Quiet Until The Thaw by Alexandra Fuller

quietQuiet Until the Thaw is the first work of fiction by Fuller, who is known more for her memoirs of growing up in southern Africa (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Leaving Before the Rains Come, etc.).  This book is a multi-generational account of two Lakota Sioux cousins and their differing paths, one conciliatory and nurturing, the other violent.

Life on the rez, or in this case Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, is a grind of poverty, government interference, and other means of miseries.  Into this milieu come two cousins, born within months of each other in the 1940s.

Rick Overlooking Horse is by far the more thoughtful of the two.  A child and then man of few words, he endures both mental and physical injuries during his tenure in Vietnam.  On his return home, Rick rejects the outside, i.e. the white man’s world, for a stripped down teepee-dwelling pastoral life.  He becomes a go-to in the vicinity for spiritual matters.

You Choose What Son is the more difficult of the two even as a child, and this continues into adulthood, when, after evading the draft, he lives a life of crime and then ironically, leadership, when he wins the office of tribal chairman by a campaign of chicanery.  After a short reign of bullying proportions, You Choose is brought down after a bout of violence.

In the long term, You Choose’s destiny ends much more wisely, although it takes a lengthy stint in prison and a tragedy wrought by his own hand.  His cousin’s quiet and steady presence, even after his demise, continues to influence You Choose and others, including a set of twins that Rick adopted under extreme conditions.

I became aware of Quite Until the Thaw earlier this year through articles/reviews about the author.  This was during a period in which other writers were getting criticism for cultural appropriation in their books, and Alexandra Fuller also received some raised eyebrows for writing this novel about the Sioux, and her being an outsider.

My take?  I’d recommend the book.  Fuller paints an empathetic picture of reservation life, and doesn’t fail to criticize factions that have probably made situations worse at these places.  She also places historical events in their context (Wounded Knee in 1973) and this adds to the book.

Quiet Until the Thaw is a quick read.  The chapters are brief (usually just a few pages), but in their brevity pack a wallop.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

This book took awhile to catch on for me.  I started it at least three or four times, and thea place called winter beginning didn’t grab me.  Just needed to get through the first twenty pages – and I’m now glad that I read the book.

Harry Cane is a privileged and shy Englishman who marries well, has a child – and then is forced to leave his life of leisure for the prairies of Saskatchewan after having an illicit affair with a man.

On Harry’s ship journey to Canada, he encounters a number of privileged dandies who approach their homesteading futures as a lark in the country.  He also meets the notorious Troels Munck, a deal maker and lecherous soul whose destiny becomes bound up with Harry’s.

Harry, green as he is to farm work, approaches it wisely with foresight.  He spends a year laboring on the farm of Munck’s brother-in-law, and then gets his own quarter section through some under-the-table conniving from Munck.

Through the back-breaking work of making his own home, Harry finds a type of redemption not found in the upper class circles of his previous life.  To be sure, he misses his family sorely.  But the wide open spaces of western Canada and their rhythms of life become his life, far more deeply than his previous experiences.  Harry also finds love of a sort, but the threat of war beyond his small community soon tears at anything he holds dear.

The storyline is not entirely linear, and I think this was a stumbling block for me.  The book begins with Harry in some kind of wretched asylum – apparently he has either committed some type of crime or experienced a horrific act.  He is then transferred into a gentler, albeit experimental facility.

As you keep reading, the institutional chapters, presented almost as flashbacks, are instead more present-day to the time of the book’s ending.

A Place Called Winter is a historical novel that covers many things – the social mores of Edwardian England, homesteading in Canada, World War I, racism, gay and lesbian/gender issues, etc.  I wound up enjoying it very much, and got very emotionally involved with the characters.

As I mentioned, the book began slowly, but keep with it; A Place Called Winter proved to be a rewarding read.  This situation reminds me of another book from twenty years ago that also started out slowly but turned out to be one of my favorite books – Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

victoriaIf you saw the Masterpiece presentation “Victoria” on PBS, as I did, I recommend that you also read this novel by the series’ screenwriter.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read it, since I already knew the story, but the novel, which gives deeper insights into the characters, fascinated me as much as the TV series did.

