Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

2009. Berkley. Paperback. 534 pages.

From: borrowed from co-worker who was borrowing from her sister

In a nutshell:

In case you do not know the plot of this omnipresent book, it is the story of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny are two black women who work as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the year 1962. They are good friends, despite differences in age, personality and family situation. Skeeter (whose real first name is Eugenia) is a young white woman come home to Jackson, looking to become a writer. Sparked by the mysterious disappearance of her family’s maid Constantine, Skeeter tries to enlist Aibileen and other maids to tell their stories to her, which she hopes to make into a book. The book’s narrative is told from the first person perspectives of all three women in turn.

Backstory and brief thoughts:

I went into The Help with a skepticism fueled by its wild popularity and by its status as the current queen of book club books. I have not had success with book club favorites in the past; Water for Elephants, The Secret Life of Bees, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter were all flops for me.

My co-worker Kim asked me earlier this year if I had read The Help. I had not. We discovered that we shared a mutual wariness about the book. For a book that neither of us had read, we talked about it quite a bit over the course of some weeks. The film was just about to come out, and we talked about the articles that we had read about The Help (book and film). I won’t deny that we particularly took notice of the ones that confirmed that the story wasn’t awesome as the hype would have us believe.

Finally, one day, Kim said to me, “look what I have” and held up a copy of The Help that her sister had lent her. Co-worker Jen meanwhile had borrowed the audiobook from the library and was listening to it on her commute. When Kim was partway through it, she said, a little guiltily, “Would it be bad if I liked the book?” Jen and I assured her that it would be okay.

After Kim was done, it was my turn. After her reaction, I wasn’t surprised to find that it is a likable book. I know some readers don’t like books in dialect, but that isn’t something that’s come up for me before, so it wasn’t an issue. I was more concerned that it was going to be pandering, or that its approach to race relations would involve Skeeter as a white savior character. But actually Skeeter has her own prejudices and ignorance to overcome. And there is one scene where she offers to pull some family influence to help in a maid’s crisis, but is told (not meanly) that won’t be necessary.

Aibileen’s perpetual dilemma of raising white children who grow up to despise her for the color of her skin was perhaps the most compelling storyline for me. I liked the way that storyline highlighted the incredible way in which people can be so intertwined in each others’ lives and yet one side still insists on ridiculous, senseless boundaries.

The book has been reviewed so thoroughly that I don’t feel driven to discuss the novel in great depth. I just thought I’d share the story of how this holdout finally gave in and enjoyed The Help. If you have any questions about what I thought about specific aspects, ask away in the comments.

Excerpts from other reviews:

The Reading Ape – “Reading about racism in the South during the Civil Rights Movement feels almost like a moral holiday, a reprieve from the complexity and intransigence of contemporary racism. Thus, the frustration of The Help is that while it is very readable and rich, it is, for a book about racism, unbelievably safe.”

Rebecca Reads – “I felt drawn in to the setting; it was like I was in Jackson, Mississippi. I liked that, and as my story above attests, I couldn’t stop reading this book once I started. I wanted to know how it all worked out . . .”

write meg! – “An important novel that tackles Major Issues that still manages to be entertaining, lively, affecting and unbelievably moving? It’s a rare find, friends, and it gets my absolute highest recommendation.”

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On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

2006. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Hardcover. 367 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In post-Civil War North Carolina, young orphan Molly Petree grows up under the care of her Uncle Junius in the decaying home of Agate Hill. After his death, Molly’s future looks bleak until a wealthy friend of her father’s sends her off to a girls’ school. From there, Molly’s life takes a few turns she did not expect, including being accused of murder.

On Agate Hill is told through letters and diary entries (not all of them from Molly’s hand) and also from courtroom testimony transcripts.

