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The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child is inspired by the Russian folk tale of an elderly couple who, unable to have children, used snow to form a girl who then comes to life. This novel takes place in 1920s Alaska instead of Russia, and the “elderly” couple, Mabel and Jack, are about fifty years old. Ten years have passed since Mabel gave birth to a still-born child in Pennsylvania, and her grief, and the loneliness she feels at family gatherings full of children, caused her to persuade Jack to try homesteading in Alaska.

The book starts during their second winter on the banks of the Wolverine River (apparently a fictional river). Mabel is so desperately depressed and lonely that she risks death by walking across the river on ice that she knows is too thin. Miraculously, she survives. Shortly after, during the first snowfall, she and Jack playfully build a girl of snow, even giving her mittens and a scarf. The next morning the snow girl has been destroyed, but small footsteps lead away from it. Mabel and Jack begin to see a blonde-haired girl near their home who seems to be wearing the mittens and scarf that they put on the snow girl.

The girl, Faina, seems to have mysterious powers: she can create storms, and she manages to help Mabel and Jack survive the winter, despite their precarious finances. She seems to have unlimited endurance and a preference for cold weather. On the other hand, she is very human in many ways. It is unclear to Jack and Mabel who, exactly, Faina is. She can speak, but whenever characters have a conversation with her, no quote marks are used, so I wasn’t sure if they were actually speaking out loud, or communicating silently.

I’ve never been to Alaska, but Ivey’s descriptions of the Alaska wilderness brought the setting alive in all its icy splendor. I was captivated not only by the fascinating mystery of Faina, but also by the well-drawn characters of Mabel, Jack, and a family with whom they become close friends. The Snow Child was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. A musical based on the book premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC in the spring of 2018. The graphic above is from the web site of Georgia Stitt, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music.

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.

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.

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 Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

Before I read this book, I was familiar with the plight of the Japanese in North America who were forced into internment camps during World War II. But I had never given a thought to the situation in Japan after the war. The Translation of Love by Japanese-Canadian author Lynne Kutsukake shines light on the human story behind the American occupation of Japan after the end of the war.

The story is told in third person through the eyes of several people, both Japanese-born and people of Japanese heritage from North America. A Japanese-Canadian girl, Aya, and her father are deported to Japan after their time in an internment camp. While struggling to fit in at school, she is befriended by Fumi, whose sister, Sumiko, has been earning money by dancing in bars with American soldiers.

Two other important characters include Japanese-Americans Matt and Nancy, who work as translators for the American government. For the most part, the Japanese people welcomed the American occupiers, and many wrote letters to General Douglas MacArthur, who was the leader of the occupying forces to bring democracy to Japan. These letters needed to be translated into English, and this is where the title of the book comes from.

The characters’ longings and desires are clearly drawn, and I was engaged by their intersecting stories. Fumi wants to send a letter to General MacArthur asking him to find her sister, and she enlists Aya’s help. They end up giving the letter to Matt who, along with Nancy, tries to find Sumiko among the myriad bars in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Sumiko develops a problem of her own and flees to a hidden location.

Lynne Kutsukake’s writing style is clean and straightforward. She weaves in relevant details about life in Japan to help the reader imagine what it would have been like to live there at that time both as an American (who had access to more wealth and food), and as a Japanese person (many of whom struggled to make ends meet). Here is the beginning of chapter 1, just before Fumi meets Aya:

Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and although she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was a delicious oily meat called Spam. Occasionally it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor—somehow sweet and salty at the same time—was surprisingly addictive.

The characters in this novel are gentle and appealing. I was surprised at the lack of anger and resentment on the part of the Japanese, but perhaps this was true to life.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—the woman who was the first wife of Edward Rochester, Jane’s lover. According to Jane Eyre, this madwoman was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, born and raised in Jamaica. She inherited the madness that ran in her family. Rochester claims that he was not told of this inherited insanity before his marriage. Later in the book, we learn that she sets fire to the house and burns it to the ground.

