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Peony, by Pearl S. Buck

Peony, by Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck, the daughter of Protestant missionaries, was raised in China during the first part of the 20th century. She wrote over 65 books, including many novels set in China. She is best known for The Good Earth, first published in 1931. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The photo above is from the cover of a DVD about her life: Pearl S. Buck: A Life, A Legacy

I read The Good Earth many years ago, but had not revisited Buck’s books until recently, and I am so glad to have rediscovered her. Peony, first published in 1948, is full of nuanced characters and complex cultural situations, besides being an engaging story.

The novel is named after Peony, a bondmaid in the home of a Jewish family in Kaifeng, China in the 1800s. Yes, there really were Jews in China, although at the time of this novel they are in danger of disappearing as a separate culture. The central dilemma of the book is whether the son of the family, David, will marry Leah, the daughter of the only other prominent Jewish family in town, or will take a Chinese wife. David’s father, Ezra, who is half-Chinese, is eager to see David married to the daughter of his Chinese business partner. David’s mother insists that he marry Leah and become rabbi to their synagogue, since there is no one else to take the old rabbi’s place.

Peony, a smart and beautiful young woman, is in love with David herself, but assumes that she has little hope of marrying him. However, using her intelligence and guile, as well as her strong bond with David, she can try to engineer the situation to her advantage. Although Peony is a bondmaid, bought by Ezra when she was a small child, she is in fact the very capable manager of the household.

Besides the well-drawn main characters, the novel is full of vivid minor characters: Ezra’s business partner; the elderly maid; the rabbi’s good-for-nothing son; and even a tiny dog that lives in the household.

Peony includes details of both the Jewish traditions and Chinese customs that the family participates in. I’m assuming that everyone in the novel is speaking Chinese, since by then the Jews had been in China for generations. They are described as wearing Chinese clothing at times, and at other times Jewish-style clothing decorated with Chinese embroidery.

The novel follows Peony’s life until her old age. She must make difficult decisions as she strives to do her job well and to make a place for herself in a situation in which she seems to have no secure place and no one to depend on. This is a fascinating novel of how individual choices affect a family and an entire culture. It is also a historically accurate portrayal of a minority culture existing peacefully within a larger culture.

For more about Pearl S. Buck – her books, her life, and her humanitarian work – check out Pearl S. Buck International.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, was inspired by the story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, who killed her own child when she and her family were about to be recaptured by slave-hunters. In an interview in the New York Times, Morrison says that while she became fascinated by Garner’s story, she also wanted to be free to create the character herself. ”Now I didn’t do any more research at all about that story. I did a lot of research about everything else in the book—Cincinnati, and abolitionists, and the underground railroad—but I refused to find out anything else about Margaret Garner. I really wanted to invent her life.”

Beloved seeks to answer the question: what would drive a woman to kill her own child? And what would her life be like afterwards?

The story starts about 18 years after the killing. Sethe, the mother, lives with one surviving daughter, Denver, in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. A guest arrives—a former slave from Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky where they both had lived. Paul D. is astonished that Sethe’s house is apparently haunted: a red light appears from nowhere, and the house shakes, tossing furniture into the air. Paul D. manages to exorcise the ghost.

Soon after, a new visitor arrives at the house: a mysterious young woman who cannot tell them where she is from. She says only that her name is “Beloved.” This word is the only one Sethe had managed to get engraved on her dead daughter’s headstone, and it soon becomes apparent that the young woman is indeed the dead daughter come back.

The backstory comes out in fits and starts: the new, cruel overseer of Sweet Home, who spurred the slaves to escape; the separation of the slaves as their plans unraveled; the journey of the pregnant Sethe across the Ohio River to Cincinnati; and the event that caused her to murder her daughter and attempt to kill her other children.

The timeline of this novel is not linear, perhaps to reflect Sethe’s state of mind: she lives in the past with the crime she has committed, as well as in the present. Although clearly set in 1873, the story seems timeless, and the tense shifts occasionally from past to present. The point of view also shifts: from omniscient, to third person (Sethe, or Paul D., or Denver) to first person (Sethe’s inner thoughts).

Mystery is worked into the novel in a matter-of-fact way. Here is the first appearance of the being that calls herself Beloved:

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim of her straw hat. . . . Nobody saw her emerge or came accidentally by. If they had, chances are they would have hesitated before approaching her. Not because she was wet, or dozing or had what sounded like asthma, but because amid all that she was smiling.

Reading Morrison’s novel Beloved is a challenging but rewarding experience.

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Did you know there may have been a female Pope in the 800’s? According to Pope Joan, which is based on historical clues, such a person could have existed. Donna Woolfolk Cross brings Pope John (or Joan) to life, from her birth to her death, and constructs plausible and engaging scenarios to explain how Joan became educated and was able to hide her gender until she reached the pinnacle of power in medieval Christianity.

