Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

When Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth found themselves homeless after a bad investment, they took the road less traveled – they set off on a 630-mile hike along the South West Coast Path. It may sound like a romantic notion, but without the benefit of a steady source of income and armed with inadequate equipment, it was an excursion that tested not only their physical endurance, but their psychological endurance as well. The Salt Path is Raynor Winn’s memoir chronicling their journey.

Raynor and Moth had been married thirty-two years, raised two children (now in college), rebuilt their farm and home and run a business out of it, when they were asked by one of Moth’s lifelong friends to invest in one of his companies. They put in a substantial sum and when the company failed, they lost their home and their livelihood. They stalled for three years until finally, the bailiffs were at their door, banging on the windows, trying all the latches for a way in. Hiding in the basement, Raynor spotted a book that she’d read in her twenties, Five Hundred Mile Walkies about a man and his dog who walked the South West Coast Path.

“We could just walk.”

It sounded easy enough, like an escape, an adventure walking the whole coastline from Minehead in Somerset through north Devon, Cornwall and south Devon to Poole in Dorset. It seemed an idyllic prospect – not realizing then that the South West Coast Path was relentless, that it would mean climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest four times on a path often no wider than a foot, sleeping in a tent, living off of rice and noodles and the occasional pasty or more often mixing seaweed and limpets into their meager rations to make the forty eight pounds per week of government assistance last until the next. And then there was Moth’s illness – a chronically sore shoulder, a slight hand tremor, and numbness in his face that was finally diagnosed as CBD, corticobasal degeneration, a rare progressive neurological disorder that typically leads to death within seven years of diagnosis.

The Coast Path was established by the coast guard who needed a view into each and every cove as they patrolled for smugglers – primarily funded by England. Now, it is a popular walking trail for locals and visitors. Ray and Moth encountered many of these recreational hikers along the way – initially these fellow hikers were convivial, happy to share stories of the trail and their timelines – until they found out Moth and Ray were homeless and hiking and living out of their tent not by choice, but by necessity. They were often hungry, sore, and dirty. The weather could be fierce – driving rain and wind that threatened to blow them off the steep cliffs one day and scorchingly hot the next.

Something unexpected happens . . . something good. Moth stops taking his medication because it makes him feel foggy headed. His aches lesson as he walks. As they traverse up the steep inclines, their muscles become more defined, and Moth feels stronger, clearer . . . his symptoms seem to subside. Whether it was the intense physical exercise or the increased oxygen intake from the daily aerobic activity, Moth felt better.

In the fall, a friend offered them shelter – a shed on her farm. In exchange for staying there, Moth was asked to renovate it, and he set to work plastering the walls. Ray got a job on a shearing team – wrapping for a team of three competition-standard shearers who could each shear an ewe in under four minutes. It was physically demanding work, a different physicality than the walking had been, but worse than that was watching Moth starting a steady decline. Without walking, his stiffness and neurological pain returned.

“Sometimes,” Moth told Ray, “I wake up and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do. It’s as if my body’s forgetting how to function. I have to tell myself I should eat or drink or go to the bathroom, because I should, not because I want to. Is this it, am I dying now?”

Moth and Ray had been together since they were eighteen and neither of them could imagine a life without the other. When things seemed the most dire, Moth told Ray, “When it does come, the end, I want you to have me cremated . . . Because I want you to keep me in a box somewhere, then when you die the kids can put you in, give us a shake and send us on our way. Together. It’s bothered me more than anything else, the thought of us being apart. They can let us go on the coast, in the wind, and we’ll find the horizon together.”

When the shed’s renovation was complete in the Spring, their friend informed them that she had found a renter and they would have to move on. Rather than feeling bitter, Moth and Ray were relieved. They would finish their walk on the coastal path, taking up where they’d left off in the fall. As they began walking, Moth’s health improved, his head cleared, and he felt the strength return to his limbs.

