Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin, 2019.

Summary: Count Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol for life during Stalin’s regime and must find purpose for life within its confines.

Count Alexander Rostov, born to nobility and refinement, has become the enemy in Stalinist Russia. On the pretense of a few lines in a poem, he is tried for his life in 1922, but spared death for a life of house arrest in the place he has made his home, the Hotel Metropol. Not entirely a bad fate. At least he has his luxury suite and all his books and the refinements of life. Not so, he learns, for this, too, has been appropriated by the State. He is confined to a top floor garret, little more than a closet. His life becomes forfeit the day he steps beyond the Metropol’s confines.

How will he face a life confined within the walls of this hotel, the tiny confines of a room? How far will the equanimity and cultured refinement take him when his life is a round of meals, conversations with hotel staff, and long hours in his room? Will he go crazy, or suicidal, or attempt escape? It matters little to Mother Russia, for whom he has become a non-person.

A Gentleman in Moscow traces the next 32 years of his life. We see him in the depths and at his most unpretentious, romping with nine year-old Nina of the yellow outfits, exploring the hidden corridors of the hotels, splitting out the seat of his pants to be repaired over and over by the seamstress, Marina. He becomes the trusted friend to whom she entrusts her daughter Sophia, supposedly for a few weeks which turn into forever. By then he has taken a position as waiter at the Boyarsky, rising to headwaiter, with Andrey the maitre d’ and Emile the chef, the triumvirate of the Boyarsky. He coaches a rising Russian party figure on the ins and outs of western culture, a man whose business is to know everything about people like Rostov. He encounters an American operative at the bar. He lives under the jealous eye of the Bishop (Leplevsky) who has it out for him.

He is the gentleman whose grace wins him the friendship of all, save the Bishop, and the love of his adoptive daughter Sophia, a budding piano prodigy. He discovers that his life is not merely the inner life of equanimity characterized in Montaigne’s words, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” He also learns what it means to belong to his friends, who enrich and guard his life. He remains loyal to his writer friend Mishka, and experiences unexpected loyalty from Osip, the Russian party man, at a moment of extreme need. He lives a life in full in within the confines of his house arrest, exchanging the grand life in society for the pleasures of food well prepared and well served to guests well seated.

It seems that many have been drawn to this book in pandemic times, under the conditions of our own house arrests. We’ve struggled to live and found new ways of living under stay at home orders. Or we’ve chafed at them and put our lives at risk, as the Count would have in departing the Hotel Metropol. As we consider the ways the Count copes and thrives in his house arrest, we’re invited to consider how well we have coped, and how then will we live in the months that remain until our return to whatever new normal follows.

Review: The Four Winds

The Four Winds, Kristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021

Summary: Set in the Dust Bowl depression era, Elsa Martinelli grows from a timid girl to a mother whose fight for her children fulfills her grandfather’s exhortation to “be brave.”

Kristin Hannah has done it again. Written a book that gets inside your head, grips your heart and does not let go. In my mind, this one holds its own with The Grapes of Wrath (review), both in capturing the conditions of the Dust Bowl and the migrant camps in California, and in its lead character, Elsa Martinelli, who holds her own with Tom Joad.

Elsa was the sickly sister of two beautiful girls, taken out of school and confined to her home after contracting rheumatic fever. Suppressed by her successful father and overbearing mother, she takes refuge in her books–and dreams of someone who will love her. She also hears the words of her grandfather, a former Texas Ranger: “Be brave.” The rest of this book is Elsa’s struggle against the verdict that she is weak, unloved, and undesirable to be brave.

It begins with sewing and an alluring dress, and setting out to find love–and she does, with Rafe Martinelli, who she ends up having to marry, abandoned by her own family. The Martinellis are farmers in the Texas panhandle. She embraces their way of life, the hard manual labor of a farm, and discovers herself embraced by Rafe’s parents, if not so much by Rafe.

Then comes the drought and the dust storms. The reader feels oneself living through the storms, breathing in the dust, developing hacking coughs, and watching one’s livelihood blown away. We watch the land die, the animals die, and Elsa’s young son, Ant, nearly die of dust pneumonia. Elsa fights for their survival, and that of her in-laws. She fights to hold onto her daughter Loreda, who blames her for Rafe’s abandonment of the family.

