Tag Archives: Civil War

Spotlight on The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

good lord bird

About The Book:

From Riverhead Hardcover

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

About The Author:

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, “The Color of Water,” is considered an American James_McBrideclassic and read in schools and universities across the United States. His debut novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” was translated into a major motion picture directed by American film icon Spike Lee. It was released by Disney/Touchstone in September 2008. James also wrote the script for the film, now available on DVD. His novel, “Song Yet Sung,” was released in paperback in January 2009. His new novel about American revolutionary John Brown will be released in Feb. 2013. His latest work is the August 2013 film “Red Hook Summer” which he co-wrote and co-produced with acclaimed director Spike Lee.

James is the worst dancer in the history of African Americans, bar none, going back to slavetime and beyond. He should be legally barred from dancing at any party he attends. He dances with one finger in the air like a white guy.

He is also a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine and The Washington Post. His work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

James toured as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott among others. He has also written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Purafe, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney but wishes he did. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical “Bo-Bos” co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Musical Tour was captured in a nationallly televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

James is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Bookmagnet Says:

I cannot stop thinking about McBride’s newest novel.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-imagining one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.  I absolutely loved it and plan on reviewing the book next week.

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Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.

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Book Review: The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (Harper; 384 pages; $25.99).

            In 2004, African-American author Attica Locke and her husband attended the wedding of an interracial couple at Oak Alley Plantation.  Located in Vacherie, Louisiana, about fifty miles from New Orleans, the beautiful antebellum mansion provided the basis for the fictional “Twelve Oaks” in Gone with the Wind.  Locke and other wedding guests were bused in from New Orleans.  It wasn’t the ride, though, that made Locke uncomfortable.

            “You’re driving through rural, working-class Louisiana poverty,” she told NPR, “and all of a sudden, along the Mississippi, this incredibly majestic house, these beautiful grounds with these arching oak trees, just kind of rises up.  And I felt this tear inside — there’s no way to not feel the beauty of it because it is so stunning. But it also kind of made my stomach turn, because of what it represented.”

            Locke could not decide if having an interracial wedding on this plantation was an act of healing or if they were stomping on history.  She was so emotional she burst into tears.  The writer was certain the event was a metaphor “for where we are as a country, where we’re kind of caught between where we are and where we’re going.”

            Antebellum mansions like Oak Alley dot the Mississippi River Delta landscape of Louisiana and Mississippi.  Women in period dresses greet visitors at the door and guide them on a tour of the house and grounds.  Guests may imbibe in a little mint julep.  Visitors may even see a re-enactment or two.  Slave owners and slaves alike lament the coming of the Yankees.  The “happy darkies” profess their undying love and devotion to their masters.  In these plantations, the myth of “moonlight and magnolias,” long dispelled by historians, still prevails.

            Years later, when Barack Obama was elected President, the feeling she felt at Oak Alley came back to Locke.  The election “changed everything she had been taught about race.” 

This is the premise behind her latest mystery The Cutting Season, this reviewer’s second favorite mystery of the year (behind Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl).

            Swiftly-paced and compellingly readable, The Cutting Season features the thrilling tale of a double murder, centuries apart yet curiously related.  Locke’s whodunit takes the reader on a series of twists and turns.  The plot is unpredictable but always convincing. 

            Locke’s best feature is her ability to link characters to setting.  The story’s main protagonist, Caren, is the manager of fictional “Belle Vie” (“Beautiful Life”) Plantation.  Caren’s ties to Belle Vie are deep: her mother was the cook.  Caren grew up on this plantation.  In fact, she is the “great-great-great-granddaughter of slaves,” slaves who lived and worked at Belle Vie.    

            After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the home of Caren and her daughter, Morgan, they sought refuge at Belle Vie.  They have always felt safe here, among the re-enactors and others who work there.  They are a family.

            Their sense of security vanishes when the body of a cane worker from neighboring Groveland Corporation is discovered on plantation property.  She was murdered.  The killing may be related to the disappearance of Caren’s great-great-great-grandfather, Jason.