Raynor Winn’s memoir is both heart wrenching and inspiring. In their fifties, having lost everything, they began walking the path out of necessity, but found strength and courage and renewed health along the way.

I recommend The Salt Path for fans of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to all my reviews and author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota http://www.wtip.org.

 

 

 

Olive Kitteridge is back in Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again. It’s been over ten years since we last heard from Olive, and she is still the acerbic, cantankerous, highly opinionated, yet reservedly empathetic Olive that we’ve come to know and love. Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for Olive Kitteridge, a novel in short stories all interconnected by the title character; HBO produced a mini-series starring Francis McDormand as Olive, as well. The book opens in Olive’s coastal community of Crosby, Maine. Through thirteen interconnected stories, Strout examines the vagaries of family relationships, grief, estrangement, loneliness, and regret. You needn’t read Olive Kitteridge to enjoy the sequel, but you’ll want to.

Olive’s husband, Henry has been dead for two years and Olive is in her seventies as the book opens. After some reticence, Olive and Jack Kennison, a retired Harvard professor who has also recently been widowed and is estranged from his gay daughter, reconnect.

Olive invites her son Christopher and his family for a visit. She hasn’t seen him for three years and he and his wife have recently had a new baby. Olive is clearly partial to her husband’s namesake, Henry, and has knitted him a red scarf, while neglecting to gift any of the other children. The children are wary of Olive’s outspoken and harsh nature. As Christopher and his family prepare to leave, she announces that she is getting remarried to Jack and the tenuous bond she has attempted to mend during their visit, ruptures. After they leave, Olive finds that Henry has left behind his red scarf.

In another story, Olive attends a baby shower for a local woman and is peeved by the tiresome process of unwrapping gifts and sending them around the room for everyone to admire. When another guest at the party goes into labor, Olive sensing an opportunity to escape, offers to drive her to the hospital but ends up delivering the baby in the back seat of her car.

Strout, almost reluctantly reveals to us the empathetic vein at Olive’s center. When Olive runs into a former student, Cindy Coombs at the grocery store and learns that she has cancer, Olive visits her unannounced one day. At first Cindy is hesitant to receive her, but over a series of visits Cindy and Olive discuss mortality and their relationships with their husbands. Olive shares with Cindy her regrets over how she had treated her first husband, Henry and confesses that she has become a “tiny – tiny – bit better as a person” but regrets that Henry is not there to receive the benefit of it. Cindy acknowledges that Olive has become a friend of sorts, visiting her regularly when her former friends do not.

Olive reserves her empathy and friendship for those who need it the most. She is not drawn to the popular residents at the Senior Citizens complex where she moves after suffering a heart attack and the death of her second husband, Jack. She prefers to connect with Isabelle, who shares similar heartaches and secrets and – who also wears the adult diapers that Olive disdains but has become dependent upon.

Throughout the stories in Olive, Again, we see the old Olive – the one quick to judge, the one that pushes people away, the one that can be unbearably brash – but we see an aging Olive as well – one who is reflective, writing out her memories on a typewriter that Christopher, reconciled after Olive’s heart attack, provides for her.

Elizabeth Strout is one of the greatest fiction writers of her generation. Her prose is spare, her revelations are nuanced, and her characters are complex, revealing the truth of all that it means to be human. What a thing, as Olive would say.

At the end of the novel, Olive runs into a former student, Andrea, who became the United States Poet Laureate. The following spring, someone anonymously sends Olive a poem written by Andrea, based upon their conversation. Olive is offended by Andrea’s characterization of her, but then realizes that “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another.” Perhaps that is the greatest gift of Strout’s Olive, Again.

I recommend Olive, Again for fans of character-driven fiction, for fans of Olive Kitteridge and A Man Called Ove.

You can listen to all my reviews and author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota and on the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Cash Blackbear is back in the second book in Marcie Rendon’s series, Girl Gone Missing. It’s not necessary to read the first in the series, Murder on the Red River, but you will want to. Rendon sprinkles enough of Cash’s backstory throughout the second book so that you’ll never be lost.

