Monday, September 29, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I want to talk to you this morning about a beautifully written book by Anthony Doerr that came out in May of this year; the title of the book is All The Light We Cannot See. It is a book about World War II as seen through the eyes of a French girl and a German boy. The story begins in 1939, skips to Aug. 1944, and then moves forward from ’39, backwards from ’44, interweaving the lives of the two children and how the war affects them. The French girl, Marie-Laure is blind from an early age and raised by a devoted and loving father who is the keeper of keys and locksmith for a museum in Paris. The boy, Werner Pfennig, is an orphan, who, along with his little sister Jutta, lives in a small orphanage in Zollverein, 300 miles northeast of Paris. 

Marie’s father carves a wooden model of the neighborhood in Paris where they live and gets his daughter to learn the streets and buildings by carefully feeling the intricate model he has created for her. When they are forced to leave Paris and flee to Brittany as the Germans advance into France, they settle in with a relative in Saint-Malo. There the father again carves an intricate model of the town, including every structure and street so that his daughter will be able to navigate the streets on her own in case she is left on her own.

Werner is a bright young boy fascinated by all things mechanical and especially by radios. 

Doerr quotes Joseph Goebbels in a beginning note, “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” And it is radio that eventually connects the two children in complicated and interesting ways. From a very early age, Werner and his sister listen to radio broadcasts from Paris that enchant them. Clever Werner finds a discarded, inoperable shortwave radio, fixes it and begins to pick up whatever signals he can from Germany and cities in Europe. Soon, he is repairing radios and other mechanical devices for everyone in his neighborhood. Eventually, we readers learn that Marie’s eccentric uncle Etienne, a recluse who is a lover of science and classical music, broadcasts science programs from a powerful transmitter he has built in his home, and the programs are picked up by Werner. Both Werner and Jutta are fascinated by the science in the programs, the readings from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the lovely sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  It seems simply magical to them that they can hear this voice from a city so far away which brings them both music and science.
One night Werner and Jutta tune in to a scratchy broadcast in which a young man is talking in feathery, accented French about light. “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Musings about light and color, both philosophical and scientific,  pepper this book, and are deeply interesting and beautifully expressed. 

When Marie and her father are forced to leave Paris, due to his locksmith position in the museum he is entrusted with an incredibly beautiful diamond called The Sea of Flames. A German officer and gemologist who begins to collect antiques and treasures ransacked from Paris for the Reich,  lusts after this gem he has read about but never seen.  His relentless search, and the myths surrounding the gem provide yet another strand that brings together the lives of the two children.

Werner’s skills with radios lead to his being drafted into an elite military school for German boys, which is part of the Wehrmacht, and eventually he is assigned  the task of tracking down radio transmissions in occupied France. The mathematical method of triangulation Werner develops to track down the origin of radio transmissions is carefully described in the book, along with other scientific developments of the day—all of which add to the story-line. 

Marie-Laure miraculously survives the shelling of Saint Malo, though most of the inhabitants do not. Doerr  quotes Philip Beck in a beginning note: 
In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire…Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.
Besides the main stories of Marie and Werner, there are also side-stories about other children, Marie’s great-uncle Etienne and her grandfather. But rather than telling you more of the touching story about the lives and intersection of these children—a story that needs to be read rather than glossed, let me simply say that Doerr does an outstanding job of portraying in sympathetic ways how the war impacted the lives of ordinary people in both France and Germany. 

I will not tell you the fate of Werner and Jutta, nor of the gem, The Sea of Flames, but I’m sure you will find those stories as intriguing  as I did. Although this is the story of a horrible war, it is in many ways a really lovely book, and one that you will be glad to have read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I want to talk to you this morning about a book that describes a friendship between two women: a ninety-one year old woman whose life is mostly in the past, and a seventeen year old girl who is waiting for her ‘real’ life to begin. Their names are Vivian and Molly, and it takes Molly (and the reader) about half of the book to discover just how much they have in common.

