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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.

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.

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland is a well-known writer of historical fiction, whose novels often features male protagonists. Great Maria is one of the few with a female lead character—and what a character she is.

The novel takes place in a fictionalized Sicily (the island off the “toe” of present-day Italy) in the 1000’s, during the time the Normans (of French heritage) were fighting the Saracens (Muslims) for dominance. I believe the place names Holland includes are made up, since I could not find them on any map of that region and era. It is therefore somewhat difficult to picture where the action takes place, although Holland’s descriptions are helpful. This article includes helpful background about medieval Sicily.

Maria is the only child of Robert Strongarm, a Norman baron. She has been managing her father’s household very competently since she was a young teen. She is convinced by her father to marry Richard, one of his knights. Richard and Maria have a stormy love-hate relationship. Although Richard comes to appreciate her management skills and hard work, he also wants her to be more compliant to his commands. Maria, however, has a mind of her own and puts it to use.

The story follows many years of Maria’s life in chronological order from the time she is 14. In the first chapter, Richard states as his reason for marrying Maria: “This castle’s at the throat of the whole region. . . . Someone is going to make himself great here, why should it not be me?” The overall plot is about Richard’s conquests, but that is in the background—the focus is on developing Maria as a character. The action really picks up when Richard assigns Maria, along with a small band of aged knights, to defend his newly acquired castle in Birnia while he and his brothers try to overthrow the Saracens in a different region.

Maria is a many-faceted woman and a strategic leader. She is a devout Catholic who uses plunder given to her by Richard to construct a chapel. She has a tender heart: she is actively involved in caring for her children, and does her best to help the peasants. Yet she feels no pity for those who are disloyal. She spies on her husband when she believes he is not being forthcoming with her. She takes counsel from her advisers but makes up her own mind. She bluffs her way out of dangerous situations.

Holland uses short, dense sentences which often combine setting, characterization, and action. This is how the novel begins:

Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue’s face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say. She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, and for her father’s good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks.

In addition to Maria, the other main and secondary characters are also well-developed and vivid. I grew to care about the fate of those whom Maria cared about, and to dislike those whom Maria disliked.

I do wish Holland had included more of Maria’s inner thoughts. It was sometimes difficult to know how Maria felt about the tumultuous incidents around her, and sometimes I didn’t understand why she was taking certain actions. Yet perhaps this was by design: Maria likes to act, and is not terribly introspective. She is an unusual, memorable character.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, a writer of African-Caribbean heritage, expands on the story of Tituba, the black slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In an interview printed at the back of the book, Condé reveals that she learned about Tituba by accident when she got lost in a library. She became curious, and sought more facts about her life. Finding very little, Condé says “I decided I was going to write her story out of my own dreams” (p. 199).

Originally written in French, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem imagines the entire life of Tituba, from her conception on a ship to Barbados, to her move to Massachusetts, and to her death and beyond, within the space of 179 pages. It is unusual for a short novel to cover such a broad span of time and multiple settings. In addition, the book includes fantastical elements. After Tituba’s mother dies, she is raised by a woman versed in healing and magic, who teaches her to communicate with the dead, among other skills. As a result, Tituba’s dead relatives are frequent visitors.

Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death. If you’re looking for a novel that reveals Tituba as a misunderstood victim, this is not the book. Tituba is compassionate when it suits her, but she is also at times vengeful, and sometimes makes bad decisions despite the advice of her relatives from the beyond. Condé also plays with the idea of a “historical” novel by including a fictional character, Hester Prynne, in the middle, and by making Tituba aware of how she is portrayed (or ignored) in history and how she is remembered by future generations.

Given what I knew of the Salem witch trials, I expected a realistic, heavy, long novel. What I got was a dash through the life of an extraordinary woman who is determined not to be forgotten.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is based on the almost mythic Icelandic true story of 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman beheaded in public in Iceland (in 1830). The author, Hannah Kent, was a teenaged Australian exchange student in Iceland when she first heard about the execution of Agnes, and became fascinated. She then spent many years visiting Iceland and researching the story of this woman through oral histories and government records.

The jacket copy for this book is a little misleading: “Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnusdottir has been moved to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, to await execution.” From this it sounds like the murders were committed in a more populated part of Iceland, and that Agnes was moved to a remote area that was unknown to her. In fact, the murders happened in an even more isolated, even more northern part of Iceland. There were no jails in this part of the country, so Agnes was housed in the homes of district officials. After sentencing, she was in fact moved to the valley in which she had grown up, to a farm where she had worked as housemaid for a previous family.

The story is told through several points of view: Agnes tells us her memories in first person; the reactions of the people around her are in third person; and interspersed throughout the novel are government documents and poems written about, to, and from Agnes. I found the novel full of suspense from the beginning: did Agnes really commit these murders? How will the family react to her being housed with them? Why did Agnes request a young priest who does not know her to help her prepare for the execution? What is Agnes really like? What was her relationship to the murdered men? These answers are revealed slowly, painting a fascinating and complex picture of the character and actions of Agnes. Almost every main character who encounters Agnes changes as a result.

In addition to the nuanced characters, the novel is also compelling for its detailed descriptions of the scenery and life of northern Iceland in the early 1800’s: the endless work, the harsh weather, and the objects of daily life. A map of the region and a pronunciation guide are helpful. I also listened to part of the audiobook for the pronunciation of names and places. The writing style is simple, direct, and spare, yet full of emotion.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of March and several other historical novels. But it all started with her first novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, published in 2001.

I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy Year of Wonders because it is about a year filled with disease and tragedy. I’m glad I read it—it’s a beautiful, thought-provoking novel. It is narrated in the first person by Anna Frith, a servant to Michael Mompellion, a rector of a small village in 17th century England. When plague hit the village, Mompellion convinced the villagers to voluntarily quarantine themselves in order to avoid spreading the disease to neighboring villages.

Brooks based this novel on the true story of the village of Eyam, which is known even today as the “plague village.” During a holiday, Brooks, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, came across the village and was so fascinated by its story that she decided to write a novel about it. There really was a rector who convinced the villagers of the need for a quarantine. In one of his letters, this rector mentioned his gratitude for his maid, and from this line, the character of Anna Frith was born.

The novel begins at the end, after the plague has passed, when the rector has lost not only his beloved wife but also his faith in religion. Anna tends to him as best she can, but he barely eats and refuses to leave the house.

The story then goes back to the spring before the plague set in. Anna, a widow with two young sons, accepts a young tailor as a lodger. A bolt of cloth ordered from London, where the plague is raging, brings the disease into the village. The lodger dies, and soon others nearby die as well. Villagers begin pointing the finger at two women healers, accusing them of being witches. When these women are murdered by several villagers, the horror and guilt of this deed lay the groundwork for the quarantine that Mompellion asks the villagers to agree to.

Anna and her employer, Elinor Mompellion, begin to educate themselves about herbs, and serve as the only healers in town. This is just the first of many trials and transformations that Anna goes through in this surprisingly action-packed novel.

Brooks sprinkles the text with archaic phrases and words which add to the historic feel without hindering the overall meaning. I read the novel through without bothering to look up such words as “whisket” (a small basket) and “posset” (spiced milk with ale).

Anna’s voice is spare, honest, and warm, and you will not regret the time you spend with her.

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.