Tag: Historical Fiction

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This book caught my eye months ago when I was at a local bookstore with my kids. I was intrigued, but not quite enough to buy it, or even put it on my TBR list. More recently my kid brought it home from the library, so I pulled it out of her stack for a few hours’ reading outside in the garden. It was a story that definitely kept me turning the pages, but also puzzled me somewhat.

The main character and narrator is a youth simply called Boy, who lived on the grounds of a large manor in medieval times (1300’s I think) and was a goatherd. He was feared, mocked and reviled by others for having a hunchback, but also had a strange ability to talk to animals, and an innocent trusting way of looking at the world. One day a travelling pilgrim appeared, took a liking to Boy (for his ability to climb trees apparently) and demanded that he come along on the journey as his servant. Boy protested at first but was compelled, and after a while found that he liked feeling useful, serving this man by carrying his pack. The pilgrim Secundus was on a quest to gather seven relics of Saint Peter and then visit Saint Peter’s tomb in Rome. Their journey took them many different places, with various adventures and mishaps. Most of which had something to do with finding the relics, and before long Boy realized there was something shady about Secundus, as he was bribing people and committing thievery to obtain them. Boy struggled with the morality of helping this man steal sacred items, but he wanted himself to visit Saint Peter’s tomb, in the hopes of a miracle that would “make him into a real boy.”

At first the reader assumes this means loosing his deformity, but pretty soon you start to realize maybe he’s not deformed after all. Or not in the manner you suspected. I did guess for a while that perhaps he was a girl disguised as a boy, but I was wrong. Anyway, it was a good read but not stellar. Some aspects of the story verge on fantasy which was an odd mix, the people are obsessed with relics all over the place, and there’s a few very dark incidents. It’s full of grime, ignorance and bad smells (that people remark on all the time!) but also wonder and kindness in the least expected places. Oh, and a very brash donkey. I did like the donkey.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
278f pages, 2018

More opinions: Waking Brain Cells
anyone else?

by Sonya Hartnett

I read another book off my eleven-year-old’s library stack. And this one was really good. Now I’m going to look for all other books my library might have by this author. I love her way with words, and the characters are so well drawn. The style and wording makes me think of both Frances Hodgson Burnett and Helen Griffiths- a rich setting, people who are both kindly and cruel, sharpness in the turn of phrase and keen observation of children’s natures.

It’s set during both WWII and much further back in history- a story is told within this story, and eventually you see how they interconnect (though the ending was a bit vague). Two siblings, Jeremy and Cecily, are sent with their mother away from the dangers of London to stay in the countryside with an uncle, who has a grand old house. Another child evacuee joins them, due to Cecily’s whim to help out, her desire for a playmate and, to be honest- to have someone she can boss around. (Only it doesn’t work out that way!) Cecily is not the smartest child, and not always the nicest, either. But she felt so real to me. She and May wander the grounds, while Jeremy frets about not being allowed to go fight, or at least do something for the war effort. On the edges of the estate in the forest, the children discover a ruined castle. And two boys hiding there. At first they think the boys are also evacuees from the city, run away from their host family perhaps. But their manner is odd, their clothing too fine and out of style . . . May is the one who realizes who they might be, when the uncle tells them about two princes who were shut up in a tower four hundred years ago and never seen again . . . a piece of history I had heard before, but never quite with this slant. I wasn’t expecting a ghost story- but by the time the book got that far, I was too interested in the characters to leave it be. Cecily struggles to face difficulties and hardships, Jeremy fights with his mother and runs away, the boys in the ruined castle are sometimes there and sometimes not, fading and fretful. There are discussions and debates about war- the morality of killing an enemy, the wastefulness of lives, suffering and destruction. A lot about power. How power corrupts, how powerless the children feel in the throes of larger events and especially, told more subtly through the actions of the children themselves, how power can only be held over someone who allows you to. Sometimes it gets a bit dark for a children’s story. Although troublesome and sad in parts, with children who act unpleasantly, it was beautifully told. The ambiguous ending puzzles rather than annoys me. I’m glad to have read it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
266 pages, 2012

or, Life Among the Lowly

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Another hefty classic, and one I honestly might have never opened except that I found a copy at a thrift store for a dollar. So I figured I’d better read it. Mostly because it was such an important book, helping to prompt the Civil War and end of slavery. Also I was interested to see how it compared to Gone With the Wind. I’m certainly glad I read it, but I doubt I will ever repeat the experience.         – – – warning for SPOILERS below – – –

