Tag Archives: Southern fiction

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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The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.

 

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Spotlight on The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom

I just finished reading a masterful debut by a very promising new novelist.

the blood of heaven

 

About the Book:

One of the most powerful and impressive debuts Grove/Atlantic has ever published, The Blood of Heaven is an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century. Its twenty-six-year-old author, Kent Wascom, was awarded the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and this first novel shows the kind of talent rarely seen in any novelist, no matter their age.

The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.

The Blood of Heaven is a remarkable portrait of a young man seizing his place in a violent new world, a moving love story, and a vivid tale of ambition and political machinations that brilliantly captures the energy and wildness of a young America where anything was possible. It is a startling debut.

About the Author:

Kent_Wascom

Kent Wascom was born in New Orleans in 1986, attended Louisiana State University and received his MFA from Florida State University. He was awarded the 2012 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for Fiction. The Blood of Heaven is his first novel. 

 

 

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Blog Tour: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley

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The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (Ecco Books; 432 pages; $15.99).

 

Rhonda Riley

Rhonda Riley

“My husband was not one of us,” Evelyn Hope reluctantly reveals.  “He remains, after decades, a mystery to me.  Inexplicable.  Yet, in many ways, and on most days, he was an ordinary man.”  So begins Rhonda Riley’s unusual, unique, and nuanced debut, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.  Riley immediately arouses the curiosity of readers and also hooks them.  For a few hours, nothing else matters.

Or that is how it was for me, at least.  I still cannot get Adam and Evelyn Hope out of my head, and that is a testament to Riley’s epic love story.  Riley fuses historical fiction with elements of mystery and the supernatural in The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope to create a story that crosses genres and beguiles until the very last page.

The tale is actually one big flashback.  After years and years of keeping the truth close to her chest, an elderly Evelyn finally opens up about her husband.  She can no longer keep silent after seeing a photo of her youngest daughter, Sarah, whose formerly Caucasian features have metamorphosed into Asian characteristics.  Evelyn knows the photo has not been altered; Sarah is Adam’s daughter, after all.

This is Adam’s story (the novel was originally titled Adam Hope: A Geography), but it is also Evelyn’s, for she is “the one left to do the telling.”  In her sage and sure voice, Evelyn attempts to explain the unexplained.

At 17, Evelyn is sent to work on her deceased aunt and uncle’s farm in North Carolina, where the soil consists of deep and hard red clay.  In the days just after World War II, Evelyn labors from sun-up to sundown but senses a change coming, though she has no idea how profound the change will be or in what guise the transformation will take.

One rainy day, Evelyn comes upon a puddle, which she thinks is full of nothing but water and mud.  She is beyond surprised to discover the body of a man there, a man who is very much alive, though strange and slightly misshapen.  Mud and scars cover the man’s body.  He must be a solider, she thinks, but far from the battlefield.  After she takes the man inside and cares for him, miraculously, he heals.  The kicker is that he also changes form.  To Evelyn’s disbelief, the man grows to strongly resemble her; the two could be twins, in fact.

Evelyn does not question.  To her, “Addie” is a gift.  “To have her come up literally from the land I loved seemed natural, a fit to my heart’s logic.  The land’s response to my love.  So when fate gave me Addie, I let her be given.”

We know Addie is special, and she continues to astound us, especially when Evelyn decides she is ready for marriage and children.  Addie changes form once again to become “Adam Hope.”  Riley creates a character, unlike all others, who literally takes on the image of others.  When Riley delves into the unknown, she takes us with her.

Riley also imagines a very tangible sense of fear.  Instinctively, Evelyn knows there are those who would not understand Adam adam-hope1.jpgin the way she does.  No one can know who or what Adam is or where he truly comes from.  The situation has the potential to become volatile, and both Evelyn and Adam know this.  Yet Adam counters:  “Do you know who you are, Evelyn?  Who all of you are?  Where do you come from?  You don’t know any more than I do.”

Clearly, Adam is from the land and of the land: he can be molded like clay.  Riley uses this unconventional character to give us a geography of a body and of love, land, and family.  Adam and Evelyn begin an idyllic life together; everything seems perfect and no one challenges who or what Adam is.  He communes with horses, people, and nature in a way that is reminiscent of how Edgar Sawtelle communicates with dogs.