Most of us think of Queen Victoria as an elderly woman, but as this novel opens, she is a teenager, under the control of her mother and her mother’s adviser.  She sleeps on a cot near her mother’s bed and has never been alone in a room with a man.  Her mother does not even approve of her going up or down stairs without holding her governess’ hand.  She has learned that protesting is useless; all she can do is wait until her seriously ill uncle, the king, dies.  If she has reached her 18th birthday by the time of his death, she will be queen – no regency required – and able to make decisions for herself.

That day comes, and she declares her independence by using her middle name, Victoria, instead of the name that she’s used since birth.  As a young, inexperienced queen, she makes mistakes and learns that not all of her subjects like her.  In fact, some consider her emotionally unstable and too inexperienced to rule.  However, the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, takes her under his wing, tutoring her in the role she must play.  Her relationship with this politician, old enough to be her father, becomes personal enough for some people to call her “Mrs. Melbourne.”

Then her cousin Albert comes from his home in Germany for a visit.  Will they marry, as their families think they should?  Victoria is determined that this will not happen; she met Albert three years earlier and declared him to be boring.  Reading about their visit will prove to be anything but boring, no matter how much or how little you know about Victoria’s life!

Goodwin, who has a history degree from Cambridge, has done extensive research and bases much of Victoria on the young queen’s diaries.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown

Lawton and Hunter Loggins are brothers in their twenties, one a Navy Seal, the other inriver of kings college.  After their father’s death, they set out on a kayaking trek, navigating the wilds of Georgia’s Altamaha River to a specific place where they intend to empty their dad’s ashes.

As we travel with Lawton and Hunter, two other tales intertwine with their story – that of their father in his earlier days, and that concerning the first French settlers of this area of southeast Georgia.

Hiram Loggins was a harsh man – unlucky with shrimp boats and the law, and in love with the wrong woman.  As the brothers grew up, he raised them hard and tender – hard with the physical abuse, and tender in the ways that he taught them to revere the Altamaha and its swampy terrain.  It is to this river that they fare, to do their unforgiving dad one last favor.

The third strand of the book concerns the settlement of Fort Caroline, begun by the French in 1564.  Varying alliances with natives and clashes with the Spanish ultimately spell doom to the settlement.  The main character here is Jacques Le Moyne, an artist charged with rendering the sights of the new world with his sketches.

Le Moyne was an actual person; facsimiles of his works illustrate the book.   The River of Kings plays on the proposal that Fort Caroline was situated on the Altamaha rather than the St. Johns River; a theory about this came out about three years ago.

The area of the Altamaha in all three storylines is rich with myth, including the accounts of a mysterious aquatic creature that inhabits the lower reaches of the river.  The French hear tales of it from the natives, and Le Moyne is obsessed with seeing the creature, if anything to sketch it.  The monster also plays into Lawton and Hunter’s story – Lawton especially believes that their father was aware of the creature.  Their leg of the book is its own odyssey, a hero’s journey of siblings and their discovery of each other, while keeping sharp eyes on the dangers of the river, should they be river monster or two-legged nemesis.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

This biographical novel tells the story of Mileva “Mitza” Maric, Albert Einstein’s firstother einstein wife.  She was brilliant enough to earn admission in 1896 to the physics program at Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, where she was the only woman in her class and a classmate of Einstein’s.  She made friends with three young women who were students in other programs at the school.  They made a pact to remain single and devote themselves to their professions, since it was then very rare for a woman to combine marriage and family with a career.  This pact fell apart when Mitza married Einstein.

She dreamed of a marriage between equals who would work together on their scientific studies.  At times, she felt that she had achieved this dream, but eventually she came to feel more like Einstein’s servant than his wife.

I’ve never studied physics but did not find scientific knowledge necessary to enjoy reading about Mitza’s life.

Is the story true?  While the author read many books on her subject and drew on letters between Einstein and Mitza, as well as on Mitza’s letters to her friend Helene, she learned that two major areas of Mitza’s life remain mysteries.  Scientists do not agree on the role that Mitza, as Einstein’s wife and as a fellow physicist, probably played in his discoveries, and history does not record the fate of the oldest Einstein child, Lieserl.  In these parts of the story, the author had to decide what story line to take.