In Girl Gone Missing, the intrepid Cash Blackbear is enrolled at Moorhead State University with the encouragement of her friend and father figure, Sheriff Wheaton. Cash isn’t comfortable with bureaucracy but navigates enrolling and applying for funding with her usual fierce determination. Cash is tough and has learned through a life in abusive white foster homes how to take care of herself. It helps that Wheaton looks out for her as well — insisting that she get a telephone (he pays for it) so that he can check in on her more easily. Cash is smart. She tests out of her entry level English and Science classes and is nominated for an award for her English essay. The awards will be held in the Twin Cities. Cash grew up in the Red River Valley and can hardly fathom the reality of the Twin Cities. Before she leaves for the awards ceremony, she hears about two missing girls — one a student at Moorhead who was in one of her classes and the other a high school student whom she hasn’t met — both blond-haired blue-eyed girls who have led privileged lives; girls not likely to be runaways.

Cash often has dreams that reveal the past or future. She often shares information with Sheriff Wheaton about her dreams and the information has helped solve a crime. In the second book, Cash dreams of a blond-haired girl who screams, “Help me.” She tells Wheaton about the missing girls and he goes to work investigating their disappearance. In the meantime, Cash leaves for the Twin Cities and the award ceremony.

An interesting twist in the second book, is the appearance of Cash’s long-lost brother, Mo. Cash was separated from her siblings when she was three years old and her mother rolled her car with Cash, Mo, and her sister in it; she hasn’t seen any of them since. Mo is a Vietnam vet and shows up at her apartment. He fixes her breakfast and makes sure there is food and beer in the fridge. Cash isn’t used to having someone take care of her — Wheaton is the closest she’s come — and she finds it all a little uncomfortable.

Girl Gone Missing is a satisfying follow up to the Cash Blackbear original story. Cash is slowly evolving — she still drives beet truck at night to pay her bills and still drinks and smokes too much — but she’s enrolled in college and she’s smart. Even if Cash can’t see it, we can see her future from here . . . and it’s looking up. But first, she’ll have to get herself and the missing girls out of a pretty rough spot.

Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end of the Cash Blackbear novels. Marcie Rendon fills in the historical backstory — The Indian Adoption Project created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs existed from 1941 to 1967 and allowed adoption agencies to systematically remove Native children form their birth parents. Eighty-five percent of them were adopted by white families where they were often used as slave labor — because adoption records were sealed, many lost their tribal identities. “It was one more way to disappear Native people from the national consciousness,” Rendon writes. For this reason and many others, it is important to read Native stories by Native authors. For far too long, these stories have been appropriated by writers of privilege, effectively stealing stories and opportunities for publication from Native writers.

At the end of Girl Gone Missing, the author gives us a glimpse of the third book. Cash Blackbear stands in a cemetery before the freshly dug grave of a small child, a second child’s grave adjacent to it — the children, siblings, born two years apart. A cloud of cold air swirls around Cash’s face — and we, dear reader, know what that means — trouble is afoot and Cash has just landed in the middle of it.

Listen to my interview on Superior Reads with author Marcie Rendon on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais on January 23 at 7:00 pm and listen to all my reviews and interviews on http://www.wtip.org and on Superior Reads at http://www.superiorreads.blog.

 

The star of Marcie Rendon’s Murder on the Red River is Renee Blackbear, who goes by the nickname Cash. She’s nineteen years old and a survivor of numerous foster homes — one of the many Native children removed from their homes and placed with white foster parents. When Cash was three, her mother lost her parental rights after rolling her car with her three kids in it; Cash hasn’t seen her mother or her brother or sister since. The local sheriff, Wheaton, looks out for her, and in fact saved her from her last abusive foster home by signing off so she could get an apartment on her own. Cash lives in Fargo, North Dakota and drives beet truck for a living. She’s an amateur pool shark in the evening — makes enough to keep her in free beers at the Casbah where she teams up (there and back at her apartment) with a married guy. The novel is set in the 1970’s during the Vietnam War era – the nightly news playing in the background at the Casbah reports the daily body count.

