Tag: Historical Fiction

by Jennifer Roy

This fictionalized account is based on the childhood of the author\’s aunt. She- Syvia- lived with her family in a ghetto in Poland from 1939-1945. Syvia was only four and a half years old when it began. She was one of very few survivors- only twelve children made it out of that ghetto alive at the end of the war. She was silent about her experiences for forty years, until sharing her story in a series of interviews with her neice.

The story is told in free verse. I don\’t often read narrative told via poetry. In this case I think keeping the details brief makes a story about the Holocaust easier for young readers to handle (this is a j-fiction book). But it also left me feeling unconnected to the characters- it\’s more about what happened to them, then about them as individuals. Syvia\’s story tells of living in privation, locked behind a fence in the ghetto. Leaving all their belongings behind, living in crowded conditions with few comforts. No school or playtime. Facing illness and starvation. Watching people getting shipped away in the cattle cars, told they were being sent to places where workers were needed, but after a while they began to doubt that.  Syvia lost her friends and a cousin, one simply disappeared when she went outside. Her family worried for her safety so she remained in the small, barren apartment and could not even approach windows, for fear of attracting the soldiers\’ attention. Her older sister escaped the camps by lying about her age so she could work in a factory. When children were deliberately targeted to be sent on the trains, Syvia\’s father and other men in the ghetto made a daring move to hide the remaining children in a cellar. There they stayed for months in the dark, barely daring to make a sound and weak from hunger and cold. Liberation came just in time.

The prevailing feeling that comes through is so- dismal. Having read a lot about the Holocaust before (especially in my high school years) I knew what to expect in many parts of the story, but it still brought me close to tears reading about the suffering, through the eyes of a child. And of the awful risks people took to save others. In some instances, a detail that saved many people from certain death was incredibly fortuitous.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             242 pages, 2006

by W. Somerset Maugham

 * * * warning there are spoilers here * * *

It is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Paul Gauguin; in this novel the character of the artist is named Charles Strickland. It is told through the eyes of a bystander, a man who happens to meet Strickland\’s wife at a dinner party and later becomes curious about the man\’s character and becomes a close acquaintance. I wouldn\’t say friend, as he never liked the man, who had a blatant lack of regard for other people\’s feelings. In this story, Strickland suddenly leaves his wife and moves to France in order to pursue his art undistracted. The narrator encounters him again through the friendship of another artist- a simple, trusting man who admires Strickland\’s then-unrecognized genius. When Strickland, often destitute, falls seriously ill, this other artist takes him in; things happen and the poor man\’s marriage is destroyed. Strickland leaves- and our narrator (willingly) looses track of him for a while. Later he conveniently happens to meet other men who have had later acquaintance with the artist, and finds out that Strickland went to live in Tahiti, where he lived among the natives, seeking out a primitive idyll. He lived with a young woman who was his unofficial wife, and died in isolation and great suffering from leprosy. All the while, to the very last trying to paint and express some ideal vision from his soul.

While the book has a rather pessimistic view of human nature- at least, as far as the character of Strickland is concerned- it is so well-written I did enjoy it. Being told as a second-hand account, it has a lot of other characters and little side-stories. The writing style and descriptions of life in Paris, reminded me somewhat of George Orwell\’s work, Down and Out in London and Paris.

It did spur me to look up more about Gauguin, so I learned how many liberties this story actually takes. While a lot of it is roughly true to case, he didn\’t, for example, leave his wife in the way described. He did have quite a number of sales during his artistic career, had a dealer, didn\’t die in complete obscurity – nor of leprosy- and lived on a few south sea islands in succession, not just Tahiti. He had a different, young \”wife\” at each tropical locale- quite arguably the man was a pedophile. One of the scenes in the book which I found most moving, where he painted the entire walls of his house in a mural considered a masterpiece, and then his young wife burned it to the ground at his request after his death, was completely fabricated. I did wish more of the story covered his life in the tropics- that was such a short segment at the end of the novel.

The idea of a man driven to express something, having no desire for anything but to paint, and forsaking everything in his comfortable life to pick this up at age forty, facing the ridicule of those in polite society around him- well, there is something admirable in that. I know what it is like to be enthralled by the act of creation with your hands, even if the resulting product is not so great- to want to keep doing it just because you feel so alive when you do.

