Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Craig Ferguson on Historical Fiction

I love Bohemian Gospel by Dana Shamble Carpenter, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski, and the list goes on and on. I like historical fiction because I get to learn something – the history part – while also filling up on what I need so much from fiction, which is that connection, heart and soul, to another person, place, and time.

But I have to admit that Craig Ferguson, Book of the Month Club’s guest judge for March, does a much better job that I do summing up what is so great about Historical Fiction.  I look forward to reading the book he chose for this month, The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami.

Quiet Dell: Tragedy and Redemption

I loved Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, containing every necessary element for a great book: compelling and fully-developed characters, resonant and alive atmosphere, complex and provoking plot, satisfying and unforgettable resolution, and absolutely beautiful writing. Unknown-1

Phillips takes her time with this novel, allowing layers of the story to grow and deepen and bloom into a fully-realized world of good and bad, hope and despair, past and present, hell and even heaven itself. The characters latched on to me and took hold, as surely as if my hand was being held; I became intimately connected, especially to the children, and when trouble comes, I shook with fear and helplessness – and I became nervous with desire for revenge, and hungry for redemption.

Phillips’ novel is based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who seduced middle aged women he found through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs popular in the early 1900s. In his love letters to his victims, he claimed to be both wealthy and decent, a single man looking to settle down and start a family, and lacking only the proper woman at his side. The women became convinced of his love, gathered their life savings and possessions, and took off with him, never to be seen again. No one knows how many women Powers killed but he was a serial murder who acted out his murderous fantasies for years before being caught.

In telling the story of the murders that finally brought Powers to the attention of the police and landed him in jail and on trial for his life, Phillips is wise enough to go easy on the revenge – she knows there is little solace in its fulfillment – but goes heavy and deep with the redemption, and for this I am grateful. She offers moving and persuasive proof that the only answer to evil is goodness. Goodness in the form of love and connection, and goodness in the form of survival. The warming of another heart, the resilience of joined company, and the promise of another, better day: “The stream meanders, shines with snowmelt; the water, shaken in ripples, warms suddenly, as though some seismic shift deep in the earth moves time forward. The air breathes and the trees stir, tossing their limbs, opening every bud and leaf.”

The promise of spring, of cycles, of rebirth and renewal. Found in a Quiet Dell.

The Brilliance of Ishmael Beah

The novel Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah is a brilliant book, not in terms of innovation or style, but in terms of illumination – and there is no better brilliance for a book, or for an author. In telling the story of the village Imperi and its inhabitants, Beah’s writing illuminates and animates: details of village life, past and present, become clear and vivid; its inhabitants spring into shape (and from the page) body and soul; and the surroundings of the Sierra Leone upcountry do indeed surround: reading his novel made me feel as if I myself was sitting at the feet of the elders, absorbing history and lessons and solace. That kind of storytelling is brilliance, and Ishmael Beah shines. Unknown

Beah utilizes both the lyrical verbal traditions of his country – “God and the gods would wave their hands through the breeze to wipe just a few things off the face of the earth so that it would be able to accommodate the following day” – and the clarity of simple English – “the night that followed, the rooster started crowing at 9:00 p.m. for daybreak” – to tell a story that is at times heartbreaking, and at times inspiring, and at all times, captivating. Beah has no agenda and no grand plan either. He lets his story unfold: a village in Sierra Leone, decimated by war, rebuilds itself through love and determination; then the village is destroyed again, this time by “development” and all the attendance vices of corruption, greed, and dismissal of the past. There are victims and there are villains, but most of all, there are survivors, some by hook or by crook, and some simply by going on.

Without any power in determining the future of the village or of themselves, there would seem to be two choices available to the villagers: resignation to the corruption or joining in with the corruption. But there is a third choice, as Beah has his characters demonstrate: acceptance (so strong and positive that it is more like courage) and optimism that all is not lost, until it is all is over. As one character advises, when a family is near despair, survivors understand that “the world is not ending today, and that you must cheer up if you want to continue living in it.”

What is magical and yet so very simple, and also so incredibly strong about the book is how Beah portrays the optimism of his people. Hope is not based on undefined “things will be better tomorrow” delusions (because they probably won’t be) but on the firm belief that comfort and even happiness can be found in the here and now: “this wasn’t the place for illusions; the reality here was the genuine happiness that came about from the natural magic of standing next to someone and being consumed by the fortitude of his or her humanity.” How basic is that? And yet how very wise: wisdom not only for the villagers to live by, but for all of us.