            Jason was brought to Belle Vie as a child.  Caren’s mother said that Jason “was a man to be proud of, slave or no slave.”  Jason was “a man who had lived with his head up and his back straight, a man who had lived a life of peace and fidelity…until he went mysteriously missing sometime after the Civil War.”  What happened to Jason was a mystery.  “Some said he had tired of cutting cane and walked out of the fields after the war, leaving a wife and child.  Some said he had problems with drink and women and that’s why he ran.  And still others, like Caren’s mother, thought he had likely met trouble here on the plantation; that he’d died at Belle Vie, and his soul never left the grounds.”  Jason’s ghost was even thought to haunt the slave quarters.

            Caren fears that she and her child may be the killer’s next targets.  Everyone is on edge; no one is safe.  No one can be trusted, not even old friends.  When it is clear the police have the wrong man, Caren must undertake her own investigation, no matter the cost. 

            In addition to the story’s main plot, the double murders, Locke introduces several interesting sub-plots.  Locke illustrates the plight of Hispanic cane workers and shows how powerless and scared they are when facing large companies, the government, and police.  An old romance between Caren and Eric, Morgan’s father, rekindles,  just when he is set to marry someone else.  Donovan, a re-enactor on the plantation, sets out to make a movie in which Jason is a central figure.

            The Cutting Season barely let this reviewer catch her breath.  I was so caught up in the action and mystery that I could not tear myself away from its pages.  The Cutting Season recalls the color and current of the muddy, meandering Mississippi River.  The story is swift; the plot is strong; the characters are murky; and the setting is shadowy. 

            The next time you find yourself near New Orleans or Baton Rouge, take a trip to the real Belle Vie– Oak Alley–the antebellum mansion that so moved Attica Locke. 

           

           

           

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Interview with Wilderness Author Lance Weller

Interview with Lance Weller, author of Wilderness

Jaime Boler: Lance, thank you so much for letting me interview you. Did you always want to be a writer?

 

Lance Weller: For as long as I can remember, yes.  My maternal grandmother had dreams of being a writer and always had the accoutrements of the craft lying around—pens, pads of paper, a really excellent typewriter—and some of my earliest memories are of monkeying around with all that wonderful stuff.

 

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Wilderness?  How did you come up with the character of Abel Truman?

 

LW: Abel Truman came to me well before I had any notion whatsoever that Wilderness would become what it ended up becoming.  I wanted to try and write a really excellent dog story and, to that end, started writing a short story about an old man and his dog and what became of them.  Before I really knew it, they were living on the Washington State coast and the old man was an American Civil War veteran and I was beyond the point where it was a short story by a good number of pages.

 

JB: The story behind Wilderness is inspirational because you never gave up.  You were very ill and did not write for months yet one thing made the difference for you.  Can you talk about what happened and how that gave you hope?

 

LW: I’d had Wilderness finished for some time but no one wanted it.  I couldn’t get anybody interested and it had been a long time since I’d seen my name in print on anything.  My illness, when it came, was nothing life-threatening, nothing dire, but fundamentally changed the way I thought about myself because, suddenly, I’d lost the use of the left side of my face and I felt awful, truly awful right down to my bones, all the time.  It forced an existential crisis wherein I started questioning everything I was and had been and on and on. 

 

At any rate, I didn’t do anything creative for a long time but, at the back of my mind, I knew with Wilderness I’d done the best I knew how.  Eventually, I sat down with the manuscript and started to rework it—not because it needed it (though it did) but because I wanted to relearn the discipline it took to get it done in the first place.  And, eventually, I saw an ad for a magazine looking for stories of the type that Wilderness was full of and, eventually, I got a tiny portion of the manuscript accepted for publication in that magazine.  It felt good and I felt good getting it ready and realized that, even though I’d lost faith for a time, was lost for a time, maybe what I’d managed with Wilderness was a thing that should not be let go so easily.

 

JB: You conducted extensive research for this novel on the Civil War from generals to conditions for soldiers to battles.  Did anything that you discovered surprise you?

 

LW: Nearly EVERYTHING I discovered surprised me.  I came from a place of vast, deep ignorance about the conflict and what I did know was pretty well sanitized.  The more I read, the more amazed I became; amazed at what the country went through, amazed at what was borne and amazed at the common soldier’s experience amidst the mud and blood.

 

JB: You were born in the Pacific Northwest and you write about it.  I am going to pose a question to you I previously asked Jonathan Odell (The Healing): I’ve always heard authors should write what they know best.  Is that why you set Wilderness in the Pacific Northwest?