This carefully researched novel is Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, and it is based on stories about abandoned children who were literally shipped on trains from the east coast to Midwestern farm states, and at each stop the children were herded into town halls or churches to be cursorily examined by local farmers—the ‘lucky’ ones adopted on the spot, the not so lucky herded back onto the train and sent to the next stop. The orphan trains ran for decades (from 1859 to 1929). 

But while this historical phenomenon is the backdrop and inspiration for the novel, the story itself is about the budding friendship between the girl, Molly, and the old woman, Vivian. Molly is a Penobscot Indian who has bounced from foster home to foster home for almost all of her young life. Now, only months from reaching an age that will release her from the jurisdiction of the state, she has been busted for stealing a book, and the only thing that saves her from Juvie (juvenile detention) is an agreement to enter into a community-service position with Vivienne, who needs help cleaning out her attic. 
Sometime in the second week it becomes clear to Molly that “cleaning out the attic” means taking things out, fretting over them for a few minutes, and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack. Out of the two dozen boxes she and Vivian have been through so far, only a short pile of musty books and some yellowed linen have been deemed too ruined to keep.  
As the cleaning and organizing proceeds, Vivian’s own past as an orphan unfolds; Molly changes her tone of exasperation over the fact that  it seems that nothing is getting accomplished, and begins to see herself as an ally in retracing the history of the woman next to her.
In truth, though she hasn’t admitted it out loud until now, Molly has virtually given up on the idea of disposing of anything. After all, what does it matter? Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later. And then professionals will descend on the house, neatly and efficiently separating the valuable from the sentimental, lingering only over items of indeterminate origin or worth. So yes—Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process—in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots. 
This little novel skillfully swings back and forth between Spruce Harbor, Maine in the second decade of the 21st century and New York City 1929 as well as hardscrabble Midwestern towns that are stopping points for the Orphan train. Besides the tense and troubled present for Molly who has about exhausted her options in the foster program, there is a mystery that unfolds as Vivian attempts to discover elements  of her own orphaned childhood. I’m not about to reveal the mystery or it’s outcome, but the emotional similarity in the lives of the two lead characters and their eventual bonding is beautifully wrought. 

The babies and the cute, very young children are the first to be adopted as the orphan train heads west. Boys who are old enough and strong enough for hard farmwork are also often chosen along with girls who can help around the house and farm. The not so attractive and the frail are paraded out at each stop, and then put back on the train. As their adult attendant informs them before their first stop. “They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life.”

Other than signing some papers that promise food, shelter, and education for those old enough, there is no oversight over the lives of the children who are adopted. Vivian learns quickly that the agreement to send the children to school is observed only if it is convenient for the adoptive parents, while beatings and deprivation are far more likely than educational opportunity. For Molly in the foster program and Vivian on the orphan train, hard labor and sexual exploitation are the norm. 

While not being adopted is Vivian’s fear as her train goes from stop to stop, she soon discovers that adoption may be far worse. Molly, too, understands that foster homes may be more dangerous than state care. As she listens to her foster-care worker:
I listen … and nod politely as she talks, but it’s hard to concentrate. I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.
As Molly listens to descriptions Vivian gives of her early life in Ireland, and then of her life in New York before the death of her parents, and finally her many stops in Midwestern towns and life with different families, she comes to see how very similar their lives are. Both learn to pass; both feel broken inside.

Despite the sadness of this novel, it is a lovely story. The unlikely friendship that springs up between Molly and Vivian constitutes a sort of salvation for each of them. As the author says in the Prologue, 
I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened…I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is—a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Now is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer

I want to talk to you today about a book I should have reviewed several years ago when I first heard of it. The book is Now is the Hour,  written by a local author, Tom Spanbauer. Walking with one of my oldest friends and walking partner, I was introduced to Tom and immediately asked him if the name of his novel had anything to do with the song of the same name; it was the very first song I ever learned by heart from listening the radio. As you will see if you read the book, it has a lot to do with the song of the same name. 