Joan was born in Ingelheim, which is in present-day Germany. A map of the region would have been helpful. As she grows up, she is fascinated by both the pre-Christian Norse myths that her Saxon mother tells, as well as the Latin her older brother is learning. She persuades her brother to teach her to read and write in secret. She impresses a visiting Greek scholar, who convinces her father that she should be tutored. When her tutor leaves, he secures a place for Joan in a boarding school in Dorstadt, where she is taken in by a wealthy knight and his family. At this point Joan is still known as a female, and has to combat discrimination, teasing, and shunning based on her gender.

When Vikings sack the town of Dorstadt, Joan miraculously escapes death. She puts on her dead brother’s clothes, cuts her hair, and sets out to live as a man. She travels to the monastery that her brother was to have joined, and passes herself off as him. This was not as difficult as it sounds, given the all-encompassing clothing worn by monks, and the fact that monks rarely bathed and were not to expose their bodies to anyone. Eventually she made her way to Rome. I found a map on Google Maps that traces her journey from her birthplace to Rome.

Joan is an appealing character, although sometimes she seems too politically correct in a modern sense. The story is taut with the challenges she must face and overcome. Towards the end of the book, there are several chapters of political intrigue and historical events in which Joan is more of an observer, and these chapters were not as satisfying. In addition, some events and motivations seem shoe-horned into the plot in order to explain how her gender was unmasked. Finally, the focus returns to Joan, and the book ends on an inspiring note.

A German movie based on this book was released in 2009. For more information about the facts behind the book, as well as the author, please check out Donna Woolfolk Cross’s web site.

Property, by Valerie Martin

Property, by Valerie Martin

The title of this short novel could be read in multiple ways: “property” refers to the slave, Sarah, owned by the main character, a white woman named Manon. It could also refer to Manon herself, who is in a way the “property” of her husband. When Manon inherits her mother’s house, it is by law her husband’s property, since she “belongs” to him.

Property was first published in 2003 and won the Orange Prize for Fiction by a female author (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). It is told in first person through the voice of Manon, a middle-class Creole woman in Louisiana before the Civil War. As a reader, I had a complicated reaction to Manon. I felt sorry for her because of her marriage to a boorish, sadistic man, and I was rooting for her to find a way to escape from the marriage. But I also found her selfish and cold: she has little sympathy for Sarah, who is her husband’s mistress, and who is also searching for a way to escape – this time not just from one man, but from slavery itself.

The story takes place during a time of slave unrest and revolt. Manon is aware of the situation, but is mostly concerned with herself. The author, Valerie Martin, has created a complex character to allow the reader to experience, through Manon’s voice, what it would be like to be a white woman slave-owner. What contorted arguments would a woman like that have to believe in order to maintain the status quo? Yet as distasteful as Manon is, Martin manages to make her a sympathetic character. As a child, she lost her father. Because of her lack of wealth, she felt pressure to marry a man she didn’t love. She is not able to have children, but her husband fathers children with her own slave.

Each scene in this novella is rich with tension and layered with nuances of character.

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

The unnamed narrator of The Blood of Flowers is a young woman of 17th century Iran who has fallen on hard times. The book begins with the narrator and her mother huddled in old clothes in a cold, leaking shelter, speaking in whispers to avoid disturbing others sleeping nearby. But the narrator reveals that she wasn’t always in such dire straits: “Only a few months before I had worn a thick velvet robe patterned with red roses, with silk trousers underneath. I had painted my eyes with kohl, perfumed my clothes with incense, and awaited my lover, who had torn the clothes from my body in a room kept as warm as summer” (p. 5).

She blames her difficult life on a comet that passed over her village and, according to the astrologer, brought bad luck. If astrology plays a part, the narrator’s own personality is also a factor: in a culture where women are supposed to be obedient, she takes risks which sometimes work out, and sometimes don’t.

Shortly after the comet’s appearance, the narrator, then 15 years old, leaves her village for the city of Isfahan. Amirrezvani made three trips to Iran while researching and writing the book, and she is clearly enamored of Isfahan: at times the book reads like a travel guide. Yet she also brings out the glamour and excitement of that thriving city. Isfahan is a center of carpet designers and manufacturers, and the narrator persuades her uncle to teach her to design and knot world-class carpets.

The narrator also aims to marry a wealthy man and thus secure a comfortable future for herself and her mother. Unfortunately, she has no dowry. She strives to earn more from her carpets, but is thwarted by jealous relatives.

In addition to the main story line, the novel also includes traditional Iranian tales as well as two tales created by the narrator and her mother which bookend the narrative. These two tales are integral to the plot and characters, and both are poignant and insightful. The ending tale, in particular, is haunting.