Adam Hope pulls you in like a magnet and entices you to stay a while.  Before long, you are entranced by his beautiful music, his way with all creatures, and, above all, by Riley’s captivating and clear language.

Uncertainty, fear, and calamity soon mar the landscape of the couple’s happy home and force them to flee.  I could not help but draw comparisons to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden.  Yet, Adam and Evelyn get lucky and find a new kind of Eden and a new home, at least until tragedy strikes their family again.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope explores the notion of the self versus the other; the familiar versus the strange; intimacy versus distance; and the known versus the unknown.  Riley takes us to places we have never been before in her animated and charismatic debut perfect for fans of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

This novel was sold at auction, with several publishers placing bids to nab Riley’s story.  It’s easy to understand why.  The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is a beautifully and ingeniously told tale.  Adam Hope is an understated yet formidable character, a man who is otherworldly but never alien, astonishing and ethereal but never inconceivable. Riley gently reminds us that unconditional love and acceptance matter more than difference. enchanted

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Rhonda’s Tour Stops

Monday, April 22nd: Bookmagnet’s Blog

Tuesday, April 23rd: Kritters Ramblings

Wednesday, April 24th: A Chick Who Reads

Thursday, April 25th: Sara’s Organized Chaos

Monday, April 29th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Monday, May 6th: A Night’s Dream of Books

Tuesday, May 7th: Giraffe Days

Thursday, May 9th: Book Snob

Thursday, May 9th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf

Tuesday, May 14th: Bibliophiliac

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I am giving away a brand new copy of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.  Giveaway ends Friday, April 26, at 5 pm ET.  I will use random.org to choose a winner.  Good luck!   

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Book Review: And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry

And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry (St. Martin’s Press; 272 pages; $24.99).

cover_and_then_i_found_you

For Katie Vaughn, the first day of spring was always a day of firsts: the day she experienced her first kiss, the day she fell in love, the day she ran a marathon, the day she opened her boutique, and the day she vowed to love Jack Adams forever.  It was also the day she gave up her newborn for adoption in Patti Callahan Henry’s tender, sincere, and deeply poignant novel And Then I Found You, the April Book Club Selection for She Reads.

For Kate, the first day of spring held more than blooming daffodils.  It was still a day of firsts.  Kate had a ritual, a sacred ritual.  She made sure that she did something she’d never done before, something that would count as new on the first day of spring.  Six years ago she’d opened her boutique.  The year before that she ran a marathon with her sister.  Of course there was that trip to California with Norah.  Then four years ago the midnight swim in the darkest water with Rowan, the first time he’d visited her in South Carolina.  It didn’t matter what she did or said or saw as long as it hadn’t been done, or said, or seen before.

The plot of And Then I Found You is as swiftly-paced as the current of Katie’s beloved South Carolina River.  Katie is successful and in a loving relationship with her boyfriend, Rowan.  When she accidentally stumbles upon an engagement ring he bought for her, Katie comes to a crossroads of sorts.  She thought she loved Rowan, but now she finds herself unsure.  The problem is Jack, her first love and the father of Luna, the baby she gave away all those years ago.

To go on with her life, Katie feels like she has to see Jack and talk to him.  Maybe then she can have the closure she needs.  But once Katie travels to Birmingham, Jack’s home, old feelings resurface for them both.

Henry tells the story from the very different perspectives of 35-year-old Katie and 13-year-old Emily Jackson, Katie’s biological daughter.  I truly admired how Henry managed to realistically capture both points of view.  In And Then I Found You, Henry also takes us back and forth through time to provide windows into Katie’s past, crucial moments we must know to better understand her and the narrative. 

And Then I Found You is told with such honesty and heart because, for Henry, it is very personal.  Life often imitates art, but sometimes art can imitate life.

In the story, Katie has two younger sisters.  One, Tara, is a writer.  When Emily begins an online search for her biological mother, links to Tara come up over and over.  Emily contacts Tara through Facebook; this social media connection leads to a reunion.

