A MAGICAL VERSION OF THE FOUNDING OF LIBERIA

What genre would you think you were in if you had characters who could  survive being bitten by a viper and left for dead, who showed superhuman strength, or who could fade into invisibility when called by the earth?  What if this same book showed characters surviving slavery in America and in Jamaica, joining together with an African exile to help create a new nation for freed American slaves? If you’re thinking this is magical realism mixed with historical fiction, that’s probably as close as you can come to characterizing the newest book selection for Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club, She Would Be King, by Wayetu Moore.

Gbessa, the one who, if she were a man, would be king (the title of the book), is a witch who, it turns out, cannot die.  She’s been exiled from her West African village, starved, bitten by a viper and left for dead, but she survives it all and makes her way to Monrovia, the settlement that will be the capital of the nation of Liberia.  June Dey is a slave on a plantation in Virginia, and he has been hiding his superhuman strength from everyone until one day when he is pushed to his limits by an overseer and ends up having to flee the country. Norman Aragon is the child of a white British colonizer and a Jamaican slave, and he has the power to fade into near invisibility when the earth calls upon him, as his mother did before him  These three characters meet in the jungles outside of Monrovia, in what will become Liberia, and realize (with some help from the wind, which is the narrator of the book and a character in its own right) that their special talents need to be joined together to help them and their people overcome the barriers that keep them oppressed.

Not many people know about Liberia, about its founding as a homeland for freed American slaves, or about the difficult issues that arose when once again a colonizing power set new people into a land that was already occupied by other people who had been living there for centuries.  She Would Be King is not, strictly speaking, historical fiction (there’s too much magic in it for that), but it is a debut novel that serves as an introduction to the historical reality of the founding and early days of the nation of Liberia and its close relationship over the years with the United States of America. A novel with a huge canvas and a sweeping sense of history and of the African diaspora, She Would Be King is a fascinating choice for Sarah Jessica Parker, and for adventurous readers here as well.

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MERCHANTS, COURTESANS AND 18TH CENTURY ENGLAND: THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK

If you’re in the mood for an intriguing historical novel that peers into all the shadowy places of England in the early stages of the British Empire, and that brings to life characters you don’t ordinarily encounter in historical fiction, then take a look at The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowen, a debut novel that will take you to a different world.

Jonah Hancock is a prosperous merchant in 1780’s London.  One night he’s startled to learn that one of his ship’s captains has sold the entire ship (without Hancock’s knowledge or consent, of course) in order to buy something unique: a mermaid.  When the captain shows Jonah the “mermaid” in question, it’s not what he expects (nor what we expect): instead of a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, it’s a dead creature, the size of a baby, brown, with scary teeth and claws and a fish tail.  Since he can’t get back his ship, Jonah makes the best of what he’s got, and decides to charge people to come and look at his mermaid.

His mermaid becomes a sensation, and he is invited to display it at a very exclusive house run by one Mrs. Chappell. What he doesn’t realize until after he’s brought his mermaid there is that this is a house of prostitution (one of many things he’s never had any experiences with before).

Angelica Neal is a beautiful and desirable woman, sophisticated in the ways of a certain segment of London society.  She is in fact a courtesan who, until very recently, was the mistress of a rich man who died and made no provision for her after his death.  That’s not an unusual situation for someone in Angelica’s position, but it does put her in a position where she needs to make a change and take care of herself when she meets Jonah and his mermaid.

While Jonah is a fairly traditional and strait laced sort of man, ultimately he ends up marrying Angelica, and even hunting for a real mermaid for her, as the book takes a slight turn into magical realism (from the realism that fills the rest of the book).

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has been compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and, for a more recent example, of Sarah Waters, for its large cast of fascinating characters and its  immersive rendering of the world of late 18th century England.  Take a vacation from the 21st century in the very capable hands of Imogen 

SCANNING A CENTURY: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD FOR SEPTEMBER

When it comes to historical fiction, there are so many different periods you can experience, and three new books that just arrived at The Field Library will give you diverse and fascinating views into the past.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird, shows us an aspect of African American history we don’t often see. Based on a true story, it starts in pre-Civil War Missouri, where Cathy Williams has been taught by her mother to never see herself as a slave, but as a prisoner, the daughter of a daughter of a queen in Africa, a warrior who is destined by her blood to escape her captivity. With that attitude, she joins the service of Union General Philip Sheridan, and, by the end of the war, makes the momentous decision that she’s not going back to servitude.  She disguises herself as a man and joins the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers. She knows what would be likely to happen to her if her deception is discovered by her fellow soldiers, so in addition to the dangers that come with being a soldier in general, and fighting Native Americans on the frontier in particular, she has to navigate the dangers of keeping her gender a secret, and at the same time, she’s looking for her mother and sister, from whom she was separated when she left the farm in Missouri. Cathy is a real heroine, a woman who won’t let anyone get in the way of her doing what she needs to do, and if you’re in the mood for a wild ride through late 19th century American history, then you should check out Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen.