Against all that holds her to this family, she reluctantly leaves with her children to save Ant’s health. She calls them the Martinelli Explorers Club, as they drive west, risking the dangers of the road only to find the desperate conditions of the migrant camps, the disdain with which they are all viewed by Californians, and the heartless corruption of growers who use force, credit slavery, and desperation to keep them laboring for ever decreasing wages.

So many see Elsa’s beauty and spirit even when Elsa does not. The Martinelli’s. Eventually Loreda. Jean in the migrant camp. John the Communist. The story centers around Elsa’s awakening to who she really is–her beauty, her voice, and her bravery. We see her struggle against the message that she was unloved and unlovely and what it takes to awaken her to who she is and the lie she had accepted for so many years.

Like the other Hannah works I’ve read, The Nightingale (review) and The Great Alone (review), we observe the development of a strong female character who faces harrowing circumstances, often at the hands of men, with courage and character. Here we have men both abusive, and of great honor. Each of the latter, Elsa’s grandfather, Mr. Martinelli, and John Valen, see and affirm in Elsa far more than a sickly girl, an unchosen daughter-in-law, and a careworn mother. They point us to relationships between men and women that do not require one to be weak for the other to be strong. The strength of these men enable this woman to flourish in her own strength, the strength and the voice of a warrior.

Review: McGowan’s Call

McGowan’s Call, Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2007.

Summary: A collection of short stories and a novella tracing the ministry of a pastor from a small Ohio river town to a suburb of Dayton.

The life of a minister is probably one of the least understood of any occupation, or, in the language of this book, a call. The author was a minister for thirty-one years in the southern Ohio settings of this book. One has a sense of an inside glimpse into the life of a minister–sought in spiritual crises, often triangulated in church governance fights, always struggling with the congruence between the face he must present in public and his private life.

The book consists of several short stories set in an early ministerial assignment in Hatteras, a small industrial town on the Ohio River. The novella at the center of the book and concluding stories are set in a Dayton suburb and a much larger church–a typical career arc of an effective pastor.

The book opens with Davis McGowan’s arrival in Hatteras, and encounters with a homeless man in “a game of mutual respect between a local and an import.” Another story describes the loss of daughter who looked much like his own daughter in a tornado, and the small comfort he could offer with his presence and prayers. That weekend he goes to find his own solace on his boat.

The guy at the bait shop seemed truly disgusted that I would come to play on my boat when lives had been lost. I couldn’t argue. It was on my mind, too.

Rob Smith, p. 24

This tension between public and private, who McGowan is and who he is expected to be runs through these stories.

“False Witness” is the novella at the center of this book. It centers around the death of Angie Fornesby, wife of Barker Fornesby, a rising executive. She was undergoing cancer treatments, promising at least a number of years where she would enjoy a quality of life. It was a bit tricky because she was also diabetic. In fact, that is what killed her, an overdose of insulin. Since both Barker and son Matt were trained and skilled in administering doses, this ruled out an accident. Barker’s not exactly forthcoming. He doesn’t readily produce an insulin log. An alert prosecutor also has picked up on a number of interactions between Barker and a hospital nurse. Davis had given an initial statement to investigators right after Angie’s death. Slater, the prosecutor, thinks he has enough to take a murder case to the grand jury. They subpoena McGowan, asking about his interactions with Angie. Not sure of what really happened but seeing where this was going, and the impact it could have on Matt, he gives false testimony that gets Barker Fornesby off. He discovers in the concluding story that he has made a lasting enemy in Slater.

In the same concluding story is one of the most finely written passages in the book, a description of a pastor living the call. McGowan has been called to be with a couple whose unborn child has died in utero. After a stillbirth is induced, McGowan holds the dead child, named Joshua, and speaks of how much his parents would have loved him. Then he goes to them.

“I held Joshua and called him by name,” he said.

Becky looked to Chad and then back to McGowan. “Was it awful.”