 

LW: Partly.  I’m actually of the opinion that some of the best writing comes from stuff that lies outside an author’s everyday experience because, sometimes, you get some good insight; thus my plunge into Civil War history.  That being said, there doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of contemporary fiction set in the Pacific Northwest, at least not out on the coast where I put Abel, so it was a real pleasure and a challenge to dig into it. 

 

JB: I’ll be honest.  At times, it was so difficult to read your story.  It stirred a wide range of emotions in me (in a good way).  But how hard was it for you to write about the racism, the brutality, and the violence?  Did you ever have to stop to collect yourself?

 

LW: Not really.  I’d read so much history, so many soldiers’ letters and diaries and thought so long and deeply about what their experience must have been like that I think I became a little inured to the idea of the violence.  There were many times, though, that I came up for air—especially in the battle scenes—and worried I’d gone too far and then, after reading what I’d written, worried I’d not gone far enough to get it as right as I could.

 

JB: My favorite character in the story is probably Hypatia.  Do you have a favorite?  Or is that like asking a mother who her favorite child is?

 

LW: I really don’t have a favorite (but I will tell you I was pretty nervous writing Hypatia because I so wanted to get her right; so it’s really gratifying to hear she resonated for you).  I do really love Abel’s dog though…

 

JB: How do you feel when readers and critics (this one included) say Wilderness is better than Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain?

 

LW: I’m in a really happy position to find Wilderness often compared to a modern classic like Cold Mountain but, beyond their shared landscape of the American Civil War and their stories of men walking toward uncertain destinies, they are two vastly different books.  To tell the truth, I’m constantly surprised and humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as Frazier who is one of my big literary heroes.

 

JB: What is your writing process like?  What is a typical day of writing like for you?

 

LW: I have, I think, the very worst process it is possible to have.  It’s slow and methodical except for when it is not.  It’s overburdened with me being critical with myself except for when it’s not.  I average, maybe, a page a day except for when I do more (or sometimes less).  But I’m very lucky to have a dedicated space filled with stuff I love and (and this is important) I always, always have a dog at my feet.

 

JB: What is the last book you read?

 

LW: The last book I read that really bowled me over was Jeffrey Lent’s In the Fall—I’m very lucky NOT to have read it while I was working on Wilderness because it would have taken the heart right out of me it’s so grand and giving a book. 

 

And, lately, I’ve been rereading a lot of the pulp fiction I loved in my youth; so, a lot of RE Howard and Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Kenneth Robeson.  I’ll always have a soft spot for that sort of wide-eyed adventure story.

 

JB: Do you have any favorite authors?  If so, who are they?

 

LW: William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and it more or less stops there.  I can read and reread them any number of times and get something new.

 

JB: What advice would you give someone working on a first novel?

 

LW: I don’t know that I’m best guy to answer that question considering how long I worked on Wilderness but I think the best advice I could offer would be to just keep working it and working it and working it—sentence after sentence—and worry about what you’ll end up with after you’ve ended up with it.

 

Also, if at all possible, have a dog at your feet.

 

JB: Are you working on anything new?

 

LW: Always.  Right now, I’m trying another period piece set in 1846 that’s gone from being the story of a marriage to becoming a sort of buddy/road novel about two friends who go to very dark places on the new frontier.

 

JB: What do hope readers take with them after reading Wilderness?

 

LW: If there’s one thing I’m learning from this first novel process, is that I need to be prepared to be constantly surprised at what people take away from the book.  I had little in the way of agendas when I wrote it and now, having seen it published, all I can hope for is that folks enjoy it.   There’s really nothing more I can ask for.

 

JB: Thank you, Lance, for a great interview.

 

 

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Spotlight on Wilderness by Lance Weller

I am about to begin reading Lance Weller’s Wilderness.  Critics and readers alike have compared the novel to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997).  That is high praise indeed.

Needless to say, I am very excited about Wilderness.