As Henry explains in her letter to readers at the front of her novel, And Then I Found You is loosely based on a true story.  Henry’s sister placed her baby up for adoption over 21 years ago.  “It was the most heartrending, courageous and difficult decision she had ever made, and we all wept with her when she handed her baby girl to an anonymous, yet hand-chosen family,” Henry writes.  Then, one day, two years ago, Henry received “a Facebook friend request from a young girl with the same birthday as my adopted niece.  It was too much to hope for, almost too miraculous to believe.  But it was true: My sister’s daughter, my niece, found us on Facebook.”  Henry emphasizes the awesome power of social media in her story, and simultaneously inspires and moves us, yes, to tears.

Henry drew me in from the very first page, and I read this novel in one sitting, as I could not tear myself away; I had to find out what would happen.  I was surprised to enjoy this novel as much as I did.  Initially, I worried it would be too sappy and too romantic for my tastes, but my concerns were for naught.

Passionate, stirring, and full of sentiment, this is a story about first love, family, mistakes, forgiveness, and second chances.  I predict readers will fall in love with And Then I Found You, a perfect read for book clubs because it’s so easy to like Henry’s characters.  And Then I Found You is destined to become one of the summer’s hottest beach reads.  Throw this title in your beach bag but don’t forget the sunscreen and sunglasses!

For more reviews, discussions, and giveaways, visit She Reads.

Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

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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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Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Rita Leganski

Rita Leganski

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Rita, for letting me interview you.  I have to tell you how much I loved your magical story.  Through his silence, Bonaventure Arrow spoke to me, and I heard him loudly and clearly.  I’m very pleased that She Reads chose it as the March Book Club Selection.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Rita Leganski: I’ve always enjoyed writing, whether it was a school assignment or just as a pastime. At times in my life when I’ve felt unsettled, story writing helped me through. When I decided to return to school as an adult, I deliberately chose to study writing.

JB: Reading this very Southern story, I was surprised to learn you grew up in Wisconsin.  You began reading Southern writers at a very young age.  How old were you?  Who were your favorite authors?

RL: I suppose I was in middle school when I was transported to 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Huckleberry Finn did his part as well in luring my imagination southward.  As my tastes and abilities grew more sophisticated, I added Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner to my list of favorites.

JB: How have these beloved Southern authors influenced your writing?

RL: I think their greatest influence on me has been their artistry with voice and tone, as well as feeling at liberty to bring in supernatural influences and just downright crazy folks. Those writers taught me to let the setting actually be one of the characters.

JB: Prior to beginning this story, had you ever visited New Orleans or Louisiana?

RL: I had never been anywhere in Louisiana before going there to do research for Bonaventure Arrow. One doesn’t merely go to New Orleans; one experiences it. Everybody should try it at least once. If for no other reason, go for the beignets – fried doughnuts covered in confectioner’s sugar!

JB: One of my favorite things about New Orleans!  The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow began as a short story when you were in graduate school.  When did you begin working on the story? And how did you come up with Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: I began the short story in May of 2009 and completed it in June. It was my very last assignment before graduating with a Master’s in Writing. The professor had pleaded with us to give him something different, so I decided to try my hand at magical realism. I can’t honestly tell you how I came up with Bonaventure Arrow; he was just always there.  In the original thirteen-page short story, he is nine years old (not seven) and William has been killed in Korea. As I recall, the only characters in it were Bonaventure, Dancy, Grandma Roman, and Trinidad Prefontaine. That story did make its way into the novel, but well into it. It comprises the scene in the kitchen with the Blue Bottle fly and the scene in which Grandma Roman takes Bonaventure to Bixie’s.

JB: Bayou Cymbaline, though fictional, feels so real.  How did you come up with this “magical, haunted, and lovely place steeped in faith and superstition—the ideal home for a gifted little boy who could hear fantastic sounds”?

RL: I needed to locate the story in a unique place, one that was near enough to New Orleans to be under its influence, but not overshadowed by it. I have referred to my fictional town as a metaphorical house of God because it was home to so many different types. I named it Bayou Cymbaline because of associations and semantic characteristics of those nouns.  Bayou sets it geographically and Cymbaline was borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Cymbeline (I changed just one letter to make it my own). Like that Shakespearean play, THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW deals with innocence and jealousy.

JB: Your use of magical realism is close to the divine.  I’d put your name right beside Isabel Allende and Yann Martel.  How did characters like Bonaventure and Trinidad and others and even your setting allow you to use this literary tool to your advantage?

