Tag Archives: magical realism

Book Review: The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski (Harper Paperbacks; 400 pages; $14.99).

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            Reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, one assumes the novel’s author, Rita Leganski, was born and raised in the South.  Imagine the surprise upon learning Leganski is from Wisconsin.  On frigid and interminable winter nights when she was growing up, Leganski curled up with her favorite authors—tellers of tales from much warmer climes, such as Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams.  Many novelists write what they know, but Leganski composes the stuff of her dreams.  And thank goodness for that.

Wildly inventive, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow blends historical fiction with fantasy and lyricism to produce an unforgettable and uniquely Southern story.  Like her  beloved Southern dramatists, Leganski sets her story in 1920s-1950s New Orleans,  bringing the city to life while simultaneously lending the yarn a deeply atmospheric quality.  Leganski also has the seemingly effortless skill of narrating her tale from many different perspectives, just as her favored literary figures did.

Most pivotal in Leganski’s story is the central raconteur and titular character, Bonaventure Arrow.  Bonaventure is mute.  Leganski writes, “Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead.  But the child was only listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings….”  He “stayed like that, all wide-eyed and hopeful, and continued to keep his silence. “ Bonaventure’s muteness only belies the intensity and commotion inside him.  Throughout Leganski’s fictional work, Bonaventure never says a word; yet, Bonaventure speaks loudly and clearly.  His deafness is “not a handicap at all but a gift—an extraordinary, inexplicable, immeasurable gift that” allows Bonaventure to hear “what no one else” can.

He is a unique little boy who has a very special way of communing with nature.  Through Bonaventure’s acute audible senses, Leganski is able to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  One of the ways in which she accomplishes this is through magical realism.  Bonaventure can hear “as no other human”being can.  By the time he is five, Bonaventure can hear “flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops.”

If those characteristics alone do not make you want to know Bonaventure Arrow, then maybe this will.  Bonaventure also has a kindred spirit, Trinidad Prefontaine, a widowed servant from Pascagoula, Mississippi.  Trinidad plays an important role in the boy’s life and works to ease his burden.  Leganski uses her to help guide Bonaventure on a quest that involves his father’s untimely death.

Because Bonaventure is so extraordinary, he knows things others do not.  He also sees things others do not, like the ghost of his deceased father, William Arrow.  A mysterious man called “The Wanderer” murdered William before Bonaventure was even born.  William’s death almost destroyed Dancy, Bonaventure’s mother, who carries around an enormous amount of guilt years after her husband’s death.  For Bonaventure, his mother’s feelings of culpability are palpable; he can hear her remorse.

In Bonaventure’s world, colors and flowers are not the only inanimate objects with voices.  Long-buried articles from the past call out to the boy, and they demand justice.  Bonaventure is the only one who can right earlier wrongs, for he was “chosen to bring peace.”  “There was guilt to be dealt with,” Leganski explains in her story, “and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong.  And too there were family secrets to be heard; some of them old and all of them harmful.”  Leganski illustrates the power of personification as a box, pieces of glass, clothing, and a note call out to Bonaventure in anguished voices, lending a great deal of mystery to the work.

Setting is also powerful in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow.  Leganski places her story in New Orleans and in the fictional town of Bayou Cymbaline.  These locales come to vivid life and actually become characters in Leganski’s tale.  The result is a picturesque backdrop, evocative, flavorful, distinctively Southern, and wholly New Orleans.

Leganski’s lucid prose, her crystal clarity, and her magical realism catapult The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow into a category alongside Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  Mixing historical fiction with fantasy, superstition, magic, and poetic sentiment, Leganski creates an emotional and memorable story.  A gifted storyteller, Leganski has many more stories yet to tell.  She’s off to a boisterous beginning, as there is nothing reserved about Bonaventure Arrow.  This novel is richer than New Orleans chicory coffee and sweeter than a plate of beignets.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the March Book Club Selection for She Reads.  For reviews, discussions, and giveaways, be sure to visit their website.

I am also giving away a brand new copy of the book.  Complete the brief form below.  I will choose a winner using random.org.  Giveaway ends Friday at 3 pm ET.  Good luck!

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Spotlight on Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I first read Life of Pi by Yann Martel in late 2001, and this lyrical story stole my heart.

Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.