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is based on a lot of true-life characters and incidents the author was acquainted with. She wove them all into a story that focuses on one enslaved black man named Tom, but also incorporates a multitude of side stories. So much so that sometimes I forgot completely about previous characters until they resurfaced and I had to remember who they were! (Also confusing is that there are two men named Tom, and two named George in the story- and in each case one was a slave and the other a white man.) As the book opens, a wealthy man who owns many slaves- and treats them decently- falls into debt and has to sell some of them. He determines to sell Tom and a young boy named Harry. Tom accepts his fate, partly because his master promises to try and buy him back someday. The boy’s mother, Eliza, is distraught at being separated from her child, so she runs away with him. There’s lots of chasing and fuss (other slaves on the farm are ordered to help track her down but they do everything they can to hinder the chase and give her a head start, which was somewhat amusing). She makes a desperate and very dramatic scramble across a river choked with ice floes, is taken in by some Quakers, and eventually makes her way to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The odd part is that right after a very intense scene where Eliza, her child and a few others are cornered across a ravine near a cliff by some tracking men with dogs- with firearms employed and shots exchanged- the narrative suddenly switches to following what happened to Tom, and doesn’t return to Eliza’s story until nearly the end of the book. I almost forgot where she was.

Tom ends up in a well-to-do family with some very interesting characters. Most prominent were an angelic blond child  who never did any wrong, talked religion nonstop and was fawned on by everybody. I’m sure she was admired by the public back when this book was published, but she just rubbed me the wrong way. Surely no child could be so perfect. I can imagine a teenager or young adult swept up in religious fervor maybe speaking the way this girl did, but a six-year-old? It really strained my credulity. In contrast to her, there was a black girl of the same age enslaved in that household who was an utterly beguiling, mischievous kid deep in the habit of lying and stealing without any remorse. (When asked why she did things she knew were wrong her reply was often: “dunno, ‘speck it’s ’cause I’s so wicked!”) I found her character much more interesting to be honest. I wish there’d been more Topsy in the book.

Of course I’m leaving so much out. There are many events and other characters brought into the book. Tom is close to the angelic blond girl (daughter of his master) because she’s so sweet and good, and reads the Bible to him while they encourage each other in religious devotion. But this tolerable, somewhat benevolent situation ends and Tom is sold again- further South to a dilapidated plantation on the edge of swamp. Here all the slaves are beaten regularly and treated very badly, basically worked to death. Tom does his best, uncomplaining, and supports those around him- helping his fellow men, encouraging them to have hope (mostly in the afterlife) and obeying his terrible master, except when he’s ordered to whip one of his fellow slaves. In the end, two of the younger black women orchestrate a clever escape, and Tom dies because he is treated so brutally when refusing to disclose information on their whereabouts.

It’s powerful storytelling. I did enjoy some parts of it, but others were very hard to read. Not only because of how inhumanely people were treated (even the well-meaning “kind” masters still owned people and bought into the system) but also the phonetically written dialect of the black people was cringeworthy, the moralizing and religious sentiments were very thickly laid over everything, and even though you know the author wrote this to show how wrong slavery was, and that black people are just as intelligent as anyone else- her descriptions of them were still to some degree insulting and derogatory. Many of the characters felt like mocking caricatures of types, not real people.

Yet I can well imagine how galvanizing this book was to public opinion, when it was first published a hundred and seventy years ago. Apparently it instantly outsold the Bible, and is considered to have been the first bestseller. However, I’m very ready to move on to other reading now.

Rating: 3/5
695 pages, 1852

by James Fenimore Cooper

Once again a classic that utterly failed me. Or I failed it? I thought that after making my way through the archaic doorstopper that was Tom Jones, I’d have an easier time reading this one. Not so. It’s high adventure, with romance and battles in a trek through the wilderness- the party includes two young English women, several Native American guides and a frontiersman. The area is rife with conflict between the British and the French, which have varied allies among the native tribes. There’s lots of danger to navigate. I just could not navigate the writing style. It is so flowery and obtuse I would make my way through dense descriptions only to reach the end of a page and have no idea what was going on. The conversations were no better. Did people actually talk like this, or was it written so expressively to be impressive? It’s really a case of getting lost in the forest for the trees. I tried several times to stick with it, reading a chapter now and then between other books for the past week and a half, but I just could not follow. Made such an effort because the 1992 film version is my husband’s absolute favorite move. Gave up after eighty pages. Well, another one to clear off my shelf!