Jean Rhys was the pen name of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, born on the West Indies island of Dominica in 1890. Her father was Welsh and her mother was a white Creole (born and raised in the West Indies). She moved to England at the age of 17. Her life story sounds fascinating, and is the subject of a biography, The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini.

Rhys takes the sketch of Bertha Antoinetta Mason given in Jane Eyre and constructs a fully realized character, starting with her childhood in Jamaica, where she lives on Coulibri, a crumbling estate, with her mother and ill brother in the mid-1800s. The family has fallen on hard times: her father is dead, most of their slaves have fled, and the other white people in Jamaica shun them because they are Creoles. The young Antoinette’s best friend is her nanny, a black woman who has knowledge of obeah (folk magic).

The novel is told in an imagistic style, and readers must piece together events and relationships from sometimes disconnected scenes. The writing style is lush and descriptive. Here is a passage towards the beginning, as the child Antoinette, shunned, lonely and almost abandoned by her restless mother, struggles to find a way to spend her time:

I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think “It’s better than people.” Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin—once I saw a snake. All better than people (p. 28).

Antoinette’s mother soon marries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette takes his last name. (It is this man’s son—Antoinette’s step-brother—who, in Jane Eyre, travels to England to stop the marriage between Jane and Rochester). Antoinette’s mother goes mad from grief due to tragic events. This first section of the novel is told from Antoinette’s point of view.

The second section, which starts after Antoinette is persuaded to marry Edward Rochester, visiting from England, is told from Rochester’s point of view. It is not entirely clear why they get married. Is Rochester only interested in her wealth, to be inherited from Mr. Mason? Does she really love him? He insists on calling her “Bertha” because he likes the name, even though that is not her name, and even though she asks him not to. This section takes place during their honeymoon on a small island in the West Indies. Rochester hears rumors about his wife and her companions, and is not sure who or what to believe. His mental confusion is mirrored by his confusion at the unfamiliar landscape in which he finds himself.

The third section, again told through the eyes of Antoinette, who is now insane, takes place in England during the time she is imprisoned in the attic of Rochester’s mansion. Readers familiar with Jane Eyre will notice events and incidents that are mentioned in that novel, but now re-told through the eyes of the insane Antoinette.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a short, intense book, as colorful as the tropical West Indies home of Antoinette.

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Although there’s not much of a plot in Women of the Silk, the appealing characters, detailed descriptions of setting, and themes of women’s independence and communal living, kept me reading. The novel follows Pei from childhood as she leaves her poor family and joins a “sisterhood” of silk workers in a village near Canton, China in the early 20th century.

I enjoyed learning about the production of silk thread from cocoons, as well as the communal houses the girls and young women live in. Pei, along with several other women, decide to forego marriage and dedicate themselves to silk work. They even stage a successful strike for shorter working hours. The invasion of China by Japan changes everything, and Pei and her “sisters” must make some wrenching decisions.

The writing style of this novel is simple and direct. Shortly before two of the women undergo the “hairdressing” ceremony which marks their entrance into the silk sisterhood, Pei spends some time with her best friend, Lin:

When they reached the main road, Pei wished that she and Lin had walked in another direction, away from all the noise and suffocating crowds. Her mouth felt dry and sour. It was a week before Chen Ling’s and Ming’s hairdressing ceremony, and the girls had been given a rare day off from the factory while waiting for a new shipment of cocoons. Pei felt she’d seen so little of Lin in the past year that it was as if they had just awakened from a long sleep, still awkward and shy. (p. 83)

The author, Gail Tsukiyama, is an American of Chinese and Japanese ancestry. She became interested in the lives of women silk workers while researching southern Chinese history. The meandering feel of the novel could be attributed to the fact that Tsukiyama started the novel with “culture but no story,” according to an interview with Elizabeth Sherwin.