Moving ahead in time, The Glass Ocean, written by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White, turns on the fatal last voyage of the RMS Lusitania.  The book twines the life of a woman in the present day with the lives of two women who were on the Lusitania in 1915.  Sarah Blake opens a locked chest belonging to her great grandfather, who died in the German attack on the Lusitania, and discovers a secret that might change history.  She travels to England to meet up with a disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might have a clue that will clear up the mystery. Back in 1915, two very different women are traveling on the ill-fated Lusitania.  One, Caroline Hochstetter, took the voyage to try to re-spark her marriage with her industrialist husband, only to meet up with an old friend (the ancestor of the Member of Parliament Sarah is meeting with in the present time) who’s causing her to re-evaluate her whole life and decide whether to change everything.  The other woman, Tennessee Schaff, is masquerading as an English lady returning home; she’s a con woman pulling what her partner claims is one last scam before they can retire, but she feels there’s something wrong with this scam, and with her partner, something he’s not telling her. The three lives intertwine, with the tragedy of the Lusitania looming large over all their fates.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, takes us into the darkest days of World War II. Lale Sokolov is a Slovakian Jew transported to Auschwitz.  When the Nazis discover he speaks numerous languages, they put him to work as a tattooist for all the incoming prisoners. Imprisoned there for two and a half years, Lale is witness to the worst of human behavior, and some of its brightest moments.  He figures out ways to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews to get food to keep others from starving to death, risking his own life (and his privileged position in the camp) to do so. He meets a fellow prisoner, Gita, and while he’s tattooing her number, he falls in love with her and determines that he’s going to survive and make sure she survives so they can escape the camp and marry.  Based on a true story, The Tattooist of Auschwitz gives us a different view into the horrors of the Holocaust, and the human will to survive and love even in the darkest times.

NEW HISTORICAL FICTION: POST WAR EFFECTS

Two new books of historical fiction touch on World War II (one of them also dives into World War I), but obliquely, from the point of view of people not directly engaged in the fighting but still deeply affected by the war.  

Kate Quinn’s new book, The Alice Network, is one of those historical novels where there are two storylines that eventually converge.  This is a trend in modern historical fiction (consider Before We Were Yours, for instance, or Orphan Train, for another example), and in this case one story takes place in 1947, just after World War II, and the other takes place during World War I.  Both stories center around women and the effects of war. The first protagonist we meet is Charlie (short for Charlotte) St. Clair, an American college student who finds herself unmarried and pregnant; when her mother takes her to Europe to “take care of” her pregnancy, she takes off instead to try to find out what really happened to her beloved cousin, Rose, who disappeared during World War II and whom everybody else believes is dead.  In the course of her search, Charlie finds Eve Gardiner. Eve is an older woman, continually drunk, bitter and miserable, suffering from nightmares of her past, and she has no interest in helping this frivolous young thing, until Charlie mentions some names Eve hadn’t heard in too long. Eve, it turns out, was recruited in 1915 into the Alice Network, a group of female spies in German-occupied France, a group that operated, unseen, right under the noses of the German army.  It was very exciting and very effective until the group was betrayed, and Eve still carries the emotional wounds from the way the network was destroyed. The book shifts back and forth between Eve’s thrilling work behind enemy lines and Charlie’s desperate efforts to find the truth about her cousin, until finally the two stories connect. While Eve and Charlie are fictional characters, the Alice Network really existed, and the author provides, in an endnote, information about the historical basis for the story.

If you judged a book by its cover (always a risky thing to do), you might think Eagle & Crane, by Suzanne Rindell, is a romance, maybe a historical romance, but you’d be underestimating the breadth of this historical novel if you did.  Louis Thorn and Haruto “Harry” Yamada are young men who grew up on neighboring farms in California during the Great Depression, their families rivals because Louis’ father believes Harry’s family “stole” land from their family (and the better, more fertile, land at that). But Louis and Harry both find themselves working as stunt men in Earl Shaw’s Flying Circus, a biplane show barnstorming around the countryside, not entirely legally.  They also find themselves rivals for the love of Ada Brooks, Earl Shaw’s stepdaughter. Then comes the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the internment of Japanese Americans, and Harry and his family are sent to one of the camps, from which Harry and his father manage to escape. While the government is investigating that escape, one of the biplanes from the show crashes and burns, the two Japanese men inside it burned to death. Of course it’s Harry and his father, according to everybody but the FBI agent assigned to the case. There are details that don’t add up and he begins investigating the crash and Harry’s past, and that leads him (and us) to the tangled relationships between the Eagle and Crane, and the truth about what really happened, leading up to that plane crash.

