I hadn’t planned to read South of the Buttonwood Tree, by Heather Webber, right now, but I’d had the Kindle version on hold from LAPL and they sent me an email to say it was ready to be checked out, so I went for it. Library schedules wait for no one!
I had thought that it was a sequel to Midnight at the Blackbird Café (it even has a corvid pictured on the cover), but it wasn’t; instead, it was almost a duplicate of that book, with a few significant variables. Small Southern town, check. Ne’er-do-well family looked down upon by the more upwardly mobile family who has a secret connection to it, check. Two daughters, one from each family, who end up exposing all the secrets and discovering what that connection is, exactly, with some magical realism and some romance thrown in. Check! Although the author does a good job of fleshing out her characters and making them unique, the situations were so similar that sometimes it was hard to remember that it wasn’t a sequel (or that I had once again forgotten I’d read a book and re-read it only to find it strangely familiar!).
I’m back to my ponderings about what constitutes magical realism on this one because it, like Blackbird Café, is really just a cozy with some magic thrown in. In Blackbird, people ate pieces of pie from the café and then had significant dreams after, in which they might hear from dead loved ones. I conceded that this was marginally possible. But in Buttonwood, people went to the Buttonwood Tree and asked questions, and the tree gave them a button with their answer engraved on it. IN HANDWRITING. This pushed my “buttons,” pardon the pun, because I feel like this is far beyond the bounds of magical realism, straight into magic. I halfway expected that, by the end of the book, it would be revealed that there was someone behind the “fortunes,” acting as the town seer (or manipulator) by carving buttons and messages out of a branch of the tree and leaving them for people, but no: They actually just appear magically from a hole in the trunk of the tree, and nobody questions it. And they are specific in some cases: In the central plot, a baby is abandoned under the tree, and the button says “Give the baby to Blue.” Okaaaaay…
One of the two young women protagonists, Blue, has the ability to find things or people, and she finds them by letting the wind push her where she needs to go. This I found more plausible. The other protagonist, Sarah Grace (who is a house rehabber), talks to houses and they talk back to her—not necessarily in words, but in mood and occasional actions (like things falling or doors sticking at important moments). Again, that felt natural for magical realism. But the buttons bugged me.
The rest of the story, like Blackbird, is a “cozy” of small-town life, the resolving of secrets and regrets, and the providing of romances. It’s as satisfying as that kind of book can be; but again, the main magical realism element seemed a little jarring in the midst of it, instead of charming as it was meant to be. Maybe I’m just too much of a cynic. As Roald Dahl is quoted in the book, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
Although I have a bunch of books lined up to read, including the latest Inspector Gamache mystery from Louise Penny and a new Jo Walton, whom I adore but who is always a challenging author, I decided to take a different kind of a break and read some light, bright, silly fiction for a couple of days. I’ve been working hard on getting ready for my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA, which starts on September 29th, and also suffering some setbacks with recent art projects as I struggled with a new technique (not to mention the news, which is always fraught these days), so the last thing I need is something else that is too taxing. A reader on Facebook recommended the Lucy Valentine books by Heather Webber as good escapist fare, so I launched into Truly Madly and followed up with Deeply Desperately.
The premise is that Lucy Valentine comes from a long line of matchmakers blest by Cupid himself with a secret ability: They can see people’s auras, and thus match them up according to color, giving the Valentines a 97 percent success rate and making them renowned and also wealthy. Lucy, however, has renounced her trust fund and has been trying to make it on her own, because she doesn’t possess the family talent: She suffered an electrical shock at age 14 that killed her ability to read auras and replaced it with a talent for finding lost objects, which makes her terrible at the family business but handy to have around if your car keys are missing.
The issue the Valentines have that confounds their talent and sometimes their happiness is their own inability to sustain a relationship: Lucy’s parents have been broken up for 20-some years, but maintain a façade of happily married life in order not to ruin their rep as matchmakers; her grandmother, Dovie, got divorced from her beloved Henry a scant year after they got together; and Lucy herself has never had a long-term relationship. They call it “Cupid’s Curse,” and it’s almost as big a secret as their ability to read auras: After all, will people trust a matchmaker who can’t him- or herself keep a relationship going?
But many things are about to change for Lucy: After a scandal (her father was caught in a public display of “affection” with a woman not his wife on a night-time beach) and a subsequent heart attack (brought on by the stress?), Lucy’s parents have gone away to St. Lucia together to let him recover and also to escape the press, leaving Lucy in charge of the agency, to her combined pride and dismay. Sam, the private investigator who rents the top floor in the Valentine building, has just taken on his younger brother, Sean, to help him with the business, and when Lucy gets a vision of a missing wedding ring that shows it gracing the finger of a dead woman, she asks Sean to assist her in solving the mystery. There is a spark between Sean and Lucy that threatens her equilibrium and is obviously reciprocated,
but Lucy, wary of “the curse,” tries to avoid entanglement—at least for now. Meanwhile, Lucy is beginning to see that her gift of finding lost objects just might be able to translate to finding lost people as well, as long as she can get all the factors to work together…
The touch of magical realism (the reading of auras and the finding of lost things) gives the cozy mystery format a charming aspect. Webber knows how to write effective, likeable characters and likewise how to set scenes and describe surroundings, and there is a tiny bit of steam in Lucy’s relationship without its getting either sappy or overly explicit, plus a grace note of humor that lifts them above the common cozy. The author seems to be able to hit just the right combination of whimsy, mystery, and romance, without getting too heavy-handed in any of those areas, rendering the books delightfully engaging. They aren’t anything I would normally seek out, but they have definitely provided the necessary antidote to the seriousness all around me, and I may continue with the series (there are three more so far) to prolong my respite.