I was interested enough in the lives of Pei and her friends that certain inconsistencies bothered me. For example, when Pei first begins to work in the silk factory, her hours are from 5:30 am to 7:30 pm – 14 hours per day. Yet the girls and young women don’t complain about this, and seem to have plenty of free time to visit restaurants and pursue hobbies. Later in the book, the factory is said to increase the hours to 14, which causes the women to strike and demand a 10-hour work day.

Despite puzzling details like these, this quiet, lyrical book is a worthwhile read. Tsukiyama also wrote a sequel entitled The Language of Threads.

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

One would expect a novel that starts with the drowning of a child to be a tragic book. River, Cross My Heart is anything but. It takes place in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in the 1920’s, and is based on stories the author was told by her family about living in the African-American community of Georgetown at that time.

One hot summer day, 12-year-old Johnnie Mae disobeys her parents’ rule and decides to go swimming in the Potomac River. One impetus for this daredevil act is the fact that she is not allowed to swim in the only pool in the neighborhood, which is for white children. Her 8-year-old sister, Clara, who doesn’t know how to swim, falls off a branch into the water and drowns despite Johnnie Mae’s efforts to save her.

The novel uses this event as a way to show how the community mourns together, works together, and eventually celebrates together. Clara reappears in memory throughout the book as Johnnie Mae does chores, goes to school, makes a new friend, and participates in community events. Although the plot is not strong, there is forward movement and a satisfying closure. The characters are engaging and three-dimensional. Each chapter paints one scene or vignette in the life of Johnnie Mae as she grows up, searches for her place in the world, and tries to forgive herself for her sister’s death.

I don’t know if Breena Clarke is a poet, but the writing style is beautiful and full of images that reflect inner states of being. Shortly after Clara’s death, as Johnnie Mae helps with the cooking, she is mesmerized by what she sees in the boiling water:

The string beans Johnnie Mae poured into the boiling water came alive as they touched the water. They wriggled like garter snakes. Her eyes stayed on them as they hit bottom then floated to the top. A foamy substance bubbled on the surface of the water. . . . From the center of the cauldron, a mass seemed to form. It appeared to come together in the shape of a heart, disperse like a cloud, and then reformulate into a solid mass. It seemed to come together this time as a heart-shape face with amused eyes. Slender green plaits emanated from its skull and framed the face. (p. 87)

I enjoyed this novel not only because of the characters and language, but also because it immerses us in the details of daily life at that time and place. Everyone—children included—worked hard at home and held jobs for pay. Women worked as cooks, seamstresses, beauticians, and herbal healers. Johnnie Mae delivers and picks up clothes for a laundress. We also learn about the changes affecting the community. Electricity is introduced, and we feel the excitement when a swimming pool for African-Americans is finally built.

This novel is not at all sentimental, yet is full of heart. It was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel

I suppose The Clan of the Cave Bear should be called “prehistorical fiction” rather than “historical fiction.” It takes place in humanity’s ancient past, before the invention of writing and historical records. The first in a series of six, this novel follows Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl (an ancestor of modern Europeans), as she is adopted into a group of Neandertals.

The Neandertals (which are either a subspecies of Homo sapiens, or a different species of Homo—experts aren’t sure) are destined to die out, and the earth will of course be populated by the descendants of Ayla and her people. However, none of that has happened yet. The Clan, as they call themselves, is aware of the presence of the Others (as they call Ayla’s people), but there is little interaction. Despite the Clan’s dependence on tradition, they allow Ayla, an injured orphan, to live with them, and even overlook her odd appearance (a flat face, a high forehead, and straight rather than bowed limbs) to accept her as a Clan member.
The author, Jean Auel, seems to have done an enormous amount of research to create this ancient world of hunters and gatherers. The novel is filled with descriptions of the flora, fauna, and scenery that Ayla might have encountered. Tools, cooking methods, clothing, and herbal healing are all described in detail.