Rating: Abandoned
372 pages, 1826

by Ella Cara Deloria

Slice-of-life novel about Sioux people in the nineteenth century, when encroaching white men were just a rumor on the land. It is a very detailed look at their lifestyle, from the women’s perspective. Most of the story is about the duties of relationships, how the children were raised, how a woman’s life was shaped by the relatives that surrounded her, and how that shifted when she married. The narrative is rather dry in style, but not without some tenderness, humor and tragedy- though sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick it up. The central character is Waterlily- from her birth while the camp is relocating, through her years growing up, to her own marriage and finally having her first child. Her personality is contrasted by that of various other young girls- cousins and friends (some of whose behavior is frowned upon). She is conscious of always striving to honor her family by doing the right thing, giving gifts when it is expected, showing deference to men and elders. An important aspect of their society was the gift giving, so that goods did not belong to any one person for long, but made the rounds continually through the community. She listens to stories of her people’s past, watches ceremonies from the sidelines (including the Sun Dance, that was interesting as I had only vaguely heard of it before), and tends the younger children.

Then a certain young man catches her eye, but it’s not proper for a young woman to chase after a man, she has to indicate her interest subtly, if at all. Meanwhile she’s expected to accept a different young man from another group who asked for her in marriage, because it will enable her parents to honor someone else they’re indebted to. She does what is expected of her and moves to the other camp, where she doesn’t know anyone at all. They are kind and welcoming, but she always feels constricted by formalities among them. Waterlily is relatively content though, and looks forward to building a life with her new husband. Then someone brings blankets into camp, that foreign soldiers had dropped on a path. The blankets are coveted as a novelty item, and in the traditional gift-giving are passed around from family to family. Then many of them start to fall sick, with what sounds like smallpox. There are many deaths, in spite of their efforts to slow the spread of the disease (which they realized too late). Waterlily is soon bereft of her husband, afterwards feels even more alone in the camp. She finds means to travel back to her parents’ camp, where to her surprise, another man soon approaches her with thoughts of marriage. In this second match she is more at ease, and finds contentment and gradually, a secure feeling of joy.

I thought some of the most interesting parts in the story were when Waterlily and her companions first heard of the white men. They were fascinated with the curiosity of men having pale hair and blue eyes, and shocked when they heard that white parents yelled and hit their children to make them behave (this was from someone observing a few white families that lived in a fort). Another episode that really struck me happened when Waterlily was a small child. She was alone in the tipi in the care of her blind grandfather, stealthily got out some very rich food that was kept hidden, and ate way too much of it which made her sick. When the family found her semi-conscious they seriously feared for her life (thinking that fainting would bring on death). She recovered the next day and they made an elaborate ceremony to celebrate how her life had been spared! They really treasured their children, and worked very hard to live in harmony with everyone around them.

This book in tone is rather like Once Upon an Eskimo Time. It’s not the easiest read, doesn’t have a lot of plot or exciting events, mainly being just a detailed account of everyday life. The author was part Sioux- her father was a Yankton Dakota and her mother was of French, German and English heritage. She grew up on the Standing Rock reservation and became a linguist and educator, spent much of her life working to record Native American legends, oral history and language. So none of the accuracy issues here that I had with the previous read. Far from it!

Rating: 3/5
244 pages, 1988

More opinions: Dear Author
anyone else?

by Margaret Mitchell

It’s kind of intimidating to sit down and write thoughts about Gone with the Wind. A hefty novel, but close on the heels of the beast that was Tom Jones, I actually enjoyed this one! Very readable. The story carried me through the pages much quicker than I expected. All the conversations felt quite natural, the historical bits were interesting, wow I learned so much about the Civil War and Georgia in particular. Although when it got into politics my attention faltered, but that never lasted for more than a few pages, as Scarlett herself was bored by politics, so her mind skittered on to other things, too, ha.