“He was beautiful,” said Davis.

“Am I silly, Dr. McGowan, to want to see him?” Davis glanced at Chad.

. . .

“You felt Joshua inside, and that little kick made you both think about the future in another way. Now that he’s gone, none of that will happen in quite the same way. You’ve lost a lot.”

Rob Smith, pp. 161-162.

This is the noble, heart-wrenching work pastors around the world pursue daily, unappreciated until one is on the receiving end of that care. Much of it is unseen by most congregants, who are critical of sermon styles and have unreal expectations of the spirituality of these very human people, while also expecting them to fix the toilets in the building.

McGowan is neither unworldly saint nor worldly hypocrite. He loves to sail, loves his wife, and pursues his call with integrity while struggling with the tensions between public expectations and his sense of self. He is one who’d rather dress up in old jeans and hang around with the youth group than hob-nob with socialites. He wrestles with the ambiguities of doing what is right and merciful when it isn’t strictly the letter of the law. He incurs enmity when he does so.

Rob Smith has truly created an interesting character in a profession we often discount. He no doubt draws upon his own experiences to explore what it looks like to care faithfully for a group to which one is called, the beauty and the pain that goes along with this. There is an understated beauty in this writing that doesn’t overwhelm with spiritual profundity but draws one through the unpretentious decency of McGowan. And if you haven’t gotten enough of McGowan in this volume, there are three more: McGowan’s Retreat, McGowan’s Return, and McGowan’s Pass.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2008.

Summary: A collection of short stories set in a small coastal village in Maine, centering around an aging and abrasive middle school teacher, Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge is characterized at one point in this book as having “a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Her son at one point described her moods as capricious and that she never accepted responsibility for the ways she affected others. She was tall and imposing, irascible and difficult. And yet. She could cut through niceties to help a young man ready to take his life, or truly sympathize with a widow while her own husband was a vegetable. What you saw was what you got, and yet there were hidden depths to her that could catch you by surprise.

Olive Kitteridge and her husband Henry live in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a middle school math teacher and Henry a pharmacist. Elizabeth Strout develops Olive’s character through a series of chronologically arranged short stories featuring different people in the town. Olive is not in every one of them but recurs throughout the book, intersecting with a number of the characters as she retires from teaching, sharing life with Henry, a most accommodating husband, as they go through life’s changes and grief’s, including a son for whom they built a house, only for him to move across country at his wife’s behest, only for her to divorce him, and then for him to return to New York and a new marriage. Olive grieves so much she won’t drive past the house, leading to an improbable adventure at the local ER.

The stories explore the challenges and comforts of marital love, the infidelities of mind and body of different villagers, including Henry at one point for his pharmacist assistant Denise. There are heartbreaks and verbal wounds that are not easily healed. But one thing you will never find is hypocrisy from Olive. One of the highlights was when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law making fun of her clothes. Most of us would fume and pretend we had not heard. Olive goes into the daughter-in-law’s closet and deviously ruins several articles of clothing. She can be maddeningly matter-of-fact in her acceptance of life’s hardships. What else ought one expect of life?

Despite all the flaws and foibles and failures of individuals, Strout portrays a community that somehow coheres, that is there for each other in the hardest moments. She creates a place and a character rooted in that place in Olive–the houses she builds, the tulips she plants, the donut shop she and Henry loved to get donuts from. Olive and the others endure loss and glimpse their mortality, making there way through life and finding what comfort they can in each other.

In the end, we see a character who seemed utterly certain of herself, who does not change, but turns her honesty upon herself and comes to more settled terms with the person she is, and the possibilities of her remaining life. There is both fine writing and fine insight into the human condition here.

Review: Somebody Else’s Troubles

Somebody Elses Troubles

Somebody Else’s Troubles, J.A. English. Union Lake, MI: Zimbell House Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Several troubled individuals find their way to Mabuhay, a tiny Caribbean Island, and find in the troubles of others the possibility of the redemption of their own.

Five individual stories intersect on the tiny Caribbean island of Mabuhay. They come from Chicago, New York, and Athens, Ohio.