I greatly enjoy magical realism, that kind of story where everything seems perfectly normal except for that one exceptional element that steps outside the boundaries of everyday life. I recently picked up Midnight at the Blackbird Café, by Heather Webber, and by the end of the book I was wishing that both the magic and the realism for which the book is touted had been a bigger part of it, because this book, while in some places magical, is not realism: It’s a cozy.
Not to say that the magical elements felt tacked on—on the contrary, they were the most compelling elements. The most charming part of the narrative, for me, was when the story flashed back to the grandmother, Zee, telling the legend of the blackbirds to her granddaughter, Anna Kate. After Anna Kate’s mother made Zee promise not to talk about the blackbirds, Zee kept to the letter of the law, but that didn’t stop her from sharing their heritage in stories:
Once upon a time there was a family of Celtic women with healing hands and giving hearts, who knew the value of the earth and used its abundance to heal, to soothe, to comfort. Doing so filled their souls with peace and happiness. Those women held a secret. The women are guardians of a place where, under midnight skies, spirits cross from this world through a mystical passageway to the Land of the Dead. The tree keepers, black as twilight…came from overseas a century ago, drawn to a small southern town. There, a passageway is marked with large twin trees. Where their branches meet and entwine, a natural tunnel is formed—and at midnight, that tunnel spans this world and the heavenly one. Twenty-four keepers, black as twilight.
The basic story is this: In Wicklow, Alabama, there is a café, always run by women from the same heritage, where eating a piece of pie can give you a dream in which you receive a communication from a dead loved one. Out behind the café, behind its garden filled with herbs and vegetables, are twin mulberry trees, and from between these trees, at midnight each night, come 24 female blackbirds, who perch on the trees and sing until 1:00 a.m. and then leave the way they came. The trees, the bird, the women’s bloodline, and the pies are all somehow mystically entwined.
Anna Kate has returned to town to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café. She was planning a quick trip to sell the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but Granny Zee’s will contained conditions, among them that Anna Kate had to keep the café open and running for a period of months before she can dispose of it. (Of course it did.) So Anna Kate, who is enrolled in medical school for the fall semester, settles in for the summer to learn the business from Zee’s two long-term employees, and in the process begins to get to know her father’s side of the family, from whom she has been estranged her entire life. Her mother left Wicklow at 18, pregnant with Anna Kate and determined never to return after the shabby treatment she received from the Lindens, Anna Kate’s father’s family, and she kept that promise. But in a town the size of Wicklow, Anna Kate finds it difficult to avoid practically constant contact with her parents’ past, including the family ties she was determined to ignore for her mother’s sake.
The 24 blackbirds make a rare appearance in daylight to swoop past during Granny Zee’s funeral, and an eager bird-watcher reports the phenomenon of a flock of Turdas merula, a kind of blackbird not ever seen on this continent. Suddenly the sleepy town, which has lately closed the doors to half the businesses on its main street, is mobbed by birdwatchers, who camp out, frequent the café, buy food and supplies, and prove ripe for the villagers’ marketing of souvenirs of their trip. Following them come the reporters. Like magic, the town finances and the town spirit are revitalized, all due to the blackbirds. But what will happen when their caretaker turns her back on them, sells the café, and heads off to medical school, leaving people without the knowledge of the pies’ secret ingredient to fail to keep the covenant with the door to the other world?
You can probably write the rest of the book for yourself, based on my description because, as I said earlier, it’s a masquerading cozy, a “relationship fiction” book with magical elements. Arguments, the airing of dirty laundry, the placing of blame, the process of forgiveness, reconciliations, and new love interests all lead to doubts about departure from Wicklow for the two protagonists. I didn’t mention there were two? One is Anna Kate, whose existence wasn’t known to the Linden family until she arrived in town for the funeral, and the other is Natalie, the much younger daughter of the Lindens, who is Anna Kate’s aunt despite being only a few years older than she is. Natalie is living in the Lindens’ guest house with her toddler, Ollie, after the death of her husband, trying to come to grips with the tragedy and, with gritted teeth, trying not to react to her mother’s constant oversight and criticism. Both she and Anna Kate come in for a large dose of that.
I did enjoy this book to a point, and I don’t mean to sound like a snob; but the author ranges perilously close to stereotypical with the main characters, and definitely crosses that line when it comes to the depiction of the town “characters.” The southern accents, attitudes, and clichés were a little too “sweet tea,” in my opinion. The transformations wrought by all the brangling—particularly that of Seelie Linden—were too pat and too easy, verging on cheesy. It’s formulaic, and the formula has become threadbare from use. Webber writes well, so it never exactly descends to the level of a Hallmark movie, but at times it comes close. She also needs to learn to vary her metaphors when it comes to romance: If we had to endure mention of Gideon’s “molten lava eyes” one more time….please, no.