Review:

I first discovered Lee Smith through her wonderful epistolary novel, Fair and Tender Ladies. On Agate Hill is quite similar to the earlier Fair and Tender Ladies. Both books feature letters as storytelling devices, and in both the main character writes to another character that does not write back for reasons unknown. Molly Petree and Fair and Tender Ladies‘ protagonist Ivy Rowe are similar in spirit – smart, willful, defiant of society’s mores and strongly connected to their home place. Their life events are quite different, however.

Part of me minded the close similarity, but on the other hand, I think Lee Smith is at her best in this kind of novel: a story that follows one protagonist from youth to old age, spanning historical eras in the rural South.

On Agate Hill is sometimes told by Molly’s point of view, but we also get to see her from the perspective of her adversarial, psychologically damaged headmistress, as well as that of a sympathetic and perceptive teacher. I didn’t always like Molly Petree or the decisions that she made, but she was always an interesting character.

Lee Smith always does a great job in creating a colorful cast of characters and On Agate Hill is no exception. My favorite characters were Molly’s childhood friend Mary White (the last letter included from Mary is wonderful) and Agnes Rutherford, Molly’s teacher. A number of characters have elements of folklore to them. Indeed, Molly Petree herself becomes a character in a folk song.

I was confused on a crucial plot point, namely the truth about the murder for which Molly Petree is accused. After I finished the book, I found a discussion of this plot point on Amazon and read what another reader said was Lee Smith’s explanation of it. It was hard to reconcile that explanation with what was provided in the text, but I can make an allowance considering that the story is never told from an omniscient viewpoint, but always from one or another character’s specific viewpoint. The truth is obscured by other characters’ motivations.

On Agate Hill was a fun historical fiction read, a genre I really don’t delve into that often. Smith’s research into the era is smoothly worked in. I learned historical tidbits such as the fact that there briefly existed the State of Franklin which consisted of Ashe County, N.C. and the bordering part of Tennessee. Also, I learned that there were groups of Confederates who fled to South America after they lost the Civil War.

Lee Smith has definitely established herself as a go-to author for me. I look forward to reading more of her books.

Others’ reviews:

alita.reads – “While Molly and I didn’t start out best of friends, I warmed towards her greatly during the course of the book. By the end I was sad to see her go and now remember her fondly.”

Jenny’s Books – ” . . . I became completely absorbed in this one, and I kept putting it down to do other things, and then picking it back up five minutes later because I wanted to know what would happen.  A lot of bad things, it turns out, but it’s okay, because the book is imbued with Molly’s indomitable nature, and whatever happens, you get the feeling Molly will manage it.”

The Magic Lasso – “I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, especially of Southern and women’s history. Molly Petree is a character I won’t soon forget.”

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The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

2008. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Hardcover. 195 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Pearlie and her husband Holland live in the Sunset District of San Francisco with their young son.  It’s the early 1950’s, and Pearlie and Holland still have baggage from the war and from the choices they each made during the war.  When a man from Holland’s past named Buzz Drumer shows up at their doorstep, Pearlie will soon have to reexamine all that she thought she knew about her husband.

Review:

Domestic dramas about married couples do not generally stoke my interest, but my quest for San Francisco books available on my library’s bookshelves led me to give The Story of a Marriage a try.  With its 1950’s setting, the book reminded me slightly of the good film Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore.

The Story of a Marriage is told from Pearlie’s point of view in first-person – an older Pearlie, looking back on six months of her life in 1953.  She’s a tricky narrator, concealing much from the reader at the beginning and then playing out the whole truth in bits.  One revelation had me turning back pages to see the hints that I had missed, and to re-read passages that now had a new meaning to them.

With the excerpt below, I hope to capture how the writing drops hints about further layers to be revealed:

It never occurred to me that I could leave as well, not until a government man walked up to our house and asked for me by name. I tromped down in my faded sundress to find a very ruddy and clean-shaven man wearing a lapel pin of the Statue of Liberty in gold; I coveted it terribly. His name was Mr. Pinker.  He was the kind of man you were supposed to obey. He talked to me about jobs in California, how industries wanted strong women like me. His words – they were rips in a curtain, revealing a vista to a world I had never imagined before: airplanes, California; it was like agreeing to travel to another planet. After I thanked the man, he said, “Well then, as thanks you can do a favor for me.” To my young mind, it seemed like nothing special at all.