Travers Landeman inherited a family business, in a gradual declined propped up by government subsidies and transformed by the extra personnel these subsidies require. He is married to a shrew, Corinne, who shrewdly recognized that he’d be able to fund the lifestyle she coveted. Things come to a head when a nephew, sexually abused by a priest, commits suicide after reaching out in vain for help from Travers. A night with a prostitute leads to extortion, the decision to take flight to Mabuhay, and then to faking his own death. Albert Sidney McNab is a plodding but relentless insurance/private investigator who is convinced that Landeman never really died and is determined to find him. Apart from his sleuthing, he lives a lonely life.

The others in this tale are: Joe Rogers, whose best friend is a Vodka bottle. His former wife sets him up in a bookstore, complete with live-in help, Zero. The Yellow Harp gets off to a rocky start as a women’s group remembering the women’s history of the place (a former brothel) ends up starting a small fire, the damages from which turn out to be uninsured. A chance to fill in for an archaeologist on a dig in Mabuhay offers respite from it all. An accidental fall results in a near fatal ankle break, and the discovery of a singular ritual mask. Father Chester O’Reilly started out as a parish priest in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago where he grew up under a power-grasping monsignor. The parish is declining due to white flight, and Father Chester is too honest about issues of race and justice to be farmed out to the suburbs. A bequest providing for an Austin priest to provide spiritual care to the natives of Mabuhay offers a way out, and as he embraces the ways of the island, they embrace him. Marguerite departs from her love, Schugay, to pursue nursing studies in Chicago, being connected to hosts in the Austin neighborhood by Father Chester. She’s mugged, and then after pursuing charges, raped by her mugger. Chicago is nothing but a series of losses for Marguerite, including the loss of Schugay. Heartbroken, Marguerite returns to Mabuhay.

The narrative moves back and forth between the individuals, tracing their paths to Mabuhay. Along the way, they become voices for the corruption and sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, the dynamics of white flight to the suburbs in Chicago, the war on drugs that made the careers of politicians and made neighborhoods like Austin the targets of drug busts, and the weasly practices of insurance companies and government funding programs. The story of Travers’ nephew is one of homosexual attraction when it couldn’t be spoken of, the intensity of his sexual experiences alternating with struggles with shame, compounded by a predatory priest. The confluence of these characters on Mabuhay opens up new choices for them in a new culture, for how they will live, and whether they will engage the troubles of “somebody else.”

It is interesting that the discussion guide for this novel raises the question of an authorial voice that editorializes at various places. I personally felt that the plot and characters were interesting enough and got at the issues explored in the editorial passages of the novel. I suspect the author, who continues to reside at least part of the time in the Austin neighborhood that is one of the settings of this novel, has strongly formed and important opinions for which this novel serves as a vehicle. I personally felt that he could have trusted the story to say these things for him. It did for me.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943).

Summary: A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn.

Published in 1943, this was one of those “books that went to war,” a special edition of which was carried in the rucksacks of soldiers in World War II as a reminder of home. Many wrote Betty Smith to tell her of what it meant to them.

The question one asks is what the abiding power of this book is. My sense of the answer is found in the sheer determination and grit of the character through whom the story is told, Francie Nolan. We first meet her as a young girl on a third floor fire escape, reading one of the latest books she has taken from the library (withdrawn in alphabetical order), looking over the patch of dirt out of which a tree had grown, “neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew upon green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas….No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky….It grew lushly, but only in the tenements district.”

I’m convinced that Francie is that tree–having a peculiar beauty, a resilience that thrives even under the toughest circumstances, struggling to reach for the sky and the stars, growing lushly amid the tenements of Brooklyn. She tells of her and her brother Neely, collecting rags and scrap, to bring home the pennies that help the family survive on their alcoholic father’s sporadic wages as a singing waiter and their mother’s cleaning work.