The villagers do want to continue living in the world, even if living in their village is no longer possible. Without any rights or property, expectations or certainties, the villagers still exult in what they do have: the promise that “miracles happen every day” – the miracles of human relationships, the highs of real conversation and connection, and the guidance of stories, passed down through generations, stories that re-root and then re-apply to each new phase of life: “We must live in the radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales. For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness.”

Ishmael Beah offers his own tales, stories of incredible resilience – living in the radiance of tomorrow – in his wrenching memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and now in this beautiful novel, Radiance of Tomorrow. I look forward to the possibilities of many more such tales from Beah, and hold tightly to hope for all the very real people who have inspired his brilliance.

Forgotten Books, Recovered Treasure

Pacing through the website of Forgotten Books, an online library with hundreds of thousands of titles, is like walking through the aisles of a favorite bookstore. I “open” one book, skim through, and alight upon certain lines that make my decision for me (yes, I want to read this book!) and that decision leads me to another turn down another aisle, and then another, and another, choosing and perusing books all along the way. Just like in a real and wonderful bookstore, Forgotten Books provides the adventure of opening doors (books! books!) that lead to greater and greater adventure, and more discoveries – and more books. If ever there were a source for fulfilling a bibliophile’s wildest desires, short of actually having feet planted in the world’s largest bookstore and hands reaching for volume after volume, Forgotten Books is it. It is the largest online library in the world, and offers free access to much of its website (and access to all of it at reasonable prices).

I went online to Forgotten Books in search of interesting letters – I am addicted to letters, as well as books – and a one-word search for “letters” led me within seconds to such interesting books as Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott, first published in 1830, and then onto Letters to My Son, written by William Gibson and published in 1917, and then, leaving letters behind I plunged into The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries, by Hargrave Jennings, first published in 1907 and finally, to Travels in the Old World, by the Reverend J.M. Rowl, a marvel published in 1922.

Are you kidding me? Am I in heaven? Book heaven? I had sat down to my computer and my searching with a headache, head cold, and a fever. I rose up light as air and floating on sunshine. Okay, by bedtime I was back in a feverish state, shivering under blankets and hot water bottles, but at least I had plenty of reading material to keep me company. I had my downloaded forgotten but now recovere books, all of them found during my online treasure hunt. Was I looking for the Reverend Rowl? No, of course not. But how lucky I was to find him.

Not only can out of print and hard to find books be found on Forgotten Books, but images taken from many such books can also be viewed in their original state, with some 4 million images extracted from old books and available for viewing on the site. I searched for images of Wilkie Collins, and was thrilled to find his sweet old face, over and over, along with the designs imprinted on many of his first books. Searching doesn’t stop there, with images, but goes even further. There is the ability to chart the usage of every English language word throughout publishing history or to search for words or terms in the entire online selection. I could find 500,000 books related to a search term, 500,000 books – and each and every one of them available to me!

I am a stalwart fan of the printed page and I’d rather be in a bricks and mortar bookstore than just about any place on earth but this adventure – of reading books long out of print and difficult, if not impossible, to find – provides at-home access for finding books I never even knew existed. Online resources have their place – a wonderful, happy place – for fixing the addictions of book lovers everywhere. No matter where I am, or what time it is, or what state I am in (pajamas and slippers, Kleenex blotting my nose), Forgotten Books and its brethren provide a constant and beautiful feed to my need for books, all kinds and sorts of books. Addicted to books? Forgotten Books, and other online treasuries of long-gone books, will expand your universe and fulfill at least some of your desires.

Shining Light on a Dark History

Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski is a great book, a stunning debut novel that shimmers with unforgettable characters while casting necessary light on a dark chapter in American history. Drawn to the social and political history of coal mining in southwestern Pennsylvania because of her personal connection (her grandparents were immigrant miners), Szczepanski focuses on the lives of the mothers, daughters, and wives of coal miners. Telling their stories, she illuminates the terrible burdens forced on coal mining families and the immense spirit required to endure, much less thrive, in such an environment.

I quickly found myself immersed in Playing St. Barbara, caught up in the lives of the Sweeney family: coal miner Fin, his wife Clare, and their three daughters, Deidre, Katie, and Mary Clare. The girls must find their way out of the abusive rituals exercised by their miserable father, who fights for the rights of his fellow workers but in suffering defeat after defeat, takes his frustrations out by beating on the members of his family. The girls’ individual stories of survival, along with the story of their mother, mesh to create a mesmerizing and unforgettable exploration of family, community, and responsibility, set amidst the grim history of coke mining in Pennsylvania.

