Tag: Historical Fiction

A Novel of Australia 

by Nancy Cato 

Story of two women, mother and daughter, who worked as nurses in the far Outback during the late 1800\’s and early 1900\’s. The first woman, Alix MacFarlane, was eager to study nursing even though her well-to-do parents frowned on it- nursing wasn\’t considered a proper occupation for a lady then. She worked where she was needed in a few different remote areas, until fell in love and married. Then went to live with her husband\’s family on the father-in-law\’s cattle station. Where the livestock did poorly because of harsh conditions but the old man never wanted to give up. Still very much invested in nursing even though she didn\’t have a post, Alix started holding a clinic for the Aborignal people who lived or worked around the station- especially the children- which her mother-in-law really disapproved of. The second half of the book is mostly about Alix\’s daughter Caro (short for Caroline) who grows up on the cattle station then goes away to school and also becomes a nurse. And a pilot, when planes were new, relatively fragile things and women weren\’t expected to do such dangerous jobs. She becomes part of the Flying Doctor service, travelling back and forth across Australia to get medical care to injured and sick people living remotely. Reading about all that, and the medical cases (although they were very briefly detailed) was interesting. I also learned quite a bit about Australia and its landscape, how badly Aboriginal peoples were treated, and the country\’s involvement in wartime. The story overlaps both World Wars- affecting the characters very personally. This novel has a lot- medical crises, wartime, some romance, plane crashes, adventures, and just plain living. I was surprised at how common it seemed in this book for married couples to live apart- doctors living away from their wives for years on end, or how Alix traveled from the cattle station to a proper town when it was time for Caro to be born (so the father first saw his baby when it was several months old). I liked this book- and yet I just didn\’t care much about the characters. Some were nice decent people, others quirky or interesting, but the writing was just rather plain- lots of tell instead of show- so even when on occasion someone in the book died, I felt very little reaction. I\’m glad I read it but don\’t think it will merit a repeat.

Rating: 3/5              478 pages, 1989

by Tatiana de Rosnay

     This novel has two overlapping storylines, in alternating chapters (until near the end, when it drops to one perspective). The first is about a young Jewish girl who lives in Paris. It\’s 1942, and when French police come in the middle of the night collecting Jewish families on orders of the Germans, Sarah\’s terrified four-year-old brother hides in a secret cupboard in the wall of their bedroom. She locks him in and pockets the key, promising to come back when the police let them go. But of course, they never do let them go. Sarah ends up in a camp, eventually separated from her parents, suffering from hunger, deplorable conditions, and horrific sights. All the while desperate to escape and return to the apartment where her little brother is waiting in the dark. It\’s such a sad story. The other storyline is modern time, about an American-born woman Julia, who lives in Paris working as a journalist. She is writing an article for the anniversary recognizing the day over 10,000 Parisian Jews were taken from their homes, an event which most locals around her seem to want to forget. She has a hard time finding people who remember the day and will actually talk to her. Her research leads her to the names of Sarah\’s family, and then it turns out she has a personal connection to the apartment where the little boy was left in the cupboard. As the two stories continue to dovetail, Sarah trying to find out what happened to her brother, and Julia attempting to track down the remnant\’s of Sarah\’s family, there\’s also a lot about how Julia\’s marriage is slowly unraveling, and how her life is changed by her research into the events of sixty years ago.

I thought I wasn\’t going to like this one, honestly- I had the impression it was over-hyped back in the day when it was all over the book blogs. Actually, it\’s a good read, very heartfelt, and I\’m glad that the ending didn\’t have the final pat coincidence I thought I saw coming. It\’s been a long while since I read a Holocaust story. They\’re often hard for me to get through. This one was a fairly easy read and worth it.
Rating: 3/5              293 pages, 2007
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by Banjamin Capps 

     Story of a man who helped build the West. As a young man he was a sergeant in the Confederate Army in Georgia, saw nothing there for himself when it was over. Left his girlfriend in Tennessee and traveled West with a buddy to see if he could make a success of something. Ended up in the vast land of Texas (at least, it seemed endless at the time). Started out catching wild cattle and taming them for use, selling some, eventually hiring a crew of men and breeding cattle. Follows his endeavors through the years as he gradually took ownership of more land, improved his cattle stock (quite a few breeding experiments, one with imported beef cattle and another with bison) and eventually brought his sweetheart out to live with him. Must have been a rough life for her (not much from her perspective). Eventually Chance became known around the region as a cattle baron- but he always felt indignant at those who challenged his use of the land, owing to all the work he\’d done to build his ranch up from absolute nothing. As the book closes he\’s an old man, having watched the world change, a town grow up around him, the native americans and bison disappear. He\’s not apologetic for his part in that, either. There\’s some rough and brutal parts, a lot about the hard choices he has to make as a rancher, always trying to decide what\’s best for his animals and the land, even if others don\’t see it that way. 

