Monday, July 17, 2017

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I almost never read fantasy literature, and am even less likely to review it. However, I was so charmed by Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, that besides buying several copies to send to nieces and nephews, I find I want to talk to you readers about the book this morning. I had never heard of the book, nor the Russian fairytale from which it is spun, but I’m finding many of my reader friends have and have been as struck with it as I.  Part One of the book is headed by a quote from Arthur Ransome’s Little Daughter of the Snow:
“Wife, let us go into the yard behind and make a little snow girl; and perhaps she will come alive, and be a little daughter to us.”
“Husband,” says the old woman, “there’s no knowing what may be. Let us go into the yard and make a little snow girl.”

Ivey is from Alaska, and this is her debut novel. A story of a couple in their fifties who decide to move to Alaska and to farm there. It is the wife, Mabel, who lobbies strongest for the reclusion, but both seem attracted to a life distanced from others. Her husband and husband’s family own a farm in the eastern United States, so he knows farming. Her parents are educators, and are flabbergasted by their daughter’s moving into a remote unknown. This is 1920, and the growing season in Alaska is very short, tough place to homestead.

What the reader comes to discover is that Mabel is childless and her husband Jack’s family is teeming with children. “There had been the one. A tiny thing, born still and silent. Ten years past, but even now she felt herself returning to the birth…” 
Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence.
The silence and loneliness in fact lead to Mabel’s being suicidal. She even ventures onto ice that covers a deep hole in the river, daring it to break and let her float away like the maple leaf she sees floating below the surface of the ice. The growing distance between her and Jack is   highlighted when she tries to tell him that she had ventured onto too-thin ice, and he simply doesn’t hear her. Instead, on a winter snow day (after a long and dry summer and fall), there is a perfect snow–covering everything with a mantel of light and purity. Jack finds the snow is packable,  and in a moment of levity, suggests that they make a snowman. ‘“A girl. Let’s make it a little girl,” she said. “All right.”’Jack, who has some artistic talent, uses his pocketknife to craft a nose, and lips for their snow-girl—they even use cranberry juice to color the lips. Mabel finds a red scarf and mittens.

In the sunny morning there is only the base snow left, the scarf and mittens are gone. But there are fox tracks and what appear to be a child’s barefoot tracks.  Jack has already spotted a fox very close to the farm on several occasions, and fears for their chickens. Soon, both Mabel and Jack begin to see glimpses of a young girl in the woods, just a flash of red and blue, gone as quickly as it appeared. And the magical story begins. There is a girl running through the woods, and the fox is hers, raised from newborn pup by her. The magic of the story, and the beauty of the descriptions of the Alaskan landscape continue throughout this lovely tale, and easily allow the suspension of disbelief the tale requires. 

At first, when each of the couple acknowledges to the other that they are seeing a girl in the woods, they suppose it must be a girl from a neighboring farm, a girl actually lost in the woods in winter. And that they must save her. But there are few families in the area, and no children missing, and soon enough they discover that the snow-girl is quite able to fend for herself (and her fox) in the frozen woods.  Explanations are hatched or presented to explain how she can live in such conditions, and how she came to be there. Eventually she comes to them, sits with them, eats with them, but only in the winter. When springs comes, she disappears back into the woods and to higher elevations. 

I fear I’m already telling too much of the story, and Ivey tells it so well that you need to read it in her words. And read it to your children in her words. I can visualize so clearly the girl, Faina, hunting with her red fox at her side. I understand on such a deep level the couple’s wanting to keep her to them, and her understanding of why she must remain Faina of the woods. 

Despite Mabel’s rejection of almost any form of attention or sympathy, she is more-or-less forced into accepting a neighbor woman as a friend. The friendship and conversations between the two add substance to the novel. 

While this is a fairytale, it is one with many twists, twists of mystery, twists of romance. As one commentator suggests, it never goes where you expect it to go. And it is a lovely tale of Mabel’s existential awakening, that we are being-with (one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human). {Heidegger called these existentialia}

I read this a couple of weeks ago, and would not have planned to review, but it is still so much with me, so charming (and informing), so full of delight. If I had children, I would read this to them eagerly, though it is long story. A story for camping, for imagining and wondering.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I want to talk to you this morning about an intricate novel by Amor Towles, entitled A Gentleman in Moscow. I’m tempted to call it a historical novel, but I’m certain the novelist does not consider himself an historian. He is however, a man fascinated with Russian culture, especially the literary works of Turgenev, Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

The story is of a Russian Count who a Bolshevik tribunal determines to be an unrepentant aristocrat, but unlike many who are simply killed or sent to prison, Count Rostov is placed under house arrest for life. He returns from Paris after the Russian Revolution although he could have remained in exile.  He would have seen it as cowardice not to accept the fate of his family and countrymen after the fall of Czarist Russia. As we learn from the novel there is a long tradition in Russia of house arrest. Count Rostov is staying at the famous hotel Metropol, directly across the street from the Kremlin when he is arrested and brought to trial, so that is the ‘house’ he is confined to after the tribunal.  

In 1922, Rostov is thirty years old, very well educated and traveled, and somewhat famous as a poet (which may account for the house arrest instead of a firing squad). Confined to an attic room in the great hotel, he is at first stunned by his greatly reduced circumstances. How is this cosmopolitan man to live with such restrictions. Much of the early part of the novel focusses on the first few days of his incarceration, but as the decades of tumult unfold in Russia, Towles revisits Rostov at yearly intervals, and then begins to double the time frame: two years, four years, eight years and in the final section retains the eight year intervals. 