Still, it’s hard to find books with good magical realism included, and the way that part of the story was handled was charming and fresh, so seek it out for that advantage, and see how you react to the book as a whole. Be prepared to crave pie, not to mention biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, barbecue….
For some time now, I have meant to catch up with other readers, reviewers, and critics who have sung the praises of Nnedi Okorafor and bestowed multiple science fiction awards on her various writings. I was initially only aware (because of my profession) of her young adult books, Akata Witch and Binti, so I decided to start with Binti.
I was immediately fascinated. Binti is a marvelous protagonist, a 16-year-old of the Himba tribe of Namibia, whose traditional and isolationist family and culture nonetheless prepare her, through a magical gift for mathematics, for defiance of her family’s wishes. She receives a mathematics scholarship from the prestigious Oomza University, and bravely and optimistically chooses to attend this cosmopolitan and multiracial (as in, alien races) galactic institution despite the many fears with which she has been imbued by her family. The details of how she insistently brings her cultural identity along with her, despite the judgment and sometimes shock of the reactions around her, and her quiet persistence in finding a way to fit in are an arresting narrative. On the transport ship, she meets a diverse group of young people headed for the university and begins to find her footing and make friends.
Then, five days before the ship reaches its destination, a cultural conflict confronts the entire university as the Meduse, a fantastical race of beings bent on revenge over a thoughtless cultural appropriation, turn Binti’s transport into a nightmare of death, and Binti must act as the representative for the human race, despite her marginalized placement within it.
I was completely fascinated by this tale and thus completely outraged when it ended a few pages later! I had no idea it was a novella of 90 pages, and frankly wonder why it was published in that form. There is a huge story here, with so many intriguing ideas and influences to be unpacked, and rather than developing it into the full-length book that those details demanded, Okorafor instead wrote three novellas to cover the same material, and sacrificed continuity, in my opinion.
I decided, based on her facility for character creation and world-building, to give one of her full-length adult novels a try, so I picked up Who Fears Death from the library for my Kindle and began making my way through
For sheer scope and number of ideas and themes, I’ve never read anything comparable; but one could wish that Okorafor would slim down her vision to tell just the story she’s in at the moment, instead of including every conflict, controversy, and social injustice of which she can conceive.
This is at once a post-apocalyptic tale of the Sudan, centuries older than our own but still plagued by savage internecine war between the Okeke and Nuru; a coming-of-age story; and a “savior” quest. The initial focus of the book’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is on her own story and how it highlights all the problems of her society. She is a child of rape who faces persecution based on her mixed-race status as an Ewu, and is also discriminated against because of her gender. It is a severely misogynist landscape in which such horrors as female genital mutilation are still practiced. The early parts of the book relate her struggles in these areas, as well as her frustrated pursuit of a magical mentor to help her come to terms with her emerging powers.
I had trouble at first understanding that this was supposed to be post-apocalyptic. The problems with the society seemed both contempo-rary and timeless, and it wasn’t until well into the book, when some comments were made about the sins of the Okeke as regards technology, that I realized that was part of the history. It was hard to distinguish between the Okeke and the Nuru when all was said and done, since the Okeke were the victims while having previously been the people with the upper hand in society, while the Nuru, despite their single-minded persecution of the Okeke, seemed in some ways more advanced, or at least more benign. (Don’t misunderstand—both tribes were repellent in their treatment of anyone not “one of us.”)
After the growing-up phase of Onyesonwu’s life, the story takes a turn towards the necessity for her to learn and control her powers, and the reluctance or outright refusal of most of the (male) wizards to take her on as an apprentice or, in fact, teach her at all. She does manage to get her training, but it’s a rather interminable part of the book as you watch what she goes through to achieve it, and grew wearying before the end.
Then, the story turns again as Onyesonwu realizes that she has a pivotal role to play in the salvation of her people. She and her lover and friends set out on a quest across the desert to stop the genocide happening in the Seven Rivers region, and their squabbles and travels are at some points interesting and at others aggravating in their repetitiveness.
My favorite part of the book is in this third section, when the travelers meet up and stay with the Red People, nomads protected by a dust storm who, unlike the other tribes of the country, embrace their social pleasures without being proprietary about them, and to whom the concept of misogyny seems largely foreign. Being open to all things, they find that life is sweet, which is a strange concept to Onyesonwu and her companions.
At the point where the travelers, number reduced, depart the desert and head into their destiny as saviors of the Okeke and Nuru is where the book completely lost me. Onyesonwu has various ideas about how she is to accomplish this mission: One is destroying her father, the powerful magician whose act of rape created her; another crops up out of nowhere near the end of the book, which is to physically rewrite the “Good Book” followed by various sects of each tribe (but with no explanation of specifically how it would be rewritten and what that would achieve in terms of the genocide); and yet another seems like simply a fatalistic meeting of her ordained death, which will somehow transform the world. And that’s what we are left with—a confusing exploration of all of these things, with no real resolution or sense of a goal met. I have absolutely no clue what actually happens at the end.
