Summer remains the perfect time to kick back and experience the pleasures of reading. There’s still plenty of time to extend the season.
The Four Winds by Kristen Hannah packed a huge emotional wallop. By the author of The Nightingale, this family saga starts out in the early 1920’s in Texas. Elsa, the thoughtful and compelling daughter of a successful family who devalue her because of her plainness, diminishes her own self-worth and hungers for love. Grasping for love with a surreptitious relationship whose family are immigrant farmers, she marries below her social standing, about to succumb to Depression-era dust bowl vicissitudes.
The graphic depiction of the soul-searing travails of that time and locale, the despairs of those fleeing the Dust Bowl lured by false promises of jobs in California’s migrant labor camps, all recall John Steinbeck’s writing. The challenges of grinding poverty, hunger and illness magnified by class differences are driven home by Hannah’s intimate explorations of Elsa’s overriding mission to protect her children, her growing awareness of her own strength, and her courage.
Some critics find Hannah emotionally manipulative. Then count me guilty of being emotionally manipulated. She does get a little polemical in the labor organizing dialogue in Southern California, but the speechifying captures the era’s response to the grinding down of distraught workers. Hannah uses the incidents in this harrowing saga of people struggling against natural and bureaucratic forces to illuminate a critical period in American history about which I knew little more than the policy programs designed to address the issues. There are lessons here relevant to social divisions facing us today.
Monogamy by Sue Miller is an elegant and layered piece of writing, in line with other Sue Miller books (The Senator’s Wife, The Good Mother, While I Was Gone, Family Pictures.) Her characters are both vivid and nuanced; her dissections of relationships, penetrating and insightful. Set mostly in Cambridge, the family includes Graham, the larger-than-life gregarious bookstore owner and his quiet, diminutive wife Annie, a photographer. They have two grown children, Lucas (from Graham’s first marriage to Frieda) and Sarah (from Graham’s marriage to Annie.) Ex-wife Frieda has become a friend of Annie, and, as it turns out, there have been other women in Graham’s life and other male temptations in Annie’s.
But their love has survived these distractions, career stumbles, parenthood, complicated family dynamics. By the end of this patiently laid out narrative, we are confirmed that the core of this 30-year marriage is solid. We learn early in the book that Graham dies of a heart attack in his sleep, but the subsequent unfolding of his and Annie’s character throughout the novel. become a full and lively portrait. As the chapters shift among the points of view of the major characters, we travel through the doubts, tensions, angers, jealousies, love and sex, grief and loss that can be part of a long-term marital relationship. The reader emerges with a fuller understanding not just of this couple but of the institution itself and how marriage evolves.
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is deeply moving, set in Northern Ontario in the 1950’s. A small Ojibway child is orphaned and taken to a residential Catholic school for Indians, where they were subjected to unspeakable abuses by nuns and priests. Beatings, shaming, food deprivation, solitary confinement, and sexual abuse including repeated rape often led to death or suicide. The goal of the brutalization was “to civilize” the children by depriving them of their own language and culture.
Saul Indian Horse was befriended by one of the priests, who taught him how to play ice hockey. Saul was gifted at the game, and, in his early teens, he was fostered by a couple whose childhoods had been spent in his boarding school, and they nurtured his involvement in hockey. Eventually, he was recruited by the National Hockey League. Along the way, despite (or perhaps because of) his star-quality accomplishments, he had to endure venomous discrimination and physical attacks. He eventually sought solace in alcohol.
Wagamese traces Saul Indian Horse’s story to what was, for me, a surprise ending, though my naivete is embarrassing given the history of these residential schools. Canada eventually apologized to the residents and made reparations for their suffering. Author Wagamese died four years ago, and a movie was made of his powerful book, which moves the reader by the human capacity to endure unspeakable trauma and somehow grow beyond it.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar is a dramatic debut novel about three individuals born in the slums of India, struggling to get into the middle class. One, a young woman named Jivan, has gotten a tiny toehold there with a sales position in a clothing store. Everything changes for her when she witnesses a terrorist bombing at a train station. In an effort to boost her social media profile, she comments about it on Facebook, but her new-found notoriety lands her in trouble with a corrupt criminal justice system.
The other two major characters, a trans-woman named Lovely, and a phys ed teacher referred to as PT Sir, have been acquainted with her and are drawn into her story when called upon as character witnesses. Their own lust for belonging and upward mobility (Lovely in the film industry and PT Sir in politics) limit what they are willing to do to help Jivan, whose fate is in their hands. The story of poverty, corruption and injustice drives forward as their lives are intertwined in a plot that has great credibility in modern-day India. The story is bleak but gripping.
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