Growing up in Pondicherry, India, Piscine Molitor Patel – known as Pi – has a rich life. Bookish by nature, young Pi acquires a broad knowledge of not only the great religious texts but of all literature, and has a great curiosity about how the world works. His family runs the local zoo, and he spends many of his days among goats, hippos, swans, and bears, developing his own theories about the nature of animals and how human nature conforms to it. Pi’s family life is quite happy, even though his brother picks on him and his parents aren’t quite sure how to accept his decision to simultaneously embrace and practise three religions – Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

But despite the lush and nurturing variety of Pi’s world, there are broad political changes afoot in India, and when Pi is sixteen, his parents decide that the family needs to escape to a better life. Choosing to move to Canada, they close the zoo, pack their belongings, and board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum. Travelling with them are many of their animals, bound for zoos in North America. However, they have only just begun their journey when the ship sinks, taking the dreams of the Patel family down with it. Only Pi survives, cast adrift in a lifeboat with the unlikeliest oftravelling companions: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Thus begins Pi Patel’s epic, 227-day voyage across the Pacific, and the powerful story of faith and survival at the heart of Life of Pi. Worn and scared, oscillating between hope and despair, Pi is witness to the playing out of the food chain, quite aware of his new position within it. When only the tiger is left of the seafaring menagerie, Pi realizes that his survival depends on his ability to assert his own will, and sets upon a grand and ordered scheme to keep from being Richard Parker’s next meal.

As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material – any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and center from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth.

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Martel illustrates just how powerful stories can be and how they can save our lives.  Life of Pi is now a movie and is nominated for Best Picture in Sunday’s Academy Awards.

If you’ve never read Life of Pi, this is a great week to begin.  Oh, how I envy you!  How much do I love this book?  Well, I own a first edition, first printing signed, dated, and lined copy: “I was named after a swimming pool.”  I also own a first edition, first printing copy of the Canadian edition and an ARC.  The ARC is noteworthy because the tiger’s name is misprinted as Robert Parker.

Life of Pi is my favorite book of all-time.  If you’ve never read it, I urge you to open your heart and your mind to this stunning, magical story.

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Spotlight on The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

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I totally fell in love with The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski.  Leganski grew up in Wisconsin, but, you’d swear she was Southern.  Bonaventure Arrow cannot speak, yet he speaks loudly and clearly within Leganski’s pages.

This is a haunting, atmospheric story, uniquely Southern, replete with lyricism and magical realism.

A lyrical debut novel set in historic New Orleans that follows a mute boy whose gift of magical hearing reveals family secrets and forgotten voodoo lore, and exposes a murder that threatens the souls of those who love him.

Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead.  But he was only listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings.  By the time he is five, he can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature trumpets that rage inside raindrops.  He also hears the voice of his dead father, William Arrow, mysteriously murdered before Bonaventure was born by a man known only as the Wanderer.

One day, Bonaventure’s world is shaken by anguished voices he’s never heard before–voices that trace back to a note written by his mother, Dancy, to a particular relic owned by his Grand-mere Letice: objects kept by each as a constant reminder of the guilt she believes she deserves.  When Bonaventure removes the note and the relic from where they’ve been hidden, he opens two doors to the past and finds the key to a web of secrets that both holds his family together and threatens to tear them apart.  With the help of his kindred spirit, Trinidad Prefontaine, Bonaventure sets out to calm these secrets and to release his family from a painful legacy.

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Rita Leganski holds an MA in writing and publishing and a BA in literary studies and creative writing from DePaul University.  She teaches a writing workshop at DePaul’s School for New Learning and was a recipient of the Arthur Weinberg Memorial Prize for a work of historical fiction.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow will be released February 26.  Look for my interview with Leganski on March 4 (and a possible giveaway) and a book review on March 5.  She Reads has chosen this book for its March Book Club Selection.

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Book Review: The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby

The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby (Soft Skull Press; 352 pages; $25).

                Ilie Ruby, the critically acclaimed author of The Language of Trees, counts among her influencers some big names like Isabel Allende and Alice Sebold.  Reading her moving, hypnotic new novel The Salt God’s Daughter,  I saw traces of both Allende and Sebold, as well as Alice Hoffmann.  Ruby combines elements of mystery, fantasy, and magical realism to tell a moving story about three generations of women in Southern California.  The Salt God’s Daughter is a beautifully told and seductive tale that lets Ruby show her amazing talent.

Ruby’s main character is Ruth, who, together with her older sister Dolly, struggles with an absent mother.  Diana, their unconventional mother, obsesses over the moon cycles of her beloved Old Farmer’s Almanac and interprets the phases of the moon.  They warn her of potential dangers or possible opportunities.  Through the character of Diana, Ruby is able to imbue elements of Jewish mysticism into her story, making it richer and beguiling.  With their mother inhabiting a world of her own, the sisters find themselves alone most of the time.  Dolly and Ruth quickly learn to protect each other.