Rating: 3/5                 261 pages, 1965

by Pearl S. Buck

I think this book may have sat longest unread on my shelves, and it\’s actually been there twice. I had a different copy and tried it a few times when I was in high school, didn\’t get far, re-shelved it. Weeded it out once, then after finding that I liked Peony, decided to give this a second chance when I came across another copy. 

This is about the Wang family, in China. When the story begins Wang Lung is a young farmer on his way to get married. It\’s an arranged marriage, with a woman who has been a slave in a wealthy household in the town. She\’s not beautiful but he\’s satisfied because she\’s a faithful wife, a hard worker, and bears him many children (promptly going straight back to work in the fields after each birth, without complaint!) The family survives through floods, drought, and locust plague. Every handful of years one or the other natural cause results in a famine and people around them starve. During one famine (so bad that people are literally eating dirt) Wang Lung takes his family south to a big city where they live in deplorable conditions, beg, and work at hard physical labor for very little pay. There\’s no way to get ahead, until unrest sweeps through the city. The homes of the rich are broken into, Wang is swept up with the mob and intimidates a terrified wealthy man into giving him handfuls of silver. Then they flee the chaos and return to the countryside. Wang uses the money to rebuild his house, and eventually buy more land. Soon he needs help with the harvest, eventually finds himself as a landowner instead of a farmer- with hired help and overseers, never actually working the fields himself anymore. He moves his family into the town. Being frequently idle now, he starts to explore the pleasures of the wealthy class- and dissatisfied with his wife\’s appearance, takes as second wife a much younger woman. He thinks that having success and money will ease all his troubles, but new problems arise instead- unpleasant relatives connive him into letting them live in his household, there\’s constant friction between his two wives, and his growing sons have their own interests- none of them really want to keep or work the land as he did. As the book closes, Wang is an old man and his sons are inspecting the fields, talking among themselves of selling the land that Wang had worked so hard for, and built the security of his family upon.
I can well see why The Good Earth is a classic. It\’s not very descriptive, the writing style is kind of plain- in the manner of he-said-this and they-did-that which usually bores me. But this was compelling nevertheless- I read it straight through in just a few days. In the end, I didn\’t like the main character Wang much- I felt like he sometimes made selfish or poor decisions, thinking of prestige and appearances more than I expected, when he came into wealth. In particular I felt bad for his first wife. Overall women are not treated well in this story. It\’s simply a fact that in the era and culture it depicts, girls were not valued and if the family was in need, they were often sold as very young children to be slaves or prostitutes. During the famine times some poor families quietly performed infanticide rather than see their babies suffer and starve. In this case I was glad of how sparse the prose is, reading about such hardships and terrible things people did to survive. 
The story really shows a broad spectrum of human character. It wasn\’t only what people stooped to when their survival was at stake, but also what they indulged in or did with their money when fortunes changed, that seemed to demonstrate what they were really made of. Or what they cared most about. I think that\’s why I liked and felt most for Wang\’s first wife. She was steadfast, never asked much for herself, saw and did the work required in hard times as well as good. Wang really was unkind to her in the end.
There\’s a sequel called Sons. I\’ll probably read it at some point. But I\’d have to be in the right mindset, this one takes a particular kind of mood to appreciate it.
Rating: 3/5                357 pages, 1931
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by Amor Towles