When a local Native guy is murdered, Wheaton enlists Cash’s help to solve the crime. Cash has waking dreams; she can travel outside of her body to see the past or future. At first, the information doesn’t make sense to her, but as things unfold, she can see where it fits into the big picture.

“Soon she was lost in time, her body floating up and out of the truck bed and following the trail of a soul gone northeast to say good-bye to loved ones. She saw a gravel road with a stand, almost like a food stand where one would sell berries, but this one had a basket of pinecones on it. Birchbark baskets were filled with pinecones. Children, five or six of them, crowded ’round the stand.”

Cash is tough — she favors Marlboros and Budweisers — and carries a sleeping bag and a rifle in her pick up truck. She’s learned how to take care of herself the hard way. Wheaton wants her to go to college — she’s smart and there is funding available — but Cash has never trusted the establishment.

Though there is the mystery of the Native man to solve in Murder on the Red River — the mystery is not at the center of the novel — Cash is. Cash is a character that will stick with you, she’s tough, but vulnerable. Even though she can, you don’t want her to have to always take care of herself. You’ll worry about her drinking and smoking and wish you could sidle up next to her in a booth at the Casbah and give her a little advice, or buy her a meal, or introduce her to a nice, stable, single guy.

Rendon has nailed the setting — the smell of the sugar beet factories in the Red River Valley, the mud and the truck tracks from load after load of sugar beets being hauled out of the fields, the wide open vistas, the dive bars, and the diners that serve up roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy.

In the author notes, Rendon writes about the historical trauma of Native people. “From 1819 to 1934, Native children were systematically removed form families and put into boarding schools . . . they grew up like prisoners of war, punished for speaking their languages, punished for talking to their siblings if they crossed paths.” In the 1960’s 25-35% of Native children were taken from their families and placed in non-Indian homes or institutions. White Earth and Red Lake reservations experienced even higher removals. Finally, in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed; it set federal requirements for state child custody proceedings for Indian children who were a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe. The Act required state welfare agencies to work in the best interest of the child to place the child with a family member or extended family member of the tribe.

One wonders, how Cash’s story – and countless real life children’s stories — would have unfolded if the Act had been in place? Though fiction, Cash’s story is one to follow — her resilience and tenacity give this reader confidence that she will be a force for good. Fortunately, Rendon has already published the second in the Cash Blackbear series: Girl Gone Missing. I know what I’ll be reading next.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interview with Marcie Rendon on Superior Reads on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais on January 23 at 7:00 pm and online at http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog.

As Deborah Appleman enters the maximum security prison where she teaches prisoners, she hands off her license, jewelry, shoes — all the talismans of her identity – and walks through the metal detector; one that she says puts airport security scanners to shame. Her materials are in a clear plastic book bag and her right hand is stamped with invisible ink, which will be scanned with a fluorescent light on her way out to make sure that a cross-dressing imposter is not trying to escape. This is the opening scene in Deborah Appleman’s WORDS NO BARS CAN HOLD. It is a sobering scene. You can hear the door locking behind her as she enters her classroom – locked in with her students, without a guard. All these safeguards reinforce an important dynamic of working in a prison: they are in control; she is not. In order to continue teaching she must carefully follow all the rules.

Many of the men that Appleman teaches are lifers, but when she began teaching she made a decision not to learn anything about their offenses. Though it would be easy for her to look them up on the online database, she chooses not to; she doesn’t want her teaching to be muddied by this knowledge. She has made a commitment to know them as students, not as criminals. She firmly believes that education is a vehicle for rehumanization; that it allows students to rewrite their narratives. The goal of the prison classroom is not unlike the goal at the private university where she teaches – intellectual growth, self-efficacy, and intellectual freedom. Their bodies can be incarcerated, but their minds cannot.

