It has been quite some time since I was at leisure to post a thorough book review. But as I recently shared book recommendations with a couple of friends, it seemed worthwhile post these brief observations for a wider audience.
I recently determined to read more contemporary historical fiction, as I am working in the genre myself. I thank Jane Kirkpatrick, a notable historical novelist from Oregon, for recommending Ruta Sepetys’s books.
Salt to the Sea is a multiple-point-of-view novel culminating in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea in January 1945, the deadliest maritime disaster in history. The POV characters represent Prussia, Germany, Lithuania, and Poland. Sepetys herself is Lithuanian-American.
Although the subject matter is grim, the characters are well drawn and (aside from those who aren’t supposed to be) sympathetic. I found the “shoe poet,” an elderly cobbler with a penchant for philosophizing, particularly appealing. While tragedy is unavoidable, the author doesn’t leave us crushed by it, and magnanimity and nobility of character are, if not precisely rewarded, celebrated. Sepetys’s other work is high on my to-read list. The Fountains of Silence is her most recent.
This work of 18th-century historical fiction represents a comfortably familiar detective story–complete with a mysterious murder, a proliferation of suspects, and satisfying execution of justice–in an unfamiliar setting. In a culture that is far removed in time and, for most of her readers, place, Hart succeeds in crafting an array of sympathetic characters. The storyteller-sidekick Hamza is a particular gem. And how could you go wrong with a detective who is a librarian? (Of the Chinese imperial court … exiled and wandering in Tibet … the plot thickens.) Upon completing this initial volume, Brian and I proceeded directly to the second and have now embarked on the third.
My daughter and I just read Dear Enemy and re-read Daddy Long-Legs for our mother-daughter book club. I actually enjoyed the sequel more than Daddy Long-Legs, though preference for one book over the other was pretty well equally divided in our group. Both books are epistolary novels, in which the narrative is delivered in the form of letters. As almost half of my historical novel is composed of letters, I can attest to the challenge of preventing such a work from devolving into a dry recitation of facts and events. But the distinctive voices and witty turns of phrase employed by Webster’s letter writers prevent any such literary catastrophe.
Daddy Long-Legs was published in 1912, four years after Anne of Green Gables, and our group observed a number of similarities in theme, style, and content. For starters, both Anne and Judy are orphans. In Dear Enemy, Sallie, a college friend of Judy’s, reluctantly accepts the post of superintendent of the orphanage in which Judy grew up. Much of the book’s appeal for me lay in Sallie’s stories of the children’s antics and the institutional reforms she undertook. Also of interest are the differences and trends in public care of minors over the past hundred years. I don’t know how many of Webster’s views were already espoused by policy makers of her time, but some of the ideas generated by Sallie are now standard practice in the foster care system.