Does anyone know what the title refers to? I could not quite figure that out. I\’m now curious to read a travelouge Gauguin himself wrote, about his time in Tahiti, called Noa Noa, and perhaps another fiction loosely based on his life by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Way to Paradise.

Borrowed from a family member.

Rating: 4/5                   264 pages, 1919

More opinions: Living 2 Read
anyone else?

the Journals of May Dodd
by Jim Fergus

At a peace conference in 1854, a Cheyenne chief asked authorities in the U.S. Army for a gift of one thousand women, to be brides for the warriors of his tribe. Because the Cheyenne have a matrilineal society wherein children belong to their mother\’s tribe, the chief saw this as a perfect means to merge his people into the encroaching white man\’s society. In real life, it never happened. The Cheyenne\’s proposal met with outrage and the peace conference fell apart. But what if it did go through? In an alternative history, this novel thoroughly explores that idea. (I paraphrase here one of the opening paragraphs in the book\’s introduction).

May Dodd is from a family of high society, so her liaison with a man of lower social status is deemed highly inappropriate. When she defies her family by living with the man she loves and having his children out of wedlock, she is forcibly consigned to an insane asylum. It is misery there- but to her surprise one day she is given a chance at freedom: to volunteer in the \”social experiment\” of becoming a wife in the Cheyenne tribe. All the women sent to the plains to join the tribe must go of their own accord and finding a serious lack of volunteers, the government acquires recruits from insane asylums, prisons and \’houses of disrepute\’. Thus the company May keeps on the train West is full of interesting, colorful characters from all walks of life. Her story unfolds alongside that of a dozen other women she keeps in close contact with. It is similar in many ways to the story of another recent book I read- gradual learning of a new culture, seeing the world from the natives\’ point of view, running up inevitably against the white men forcing them off the land (in this case, the tribes had been granted \’forever\’ the land of the Black Hills- until gold was found there and the whites wanted it back).

I prefer perhaps, a more personal narrative that focuses on one person- this one although written in style like a series of journal entries and letters (unsent), tells the story of well a dozen women which makes it feel less intimate. It is really interesting to see how the various characters struggled to adjust to their new life- some of them who really were intent on converting the Cheyenne people to christianity or teaching them to be more like the europeans, failed bitterly and were dissatisfied with their situation. Others like May Dodd who came with a more open mind and were willing to learn from their new companions became content with their new lives.

May finds that the tribal people are more kind and forgiving in some ways than the whites who despise them, but in other ways they act very cruel- especially to enemy tribes. Given the reason why the women went to live there, there is an awful lot of preoccupation with sex- I swear almost every chapter it was discussed in one way or another. But the voice of the main character, telling everything in her journal, sounds very true to its time, so she describes everything with a certain amount of discretion. It never gets terribly distasteful. Just tiresome. There was plenty of material about the toil of everyday life, new skills they had to learn, efforts to find game, friction with enemy tribes and white soldiers, etc. But you can never really forget what the main subject matter is, she brings it up all the time…. Overall, a very interesting story.

Rating: 3/5       436 pages, 1988

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by Benjamin Capps

When she is only nine years old, the small homestead where Helen lives with her family on the edge of the frontier is attacked by a Comanche band. Helen and her little sister are taken captives. At first they fear for their lives, but are sold by their captors as slaves into different families within the band. Helen wants to escape but soon realizes how hopeless this is as they travel farther away from white settlements. She steels herself to make the best of her situation, to appear compliant so she can gain the trust of the Comanches and take an opportunity in the future. Helen gradually learns the language and customs of the band. She comes to be treated more as a family member than a slave. She watches her sister grow up among the native children- too young to remember her origins. As the years pass, opportunities present themselves for her escape, but Helen hesitates each time- wanting to bring her sister, waiting for a better moment- until at last she finds she is completely assimilated into the tribe, no longer sure she even wants to escape.