Instead of languishing away, idle and bored, Rostov becomes more and more a part of the hotel, especially the kitchen.  It is the many guests who pass through the hotel who provide him with news of the world. As in his debut novel, Rules of Civility, Towles displays an emotional intelligence that I find rare in male authors, so that this second novel is as much a psychological study as it is an historical one. 

Eventually, an old friend who turns to Rostov for help when he is in desperate political trouble; begs Rostov to look after his young daughter while he is serving a prison term. When what is supposed at first to be an arrangement of a week or two, at most a month or two, becomes permanent, Rostov has a bright and very curious accomplice in his investigation of the vast hotel and its many famous guests. Nina is soon regarded as his adopted daughter, and she roams the hotel and learns of its secrets even more thoroughly than Rostov. While this twist of fate somewhat tests the credulity of readers, Towles manages to make it seem  quite natural for the lives of these two to be combined, and certainly the novel is much richer for this addition of a second set of eyes and investigative curiosity.

Via his intimate knowledge of the hotel staff and some of the guests who return each season, Rostov manages to live a varied and interesting life. So much so, that at one point his old friend Mishka says, “Who would have imagined when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.”

In the course of this longish novel, Towles speculates about why the German offensive aimed at the taking of Moscow fails in spite of the very rapid advances in the early weeks and months of that campaign, and speculates as well about the tendency of Russians to destroy and dismantle, name and rename, only to rebuild on the ashes of what has been torn down. St. Petersburg becomes Leningrad only to become St. Petersburg again as leaders rise and fall. 

The novel is meticulously crafted, and displays quite an in-depth understanding of Russian history and what the author calls the psychology of Russia. While it is occasionally obvious that the author did much of his research after writing a first draft of the novel, the narrative is seamless and the historical asides do not seem intrusive; instead they add depth to the story. 

Towles is now a full time writer, and I think we can expect further fascinating and well researched tales to follow his first two novels. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I want to talk to you about a book that is sometimes so horrifically sad I almost gave up on it several times, and it is with some hesitancy that I recommend it to you. While it is a really good and important book, I feel somehow responsible for recommending reading experiences of this sort. The book has a disarmingly sweet title, Lilac Girls; it is very well researched and based on historical figures. There are three central narrators: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and liaison to the French Consulate; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager; and Herta Oberheuser a young German doctor. The story begins in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Kasia becomes involved in the Polish underground as a courier, which eventually leads to her arrest along with the arrests of her sister Zuzanna and her mother. After being introduced to Kasia and her girlfriends in the Polish town of Lublin, very soon the action switches to Ravensbruck, the German concentration camp for women, allegedly a re-education center where women are to be corrected and repatriated.

In fact, the conditions at Ravensbruck are deplorable from the beginning.  Beneath a fa├žade of pretty flower boxes and rows of linden trees, the sadistic woman guards with their ferocious Alsatian guard-dogs do as they please with the women prisoners. Herta Oberheuser is an ambitious and bright young doctor, but in spite of Hitler’s claim that men and women professionals will be equally respected, Gerta is sent to Ravenbruck almost as a punishment, and she vows on her first day there that she will be gone by sunup. Instead she decides to wow her male bosses and to show them she is the most accomplished doctor at the camp. 

Without dwelling too long on the horrendous experiments carried out at Ravenbruck, let me say simply that in attempting to mimic traumatic battlefield injuries, many of the women and young girls were operated on, without sulfonamide drugs and with intentionally introduced foreign objects and bacteria during the surgeries, and then simply observed to see how many would die and just how some recover in spite of the horrible infections in the wounds. The women who are operated on in this barbaric way are called rabbits, both because of the way they hop and and limp around the camp after the operations and because they are treated as experimental animals. 

The novel covers twenty years in the lives of the women who survive the camp and of Herta who is eventually the only woman doctor who is tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. Carolyn Ferriday becomes a champion for the rabbits both during the war and in its aftermath. Kelly, the author, talks in an afterward about her many years of research in writing Lilac Girls. 
I moved from Connecticut to Atlanta in 2009 and began writing at first sitting in the concrete and chain link dog kennel behind our home, hoping it would evoke what it was like to be imprisoned, to feel what the Ravensbruck Ladies felt. But as I read more firsthand accounts of the women’s stories, I realized I didn’t need to sit in a cage in order to feel their story. They brought me there all too well. The terrifying uncertainty. The rip of losing their friends and mothers and sisters. The starvation. I found myself eating constantly, trying to eat for them. 
Fortunately, the last section of the book is about the lives of these women after the war when Caroline brings a group of them to the U.S. for restorative surgery and to treat the after-effects of their experimental surgeries. And while the entire novel is tough on the reader, the bravery and camaraderie of the women is inspirational. And while there are incredible hardships for the women, there are also times of laughter and dancing and deep love. 

Some of the women are able to forgive and move on after the war, others not. In a conversation between Kasia and her older sister Zuzanna (both part of the experimental surgeries).
“At least now Herta Oberheuser is in a cold cell eating beans from a can,” I said.
“You might think about a letting it go Kasi.”
“I’ll never forgive them, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“It only hurts you to hold on to the hate.”
My sister seldom bothered me, but her positivity could be irritating. How could I forgive? Some days the hate was the only thing that got me through.

While I am grateful to have read this incredible story of courage and sacrifice, it is not likely I will pick this book up again. I recommend it to you as an excellent historically based novel, but also a ‘Handle with care’ injunction.