A Long Petal of the Sea: Excellent Historical Fiction

A Long Petal of the Sea

By Isabelle Allende

Published 2019

Read Jan 2021

The title of the New York Times Review of this book is perfect:  Pablo Neruda Saved Thousands of War Refugees.  Isabel Allende Imagines Two of Them.  Allende has written a wonderful and powerful example of historical fiction:  image characters that are living through the period and events the author wishes to explore; engage the reader in the lives of the characters; engage the reader in wondering more about the period and events described.  Allende hits the mark on all of these.

The story starts in Spain near the end of the Spanish Civil War shortly before Franco wins.  Victor Dalmau, a medic, escapes to France over the Pyrennes with the patients he is serving. He finds himself in a concentration camp built by the French for fleeing Spanish refugees.   Roser, a  piano student of Victor’s father and whom the family takes in during the war,  also lands in this concentration camp with her newborn son whose father, Guillium, has been killed in the civil war and who is Victor’s brother. 

Pablo Neruda, a poet and Chilean diplomat in France, manages to convince his government to accept 2000 refugees.  He outfits a cargo ship, selects the refugees per Chile’s specifications, and gets the refugees to Chile.  Victor can be accepted, but only if he is married.  He convinces Roser to enter a platonic marriage with him to  save Guillium’s child and they become two of  the 2000 refugees Chile accepts.

The book slowly takes us through this buildup, across the ocean to Chile, and through Victor and Roser’s complicated life together as Victor becomes a renowned cardiologist and Roser becomes an accomplished artist.  Their lives are again disrupted as Augusto Pinochet ‘s coup drives them into exile in Venezuela.   They eventually face a decision whether to stay in Venezuela, repatriate to Spain, or return to Chile. 

While the reader expands their awareness of the Spanish Civil War, the real but unfamiliar rescue of 2000 Spanish refugees made possible by a poet/diplomat, and the impact of the rule of Franco in Spain and the coup and reign of Pinochet in Chile, the reader is treated to a wonderful story of the lives of two people and their loves.  Victor and Roser love their native Spain and eventually realize they have developed a love for their adopted county Chile.  They love Roser and Guillium’s son as a biological (for Roser) and adopted (for Victor) son.  They love their respective vocations.  They love each other, first as brother/sister, then as members of a platonic marriage of necessity, and then as partners in life and marriage.     Allende deserves high marks for a rich and well written novel that is an example of excellent historical fiction in this reader’s opinion. 

The Vanishing Half–a novel about lies and prejudices

The Vanishing Half

By Brit Bennett

Published 2020

Read Dec 2020

Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins born in 1938 in a town called Mallard, LA.  Although  Mallard isn’t officially at town in government terms, the town certainly existed in the mind of its residents.  It was founded in 1848 by their great-great-great-grandfather Alphonse Decuir who was the son of the white man who owned the sugarcane fields he inherited and the black woman that white man owned.  He was light-skinned.  His children were also light, their mother also being a mulatto.  He created a town for “men like him”:  those who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.  By 1938 when the twins were born, the town was populated by fair skinned people, some blond, some red-head, most with wavy hair. 

Desiree and Stella run away to New Orleans in 1954.  Desiree wanted to escape the smallness of the town and especially its obsession with lightness.  Stella had planned to become a math teacher at Mallard High.  Her dreams ended when their mother told them they wouldn’t return to high school in the fall after they finished tenth grade.  Their mother cleaned white ladies’ houses in the next town and needed them to contribute to her small income.  Her husband had been dragged from the house one night when the twins were young and killed. After working the summer cleaning white people’s houses the girls left for New Orleans after the annual Founder’s Day picnic and made their way into the rest of the world.

The book starts in 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her “blue-black” daughter Jude, fleeing an abusive husband.  Although she intended to stay in Mallard only for a short time, Jude was enrolled in and graduated from Mallard schools.   By then Stella had gone her own way which was unknown to Desiree except that she thought she had “passed over” as white when she moved.  We eventually learn that Stella had married her (white) boss (she had been his secretary), a successful businessman,  and they had a daughter, Kennedy. 

The first few book sections alternate between Desiree’s story, told in the present of 1968 and as she recalls her past, and Jude’s story in 1978 in California where she had accepted a track scholarship at UCLA.  Eventually the story moves forward as the twins’ lives slowly converge as their daughters become aware of each other and Kennedy becomes aware of her mother’s past.

The author is generally quite graceful in presenting the conflicts in the lives of each twin and their daughters.  Stella’s life filled with endless fear of being discovered and the weight of her lies to her husband and daughter.  Jude befriends a group of people who are also hiding their true sexual identities and are actively living simultaneously in two worlds.    Kennedy is portrayed as a spoiled brat of wealthy parents—indulgent father and cold and closed-off mother.  Her path is complicated by her own lack of sufficient talent to “make it” in Hollywood/theater and by meeting Jude who says something to her in spite during a falling out they have. She eventually has her own  lies to hide.  Jude hides her knowledge of Stella’s current life to her mother as well as the reason she and her boyfriend haven’t married.

Although a focus of the book may be on the lies we tell to protect ourselves and those we love, that really isn’t the full picture.  The question of the importance of race in determining how we relate to a person is the real heart of the matter.  The twins’ father is murdered in the early 40’s.  We know things like that happened.  Stella’s upper class white neighborhood is “invaded” by a black TV star and his family in the late 1960s and they are persecuted with violent acts until they leave.  We know things like that happened.  The author partially shifts the focus of hidden identity in the 1980s to sexual identity to give us another example of prejudice in action. Jude’s mother is fine with her boyfriend being white; she just wants them to get married and provide her grandkids (and doesn’t know why she’s not getting them anytime soon).  Stella says her complaint with Kennedy’s black boyfriend wasn’t his color but his pompous attitude driven by his education.  The author leaves us with a scene of a black girl and her white transgender boyfriend hand in hand enjoying a swim in the “black” part of the local river.  But what about now.  Have we really become color blind?  Does it matter if you have “black blood”—does that make you “black” and you must lie to say you are white if you choose to “pass”.  This question remains unanswered by the author but one I anticipate she hopes we will seriously ponder and recognize and that we can own what we actually believe ourselves and decide whether it should change.