This deeply felt saga all swirls around Scarlett O’Hara, daughter of an Irish immigrant father and mother from a refined family. Scarlett grows up in comfort, surrounded by beauty and prosperity, never thinking of much except commanding the attention of boys, or who’s got nicer clothes. Exactly the kind of person I would never get along with in real life, but so intriguing to read about. She shrugs off rumors of war at first, but when it finally happens, everything falls apart around her. Gradually, at first. Men discussing and arguing the maneuvers. Young men leaving, some never return. Material goods in short supply or very expensive. Older men enlisted when casualties deplete numbers in the ranks. Horrific stories of the ugliness of war. Scarlett loves the plantation her father owned but moves to Atlanta, for a long visit that becomes an extended stay that turns into years of living there. She helps with the war effort, resenting it but feeling obliged. Descriptions of nursing soldiers in the war hospital- more horrors. When Atlanta is besieged, she flees back to Tara with a handful of companions- to find the land razed, houses around her burnt to the ground, animals stolen or driven off, nothing left to live on. She literally faces starvation and is desperate to find a way to survive, no matter what the cost.

That deep fear never leaves her, even when things get better and the South starts to recover. Recover, but things will never be the same. I didn’t know, before, how much of this story would be about the rebuilding, the reforming of people’s lives when so much had been broken by the war. About how the economy was affected, how the rich people of society now lived in poverty but were proud of the sacrifices they had made, how newcomers came in to profit off the rebuilding, and so on. Scarlett grabs opportunities and is seriously frowned upon by others because her actions are “unladylike”. I had to admire her determination to never feel want again, to have security and even prosperity once more. I also felt some sympathy for her constant misunderstanding of other people, her bafflement at what society deemed proper behavior or how other people’s assumptions did not at all match hers (even those closest to her). But at the same time I did not like her very much. She did mean things to people who trusted her, just to get her way.

That’s the biggest part of the story, this tangled bitter love affair. From the very beginning, Scarlett has her heart set on a young gentleman named Ashley, who is a very bookish man. He struggles when times get hard, because he doesn’t know how to actually make a living, to work a trade, and he never really adjusts. Scarlett seems to admire him simply because he seems unreachable, she can’t really understand him and obstinately wants what she can’t have. When Ashley marries Melanie (because he’s far more perceptive than Scarlett and realizes they wouldn’t be good together) she actually ends up living in their household for years! I found that very strange. Meanwhile there’s this other guy, Rhett Butler, who is a rouge but an honest man for all that. Like Scarlett, he does what he pleases, but he makes no excuses and doesn’t care what society thinks of him. Honest to himself, I guess you would say. He can see right through Scarlett and bides his time until she will accept him- but Scarlett makes a mess of that, too. (It’s also appalling how much she ignores her own children, but that’s another topic altogether!)

Really it was fascinating seeing how well-drawn these characters were, how complicated their interactions, how curious their motives, what a commentary on the society that shunned or accepted them by turns. Then there’s all the stuff about slavery. This book is so romanticized in that regard. Protests all over the place that slave owners took good care of their “darkies” who were like children and needed them. Claimed that stories of runaway slaves being hunted by bloodhounds or savagely beaten were exaggerated. No qualms about separating married couples, or selling parents / children separate from each other though. Really it made me grit my teeth and think: they were treated like animals. And even when the text was trying to make it sound like this system that made the profits of huge plantations possible was okay, the degrading language, racial comments and insulting ways black people were described- just shameful.

If anything, at least it did give me an idea of how Southerners came about their viewpoint. I was able to see another perspective, even if I don’t agree with it, or even think it was depicted accurately. Again, so much I could say about this book, so much I’m not even hinting at, but I’m getting over a headcold and don’t have a lot of energy to write more. It did make me want to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that’s next on my list of chunksters to attempt. (I wonder if Gone with the Wind was written in reaction to it- the characters mention Uncle Tom’s Cabin and criticize its negative portrayal of slavery!)

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
960 pages, 1936

More opinions: the Worm Hole
anyone else?

