Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: A fictional narrative of a Georgia slave, Cora, who with another slave escapes the plantation, and through a series of harrowing experiences, and the existence of an actual underground railroad with trains and engineers, escapes to the North.

The Underground Railroad has received critical acclaim, winning a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. This is a very good book, portraying the brutal realities of Antebellum slavery on cotton plantations, the brutalities of slave owners, overseers, patrollers and night riders, and slave hunters. The character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, is among the great evil characters of fiction. The protagonist, Cora, is a resilient, even fiercely determined character who will murder more than on of her potential captors, even while both angered and motivated by her mother Mabel, who escaped while she was a little girl and never was caught.

Cora agrees to escape the Randall Plantation with Caesar when Terrence Randall, a tyrant, takes over for his deceased brother.  Caesar has learned from a sympathetic merchant of an underground railroad that will take slaves to freedom. At the last minute, another slave, Lovey, joins in, but is soon captured while Caesar and Cora, who fatally bludgeons a young man attempts to hold her, escape and contact the station master. What they find is an underground railroad that is no metaphor but a vast subterranean rail network with rails, trains, and engineers, built by those engaged in the fight against slavery.

Their flight takes them to South Carolina, where they hide under assumed names in an “enlightened” town educating them for citizen, but with underlying sinister motives. Ridgeway shows up and Cora escapes, but Caesar is taken. Cora arrives unexpected at a closed down station in a North Carolina town on a freedom crusade of lynchings and house searches. Reluctantly, Martin and Ethel Wells shelter her, running a terrible risk. In the end Ridgeway finds her and takes her into Tennessee, where she is rescued by Royal, a militant version of Harriet Tubman. One of Ridgeway’s men is killed, Ridgeway bound and left to die, and they escape to a utopian Freedom Farm in Indiana. But will they be safe even here?

The plot is interrupted by “flashbacks” that fill in content, but felt like an interruption. But the feature that worked the least for me was the railroad. This aspect of the book had a magical realism feel, and just didn’t work for me, but then I’ve never been a fan of this technique/genre. It seems that the main function of the railroad was to get Cora to the next scene of action, where the real interest and the strength of this narrative lay. We see the courage of station masters, to be sure, but the actual journey, the risks run by slaves, and in many cases, rescuers like Tubman seemed to be minimized, even though the title suggests a focus on the railroad. I also found the decisions to stay in South Carolina, and later Indiana, somewhat implausible when all slaves knew their only chance of safety, especially from figures like Ridgeway, was Canada. I might have liked some documentation of sources for the portrayals slave conditions and race hatred, and some comment on what was based on fact, along the lines of what Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All in all, the  plotline, strong characters, and portrayal of slavery and race hatred make this a good and important work. I think it could be more powerful if it portrayed the efforts of the historical underground railroad. But the portrayal of slavery and racism in this book is important to our nation conversation. To meaningfully, say “never again” we must understand to what we are saying “never again.”


Review: The Reckoning

The Reckoning

The Reckoning (Welsh Princes #3), Sharon K. Penman. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991 (Link is to a different edition).

Summary: Brings to a close the struggles between Wales and England under Edward I, the complicated relationship between brothers Llewellyn and David ab Gruffyd, and tells the story of the women who loved them–a true tale of love and loss.

Last month, I reviewed the second volume of the Welsh Princes Trilogy, Falls the Shadow, which focused on Simon de Montfort and his campaign for the rights of the people with their king. In that book, the ongoing power struggle between the English and the Welsh remains in the background. In The Reckoning, Penman brings the history of conflict between England and Wales to its culmination.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of a young man, Hugh, who becomes squire to Bran de Montfort until his death of tertian fever in Italy, after which he serves Bran’s sister Ellen, who had been betrothed to Llewellyn ab Gruffyd, Prince of Wales, until the death of her father Simon and the family’s flight to France.

Llewellyn has his own troubles. His mercurial brother Davydd has always coveted his power, even while Llewellyn, as did his grandfather, Llewellyn Fawr, understood that only a united Wales could have any hope of standing against English might. It is an odd relationship of brothers strangely drawn to each other, despite Davydd’s betrayals, and alliance for a time with their hated enemy, Edward I, who, with the death of his feeble father, Henry III, is exerting his reign. Davydd marries Edward relation, Elizabeth at Edward’s behest, a relation that blossoms into genuine love.