In the mining towns of southwestern Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century, might made right. The H.C. Frick Coke Company relied, again and again, upon the police force to help them maintain a choking grip on their miners. When the police were not effective in breaking strikes (and backs), the Klu Klux Klan was enlisted to carry out night time raids terrifying enough to be effective: worn down miners just could not fight back. For Fin Sweeney, the only fight he can win is the one he wages daily against his own family. His wife bears the brunt of his anger but the daughters come in for their share. Each girl, in her own way, will find her way out of the town and away from the family, using the patron saint of miners, St. Barbara, as a kind of guide. Sometimes the saint is an inspiration and sometimes she is the last straw: for who can believe in a dead saint when it takes the courage of living to finally break free?

Marian Szczepanski made a believer out of me – I believe in the possibility of light and grace, even in the darkest of times, and I am more enthralled than ever by the powerful stories of women, sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.

Shelley’s Monsters

Mary Shelley wrote the most famous monster story of all time, Frankenstein.  Or did she really? That question is just one of the literary mysteries explored by Lynn Shepherd in her mesmerizing novel, A Fatal Likeness. Was Percy Bysshe Shelley insane or cruelly narcissistic or simply misunderstood? Were his poems reflective of reality or rooted entirely in his wild and torturing (to say nothing of tortured) imagination?  Did Shelley sire the child of his step-sister-in-law Claire Clairmont, or was it Lord Byron, as the Shelley clan always claimed? And in what is a most tantalizing tangent for me (lover of letters that I am), do the surviving letters of Percy, Mary, and Claire tell the truth – or merely hint at what were dark and deep secrets for the twisted trio of lovers?  

The novel begins with the daughter-in-law of the Shelleys, Jane Gibson, desperately trying to track down papers that might besmirch the image of Percy Bysshe Shelley which Jane has spent years burnishing and promoting.  She hires a young investigator, Charles Maddox, to hunt down the papers she fears.  It quickly becomes apparent that what Jane is after is quite something else, and that Maddox is quite something more than she expected. Maddox, heir to an uncle famous both for his investigations and his honor, intently hunts down the papers but finds much, much more than mere scraps of information.  What he does with what he finds will set off a storm of released memories demanding attention, unanswered injustices clamoring for redress, and family secrets (and not only the Shelleys’) screaming to be unveiled, after being hidden in darkness for so long.

The monster within us, the monster in the mirror, the monster in the past: monsters are everywhere, and suddenly Frankenstein seems almost prophetic.  But will the ending — destroy the monster! – be the necessary remedy?  To be familiar with the novel Frankenstein, the history of the Shelleys, and the poetry of Shelley might help with unraveling the complicated plot of this amazing book but Shepherd does not assume any such prior knowledge on the part of her readers.  She offers a very helpful chart of who was related to whom, and how, and in her final notes she delineates what is based on historical fact in her novel (most of it) and what comes from her own fecund and clever imagination.

Shepherd invents just enough to tie all the open questions, undeniable facts, and potent possibilities together in a wholly believable and chilling story of love, deceit, heartbreak, revenge, and loss.  She also manages to conjure up England in the 1800s, along with a cast of characters so richly developed I could see each and every one of them before me as I read, while also incorporating the poetry of Shelley into her text, both in hidden ways and in direct quotations (and in letters!).  She’s inspired in me a whole new appreciation for Shelley, and a renewed desire to read his works, and Frankenstein, all over again. That Shepherd also used letters as clues to a most horrible crime (and the chief instigator to more than one death) sealed the deal for me: Shepherd is a marvel, and A Fatal Likeness is a must-read.




Summer Reading: An Update


My mother is re-reading Barbara Pym this summer! Great books…

Good Novels I’ve read so far this summer:

I just finished The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, coming out this fall in English from Gallic books. I loved this book for its quirky story, its embracing humanism, its clever reenactment of the 1980s with all those ’80s icons of art and politics, and its wonderful characters. Even Francois Mitterand plays a role, and he plays it beautifully.  A lovely and unforgettable book which made me want to go back to Paris and Venice; eat a platter of sea food with a good bottle of white wine; seek out the paintings of Basquiat; douse myself with perfume; and reconnect with the world, all over again.

Fever by Mary Beth Keane, tells the story of Typhoid Mary, putting a very human face on the somewhat terrifying figure of the cook who killed through spreading disease in food – did she know what she was doing? No, she was just doing the best she could, in world she found herself in. Irish immigrant, woman alone, skilled in cooking, tempered to stand up for herself. Did they blame her “because she was opinionated, and Irish, and unmarried,and didn’t bow to them”? When poor Mary must face the truth, it breaks her, and our, hearts. A wonderful book.