“We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a blood red sky—to where and to what we couldn’t have known.  We craved it, that someplace.  We were two little girls, sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom we were given, knowing she shouldn’t have left,” Ruby writes.  “We stole wrinkled leather sneakers that were two sizes too big, and wore them until they fit.  We raced in the sand, fought in the dusk.  We knew we were not invisible.  We tightened belts around our stomachs at night….”

Despite their mother’s negligence, they love her and desperately long for her.  “If I told you that I ached for a different mother, I’d be lying,” Ruth admits, “I ached for my own, every minute.  As motherless daughters do.”  When she is with them, they are a family.

Amazingly, the sisters have no idea their lives are unusual; they are isolated and insular.  Their one link to the outside world is the soap opera General Hospital.  When their mother dies, though, the girls face new challenges, as traditional society collides with their nontraditional, nomadic upbringing.

As the sisters grow older, each grapples with adversity, violence, and rape.  Each sister must decide what to do with an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy.  Violence against women, then, as well as lust and sexuality are just some of Ruby’s big themes.  She does not shy away from the brutality of rape.  The scene in which Ruth, a virgin, is raped is difficult to read, yet Ruby approaches the subject with realism, tact, and straightforwardness.  Understandably, Ruth begins to search for a place where she can heal, where she can carve out a life that is all her own.

Ruth finds a place of stability at Wild Acres, an old hotel on the beach. There, among the fragrant and colorful bougainvillea, rising tides, sandy beach, and rough surf, Ruth makes her own kind of family with the elderly people who live there.  She quickly finds a refuge in love, but this is not an average union.  Ruby falls in love with a selkie.

The Salt God’s Daughter is strongest in its use of the traditional Scottish folkloric tale of the selkie, or seal wife.  Ruth begins an affair with a mysterious fisherman who leaves salt in her bed and then leaves her for long periods of time.  A daughter, Naida, is born from their intimacy.

Kids bully Naida and call her a “frog witch.”  Naida is different and undeniably special.  Watched over by three sea lions, dubbed the “sisters,” Naida swims like a fish and keeps a secret.  For her, the ocean is a form of solace against the bullying and her difference.  Naida, though, feels a deep sense of loss because of her absent father.  She is sure he holds the key to her many gifts and determines she will find him.  Her journey will have lasting consequences, and the answers she seeks may hurt more than they heal.

Ruby does not portray men in the best light in this story.  Men leave; men abuse; men lie; men cheat; men rape; and even boys bully and beat up little girls.  The only man of any worth in The Salt God’s Daughter is Mr. Taki, a resident of Wild Acres and former friend of Diana’s, who may or may not be Dolly’s father.  Yet, women are at the heart of this story, particularly one woman: Ruth.  Ruth must overcome loss and heartache to raise Naida and create a home for herself and her daughter.  Ruth must choose to be a beacon in the storm for her daughter.

The bond between mothers and daughters is palpable in The Salt God’s Daughter.  Even when Diana is absent, Ruth and Dolly still yearn for her.  Her almanacs are a way for Diana to speak to her daughters and to her granddaughter even after her death.  Ruby likewise does everything humanly possible to protect her daughter.

Ruby came up with the idea behind this story while reading about bullied girls.  “I had been reading about four young girls who were bullied and who could no longer stand it,” she writes. “As I researched their stories, that number grew to ten girls. Then seventeen girls. There are more. I wrote their names out on a piece of paper on my desk, and I felt a strong sense of purpose. There was no way I was not going to tell this story.”  Her aim was not only to tell a “beautiful story, but to give voice to every girl who has ever been tested—who has been called out, named, bullied, gossiped about. And who has found the strength to stand up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”

The Salt God’s Daughter is full of magic and enchantment, violence and tragedy, fantasy and magical realism, discovery and survival.  Like an undertow, The Salt God’s Daughter pulls the reader in.  Before one realizes, she is far from shore.  Fear not, dear reader.  Let the current pull you under.  Ruby’s story is a tale to drown in.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster; 336 pages; $28.99).

            When the world as we know it shifts beneath our feet and nothing is recognizable, many of us cope through writing.  Words become a haven.