Smith vividly portrays the life from penny candy shops, to indifferent librarians, to brother-sister spats, loving her father’s voice, confirmation and first communion–and a terrifying attempted rape. Katie, Francie’s mother provides the steel that holds the family together while Johnny brings both the fun and the tragedy. Katie insists the children read a page of the Bible and Shakespeare each night, and imparts to them the importance of an education she never had. Francie picks this up, first lying her way into a better school, later longing to go on to high school and even college. When a teacher marks Francie’s compositions down despite her writing skills, rather than write the sweet drivel the teacher wants, Francie stops writing and takes a lower grade.

Johnny Nolan dies short of 35 and the family’s struggle for existence becomes yet more precarious, not only because of Johnny’s death, but also that he left Katie pregnant with Laurie. Wages from McGarrity’s bar help some. Then comes a painful scene where Katie decides upon Francie and Neely’s graduation that Francie would work while Neely goes to school. In spite of her disappointment, she holds a number of jobs, becoming the family breadwinner, even taking summer college courses. We watch a girl become a young woman, both with a determined sense of self and longings for love.

In the backdrop of her story are Katie’s twos sisters, Sissy and Evy. Evy’s husband seems a pitiful excuse of a man. Sissy goes through a series of “Johns” with whom she lives, in the quest to bear one live child until she finally meets a John named Steve. Through the conversations of these sisters the paradox of how good men are hard to find, men like McShane the policeman and aspiring politician with a sickly wife, and the attraction of men who end up not making good husbands. Most of the women whose characters are fleshed out are strong characters, even while they lack the formal power of men.

The other strong character in the book is Brooklyn itself. Smith evokes a sense of what the place was like in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But the character who takes center stage is Francie. When America’s entry into the war is announced, this is how she reacts:

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere–be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

I’ll leave you to discover if Francie realizes all her dreams and is the “something” to which she aspires. What I will say is that the tree about which we’ve heard nothing through most of the narrative recurs in the final pages. Chopped down, it does not die, but rises again. “It lived! And nothing could destroy it.”

 

Review: Remembering

remembering

RememberingWendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008 (originally published 1988).

Summary: Following the loss of a hand, a grieving Andy Catlett struggles with both his loss and his anger with agribusiness, that he believes is destroying a way of life, and gropes his way toward healing.

Andy Catlett is suffering from two losses, and struggles with anger from both. While harvesting crops with a neighbor, his right hand is mangled in a machine, resulting in the loss of the hand. One of the remarkable qualities of this narrative is how Berry explores the inner struggle of a capable man who struggles to write, to dress himself, and not make a nuisance of himself while doing farm chores. He is angry with himself, and quarreling incessantly with his wife, who sees through it all and Andy’s inability to forgive himself.

He has been angry with American agribusiness for a long period of time, how it has destroyed a way of life in the name of efficiency which underwrites equipment manufacturers, fuel and fertilizer interests, and banks at the expense of the few remaining farmers in perpetual debt. He saw its effects as a journalist, and sees them in the erosion of a way of life in the town to which he returned to farm, Port William. He is not an easy person to live with.

Catlett’s twin angers reach a crisis point when he leaves home, amid alienating arguments with his wife that seem to have no resolution, to speak at an agricultural conference. He sets aside his planned speech to excoriate the assembled experts, whose mathematical models do not touch the pain experienced by all those who have left farms. He tells the stories of his ancestors and friends from Port William, and how they have suffered under the ideas of the experts and ends with damning the enterprise.

The book is framed by two dreams, one in his hotel in San Francisco after speaking, the other in the woods near his Kentucky home, a beatific vision of a transformed Port William. In between, Catlett travels a journey of remembering, as he walks the streets of San Francisco to the bay, and then on his flight home. He recalls the speech, his arguments with Flora, his wife, the accident, his sense of being unmanned, cut off from his hand, as it were.

Perhaps the most effective portion was remembering his time as a journalist, and two interviews, one planned and one not. He visits the Meikelberger farm, the symbol of modern agriculture, with its huge grain bins, monstrous equipment, and 2,000 acres planted in nothing but corn as far as the eye can see. It is an impressive operation but beneath the impressive appearance is a man with an ulcer, incessant worry over perpetual debt, all built atop old farmsteads that have disappeared. He detours, enroute to Pittsburgh, through Amish country in eastern Ohio, stops to watch a farmer plowing his field with a team of three beautiful horses. He sees a well-kept farmstead, and nearby farms.  He is offered a chance to plow with the team, bringing back childhood memories. As he questions Yoder, he learns the farm has no debt, and Yoder, who is older than Meikelberger looks ten years younger. If he needs help, there are nearby neighbors to pitch in.