Meanwhile, Llewellyn, fighting for Wales survival, and without an heir beside his betraying brother Davydd, revives his betrothal to Ellen, Simon and Nell’s daughter. Ellen, her priest brother Amaury, and Hugh take a perilous sea voyage and are seized by “pirates” who are in fact in Edward’s employ, and becomes a bargaining chip in the struggle, In the end, Llewellyn relents, is humbled and pays homage to Edward in return for the chance to marry Ellen.  He continues to hold Amaury to keep Llewellyn on his best behavior. Edward encroaches more and more on what were once Welsh domains and prerogatives, doing what Llewellyn had been unable to do–to unite Wales against the English and under his leadership.

The story reaches a high point at Dolwyddelan in December of 1281. Despite an earlier plot to assassinate Llewellyn, foiled only by a freak storm, Davydd and Llewellyn have drawn close, and the other lords of Wales are ready to follow Llewellyn into rebellion. There is one other wonder, and it is that Ellen is with child–an heir for Llewellyn! Was this what goaded Davydd into initiating the rebellion before Llewellyn was ready?

Edward I is a relentless foe, and the remainder of the story is one of heartbreak that I will leave to the reader. Only the love of the Squire Hugh, and Caitlin, the daughter of Davydd (a fictitious element) survives. Let us just say that it is from this period of time that the heir to the English crown is the Princ(ess) of Wales.

Penman writes a gripping tale of two men, Edward and Llewellyn, who each love a country and idea. Only one could survive. Her characters and their relationships are complex, especially the relationship between Llewellyn and Davydd. So many of these people are related by blood or marriage and we see in Edward especially the tension of love and the ruthless use of power to achieve his ends. She paints a time where love could be passionate, especially in the knowledge that life was fragile and death could come in many guises, and often before one was ready. This is an older series, yet one that I hope remains in print. Penman, over these three volumes, tells the story of the ascent of the English kingship, and what was lost in the process.

My review of Here Be Dragons.

My review of Falls the Shadow.


Review: Falls the Shadow

Falls the Shadow

Falls the Shadow (Welsh Princes Trilogy Book 2)Sharon Kay Penman. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988. [Note: Publisher link to this edition unavailable; link is to another edition.]

Summary: A historical fiction account of the tense relationship and eventual conflict between incompetent Henry III (and his son Edward I) and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and husband of Henry’s sister, as well as the struggle of Llewellyn, eventual Prince of Wales and grandson of Llewellyn the Great to hold and unite Wales against the English.

In recent years I’ve discovered the historical fiction of Sharon Kay Penman (I reviewed Here Be Dragons, the first volume of this series on Llewellyn the Great in July 2015) and have loved her introduction to the world of the thirteenth century and the conflicts between England and Wales. This is definitely “backlist” and you probably can find inexpensive used copies of the whole series, which I would definitely recommend.

This volume is actually focused less on Welsh princes than on Simon de Montfort and the increasing tensions between him and his brother-in-law, King Henry III that eventually led to all-out war. Penman in an Author’s Note, informs us that she originally had planned to split focus between Llewellyn and Simon but found she could not do justice to both in the same book and so devoted this one to Simon.

Who was this Simon and why did he pose such a threat to Henry? Born in France, he accompanied his father in battle as a boy and learned courage, the leadership of others, and strategic thinking. An ambitious young man, he seeks to claim the family lands in England and persuades the Earl of Chester, a childless old man to yield them to him. He persuades Eleanor (Nell), sister of Henry to marry him, forsaking a vow of chastity she’d sworn after the death of her first husband. He effectively served the king in suppressing unrest in Gascony, only to be called to account by the King who listened more to the rebels than to him, sowing seeds of discord.