 

Elie Wiesel, the Romanian born, Jewish-American Nobel Laureate, was only fifteen years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Buchenwald.  His mother and sister died there.  So did his father, who perished shortly before the Americans liberated the camp in April 1945.  Wiesel and his two older sisters survived.  His experience was not something he liked to talk about.  It was not until 1960 that Wiesel’s memoir, Night, an international bestseller, was published.  The book recounted the atrocities Wiesel, his family, and millions of others suffered at the hands of the Nazis.  For Wiesel, his words and his memories were far more powerful than the Nazis’ hatred and cruelty.  Wiesel chose to tell his story in a memoir.

 

There are other authors, though, who prefer to write novels.  Fiction, for them, contains a kernel or two of truth.  National Book Award Winner and native Mississippian Jesmyn Ward experienced the mighty wrath of a storm called Katrina in August 2005.  When the family home flooded in De Lisle, Ward and her family fled by car to a local church.  They never made it and were instead stranded in a field. Ward and her family decided to just stay put in their vehicle.  Their presence soon became known to the owners of the property.  Claiming overcrowding, the white property owners told the Wards, who are black, to leave.  But another white family offered them shelter down the road.  Ward saw what Katrina did to her hometown and to its people.  Her novel Salvage the Bones is testament to the fortitude and hope in all of us, but especially in times of great struggle.  In her storytelling, perhaps, Ward was able to unleash her vitriol and bitterness and find healing.

 

Words and stories not only have healing effects, but they also carry magical properties.  This is something author Vaddey Ratner knows all too well.  When Ratner was five, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975.  Like other Cambodians, she and her family were forced to flee their homes and endure years of hardship and brutality.  Unlike other Cambodians, though, Ratner’s family were royalty.  Therefore, they were often made examples of by the Communists.

 

In 1981, Ratner and her mother arrived as refugees in the United States.  She knew not one word of English but went on to graduate summa cum laude from Cornell.  Years later, she ached to tell her story.

 

“I didn’t want just to translate my family’s experience, a Cambodian experience, to a foreign audience,” she explains.  “I wanted to take the readers and replant  them in the fertile ground I’d sprung from, to let them take root and sprout, and to see my world as their own.”  Ratner wanted readers to see the Cambodia of her childhood, “before it became synonymous with genocide, before it became the ‘killing fields.'”  She remembers the country of her birth with sad longing.  “It was once a place of exquisite beauty….”

In her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, fiction eerily mirrors Ratner’s reality, as she tells the visceral and achingly heartbreaking story of 7-year-old Raami, a member of the royal family and a child who should never have had to see the things she witnessed.  Raami’s story is loosely based on Ratner’s life.

 

Like Ratner, Raami holds on to her innocence as only a very young child can.  Raami transports herself away from the ugliness and violence around her by turning inward.  For a time, she does not speak.  She is in a world of her own making.  Ratner employs magical realism, and this literary device works well when one is telling a story from the point of view of a 7-year-old, especially one who has seen such horror.

 

When Raami’s father, the light of her life, disappears, she grieves for him.  In Cambodian culture, absence is worse than death.  In all likelihood, the Khmer Rouge did indeed kill her father, “the Tiger prince,” almost immediately.  His absence sends Raami reeling.

 

Her only solace is in words, particularly in the stories her father used to tell her.  “When the sky is dark, when all around us is black and hopeless, the moon is our only light,” he told her.  “I should like to go to the moon,” he said.

 

Raami’s father told her stories so she could fly.  “I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body [she has polio], this world’s suffering,” he explains.  For Raami, there is magic in words; they have healing properties that enable her to endure the suffering that the Khmer Rouge inflicted upon her and her family.  Words and stories were a way to escape the bonds of this earth and float away, far above the blood-red rivers of Cambodia.

 

In the Shadow of the Banyan shows the ultimate triumph of the human spirit, a stunning feat in such a dark story.  Despite its bleak subject matter, hope wins out in the end; humanity and the humaneness of man survive.  The beauty of this novel contrasts with the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.

 

Ratner turns the lush, green landscape of Cambodia into a character in this story.  Oh, if the country could only talk.  Ratner locates “readers in the loveliness of the natural world” and immerses them “in the rhythm of a people’s thoughts and sentiments, in its literature and art.”  “Only when we know what existed,” Ratner writes, “can we truly mourn what is lost.”

Words, stories, and storytelling are very powerful.  They have a fundamental influence over us all.  Like Raami, Ratner “saw and understood the world through stories.”  Ratner remembers, “In Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, when I was lost in a forest or abandoned by my work unit among the vast rice fields because I moved too slowly, I would recall the legends my father or nanny had told me or those tales I’d een able to read myself.”  She invoked “them like incantations, chanting aloud descriptions and dialogues” she memorized.  The stories made her fear disappear.  “Stories,” Ratner recounts, “were magic spells.”  She used words and stories to “transform and transport” herself.”

