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The Indian Killer, by Sherman Alexis.

July 29, 2016

The Indian Killer, by Sherman Alexis.  Grove Press (1994), 420 pages.

4 stars

A prominent Native American writer explores the racial hate and violence in our cities in a novel published in 1996 and all too relevant today.

Sherman Alexis is among the Native American authors who have received acceptance and awards from the literary establishment.  He is a poet and a filmmaker, as well as a novelist.  Some of his best known works are short stories, published in his own collections and the edited collections of others.  He is descended from several Indian tribes and is a life-long resident of the Pacific Northwest where many of his stories are set.  Typically, his writing focuses on the inner and outer conflicts of Native Americans growing up and living on reservations and in urban settings.

The Indian Killer describes a mix of characters of both Native American and European linage who come together in painful and dangerous ways in Seattle.   John Smith is a major figure, a Native American adopted at birth by a comfortable white couple who love him but fail to meet his needs.  In the novel, Smith has become a silent, isolated man full of anger at the white world to which he has never belonged.  Rather than focusing exclusively on Smith, however, Alexis introduces a variety of characters, each working out his or her particular anger.  He includes humorous depictions of a university professor, a mystery writer, and a talk show host who all claim to know more about Indians than Indians do.  Homeless people and a college woman who tried to help them are treated more sympathetically.  When a series of murders occur in the city, residents quickly assume that the killer is an Indian, and racial hatred and violence erupts.  Everyone, it seems is ready to kill someone.  John Smith describes his ever present rage.

All the anger in the world has come to my house. It’s there in my closet. In the refrigerator. In the water. In the sheets. It’s in my clothes. Can you smell it? I can never run away from it. It’s in my hair. I can feel it between my teeth. Can you taste it? I hear it all the time.

Alexis is an excellent writer whose prose is insightful and full of gentle humor, even when he is dealing with deadly serious issues as he is here.  He makes it easy to identify with characters who horrify us.  I have enjoyed his short stories more than this novel, however, mostly because I shy away from extended violence.  But we live in a world where hatred and violence are omnipresent.   We need to understand why.   I gladly recommend The Indian Killer.

The World We Found, by Thrity Umrigar.

July 28, 2016

The World We Found, by Thrity Umrigar.

4 stars

Another fine novel from a favorite author of mine about four women from Bombay and their adaptations to the worlds in which they lived years after their college friendships.

Thrity Umrigar grew up in Bombay, as Mumbai was called.  She came to the United States to study and to work as a journalist.  Eventually she become a popular novelist writing often about people from India.  She is at her best when she explores the obstacles and experiences that prevent us from understanding each other.

In The World We Found, Umrigar again teases out the complexity of the relations that develop between individuals over time.  Here she focuses on four women who had been close friends in college in the 1970s, demonstrating for the social changes they supported.  But after college they have drifted apart and adapted to differing conditions.  Armaiti  had gone to America to study and marry.  When she becomes ill, she asks her three friends still in India to be reunited with her.  Her request leads the others to examine their own lives, past and present.  Laleh had married Adish, the man she knew in college.  On the surface their life is happy and successful, but her old guilt and uncertainty remain.  Kavita has become a very successful architect, but she has continued to hide her love for another woman.  Nishta also married a man she dated in college, Iqbol, but the fact he is a Muslim and she a Hindu has led to a painful situation.   Conflicts emerge as each woman, and the men they married, try to reconcile the idealism of their college years with the reality of their later lives.

As always, Umrigar has created unique characters and a fast-moving, interwoven plot.  The most prominent story is that of Nishta.  She and Iqbol had been daring in their decision to marry across religious divisions, but the violence against Muslims in the 1990s, deeply affected Iqbol.  He became strident in his attempt to protect and control the women in his family, leaving Nishta alone and unhappy.  His conversation with Adish displays how religious divides emerge between former friends.

I recommend The World We Found as a well-written and insightful novel.

I also recommend the other of Umrigar’s books that I have read and reviewed.

The Space Between Us.

Today Be Sweet.

The Weight of Heaven.

The Story Hour.

First Darling of the Morning.  Her memoir of growing up in Mumbai.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.

July 25, 2016

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.   St. Martin’s Press (2015),  440 pages

4 stars

An engaging historical fiction featuring women enduring Nazi occupation in rural France during World War II by a best-selling American woman.