I tried very hard to like this book, because it was highly recommended to me by two family members, but I just can\’t get into it. I did read as far as the first passage my dad or sister marked (p. 96) and flipped through to read the other marked passages. It\’s full of elegant language, insightful and clever remarks, unflappable characters who meet awkward circumstances with dignity. It\’s about a gentleman who is placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1922. His crime -as far as I could tell- is writing some revolutionary poetry so he is spared being shot and instead condemned to live in a grand fancy hotel. For some thirty years. So he watches a lot of history pass by, gets to know the various hotel staff intimately, and some of the other guests, including a nine-year-old who first shows him the rooms in the basement and where to sneak to spy on meetings in the old ballroom. The story wanders all over the place, in past reminiscences and current musings to stories told and heard by others. All very rich and fine and sometimes amusing or insightful, but somehow boring too. I\’m sorry to say I was relieved to give up on it. Could just be wrong timing for the reader. It\’s popular enough I\’ll always be able to find a library copy if I want to give it another try someday.

Borrowed from a family member.

Abandoned                             462 pages, 2016

more opinions:
Attack of the Books!
who else has read it?

by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

I saw this at Indextrious Reader, and wondered immediately if my nearly-fifteen-year-old would like it. It has a lot of elements my teenager enjoys in books: romance, a bit of drama, intrigue and spying. This is a war story, set during the Spanish Civil War. The main character, a young seamstress-in-training named Sira, flees the turbulence in Madrid and goes to Morocco with her fianceé. Where she gets unexpectedly stranded, betrayed and burdened with a heavy debt due to someone else\’s reckless behavior. She turns to her sewing skills to get herself out of the mess, and it evolves into something else, leading to connections that get her involved in espionage.

I didn\’t quite get that far. I read about a third of it and then began skimming, loosing interest and not willing to push through six hundred-plus pages. It\’s a good story, with a strong female character who remakes her life several times over, but I just didn\’t find anything I could quite connect to. The political events all felt like flat background material and Sira\’s personality never really felt alive to me. I suppose it could be the fact that the text is translated, or it could be that it\’s just not my usual type of read, so I didn\’t find it exciting. I did, however, get enough of a feel for it to surmise there\’s nothing I\’d object to my teenager reading! although I don\’t quite know if the author\’s style will be appreciated more than I could.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned                   615 pages, 2009

more opinions:
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by Alice Cushing Gardiner
and Nancy Cabot Osborne

I found this book browsing on the Internet Archive. Picked it up for a light read, was slightly disappointed. It shows its age, but also was written for juvenile audience and has two authors, that might be part of the reason it fell a bit flat for me. Story of a young boy who lives on Nantucket during the heyday of whaling. Most of the narrative is just about his daily life- bored in school, roaming the beaches when he can get away from the strict eye of his mother and grandfather, getting into a bit of mischief with his best friend- searching for buried treasure (which turns out to be a crate of bottled wine). He\’s forbidden to go the wharves but enthralled by sailor\’s stories especially of pirates. Finds a parrot and returns it to a Spainard who lives in a shack near the beach (he\’s afraid of this foreign man until the Spainard offers him food, and thanks them broadly for the return of his parrot). Witnesses the rescue of crew off a shipwreck near shore- and the adults talk of scavenging the goods (I gather this was customary if there were no survivors). There\’s mention of local customs- a bit interesting was the communal sheep-shearing day. He\’s proud to bring down a goose bird when he goes duck-hunting with his grandfather. Uppermost on the boy\’s mind is going away to sea, but he\’s considered too young. He attempts to sneak aboard a ship and stowaway so the captain will be forced to accept him as cabin boy, but his plan doesn\’t work. Sneaks home again and gets in trouble for getting his boots wet (any little chill or soaking and he was sent promptly to bed!) The book closes with a final promise from his parents that next year when he\’s ten, he can sign up to go to sea. It doesn\’t sound like a glamorous occupation, though. One of the men described to the young boys in detail what work it was to cut up a dead whale and process the blubber into oil- it sounds very messy and odorous, not to mention stomach-turning. I was mildly surprised that this frank explanation of the hard work on board ship did not deter the boys at all in their eagerness to go. Especially since it was made clear to them that the first several years with the crew, their job would be to wait table on the captain, assist the mess cook and clean things. What fun.

I think this book is based on true events, because the frontispiece dedication is to those Nantucket people whose memories have made this book. So it has value as a historical piece, but honestly wasn\’t a very fun read. I found  myself skimming a lot, hoping the story would get good when the boy snuck aboard ship. It\’s probably very realistic, though.