Here is what Goodreads has to say about the book:

“Thirty years after the Civil War’s Battle of the Wilderness left him maimed, Abel Truman has found his way to the edge of the continent, the rugged, majestic coast of Washington State, where he lives alone in a driftwood shack with his beloved dog. Wilderness is the story of Abel, now an old and ailing man, and his heroic final journey over the snowbound Olympic Mountains. It’s a quest he has little hope of completing but still must undertake to settle matters of the heart that predate even the horrors of the war.As Abel makes his way into the foothills, the violence he endures at the hands of two thugs who are after his dog is crosscut with his memories of the horrors of the war, the friends he lost, and the savagery he took part in and witnessed. And yet, darkness is cut by light, especially in the people who have touched his life-from Jane Dao-Ming Poole, the daughter of murdered Chinese immigrants, to Hypatia, an escaped slave who nursed him back to life, and finally to the unbearable memory of the wife and child he lost as a young man. Haunted by tragedy, loss, and unspeakable brutality, Abel has somehow managed to hold on to his humanity, finding way stations of kindness along his tortured and ultimately redemptive path.In its contrasts of light and dark, wild and tame, brutal and tender, and its attempts to reconcile a horrific war with the great evil it ended, Wilderness tells not only the moving tale of an unforgettable character, but a story about who we are as human beings, a people, and a nation. Lance Weller’s immensely impressive debut immediately places him among our most talented writers.”

Jeffrey Lent calls Wilderness “magnificent.”  “Masterful,” says Jonathan Evison.  John Vernon deems it “stunning.”

 

Have you read Wilderness?  Are you currently reading it?  If so, please discuss it here!

The author

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September Fiction

It’s been said that the best books come out in the fall.  That time is just around the corner.  September fiction has some heavy hitters.  I have tried hard to narrow down my picks to ten.  These are, in my opinion, the best novels out in September.  Happy reading!

A novel that is out now is Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, “set in the untamed American West, a highly original and haunting debut novel about a makeshift family whose dramatic lives are shaped by violence, love, and an indelible connection to the land.”  September 4 is the publication date for Ilie Ruby’s The Salt God’s Daughter.

“Set in Long Beach, California, beginning in the 1970s, The Salt God’s Daughter follows Ruthie and her older sister Dolly as they struggle for survival in a place governed by an enchanted ocean and exotic folklore.  Guided by a mother ruled by magical, elaborately-told stories of the full moons, which she draws from The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the two girls are often homeless, often on their own, fiercely protective of each other, and unaware of how far they have drifted from traditional society as they carve a real life from their imagined stories.”

The incomparable Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and On Beauty, has a new novel, NW, coming out September 4.


“This is the story of a city.

The northwest corner of a city. Here you’ll find guests and hosts, those with power and those without it, people who live somewhere special and others who live nowhere at all.  And many people in between.

Every city is like this. Cheek-by-jowl living. Separate worlds.

And then there are the visitations: the rare times a stranger crosses a threshold without permission or warning, causing a disruption in the whole system. Like the April afternoon a woman came to Leah Hanwell’s door, seeking help, disturbing the peace, forcing Leah out of her isolation…

Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragi-comic new novel follows four Londoners – Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan – as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end.

Depicting the modern urban zone – familiar to town-dwellers everywhere – Zadie Smith’s NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.”

Perhaps one of fall’s biggest books also comes out September 4.  It is Lance Weller’s debut novel, Wilderness, a story that has been compared to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

“In its contrasts of light and dark, wild and tame, brutal and tender, and its attempts to reconcile a horrific war with the great evil it ended, Wilderness not only tells the moving tale of an unforgettable character, but a story about who we are as human beings, a people, and a nation.  Lance Weller’s immensely impressive debut immediately places him among our most talented writers.”

September 4 also marks the publication date for Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast.

“A beautiful, rich and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feast tells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house, and rises through the ranks to become the greatest Cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.”

Tatjana Soli’s second novel, The Forgetting Tree, will be released September 4.  Soli’s bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was a New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and won the James Tait Black Prize. 

“Now, with her new novel, The Forgetting Tree, Tatjana delivers a breathtaking story about a complicated California ranch family struggling to find peace in the aftermath of a tragedy.  Haunting, triumphant, and profound, The Forgetting Tree proves that Tatjana Soli is an author readers will remember for a long time to come.”

Little, Brown and Company will publish The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers on September 6.  Powers is a veteran of the Iraq War. 

“With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a distant war on mothers and families at home, The Yellow Birds captures the almost unimaginable costs of war in language that is precise and truthful.  It is destined to become a classic.”