It’s what led Catlett back to farming, restoring an old abandoned property he and friends had long talked about. Flora and Andy make a go of it, becoming part of the membership of Port William. And then the accident….The question remains of whether Andy will find healing and a new kind of wholeness as he journeys home.

In this work, Berry weaves his own convictions about the destruction of an agricultural way of life, of communities, and the land with an perceptive exploration of what the loss of a hand can mean, and whether Andy will suffer destruction of his self, his marriage, and his way of life. There are achingly beautiful passages and deeply troubling ones as we plumb the depths of Andy’s turmoil. Berry invites us to consider both the healing of deeply wounded people, as well as deeply wounded lands and communities.

 

Review: The Dearly Beloved

The dearly beloved

The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: Two couples, the men holding a joint call to a New York City church in a time of change, two wives utterly unlike, and the bonds forged between them as they lean into suffering and the challenges of faith each approaches differently.

The story of Charles and Lily, James and Nan. The story is framed by the death of one of them, and the closely woven friendships forged between four very different people, two of whom were intensely at odds with each other–the fabric of which was rent by this death.

Charles is the son of old blood New Englanders, whose father was a Harvard professor. Charles comes to faith when posed with the question of what faith meant to the medieval people he was studying, discovering that faith in God could be as real for him as for them, and in this realization, he hears a call to ministry.

Lily, bereft of parents in childhood, has lost all faith in God, and hopes to immerse herself in her books and her scholarship at Radcliffe–until she meets Charles, who loves and believes in her, even though she cannot believe in his God.

Nan, a ministers daughter, has grown up believing and modeling her life after her father’s ministry and her mother’s role as a minister’s wife. She goes to the bastion of Christian belief at Wheaton College to study music ministry. She has been raised to see need and help.

James grows up with an alcoholic father, one wounded psychically during World War Two. An uncle recognizes his potential and sends him to the University of Chicago. At a recital, he meets Nan, who is the accompanist. As he asks her father for her hand in marriage, he shares both his decision to become a minister, and his own struggle to believe. He does not so much believe in God but believes in ministry, in actions of service as God’s call for those who would believe.

The four end up at Third Presbyterian Church, in Greenwich Village in New York City in the early 1960’s. The church is in decline, and believes the gifts of the two men together are what they need to minister in a time of change. There lives are regimented by Jane Atlas, their secretary, and under her tutelage, learn the character of their congregation and forge a working partnership, one in which each will fight for the faith and place of the other in the church at some point.

Meanwhile, Lily and Nan come to detest each other. Lily wants no more to do with the church than to support Charles. Nan wants them to get along, wants to help out, wants to care and is rebuffed. It becomes more difficult when Lily has twins, and Nan has miscarriages. And when Nan attempts to help when Lily’s one son is diagnosed as autistic, her sympathy repulses Lily who in turn rebuffs her efforts, even as she and Charles struggle with despair of finding help for their son’s condition, for which at that time their was little to be done but institutionalize such children.

The rest of the story is how these four people struggle, against their own feelings, their pasts, and their pain, to forge deep relationships on the other side of misunderstandings, resentment, and deep despair. The story is one that moves beyond pieties to the gritty struggles involved in believing in a world of loss, of pain, and conflict. To mention the death with which the book opens is not a spoiler–the real story is whether and how theses four will find and navigate life together, coming from such different places.

This is Cara Wall’s debut novel. She creates four central characters, each strong in very different ways. This is neither a cloyingly sweet “religious” novel, nor one that deprecates religious faith as inevitably an exercise of hypocrisy. It explores the struggles of faith, the combination of noble aspirations, and the hidden selves that those who have these aspirations bring with them. We also see a community, whether a church session, a tough old secretary, or even the four principle characters, who do not let each other drift apart, when it would be easy to do.