Auel had to use her imagination to create the rituals, language, and customs of the Neandertals. In her version, the Neandertals use their large brains for memory—they are even able to pass memories down to descendants, with the result that they all have a shared memory going back to their beginnings. However, their smaller frontal lobe means that they have difficulty with innovation and abstraction. The smartest man in the group can count only up to 20, and he is stunned by how quickly Ayla picks up on the concept of numbers. The Clan members are also puzzled by the range of her vocalizations (the Clan uses sign language along with a few spoken words), and the tears that drip from her eyes when she cries.

The main questions of the novel are: will Ayla be able to fit into Clan culture? Will she be able to find a mate, given how “ugly” she looks? Will she incur the curse of the leaders, given her penchant for bending and even breaking Clan rules and traditions? Because she has no shared Clan memory, Ayla must rely on her own ability to learn. This ability is both a blessing and a curse: it helps her survive extreme situations, but also gets her into those extreme situations in the first place, when she does things that no Clan woman would even think of doing.

In addition to Ayla, the novel features another strong and wise woman: Iza, the healer, who adopts Ayla and teaches her to become a medicine woman.

I was fascinated by this novel, but I did think it was too long. Some concepts were repeated too many times. Some rituals were described in too much detail. Some scenes were marred with too much inner thought and/or unnecessary dialogue. Still, I found this book to be a thought-provoking feat of imagination. The next title in the series is The Valley of Horses.

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian writer who lived during the first part of the 20th century, was fascinated by medieval Norway, where she set many of her novels. The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, perhaps her most famous work, takes place in the first part of the 1300s and follows a Norwegian woman from young childhood to death. Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath is about Kristin’s life until her marriage at the age of about 20.

From reading the back of the book, readers get the impression that The Wreath is a love story, but while the romance between Kristin and Erlend is a big part of the novel, the novel is more of a coming-of-age story, following Kristin’s developing consciousness of concepts such as Christianity vs. pagan beliefs, love vs. sin, and duty vs. passion.

There are two English translations of this book: one by Charles Archer from the 1920s, and another by Tiina Nunnally, published in 1997, which is the one I read. Apparently the Nunnally translation is more faithful to the original.

Kristin is raised Catholic, and the church remains important to her throughout the book. As a child she adores her father. At the age of 15 she accepts her father’s arrangements for a betrothal to a neighboring young man. However, after a traumatic experience she decides she is not yet ready for marriage, and asks to be sent to a convent for a year. There, her life changes when she meets Erlend Nikulausson, a handsome man whose passions are often stronger than his judgment. She insists on marrying Erlend despite her father’s disapproval.

The historical setting is richly detailed. The clothing, tools, food, customs, and political situation are smoothly integrated into the story, but never overwhelm the focus on Kristin’s life. The descriptions of the natural world are just one of the pleasures of this book. As a seven-year-old child, Kristin is excited to travel with her father to the mountain pastures. After eating lunch in a pasture, everyone takes a nap. Kristin wakes up before anyone else.

It must have been late in the day, for the sunshine was a gleaming yellow and the shadows had lengthened and now fell toward the southeast. There was no longer even a breath of wind, and mosquitoes and flies were buzzing and humming around the sleeping group of people. Kristin sat quite still, scratching the mosquito bites on her hands, and looked around. The mountain dome above them shone white with moss and gold from the lichen in the sunshine. (p. 15)

As much as I love this novel, I am still puzzled about why Kristin is so enamored of Erlend. Is it just his good looks? Is it that she encounters his attention just as she is healing from trauma? Whatever the reason, she is desperate to marry him, yet is also tormented by the idea that she has sinned against the teachings of her church.

A Norwegian movie based on this book, made in 1995 and directed by Liv Ullman, helped me learn how to pronounce the Norwegian names in the book, and to picture what the houses looked like. Kristin’s story continues in two more books: The Wife and The Cross.

Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She donated the prize money, including the gold medal, to help needy children.