Kristin Hannah was born in 1960 although she looks much younger in her publicity photograph.  After attending the University of Washington Law School, she practiced law before embarking on a prolific writing career.  She has published 22 novels  and received numerous literary awards.  In The Nightingale, she exhibits the qualities that make historical fiction appealing to many readers.  Her writing is always clear and accessible.  Her plot is full of exciting action and includes some romance.  I consider hers the best kind of historical fiction.  Instead of changing what is known about the past, she moves into the gaps we will never be able to document and uses her informed imagination.

The Nightingale tells a story often overlooked in mainstream fiction: that of women living and raising families in the middle of war zones.  Vianne lives in the Loir Valley west of Paris, a region under the control of the Nazis during World War II.  Her husband is away fighting the war and later is a German prisoner.  She must face the horrors of occupation alone with her small daughter.  Her younger sister, Isabel, is single and somewhat estranged from her. She is single and becomes involved in the dangerous activities of the French underground.  Both women, and other women in the novel, are strong and capable of taking risks for others under the noses of their occupiers.

This was a perfect book to be reading while I am down with a bad cold.  It was diverting and not demanding.  Set in wartime, there were numerous descriptions of death and useless harm.  (I simply skipped some of the pages about concentration camps.) Yet the overall mood of the book is life-affirming.  Survival was never inevitable, but a worthwhile goal even in the depths of destruction.  The women could be stronger than anyone assumed.  We may long for others to care for us, but when necessary women can take care of ourselves and others.

I recommend this book to all those who enjoy traditionally written historical fiction and to those interested in the particular risks and strengths that women experience when war on their doorsteps.

The Genius of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved, Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler, Jr.

July 21, 2016

The Genius of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved, Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler, Jr.  Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

3 stars

Biblical scholars explore how slaves in the American South creatively used the Bible to structure their personal stories and to understand the situation in which they found themselves.

Biblical imagery appears so often in African American spirituals and narratives that we seldom consider how remarkable the practice was.  Scholars Emerson Powery and Rodney Sadler explore this phenomena and the particular use of the Bible by those who were enslaved in their new book, The Genius of Liberation.  Slaves rejected the message to “Obey your masters”that owners stressed and learned to read specifically to be able to read the Bible for themselves. The authors discuss the particular Biblical messages of freedom, the Sabbath, whiteness, the particular problems of Paul’s writings, and suffering of Jesus.  In doing so, they affirm our growing understanding that slaves were not passive victims of oppression, but instead created and developed their own paths to dignity and humanity—including the value of Christianity.

As an historian, I appreciate the authors’ increased evidence of the creative manner in which slaves understood and coped with their inhumane conditions.   The ideas put forth in this book are important, but hardly seem original. Thy are supported by footnotes from numerous other scholars.  Perhaps the book would be more valuable if addressed to a non-academic audience who are not already familiar with these stories.

The Chosen, by Kristin Ohlsson.

July 19, 2016

The Chosen, by Kristin Ohlsson.  Simon & Schuster, 2016.

4 stars

A complex mystery set in Sweden and focusing on the murder of children, written by an accomplished Swedish woman.

Karen Ohlsson is a political scientist who worked for the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), the Swedish Security Service, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before turning to full-time writing.  While her background in international security work is evident in her adult fiction, she has also written children’s books.  This is the fifth book in her series featuring police detective Fredrika Bergman and her partner, Alex Recht.  The series has garnered praise and awards in Europe.

The Chosen is set in Stockholm, Sweden, where first a kindergarten teacher and then two ten-year-old boys from the same Jewish school are murdered.  Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht are called in to solve the murders.  A host of other fascinating characters soon appear around the edges of their attempts to sort out the seemingly conflicting evidence.  Fredrika and Alex are a generation apart in age, but they are also both parents, as are several of the other couples involved with the case. Danger to the more positive figures builds throughout the plot.  Interspersed with the chronological chapters are brief “Fragments” of the “Conclusion” indicating that more violence to families lies ahead.

Ohlsson’s narrative is complicated and interwoven, with overlapping subplots.  Yet the stories are told with clarity and the explorations of the psychology of the unusual characters seems sound.  The plot twists and turns as the search for the reality of what happened and why proceeds. The horror of the murder of children is central to the book, making it a chilling read for me.

The action occurs around a Jewish community with its own school, but Ohlsson says little about Judaism.  Anti-Semitism is quickly ruled out as a motive from the killings.  Some of the major characters are from Israel and events there are connected to what happens in Stockholm, but Ohlsson does not take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  What matters is what happened to people who lived in that region’s violence and were caught in its crossfire.