Occasionally the plot of the novel is forced, but for the most part I was intrigued by this story of a woman coming of age and struggling to find her own way in a society designed to keep women hidden and dependent. After reading this book, I have a sense of the human drama and history behind every Persian rug.

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true-life novel” because although she based it on the life of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, she tells the story in first person (re-creating Lily’s voice) and she also imagined details to fill in the gaps of the real story.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Walls says, “My grandmother was quite a character.” She is indeed. Her voice jumps off every page as we follow her through the adventures of her childhood, youth, and middle age in the American southwest in the first half of the twentieth century. The opening chapter tells of how Lily, 10 years old, saves herself and her siblings when they get caught in a flash flood on their family’s homestead in Texas. Lily is integral to the success of the family’s fortunes: from the age of five, she has been helping her physically disabled father to train carriage horses.

When the family moves to New Mexico, Lily is allowed to attend a Catholic boarding school, which she loves. However, after just half a year, her father fails to pay the tuition and she has to go home. She discovers that her father has used the tuition money to buy four Great Danes from Sweden. Lily is furious, but has to accept the situation. Drawing on her Catholic faith, she looks for the door that God is said to open when he closes a window, and jumps at the chance to take a test to become a teacher. She passes, and at the age of 15, rides her horse 500 miles through New Mexico into Arizona, to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. Because of World War I, teachers are in short supply.

From this point on, Lily supports herself, visiting her family only occasionally. When her first job ends with the end of the war, Lily decides to seek her fortune in Chicago. I loved tagging along on the ride of Lily’s life. Although the way is sometimes bumpy, she doesn’t let it stop her from pursuing her goals, whether learning to drive an automobile, finishing her education, taking flying lessons, or figuring out how to make ends meet during the Great Depression. As the title suggests, Lily’s life is half-way between the freedom and danger of being wild, and the safety, rules and strictures of civilization.

Lily, a born teacher, tells the stories of her life to her daughter Rosemary, in the hopes that Rosemary will learn from them. Rosemary, in turn, tells these stories to her daughter—Jeannette Walls. Although Lily died when Jeannette was only eight, her memory and stories remained in the family, and now, thanks to the sure-footed writing of Jeannette Walls, we can all benefit from spending time with the determined, energetic, resourceful, and big-hearted Lily Casey Smith.

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

I first read Eva Moves the Furniture when it came out in 2001. I enjoyed it then, and the characters stayed with me through the years. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it even more.

The novel begins in Scotland in 1920, with the birth of Eva and with her mother’s death. As a small child living a placid rural life with her elderly father and her aunt, Eva realizes that she has two companions that only she can see: a teenaged girl and an older woman. These mysterious figures are usually helpful to her, but also embarrassing in that they make her feel different from other people. They follow her as she enters nursing school in nearby Glasgow, and as she takes her first job as a nurse. The title refers to the fact that these companions sometimes re-arranged furniture and objects in Eva’s room.

The identity of the companions is revealed gradually, as Eva learns more about life and the world beyond death. Yet their mystery is not the focus of this novel. Instead, their presence is simply a fact of life for Eva, and we come to accept them as she does. World War II begins, and in the process of helping patients who have been severely injured, she matures and her understanding deepens. The novel is an unfolding of Eva’s discovery of herself as she goes out into the world.

Eva Moves the Furniture is told in first person, from Eva’s perspective, and it is only later in the book that we realize she has been telling the story to one particular person all along. The novel is based on the life of the author’s mother.

My one minor complaint is that the novel starts with half a page about an Italian surgeon in Africa. This tidbit is tangentially related to a certain character in the book—but only if you squint and look sideways—and I am still puzzled by its prominence on the first page of this book.

Other than that, this gentle novel is full of beauty, truth, and emotion.

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

What gives people the courage to risk their lives for political freedom? That question spurred Julia Alvarez to write In the Time of the Butterflies based on the true story of the four Mirabal sisters, three of whom were activists with the code name “butterflies” in mid-twentieth century Dominican Republic. Alvarez, who is from the Dominican Republic, became interested in their stories because of the parallels with her own family: her father had also been involved in underground activities against the brutal Trujillo, and the three activist sisters were murdered just months after Alvarez’s family escaped to the United States.

Alvarez’s re-telling humanizes these legendary women. The story is told through the voices of all four sisters, starting in 1938, when Minerva Mirabal learns about Trujillo’s crimes from a classmate whose family members have been murdered. Although the sisters are known for their political activism, we get to know them as daughters, friends, wives, and mothers. Alvarez makes each sister unique: Patria, the eldest, cares most about her Catholic faith and her husband and children; Dedé is the organized, practical one who takes charge of the family store; Minerva struggles to become a lawyer and never backs down; and Maria Teresa is interested in young men, clothes, and following in the footsteps of Minerva.

