A classic based on a classic
I feel like I need some kind of reward for having finished, just as the author deserves an award for having written! I enthusiastically and optimistically started Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver, two days after Christmas, thinking it would be my first read of 2023, but my count is now up to 11 books, and I just finished it. I took two breaks, one motivated by wanting to be able to read on my Kindle in the dark of night in my bed (I bought the hardcover of Demon Copperhead, knowing that I’d want to keep it on my shelf), and the other by realizing that the depressing nature of the story was having such a profound effect on my mood that I needed to read something else for a while! But I was determined to finish, and the wink-out of my Kindle battery mid-sentence day before yesterday sent me, finally, back to the last 13 percent of this tangible book.
It’s not that I didn’t want to read it—it’s an amazing story of a quirky, irrepressible, sad, endearing red-headed boy who nobody wants, and it’s also both a literary masterpiece and a stern indictment of America’s marginalization of the disadvantaged. For all those reasons, it is worth my time and yours. But lordy, is it depressing! Damon Fields (the protagonist’s real name) is a logical (though still incredibly unlucky) product of his surroundings, growing up in the foster care system after his junkie mother leaves him an orphan in a single-wide at a young age. But he is not an anomaly—there are plenty of unfortunates in the culture of Southern Appalachia who contribute to the dour mood. One of the most powerful understandings comes towards the end of the book, when Tommy, one of Demon’s former foster brothers, crafts a philosophy of America that pits the “land” people against the “money” people, and the land people—those who hunt and fish, farm tobacco, and share what they have with their family and anyone else in need, operating outside the monetary system—always lose.
I am somewhat ashamed to say that I have never read David Copperfield, the book on which Kingsolver based this one, although I have a fairly good knowledge of its contents and am in awe of how she translated Dickens’s “impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society” (Kingsolver, Acknowledgments) into this stunning story of the opioid crisis in Appalachia. But unlike the Jodi Picoult novel about which I blogged last, this book is not preaching about the social crisis but instead is determined to tell the story via the victims and survivors of it in a straightforward, completely realistic manner that guts the reader who is invested in them. Every person in this book (and there are dozens) is vivid, individual, and completely memorable. Even though I broke it up into multiple reading sessions over the course of more than a month, I never once had to think, Um, who is this character again? and backtrack, because every single one of them stood out as a person. I can’t think of a much better compliment you could give to a writer, and Kingsolver deserves it.
But it is the character of Demon who dominates—and sometimes overwhelms. His circumstances are beyond tragic, horrifying when you think of a child having to endure what he does, and yet he is a source of continual hope. It’s not that he’s a falsely optimistic Pollyanna of a character, it’s that he has somehow assimilated a work/life ethic that causes him to put his head down and push through every challenge in his desire to live. And even when he fails—and he does that just as spectacularly—he somehow never gives up on himself. As he loses family, friends, mentors, homes, abilities, he manages to continue focusing on what he does have and what he can use, and keeps hauling himself back to his feet.
One reviewer on Goodreads repeated a quote from a Washington Post book review that said,
“Demon is a voice for the ages—akin to Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield—only even more resilient.”
I couldn’t agree more. Another said “This is a book about love and the need for love, the search for love,” and that, too, is true. And the language, both brutal and brilliant—Kingsolver’s way with words is beyond skillful. I won’t say much more about the book, I’ll leave it to you to discover. But it deserves all the accolades.
Los Angeles Public Library finally let me have The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, a book about which I had massive anticipation after having devoured Alix Harrow’s second book, The Once and Future Witches (review here). And while that book was about spells hidden in plain sight and this book was about elusive doorways, in a real sense both books are about openings.
The 10K Doors beguiled me from almost the first page. The language was beautiful, evocative, persuasive. The story begins with a book, which is always a way to my heart. And the door theme carried me back to every beloved tale in which someone found an opening to somewhere else and was brave enough to step through it, from the classics (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Narnia) to more recent works (Mirrorworld, Shades of Magic, Un Lun Dun), but it particularly put me in mind of Wayward Children, the stunningly original series by Seanan McGuire that portrays a group of children who have had the experience of going through a portal to the world of their dreams, only to later be ejected and left longing to return. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the ultimate portal novel.