The Chosen is well-written, but too harrowing for my taste, especially with the reoccurring image of murdered children at its heart.  I suspect that others will like this book more than I did.  I am pleased to recommend it to those less squeamish than myself.

April Raintree, by Beatrice Culleton.

July 15, 2016

April Raintree, by Beatrice Culleton.  Pegus Publishers, 1992 , 196 pages.  First published, 1984.

3 stars

An Indigenous account of two Metis sisters, one who affirms her First Nation heritage and one who rejects it.

April Raintree is the main character in this book.  She was also taken from alcoholic parents as a young child, along with her sister, Cheryl.  They were sent to foster families, several of whom were kind and supportive, and one were both girls were treated horribly by the mother and the other children.  April is light-skinned and able to pass as white.  She looks down on “drunken Indians” and longs to put her Metis heritage behind her and become rich and secure.  Marriage to wealthy man makes this possible, but does not end her problems.  In contrast to April, Cheryl is deeply committed to her background and wants to become a social worker to serve those she regards as her people.  As they become adults, the sisters argue over their opposing lifestyles.

Beatrice Mosionier Culleton was born into a Metis family in Manitoba, Canada, in 1949, and shares some of experiences of her characters.  She and her three siblings were removed from alcoholic parents when she was three and raised in different foster families.  Years later her two sisters committed suicide.  She is now involved with a coalition for Native Child Welfare and is the author of books for children as well as novels for adults.

Culleton has written a book that vividly displays the traumas of Indigenous children removed from their families.  This is suffering that deserves to be recognized and addressed.  I wish, however, that Culleton had had more skill as a writer.  Although I am sure that the stories she tells are true, the plot and the characters in it often seem implausible.  April’s quick assent into high society and her continued wealth are particularly unbelievable.

Although April Raintree is a useful book, I have reservations about recommending as literature.

The True History of Paradise, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson.

July 11, 2016

The True History of Paradise, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson.  Random House Trade Paperbacks (2009), Edition: Reprint, 345 pages.

4 stars

A family epic about the beauty and violence of Jamaica past and present by a woman from, and shaped by, the island.

Margaret Cezair-Thompson, like the major figure in her novel, was born in Jamaica.  Although she later came to the United States, her ties to her homeland remain strong.  She writes with grace and depth about the island, its history and its strangely mixed population.  She also teaches creative writing at Wesley University and has published another novel, short stories, essays and articles.

The novel is set in Jamaica in 1980, a time of intense political and social unrest.  Jean Landing, a daughter of Jamaica in her twenties, is about to leave the island, no longer willing to endure the fear and the random violence of living there.  Her sister, Lana, dies, and Jean is going from Kingston to a small airport on the northern shore to fly to the United States.  Paul, an old friend but never lover, drives her there.  The journey becomes a trip through the memories of her own life and the lives of those around her.  The body of the book is the recounting of these stories.  In addition, the voices of Jean’s Jamaican ancestors interrupt with their own stories.  Jean relishes the physical beauty of the island and her ties to individuals dead and alive, and relives all she would leave behind.

Cezair-Thompson tells the family and national story with both passion and clarity. Jean’s family, like the rest of the island, is rich and complicated.  Although raised together she and her sister have differed fathers, and Lana was the beautiful one.  Jean’s father had cherished her, but died when she was a small child.  Her mother had struggled to survive and thrive, but had little love to give to either daughter.  Jamaica had gained independence from Great Britain shortly before Jean’s birth and was caught in cold-war violence.  Working for the government, Jean tried to remain neutral and apolitical, but lost her job anyway.  A chance to leave Jamaica seemed the best options, but it was a painful choice.

While I knew that Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean contained people of various ethnic identity and many of mixed races, Cezair-Thompson was the first to convince me of the sheer racial chaos.  When I started reading the book I tried to keep racial identities straight, but the effort was futile. Few individuals appeared to be totally this or that.  Racial attitudes were never “simply us and them” as they have often been in US history.  Black and white, Chinese and Indian, mattered, sometimes fatally, but so many people were of mixed blood that at times other factors such as relationships or assumed political allegiance, mattered more.

Reading The True History of Paradise, I learned a great deal about Jamaica, past and during the unrest of the 1980s.  More significantly, I saw how people lived in a society not structured like my own.  I strongly recommend this book because the writing and the story are moving, and they take you into a painful, yet vaguely hopeful, paradise.


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