by Barbara Kingsolver

This book has literally sat on my shelf for years, even though it’s by one of my favorite authors. I was so intimidated by it. Historical fiction can get heavy, and this one especially has significant events and looming figures- from revolutionary times in 1920’s Mexico to McCarthyism era America. The viewpoint is an ordinary man (but one I slowly came to respect and admire so much). As a young man he was dragged around Mexico by his flamboyant flapper mother who chased after a string of wealthy boyfriends after separating from his father back in America. Petty much ignored, he spends time swimming in the ocean, enthralled by the beautiful fishes and hidden underground caves- and hanging out in the kitchens where he learns culinary skills. Later as a young man on his own, he becomes employed in the house of Rivera- at first mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals, then working as a cook, eventually becoming a secretary and finally, overseeing shipment of paintings for Frida Kahlo. Who strikes up a kind of friendship with him. He is there when Trotsky takes refuge in exile, and witnesses firsthand violence against the man. In fact it is so traumatic the entire household disbands, he ends up back in the States, suffering probably from post-tramuatic stress disorder, often afraid to leave his home, uncomfortable around other people. Builds a new life for himself as a writer- he always was a writer, keeping diaries and sending letters- now he writes historical novels about ancient peoples from Mexico- the Aztecs, the Maya. They sound fantastically thrilling! and reading about how popularity swamped him, how amusing the reviews of these books that don’t really exist- I loved that part.

I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how to convey how rich and thoughtful and surprising this story was- even when I had trouble keeping track of what was going on with the politics and history- the strength of Kingsolver’s words kept pulling me onward through the pages, to a startlingly hopeful conclusion, when I thought all had gone to crap.

This book is kind of overwhelming. It’s about humanity, and art, and kindness- even when cruelty and ignorance are rampant. Mostly it’s about a quiet man, who seems hardly present in his own story, seeking to find a place where he belongs. I was not expecting to read (once again!) a novel with a gay character, and I appreciate how subtly that was handled. I was enthralled with the portrayal of culture, art, music, wonderful food in Mexico, and the contrast when the story moved to America. How servants were treated in Mexican households- as people regardless of their employment status- compared to segregation and racism in the States. The clear look at the revolutionaries he lived with in Mexico, in contrast to the political furor in the States, a place full of strangers pointing fingers. I feel like there was a strong message there for me that I’m not quite picking up on. This was a very compelling book, and it’s one I’m definitely going to have to read again someday, I think I’ll get so much more out of it a second or third time around.

It helped that not so long ago I saw the 2002 movie Frida. A lot more would have gone over my head otherwise. I kept visualizing how she was depicted in the film, right down to the voice, and I think it fit well.

Rating: 4/5
507 pages, 2009

by Helen Griffiths

This is the story of two young people in Spain, who fall in love just as unrest broils into civil war. When the first pages unfold, laying down a detailed setting of their lives in neighboring villages, their greatest obstacle is the local conflict. For generations there’s been friction between the two villages, intermarriages seriously frowned upon. I connected with these characters easily, so perceptive and adroit is the author’s description of their thoughts, feelings and intentions. Bernardo, from the smaller village, is a gentle soul, a dreamer who loves books especially poetry, and is content to work with his hands. His brother is the opposite- ambitious, uncaring towards his family, in the end full of fire for one thing- a political ideal. The brothers part ways early, but later their stories intertwine in dismaying fashion. Elvira, daughter of a prosperous shopkeeper in the larger village, is high-spirited and vivacious. She catches Bernardo’s eye at a festival the two villages jointly participate in, and he sets his heart on marrying her. First there is a long, constrained courtship- not only because their families would disapprove, but also because Elvira is held back by her religious upbringing, and harbors doubts (asks herself, does she really love him, or is she just overwhelmed by new emotions?). While Bernardo isn’t as deeply ingrained by tradition, his sole focus is her, and he’s willing to grasp the opportunity presented by a new law: they could have a civil marriage, without their parents’ blessing. A hugely controversial thing back then. As Bernardo grows increasingly impatient waiting for Elvira’s consent, they start planning how to get around the circumstances and be together.

But civil war sweeps over the country. Unlike his older brother, Bernardo has no interest in politics. In attempting to put together a future for himself and Elvira though, his choices go awry and he gets caught up in the turbulence. At first his only thought is to reunite with his love, but then it becomes a matter of just staying alive. Elvira also leaves her village for the city, attempting to find Bernardo, even though she knows it will be risky and dangerous. She has no idea what she’s stepping into. The ending, though so realistic- is tragic. I wish I hadn’t known a crucial piece of it beforehand. The story was gripping enough that I had trouble putting this book down at all over the past two days, but it would have been even more so without a bit of quoted praise in the frontispiece telling me a main characters dies. I guess they had leeway to do so, as the preface written by the author reveals this to the reader. It’s the only criticism I hold about the whole book!