Meanwhile, his sons Bran and Harry, and Henry’s son Edward become fast friends and hell-raisers. Henry, however, in contrast to Simon, is ineffective in battle and without sense in his administration, spending lavishly in excess of his means. Eventually, Henry is forced by Parliament, with Simon in the lead to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, which held the king accountable to his people. No king wished his power to be constrained by his subjects and this earned Simon his hatred, and sowed the seeds of war. Edward, deceiving Harry, rallies some of the Barons to the king’s cause, Simon suffers numerous setbacks and even flees to France at one point. Eventually he gains a decisive victory over the King, in part due to a battlefield error of Edward, at the Battle of Lewes in 1264. Simon attempts to rule in the King’s name implementing the Provisions, but quickly the situation degenerates as Edward escapes, the Barons rally to him, Simon and his son Bran are separated, and Bran decisively defeated by a lightning attack. Although helped by Llewellyn, Simon is undermanned and unaware of what has befallen his son, and is cornered by Edward at the fateful battle of Evesham in 1265.

In the backdrop of this primary narrative, is the uneasy relationship between Llewellyn and his younger brother Davydd over the leadership of Wales. As is the case in so much of royal history, it is the story of marriages between rival houses, and the conflicts of love and loyalty in consequence. Penman also exposes the plight of the Jews in England, hindered from all commerce but money lending, and hated for it, within often fatal consequences. We see the low status of the towns, expected to contribute to the king’s coffers, but enjoying no power, that Simon tried to elevate.

Simon de Montfort is remembered today as an early advocate of representative government. This work portrays him as a courageous man of integrity whose very convictions led to the tragedy of his end. He was too good for his King in many ways, earning the King’s undying hatred. In the end, men willingly followed him to death and pilgrims claimed healings at his grave. Unlike the religious martyrs under Henry VIII, Simon, portrayed by Penman as a God-fearing man of faith and friend of clergy, was a martyr to the idea that Kings should not be answerable to God alone, but also to those they rule. Penman not only tells a great story but does us a great service in bringing to life the greatness of Simon de Montfort, sixth Earl of Leicester.

Review: Shadow Country

shadow country

Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen. New York: Modern Library, 2008.

Summary: A condensation of the Watson trilogy, giving three different renderings of the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, a planter, and notorious alleged murderer, of the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida.

A few basic facts to begin with about this National Book Award (2008) winning novel. At 892 pages it is actually a condensation of an earlier trilogy of books on the Edgar Watson legend, cutting roughly a third of the material! Although fiction, the story is based on a historical figure who has something of a legendary status on southwest Florida, Edgar J. Watson.

Watson grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina, the son of an abusive Civil War veteran. Just when it appears that he is getting himself established, he gets mixed up in the death of a relative and begins a life of looking over his shoulder. He flees to Fort White, marries the true love of his life, who he loses in the birth of their first child who he only called “Sonborn” for years. Eventually he has to flee to the Indian territories, marries again, gets mixed up in the death of Belle Starr, does time in prison, and escapes and returns to Florida and kills a man in self-defense. He then heads to southwest Florida and sets up a new life on a sugar cane plantation in the Ten Thousand Islands area on the southwest Florida coast, near Chokoloskee, Florida, settled by the Smallwood family, who had a store there. He brings his second wife there until her health fails and she goes to Ft. Myers to stay with her daughter and son-in-law. He flees when former workers on his plantation and squatters on land he acquired turn up dead. He returns to Fort White, marries for a third time and gets mixed up in the murders of two men. After being acquitted, he returns to his plantation (Chatham Bend), which becomes the refuge of several criminals including the actual murderer, Les Cox, of the two men in Fort White (and several others). The climax occurs when a mass murder occurs at Chatham Bend prior to a hurricane while Watson is reputedly absent. Watson claims it is Les Cox who committed the murders, is reluctantly permitted to return to bring Cox back dead or alive, and when he returns without Cox, and appears to be raising his shotgun, is killed in a hail of gunfire.

That is the outline of the life of the real Edgar Watson. The novel consists of three books, during which the death of Watson is described four times. The first book consists of recollections of different people of the Chokoloskee area of the life and death of Watson. The second is the effort of his youngest son, Lucius, a budding historian, to find out first, who killed his father, and then, what kind of man it was they killed. The third book is in the voice of Watson himself, rendering the most complete account of his life.