Like the protagonists in McGuire’s series, January Scaller is a misfit in her own life. Her childhood has been simultaneously comfortable bordering on indulgent, and immensely restrictive; while her widowed dark-skinned father travels on business for his employer, January lives a sedate, smothering life sequestered in Mr. Locke’s mansion that is filled with the artifacts and treasures her father has brought back to him from all over the world. January spends most of her young life torn between gratitude for Mr. Locke’s guardianship and patronage, and resentful that she is kept like another of his precious objects, locked up in a house with no company save for that of a repressive nursemaid/chaperone. As a person of color, January is ogled and patronized by the lily-white British society within which the wealthy Mr. Locke moves (the story begins in 1901), and she has no friends save an Italian grocery delivery boy and the enormous and fanatically loyal dog with whom he gifts her.
As a solitary child, January naturally seeks out ways to amuse herself, and becomes immersed in certain texts and books not meant for her eyes, writings that reveal a possible escape from her overweening patron. But after her father dies and Locke discovers she may have abilities he and his friends value, January must call upon all her thus-far meager resources to save herself from their plans, and also prevent the doorways she has discovered from closing forever.
Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries. This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noontimes beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page.
Although the book has a somewhat slow start, and the protagonist is initially almost frustratingly passive despite her inner nature (“The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it”), the story within a story of Adelaide (Ade) and Yule Ian Scholar (Julian), who find one another when Yule crosses through a door from his home into a Kentucky wheat field, pulls you first into that world and then into the possible connections with January’s, and after that it’s total fascinated attention to the very last page.
This book is almost haunting in its sadness and yearning for the freedom of a wider world, and a longing for the ability to translate otherness into belonging. The loneliness of January, motherless and separated from a father who wants to keep her safe but believes that can’t happen if she is with him; the solitude of Ade, searching relentlessly for the door that will carry her back to Julian; the alienation of January’s friend Jane, exiled from her homeland because of a promise; all act upon the reader to provoke a desperate wish that these people will get what they want, find what they seek, and in that process make the universe a more fluid place.
Doors become more than just passageways to new experiences; they are also symbols of openness and change, qualities that January considers essential while Mr. Locke deems them threatening to existence. Stagnation is antithetical to those who wish for true freedom for everyone, while to the people in power it is an essential component in consolidating their dominance. January is one girl up against a wall of opposition, but she finds unexpected resources from her past, from her few allies, and finally from within. This story connected with my dogged belief, despite the mundanity of everyday life, that there is both magic and hope out there somewhere, if only the way can be found.
It bowled me over.
I am a big fan of Peter Heller’s work. I have read all of his novels and haven’t disliked a one of them, although I do have favorites. So I was delighted to discover that he has a “new” book out (almost a year old, now).
The Guide has the trademark lyrical descriptions of nature that one expects from Heller. The theme is fly-fishing, and although I don’t fish and am not a fan of early morning activities, his narrative of the terrain was so lovely that it calmed my breathing as I read it, making me long for wide open spaces with the sound of flowing water in the background and the dawn vista of a still pool with mayflies rising and rings spreading outwards as the sun heats the surface and the fish rise to feed.
Although this book can certainly be read as a stand-alone, it is, in fact, a sequel to Heller’s book The River, in that the protagonist is Jack, a few years on from that tragic adventure. Although it enhanced the experience to know the back story referenced periodically throughout this book, it wasn’t such a direct continuation that anyone would feel the need to go back and review the previous story in order to feel caught up. It’s made plain that Jack has been damaged by an event in his past, and that he sees this term of employment as a guide at one of the most exclusive fishing resorts in the country as an escape from his everyday life, in which he suffers from silence and too much free time.
Jack is taken on by the Kingfisher Lodge, on a pristine stretch of protected waters near the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, to replace a guide who left abruptly. The resort caters to the über-wealthy and the camera-shy celebrity, and provides an all-encompassing interlude of comfortable quarters, gourmet dining, camaraderie, and sport. His first assigned client is Allison K., a woman Jack vaguely recognizes as a hugely famous country western singer (he’s not really into music). She also turns out to be gifted at and dedicated to fly fishing, and the two share what’s described as an almost spiritual out-of-body state as they roam up and down the river, casting their lures.
