag for the funeral, blank ammunition rounds for graveside salutes, and reimbursement forms for the funeral expenses

By the time the army had finished repatriating all of the World War II dead, remains of personnel fallen during the Korean War had begun to arrive in Oakland, thus extending the program a few more years.

Source: Murrie, James I. and Naomi Jeffery Petersen. (February 2018). Last Train Home. History Net. Accessed November 17, 2021 from https://www.historynet.com/last-train-home.htm

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Sunday Review: The Library of Light and Shadow by M.J. Rose

NOTE: This got lost in my drafts folder, so this week, there are two reviews.

Because today is Halloween, I’m reviewing a book about magic, witchcraft, and love.

Descendant of a witch named La Lune, Delphine Duplessi has an unsetting talent of her own. While wearing a blindfold, she is able to draw portraits of her subjects that reveal their deeply hidden secrets. She supports herself in New York by creating such portraits as a party trick, only to have one such exhibition uncover a betrayal that leads to tragedy.

Horrified and consumed by guilt, Delphine returns to her home in the south of France and vows never to do another “shadow portrait,” as she refers to her blindfold creations. But France is no safe haven for Delphine. The reason she was in New York in the first place was that she fled Paris in terror because one of her visions revealed that she was going to cause the death of Mathieu, her one true love.

Recuperating from the New York incident in the house of her mother, also an artist and witch, Delphine rereads the journal she kept during her relationship with Mathieu and tries to fend off the pressure exerted by her twin brother and business manager, Sebastian, to return to doing shadow portraits. Eventually, she discovers that he too is in danger and reluctantly agrees to help him by creating shadow portraits, not of a person, but of a chateau where an ancient alchemical work called Book of Abraham is said to be hidden. The Duplessis’ client is Emma Calvé, a famous and charismatic opera singer who has searched for the work for years.

The novel is atmospheric and contains vivid descriptions. The post-World War I time period felt fresh and was perfect for the story. I found Delphine to be sympathetic and well developed.  The other main characters—Mathieu, Sebastian, Sandrine (the twins’ mother), Emma, and the enigmatic caretaker of Emma’s estate—are all complex and interesting.

As for the story’s premise, the idea of shadow portraits is both intriguing and disturbing. The mystery of the Book of Abraham has a surprising resolution.

However, I didn’t have unqualified enthusiasm for the novel. As much as I rooted for Mathieu and Delphine’s love, the flashbacks to their previous relationship began to lose my interest after a while. And the plot hinges on the interpretations of two pieces of ambiguous information that I was able to figure out very early. Overall, I would say this is a solid four-star effort. Note that this is the third in a series. I haven’t read the other two, but if you decide to read this and care about such things, the first installment is The Witch of Painted Sorrows.

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Sunday Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Imagine if you will that an author who wrote a highly successful novel about a man trapped for decades in a hotel himself develops claustrophobia and decides the only cure is to write about a wild road trip. I honestly don’t know if that was Amor Towles’s motivation for his newest novel, but its premise is about as different from that of A Gentleman in Moscow as it could possibly be.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles braids together several related archetypes of literature: a coming-of-age story, a hero’s quest, and a picaresque tale of rogues. As the title indicates, each of these involves a journey, although not the journey that the protagonist originally envisions.

Emmett Watson is a Nebraska teenager, abandoned by his mother as a young boy, raised by a father who left the life of a Boston Brahmin to try his luck as a farmer on the Great Plains. But he turns out to be hopeless at it, making one bad decision after another. As a result, Emmett decides early on to pursue a different path, so he chooses to work for a carpenter to learn a more reliable way to provide for himself. He seems to be succeeding, earning enough to buy his own car, when a rash action changes his life. A taunting by the town bully in the presence of his little brother leads Emmett to throw a punch that inadvertently causes the other boy’s death. He believes in facing the consequences of his actions and stoically accepts an eighteen-month sentence to a juvenile work farm in Kansas.

Fifteen months later, Emmett is released early because his father has died and his eight-year-old brother Billy needs him. Returning home, Emmett learns that the bank has foreclosed on the farm—and that, even if he could return to his old life, the family of the boy he killed has no intention of letting him do so. Emmett had already decided to relocate to Texas, a state with a booming economy and population, where a carpenter’s skills will never go out of demand. His brother, however, has a different plan. After their father’s death, Billy unearthed a hidden stash of postcards sent by their mother on her runaway journey along the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. He urges Emmett that they should follow her path and try to find her. Young Billy is idealistic, his imagination fired by a book called Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers. Emmett is skeptical but loathe to disappoint his brother, and when he discovers that California’s population is growing even faster than that of Texas, he reluctantly agrees.

The two boys make preparations to leave in Emmett’s sky blue Studebaker. Little do they know that two other boys from the work farm stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car when he drove Emmett home from Kansas. Duchess and Woolly present themselves the morning of the Watsons’ intended departure and insist that Emmett instead drive them to a hunting lodge in upstate New York that belongs to Woolly’s wealthy family to collect Woolly’s $150,000 trust fund, stored in the safe there. Woolly promises to split the money three ways, sharing with Emmett and Duchess equally. And Billy, captivated by the romantic idea of driving the Lincoln Highway from its beginning in New York to its end in California, adds his voice to the chorus.

What follows is a sequence of adventures, accidents, betrayals, and encounters both dangerous and poignant. The story is packed with enough twists and turns to make the reader wonder if Emmett and Billy will ever get back on their intended road. Most of it is highly enjoyable, although I confess to not much liking the ending. But what really sets this novel apart is the voices. Emmett, Billy, their neighbor Sally, Duchess, Woolly, and a few characters they meet along the way each get point-of-view characters, and each is utterly distinct and vivid. Their voices will linger with you long after the reading experience is over.

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