Although this is a work of fiction, it reads very much like memoir, and I would be very surprised if it were not quite closely autobiographical. The lead character, Rigby John Klausener, like Spanbauer himself, grew up in Pocatello Idaho. His mother is a staunch Catholic who holds a tight rein on Rigby John, and his farmer father is a stern and tough man whom Rigby John describes as one ornery bastard. “Cold, irritable, impatient. One ornery bastard.” Spanbauer dedicates the book to his mother, and the deep love Rigby John has for his mother is apparent from the first page, and that he almost always disappoints her causes him to suffer greatly. A younger brother, Russell, is born with severe birth defects and lives for only a short time, and when he dies, a light goes out of his mother’s eyes. 
Russell came home screaming, and he screamed for a hundred days, and no one could sleep, and then he died. Mom was never the same. The music stopped, and she locked herself inside her room with Dad, and me and Sis were outside her room, and her eyes were never the same. I couldn’t find her anywhere in them, couldn’t find me, she was so far away. 
The highlights of his young life are the times when his mother, sister and he dress up in fancy clothes and jewelry from a large trunk in the attic, and as Rigby John tells the reader over and over, all three when dressed up were “scintillatingly gorgeous.” But, of course, they couldn’t let his father find out about the dress-up game. 

When the reader first meets Rigby John, he is seventeen and hitchhiking to San Francisco, hopelessly alienated from his family because “My family and the sex-shame-guilt thing. Sex and my family just don’t mix, like Mormons and Coca-Cola.” Bad enough that his mother has caught him literally with his pants down, masturbating, leading to a frenzy of confession and Hail Marys. His love affair with his own penis is enough to condemn him in his mother’s eyes, but that he is also gay is so over the top that he has no choice but to run away.  

I happen to have also read a short time ago Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical coming of age novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. Both books are wonderfully honest accounts of growing up, and I would have to say that I think Spanbauer’s is the better book, partly because it is such a subtle and insightful exploration of homosexuality and of prejudice against native American people. I also preferred it because I think Spanbauer is so much more understanding of his parents, even his stern onery father than Stegner, whose hatred of and vitriolic rants against his father taint the last sections of an otherwise lucid and interesting story. Spanbauer seems to understand and forgive his parents, despite the grief they cause him as he struggles to discover himself and his sexuality. Even on the road to San Francisco, intensely sad and having to flee, he is able to at least partially understand their reasons for treating him as they have. 

Like so many young people who find themselves in tight, repressive communities with condemnation seeming to come from all sides, often enough leading not only to confusion but self-hatred, Rigby John finds solace in reading—his path into a larger and more open world. 
Mom and Dad wanted me reading only good Catholic stuff. The only good Catholic stuff to read are your daily missal and the Bible and The Lives of the Saints, so anything that was good I had to hide. I had to smuggle Steinbeck and Willa Cather and Hemingway inside my pants. Reading made everything different. I was no longer stuck in a world with my mom and my dad and my sis and Catholics and Mormons on a goddamn farm out on the Tyhee Flats. Before books, my secret places were just places I could hide. Now my places were where I could go to read and find out about people who were like me. Of Mice and Men, My Antonia, Winesburg Ohio, A Moveable Feast.
Like Rigby John (and Spanbauer), I grew up with a self-righteously religious mother (Mormon in my case). As I came to learn, she knew very little about Mormonism or even Mormon texts; she simply knew that it was THE TRUTH, and that any who doubted it was  lost. Spanbauer’s Pocotello was probably even more politically conservative than the Salt Lake I grew up in in the 40s.

Spanbauer captures the diction and customs of the country people he grew up around. He tells us over and over that they are differnt (not different, but differnt). He tells such a good and convincing story, capturing both the humor and the heartache of trying to grow into one’s sexuality, especially when faced with criticism on almost all fronts. The friendship of one girl (as differnt as he is from those around her), and then of two Hispanic farmworkers and later one very colorful gay Native American man saves him from his isolation and encourages him to find a world not so hostile to his beliefs and his body.

I read Spanbauer’s wonderful book, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, many years ago and loved it for many of the same reasons that I love Now is the Hour. He is a truly gifted writer, and one who helps us to see that it is not bad to be differnt. I recommend him to you, especially those of you who found yourselves in a strange and foreign and cramped space as you grew up. His liberation is one that we can all learn from.