What each of the accounts agree upon is that Watson was a kind of “force of nature” and a leader of men for better or worse. He was a womanizer who never apologized for satisfying his sexual drive, nor for the numerous children he begot. He drank far too much. Was he the notorious murderer the townspeople of Chokoloskee feared and ultimately did away with? Was he actually the bold entrepreneur who Lucius for some time believed was innocent of the evil others attributed to him. Was he the complicated individual who had killed some, was innocent of the murders of others who kept trying to make his way only to be brought down by misfortune.

Two other mysteries swirl around the book, and the legends surrounding Watson. Who fired the first and fatal kill shot. Was it the black man, Henry Short, and did the rest fire to cover it so that Henry would not be lynched? And what really happened to Les Cox, the pathological murderer who killed at least seven at Chatham Bend?

As you can tell, this is a dark story. What makes this long book a fascinating read is the exploration of this singular character over which people continue to argue. My own conclusion is that somehow, even the worst of human beings bear some trace of the image of God, twisted and obscured as it may be. It is also a story of the complicated relationships between blacks, whites, and native peoples. Lastly, in the backdrop is the ecological destruction of the natural habitat as forest are cleared, plume birds eradicated, clam populations destroyed and natural features destroyed by canals and road construction.

In addition to the fascinating exploration of this character and his place, what holds one’s interest through such a large book is the author’s technique of breaking a long story into bite-sized narratives in differing voices that keep you reading from one to the next until you decide (at least I did) to not put the book down until I finished it. For those contemplating whether this is the long book in which to lose yourself, don’t choose this if you are looking for a “feel good” book. This one will intrigue you, and make you think about the human condition in ways similar to Heart of Darkness in the shadow country of the Florida everglades.

Review: A World to Win (Lanny Budd #7)

A World to Win

A World to WinUpton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1946).

Summary: Presidential Agent 103, in the guise of an art dealer, embarks on a series of journeys, planned and unplanned, in which he gathers significant intelligence for the Allied cause in its fight against Nazism.

Most of us know Upton Sinclair as the author of The Jungle, an expose’ of conditions in Chicago meat packing plants at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was unaware that he was author of the Lanny Budd series of eleven novels, named after the primary character, the son of an American arms dealer, a gentleman of tact and insight who moves among the major figures of the first half of the twentieth century, and eventually becomes Presidential Agent 103, using the cover of a fine art dealer to travel into occupied France and Germany to gather intelligence against the Nazis critical to the allied threat. The third book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Novel. The series went out of print for years only to recently be resurrected by Open Road Media.

Some of you may remember The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. The main character of that book “Pug” Henry was also an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and met with a number of world leaders. Reading A World to Win, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wouk had drawn his inspiration, consciously or not, from this work, published 25 years earlier. In the course of this novel, Budd meets with Marshal Petain, Hermann Goering, Rudolph Hess, Adolph Hitler, alludes to meetings with Churchill, hobnobs with William Randolph Hearst, is entertained by the widow of Sun Yat-sen, meets Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), and finally, at the end of the novel, Joseph Stalin.

After each of his forays, including a kidnapping by underground forces who suspected him of Nazi ties when he was actually on their side, escapes from Luftwaffe bombings, and other perils including a near fatal plane crash, he has late evening meetings in the bedroom of Franklin Roosevelt where P. A. 103 is debriefed. During one of these, he even gives Roosevelt the words, “the arsenal of democracy,” that Roosevelt used in one of his famous speeches! This incident underscores Budd’s singular ability to endear himself to whoever he is with, even those he inwardly despises, like Hitler, and keep them persuaded that he is nothing other than a disinterested art dealer.

At the same time, Budd’s endearing qualities draw him into affairs of the heart with two women. Lizbeth is the young daughter of a Baltimore industrialist, beautiful but incapable of anything beyond conventional conversation on conventional subjects. Laurel Creston, her cousin is a socialist-leaning anti-Nazi journalist who Lanny helped escape from the Gestapo, and easily his intellectual equal. While on his “missions” for the president, he refuses to consider either, given his dangerous lifestyle. But when “furloughed” after the plane crash, which also destroyed his “cover,” he finds himself in a different place.