I was surprised at how much I liked this story, even though the writing is rather straightforward and the timeline passes quickly. At first I thought it might be considered a YA or even J Fiction book, but it turns out there are a few brutal scenes that were difficult to read. Helen finds that the Comanches are not \’dumb savages\’ as her father\’s folk used to say- but neither are they all kindness. They have their own prejudices against other tribes and torture captives. Larger events pass by and Helen hears rumors of warfare among the whites- later they notice the wildlife is diminishing in certain areas and acting strangely in others. They hear even worse rumors of other tribes being forced to leave their land by \”treaties\” made with the whites. Helen never dreams that these rumors will affect the life she has come to know.

Mostly it is a story of everyday life among ordinary people. The family relationships, the daily work for food and shelter, their travels to different parts of the territory at various times of year, their interactions with other tribes. The games that children play, the stories they tell. One of the more interesting characters I though was the medicine man- who apparently wasn\’t a very good medicine man at all- how his standing among the tribe began to slip and how that affected his son who was coming of age. Also a shift in leadership. And Helen\’s own act of bravery when she saw all their work for winter food being despoiled by a warrior from a rival tribe . . .

A very good story, one that has me looking for other books by the same author.

Rating: 3/5      247 pages, 1966

the Summer of the Scopes Trial
by Ronald Kidd

Middle-grade novel about a famous trial that was staged in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. The author had a friend whose mother was the girl Frances featured in the story; he gathered details doing interviews with people who actually remembered the trial from seventy years before. (A brief afterword delineates some of what was fact/what was fiction here).

In the novel, Frances is seventeen and swooning over the young schoolteacher Johnny Scopes. Her father owns the local drugstore, and he\’s always looking for ways to drum up business. Tennessee law at the time forbade state-run schools from teaching evolution, but the law had never been enforced. Scopes was a basketball and football coach. At one point he substituted a biology class and assigned some reading from the state-required textbook that included a chapter on Darwin\’s theory of evolution. Some scheming men (including Frances\’ father) saw this as reason to put him on trial for teaching evolution. It was all a stunt to get publicity and revitalize their quiet town. Scopes agreed to play his part. In fact (from a bit other reading I did online) it seems he encouraged students to testify against him. This story shows it all going sour on him, though in the end he had his own share of fame. Reporters and journalists swarm the town, everyone gets involved in heated arguments about evolution vs. creationism. Frances starts to question everything, too. But her main preoccupation is this infatuation with Johnny. It doesn\’t go anywhere. He always treats her like a kid.

And in the end, I got bored. I skimmed the last few chapters. I had heard of the Scopes trial before, but I was disappointed to discover it was all a big set-up. Frances gets enough glimpses of the trial to make a fair description of what happened, but those details did not quite hold my interest. Her child\’s view of how the townspeople respond to the implications of the trial could have been refreshing; there is plenty of contrast between small-town good-at-heart folks and big-city snobs that criticize and insult them. Frances also sees flaws among her familiar neighbors- those who want to sabotage the trial or who attack others for their beliefs. She\’s upset at discovering a side to her own father she never recognized before- he\’s often just out to make a buck. But her character felt rather flat to me. She was always questioning the status quo, always mooning over Johnny Scopes, and that was about it. I wanted a bit more depth. I\’m probably being too hard on the book, after all it is written for middle grade or YA readers -kind of straddles the age groups in a way. The writing style and simplicity seem more appropriate for the younger set, but the discussions about God, evolution, questioning parental integrity, even some brief showing of early feminism, are more serious subject matter.

Rating: 2/5         259 pages, 2006

the Best Dog in Vietnam
by Cynthia Kadohata

Last week I saw a book on display at the library about dogs used in combat, written by a man who trains them for the Navy Seals. It made me think of this book, which I\’ve seen on a few blogs and had a mild interest in reading. I decided to read them together, for two perspectives on the same subject.