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis will be released September 11.  “Behold, a tantalizing meeting of the minds: Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘science of observation’ and Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘science of men.’  But is their brilliance enough to unmask an enigmatic serial killer?  The answer lies within…and the secret history of The Prince is revealed at last.”

September 17 is the release date for The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen.

Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, has praised Jakobsen’s novel: “The best stories change you. I am not the same after The Vanishing Act as I was before.”  I trust Morgenstern implicitly, and her endorsement works for me.

T.C. Boyle’s new novel, San Miguel, comes out September 18.  “On a tiny, desolate, windswept island off the coast of Southern California, two families, one in the 1880s and one in the 1930s, come to start new lives and pursue dreams of self-reliance and freedom.  Their extraordinary stories, full of struggle and hope, are the subject of T.C. Boyle’s haunting new novel.”

I think we’re all going to be doing a lot of reading this month!

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Bound to the Land

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 368 pages; $27).

 

            With The Right-Hand Shore, Christopher Tilghman gives us a quietly beautiful novel about a family, a place, and the ties that both bind and constrain them.

The title refers to Mason’s Retreat, an estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  The Masons have been part of the land since the days after the Gunpowder Plot when their ancestor, the Emigrant, was exiled there.  Like people, the land can be complicated.

During the Civil War, Maryland was a border state.  Allegedly neither Confederate nor Union, some people’s loyalties were still divided.  Maryland’s location had a strategic importance for both North and South, and each side hoped to sway citizens to their cause.  As Tilghman writes, “In the North, there was one principle, one war, one story; in the South, one cause, one defense, one history; but in the borders, in the middle ground, there was as many principles and wars and histories as there were human beings to hold them, to survive them, to preserve them.”

Even before the outbreak of war in 1861, some men in Maryland knew that slavery was a dying institution.  Ogle S. Mason, the “Duke,” is such a man.  In 1857, Mason sells most of his field hands but keeps the house slaves.  He manumits them but fails to disclose them that information.  This is the kind of man he is.  On the day the slaves are sold, his daughter, Ophelia, watches, heartsick and helpless.

Tilghman does not shy away from subjects like these.  Mason is interested in the bottom line, and he knows that by selling his slaves, he can make a profit.  He reads the air and sniffs that war is coming.  Mason does not care that he rips families asunder.  But his daughter does; she lives with this regret for the rest of her life.

Perhaps because of the scene Ophelia witnesses in 1857, she feels no ties to Mason’s Retreat.  She wants as far from the Eastern Shore as she can get.  Upon her father’s death, she does not inherit the property; rather, because of some archaic custom, only men may inherit the land.  Her husband, Wyatt Bayly, owns the estate.

Even though he was not born there, Bayly loves the land and grows peaches.  While Ophelia flees for Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Paris with their daughter Mary, Bayly stays.  The land entrances him; it later kills him.  Their son, Thomas, stays with his father and feels abandoned by his mother.

Mary, interestingly, feels a kinship to her ancestral home, although she is miles away from it.  Mary is bound to the land.  Thomas, in contrast, feels jealousy when his father prefers his African-American best friend, Randall, over his own son.  Forbidden love forces Thomas to flee his home.  He later renounces all ties to it.

Ties to family and ties to land may be the prevailing themes of this novel, but Tilghman introduces other elements as well.  Mary is also constrained by her gender, her class, and her religion (she’s Catholic).  Randall’s sister, Beal, is confined by the same things that hamper Mary, but race and beauty also limit Beal.

By 1920, Mary is unmarried, childless, and dying of cancer.  She must find a male heir for Mason’s Retreat.  Edward Mason arrives with big dreams and dollar signs in his eyes.  He hears the history of the place and of the family.  Mesmerized, Edward finds the place pulling at him in ways he never expected.

Likewise, Mason’s Retreat entrances the reader.  More than that, though, the family draws you in.  Readers are vested in this family and in this place.  Reading this novel compels you to read to the end, despite the rampant racism of some of the characters.  That racism is to be expected since the novel takes place from the 1850s to 1920.

Tilghman’s research is impeccable.  Not only does he tackle the darkest days of American history, but he also intersperses European history throughout.  Science and botany are also found within these pages.  The Right-Hand Shore will appeal to a wide-ranging audience: history buffs, budding botanists and farmers, and all those who love an epic story.