Things get even more interesting when Lanny gets invited on a cruise to Hong Kong (where a psychic had predicted Lanny would die) by Lizbeth’s father. Laurel also manages an invitation, leading to an interesting predicament. Who he ends up with, how they escape the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and how they end up meeting Mao and Stalin, I will leave you to discover.

One detects in the book Sinclair’s life and interests–Baltimore where he grew up, interests in psychics and spiritualism, and socialist leanings, which characterize Laurel, and in a more chastened form, Lanny himself, despite his loyalty to Roosevelt and to his arms manufacturer father.

While the idea stretches credulity that Budd could somehow manage to meet all these great personages in one novel, and end up traveling around the world, the journey is rip-roaring good fun. The closest this seemed to me to get to a plot was the recurring allusions to Budd’s death in Hong Kong, fantastic at best, until Hong Kong becomes a cruise destination and we realize that his arrival date coincides with the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s invasion. At the same time, there are seasons of reading when one does not particularly care as long as the book keeps your attention.

I should say that I started this series with this book which is number seven, which happened to be available at a discount in e-book form. It was definitely good enough that I want to go back and read the series from the beginning. If that sounds interesting to you, Open Road has a page showing all eleven novels in their proper sequence, and other Sinclair works, with links to purchase them in different e-formats.

Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2010.

Summary: Book One of a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in the English Reformation, covering the rise of Cromwell to power under Henry VIII, up until 1535.

Thomas Cromwell is one of the most interesting figures of the English Reformation. He was one of those “indispensable men” one often finds close to great leaders, shrewd and capable in solving the problems facing the great leader, often more loyal to those they serve than the one they serve is to them. Charming and ruthless and skilled in both law and finance, Cromwell accrued more and more power to himself. He cut through the Gordian knots of Henry VIII’s marriages and engineered the formation of the Church of England, cutting ties with Rome.

This work of historical fiction, a 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, is the first of a trilogy, narrating the rise of Cromwell from the boy who survives violent abuse by his blacksmith father Walter to spend his early adult years fighting with the French and learning finance with the Italians, and working in the mercantile centers of Europe, acquiring a broad network of contacts. He returns to London, establishes himself as a lawyer accomplished in commercial negotiations, and eventually secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to the King and charged with securing an annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine. Wolsey fails, leading to his downfall and charges of treason.


Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein

Cromwell remains loyal to Wolsey until his death, a loyalty noted in royal circles. While he suffers the loss of wife and both daughters to illness–loss that haunts him throughout this book–he gains the confidence of the king and Anne Boleyn, who the king hopes to marry and on whom are the king’s hopes of a male heir. Eventually, under Cromwell, Parliament passes the Act of Succession under which clergy swore their ultimate submission to the king, not to Rome. For this Bishop Fisher and Thomas More, refusing to submit, go to their deaths.

Mantel tells this story, with all its in and outs and political maneuverings from Cromwell’s perspective. We read his thoughts, his perspective, his voice as he solves problems, faces loss, stewards the fortunes of the king, his sons, his wards. Where other accounts may portray a Machiavellian against the principled likes of More, this portrays a shrewd pragmatist, fiercely loyal to king and family, not without religious sensibilities but likewise very much grounded in the practical realities and use of power for the king’s ends. Whether she gets Cromwell right or not, Mantel explores what it is like to be Thomas Cromwell–to rise from a common birth, to advance by his shrewdness in managing affairs of state and of the heart, and through his competence to gain greater and greater power.

We have hints that it will not always be this way–Wolsey’s fall warning that Henry brooked no failure, but that is yet in the future. When the book ends he is Principal Secretary and Master of the Rolls to the king. The religious opposition in the form of Fisher and More are dead.  He has also been appointed Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General, and is preparing to visit the monasteries and religious houses either to liquidate them or more effectively tax them.

A couple of other comments. A key to enjoying this book is to figure out when Cromwell is speaking in dialogues and understanding that the narrative is through his eyes. That is not always easy to discern in the text, as many readers have noted. The other is the tantalizing character of the title. Wolf Hall is the family seat of the Seymour family, rivals of the Boleyns, influential nobility whose daughter Jane served in the court of Anne and eventually succeeded her (after the time of Book One of the trilogy) as the wife of Henry VIII. Cromwell’s son Gregory marries Jane’s sister and Cromwell notes the hovering presence of Jane in Anne’s household. Wolf Hall is a presence, a harbinger of things to come.