But there’s something weird going on in this paradise, and soon Jack is nervous and on the defensive as minor violations of some resort rules result in some out-of-proportion reactions and repercussions. He and Allison begin first to speculate and then to research what they’ve been told, as anomalies crop up and their status becomes ever more perilous.
Although I enjoyed this book over all, there seemed to be a profound disconnect between the scene setting and the behind-the-scene activities. Heller’s other books certainly contain elements of mystery and suspense, but for some reason this one didn’t feel organic. For one thing, the “nature documentary” aspect of the book dominates for about 80 percent of the book, with only small hints and incidents thrown in here and there to increase the reader’s feelings of disquiet, and then all of a sudden, in the last 20 percent, it becomes all about the alter ego mystery of the story. Nature buffs will enjoy the setting and melodic language about fishing, while thrill seekers will get their payoff with the bizarre back story, but the genre blending that took place here needed a few more spins of the Kitchenaid to work properly. I was still fairly happy with the book, however, until I reached the last few pages. There are few things I dislike more than a book that shows the entire story, only to punt at the end by “telling what happened” after the significant events occur, instead of taking the reader directly through them, and that’s sort of what happened here.
Primarily as a result of that ending, I would have to recommend Heller’s other books over this one, although the prevailing narrative was the verbal equivalent of the glorious imagery experienced in the 1992 film A River Runs Through It; if you are susceptible to words that so graphically paint a picture, you will enjoy this book no matter what.
I opened All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, with no knowledge and few expectations except those provoked by the prescient title. By the end of the book I was insulted on behalf of the author by those book blurbs praising her for a wonderful debut; this was a wonderful book, regardless if it was her first or her 30th. It was also ugly.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, because it was such an anguished kind of pleasure to discover it as it went along. It is a truly unique (and I don’t use that word casually) coming-of-age tale about a child who has not one advantage and many crippling obstacles in life and somehow, as some rare children do, manages to survive and to eke out an existence with happy moments in it despite everything.
Wavonna, known as Wavy, is the daughter of a violent, abusive, sexually prolific meth dealer and his drugged-out, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive wife. Neither of them has had a single regard for her since the day she was born, and in fact the idiosyncrasies of her personality that have resulted from ill treatment have caused her father to avoid her company. Wavy rarely speaks; she won’t eat in front of others; and she actively dislikes being touched in any way. At eight years old she trusts no one, depends on no one, owns nothing, and is struggling on her own to raise her baby brother, as the only “responsible adult” in the family.
Then she meets Kellen, a gruff young man who does occasional work for her father between his stints as a mechanic, and the two recognize one another’s blank spots. Kellen is appalled by the level of neglect surrounding this little girl, and starts stepping up to help her, from twin motives of compassion and loneliness. He registers her for school and takes her back and forth on his motorcycle; he brings groceries; he washes dishes; but more than these practical deeds, he offers Wavy both friendship and respect. In return, she sees him for who he is, rather than judging him by the story some of his bad deeds tell about him, and gives him the love and attention that have been missing from his life—and hers.
This is where the story hits a controversial twist, and it is a testament to your flexibility and understanding whether you continue to follow it with empathy or slam it shut with swift condemnation.
The best thing about this book is its unsentimental storytelling. It is a dark portrayal of abuse and dysfunction, yet it neither dramatizes nor trivializes any of it—it’s not manipulative. The reader is allowed to come to the material on her own terms and react to it with sadness, outrage, disgust, compassion, whatever emotion that emerges. Somehow this author is able to write a beautiful story about ugly events and still allow readers to draw their own conclusions.
The book is told from multiple perspectives—I believe there are 16—including chapters narrated by Wavy’s brother, her aunt, her cousin, the sheriff, a judge, a teacher, and of course by Wavy and Kellen themselves. I don’t ordinarily care for books split into so many viewpoints, but in this case it works brilliantly as a reflection of all the possible opinions about these two that might come up, depending upon your perspective. And all of the characters are distinctive and beautifully drawn.
Wavy’s story is stark, controversial, emotional, and unsettling. It’s in-your-face explicit in its descriptions, and will probably leave you feeling conflicted and uneasy, maybe outraged. It’s also some of the finest story-telling I have read in a long, long time. It won’t be for everyone; but if you resonate with a tale about raw human emotion, heartbreak, and resilience, it will continue to echo in your mind as it does in mine.
