Euphoria by Lily King
Inspired by Margaret Mead’s time in New Guinea, this novel is not strictly biographical. Three young anthropologists in the early 1930s are studying isolated tribes in New Guinea. Nell has published a controversial bestseller about her work in Samoa, and Fen is clearly jealous. Nell is recovering from a broken ankle, probably has malaria, and is missing her glasses when she first meets depressed British anthropologist Bankson, who is working along the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have just left the violent Mumbanyo tribe at Nell’s insistence, and Bankson helps them find a more welcoming settlement further down the Sepik River. Nell studies the women and children, making copious notes, while Fen seems to want to be one of the guys and observe daily life and rituals without making any notes or sharing his observations. Bankson is clearly attracted to and protective of Nell, but is dependent on Fen when he falls ill. This is a fast read, but a confusing one. I may need to read this book again to reach a conclusion about what I think happened before the trio meets, and what happens after they leave New Guinea. Most biographical novels I’ve read stay pretty true to the real life of the main character; this book was intriguing because the author didn’t and had more freedom to develop the plot and change the relationships.
A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear
The award-winning Maisie Dobbs mystery series jumps ahead four years, summarizing Maisie’s recent past in only twenty pages. It’s been an eventful period, one that many readers would like to hear more about. After visiting India, Maisie is not quite ready to return home to England, and leaves her ship in Gibraltar. In 1937, the Spanish Civil War is just across the border. Maisie takes a room at Mrs. Bishop’s boarding house, and frequents a café nearby. Out for a walk, she stumbles across the body of Jewish photographer Sebastian Babayoff, and later finds one of his cameras. Since the police aren’t interested in investigating, Maisie, who thought she’d left detective work, takes up the case, mainly for the sake of his two sisters. She finds that she’s being followed, possibly by two men. Her family and friends plead with her to return home soon. Instead, Maisie visits Sebastian’s sister Miriam and asks for help in developing Sebastian’s last photographs. The photographs lead to a trip to war-torn Spain, which raises more questions, but also provides an idea for Maisie’s next project. I missed the presence of Maisie’s assistant, Billy Beale, but enjoyed being immersed in the atmosphere of 1930s Gibraltar. Maisie really shows her vulnerability in this book, which makes her seem more real. The first book in this excellent series is Maisie Dobbs.
The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin
Another notable historical novel from Ariana Franklin, finished after her death by Samantha Norman, her daughter. The story is narrated by a dying abbot to a young monk, which makes a good frame for the book. After 11-year-old Em is attacked in the fen country of Cambridgeshire, archer Gwilherm de Vannes rescues her. Em has amnesia, so Gwil calls the red-headed girl Penda, dresses her as a boy, and teaches her archery. They join a troup of tumblers and travel as entertainers, giving archery exhibitions. Along the way, Gwil is searching for Thancmar, an evil monk who preys on redheads. Then their story joins the larger one of war in 12th century England between Empress Matilda and her cousin King Stephen, fighting for England’s throne. During a blizzard they meet Empress Matilda and two of her knights, and end up at Kenniwick castle, where young Lady Maud is forced to play host to Matilda. The castle is soon under siege by King Stephen, and the archers’ skills are needed. While it is wartime and there is violence, the tone of this book is not dark, as it focuses on the relationships and daily lives of Gwil, Penda, and Lady Maud, all appealing and memorable characters. Readers of medieval fiction will enjoy this book, especially fans of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Sarah Grimké is shocked when she is given a slave for her 11th birthday. Hetty, or Handful, age 10, must leave her mother Charlotte, a seamstress, to sleep by Sarah’s door in case she is needed during the night. Sarah, though she often stutters, dreams of being a lawyer like her brother, unheard of for a girl from a wealthy family in Charleston, South Carolina. When Sarah teaches Handful to read, both girls are punished. Handful is fascinated by her mother’s story quilt and worries about her association with a former slave. Handful’s spirit stays strong, while Sarah and her younger sister Angelina struggle to make their voices heard. I thought Handful was a very interesting and memorable character, and wanted her to be safe and find a way to become free. A very readable novel, with well-researched insights on Quakers, abolitionists, and the lives of women in the pre-civil war South.
The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
Tess gets a job as maid for dress designer Lucile Duff-Gordon right before the Titanic leaves port. Tess and the Duff-Gordons escape the Titanic in different lifeboats and the aftermath of the tragedy affects them very differently. After reaching the United States on the Carpathia, seamstress Tess still works for the demanding Lucile with hopes of designing dresses herself some day. She also makes friends with reporter Pinky, and becomes closer to sailor Jim and wealthy divorce Jack Bremerton, both Titanic survivors. When the hearings on the Titanic disaster begin in New York City and Washington, D.C., Tess is torn between learning the truth and her loyalty to her employer. Unlikeable Lucile gets a little more sympathetic as the hearings go on and her fashion show opens. New York City in 1912 is vividly drawn, as are the characters, but I would have enjoyed the book more if there was less about the Titanic hearings and more about immigrant life in America.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley begins the Last Hundred Years trilogy with a novel about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family set during the years 1920 to 1953. Walter and Rosanna raise a large family near the farms of their parents, and cope with an amazing amount of change, from the coming of electricity to reluctantly replacing plow horses to a tractor, drought and financial worries during the Great Depression, watching a son go off to World War II, and more. The heart of the story is a scene where the extended family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner after the war. The novel is narrated in turns by most of the Langdons, but the characters are so memorable that the changing point of view enriches rather than confuses. Remarkably, the author can even capture the reader’s attention with the description of a day in the farmhouse from the viewpoint of a toddler. Smart, opportunistic Frank is the eldest and the one who will go off to war. Lillian makes an unexpected escape from the farm, while Joe never wants to leave. Of course, the Langdons experience moments of drama and tragedy, from Rosanna giving birth alone to a revival meeting, the state fair, and sudden death, but most of the scenes are about life on the farm. Readers will welcome Early Warning, the sequel, in May.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Between Shades of Gray is a harrowing story about a young girl, her family and her neighbors being forced from their home in Lithuania and imprisoned in a brutal Siberian encampment under Stalin’s rule. As one would expect, this wartime story is horribly sad and disturbing. However, there are moments in the imprisoned people’s lives where they remind one another that they are indeed compassionate human beings who are capable of empowering themselves and one another by sharing happy and peaceful memories. These moments better enable them to survive–spiritually and physically. On one occasion the “prisoners” free themselves from several months of endless burden and physical wear with the use of what can be called, collective memory. They secretly gather on Christmas Eve and recreate a scene that resembles a traditional Lithuanian Christmas dinner celebration—Kucios. During this commemoration they have only the small stolen rations of stale food from the farming camp that they are temporarily enslaved at. Yet, with these very limited means the group manages to capture the spirit of the holiday celebration, perhaps in a more powerful manner than any Christmas past.
Lina, the protagonist of the story, is a gifted artist and seizes every opportunity to capture, on bark or stolen paper, such moments of beauty. She also uses her artistic abilities to record the destruction and obscenities she has witnessed and experienced. Lina draws with an understanding that her depictions are recorded evidence as well as an act of defiance and freedom of expression. Moreover, she holds onto the hope that her drawings are a conduit through which her separated family can communicate and reunite. The characters in this story, and their small amount of personal belongings, are up-heaved and moved from place to place further away from their homeland and from the peaceful lives they once knew. Lina’s story, and her art, balances a wanting of what once was, with a need to move forward.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (especially for those moments of beauty amidst despair)
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (which also emphasizes the survival of people’s traditions and culture)
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (another story that presents complex individuals who are capable of doing good and of creating harm)