Should you read Wolf Hall? If you are willing to work to track the narration and keep track of the many characters, including the many Thomases, you will be rewarded with a rich psychological study of Cromwell and what it is like to wield power in the ever-dangerous presence of greater power. This is not mind candy for casual reading but rich fare for the attentive reader.

Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Summary: The story of two sisters, estranged from each other and their father, a poet and bookseller, broken by World War I and the loss of his wife, as they face the Nazi occupation of France, how each resists this brutal regime, and how they find reconciliation and a kind of healing in the end.

“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.”

There are some books that keep you up at night because you can’t put them down. This was different. This story kept me up at night after I had laid the book down, drawn into the choices faced by the characters, the brutality they suffered, and the profound grief that comes of love and loss. I’ve read other books with “heavy” content, but rarely have I been touched as I was in reading this book.

The book opens in 1995 in the voice of the aged narrator, having lost her husband and been diagnosed with terminal cancer and attended by Julien, her surgeon son. She opens a trunk, comes across an identity card for Juliette Gervaise. We subsequently learn that the narrator has been invited back to a reunion of passeurs in Paris, those who had smuggled people out of Nazi-occupied France. And this leads to a narrative of the lives of two sisters, estranged from each other, and from a father, Julien Rossignol, who had faced the Germans in an earlier war, and whose life was broken because of it.

The two sisters are Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne, the older, had fallen in love, conceived a child out of wedlock, and married her lover, Antoine, making a home and an idyllic life in rural France. Isabelle, the younger and seemingly more-headstrong, moved from finishing school to finishing school, consigned to them by a widower father, living as a bookseller in Paris, who did not want to be involved in bringing up either of his daughters. Yet Isabelle ends up in Paris with her father, expelled from yet another school, and distant from a sister who seems to want nothing to do with her.

Into all their lives comes the Nazi threat to France. Antoine is called up to military service along with the husband of Vianne’s best friend Rachel de Champlain, a Jewish emigre’ to France. The confidence in their fighting men and the defenses of the Maginot Line are shattered as the Nazis invade and approach Paris. Isabelle flees, trying to get to Vianne’s home, survives the brutal strafing of fleeing civilians, and falls into the company of a radical, Gaetan, one of those dedicated to the French resistance. He wins her heart, then leaves her after they arrive at her sister’s.

For a time, Isabelle stays, in a relationship made more tense by the presence of a German officer, Captain Beck, billeted in Vianne’s home. Secretly, Isabelle is already enlisted in the resistance cause, while Vianne is faced with the quandary of living with an enemy, who yet seems a decent man. She errs in reluctantly giving the names of those who are Jews and communists in the school in which she teaches, including, her friend Rachel’s.

From here, the plot unfolds in a series of heroic, and sometimes tragic, choices against the backdrop of increasing German brutality. Isabelle becomes the Nightingale (her last name is Rossignol, the French for “nightingale”), and with the aid of her father, working for the Germans but secretly aiding the resistance, becomes Juliette Gervaise, smuggling downed pilots over the Pyrenees to freedom until finally captured by the Germans in the last months of the war. Meanwhile, Vianne, under the nose of SS officer Von Richter who has taken the place of deceased Captain Beck, is able to rescue 19 Jewish orphans, including Rachel’s son, paying for her work in the end by the violation of her own body.

The succession of tragic events these women and their father face are the history of the Holocaust, and the terrible banality of evil and brutality of act that characterized Nazism. Sometimes we become inured to so much evil, but this story brought that evil to life in the experiences of Isabelle, and Vianne, and their friends and, particularly, the children, that brought it up close and personal once more, a powerful use of fiction to document the fact of the Nazi horror.

The loves of each, including Julien Rossignol, the father, and the terrible exigencies of war do indeed shape and define their characters, and in ways I cannot reveal without giving away the end, result in the healing of estrangements among them. The narrator’s closing words speak of the triumph of love and goodness in the end:

“Wounds heal.
Love lasts.
We remain.”



Review: The Last Kingdom

Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006.