The Comedians by Graham Greene, set in early 1950s Haiti; heartbreaking but also at times very funny. Unforgettable characters and a depiction of Haiti that rings terribly true, still today.

So Big by Edna Ferber, which was so great (and a must-read for all Midwesterners like me) that I’ve set out a plan to read all of Ferber’s novels.  American Beauty is next on my list.

The Good House by Anne Leary, an engaging read and an acute depiction of alcoholism, the vagaries of real estate, and the bumpy path of love.

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. I especially loved the first section but all the stories that make up this novel weave together to create a message as forceful as that found in McCann’sLet the Great World Spin: the beautiful mysteries of the universe (the greatest being love) are greater than all our human failures, foibles, and fantasies.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, another book that was built out of different stories (I especially loved all the sections about the relationship between Uncle Nabi and Mr. Suleiman Wahdati), woven together by a master story-teller with a message for all of us: we are all connected through the stories we tell, and even the ones we keep hidden but not destroyed, so that someday the lines can be picked up again, and the connections drawn tight.

I’ve read three great mysteries this summer, all set in wildly different arenas but each one a page turner.

Powder Burn by Mark Chisnell.  Chisnell is a favorite of mine and Powder Burn delivers his usual well-researched, fascinating, and fast-packed thriller novel. The book had me guessing until the last pages, and I couldn’t stop reading!  The end was satisfying but also left me wondering: how long do I have to wait for the next Chisnell?

A Place of Confinement by Anna Dean.  Set in England in the early 1800s, A Place of Confinement demonstrates that human curiosity and human greed co-exist in all locations, times, and social milieus.  The fourth installment in the wonderful Dido Kent series, A Place of Confinement is a must read for Jane Austen lovers and mystery lovers. You know who you are!

A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate by Susanna Calkins.  This mystery took me further back in time, to 1600s London.  Filled with fascinating historical detail, this debut mystery is a great read.  I look forward to reading more from Calkins, and more about Lucy Campioin.



Time for Summer Reading

Time to read. Summer means many things — long days, hot weather, kids freed from homework, swimming pools and cool lakes and days at the seashore. Crickets (no locusts for us), fireflies, a rabbit in our front yard. Dinners cooked on the grill, lunches eaten in the yard, making homemade ice cream for dessert. Bike rides and kayak trips and maybe a baseball game.

And time to read. I have good work to do this summer (preparing my book on Letters, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, for its publication next spring and finishing up my book on poets) and housework (it never goes away, does it?) and I want to enjoy every moment I have with my kids. But I also want to read every day this summer for at least an hour a day. I spent a wonderful year reading hours a day, the year I read a book a day, but this summer, setting aside a full hour for reading is the commitment I can make. Days when I can read more, great! But every day I will make the space and find the place to read an hour a day.

I plan on reading some new books – Transatlantic, the new novel by Colum McCann, for sure — and I plan on rereading Brideshead Revisited, The Leopard, and a number of novels by Graham Greene. I will certainly read some mysteries and I know that my monthly book chats at Westport Public Library will inspire me with recommended books to read.

SO wish me luck, fellow book lovers, and I send the wishes back to you. May you find the time and discover all the joys of summer reading! I’ll be reporting back on great stuff I’ve read, and please let me know what’s been good for you. Read on!

Historical Fiction, Then and Now

I love historical fiction.  A writer takes what is known about a place in time or a character from the past, and then transports the reader further and deeper into what are the blood and guts of the past.  And I mean blood and guts: people and moments in time are brought back to life, bumps, lumps, warts and all.  And, of course, heart and soul.  Any great novel has to have heart and soul.  When a novel of historical fiction succeeds, history becomes as real as what we see out our window, or read in our newspapers, or experience on the street, every living day. We are offered insights into the past that not only deepen our understanding of history, but also of ourselves, the present time, and the promises (or threats) of the future. History does not repeat itself, not entirely, but great historical fiction allows us to repeat history, and what we gain from our time travel can be profound and lasting.

I am not talking about simple approaches to famous figures from the past, like Jennifer Chiaverini’s one-dimensional presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.  I am talking about vivid, complicated, and even disturbing portraits of real life characters, such as found in Peggy Horan’s Loving Frank Loving Frank rendered Mamah Borthwick Cheney in such exquisite detail of internal substance that her awful death hits us almost as hard as it hit Frank Lloyd Wright (and, of course, poor Edwin Cheney); we anguish over the risks, financial, social and familial, taken by Mamah in loving a man not her husband, and mourn the awful price she, and everyone around her, had to pay.