“Now that sounds like the first bright idea you ever had,” my father said when I mentioned leaving. I can’t find any memory in which he held my gaze as long as he did that day. I packed my bags and never saw Kentucky again.

p. 5

I liked Greer’s writing overall, such as the way that he worked in historical details such as Pearlie’s wartime job, lesser known aspects of World War II, and the Korean War, which is just lesser known, period.  I also liked the descriptions of places: Pearlie’s home, a dance floor called the Rose Bowl, Buzz’s factory.  I was surprised by how much I liked Greer’s depiction of Sonny, Pearlie and Holland’s little polio-stricken son.  Pearlie’s relationship with Sonny is not the main focus of the book, but their interactions comprise some of my favorite scenes.  A visit to the candy store comes to mind, and also just a totally-kid moment from Sonny when he complains at dinner that the pea on his plate is looking at him.

The parts of the novel that I often did not care for where Pearlie’s musings on marriage, the era and the ‘larger picture’ in general.  The first page was like this – and here’s an excerpt:

We think we know them. We think we love them. But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know.  We try to get past it to the original, but we never can. We have seen it all. But what have we really understood?

Passages like that seem to be reaching for profundity, but sometimes sounded more like expanded versions of movie taglines.  I did like some of the musings, but I thought The Story of a Marriage was better when it stuck to the story and to concrete details and images.

I’m glad I read this novel.  I thought the revelation of some of the secrets was masterfully done.  I liked Pearlie as the main character most of the time, though I was disappointed by the last action she takes in the book, as I was greatly interested to see what would happen if she had chosen to do the opposite.  I’m doubtful that the novel will stick much in my head after time has passed, but I might be wrong.

Interesting fact: I heard in an audio interview of Greer that the book was inspired by something that actually happened to his grandmother, a story which she told the rest of the family late in her life.

Other reviews: (ooh, this was a very divisive book in the blogosphere)

Asylum – “The whole book feels like an exercise in overturning the reader’s expectations, and at times I could almost hear the pop of the cap of Greer’s pen as he sat back with a satisfied sigh at his own cleverness. Dammit, he is clever, but it sits uncomfortably with Pearlie’s heartfelt narrative and confused innocence.”

dovegreyreader – “… as I turned the final page I had one of those ‘this will be a memorable book’ moments. One of those books you know you will still recall with clarity and emotional accuracy years down the line.”

Eve’s Alexandria – “So that, yes, it is beautiful and tender; at the same time, it is also a litany of tired morals and gender cliches.  It has a terrible beginning – a disgracefully superficial first line: ‘We think we know the ones we love.’ – and a sweet, almost irresistible ending, with lots more of the terrible and irresistible in between.”

Linus’ Blanket – “The carefully exposed journey to the end result was a fraught and complicated stew of themes exploring guilt, responsibility, male authority and privilege and a few surprises that it would spoil the book to name.  It was also beautifully written and gorgeous in both language and imagery.”

For more praise and hate, here’s my plug for Fyrefly’s Book Blogs Search Engine, which is where I always start to find book reviews.

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La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

2008. 294 pages. Hardcover. Pantheon Books.

From: The Public Library

Recommended by: A Life in Books

For the challenge: What’s In A Name? (musical term)

In a nutshell:

Lavender “La” Stone is an ordinary woman whose marriage falls apart right before World War II breaks out.  She moves from London to a house in the country.  She joins in several home-front initiatives to support the war effort.  One of these initiatives is an orchestra, which joins together villagers and men from the nearby military base.  A Polish airman attracts her attention, but all of La’s relationships including this one, are tested by the demands of war.