 

MONEY, POWER, CLASS AND INTRIGUE: THE SUMMER WIVES

Winthrop Island, a fictitious island off the New England coast in the Long Island Sound, is the setting for Beatriz Williams’ new book, The Summer Wives. It’s a place where the rich come to summer, drink cocktails and keep away from the hoi polloi.  It is also a place where the locals, who are Portuguese and working class, live year round and spend their summers working for the rich people, but other than the necessary interactions of employer-employee, the two groups could be living on different planets for all they know of each other.

Such an environment, of course, is ripe for drama, and Williams stirs it up expertly. We start with Miranda Schuyler in 1951 arriving on the island for her mother’s wedding to Hugh Fisher, one of the richest and most influential of the rich crowd.  Still mourning her father’s death in World War II, Miranda needs a guide to the intricacies of the social scene on Winthrop, which her new stepsister, Isobel, is more than happy to provide.

Naturally, Miranda is also intrigued by the locals, and in particular one local, Joseph Vargas, whose father runs the lighthouse that’s overlooked by Fisher’s mansion. Joseph had been involved in an intense friendship (or possibly something more than that) with Isobel Fisher, Miranda’s stepsister, but he and Miranda start a relationship of their own, a relationship that is doomed when Hugh Fisher is murdered and Joseph is charged with the murder.

Fast forward twenty years.  Miranda has been away from the island for two decades, living a life as a famed Shakespearean actress, but in the aftermath of a disastrous relationship, she’s coming back to Winthrop to find herself again.  It happens that Joseph Vargas has escaped from prison and is also heading back to WInthrop. Things have changed a lot on the island, but some things remain the same, and now Miranda is determined to find out the truth about what happened to her stepfather all those years before, to exonerate the man she loved, no matter what may happen when deep secrets of the rich and famous are exposed, even by someone who was almost one of their own.

A historical novel that’s also a good summer read, with secrets, intrigue, The Summer Wives is just the book to take with you on vacation or for a long hot weekend.

 

THE ALMOST FORGOTTEN QUEEN: JANE SEYMOUR

The Tudor era, especially the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth, fascinates people, and why not?  Backstabbing, intrigue, love, lust, screwed up families: the royal family and the courtiers and nobles surrounding them did it all, and did things on a grandiose scale.  One of the authorities on that era, and an excellent historical fiction author in general, is Alison Weir, and her new book, third in her series focusing on the wives of Henry VIII, brings to life Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and the only one who provided him with a legitimate male heir.  Her time as queen was short (not the shortest span of his wives; that honor goes to Anne of Cleves, and I have to say I’m looking forward to reading Weir’s version of her life), and her death less dramatic than that of Anne Boleyn or Katherine Howard, so even people who are into the Tudors are less likely to know much about her.

Weir’s new book, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, sets out to change that and to give Jane her due, and in the process to illuminate a little more the court of Henry VIII and the intrigues boiling around him and his passions.

Jane was so pious as a girl she wanted to become a cloistered nun, but with an aristocratic and very ambitious family, this was not going to happen. Instead, she was sent to serve as a lady in waiting to Henry VIII’s first queen, Katherine of Aragon.  Katherine, devout herself, was very kind to her ladies, treating them almost as her own daughters, and Jane was especially receptive to her affectionate treatment. So it was a shock to her, as it was to many powerful people, when Henry decided he wanted to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn instead. Through the upheavals that caused, Jane had a ringside seat.  And when Anne, despite all her promises and boasts, also failed to give birth to a son, and Henry’s eye began wandering again, Jane’s powerful family encouraged her to return the king’s affection, which would boost her family’s wealth and standing.

Having seen what Henry was capable of doing to people who thwarted his desires, concerned about her own future but also attracted to Henry as a person, Jane faced danger with courage and faith, and though her life was short, it was certainly full.

You don’t have to have read Weir’s previous two books in this series (Katherine of Aragon: the True Queen, and Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession) to appreciate this book, but odds are that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back and appreciate Weir’s take on the previous two queens of Henry VII.  