Appleman looks at the school to prison pipeline. Of the four students she profiles in her book, each of them demonstrate a desire to learn, yet high school failed to engage them. None of them were classified as special-needs learners, but school failed to capture their interests. School disciplinary systems in the United States, she writes, disproportionately marginalize youth of color and other underserved populations. “These policies have sent hundreds of thousands of children down life paths that lead to arrest, conviction, and incarceration resulting in the so-called pipeline that some have argued is a modern form of resegregation that echoes the Jim Crow laws of our recent past.”

Appleman shares, with permission, the writing of her students. She does not wish the focus to be on her, but on the importance of education in prison and her students’ writing. One of her students, Zeke, writes:

“Writing gave me a voice. It made me a writer, a student, a man, an individual outside statistics hidden somewhere. It made me a better son; able to replant seeds over the things I tore down a long time ago.”

Though many of Appleman’s students are serving life sentences, some are released after serving their time and education is a key factor in preventing recidivism. “If as a society, we choose to keep alive those who commit series crimes, then we need to keep them human. The humanities are well named. Through education, through reading, and through writing, the incarcerated can reclaim their humanity, learn empathy, and find creative and constructive ways of expressing and facing the pain that was a part of their journey to their crimes. They can also learn to acknowledge the pain their actions caused others and to articulate the redemption they seek. They do it through their words, words no bars can hold.”

Listen to my interview with Deborah Appleman on Superior Reads, December 26 at 7:00 pm and on the WTIP webpage. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS by Allen Eskens is a coming-of-age mystery that reads like literary fiction. Boady Sanden is a fifteen-year-old freshman at Ignatius High School in Jessup, Missouri. If you’ve read Eskens other novels, you may recognize Boady’s name from The Life We Bury and The Heavens May Fall, in those books, he is older and a law professor. NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is a prequel; Eskens began writing it almost two decades ago. Boady is a likeable character – wise beyond his years and a genuinely decent guy. His father died when he was five years old and his widowed mother is still grieving; shy and withdrawn, she finds it difficult to connect emotionally with people. Hoke, an older man who lives next door, befriends Boady – offering him his advice and access to his library. Boady wants nothing more than to leave Jessup and has a plan and a can of money stashed away for his escape.

Boady is new to Ignatius and shortly after the first day of school, he finds trouble in the form of Jarvis, Bob and Brad. Bob and Brad (referred to as Jarvis’ boobs) take direction from Jarvis, who has a meaner streak. When Jarvis tells Bob to dump pudding on Diana, a black girl sitting near Boady, he overhears their plan and he trips him, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Boady becomes a target for the trio. Jarvis tells Boady that they won’t beat him up if he does them a favor – he is to keep his eyes and ears open to new neighbors moving into his neighborhood – the Elgins, a black family whose father Charles has been hired to manage Ryke Manufacturing, where most of the men in Jessup work. As the novel progresses, Jarvis ups the ante, putting pressure on Boady to spray paint a racial epithet on the Elgin’s house.

Boady’s friendship with Thomas Elgin, Charles’ teenage son, gets off to a rocky start; Boady must confront his own prejudice. Though he’s never considered himself prejudiced, he’s grown up steeped in it, and has a hard time recognizing the more subtle ways prejudice can keep people down. Over the course of the summer, Thomas and Boady become good friends.

Eskens is one of those rare authors who not only builds strong characters, but a suspenseful plot and a strong ending. Let’s get to the mystery: Ms. Lida Poe, a black woman who works at the factory goes missing – about the same time as $100,000. Many people believe that Lida Poe embezzled the money and left town. Eskens ratchets up the suspense with a white supremacist group known as The Corps. The tension is palpable when these players are on the scene – they will stop at nothing – threats, intimidation, violence — all part of the ethos of the Corps.

Young Broady Sanden is one of my favorite Eskens’ characters, and NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is one of my favorite reads of 2019.