Such a touchingly deep, bitterly heartfelt story. So alive and nuanced. I should have expected it, but I’m amazed at how well this author writes people– the delicate and unspoken connections in relationships. Not only the depth of feeling the two young lovers have for each other, but the disparity between the brothers, the parents’ hopes and fears for their children on both sides, the caution they hold from years of own experience, yet unable to dissuade their grown sons and daughters from forging their own paths, making their own mistakes in the name of love. And the great irony, that those in this story who live in more or less arranged marriages, had some stability, contentment and ease of existence. Whereas Bernardo and Elvira, full of passion for each other, a depth of emotion and loyalty the others don’t understand, could not attain a place to call their own and live together. So sad. Especially how the furious insanity of war rolls over them, catching all these innocent lives up and senselessly destroying them. Some make it through alive, but none are without scars and sorrow. I was reminded so much of a recent read, The Cat I Never Named– different place and circumstance, but the suffering of innocent civilians in warfare so very much the same.

I was very excited to read this book, I can’t tell you how much. Even though historical fiction is not my usual thing, and romance even less so. In the past, I’d always hoped to come across one or the other of this author’s books secondhand- as they were long out of print and hard to find. What was my surprise and delight about a year ago, to be contacted by a publisher who is reprinting all of Helen Griffith’s works. I’m so thrilled at the opportunity to be able to read her books as ARC’s- and very grateful to the publisher who sent this copy to me.

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 1966

the Story of an Indian Pony

by Forrestine C. Hooker

From the viewpoint of a pony, this tells about the lives of Native Americans in the Comanche tribe, when white settlers were starting to encroach on their land. The young pony Star belongs to the daughter of the chief, and his mother likewise is the chief’s favorite pony. The ponies are well aware of their owners’ status, and feel keenly the importance of proving themselves brave and capable. When the story begins, the tribe is upset by approach of European settlers in a covered wagon caravan, protected by a troop of soldiers on white horses. Unsettling stories abound of how the white men not only kill their people and take captives, but also kill all the game, and they see firsthand how large numbers of bison are slaughtered and left to rot. Alarmed that their land is being ruined and overrun, they set out to fight, sweeping into the invader’s camp at night to take their horses, thus crippling their mobility. The pony Star is part of these engagements, sometimes well aware of what’s going on, other times confused and just trying to stay with his familiar people, or fellow ponies. He meets the soldiers’ horses that are mingled with the pony herd afterwards, and talks eagerly to them, hearing of strange things. Some of the Native ponies shun the white men’s horses, others are companionable realizing they have no conflict, even if their owners do. For the most part the horses don’t understand why the humans fight when the land seems big enough for all.

After the first bout of fighting, all is peaceful for a while and the story falls into describing daily life of the tribe. Then the chief has to go confront dangers again, leaving behind his daughter and the pony Star. The girl misses her father and wants to fight too, stoutly claiming that she can shoot arrows as well as any of the young men. She sneaks out in the middle of the night with Star to join the fighters, but gets lost and there’s several chapters of survival story as girl and pony traverse a desert region, return alone to find the camp deserted, fight off coyotes, and then track down the tribe at their new location. I found the ending a disappointment- it made it seem like there was now peace between the Comanches and the white men. The tribe was relocated close to a fort for protection, the people now happy they could trade for new goods, that their children would learn the same things as white children, etc. It seemed too simple and optimistic to me.

This is one of those books I would have probably loved as a child- but I’m just too critical a reader as an adult. Not sure how accurate the cultural depictions of the Comanches are (they call themselves Quahada), but I feel like some of the animal behavior is off the mark. I liked reading about the wildlife the tribe lived among- the pronghorn antelope, the horned toads and birds. The chief’s daughter had a pet fawn and a captive bison calf. But did coyotes really hunt their prey in packs hundreds strong? Even as an exaggeration that seems extreme. The ponies all lie down on the ground to sleep at night, and when threatened the horses, antelope and deer all made circles to protect their young in the center- like musk-oxen. I’ve never read elsewhere of horses doing this. Don’t they usually just flee. I could be wrong though! but it was little things like this that kind of threw off the reading experience for me. That and the slightly stilted prose- I’m not sure if because it was written for children, or because the author was imitating how the Native Americans spoke English. And as always, I don’t mind when animals talk in stories, but it does annoy me when their understanding goes beyond reasonable. This one was uneven in that regard. Sometimes it made sense what the horses could comprehend, other times it didn’t.

Rating: 2/5
166 pages, 1964

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


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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