The writing here is elegant.  Tilghman takes readers back and forth through time seamlessly.  However, the past he describes is always more interesting than the present.  In some instances, this reader finds it difficult to discern who is narrating the passages.  At one point, I even wonder if Tilghman tells the story from the place itself.  That is not the case.

I think, though, that such a point of view would have made a good novel an even better one.  The setting drives this story and actually becomes Tilghman’s strongest character.

 

 

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Interview with Kathy Hepinstall

Interview with Kathy Hepinstall, Author of Blue Asylum

Jaime Boler: You grew up in Texas.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Kathy Hepinstall: Yes, I think so, but it took different forms. As a girl, I wrote mostly poems. Later, I wrote short stories and went into advertising writing.  After a few years in that career, I decided I wanted to try a novel.

JB:  In your opinion, what is the most difficult think about being an author?  And what is the most rewarding?

KH: The most difficult thing is navigating the often challenging waters of the business of publishing. The most rewarding is being able to bring a story to life and have it resonate with other people.

JB: Your last novel, Prince of Lost Places, came out in 2003.  What have you been doing since then? 

KH: Mostly freelancing in advertising.  Wrote some more novels, but didn’t success [in] publishing [anything] until Blue Asylum.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Blue Asylum

KH: I’d been wanting to write a love story set in an insane asylum.  Just really liked all the inherent tensions in those two intersecting realities: Love and Insanity.

JB:  What kind of research did you do for Blue Asylum?

KH: I was on Sanibel Island for six weeks doing research and starting the first draft. I also learned about mental asylums of the day. 

JB:  I have a PhD in American history and wrote a dissertation on slave resistance in Natchez, Mississippi.  I never found any white plantation mistress who ran away with the slaves, but that’s not to say it NEVER happened.  Such a thing would have been deeply buried by the whites.  Did you find anything in your research about white women taking flight with slaves? 

KH: No, that was purely imaginative. But it made me like Iris to think she could do that.

JB: Are any characters in Blue Asylum loosely based on you or people you know? 

KH: Mary, the doctor’s wife, was based on Mary Lincoln. Ambrose was based on someone I loved and still do. And I see Wendell in all good people. 

JB: Do you think there were actual people like Iris who were declared insane and put into asylums who really were not insane?  Perhaps wives put there by their husbands? 

KH: Yes, that came up in my research.  Victorian men would get rid of their wives that way.

JB: Was the water treatment historically accurate?

KH: I’m trying to remember now..I think cold water was used in some supposedly curative way at some point in the history of asylums. But the water treatment also came from a description I read of a plantation owner who would punish his slaves by putting them in a hole and pouring water on them until it became terribly painful. 

JB:  In this novel, you create the quirkiest and most unforgettable characters.  Did their insanity give you license to really play with them, to really make them stand out? 

KH: Yes, that was very liberating creatively, especially with characters like Penelope and Lydia Helms Truman.

JB:  Do you have a favorite character in this book?  (I think mine is Wendell.)

KH: I do love beautiful tortured lamb-saving Wendell. I also like Lydia and, curiously, both the Cowells. 

JB:  In every one of your stories, you manage to provide unexpected twists.  I never see them coming.  How do you always do this?  And how difficult is it? 

KH: Thank you so much. I really like being surprised as a reader, so I try to surprise readers of my novels. Sometimes I wonder, have I given too many clues? Too few? I regret I wasn’t clearer about the ending to The House of Gentle Men. 

JB: What advice would you give anyone working on a first novel? 

KH: Find a really great editor.  That’s really hard to do but it may come as a surprise and be someone you know.  Also, finish it.  Finish even a terrible first draft. Finishing is a good habit to impress upon the brain.

JB:  Who are your favorite authors? 

KH: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, poets like Lorca and Vallejo.

JB:  Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite? 

KH: Absence of Nectar, most likely forever.

JB:  I saw on your blog where you are trying to get Oprah to read your book.  You even left a signed copy of Blue Asylum for her.  Could you talk a little about that? 

KH: I wanted to get Oprah’s attention in a playful, respectful way so a friend of mine and I buried a copy of Blue Asylum in the foothills of Montecito, where she lives, then took out an ad to her in the Montecito Journal with a treasure map.  So far, no response but I understand – people wanting her attention are legion.

JB:  Will you go on a book tour for Blue Asylum?  Which cities will you visit?  Any chance you might stop in Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS? 