The Other Einstein introduces this little-known woman to modern readers.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Revenant by Michael Punke

While working as a trapper and guide for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823,revenant frontiersman Hugh Glass is savagely mauled by a bear during a routine scouting mission for food.  Captain Henry, leader of the ill-fated expedition, reluctantly decides to leave the mortally wounded Glass behind in the care of two other trappers, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, promising extra wages to them both if they will give Glass a proper burial after he inevitably dies.  Glass, however, stubbornly clings to life, much to the chagrin of the unscrupulous fugitive Fitzgerald who covets Glass’s possessions – particularly his Anstadt rifle – and is eager to catch up with the departed expedition.

When a hostile Native American tribe is spotted near the clearing where they are tending Glass, Fitzgerald seizes the opportunity to legitimately flee, convincing a hesitant Bridger that they must not only abandon Glass, but take all of his belongings with them as well if they hope to survive.  Glass helplessly witnesses this act of treachery and vows to take revenge on the pair, even though doing so requires him to not only recover from his wounds, but to somehow survive in the wilderness without flint, a knife, or his beloved rifle, and crawl hundreds of miles through only partially mapped territory.  Having already endured captivity on a pirate ship and a stint living among the Pawnee tribe, Glass is up for the challenge.

Michael Punke’s The Revenant, based on the true story of historical figure Hugh Glass, is subtitled “A Novel of Revenge”, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a novel of survival.  Page after page, Punke’s lean, sinewy prose details the bloodthirsty determination of various characters and the nascent industries which employ them to survive in hostile times, with “endurance” emerging as the book’s true theme.  Punke’s sparse style allows the story to almost tell itself, and his descriptions of the 19th century American wilderness are a joy to read.  The action sequences are appropriately tense and engaging, while the infamous bear attack stands out as a gory highlight.

Problems only really arise when Punke attempts to set the historical stage in too-broad strokes (the quick history of the fur trade on page 38, for example, reads like a quote from a Wikipedia article), or decides to invent characters simply to pad out the story.  The group of French companions (especially the two brothers) whom Glass is paired with in Part 2 of the book are stereotypes lifted out of any action/war film from the last ten years and wholly remove the reader from the reality the author has worked so hard to create.  The ending is also problematic, but some readers might actually savor its absence of dramatic closure.

Overall, The Revenant is recommended reading.  And for those interested in a version of Glass’s story re-purposed as an epic tale of vengeance, seek out Alejandro González  Iñárritu’s bloody and absolutely gorgeous filmed adaptation of The Revenant, which takes generous liberties with its source material.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

Robert Louis Stevenson resided in San Francisco for a few months straddling john carsonthe years 1879-1880, at which time he lived in the boarding house owned by Mary Carson.  There Stevenson recovered his health and awaited the finalization of a divorce between his fiancée  and her first husband.  His finances were meager, as Stevenson was at this time struggling to make a living as a writer.

During his stay, Stevenson was enthralled by the stories of Mary’s husband John, a former seamen who had traveled much of the globe.  Stevenson supposedly wanted to write a book about Mr. Carson’s experiences, and this book is an imagining of what Stevenson might have written.

The stories that John Carson tells are fanciful but possible, as far-flung as Borneo, the Canadian Northwest, Australia, and western Ireland.  He tells of stern tribal chieftains and noble shipmates, all with stories of their own.  The most intriguing story is about Carson’s encounter with a feral girl living in a deserted stone village; her future takes her far away from her solitary existence, and she and John are destined to meet again.

One might wonder what kind of influence Mr. Carson’s stories had on the future renderings of  Treasure Island or Kidnapped, or whether Stevenson chose his final home of Samoa, notwithstanding his health problems, as a nod to John Carson and his wanderings.

Brian Doyle is obviously a great admirer of Stevenson’s, and I think he got the rhythms of Stevenson’s prose fairly well.  Doyle’s lively descriptions of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco the bring the city wonderfully alive; the town is practically a character itself.  The Adventures of John Carson… is also a deep study of the natures of connection and friendship.

The preface and afterword (and the Thanks & Notes!), although fairly brief, are rich in back story and recommendations for further reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)