Summary: This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred.

Uhtred, son of Uhtred, Earl of Bebbanburg witnesses the coming of the Danes, the death of his brother and father and is taken captive by Ragnar, who led the Danes in the victories resulting in these deaths. He loses Bebbanburg to a rival who bows to the Danes, and he himself is raised as Ragnar’s more or less adopted son, learning from an early age the deadly arts of war, the fearsome thing known as the shield wall, and the strange joy of battle.

Uhtred matures as he witnesses one kingdom after another within England fall to the forces of the Danes. He repudiates the Christianity of the youth for the pagan warrior gods of the Danes. And the gods seem to favor them until they encounter Alfred, King of Wessex who is sufficiently successful to win a truce for a time. Uhtred and Brida, another captive, who becomes his lover and constant companion settle down in the beautiful country while they await the next attempt to defeat Alfred, little aware of the treachery of Kjartan, who is plotting against Ragnar, and indeed Uhtred himself. Uhtred and Brida alone escape a slaughter, which sends them to seek shelter, first with English relatives, and then in Alfred’s court, to fight for Alfred against the Danes, and to harbor the hope of recovery Bebbanburg one day.

Cornwell not only captures the fearsome character of warfare at the shield wall, where it is kill or be killed, in brutal combat. He also captures the beauty of the land, which the Danes wished to gain and the Anglo-Saxons wished to hold. And he sketches a portrait of Alfred, who genuinely fears God yet struggles to rein in his lusts, who is tormented by intestinal disorders and hemorrhoids, and yet can inspire men to fight and resist and entertains a vision of not only holding Wessex, but of extending his rule throughout England, even in the face of the Danes.

In the concluding part of the book things come to a head as Uhtred must face those he once fought with, as he fights now under Alfred, and as a confrontation looms that could destroy the last kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. Cornwell brings this history to life, and as he does so, helps us understand why this was fought-over land. While doing so, he draws characters, both real and fictional who evoke strong emotions of affection or disdain, but never “just another Dane or Saxon.”

Having thoroughly enjoyed his Agincourt last fall and the first of these tales, I think I just might go on and read some more!


Review: The Eighth Champion of Christendom

8th Champion

Summary: A historical novel set at the beginning of World War Two exploring the growing realization of the horror of war that “heroic warriors” face. The plot centers around Jim Bennison, an English soldier and Miriam Lozelle, a Jewish refuge farm holder in Boissy whose husband is away at war.

Edith Pargeter’s* title is an allusion to traditional folklore of Seven Champions of Christendom–Saints George, Andrew, Patrick, Denis, James Boanerges, Anthony the Lesser, and David. All were heroic warriors and popularized in the 1596 Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom by Richard Johnson.

Pargeter’s historical novel is set in the early days of England’s involvement in World War II. Jim Bennison comes from the quiet village of Morwen Hoe. His greatest dream before war was to marry Delia, who tended bar at a local pub. When called up he and the other young men evidence a mix of bravado and a workmanlike, “let’s get this done.” Little do they know, like young warriors in most wars, what they will face when the blitzkrieg flattens Belgium to the English left, and destroys the French will to fight on their right.

But before all this, Jim and his men are quartered on a farm in the Artois region and the town of Boissy. The woman who runs the farm while her husband fights for France is a Jewish Czech emigre, Miriam Lozelle. A bond is formed when Jim rescues her dog when she strays onto the firing range. Jim wants to come to grips with the enemy. Miriam, who has already faced the Germans in Czechoslovakia, sees further into ugly nature of war. At one point she says to the village priest:

“They believe they know the worst man can do to them, and are armed against it. They know nothing, nothing at all. And we let them go out to be dirtied, and broken, and stripped, and flayed” (p. 84).

This is indeed what happens to Jim as his unit first resists the German onslaught, seeing them butcher civilians. They then head south, ending up near Artois. Only Jim and his close friend Tommy survive, and end up taking shelter at Miriam Lozelle’s bombed out farmhouse while recovering from wounds and illness. Miriam and the French underground, at great risk to themselves as a sinister Gestapo agent stalks Miriam, succeed in helping them escape. Once again, we are drawn to consider, through Jim’s eyes, this heroic woman:

“Until then he had felt no fear, only a sort of excitement that gripped him by the pit of the stomach when he tried to think ahead; but suddenly his mind made strange contact with Miriam’s mind, and he was afraid. It was all the stranger because she was not afraid, unless perhaps for them; for herself she had finished with hoping and fearing. She lived as she must, acting according to her nature, with nothing to lose but a life, and nothing to gain but the satisfying of her heart” (p.212).