Note: It’s also well worth reading the author’s comments about content and choices at the end of the book.
I have just finished reading William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. it’s so interesting to me how different is the voice between his two coming-of-age tales—this and This Tender Land—and his Cork O’Connor mysteries, of which I have read half a dozen now. The titles reveal all you need to know about the former, because his perspective and his writing are both tender and graceful as he looks back over life events big and small in the early 20th Century in which he sets them—This Tender Land in the depths of the Depression, and Ordinary Grace in the rapidly changing world of the 1960s. While I am not disparaging his mystery series—I enjoyed some books more than others, but none was either poorly conceived or written—I feel like his true gift lies with this obviously more personal look at boys of a certain age and how they meet the challenges they encounter as they move towards adulthood.
The main character in Ordinary Grace is Frank Drum, a 13-year-old boy growing up in a small town in Minnesota in 1961. He has an older sister, Ariel, who is aiming for a place at Juilliard (she is a musician as well as a composer), a younger brother, Jake, who stutters, and two parents who, while they love each other and their children, seem to be on different trajectories when it comes to finding satisfaction in life. As the book progresses, a series of tragedies are visited upon the town, some specifically on Frank’s family, and we see how each of these people, as well as other key characters in their orbit, reacts to the events of that year.
While I am always and forever a bit uncomfortable when someone chooses to explore the role of religion in these kinds of events, I have to say that Krueger doesn’t unduly intrude his own beliefs (whatever they are), but provides a nice array of contrasts when it comes to this subject. In Ordinary Grace, the protagonist’s father is a Methodist minister with a deep and all-encompassing faith partially born out of his experiences in World War II, while his mother—even though she does her wifely duty, attending services and leading the choir—feels somewhat betrayed that he didn’t become the lawyer he was planning to be when she met him, and is impatient with the constant expression of his beliefs. And the children are able to begin to come to their own conclusions, based on what they observe in their parents, in their friends, in the world, and in the events of their lives. Nathan, the preacher, comes across alternately as the hero and the fool for his consistent faith, while others in the book similarly go back and forth between seeming either pragmatic or shallow based on their own sentiments. I really liked that Krueger let his characters—and his readers—work things out for themselves.
I loved the easy, gentle pace of the book—at one point two of the characters discuss how a railroad track is like a river, because it’s there but it’s also constantly moving somewhere else—and I felt this to be a good analogy for the telling of this story. The characters are all well fleshed out and present themselves as individuals, and the language is beautifully lyrical in its descriptions of nature as experienced by the narrator. The only flaw I found is that someone (presumably not the author, since this was not the case in any of his other books) went through and excised a whole slew of necessary commas (maybe three-quarters of them?), including the ones that would have set off dependent clauses in their sentences. It was disconcerting to read, and I found my editor’s brain silently inserting each one as I went, sometimes making it hard to be present in the story.
I became impatient with the story line at one point, because I didn’t quite understand what the book was supposed to achieve. When one of the characters dies in mysterious circumstances, it seems like the purpose of the book is to figure out why, how, and by whose hand, but since I was pretty sure from about halfway through about both the issue of whose fault it was and which person acted to end things, I initially felt cheated that the author hadn’t made a better mystery out of it. Then, as I continued to read, I gradually realized that the book wasn’t about the mystery at all, but rather about how each character in his or her diversity would react to the truth of what happened.
This is a beautiful exploration of life, death, brotherhood, friendship, family, and community, and ultimately a commentary on the painful acquisition of wisdom and also on the nature of grace, whether it’s being considered as something granted by a supreme deity or given or withheld by the humans around us in times of crisis and loss. Even though it is framed in religious terms, for me the concept of grace in the novel was vastly wider, encompassing the ideas of tolerance, empathy, and respect. And I don’t want to give away the specifics, but when the moment finally comes when you find out where the title of the book came from, it’s different from what you expected, and delightful (or at least I found it so).
The final lines of the novel are both simple and profound enough that they deserve to be immortalized in the same way that we remember “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” as the first line of Rebecca, or “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” as the beginning of David Copperfield. I wouldn’t dream of revealing them here, but do read the book and discover them for yourself.