THE TRAGEDY OF ASSIMILATION: BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY

If you’re looking for a different sort of history book, one that’s not set in the usual and popular time periods (the 1920’s, World War II, the 1960’s) or places (Europe, New York, California, to name a few), and you want a real emotional reading experience, check out our new historical novel, Between Earth and Sky, by Amanda Skenandor.

Set both in the 1880s and the early 1900s, the book focuses on Alma Mitchell.  In the book’s present time, 1906, she’s a woman married to a lawyer in Philadelphia, living an ordinary life. However, in the 1880s, she was attending the Stover School, a boarding school for Native Americans, run in Wisconsin by her father.  She was the only white pupil, and was supposed to help set an example for the other children, who were there to be “civilized,” which in practice meant to lose their Native American names, languages and heritage, in order to become more like white people.  Alma tried to become one of the students, though there was always a barrier between her and the other students due to her unknowing privilege of being the daughter of the headmaster and her being white. She took for granted that the process of “civilizing” the Native children would be good for them, and she became friends with the most promising of the students, Asku, later known as Harry Muskrat, a bright young man who won a scholarship to Brown University.

All of these memories (and more) are brought back to Alma in 1906 when she reads an article about the murder of a federal agent where the accused murderer is Harry.  She persuades her husband to go west and help in Harry’s defense, and now she’s forced to see what assimilation did to Harry, and to the other people she cared about at the school, and forced to tell her husband about her past and the secrets she’s kept from him as well as from herself.

This is not a feel good kind of book; what was done to the Native Americans in the name of “assimilation” was terrible, making it impossible for them to return to their tribes or to ever become accepted by the dominant white culture.  However, it’s a vivid look at that time and that policy and its effects, and well worth the reading.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FAMOUS: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

We as a culture are just fascinated with the lives of famous people. Not only do we want to read the facts of their lives and their secrets in biographies both authorized and unauthorized, but we also devour novels about the other sides of famous people, seeing their lives through lenses of people we don’t know as well, or just seeing them more fully.  If you’re interested in historical celebrities like Ernest Hemingway and Stan Laurel, you’re in luck, because we have two new books here at The Field which provide illuminating looks at their lives.

Paula McLain has already demonstrated her knowledge of the life of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife in her previous bestseller, The Paris Wife.  Returning to that milieu in her newest book, Love and Ruin, McLain takes us into the psyche and life of another of Hemingway’s wives, the brilliant and ambitious Martha Gellhorn. The book opens with Martha, a 28 year old journalist, in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, investigating and writing about the atrocities committed in that war and focusing on the way the war affected the lives of ordinary people. She sees this as her chance to prove her journalistic chops in a period where women were assumed to be incapable of writing about “manly” pursuits like war.  While there, though, she runs into and falls unexpectedly in love with Ernest Hemingway. In the beginning, the two of them are more or less equally famous and equally advanced in their careers, but then Hemingway publishes For Whom the Bell Tolls, his biggest and most successful novel, and suddenly he’s a huge success, an international celebrity, and they are no longer equals.  What are her options? She faces the horrible choice, not an unusual one for an ambitious woman in this era, of letting her career take a backseat to her husband’s and live in his shadow, or fight for her own reputation, her own success independent of his.  Either way leads to heartbreak for someone, and Martha, a fully realized and rounded person in this rendition, makes her choice, regardless of the consequences to him and to her.

Few people aren’t familiar with the great comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, from their silent films to their full length “talkies,” but fewer people know the story of how the two met and what their lives together were like. John Connolly aims to fix that in his new novel about Stan Laurel, entitled He. Entering show business in the shadow of the brilliant Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel also rose through the world of English vaudeville to the volatile and dynamic, but also seedy, world of 1920’s Hollywood.  It took a decision by impresario Hal Roach, putting Laurel together with Oliver Hardy, to give Laurel the immortality he’d longed for. The book follows him, and Hardy (known affectionately as Babe) through their long and fruitful partnership, through the more difficult aspects of Laurel’s personal life and the milieu of Hollywood in its golden age, and ends up being an affectionate portrait of a brilliant comedian and a team that changed the course of comedy.  You should be prepared, though: after reading this, you are definitely going to want to watch some of the Laurel and Hardy classics (though that’s certainly not a bad thing).

 

BLASTS FROM THE PAST: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Take a trip through time, back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, in England and in America, with two of our newest historical novels here at The Field Library.