I found this book so ambitious and at the same time so frustrating. Okorafor unflinchingly explores such issues as rape, child abuse, female genital mutilation, adolescent sexuality, and genocide, all subjects that need to be faced. But she does so by creating some frankly unlikable characters whose flaws are so great that it’s hard to have patience with them, let alone read nearly 400 pages about their journey. I still could have gone with it, however, if not for the utterly confusing ending, which takes the entire slow, minutely examined quest of Onyesonwu to “solve” genocide, sums it up in a few pages, and then rewrites itself in three separate epilogues! (I think I have mentioned before how little I enjoy 99 percent of epilogues in fiction.)
Perhaps I am just not sufficiently tuned into this book or its author to get the point of this saga; but from my perspective, a story with meticulous world-building and an interesting premise simply went off the rails and failed to fulfill its promise despite its author’s obvious brilliance.
I’m at the end of Week Six of self-quarantine, and feeling restless. That’s not to say that I agree with any of these initiatives to hurry to open things back up—we stay inside to lower the curve, to protect others and ourselves, and it isn’t time yet. But I can acknowledge my feelings and those of others who are going a little stir-crazy.
So, what could be better to read in a time of restriction than something completely escapist? And what could be a more familiar escape trope than running away to join the circus? It’s a notion secretly cherished by people young and old. Running away is one thing, but in this fantasy, destination is all.
I have a few favorites in the run-away-to-the-circus panoply of titles. First on my list is A Stranger at Wildings, originally titled Kirkby’s Changeling, by Madeleine Brent (otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell). At age 13, Chantal discovers the devastating truth about her parentage, and is about to be sent to an orphanage; instead, she decides to disappear into the world of the circus that has just paused in her English town on its way to Hungary. We follow Chantal’s career as a trapeze artist until she turns 18, at which point events conspire to change her life and send her back to England. But she’s not sure she wants this change, especially if it means leaving her circus family. It’s pure gothic magic in the style of Mary Stewart.
The book Meridon, by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, is one of my personal favorites, because the protagonist is both a gypsy and a bareback rider, so you get lots of horsey bits. But the book is the third in the Wideacre trilogy, and you really do need to have read the first two in order to understand particularly the second half of this book. All three books are engaging (although a bit scandalous here and there), so if you have the time…and you do…? The first two are Wideacre and The Favored Child (neither of which has any circus motif).
The following would most likely be found in the young adult section:
Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis, is a coming-of-age book, a triumph over adversity book, a story in which a seriously damaged and divided girl gets the chance to work through it all and pull herself together, with a backdrop of circus life that jumps off the page. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and individual, and the story-telling is captivating. I wish the publisher had designed a cover to match.
That Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard, tells of Lexi, a snarky New York City girl, who makes a huge mistake and faces a terrible tragedy. In the face of this, she decides she must track down her mother, who is rumored to be traveling with a circus somewhere in Florida. Lexi doesn’t find her mother there, but she does find a temporary home with the circus. In this story, what the protagonist is running from is equally as important as what she is running to, and she
has to resolve these issues, which are dealt with in jumps from past
Even in the circus sub-genre, there are books with “girl” in the title!
Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond, is a little different, in that most of these stories start with someone running away to the circus, but Julieta Maroni is already a circus performer who is fleeing her family to convince her father, the best wire walker in the world, to join the giant Cirque American despite his feud with their other stars, the Flying Garcias. It’s a rather obvious Romeo-and-Juliet set-up, but it’s also a mystery, a fantasy, and a great depiction of performances on the high wire and trapezes. It has a sequel,
Girl in the Shadows, with a different protagonist but taking place at the same circus.
Some more adult books in this sub-genre:
One title to which your mind will probably immediately go is The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern, in which the circus is the magical, seductive background for both a battle of wills and a deeply romantic love story.
Another is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, a funny gothic tale about a man who sold his soul to the devil, but decides he wants it back. Satan agrees to a wager: Johannes has to persuade 100 other people to sign over their souls in exchange for his own. He can have one calendar year and a traveling carnival as the timeframe and setting to achieve his task. Johannes summons an unearthly crew and takes his show on the road.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which a band of lost souls travels from one ruined city to the next, bringing their marvels to eager crowds of war-ravaged humans. It’s been described as steampunk, as a prose poem, and as a disjointed tapestry of image and text that will only appeal to a few—but those few rave about it.
In Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Jacob Janowski, 23 years old and only days away from his final exams to become a veterinarian, is devastated (and stricken by poverty) when his parents are killed in an auto accident. He hops a freight train that happens to be transporting a circus, and soon becomes an integral part, caring for the animals while yearning after a married woman and a difficult elephant. The story is told in flashback, from the viewpoint of an elderly nursing home resident reflecting on his past. (There is also a movie, though I haven’t seen it.)
The Blue Moon Circus, by Michael Raleigh, is the highly rated story of ringmaster Lewis Tully, who gathers together an eclectic group of people to form an independent traveling show. It’s sweet and funny, with likeable characters both human and animal, and a lot of heart.