RL: Wow! What a compliment! Thank you very much!  Magical realism sets writers free. It invites the fantastic, the unbelievable; the downright bizarre to come into reality and both change it and leave it alone. After all, it’s reality that acts as a measuring stick for the magic. Bonaventure and Trinidad move through the same reality as everyone around them, yet they are set apart by their otherworldly gifts. New Orleans is kind of the same way; it’s a place of commerce and residences, but there’s also this ever-present vibe that’s not quite namable. Joy dances with sorrow in New Orleans. This duality of natures worked to my advantage because it gave me leeway to let the supernatural in.

JB: Who is your favorite character in the story?

RL: Coleman Tate. He was an interesting character to write.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this book?

RL: The toughest thing was to keep the flow going while trying to tell backstory. Preserving some sense of chronology was difficult; it seemed I had to constantly move whole sections to do it. Probably my most interesting difficulty was to bring in an element of suspense AFTER the novel had been completed. Believe it or not, The Wanderer was not part of the original version.

JB: How fascinating!  I can’t even think of the story without him.  What kind of research did you do?  Find anything you’d like to use in a future story?

RL: Even though THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW is a work of fiction I wanted to get it right, especially when it came to Catholicism and New Orleans. To that end, I adhered to only credible sources. I spoke to historians, archivists, and folks in New Orleans during the time I spent there doing research. I also consulted various digital collections and online libraries as well as consulting with people in Catholic ministries.

I save all my research. No doubt, I’ll reach into it for some future story.

JB: So many early readers love Bonaventure.  Has the advance praise surprised you at all or did you always expect Bonaventure to pull at the heartstrings of readers?

RL: I can honestly say it has surprised me. It’s such a different sort of story that I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I only knew how much I loved Bonaventure.

JB: Ever thought of moving to the South, but especially to New Orleans?

RL: Not really, my family is in the north. But I’ll definitely return to the South for vacations.

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

RL: I love to read, knit, and crochet. I also love to renovate – give me a paint brush and some wood flooring and I’ll be happy for a long, long time. I’m an exercise freak, too. My husband and I enjoy travelling, hiking, and snowshoeing. He loves to cook, but I need a map to find the kitchen.

JB: If a reader asked you to give her a list of five Southern writers that you consider required reading, who would be on your list and why?

RL: Carson McCullers – She’s best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but The Member of the Wedding is actually my favorite McCullers work. I also love her very long short story The Ballad of the Sad Café. Her characters are works of art. She finds the extraordinary under layers of human weakness.

Harper Lee – There are no words to adequately praise To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch may very well be the best reminiscent narrator ever.

Flannery O’Connor – Though she wrote a few novels, O’Conner is best known as a master of the short story. She had a gift for exploiting the peculiar and bringing about endings that manage to be both fascinating and macabre as they blindside you. If I had to pick a favorite work of hers it would be a tie between “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River”.

Tennessee Williams – He had a gift for bringing charm to the gritty. His titles are some of the best: “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are a couple that pull you right in.

William Faulkner – If you want to learn how to write quirky characters, read Faulkner.

JB: An amazing list!  Which book or books are you currently reading?

RL: I just finished THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce. I loved it.

I’m currently reading THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

JB: Those are actually two of my favorite novels.  Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities are you visiting?

RL: Yes, I will tour. It’s in the planning stages at HarperCollins.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: That when it comes to forgiveness, accepting it is just as important as offering it. Also, I would hope that readers would become in tune with the miraculous that is all around us all the time.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

RL: I’ve actually begun three different projects. I’m hoping that sooner or later one of them overpowers the other two.

JB: Thank you, Rita, for a wonderful interview!  May you venture forth into bestseller land.

RL: Thanks for inviting me!

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silence.jpg The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the She Reads March Book Club Selection.  For reviews, a chance to win a copy of the book, and discussion, visit She Reads.  I am also giving away a brand new copy of the story.  Please fill out the brief form below.  I will choose a winner using random.org on Friday at 3 pm ET.  Good luck!

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Spotlight on The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

silence

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.

Rita-Leganski

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: Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris

Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris (Tyndale House Books; 400 pages; $13.99).