Rating: 2/5                pages, 1928

by Charles Frazier

I eagerly anticipated reading this book, based on my enjoyment of Cold Mountain. Unfortunately, Thirteen Moons couldn\’t hold my interest. It\’s a historical novel surrounding the time when Cherokees were forced off their land by the American government. The main character is a twelve-year-old orphaned boy Will, who is sent by his aunt and uncle to work off years of bond in a trading post on the edge of the Cherokee Nation. He has a fine horse, and loves reading, but not much else in the way of prospects. He soon meets a Cherokee man who basically adopts him into the tribe, and gradually he gets introduced to the culture. For me the most vivid, memorable scene was when he attended a tribal dance where the native americans impersonated the various foreigners who had invaded their land. One of the author\’s aims seemed to be showing how varied the abilities and stations were among Cherokees- Will spends winters among the Cherokee in an earth-and-wattle hut surrounded by dim smoky light and storytelling, but later in the story he visits a fine plantation run by a wealthy Cherokee man who has slaves and a beautiful young girl (and he falls in love). He muddles around trying to find his place in life, eventually settling on pursing law (because he has law books) and trying to fight for the Cherokee to stay on their land. His visits to Washington are eye-opening: the portrayal of the capital as a small, muddy town full of pretentious and self-absorbed folk, quite a different picture of our early government than I ever had in mind. His efforts fail, the girl leaves him (several times) and he starts to watch the forced removal of his adopted people from their homeland. I struggled to get through the chapters where he started pursuing law, my attention to the story lagging, and hoped it would pick up again with this depiction of dissolution and despair. But I couldn\’t bring myself to keep reading- two thirds done, and I had no more attachment to the characters than at the very beginning. It\’s a slow book and I failed to stick it through.

Abandoned              422 pages, 2006

by Norah Lofts

This is the story of a place. The home of a wine-seller at a crossroads. When a group of Roman soldiers moved through the area they left their wounded leader behind, and he found an ill slave girl locked in a room (for her safety). Together they struggled to survive in the lonely place- all other inhabitants in the nearby villages having fled. By the time the Roman soldier had healed enough to leave, he didn\’t want to- had found acceptance there- even when people antagonistic towards Rome moved in and he had to hide his identity. What began simply as someone\’s home became an important locale in the community; eventually it became a tavern and inn. Over the centuries the building with its specially tiled floor served many different functions, but always remained in the hands of the same family, originally formed by that Roman soldier and the slave he rescued from starvation, so long ago.

I liked a piece of historical fiction written by this same author which I read many years ago, so I\’d always hoped to have more of her books. Unfortunately I didn\’t care for this one. The initial story of the slave suddenly finding her freedom and together with the Roman finding ways to stave off starvation until the settlement was populated again, when they became prosperous- was interesting. But then suddenly the woman was old, invoking vaguely understood rituals the Roman had mentioned to her, baffling her companions. And the storyline quickly moved on to other characters, all introduced very briefly as the book tells of how this place remained useful through the centuries. It just wasn\’t keeping my attention at all, by page 95 I simply lost interest.

Abandoned               376 pages, 1980

by John Boyne

Another story that depicts a horrible situation through the eyes of a child. Bruno is upset that his father\’s job makes them move from their nice home in Berlin to what he at first assumes is the desolate countryside. He mispronounces the name of this new place as \’Out-With\’ but the reader can soon guess the real location. Also the identity of his father\’s seldom-seen boss, of whom everyone is very much afraid- \’the Fury\’- is very clear to the reader, but then we are seeing it all through hindsight. In the middle of the story, nine-year-old Bruno is just angry and bored, squabbling with his sister, questioning the maid and finally wandering outdoors. Where after a very long walk he finds another boy sitting on the opposite side of a tall, barbed-wire fence. He slowly makes friends with this boy, all the time innocent of what is really going on. Who his father really works for, why are those hundreds of people standing around on the other side of the fence, looking terribly thin and all wearing the same clothes. There\’s a very real sense in this book, of how people- especially a child- could have been blind to what was going on during the Holocaust, how they started to deliberately not see- for fear of their own lives- when it became apparent what was really happening. Brutality. And this kid just wants a friend.

I read it in just two sittings. The ending is chilling.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            216 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
Booknotes by Lisa
the Literary Omnivore
the Wertzone
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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