Listen to my interview with Allen Eskens on February 27 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, 90.7 WTIP Grand Marais. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

If you’ve ever sat on a therapist’s couch and thought to yourself, easy for you to say, you should read Lori Gottlieb’s MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE. Gottlieb’s mash up memoir/self help book is an intimate look at – as the subtitle states – A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed – in it, Lori Gottlieb is not only a therapist, she is also a patient.

Gottlieb had several careers before she went back to school to become a psychotherapist – she was a television writer, a freelance journalist, and she also did as a brief stint as a medical student before switching gears to psychotherapy. She is a practicing therapist and writes the weekly Dear Therapist column for the Atlantic. Her first book, Marry Him, examined how we choose our partners. In this book, Gottlieb finds herself in crisis – her boyfriend, the man that she thought she would marry, breaks up with her. This, she says, is the presenting problem – but as she acknowledges, there is usually a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. In other words, the presenting problem gets you onto the porch, therapy gets you in the house and may even help you with the remodeling.

Where does a therapist find a therapist? She solicits referrals from colleagues – for a “friend”, and begins therapy with balding, cardigan and khaki-clad Wendell. Gottlieb initially tells Wendell that she will just need a couple of sessions to get back on track – a tune-up of sorts – but the reality is that Gottlieb needs to go a little deeper and that will take more time.

To avoid too much navel-gazing, Gottlieb intersperses her own therapy with the stories of several of her patients: John, a self-absorbed Emmy award-winning television producer, Julie, a newlywed with a devastating cancer diagnosis, and Rita, a seventy-year-old domestic abuse survivor who has given herself a happiness deadline. Each of these stories is alternatingly touching and frustrating – like every good reader, you think you know the answer to their problems before the denouement. As Gottlieb google-stalks her ex-boyfriend and Wendell, you may find yourself yelling “Stop! This will not end well!” Easy for you to say. For each of them – Lori, John, Julie, and Rita – there is hard work to be done.

At one point, when Lori is obsessing about “boyfriend” Wendell stops her.

“I’m reminded, he begins, of a famous cartoon. It’s of a prisoner, shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out – but to his right and left, it’s open, no bars.”

He pauses, allowing the image to sink in.

“All the prisoner has to do is walk around. But still, he frantically shakes the bars. That’s most of us. We feel completely stuck, trapped in our emotional cells, but there’s a way out – as long as we’re willing to see it.”

Wendell’s cartoon image reminds me of a mime, pressing his hands against an invisible wall – only to cut a doorway and open it, walking onto the other side.

Gottlieb has a revelation, but it’s only the beginning. “Insight is the booby prize of therapy,” she writes. You may have a revelation in therapy but if you don’t make changes out in your world, it’s meaningless.

As a therapist, Gottlieb helps her patients navigate that space. After a revelatory moment in therapy, she helps her patients envision putting change into practice. She listens. She supports. She empathizes as one who has laid on the couch. The strangest thing about therapy, she writes, is that it’s structured around an ending. The successful outcome of therapy is that the patient will reach their goal and leave. But the reality is that in order to reach that goal, patients and therapists have formed deep attachments – a necessary part of the work.

“We grow in connection with others. Everyone needs to hear that other person’s voice saying, I believe in you. I can see possibilities that you might not see quite yet. I imagine that something different can happen, in some form or another. In therapy we say, Let’s edit your story.

MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE is a transparent, authentic, and even funny look at therapy and the human capacity for change. It’s ultimately uplifting and inspiring and helps to destigmatize therapy. The book leaves no doubt about the value of therapy; the challenge is to make it accessible to everyone.