 

May we always keep stories alive, for us and for every generation that follows.  Stories should never die.

 

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Money Talks, We Listen

Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden (Akashic Books; 250 pages; $15.95).

In her seventh novel, Gathering of Waters, author Bernice L. McFadden skillfully combines history with folklore and magical realism.  She also re-imagines the 1955 brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi.  What results is a breathtaking literary masterpiece of epic proportions.

Gathering of Waters is notable because Ms. McFadden does something in her book that is not often done.  She tells her story from the point of view of the town of Money, Mississippi.  Money sees all; Money knows all.  Money is everywhere.   “I am Money.  Money Mississippi.  I have been figments of imaginations, shadows and sudden movements seen out of the corner of your eye.  I have been dewdrops, falling stars, silence, flowers, and snails.”   I cannot remember the last novel I read in which the narrator was not a person but a place.  This is such a unique and fresh method of storytelling in a time when the first person plural (“we”) has become increasingly popular.

Ms. McFadden turns Money into a character.  Her use of personification, attributing human characteristics to non-living things, is near divine.  For instance, Money feels pain and has a memory, “For a time I lived as a beating heart, another life found me swimming upstream toward a home nestled in my memory.  Once I was a language that died.  I have been sunlight, snowdrifts, and sweet babies’ breath.”

Money also is an abundance of knowledge for us and explains Ms. McFadden’s title: “You know, before white men came with their smiles, Bibles, guns, and disease, this place that I am was inhabited by Native men.  Choctaw Indians.  It was the Choctaw who gave the state its name: Mississippi—which means many gathering of waters.”

Money is particularly interested in one of the families who lives within its confines.  Money tells us: “Admittedly, I am guilty of a very long and desperate fascination with a family that I followed for decades.  In hindsight, I believe that I was drawn to the beautifully tragic heartbrokenness of their lives, and so for years remained with them, helplessly tethered, like a mare to a post.”  That family is the Hilson family: Reverend August, his wife Doll, and their children, Hemmingway and Paris.

An evil spirit inhabits the body of Doll Hilson.  Her name is Esther, and she was once a prostitute who now goes from host to host.  Money explains that “when objects are destroyed and bodies perish, the souls flit off in search of a new home.”  Esther does just that; she comes into Doll’s soul at the moment of her birth.  Doll’s mother, Coraline, remembers: “You come into this world screaming holy murder, and didn’t stop until you were a month old.  Like to drive me outta my mind.  It was your daddy–God rest his soul–who stopped me from throwing you down the well.”  Doll responds, in Esther’s voice, “Maybe you the one shoulda gone down the well.”  Not even death stops Esther.  When Doll dies, she simply finds another human to torment.  This demon destroys the lives of three generations of women in the Hilson family.

Esther also causes the brutal slaying of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till when she enters the body of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Roy Bryant.  These two men beat the teen, who was from Chicago and vacationing in the area, to death for supposedly whistling at Bryant’s wife.  Please do not think Ms. McFadden is trivializing Till’s murder; she is not.  She is not trying to explain it away either.  Ms. McFadden puts her own spin on it, which is what fiction writers must do.

Gathering of Waters also features two disasters that caused massive devastation and loss of life in Mississippi, this place where many waters converge: the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina.  Money describes how in April of 1927 “most folk in Mississippi couldn’t think of anything but rain, mud, mosquitoes, and flooding.”  Conditions worsen quickly.  Money is overrun by the waters of the Mississippi when the levees give way: Bodies are everywhere; some float, some are caught in trees.  Ms. McFadden brings this horrible natural disaster to life.

But she does not stop there.  When Gathering of Waters ends in 2005, Mississippi braces for another calamity, and she is named Katrina.  Money sounds angry when it talks about the storm: “In the Gulf of Mexico, she suddenly turned furious.  Draped in black clouds, blowing wind, and driving rain, she charged into Louisiana like a bull and fanned her billowing dark skirts over Mississippi.”  Guess who Money believes Katrina is?  If you guess Esther, you are correct.  “They named her Katrina,” Money scoffs, “but I looked into the eye of that storm and recognized her for who she really was: Esther…cackling and clapping her hands with glee.”

At the end of Ms. McFadden’s novel, Money warns, “As you go about your lives, keep in mind that an evil act can ruin generations….”  Yet, take heart, for “gestures of love and kindness will survive and thrive forever.”  When Money talks, we should listen.

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