The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
A moving, lyrically written novel about an African-American family homesteading in the Badlands in the early 20th century. Rachel grows up in Chicago, where her father worked in the stockyards. Rachel is working as a cook in Mrs. DuPree’s boardinghouse when Isaac DuPree, a Buffalo Soldier, comes home for a visit. He wants to get a homestead claim in South Dakota, and if he marries, he can get twice the land. Our story begins fourteen years later during a drought, when their well has gone almost dry along with their milk cow, and Rachel is pregnant, yet again. Isaac wants more land, while Rachel wants to worry less and for her children to have some sweetness in their life. A photograph of an African-American woman homesteader inspired the author, a Texan, to find out as much as she could about homesteading in the Badlands so that she could find Rachel’s voice. Rachel is a strong woman who struggles to be a good mother, and doesn’t always succeed. Some vividly drawn, quietly dramatic scenes are stunning. I was glad to be reminded about this award-winning first novel that I missed reading when it was published in 2010.
Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
The title is taken from a newspaper headline in 1914. Three unconventional sisters are living on a small farm near Paterson, New Jersey. Tall, independent Constance Kopp and animal-loving Norma are raising their pretty teenaged sister Fleurette after their mother’s death. When a car driven by factory owner Henry Kaufman crashes into their horse-drawn buggy, Constance sends him a bill for the damage. When there’s no response, Constance delivers another bill to the factory, and gets into a confrontation with Kaufman. This begins months of trouble for the Kopp sisters. The sisters are harassed, bricks are thrown through windows of their house with notes, and Fleurette is threatened with kidnapping. With the help of Sheriff Robert Heath, Constance and Norma are prepared to defend their home and younger sister. Constance also tries to help Lucy, who works as a silk-dyer for Kaufman, and whose young son is missing after a strike. Sheriff Heath is very supportive, but his resources are limited, and the sisters may have to move into town and live with their brother Francis and his wife. What’s truly remarkable about this suspenseful book is that all of the characters except Lucy were real people. The pace intensifies, the writing style is descriptive, and the settings are vividly drawn. Subplots are added, conversations imagined, and Norma’s fondness for homing pigeons is entirely fictional, but the well-developed characters, genuine suspense, and an incredible true secret that is gradually revealed to the reader all add up to a memorable first novel. Find out more about the sisters on the author’s website, or wait for the planned sequel.
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg
After marrying off her three daughters, Sookie Poole longs for some peace and quiet. But she can’t keep blue jays from emptying her bird feeders, and her demanding, eccentric mother Lenore lives down the street in Point Clear, Alabama. When Sookie learns that she was adopted in Texas, is actually 60 instead of 59, and that her birth mother was from the Polish town of Pulaski, Wisconsin, her world is turned upside down. Sookie pretends to have the flu to keep her mother away while she learns more about her fascinating birth family, supported by her kind husband Earle. Fritzi Jurdabralinski’s father opens a filling station in the 1930s, and builds an air strip nearby. Fritzi learns to fly a plane and does some wing walking, before she and her three sisters are needed to run the filling station. Three of the sisters, along with their brother, end up as pilots during World War II; much of their experiences are told in letters. Sookie doesn’t feel like she’s accomplished much with her life, but learning about her birth family inspires her. I think Lenore was a bit too eccentric to be believable, but this was a very enjoyable, heartwarming book.
The Lake House by Kate Morton
Sadie Sparrow is a detective in London in 2003, but is visiting her grandfather in Cornwall while on leave. On a run with her grandfather’s dogs, Sadie discovers an abandoned house, Loeanneth. In 1933 the Edevane family hosts a midsummer’s eve party at Loeanneth. The next morning, their little boy Theo is missing and is never found. Sadie is fascinated by the story and the house, and works with a retired policeman, the local librarian, and an elderly mystery writer to find out what happened. Much of the book is set at Loeanneth in 1932-33, where three sisters, Deborah, Alice, and Clemmie are growing up, mostly oblivious to their family’s many secrets. Readers who like mysteries and family sagas may enjoy this book, along with readers of Mary Stewart, Rosamunde Pilcher, or Melanie Benjamin. The beautiful house has its own secrets, and there are many twists and turns to the plot. Some readers thought it too long, but I kept turning the pages to find out the answers. Sadie is an appealing character, as is the mystery writer’s personal assistant. This was a memorable, satisfying read.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
The poet Emily Dickinson comes to life in this novel set in 1860s Amherst, Massachusetts, which also features her (entirely fictional) maid, recent Irish immigrant Ada Concannon. Emily writes her short poems, gardens, bakes, and occasionally visits with her sister-in-law Susan, who lives nearby with Emily’s brother Austin. Increasingly reclusive, Emily decides to wear only white, and rarely travels beyond her home. In contrast, Ada, 18, is hard-working, outgoing, and friendly. Ada first lives with her uncle, then with the Dickinsons. Her beau, Daniel Byrne, cannot protect her from a stalker, and Emily seeks her brother Austin’s reluctant help for Ada. Except for the stalker, this is a charming story told from two very different points of view, and it made me want to learn more about Emily Dickinson’s life. Several of Emily’s poems are included, a nice touch. Nuala O’Connor is an Irish author, and part of the book is set in Dublin, Ada’s hometown. An unusual and memorable historical novel.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
Cristina Rosati is 18 in 1943 when the war comes to Villa Chimera in the Tuscan hills south of Florence. Her brother Vittore works in Florence, trying to keep Italian antiquities safe and out of Germany. Brother Marco is an engineer with the Italian army in Sicily while his wife Francesca and their two children live with Cristina and her parents at the villa, where she swims, rides horseback, and plays with the children. After the Germans learn that there is an Etruscan tomb at Villa Chimera, they start visiting, and she meets a handsome German lieutenant. Also 18, orphaned Serafina is working with the Italian Resistance and is injured in an explosion. She has a connection to Villa Chimera that she’s forgotten, and is now a detective in 1955 Florence, where a murderer has begun stalking the Rosati women. The Rosatis had no easy choices to make during the war, and they didn’t all survive. Cristina and Serafina don’t know what secrets from the past may be haunting the Rosatis now. The most interesting part of the book for me was descriptions of life in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Some of the characters were more developed than others, such as Cristina’s father and brother Marco. The pace of the story intensifies, as the killer gets closer and the reader learns more of the events of 1944 at Villa Chimera. Beautiful settings, some appealing characters, with a story that kept my interest, but darker in tone and more gruesome than I expected.
Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart
This is an outstanding mystery debut, set in southwest China in 1708. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du visits Dayan, near the Tibetan border, and reports to the local magistrate, his cousin Tulishen. Li Du learns that the emperor is coming to Dayan for a festival to celebrate a solar eclipse, and the preparations are considerable, including building a new pagoda. A few foreign visitors are in Dayan, including two Jesuits and a representative of the East India Company. When an astronomer dies suddenly, Li Du is useful as a translator and wants to investigate the death, although the magistrate would rather cover it up. The mystery is clever, but I especially enjoyed the variety of well-drawn characters, and the richly detailed setting. I hope Li Du will have many more adventures, and I think readers of mysteries or historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy reading this book.