Review:

A back-jacket blurb from The Scotsman states that McCall Smith’s character portrait of La is “[a]n excellent re-creation of a woman of her time.”  I have to agree with this.  It’s refreshing to have a character who is somewhat blinkered by her societal upbringing.  La is optimistic about the war’s outcome, but it comes off as naiveté to the other characters, rather than as miraculous foresight.  Though a generally trusting person by nature, she is influenced by the tense atmosphere of the times, where the public was regularly cautioned about possible enemies in their midst.  Though it isn’t stated explicitly, the betrayal of her husband is probably to blame for her shaken trust in others.

I enjoyed seeing the development of La’s relationships to the other characters, especially the arthritic farmer who she helps as part of the war effort, her friend Tim, and the Agg family.

I was expecting more of a romantic plotline between La and Feliks, the Polish airman, based on the book jacket’s summary.  However, as the book unfolds, I realized that it’s more about La’s conflicted feelings about Feliks than on the development of a romantic storyline.  And that seemed more in tune with the subdued nature of the book.

It’s a quiet book about a quiet life.  Plenty of things happen, but they are not epic or dashing.  It’s a home-front story about regrets, hopes and small victories.  I would describe it also as a contained story.  It doesn’t go off on rabbit trails but stays solidly on La.  I did appreciate the way the book highlighted the Polish contribution to the British war effort, and particularly on the subsequent feelings of betrayal when Poland was ‘given’ over to Russia.

Though it’s not a book that made a deep impression on me, I enjoyed it well enough.  If you like the time period and setting, it’s worth checking out.

Other reviews:

See link above for A Life In Books review

Bookworm with a View (finds it similar to Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society)

Hope is the Word

Rebecca’s Reading Rants and Raves

Sparks’ Notes

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Abbeville by Jack Fuller

2008. 257 pages. Hardcover

From: The public library

For: Spotlight Series

The Spotlight Series is a reading and discussion series focused on small press publishers, their authors and their books.  For this round, the spotlighted press is Unbridled Books.  See other reviews for this series on the Spotlight Series website.

In a nutshell:

After the dot com bubble burst, George Bailey (yes, he is named after the character in It’s a Wonderful Life) is financially ruined.  He returns to visit his small Midwest hometown – Abbeville – and there he considers his grandfather’s life.  His grandfather had suffered great loss due to the 1929 stock market crash.  The book tells the story of his grandfather, Karl Schumpeter, starting from his job as a clerk at his uncle’s logging camp in Wisconsin and spanning through the years and wars and family troubles until his death.

Review:

The premise of this book was not my usual choice of story, sounding a little dull to my ears.  However, I decided to take a chance on it, because sometimes judging by the story outline can lead to incorrect conclusions.

Unfortunately, I had to conclude that I’m not the right audience for this book.  I wouldn’t consider it a slog, because the prose is far too straight-forward to allow for anyone to get bogged down in it.  There are some good descriptions of places and times, such as the Chicago trading pits and Abbeville itself, but I just never connected with the story or the characters.

Perhaps because the story was framed in the grandson’s reflections, the details of the grandfather’s life all felt foregone.  I perhaps felt a mild curiosity about the unfolding events, but not an emotional investment.  The grandfather and most of the other characters are basically good people.  There are a couple of hard-hearted folks, including a childhood rival turned lawyer who is set up as the perpetual antagonist of Karl Schumpeter.

There were two characters that I found interesting that I wished had more time in the narrative: a red-headed street-smart secretary named Luella and Karl’s rich and calculating Uncle John.  The two of them look to be main characters at one point, but end up in the periphery instead.

It is a bit of a feel-good novel, with older characters always at the ready with solid advice and understanding for the younger ones.  There is inter-generational bonding over fly-fishing.  A small town comes together over a crisis.  Personally, I would have liked a little more charisma from the characters and a little more daring to the plot, but I wasn’t to get it.  I’ll have to do an end-of-the-year test on this one and see if it’s one of those books that grows in appreciation over time or if it’s of the more forgettable variety.