KH: I’ve done readings/book parties in Portland, LA, New York, Virginia Beach and will visit San Francisco later in May. Love Lemuria Books. May not be able to get down there this year but some day soon I’d like to return. I’ll always remember their kindness and warmth and humor. 

JB:  What do you hope readers take with them after reading Blue Asylum?

KH: Just some kind of resonance in their own lives, and I hope, a greater love and respect for lunatics and lambs.

JB:  What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new? 

KH: My sister and I plan to rewrite a novel of ours called Girls of Shiloh, about two sisters who join the Confederate army as men.

JB: Thanks so much, Kathy, for agreeing to answer my questions.  I really appreciate it!

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Book Review: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 288 pages; $24).

 

            Novels are often strong in one or two elements and lacking in others.  Characters may stand out in one book while the plot suffers.  In other tales, the setting might drive the story because there is just no plot at all.  Rarely does one novel feature a triple play, as I call it, where the setting, the characterizations, and the plot are skillfully crafted and masterfully rendered.  Yet, in her fourth novel, and perhaps her best to date, Blue Asylum, Kathy Hepinstall manages to do just that and then some.

Hepinstall previously wrote The House of Gentle Men, which was a finalist for the Penn Faulkner Awards West and an LA Times bestseller.  Her other novels are The Absence of Nectar and Prince of Lost Places.  She has not published a book since 2003 and her storytelling has been deeply missed.

Blue Asylum is well worth the wait.  Hepinstall sets the story during the Civil War in an insane asylum on Sanibel Island.  The beauty of the island starkly contrasts with the horrors of the institution.  Blue water, lapping waves, white sand, and swaying palm trees almost suggest a vacation-like environment.  Yet Sanibel Island is also home to snakes, alligators, sharks, and stingrays.  However, the biggest threat on the island is not the wildlife.

Dr. Henry Cowell and his staff run the lunatic asylum.  Cowell specializes in the madness of women.  And he is certain he can cure his newest ward: Iris Dunleavy.  Cowell is fond of the “water treatment,” a “cure” so painful it might as well be called torture.  He knows all about Iris and feels she needs to be taken down a peg or two, and he is happy to do it.  Cowell promises Iris’s husband that he’s going to make her “well again.”  Iris and Cowell serve as each other’s antagonist.  A battle of wills breaks out between the two.

Iris is the protagonist of Blue Asylum and a worthy one.  Although not a mother, she is a maternal figure.  This maternal instinct gets her into trouble more than once throughout the course of the story.

In fact, that nature is partly to explain why Iris is at the asylum in the first place.  A judge declares her insane, despite her protests to the contrary.  No one will listen to Iris.  She swears adamantly that her only crime is defying her husband, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner: “I am not a lunatic.  I am the victim of a terrible campaign of outright slander by my own husband.”  Her disobedience lands her in the asylum.

Iris’s crime is revolutionary, or at least given the era in which Hepinstall sets the story.  Robert Dunleavy, Iris’s husband, is cruel both to his wife and to his slaves: “He is simply a terrible man, a brutal slave owner, a liar, and a killer.”  When his finances take a turn, he cuts back on what meager medicine and clothing he provides the slaves.  He has the overseer punish them for even the slightest offenses.  The punishment is so severe in one instance that Iris intervenes.  Dunleavy, livid, vows revenge and treats Iris as if she were property.  Iris hates her husband, especially when she catches him with a young slave girl.

Many plantation owners had sexual relations with their female slaves, but not all.  Hepinstall accurately portrays Dunleavy as a man who believed slaves were property, to be bought and sold and punished according to the master’s will and whim.  Hepinstall shows the resentment building and building in Dunleavy’s slaves, who ultimately decide to rebel against him.

The slaves plan to run away.  Flight was perhaps the best way to “stick it” to one’s master.  Since slave owners viewed slaves as property, when a slave ran away, he “stole himself.”  Great expense was involved in tracking down and acquiring escaped slaves.  When Hepinstall tells this part of the story, she gives us historical accuracy, and that is important, even if this is only fiction.  She makes the tale believable and plausible.