Alexander McCall Smith needs no introduction to millions of readers, including some devoted fans here at The Field; his series reads, including The Number One Detective Agency series and the 44 Scotland series, have been bestsellers for years, and his stand-alone books are also wildly popular.  He has a knack for creating characters who, however quirky they may be, are real and lovable, and in his newest book, The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, one of those lovable characters happens to be a dog.  Peter Woodhouse is a Border Collie who has been mistreated by his owner and is rescued by Val Elliot, a young English woman working on a farm during World War II.  She gives the dog to her (soon to be more than) friend, Mike, an American pilot stationed at a nearby base. Peter Woodhouse becomes the mascot of the air base, accompanying the pilots on their missions, and Val and Mike become engaged, and all seems destined for an easy happy ending until the entry of Ubi, a German corporal, whom Peter Woodhouse brings onto the scene.  The potential for disaster with Ubi’s presence on the scene is matched, and perhaps exceeded, by the potential for a great and rewarding friendship among former enemies. With his trademark charm and love of his characters, McCall Smith has created a historical novel to love.

Esme Silver, the protagonist of The Magnificent Esme Wells, by Adrienne Sharp, is growing up in the same general period as that of The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, but a world away, geographically (in the vicinity of Las Vegas, rather than in England) and in living situation. Her father is a small-time crook, trying to get noticed by Bugsy Siegel and his crew, and her mother is a beautiful actress who’s looking for her big break as well.  When Esme’s father gets a chance to get in on the ground floor (so to speak) of the building of the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas, Esme’s life takes a major turn as well, when she catches the attention of Nate Stein, one of the most powerful men in Vegas. The Esme who narrates the story is in her 20’s, looking back on the wild world in which she came of age, a world filled with gangsters and movie moguls, many of whom seemed indistinguishable from each other, and looking back on the rise and fall of her somewhat complicated parents as well as her own discoveries about life and love.  

So whether you’re interested in American pilots fighting Nazis from England, or interested in the rise of the Las Vegas we’ve come to know, you can’t go wrong checking out our new historical fiction here at the Field.

FEMALE PERSPECTIVES ON AMERICAN HISTORY: NEW AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

There’s nothing wrong with reading yet another book about one of the famous male figures of American history, but we have a little something special in our new historical fiction at The Field Library this month: looks at our famous figures from the perspectives of their wives, which manage to illuminate not only the famous figure himself but the world in which the couples lived, in ways a strict focus on the man doesn’t give.

If Alexander Hamilton used to be one of the Founding Fathers most people didn’t know much about, that has certainly changed since the hit musical Hamilton took Broadway by storm, and now people are at least familiar with the story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, his wife.  However, My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, by Stephanie Kray and Laura Kamoie, takes us a little deeper into Elizabeth’s background and her story than Lin Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton, and we’re the better for it.  Elizabeth wasn’t just the wife of a famous man, after all; she was the daughter of a prominent general and landowner, brought up on the frontier of the American Revolution.  She fell passionately in love with Alexander Hamilton, the penniless, illegitimate aide de camp of General George Washington, married him and shared his fate in time of war and peace. She found herself at the heart of one of America’s first sex scandals, a painful and public betrayal of her and their marriage, but she still managed to work her way to forgiveness.  After her husband’s early death, she fought to secure his place in history and her own legacy. Along the way, we are treated to a vision of the birth of the American Republic, warts and all, with bloodshed and riots and turmoil as well as brilliant compromises and the creation of lasting institutions. While this is a novel and not a biography per se, the authors have taken advantage of the volumes of letters and other primary sources to bring Eliza and her world to vivid life.

Fewer people are familiar with the life of Jefferson Davis, the president of the ill-fated Confederacy (it’s hard to imagine an award winning musical about his life) than with Alexander Hamilton, but Charles Frazer, known for his bestselling and National Book Award-winning novel, Cold Mountain, wants to change that with his new book, Varina.  However, instead of focusing on Davis himself, this book takes his much younger wife, Varina, as its point of view character and sees the Civil War, its antecedents, its battles and its aftermath, through her eyes. Varina was only a teenager, with few marriage prospects, when she married Jefferson Davis, a much older widower.  She was hoping for the security marriage to a well-to-do landowner would bring her, but instead she found her life hitched to the rising star of Davis’ political ambitions, bringing them to the center of the Confederacy with his presidency. When the inevitable happened and Richmond fell, Varina fled for her life with her children, heading south as fugitives with bounties on their heads.  Whatever her intentions, whatever her initial politics, Varina found herself tarred with the brush of her husband’s actions, and discovered that complicity has consequences, regardless of whatever was in her heart.