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Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson

2008. 277 pages (hardcover).

From: the public library

For the challenge: Thriller and Suspense 2010

In a nutshell:

This ‘medieval noir’ takes place in London 1384.  Crispin Guest, disgraced and disenfranchised knight, makes his trade as a ‘tracker,’ chasing down lost items, and other investigative work.  A wealthy merchant hires Guest to find out if his wife is being unfaithful.  When Guest returns to the merchant with his findings, he finds the man murdered.  The resulting investigation is complicated by false identities, holy relics, and lots of villains all too willing to commit violence against Guest and others.

Review:

After abandoning another historical mystery, Francine Mathews’ The Alibi Club, I restlessly chose Veil of Lies from my library stash as a replacement read.  It took me a little while to get into it, but in the end, it was worth the time.

I wasn’t enamored by Crispin Guest himself.  He’s kind of broody.  Also, maybe I’m tired of heroes in historical novels who are uncommonly humane for their time.  The other characters mentioned numerous times how unusual he is in that respect.  However, Guest isn’t entirely anachronistic, for which I was grateful.  Class matters much to him, though he is no longer in a position where it should.  He threw in his lot with a misguided cause and that led to his past downfall.  It is a fine line for the author to walk: to make the protagonist likable without being unrealistic to the time period.

My favorite character was Jack, Crispin’s young scrappy servant, who is paid with food and shelter.  I hope to see more of him in the next book.

The story is a potpourri of locked-room murder mystery, political intrigue, and romance, with some light supernatural shading.  I’m not sure it all worked together smoothly, but it definitely made for some surprising twists.

I’m not a connoisseur of noir mysteries, but my immediate standard for comparison was Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, which are set in Nazi Germany.  (Excellent, but very dark, series.)  Kerr had the rat-a-tat, aloof noir-speak down pat, complete with the wry figurative language.  Westerson’s book doesn’t quite have that same sensibility, which is too bad.  The noir label doesn’t quite fit in my mind as a result.

Still, the medieval setting and characters are of enough interest that I will probably check out the next book in the series.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

2008. 274 pages. Hardcover.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

This is an epistolary novel and the story is told through letters.  In 1946, London writer Juliet Ashton starts corresponding with several residents of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during World War II and these residents had started the literary society initially as a cover for a verboten pig roast dinner.  The burgeoning friendship between Juliet and her warm-hearted correspondents leads her to visit the island.

Review:

At this point, I feel like the last person to have read this novel.  Over the summer, a former teacher and then also my aunt recommended it to me.  I saw it on the bestseller lists and plastered all over the blogosphere.  My initial wariness on reading it was partially due to the title.  It seemed ‘cute’ and like it might be filled with artificial bonhemie.  Not at all.  I started and finished this book yesterday.

I loved Juliet Ashton’s funny and warm writing voice and you could see why she would make such fast friends with the Guernsey folk.  I also liked that she didn’t take herself too seriously.  The core of the story is Juliet, but the core of the story-within-the story, the Occupation of Guernsey, is Elizabeth McKenna.

Elizabeth McKenna fits into a character type that I often see in recent literature – the “progressive saint.”  She’s an independent spirit, ahead of her time.  She always knows the right thing to say and does the right things, in the moral perspective of the novel.  Elizabeth might have been a too-perfect and thus insufferable character if not distanced by the epistolary structure and the fact that all the stories about her are told by other characters and not by her.  I could like her as this legendary figure, with the picture of her character burnished and shined by the loyalty and love of her friends.

Juliet and Elizabeth are just two of a wonderful jumble of characters, and the writers did a good job of making the characters’ voices fairly distinct from one another.

I’m thinking that post-war England (1940’s and 1950’s) is a literary setting that works well for me.  In the past year, both I Capture the Castle and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets became quick favorites of mine.  So if any one has more recommendations of books set in this place and time, let me know!

Regarding The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, if you’re a rare person who hasn’t read this book yet, I recommend it.

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