That plausibility somewhat lessens when Hepinstall has Iris run away with the slaves.  Her flight and her siding with the slaves to spite her husband is the crime that puts Iris in the asylum.  As I researched slave resistance for my dissertation, I never once came across anything like this.  Nowhere did I find a white plantation mistress running away with her husband’s slaves.  In Hepinstall’s story, Iris runs away because she sees herself as their mother-figure, just as many slave owners viewed themselves as “fathers” to their slaves.  Iris feels responsible, at least in part, for their plight at the hands of her husband.

Yet, who is to say this could not happen?  After all, whites would have covered up such a thing.  Whites would have buried the story of a mistress running away with her slaves so deeply that it would never have been written about.  The mere mention of the account, in the eyes of whites, would put ideas into their slaves’ heads.  Since slaves outnumbered whites in most towns, slave rebellion was a big fear.  If a white mistress ever ran away with her husband’s slaves, it would most likely not be in any historical record.  So while this may not be historically accurate, it is still entirely plausible.  Something like this could have happened.

Iris, then, is not at the asylum because she is crazy.  She is there because she defied her husband.  Other patients at Sanibel Asylum really are there for a reason.  One is Ambrose Weller, former Confederate soldier.  Ambrose fights very real demons as he relives painful memories of the death of his best friend.  Cowell treats Ambrose with laudanum and directs him to think of the color blue in times of distress.  “Blue.  Blue like a marble.  Like cobalt glass…Like ice in a beard…Like the stained glass windows of a church.”  Cowell feels he is making progress with Ambrose, or at least until Iris’s arrival.

Ambrose and Iris spend time together and fall in love.  Theirs is a doomed romance.  Ambrose really does need help; Ambrose really is mad.  Iris, though, does not belong in the asylum and plans to escape.

Hepinstall’s prose is quietly hypnotic as she tells the story from the points of view of Iris, Ambrose, Cowell, and Wendell, Cowell’s son.  Each character has a distinctive voice as he or she battles inner demons.  Hepinstall uses lots of flashbacks, both for effect and to keep the plot suspenseful.  She knows just when to pull back so we anticipate what happens next.

Blue Asylum‘s many characters stand out and benefit from being called crazy.  Lydia Helms Truman has impeccable manners but is fond of swallowing anything from rings to letters to checkers.  Keep your jewelry away from her.  There is also the elderly widow who believes her late husband is still next to her.  She talks to him, kisses him, and even dances with him.  Hepinstall creates a man whose feet feel so heavy they are sometimes frozen in place.

All these mad people even affect the doctor.  His patients and his family drive him crazy.  Wendell, his son, is convinced that he is as mad as the others in the asylum.  The boy gets too attached to patients and is convinced a tragedy that happens to him cleanses away his sins. Mrs. Cowell is addicted to laudanum and crazy-jealous of Iris.   Hepinstall’s characters linger long after the book is closed.

Picturesque setting, memorable characters, and a suspenseful plot characterize Blue Asylum.  If you’ve never read Hepinstall before, let this be your introduction.  She is an author worthy of your attention.

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Filed under book review, books, fiction, history, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Never heard of Kathy Hepinstall?

My spotlight book is Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall.  Never heard of her? Well, that’s okay.

Up until one year ago, I had not either.

I happened upon a signed copy The Absence of Nectar.  The novel accompanied me to the beach.  I am shamed to say that I actually allowed a signed first edition first printing book of mine to get a little wet.  But it was that good!  And now the book has a little story attached to it that I will always remember when I pick it up.

The Absence of Nectar (2001) is intriguing.  A brother and sister decide to poison their mother’s new husband.  He is an awful man who takes pleasure in his cruelty.  Hepinstall adds to the story by introducing Percy Snow, a young girl who may or may not be crazy.

Hepinstall also wrote The House of Gentle Men (2000) and sets the novel in rural Louisiana during and after World War II.  The title refers to men who have committed sins.  To atone for them they must spend time with women who have been damaged.

Blue Asylum (2012) is Hepinstall’s newest novel.  Iris Dunleavy committed a terrible crime.  A judge deemed her insane, despite Iris’s protests.  She is put in an asylum on Sanibel Island.  Is she crazy?  Or is this her husband’s punishment?  Just what did she do?  This may be my favorite so far of Hepinstall’s, and that is really saying something for me, especially considering how much I adored and devoured The Absence of Nectar.

I will be reviewing Blue Asylum this week.  Be sure to watch for it.

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