If you are struggling, or know someone who is – there is help available. Call your local clinic, or go onto the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) website and click on “Find Support”, there is also a national suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-8255. I’ll leave you with this quote from Victor Hugo, which opens part three of the book: What makes night within us may leave stars. Shine on.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

 

In 2011 George Hodgman left Manhattan after a notable career as an editor for various magazines and publishing houses, including Houghton Mifflin and Vanity Fair, to return to Paris, Missouri to care for his aging mother. He had recently lost his job and was working freelance, feeling at loose ends alone in his apartment all day, and she had recently lost her drivers license after a minor mishap. Betty was in her late 80s and experiencing dementia. It was time to go home.

But going home was complicated. George Hodgman was gay. He’d struggled with addiction. He’d never felt completely accepted in Paris. He found his home and the support he needed in New York, and yet, Paris, Missouri would always be home.

At a wedding, he recognizes it:

“All around that night at the wedding were people I had grown up with . . . all my childhood was gathered around me. This was not just a collection of the elders of Paris, Missouri, it was more to me. It was Bettyville, my mother’s home, her place, with most of its surviving souls, those who had known her as a girl and who had been kind to me and watched me grow . . . all I wanted, all of a sudden, was to stay with them forever. I love my town. I love my home.”

Bettyville was billed as a remarkable, laugh-out-loud book by the New York Times, and there are many, many funny lines and moments. Like when George tells an old high school friend that he can’t go to Branson with him and his family to see Kenny Chesney because he cannot forgive Kenny for what he did to Renee Zellweger. When he visits the homes of friends and neighbors, he enjoys hiding their copies of books by Glen Beck and Ann Coulter in bags of peat moss in their garages. He wears a Cardinals cap, but can’t always remember what it is that they play. He brings dessert to a sick friend of his mother and fears that after eating his sludgelike pudding, she’ll need life support.

Bettyville was published in 2015, and I came to the party late. George Hodgman committed suicide this past summer and I read it with that new knowledge — not as a voyeur, but as someone who has lost family members to suicide – as a seeker, an empath, someone struggling to understand.

Perhaps there were clues in Bettyville. As a high school kid, his father wanted him to play football. “Can I go to boarding school?” he asks his dad after a particularly grueling practice, one where he is kicked by an older player and called a faggot. He tried, but something changed for him on that field.

“On the football field, I thought I was going to cry, but I told myself that whatever came, whatever happened, I could not do that. Not there. I didn’t. I swallowed my tears; I pulled them in. And they never came back. I cannot cry. Not since that day . . . I don’t think a coming together will happen to me in this lifetime. I am not sure I will ever again connect up – the watcher and the other unfiltered part of me—in the way other people do. There has been a rupture, and here, in this house, on these days when the sounds my mother makes seem especially loud I feel it, see the cost of long-lasting silences.”

George Hodgman remembers as a child saying his prayers at night with his mother. He also recalls the night that he decided it was time to say them alone. His mother was having a surgery and he was scared for her. He didn’t want her to worry by praying for her. But it changed something in their relationship. After telling her he wanted to pray alone, his mother abruptly leaves the room.

“I wanted to take it back, but it was too late, she was gone. She left so fast. She didn’t bring it up, but the next night she did not come to my room. Never again would we have our special time. She would not risk being sent away again. I grew up to be just like her. Like my mother, I flee at the slightest suggestion I am unwanted.”

If you’ve read Bettyville, maybe it’s time to read it again. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it for its insight as well as its humor.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

 

Swede Hollow by Ola Larsmo, translated by Tiina Nunnally, is a family saga that follows Gustaf and Anna Klar and their three children from Sweden to New York and eventually to Swede Hollow in St. Paul in the early twentieth century.

Gustaf and Anna leave Sweden in 1897 under a shroud of fog and a devastating secret. As their ship pulls in to Ellis Island, Anna grabs her daughters’ hands and rushes to the rail to see the Statue of Liberty.

“She had thought the statue would be white, but Lady Liberty was a green hue that reminded her of an old two-ore coin, the way it might look when emerging from the melting ice on the street in the springtime.”

Not the image of a bright shiny future that Anna had envisioned. Worse, that night their dreams are nearly dashed when a fire erupts on the island and the family narrowly escapes from the dorms where the immigrants are housed until they can be dispatched to other locations.