Dear Edward: About Before and After the Crash

Dear Edward

By Ann Napolitano

Published 2020

Read Dec 2020

Twelve year old Eddie Adler and his family—parents Bruce and Jane, fifteen year old brother Jordan—board a flight leaving Newark airport for LA.  They are moving from New York City to Los Angeles; their possessions are on a truck and will meet them there.  Unfortunately they don’t make it.  The flight goes down in Colorado and 191 souls are lost.  The only survivor is Eddie. 

Chapters alternate between the day of the flight and Edward’s story after. (Eddie’s Aunt Lacey, Jane’s sister who, with her husband, take Eddie in after the crash, decides that the press should refer to Eddie by his given name, Edward.  That name sticks for him.)   The pace of both parts of the stories is rapid but not hurried.  We get to know Eddie’s family members as well as some of the other passengers as they fly across the country.  We get to know Edward’s aunt and uncle as they struggle to support Edward deal with his trauma and work their way through  their own sadness regarding multiple miscarriages.  Edward’s journey towards a new normal for him rolls out slowly and compassionately. 

This reader devoured this book.  Alternating focus on the flight and Edward’s story both compelled the reader forward but also gave the reader a needed break from each story.  Knowing the crash is coming for these passengers whose hopes and dreams we are learning is difficult.  Relief from Edward’s pain and suffering and the struggles of his aunt and uncle is also welcomed.  But neither story feels neither heavy -handed nor overwrought—hence the desire to keep reading and participating in these multiple stories.

Well done Ann Napolitano!

Lady Clementine: Informative Historical Fiction

Lady Clementine

By Marie Benedict

Published 2020

Read Nov 2020

This reader has learned about Winston Churchill through a variety of means—documentaries, books, audio short courses, movies.  The latter is certainly a form of historical fiction, in this case for the movie theater.  This reader knew Churchill was married and had some children but knew nothing about his wife beyond this.  Thus this reader was delighted to have Lady Clementine chosen as a book for one of her book discussion groups.

This reader was initially surprised that Lady Clementine is a historical fiction book about her vs a biography, but the bigger surprise was that it is written in first person and narrated by Lady Clementine.  This reader has come to understand that her preference for the approach to historical fiction is like that used in Dreamers of the Day—a fictional character and their story occurs in parallel to historical events depicted or mentioned in the novel.   Coincidentally Dreamers of the Day introduced this reader to a major meeting held after WWI to set up the modern Middle East.  Two major players were Churchill and Gertrude Bell, a figure previously unknown to this reader.    Dreamers of the Day led this reader to read a biography of Gertrude Bell.

However, once this reader decided to set aside some discomfort with the approach, this reader found Lady Clementine to be interesting and informative.  The focus is appropriately on Lady Clementine, but given her spouse and the nature of their relationship, Winston Churchill certainly plays a big role.  His nature to demand a tremendous amount from his wife and those serving him is certainly consistent with other sources with which this reader is familiar.  

This book filled in this reader’s lack of understanding of The Dardanelles Campaign which injured Churchill’s career substantially.  It draws out the major contributions Lady Clementine played in several critical aspects of WWII including courting the Americans to join the WWII war effort, spearheading efforts to obtain donations to support the struggling Russian people while they were enduring the ravages of war, and improving the quality of air raid shelters in the UK in which citizens spent countless hours while their country was incessantly bombed by the Germans.  The disappointing learning for this reader (and Lady Clementine) was that, in the end, it isn’t clear how much credit Churchill gave to Lady Clementine for the role she played in enabling his personal success or the success of the war effort.  This likely isn’t surprising given the general view of the place of women at the time and given Churchill’s self-centeredness.  Lady Clementine points this out in an interesting way.  Although both Churchill and Lady Clementine were from the upper class, they relied on the Churchill’s small income as a government official (small since most government officials of this rank were independently wealthy) and income from his writing to support their family and fulfill the entertaining obligations expected of his rank.  Despite their limited income, Churchill insisted on drinking expensive champagne which he ordered by the case. 

While Churchill didn’t publically acknowledge his wife’s contributions, others have done so.  Lady Clementine covers a trip she makes to Russia near the end of the war where she is surprised to receive a high honor from the government for her efforts in feeding the Russian people.   Additional research this reader did regarding Lady Clementine revealed that she was appointed a grand dame cross in the Order of the British Empire and was created a life peer member of the House of Lords when Churchill passed. 

This reader found it interesting where the author chooses to end her book—at the end of the war and before Churchill again loses his position as Prime Minister.  Perhaps this is due to a desire to keep the book at about 300 pages or perhaps the author didn’t have sufficient primary source material to describe Lady Clementine’s life during this period.  Certainly most of her most notable efforts are appropriately covered. 

While devoid of the references in a more academic treatise, Benedict has clearly done substantial research.  This reader was disappointed the author didn’t provide any details of this research in her notes.  However she does share her motivations for writing this book.  While British citizens alive during WWII may have known about her, especially those in London where she played a personal role in visiting the bombing debris, standing watch for incoming bombers, and improving the air raid shelters, this book allows Lady Clementine to be visible well beyond this population.  This reader does thank the author for that and for piquing her interest in learning more about Lady Clementine—a measure this reader uses when assessing the impact of what she reads.