This one is a fictional account about a dog that goes to Vietnam. Cracker\’s family can\’t keep her after moving into a small apartment, and her boy Willie especially is in despair when he fails to find her a new home. He can\’t bear to take her to the animal shelter. Then he sees a notice that the US Army is looking for good dogs to use in Vietnam. Willie feels sure that Cracker will be the best dog in Vietnam. It\’s still very hard for him to give up his dog, and he continually writes letters to Cracker\’s new handler, Rick Hanski. Rick for his part, is out to prove himself but never owned or trained a dog before. Together he and Cracker learn new skills and before they know it, are shipped out. The story is told through both viewpoints, so you get an idea of the confusion the dog faces, as well as the turmoil Rick is going through. Their trials in the war zone bring them closer together. Cracker\’s job is a very serious one- she is to sniff out the enemy, booby traps and other dangers, to clear an area for the men following behind. She saves hundreds of lives, but this is a war story and yes there are casualties. While Cracker does suffer injuries and trauma, I\’ll let you know that in this book the dog doesn\’t die.

It was a good story, but I grudgingly gave it a 3. The writing style is simplistic and many times I found myself rather bored with it. Of course, I\’m not really the target audience so this is not a flaw of the book itself. It got more interesting towards the end, when I started learning more about the Vietnam War, and in particular one section where Cracker gets separated from the Army and is on her own. (I was intrigued by the descriptions of an elaborate tunnel system the Vietcong used to hide from their enemies -us- it sounds like entire populations lived underground for many years. Does anyone know of any books written from the their perspective, describing this?) Earlier in the book I was a bit surprised at the casual manner in which the dogs seemed to be trained. The guy Rick didn\’t seem to know what he was doing, and considering how the Army insisted that the dogs were \”specialized military equipment\” I\’d have thought they were trained with more precision. But I know that wasn\’t the focus here, so maybe the training aspect was just glossed over.

The ending made me feel sad. While Cracker herself met a good outcome, the Army at the time considered dogs \”surplus equipment\” at the end of the war. The vast majority of them were either euthanized or left behind with the South Vietnamese Army. It\’s not like that anymore, as the next book (which I\’ve just started) makes plain- dogs are now brought home and given a chance of quality life, after having served their country.

Rating: 3/5      312 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Becky\’s Book Reviews
A Year of Reading
The Reading Zone
Book Clutter

by Josephine Tey

One of Scotland Yard\’s top detectives, Alan Grant, is recuperating in a hospital bed from an injury. He\’s known for his ability to \”read faces\” so a friend brings in a stack of portraits for him to look at. Grant is struck by the face of one particular man he assumes is a kindly judge. It\’s really Richard III, vilified in history books for the murder of his nephews the princes, in order to secure his own position. Grant becomes interested in digging into history to find out what really happened, because he can\’t imagine that a man with such a wise face would have murdered the Princes in the Tower (or ordered it done).

This book has been on my TBR list for ages– long before I started blogging. For some reason I always thought it was a sci-fi or speculative fiction novel, something to do with time-travel perhaps. Ha! was I ever wrong. I tried really hard to like it. I was particularly intrigued by Robert Barnard\’s introduction which told me a lot about the quality of this author\’s writing- she is not formulaic. It made me eager to read the book, and I did appreciate her skilled use of words. But the few main characters in the hospital room bored me, and unfortunately I don\’t know enough about British history to care about the mystery itself. The story itself introduces enough facts this shouldn\’t be a problem, but honestly it just did not hold my interest, thirty pages in my mind was seriously wandering. Too many names. I guess I just proved to myself that crime fiction is really not my thing. And this is supposed to be one of the best books of its genre!

Can anyone tell me the reason daughter is in the title? I\’m curious because the man solving the mystery and the historical figure in question were both men…

Abandoned          206 pages, 1951

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
Read Warbler
She Reads Novels
Savidge Reads
A Penguin a Week
Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books

by William Golding

A small band of neanderthals comes in contact with a larger group of primitive humans, more sophisticated in their use of materials and language. For the neanderthal family, the encounter is inevitably fatal. The story is mostly told from their perspective (except for the final chapter, which is from the human viewpoint) and one of the more powerful aspects of the novel was seeing how each group viewed each other. A lot of things the humans do, their very appearance and method of locomotion is completely foreign to the neanderthals and often incomprehensible. So it\’s difficult for the reader to grasp what is happening at well. In fact there were a lot of scenes I never really knew what was going on. It\’s one of the times I\’m actually glad I stopped and read a few reviews and synopses online, because if I hadn\’t I might not have figured out some of the events and actually given up on this book. The dense, image-heavy prose is also one of its strengths. You get a very real idea of what it might be like to live in the moment, and with heightened senses- the motion of leaves in a breeze, of sunlight over a rock, the feeling of moisture in the air, the ability to recognize and track things by scent- intense and close to the earth. The neanderthals are portrayed as being peaceful foragers with strong family ties whereas the humans they encounter who keep slaves, invoke spirits and use fermented drinks- appear to be cruel. They are afraid of the neanderthals, steal their children (for the relief of a woman who lost her own child and their amusement, it turns out) and act quite brutally. At least, that\’s as much as I could grasp. It\’s really a book that merits a second read.