There are also those stories of circuses that occupy the dark end of the spectrum, the evil circus or carnival from which you wish to escape, such as the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Full Tilt, by Neal Shusterman, or The Carnivorous Carnival, by Lemony Snicket. (To this day, hearing the eerie carousel music soundtrack to the movie version of Something Wicked can really mess with my mood.)
Goodreads has quite a comprehensive list of “circus and carnival books” you might want to visit, if one of these books whets your appetite for more “escapist fiction”! One I have always wanted to try is Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
When I teach Young Adult Literature, one of the things we discuss at the beginning of the class is the concept of the “home run book.”
Dr. Stephen Krashen is a leader in the field of reading, and discovered through his research that people who read because they want to, with no assignment components—no book reports, no questions, no tests, no analysis—do better in school by far than those who don’t read, or who only read under compulsion.
But the key ingredient in creating a reader is to hit upon the book that gives them that one positive experience that forever cements their relationship to reading. Jim Trelease came up with the concept of the “home run book,” basing it on a quote from wordsmith Clifton Fadiman, who said:
“One’s first book, one’s first kiss, one’s first home run are always the best.”
Trelease did a lot of anecdotal research, asking people who were readers whether there was one particular book that made them into regulars. He was surprised and pleased to discover that almost every reader could cite the very book that changed their attitude about reading to a positive one.
This issue came up for me lately when a good friend of mine read for the first time a book that has been a beloved one for me since childhood. Although I can’t cite The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as my “home run book,” it is definitely one of the top 10 that kept me interested in reading. As an only child, I empathized with the heroine’s isolation; I loved gardens and nature and the thought of a secret one that I could discover and have all for myself was compelling; and I liked how being forced into relationships with others almost against her will finally turns Mary from a sourpuss into a better, nicer, happier person.
Kim, however, came at it with a contemporary perspective, and her judgment was anything but flattering. Her first reaction was that while the descriptions of the gardens are lovely, “the entire book is a sermon on a set of values that have no place in a humane world.” She goes on to cite the colonialism and racism, comments on “healthism” that betrays both the disabled and the physically able child, and notes the “noble savage” trope depicted in the “peasant” character, Dickon. Despite the descriptive writing, the bright and resourceful children, and the extolled virtues of playing outside in nature, she concludes that the story cannot be disentangled from its classist moralizing, and maintains that it’s time to retire the book.
This reaction made me cringe, mostly because I recognized that she was probably right. Her comments made me remember a discussion in my YA Lit class one year about the relative merits of continuing to require the book Huckleberry Finn to be read by upper grade students, despite its rampant racism, and how severely my young students judged it, despite my urging them to consider context. It also made me recall what a shock I experienced when I recently reread a book that I had previously listed as one of my most beloved—China Court, written in 1961 by Rumer Godden—only to encounter an inexplicably forgotten and utterly shocking example of sexist physical abuse in the last chapter that effectively spoiled my previously unalloyed delight.
Suddenly, my judgment was suspect as I thought back over six decades of reading and wondered how I had been shaped by books that I had embraced unquestioningly at various stages of my life. This prompted me to revisit some of those, to see if books other than Burnett’s should have modern judgment pronounced upon them. So I picked up a few I had particularly loved, and began to read with a gingerly sense of both anticipation and dread.
The first, from a series that I read over and over as a child, was The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston. The initial theme of the book is eerily similar to that of The Secret Garden, in that the child’s parents (well, his father and stepmother—that trope is present here!) are out of the country, and the boy, whose name is Toseland, is sent to live with his great-grandmother in her big old mansion verging on castle (it has a moat) in the English countryside. But the similarities (in characterization at least) end there: The boy’s personality is trusting, open, and sweet, and the grandmother is delightfully quirky and kind. Toseland becomes Tolly, except when Grandmother Oldknowe forgets and calls him Toby after his ancestor (the stepmother, unforgivably, calls him Toto), and is welcomed into the rarefied atmosphere of her life surrounded by the memories of generations of the occupants of Green Knowe.
The question for Tolly, however, quickly becomes whether they are memories or something much more tangible. He hears giggles coming from the upstairs bannisters, and catches quick movements out of the corner of his eye as he enters rooms. Gifts and trinkets turn up under his pillow, on his chair, in his pockets, and as Grandmother tells him the stories of the three children who lived at Green Knowe in the long-ago days—Toby, Alexander, and little Linnet—he begins to believe they have never left.
I still loved this book, and found nothing objectionable that would prevent bringing it up as a favorite to contemporary children (although I didn’t read past the first book in the series, so I can’t vouch for all of them). I wonder if this series is the origin of my love for the surreal? You could call them ghost stories, but with the interactions with animals, with supposedly inanimate objects (a carved mouse, a garden topiary, a statue) that occasionally come to life, and with the three dead children, we’re talking magical realism. The relationship between the grandmother and child is touching, the fanciful narrative is wonderful, and I probably loved the whole thing the most when I was a child because I, too, was an only, solitary child who longed for playmates, loved animals, and had a vivid imagination.