But even more, through Loving Frank, we understand, in a whole new way, the patterns of a paternalistic society that controlled and confined women, and we appreciate the advances forged over the past eighty years to ensure women’s ability to decide for themselves in matters of career, marriage, and divorce.

Searching for a deeper presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, I turned to Tazewell Thompson’s play, Mary T. and Lizzie K., which offers multi-dimensional characters who debate and discuss the nature of friendship, loyalty, and identity.  Thompson creates a rich portrait of the two women and also a profound exploration of what it means to be alive in times that perplex, confuse, and provoke; in other words, in the times we are living now.  When Mary Todd laments the soldiers coming back from Civil War, maimed by the experience of killing and fear of being killed, and confused over why the war was fought in the first place, we understand the trauma borne by today’s veterans. And when she damns the man who invented the first slingshot, we join in her curse and feel stronger in the cause to end wars — for what better way to get a grip on the present madness than by understanding a sliver from the past?  And what better way to do that than through the might of great historical fiction.

I am excited to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and look forward to the insights Therese Anne Fowler offers not only into Zelda’s character but also into the complicated relationship she had with her husband. Zelda has been an object of fascination for me since I was sixteen-years old and first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  I wondered then, and I wonder now, what Zelda’s life might have been under different, less demanding circumstances – how much was her mental illness caused by being married to Fitzgerald, and how much of it was inevitable? Tender is the Night is a kind of historical fiction; after all, Fitzgerald based much of the novel, both its plot and its characters, on himself and Zelda, and the complications and sorrows and joys of their years of courtship and marriage. Tender is the Night is both fiction, and a history, but it was a contemporary history of his own reality. Does that count as historical fiction today?

I wonder if Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then, a novel of fiction based on her present day reality, will lead, in some way, to a novel written forty years from now about the relationship between this writer from the islands and her husband from the Northeast establishment, who meet, fall in love, and fall out again.  Kincaid claims her novel is a work of fiction but she draws deeply from her very real life marriage to Allen Shawn and the life they built together in Bennington, Vermont, which was torn apart by Shawn’s leaving Kincaid for another woman.  See Now Then is, like Tender is the Night was, a kind of historical fiction written in the present.

I read many mysteries set in the past, including the works of Anne Perry, Stephanie Pintoff, and Caleb Carr.  I also read mysteries set in those same time periods (late 1800s and early 1900s) that were actually written in those time periods, including the delightful Father Brown mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton and the classic whodunits penned by Burton Egbert Stevenson, such as The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet.

Those mysteries were written as contemporary fiction but have become historical fiction.  Another favorite collection of mine, the Travis McGee series written by John D. Macdonald, is set in the 1960s and ’70s, and I first read them in the late 1970s.  Rereading them now, the behavior of the characters, and their surroundings — including a southern Florida just starting to be developed — are dated and fascinating, and thought-provoking: where have the past four decades brought us?   In other words, the works of MacDonald have  begun to seem historical….Who knows what the future will bring?

The Round House: Truth and Legend

The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a stunning exploration of the laceration of pain, the deep bruising and scarring caused by violation. In The Round House, the violation is of a woman and mother: told from the point of view of the son, the impact of the assault and its aftermath on the family is heartbreaking. The Round House is also about the embedded history of violation that is the legacy of the community in which the family lives, and of the Native American experience. Taking, violating, degrading: these verbs apply to the boy’s mother, but also to all of his relations and friends and ancestors. There is a legacy of abuses on display in The Round House and a panoply of pain. But there is also an abundance of love, humor, and affirmation.

The situation of the family following the assault, and the circumstances that led to the assault in the first place, raises the fundamental question of justice. Erdrich explores the question on many levels: the legal question of jurisdiction when a crime occurs on Tribal Land; the moral question of who must act when the law won’t; the Native American question of “Windigo”, the justified response to hostile intentions or evil actions; and the gut-wrenching question of who bears responsibility for protecting love, peace, and security.

Is justice possible? Or is only endurance possible? And if endurance is untenable, what then? Erdrich asks all of these questions and answers them, not easily or prettily or neatly, and not with any finality. But she does answer them with portraits, rich and deep and unforgettable, of characters, landscapes, legends, and histories. The Round House is Erdrich as her very best, a masterful story teller who makes us question our beliefs (what we think is true about justice, government, faith, family) and confirm our choices (this is how legends are made): creation over destruction, love over hate, and endurance over all.