Rating: 3/5         233 pages, 1955

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the Asylum

by Toni Morrison

Beloved is the story of a family that escaped from slavery, crossing state lines to get away from a situation of horrible abuse. The main character, Sethe, goes through some awful things to reach freedom, and ends up in a lonely house- loosing nearly everyone she cares about- her youngest child dead, her older sons run away, her husband is missing, and the local community shuns her. I thought at first this was because her house is haunted, but it turns out there is something horrific in her past and for this all the faces turn away from her. She is only left with her daughter Denver, who was born while she was fleeing the old plantation. This daughter grew up in isolation with her in the haunted house, until two people appear on their doorstep- one Paul D, a former slave from the same plantation as Sethe, and a strange young woman who is silent about her past and where she came from. Sethe takes her in regardless, and the relationship between these four is rocky, especially because the adults are suffering through the memories of their past, struggling to find new identity as free people- how do you decide what to do, what to become, when all you\’ve ever known is what other people forced you to be…

This book is raw, powerful, and convoluted. I had a hard time with it. Not just because the content is often difficult to read about- the characters suffer through things no one should have to endure and they don\’t fall down and quit but just keep on going- also because it\’s told in such a circular style. Constantly turning on itself, as characters remember and relive and re-explain their past, to themselves and to one another. First from one viewpoint, then another, then someone else retelling the story as it was told them by a third. I was baffled, at first, not always sure whether I was reading about the present or the past, until I saw certain events cropping up again, and realized the narrative was looping around. Each time a little more is revealed until you reach the final revelation of what it is Sethe has done, why she is so haunted, why the community avoids her. It\’s heartbreaking. I can\’t stop thinking about it.

Such a vivid narrative, and yet at the end I don\’t think I liked it much. Partly because I\’m just not into ghost stories, but I made myself finish this one. Also there are certain things I would just rather not know. I had to shut the book for a day my insides clenched shock brain reacting: how could people do that to each other?! and this happens several times. I hope the author is exaggerating what bad situations were like for slaves in the late 1800\’s, but she\’s probably not, which is all the more terrible. Years ago I tried reading The Bluest Eye and just could not get through it. I think of two other books I read not so long ago about a similar time period and events- Cold Mountain and The Book of Negroes– they remind me of each other and they were a lot easier to read. But even though I don\’t personally like this book, the writing is good and I can\’t fault her skill. The stories she tells need to be told, but sometimes I\’m not sure I want to read them.

Rating: 3/5     273 pages, 1987

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
I\’m Lost in Books
Estellas Revenge
The Literary Omnivore
Leeswammes\’ Blog

by William March

I didn\’t expect to really like this book, but it grew on me. It\’s about WWI, a company of men marching through France, little stories from each of them. Some only a couple of paragraphs long, others several pages. Often two paired together showing the same incident from their different viewpoints. The voices are not very distinct, but the individual responses to the horrors and senselessness of war are. Men befriending enemies and killing friends, injuring themselves on purpose to get out of fighting, searching for solace with women along the way, misunderstanding the locals in the countryside, insurgency and bravery and cowardice, pain and suffering and bewilderment. It\’s gruesome in many parts, in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Roughly chronological, although there really is no storyline to follow, just pieces here and there of each man\’s experience. Eagerness at the beginning when the men are first enlisted and training, the long slog, the growing horrors, the numbness and fear and everything else, what it was like for many of them to come home. Lauded when they didn\’t deserve or want it, others ignored when they had gone through the worst, the difficulties in making their lives again. Reminded me some of Strange Meeting by Susan Hill.

Rating: 3/5      183 pages, 1933


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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