The second book about which I had fond memories—again the beginning of a series and this a lengthy one—was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. This is the story of four enterprising brothers and sisters—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and little Ben—who have been raised by their father to believe that their maternal grandfather is an unkind and unloveable tyrant. So when their father dies the day after they have moved to a new town and the neighbors propose to find their grandfather and send the children to him, the children respond by running away. They find an old boxcar, buried in shrubbery along a disused railroad siding (and adjacent to a convenient brook), and turn it into a home, finding clever ways to provide water, food, clothing, and entertainment for themselves, even though they are children without adult supervision.
This one has a few coy moments, and the author does that prescient thing (“they were not to know that this moment would be a lasting influence in their lives…”) that informs you not at all but nonetheless manages to take you right out of the story in a most annoying way; but in most respects the book was surprisingly good. Although at one point Jessie, who is “motherly” to her younger siblings, is referred to as “the housewifely girl,” and the oldest boy, Henry, takes the fatherly role by going “out” to work (mowing lawns, picking fruit, and doing various chores for a doctor in a nearby village), mostly the children work together at chores and projects without too much regard for gender roles, and take delight in objects (Ben and his pink china cup) without any remarks about “girliness” and such.
When the children’s situation is eventually discovered, near the end of the story, and they go to live with their grandfather, I was further pleasantly surprised. Ben asks their grandfather, a curmudgeonly sort, what they will all do when they grow up; at first he says that Henry will take over his business (typical). But then, when I expected him to say something sexist about Jessie’s and Violette’s prospects as girls (marriage and family), he instead tells Ben, “You will all four of you go to college, and then you can choose to do whatever you want!” Considering the book was first published in 1942, that is an exceedingly progressive sentiment! Bravo, Gertrude!
I have a few more childhood favorites I’d like to revisit, but I’ll leave this subject for the moment, just concluding that, as painful as it can sometimes be, it’s never too late to become cognizant of our blind spots when it comes to learned prejudices. So while I still treasure my memories of The Secret Garden, perhaps I will find books less fraught with flaws to recommend to contemporary children.
The two books I just finished reading—
The Sparrow Sisters and The Forbidden Garden—evoke the same sense of place that I was discussing in my last post. Rather than being specific to a country, however, that place is a
small world created anywhere that it can thrive:
Next to reading books about books and books about art, I love books about gardens and gardening. While both reading and painting keep me busy enough not to have time for many other things, I aspire to be a good gardener, a better one than the person who plants a few herbs and a couple of tomato plants every spring and vows to do more next year. The truth is, if I didn’t love reading about gardens quite so much, I might do more actual work in my garden—well, I think at this point you’d have to call it a yard, but oh, I have visions!
My favorite garden-oriented books are inevitably the ones set in England, because where are there better examples of the cottage garden, the kitchen garden, the parterres and the knots, the maze, the giant rhododendrons lining the drive to the estate? From The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my most favorite books as a child, to The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton in fiction, or the factual but bewitching writings of such gardening titans as Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, and Gertrude Jekyll, the wonderful natural world comes alive in tales of lush plantings of azaleas, of bright poppies and peony buds weighing down their stems, of orderly beds of herbs surrounded by low box hedges, of espaliered pear and apple trees and wildernesses of blackberries. When my cousin and I took a long-awaited trip to Cornwall in 2003, although we had gone because our favorite writers set their books there, we ended up spending four of our eight days tramping around the gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan, Trelissick, and the National Gardening Museum at Trevarno, as well as a visit to the garden on St. Michael’s Mount, and counted it all as time well spent.
With a preference for this kind of reading, picking The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick, off the shelf was a natural for me. The cover blurb described a Shakespearean garden on an English estate that had gone to ruin, and the hiring of a woman with almost magical gardening powers to bring it back to life. The cover itself was beautifully ornamented with a botanical painting of peachy-pink peonies, and the quote from the New York Times called it a “rich tapestry of family lore, dark secrets, and love.” Who could resist?
Upon beginning to read, however, I discovered that although it said so nowhere on the book, this was a sequel to Herrick’s previous work, The Sparrow Sisters, to which it referred back on almost every page in the first few chapters. So I put it down, picked up my Kindle, and ordered up the first book from the library.
I’m not sorry for having read either book…but I couldn’t rate them as highly as I would have liked, given that all my likes come together in their pages. The Sparrow Sisters is about three young women (20s and 30s) in a small town in New England. They have suffered tragedy in their lives—the loss of mother, then father, then their fourth sister, Marigold. The way they eventually pull through the tragedy is to band together and rediscover the legacies of their mother and grandmother, who were gifted master gardeners, by opening a vast and bountiful garden center and selling their various wares. Sorrel, the eldest, is the grower of flowers, while Nettie (short for Nettle) specializes in fruits and vegetables (and is the family chef) and Patience (a shortening of Impatiens) found her calling in the growing of a physic garden and the compounding of “remedies” that would do any hedge witch proud.
The sisters have a special gift for raising plants that extends beyond a mere green thumb into the realm of magical realism, and this is where the books fell short for me. I am a big fan of magical realism, but even magic has to correspond somehow to its own rules, and the expression of it in this story was all over the place. The author didn’t seem to be able to decide, at any given moment, just how far outside of reality she wanted to travel with their abilities, and it resulted in uneven and slightly confusing story-telling. I stuck with it because I enjoyed the personalities of the three sisters very much, and the tale itself, of a town that turns against the people it formerly treasured, is a compelling one. But the magical bits were too isolated, too abrupt, and not sufficiently integrated to work well.