 

“Wars and plagues” can get people thinking it’s the end of the world.  Such a bleak outlook only worsens when American boys die on foreign soil, when families lose their homes to foreclosure, and when a dangerous flu ravages communities.  No, we’re not talking about wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Neither are we discussing America’s most recent economic crisis.  And no, this is not H1N1.  The place is Dead Lakes, Florida; the year is 1918.  World War I rages in Europe, and the Spanish flu rapidly spreads.  Ella Wallace, though, has more important things to worry about than wars and plagues in Michael Morris’ timely novel Man in the Blue Moon.

Ella, Morris’ protagonist, is a woman ahead of her time.  Ella’s future held great promise as a teen, when she dreamed of studying art in France.  That dream died when Harlan Wallace and his handle-bar mustache walked into Ella’s life.

Her aunt tried to warn Ella, “[Harlan’s] a gambler at best.  A con artist at worst.”  Ella paid her no attention, which was too bad because her aunt was right about Ella’s future husband: he was a gambler and a con artist.  After they married and their union produced three sons, another label was added to Harlan’s repertoire: alcoholic.

For Harlan, alcohol and gambling did not mix well.  Harlan placed a bet on a racehorse and lost Ella’s land, the inheritance her father passed down to her.  Before he died of typhoid fever, her father begged Ella never to sell her birthright.

One by one, Ella had been forced to sell her father’s possessions to pay off her husband’s debts.  “His gold watch, the diamond-studdied tie clip, and the curls of hair that her father had maintained until death belonged to President Lincoln” had all been sold.  The land was the only thing Ella had left and was very important to her.  You could even say the land was special.

“The tract of land that sat on the Florida panhandle was thick with pines and cypress.  An artesian spring fed a pool of water that local Indians claimed could remedy gout and arthritis.  The acreage had been in her family for two generations.”

Artist rendition of Ella’s land in Man in the Blue Moon

Harlan did not care.  He lost the property anyway to the story’s principal antagonist, banker Clive Gillespie, a vile, dishonest man.  To Clive’s chagrin, Harlan later won the land back in a drunken card game.  Things got worse when Harlan traded his alcohol addiction for opium.  One day, he just disappeared, leaving Ella to manage their country store alone.

This is not the life that Ella imagined.  She can’t help but think people talk about her reversal of fortune: “What has become of Ella Wallace?  What would her aunt think about her now?” she imagines them wondering.  For Ella, it is difficult raising three boys as a single mother while working and managing the store.  Ella and her family live a hardscrabble life.  One thing they have an abundance of is love.

When it comes to the world outside, though, sometimes Ella feels as if it’s her against the world.  Widows, she figures, are treated better than women whose husbands just up and disappeared.  The gossip-mongering citizens of Dead Lakes look down on her.  Ella, despite all the gossip and hateful looks, is proud and determined.

Ella needs that determined spirit once her mortgage comes due.  She reads in the newspapers about all the homes that the bank is foreclosing on.  Hers could be next, to Clive’s glee.

Clive has an agenda, and Ella stands in his way.  He has a reason for wanting Ella’s property, and he will fight and connive to get what he wants.

Ella is desperate to pay the note on the land’s mortgage.  But she can’t do it alone.  Then, as if in answer to a prayer, Harlan’s alleged cousin, Lanier Stillis, shows up in Dead Lakes.  He’s a rather shadowy and mysterious man, a picaresque hero, who proves his worth to Ella in a very unexpected way.  When a crisis hits close to home, Harlan again stands by Ella.  He seems to be a good and decent man.  But is he telling Ella the truth about his past?  Is Lanier Ella’s second chance at love?

Morris writes with a voice that is authentically Southern because he is Southern (he is a fifth-generation native of Perry, Florida).  Southern culture and Southern characters come naturally to him.  Because he is a Florida native, old Florida comes alive in his story.  Morris charms readers the same way the springs mesmerize those who come to take a dip in their magical waters.

Man in the Blue Moon is rich with historical details.  Morris carefully weaves key issues, people, and events into his story.  The strongest of these is his depiction of the 1918 Spanish Flu.  He uses a chant “I had a little bird/Its name was Enza/I opened up the window, and in-flu-enza.”  Variations of this rhyme were very popular during this time.  Morris also illustrates the anger of families whose sons returned home from battle only to die from the flu.  As the illness wreaks havoc in Dead Lakes, Morris shows how the flu devastated families, communities, and towns.