The remainder of the book chronicles the escape. Does Jim make it? What happens to Miriam? And what does he find if he makes it home? To write of this would spoil the ending.

What was interesting for me to reflect upon was who was the “eighth champion”? On the face of it, it seemed to be Jim, and yet the more one considers, it seems plausible that the champion was actually Miriam, a heroic warrior in her own way, striving to save “Christendom” even as a Jewish emigre.

The story is hardly unique–the awakening awareness of the horror of war, harrowing escapes, heroic efforts. love and loss. What set this apart is the quiet eloquence of Edith Pargeter’s writing that draws us into the story. This is the first of a trilogy of novels written shortly after the war. I hope I can find the sequels.

*Edith Pargeter also wrote the series of Brother Cadfael stories under the name Ellis Peters.

Review: A Blaze of Glory

A Blaze of Glory
A Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jeff Shaara and his father, Michael Shaara, gave us a wonderful trilogy of historical novels on the Eastern Campaigns in the Civil War. Now Jeff is working on a series on the Western Theater, beginning with this volume on the battle of Shiloh.

Shaara unfolds the battle for us in understandable terms. The Confederates have been driven out of Tennessee by Grant, who, for all his mistakes, fights to win. Albert Sidney Johnston has gathered the forces in Corinth, Mississippi, for what seems to be a defense of this key rail center, except for the fact that Grant and his troops are not moving from Pittsburg Landing. They are forced to wait for Don Carlos Buell’s troops to join him. In this, Johnston sees a chance to strike Grant while Grant’s back is to a river, and where he is unprepared for battle.

And so it comes about. Despite infuriating delays in movement and a change in strategy proposed by Colonel Jordan, a staff member loyal to Beauregard, he achieves more or less total surprise against the Union troops, driving them back toward the river, first in frantic retreat, and then as Union lines are restored to better defensive positions, against increasing resistance resulting in horrific losses for both sides. Shaara gets us into the mind of Johnston, as he sees troops being fed into the battle piecemeal as a result of Jordan’s strategy, and yet senses the wavering resistance of the Union and the key opportunity on his right to get between the Union and the river and roll up the Union lines. Not being able to sufficiently rouse the troops through his field commanders, he leads the charge himself, resulting in his tragic death.

Still, this charge and Ruggles’ artillery lead to the surrender of Prentiss and a general retreat to Pittsburgh landing. The Union is on the ropes as Beauregard takes command, and yet with an hour of daylight, he calls a cease fire and declares a victory! This allows Grant the time he needs to be reinforced by Lew Wallace and Buell. Grant, ever the fighter, turns the tables and with his now-superior forces, routs the Confederates, who retreat to Corinth.

Shaara leaves us wondering about the “what-ifs”. What if they had attacked in a broad arc of lines rather than columns? What if they had fought that crucial hour longer on the first day? Would they have broken Grant, or been repulsed by his concentrated forces? And the biggest “what if” is what if Johnston had lived and how might the Western campaigns been different?

The novel also explores the political intrigue among both Union and Confederate generals, and the experience of battle from front line troops. We experience the terror of Private Bauer during the initial onslaught, the restored courage as he fights alongside his friend Willis during the Union resistance, the horrors of battle that cannot be washed away from body or mind, and the dawning realization that this is only the first of many fights. We also see the jealousies between Grant and Buell, the impatience and inner uncertainties of Sherman, and the corresponding tension between Johnston and Beauregard. And we glimpse the figures behind the scenes that drive these rivalries, Halleck for the Union and Davis with the Confederacy.

This novel has me in eager anticipation of the rest of the series. The next installment, A Chain of Thunder, on the battle for Vicksburg, is sitting on my “to be read” pile.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher as part of a “First reads” contest sponsored by Goodreads.

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