I liked The Forbidden Garden a little better, once I got to it, but with much the same reservations. The story of the blasted and desolate (possibly cursed) Shakespeare garden at Kirkwood Hall is the backdrop for a scene of inclusive family life amongst the Kirkwoods. Graham Kirkwood decides to solicit the help of Sorrel Sparrow, asking her to bring her extraordinary talents to England to resurrect his garden from its barren state. He and his family welcome her into their home and treat her like one of their own…except that the truth is, Graham has brought her in because he is afraid for his wife or his daughter to take on the garden project, the presumption being that the curse will affect only Kirkwoods. But when his wife’s brother, Andrew, recovering from a broken heart, strikes up a relationship with Sorrel, she essentially becomes one of the family…so what now?
The best parts of the book are the vivid descriptions of the work Sorrel does to restore the garden, intricately detailing the overall design, the plants, and the process. The love story is also gratifying. But the twists and turns as Graham reluctantly reveals the background details of what his family (generations back) did to kill the garden are overwrought and somewhat confusing, and both the consequences and the ultimate discoveries take too long to resolve themselves, occurring in the last 30 pages of the book! And again, the author can’t make up her mind whether there is true magic or whether it’s all coincidence based on a talented gardener, and keeps turning tail on choosing either option. So while I enjoyed pieces of the books—the characters, the settings, the gardening bits—quite a lot, the magical realism, of which I am usually such a big fan, worked against the writing to fragment the stories and ultimately render them confusing.
If you, like me, are a gardening book fan, here are some recommendations of other titles you might enjoy, both fiction and nonfiction:
An Island Garden, by Celia Laighton Thaxter
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden
In and Out of the Garden, by Sara Midda
Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
Thornyhold, by Mary Stewart
If you have been a reader of the Book Adept blog for a while, you will perhaps recall my review of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, and the depth of disappointment I experienced on reading it.
It took me a while to be willing to assay another of her books, but I found the description of Once Upon A River, published in 2018, to be too enticing to resist, so I bought a copy and read it this past week. I am happy to say that it fulfilled my expectations, which included the lyrical language of her previous books but also contained a satisfying story arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and resolution for the varied and mysterious characters involved.
As its title promises, the book is framed as a fairy tale, or at least is fairy tale-like. The river in question is the Thames, and the river is the central character of the book, as it affects everyone who comes in contact with it—those who live along its length, in pubs, villages, towns, and isolated huts, those who punt along in its shallows or ride its currents on barges or private yachts, and those who end up drowned in its depths.
“They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said
can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next.”
This is the story of three children, and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town who are caught up by chance in the events that restore one of them to life.
Amelia is the daughter of the Vaughans, a wealthy couple, who gladly pay the ransom when she is boldly kidnapped right out of her bed, but don’t receive her back again after their payment. Alice is the child of a desperate mother who, abandoned by her ne’er-do-well lover and unable to care for herself or her little girl, ends it all in a jump from a bridge above the roiling waters of the Thames, after first dropping her daughter in to drown. And Ann is the sister of Lily, a poor unfortunate who makes her way by keeping house for the local parson, but who isolates herself in a hovel by the river because she is making amends for something dreadful she did as a child that lost Ann to her forever.
Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.
On the night of the winter solstice, the regulars at The Swan, an ancient inn at Radcot along the Thames, are occupied in their usual pursuit of telling stories. The door bursts open to admit a stranger, badly wounded and scarcely able to keep to his feet. He is carrying what everyone present at first identifies as a doll or a puppet, but after calling for the local nurse to examine and treat his injuries, someone realizes that it is actually a child, a little girl, already dead.
Hours later, however, the girl stirs, takes a breath, and comes back to life. No one can account for her previous deathlike state, but all are happy to have a child returned to life, against all odds.
But whose child is she? Helena Vaughan, who has been deranged with grief over her daughter’s kidnapping, is ready to embrace her as the missing Amelia, even though two years have passed. Someone else recognizes her as Alice, the granddaughter of another local family, who would be happy to welcome her although she is the love child of their wayward son. And Lily is convinced her sister Ann has returned to life. The girl herself is mute and unable to answer the questions of who she is, where she came from, and to whom she belongs. Both the principals and the villagers who were present at her dramatic denouement involve themselves in theories and possible solutions, and under all runs a dark current of deceit and, some would say, evil.
This is a compelling, thoughtful, and engaging read. The ins and outs, the possibilities, the theories and discussions encompass not only the fate of one small child but the bigger picture, the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, what is the best way to pursue them. The discussion includes the new theories of a man called Darwin, who posits that man comes from water and from animals and is therefore related to and also responsible for all life, not just that of humankind. The historical details included in the occupations of some of the characters are engrossing (farmer, charlatan, photographer). And all of it is entertwined with the constant presence of the river, the giver of life and death to so many who move along its banks and in its depths. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique.