Once settled in New York, Gustaf is unable to secure a job to support his family, so eventually the family moves to the Midwest and a place called Swede Hollow. The Hollow is nothing more than a cluster of shacks in a ravine on the edge of St. Paul, Minnesota populated by Irish, Italian, and Swedish immigrants who mostly keep to themselves, although the occasional fight will break out when someone has too much to drink, or one group disparages another. Most of the men work for the railroads and the women clean houses, or work at laundries or in factories. The living conditions in the Hollow are unsanitary and the immigrants are subject to widespread discrimination. But the Klar family has many friends from the Old Country there and they help each other out.

The Klar daughters, Ellen and Elisabet find work cleaning houses, through a referral from their good neighbor, Inga, who is a font of knowledge on nearly every subject. Though Gustaf hoped to find work as a shoemaker, his trade in Sweden, those factories will only hire Germans. Elisabet loses her job at the sewing factory when her hand is injured and fires abound in factories with shoddy ventilation – a true history of factory life in the early twentieth century before the establishment of OSHA and labor unions. Ellen is the only family member who rises out of poverty and leaves the Hollow. She teaches herself to type after hours in the factory and gets a job as a typist and translator at a law firm, eventually marrying the owner’s son.

Swede Hollow is bleak, but an accurate account of the immigrant experience. It takes many generations for the Klar family to realize the “American Dream” but at the end of the novel, an unnamed descendent returns to the place his ancestors had called their home, the Hollow.

“Nowhere in the Hollow was there any remaining trace of human habitation.” But he clears his throat and shouts into the ravine, “Ancestors of mine! I’m here to tell you something important: I want you to know that Judy and I are going to have our first child in September . . . and we want you to know . . that without you we wouldn’t be here.”

Indeed, without them — the immigrants, the exiles, the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free – none of us non-native Americans would be here.

I recommend Swede Hollow for fans of O.E. Rollvaag’s Giants in the Earth, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

There are lots of places I would gladly return to, but the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead is not one that I would relish to revisit in real life. But in fiction? Sign me up. Especially, if the regime is about to come down at the hands of a woman.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, THE TESTAMENTS, was a joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. Written thirty plus years after The Handmaid’s Tale, and preempted by a Hulu series, The Testaments tries to traverse the space between the original novel and the new series – though the publisher insists that it is a separate story and is not connected to the television series. Where the two intersect, however, is with a character named June – a handmaid that escapes Gilead and gives birth to a second daughter, Nicole.

The story is told through three narrators: Aunt Lydia, and two young women – one, Agnes, raised in Gilead and the other, Daisy, raised in Canada by two operatives for the subversive Mayday operation. Aunt Lydia’s segments are the most satisfying. We learn about her early history and how she became the most powerful woman in the patriarchal society, so much so that a statue is erected in her honor – while she is still alive (unheard of! But you’ll have to read the book to find out why). Lydia subscribes and teaches the tenants of Gilead in her role as a most revered Aunt, but in the evenings she plots and records her traitorous intentions in a hidden notebook. “I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it — formless and shape-shifting. How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?” she wonders. Aunt Lydia is acerbic, sardonic, and witty. Her sections are a delight to read and immensely satisfying in contrast to the more passive character of Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale.

Some readers are disappointed in The Testaments, thinking it does not rise to the level of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the horrors of Gilead were already revealed to us in that book and I found Lydia’s backstory and the story of the fall of Gilead to be a long-delayed gratification. I relished in Lydia’s power and the subversive way in which she used it. “How quickly a hand becomes a fist,” she writes.

Why resurrect the story of Gilead all these years later? At her book launch of The Testaments, Atwood said that societies throughout the world resemble Gilead more so now than they did 34 years ago. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Atwood writes. How important it is to remember the past so that we can change the future.

I recommend The Testaments for fans of George Orwell’s 1984, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and of course, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.