In addition to the flu epidemic, Morris also shows two very different ways of life in old Florida.  Ella and her family drive a horse and buggy; others own a car.  Cotton export is slowly giving way to fishing and tourism.  Morris even gives a nod to the oyster industry in nearby Apalachicola, the oyster capital of the world today.  As one way of life wanes, another dawns.  This is very apparent in Man in the Blue Moon.

With talk of a distant war, foreclosures, and a fatal flu, Morris gives readers a timely tale.  His story takes place almost a century ago, yet it is so relatable to us today.

If you love historical fiction, then Man in the Blue Moon is required reading for you.  Morris’ writing is always genuine and satisfying.  His story is a tale of one family’s struggle and of a town that will either come together or be torn apart.  There is much to admire within these pages, in particular the character of Ella.  I daresay she would fit in well in 2012; maybe she would have a blog and be part of She Reads.

Morris enthralls and captivates readers with Man in the Blue Moon, the She Reads November Book Club selection.  To discuss the story, connect with other readers, and even meet the author, go to She Reads.  Don’t forget to enter the extraordinary giveaways there, one of which is guaranteed to make your eyes sparkle.

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Book Review: The River Witch by Kimberly Brock

The River Witch by Kimberly Brock (Bell Bridge Books; 239 pages; $14.95).

                Kimberly Brock knows books; in fact, she loves them.  Brock, a native Southerner and former actor and special needs educator, is the blog network coordinator at She Reads.   She also reviews fiction and interviews authors on her website.  Her intense love of storytelling is readily apparent.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Brock wrote her first novel when she was in fourth grade.  As evidenced in her debut The River Witch, writing comes as naturally and as easily to Brock as reading and breathing.

In The River Witch, Brock focuses her narrative lens on Roslyn Byrne, a former ballerina now broken in body and shattered in soul.  A car accident left Roslyn unable to dance again; a miscarriage left Roslyn hollow and in a kind of in-between world.  She seeks solace on isolated Manny’s Island, Georgia, to escape the world and to finally bestow a name on her deceased baby.

Roslyn is a very sympathetic character, yet this reader never feels sorry for her.  She is a strong woman who comes from a long line of strong women.  Roslyn requires the use of a cane to help her walk.  The cane provides physical aid to Roslyn, but it is also symbolizes her wounded psyche.

There are many, many issues Roslyn grapples with in the cabin she rents on the island.  With the character of Roslyn, Brock has created a three-dimensional figure we not only relate to but also root for. Brock’s first-person perspective of Roslyn allows us to see her flaws, her disappointments, and her regrets; Brock also lets us see Roslyn’s triumphs.  Her indomitable will is palpable and resonates throughout the story.

Roslyn is not the only broken creature on Manny’s Island.   Ten-year-old Damascus Trezevant is a lonely and dejected little girl who aches for her deceased mother and her largely absent father.  She is drawn to Roslyn, just as Roslyn is captivated by Damascus.  In contrast to Roslyn’s narrative, Brock writes Damascus’ perspective in the third person.  I like the difference.  The distinction illustrates Brock’s range as a storyteller.

The beauty of The River Witch is in the complicated and beautiful ballet between Roslyn and Damascus.  Damascus alternately displays both affection and spite toward Roslyn.  Both principal characters have pent-up emotions that they must exhibit or everyone will suffer the consequences.  Both of Brock’s protagonists ache for an emotional connection and a sense they belong.

One character who I would have liked to see more of is Urey, Damascus’ father.  Mysterious, taciturn, introspective, sexy, and almost savage, Urey needs more of a presence in Brock’s story.  Roslyn’s chemistry with him is powerful.

Since Brock is from Georgia, The River Witch is written in a distinctly Southern voice.  I cannot imagine this novel being set anywhere else.  In the story, sense of place is a formidable force.  Manny’s Island is a locale that allows Brock to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  The magic of the island and the magic of Brock’s characters will transform the land and its people forever.

Manny’s Island can sometimes be a wild and dangerous place.  Snakes and alligators are abundant.  The current of the Little Damascus River can carry novice swimmers into the Atlantic.  Flooding is common.  Yet the island is also a place for miracles, where a woman is healed, where a child is mended, and where the wrongs of the past are reconciled.

Brock is already at work on her second novel.  If it’s anything like The River Witch, it will be a must-read.

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