I think perhaps Diane Setterfield has, with this book, surpassed The Thirteenth Tale, as wonderful as that book was. But it’s hard to compare them, for although they both have literary language and a timeless feel, they are completely different stories, sharing only the theme of magical realism. Now that I have regained my confidence in her work, perhaps I will return to that book for another look—it’s been a decade since I read it.
In my last book review (too long ago, I know—things have been hectic), I mentioned that I was going to read another book by Cathy Lamb, because I was so enamored of the first line of the book:
“I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”
It turns out, unfortunately, that the first line was the best thing about that book. Although I did finish it, and although I did enjoy certain aspects, I concluded that this author is just too disjointed in the way she structures her novels. There is a challenge for the heroine that seems perfectly realistic and commonplace, and yet the way it is addressed in the novel is through the cultivation of that heroine by perfectly unrealistic, silly, contrived people and circumstances. As I indicated in my previous review, it’s like someone took a book chock full of magical realism, tore out all the pages, and dumped them in a cauldron with the ones from a straightforward realistic novel, and then drew pages out at random and put them together to make a new book that jumps wildly between fantasy and real life.
And yet…I ended up reading two more of them.
One of the (poor) reviews of Julia’s Chocolates on Goodreads commented that the book was “sappy chick porn.” Her justification of this was that whenever a woman in such a book left an unhappy marriage, a horrible relationship, or another life-threatening situation, there is always around the next bend a delightful little town, a wildly successful talent that she can immediately turn into a new career, and a perfect Prince Charming. None of this resonates of truthfulness for anyone, but those are probably the exact reasons why books such as this enjoy a wide readership. Julia’s Chocolates was not a particularly well done example of one of them, but in the next two books, I did find some saving graces.
The next book I read is called Such A Pretty Face, and it is, as you would surmise, about a fat woman plagued by the constant cliché of supposedly well-meaning people telling her that if she’d only lose weight, everything would be divine. But I have to give Lamb credit: In this one she managed to avoid a lot of the clichés that plagued the previous book, and she actually drew a realistic picture of a woman so inundated by horror in her life that all she felt able to control was her eating, her eventual size protecting her in some aspects from dealing with the world around her.
The portrayal of Stevie Barrett’s terrifying childhood and the precipitating event that sent her from a loving though troubled home into a dysfunctional, belittling one was sensitively done, with details so perfectly personal and intimate that they evoked the scenes almost too powerfully for the reader. Similarly, her struggles as an adult to come to terms with herself are touching. After a heart attack at age 32, she undergoes bariatric surgery and loses more than half her weight, but inside she is still the fat, unattractive, deeply unhappy person she was never able to confront. Slowly, with assistance from friends and relatives, she begins to turn this around.
The criticisms of this book are two: One, Cathy Lamb doesn’t know how to write dialogue for the bad guys. She can depict them realistically, but when it comes time for them to speak, they sound like the villain in a melodrama, complete with handlebar mustaches and maniacal ha-ha-has! Two, of course, is the perfect love of her life who discovers, pursues, and wins her in the course of the book. As my friend on Goodreads said, “I mean literally, the next man she meets will always be handsome, sexy, available, and perfect for a long-term relationship.” This book deals with that topic more realistically than did Julia’s Chocolates, but it still seemed a bit too ideal.
Actually, let’s make those criticisms three, which goes as well for the next novel: the completely generic book covers. There were so many interesting images in this book that could have been featured on the cover to give it a little pizzazz as well as some intrigue, but no. Also, in the last book I will review, the sisters all three had black hair. Ahem.
My favorite, The Language of Sisters, is about three women—Antonia, Elvira, and Valeria—Russian sisters who escaped Communist Russia with their parents when they were young children, and moved to Oregon to be with the rest of the noisy, loving, extended family of Kozlovskys. This book, as do most of Lamb’s, has a touch of magical realism to it: The sisters are able to hear one another in their heads at times of danger, sadness, or trial, and can call out to one another for help. The book is narrated by Toni (Antonia), and is essentially her story, although it encompasses both her sisters, her extended family, and the “extra” family she has created on the dock of the tugboat (floating in the Williamette river) that she calls home. It’s not a surprise that those characters, given Lamb’s propensity for exaggeration, include an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, a high-priced call girl, an elderly opera singer suffering from dementia, and a husky blond DEA agent jonesing to be Toni’s soulmate.
The things I enjoyed about the book were the secrets that are gradually revealed throughout the course of the book—some in the recent past, and some left over from the girls’ Moscow childhood. The flashbacks to Moscow were particularly powerful. And I will admit that I also enjoyed, even while scoffing at, Toni’s blossoming relationship with Nick (the DEA agent). Apparently even a cynical reader can’t, in the end, resist romance.
I’m still not sure I would count Cathy Lamb as among the authors I like or would return to for more; but this has been a pleasantly fluffy, cozy, romantic interlude in my reading habits for which I have been grateful while confronting so many challenging pursuits in the real world for the past few weeks. (Let me just say that “I hate Microsoft” encompasses almost all of those challenges.) Although I will now return to my regularly scheduled programming of fantasy, teen fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy, I won’t rule out another Lamb interlude in my future.