This work was reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Wall is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where Robinson was part of the faculty. I was reminded of the relationship of Reverend Ames and Reverend Boughton in Robinson’s works, and their own wrestlings with calling, struggles of faith, and loss. At the same time, whereas Robinson’s distinctive Calvinism runs through her works, Wall’s theological world is much more mainline Christian, focused around God rather than Christ, and much less concerned with the content than the experience of belief and doubt. What stands out in Wall is her respect for her characters, allowing them to develop, not through theological arguments or marked religious experiences, but as each learns to respect, and sometimes forgive, the uniqueness of the other, often finding something shifting, not in the other but in themselves.

This is insightful writing, and I look forward to seeing what else this writer will bring us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: There There

there there

There ThereTommy Orange. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Summary: The narratives of twelve “Urban Indians” making their way with various motivations to a powwow in Oakland.

Tommy Orange has done for “Urban Indians” what Sherman Alexie has done for those on the reservations. In There There, he captures in the stories of twelve people a cumulative narrative of the quest for identity of Native Americans living in cities. They are people who in various ways are trying to figure out what it means, beyond ancestry and heritage to live as Native Americans in urban America.

In both Prologue  and Interlude, Orange discusses the dispossession of Native peoples from their lands, the struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, the challenges to discover one’s identity and the significance of powwows like the Big Oakland Powwow.

The book is structured around the stories of twelve people whose lives are connected who will end up at the Big Oakland Powwow. The book opens with Tony Loneman, “the ‘Drome” representing his birth with fetal alcohol syndrome. He deal drugs with Octavio, along with Charles who is owed money by his brother Calvin. These four hatch a plot to steal the prize money at the powwow, using 3-D printed guns to elude metal detectors. Others come for different reasons. Dene Oxendene is there to set up a story booth to capture the stories of his people. Thomas Frank is a former custodian at the Indian Center and a drummer at the powwow. Edwin Black is a bi-racial young man who lives on the internet who discovers his father is Harvey by accessing his mother Karen’s social media and takes an internship at the Indian Center, coordinating the powwow. Karen’s boyfriend, Bill Davis, a Vietnam veteran, works cleaning up trash at the stadium where the powwow will be held, having held a series of jobs after a prison term in San Quentin. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield cares for three of her half-sister Jacquie Redfeather’s grandchildren including Orvil who discovers Indian regalia packed away in a closet and wants to dance at the powwow. Jacquie, living on the edge of substance abuse, works as a substance abuse counselor. Jacquie and Opal were part of the Alcatraz occupation in 1970, where Jacquie had sex forced on her by the same Harvey, resulting in a daughter who she adopted out. That daughter happens to be Blue, the head of the powwow committee. In a weird turn of events Harvey and Jacquie encounter each other at a substance abuse conference and an AA meeting, and end up traveling together to the powwow.

The narrative moves back and forth between these characters who represent the conflicting currents of Urban Indian identity, from the criminal to those devoted to the cause, or to people they love. The book is organized around four parts: Remain-Reclaim-Return-Powwow, terms that reflect both movement toward the climactic powwow with the threat of violence, and the struggle to reverse the effects of dispossession.

The title comes from a Gertrude Stein reference to Oakland — “There is no there there.” Orange writes:

“The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over America, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The book retraces the struggle to recover a sense of identity and community, and some kind of way of life when there is no “there there.” For the most part, it seems the women fare better at this in the book. Even though Jacquie, Opal, and Blue bear the wounds of their heritage and upbringing, they are the ones caring for others, offering stability and direction to a next generation. Only Bill Davis seems to have clawed his way to some settled identity while the other men are either groping, or descending into criminality.

This is not a “feel good” book. But perhaps those of us who are the descendants of the disposessors need to understand the trauma that has worked its way down the generations. What is evident in a number of the stories is a perhaps inchoate sense that there is something valuable “there” in one’s native heritage that must not be given up on but striven for, perhaps in the shared telling of stories that both Dene Oxendene’s storybooth and this book represents.