The structure of the novel is unique and effective. It is divided into three parts, each beginning with Dedé, the only surviving sister, speaking to a Dominican-American visitor in 1994, and continuing with a memory from Dedé’s point of view. Then, each sister tells a portion of the story in her own voice. We learn what pushed each woman to become involved in the underground revolution despite the danger. Although the sisters are fighting against a brutal dictator, there are moments of humor, such as the sisters’ nicknames for prison guards, and their descriptions of pompous government officials.

Despite the tragedy, the ending is beautiful and poignant. I became so interested in the real sisters behind this novel that I looked them up. The real Dedé died in 2014. Some children of the sisters have become politicians in a democratic Dominican Republic. The day of their death, November 25, has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria

Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria

Waterlily was originally written in the 1940’s but not published until 1988, after the author’s death. This novel about the life of a Dakota woman and her family in the mid-1800’s, just as European-Americans were beginning to encroach on the land where the Plains Indians lived, is based on the author’s ancestors. November is a great time to read this book, since we are celebrating Native American Heritage Month.

Ella Cara Deloria was born on the Yankton Sioux reservation and worked as a Sioux translator and ethnographic field researcher. She translated and wrote scholarly works about traditional Sioux life and customs, but in order to make this lifestyle come alive for readers, she decided to write a novel. The delightful, insightful result is Waterlily. The title refers to one of the main characters, but in reality the novel is about Waterlily’s entire family, since for a Dakota woman or man, kinship ties are akin to life itself.

The novel begins as Waterlily’s mother, Blue Bird, gives birth alone beside a stream. We soon learn that Blue Bird is in a sad situation: she and her grandmother got lost while fleeing an attack, and have been taken in by an unrelated camp. Furthermore, Blue Bird’s husband is jealous and mean.

During the first half of the novel we hardly see Waterlily; she’s busy growing up. Instead, we follow the stories of Blue Bird and other members of the camp circle. Dakota customs and rituals are explained in detail, and sometimes the novel seems like an ethnographic study. However, the traditions are an important part of the life of the characters, and it would be difficult for readers to understand the characters’ motivations, actions, and decisions without understanding their culture.

Once Waterlily reaches the age of 15, the novel follows her as she begins to notice young men, and as she decides how closely to adhere to the social rules she has been taught. Waterlily experiences great joy and tragedy, and Deloria makes sure that we, as readers, understand the significance of what is said and done.

Waterlily’s family has little contact with the European-Americans, although they do trade “American” horses, and the women covet flannel cloth as an alternative to hide clothing and blankets. Metal plates, guns, and other goods from the Europeans are also occasionally in use. Waterlily and her family have very little sense of what the Europeans will do to their way of life, although at one point a character voices fear that the buffalo will all be killed by the white men.

I loved being immersed in the culture and lives of Waterlily and her family, and I didn’t want this novel to end.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

I’d never heard of Sarah Waters until very recently, and now I’m astonished that this enormously talented woman-centered author wasn’t already a favorite of mine! Now that I’ve read one book, I’m sure to read more by her.

The Paying Guests almost feels like three novels in one. It takes place over the course of several months in 1922 near London, with the same characters, but the book’s feel shifts from a light domestic drama to something much more intense and dark as the novel progresses. The plot of the novel takes a long time to get going, yet I was interested enough in the characters and their minor conflicts to keep reading. At about 200 pages, the plane is ready and fueled, and the story takes off.

The novel starts as a married couple arrive to live in rented rooms at the decaying home of Frances Wray and her mother. Frances is a single woman who frets about cleaning and cooking. But soon it comes out that she is not single by choice: she has given up her woman lover because the relationship upset her mother. She befriends Lilian, the wife. Their growing closeness is the subject of the first part of the book. In the second part, Frances and Lilian find themselves in a complicated situation and face a moral dilemma. The third part involves the consequences of their decision.

In an essay in The Guardian, Waters states that the novel is about “the negotiations that must be made by a passionate relationship as it braves the tangle of courage and cowardice, generosity and meanness, splendid ambition and awful misjudgment that constitutes ordinary life.” Waters succeeds in making 1922 feel “ordinary” – details of post-World War I life in London are worked in naturally, and I hardly felt I was reading a historical novel, so convincing was the setting. She also succeeds in making both Frances and Lilian ordinary in a complex, nuanced way. Their actions are believable and understandable given the situations they find themselves in.

My only complaint is that although the novel is over 500 pages long, when I got to the end I did not think the story had been resolved. I felt as if Lilian and Frances still had big decisions ahead of them. But perhaps that was by design: it is left to the reader to speculate on what they will do next, given what we know of their personalities and situations in life.