Category Archives: Historical Fiction
by Sean Michaels
Random House, 2014
Odd questions crossed my mind when I was reading Us Conductors.
How long did Sean Michaels spend coming up with “DZEEEEOOOoo” as the proper translation of the theremin sound? It captures perfectly the eerie sound of the instrument invented by the novel’s main character, Lev Sergeyevich Termen.
Under what circumstances did Michaels receive the inspiration to add Kung Fu to Termen’s list of interests? That one aspect to his character strikes me as . . . out of character.
And why haven’t I heard of the many inventions and exploits of the “Russian Edison”, a man who seemed to be able to invent on demand? We have him to thank for everything from motion-activated lights to a clear picture on our televisions.
The breadth of those questions summarizes my overall impression of this novel.
First, Michaels is not a poetic writer, but he has a knack for encapsulating an image or feeling. The theremin sound is one example, and later in the novel when Termen has to brush off rusty musical skills after a lengthy and harrowing imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, he writes: “I was about to wrench open an overgrown gate.” Perfect.
Second, bits and pieces of the novel perplex me, because they don’t seem to fit. The Kung Fu is curious. And Termen’s first wife is there—and not there—in an inexplicable, and mildly annoying way.
Finally, it enlightened me. I learned so much. This book is fiction, but based on real people and real events from history: Russia at the time of Lenin, New York City in the Jazz Age and later the market crash of 1929, and then the harsh Siberia of Stalin’s time.
Michael’s double-edged epigraph at the beginning of the Giller Prize-winning book is prize-winning in itself: “This book is mostly inventions.” It lets the reader know that the author intends to play fast and loose with facts, which Michaels does, but it also refers to the many brilliant inventions of the main character.
The Lev Sergeyevich Termen of this book is scientifically brilliant and socially inept. Unable to navigate his way to a meaningful loving relationship, unable to leave either Russia or America behind, and unable to manage such banalities as personal finances, the man is the master of his own demise.
This book won’t warm your heart. You won’t come to the end of it, close it with a sigh and hold it close to your chest. Aspects of it might frustrate you. But if you read it, you have the opportunity to admire some insightful writing, and you probably will learn something.
by Lori Lansens
Vintage Canada, 2003
A friend went into a bookstore and asked the owner to recommend a book “with teeth.” My friend left the bookstore with Rush Home Road in hand, and she liked the bite of it so much, she passed it on to me. That is how I encountered Rush Home Road eleven years after it was published.
The title refers to the road leading away from, and back to, the town of Rusholme—a fictional all-black community based on the real-life community of Buxton, Ontario. Rusholme was a southern Ontario landing spot on the Underground Railroad, the path to freedom for slaves fleeing from the United States, and Lansens’ heroine grows up in the town during the prohibition years. When Addy Shadd is on the cusp of womanhood, a tragic event, and an even more tragic misunderstanding, cause her to take the road out of town. Years later, when she is a 70-year-old living in a trailer park, a young child comes into her care. The challenges the child, Sharla, faces mirror those Addy faced as a child. In guiding Sharla to a better life, Addy unearths her own buried memories and traumas and clears the way for a return to Rush Home Road.
Two stories intertwine here: a short one involving Sharla and the reasons for her abandonment, and a seven-decade long one detailing Addy’s eventful life. To tell the interconnecting stories, Lansens crisscrosses present day and memory, but she does so seamlessly; flashbacks don’t stand out as flashbacks. Lansens writes convincingly from the child-like view of Sharla and from the age-worn view of Addy. The result is a book that is both plot-driven and character-driven.
This story is surprisingly uplifting, given that the two main characters are a poor black woman and a mixed-race trailer park child, both abandoned by their mothers. Lansens infuses the characters and the stories with such hope and humanity that the tale never feels too daunting. There are irretrievable losses and failings left unforgiven, but there are also friendships, new loves and salves applied to wounds.
The bookstore owner was right. This story has teeth, and I liked it.
by Kate Manning
I read this book immediately after I read The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. What a contrast. Strout’s characters were unhappy and unlikable comfortably well-off people. Kate Manning’s characters were positive and likable impoverished people. I struggled through The Burgess Boys. I delighted in every page of My Notorious Life.
Manning’s inspiration for My Notorious Life was a real-life female physician who became known as “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” In Manning’s version, the heroine is Annie (Axie) Muldoon. She is born into 1860s New York City as the child of desperately poor Irish immigrants. When her father dies and her mother is maimed in an accident, Axie, her sister, Dutchie, and her baby brother, Joe, end up on an orphan train as part of the Western Emigration Program.
The trajectory of her life leads her to mistrust men, to confront the “complexities” of women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, and to accumulate wealth and controversy in equal measure. Axie Muldoon becomes Madame DeBeausacq, a woman who compassionately does what she believes is right even when it’s illegal and risky.
This puts her on a collision course with Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He, too, does what he believes is right even when it’s illegal and risky.
The result is a story that resonates with the solar plexus. Manning explores family dynamics, love, feminism, reproduction, money, class separation, ethical dilemmas and marriage. Her story is harrowing and fun, heartbreaking and uplifting.
by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, Penguin Canada, 2014
I almost didn’t read this book. I wouldn’t have, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so. I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.
The Invention of Wings is Sue Monk Kidd’s fictional version of the real lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two daughters of a wealthy landowner in 19th Century Charleston.
As young children they rebelled against the cruelty of slavery and the restrictions of their church. As adults they lead an infamous charge to abolish slavery, strive for racial equality and promote women’s rights.
The Invention of Wings is also the story of Handful “Hetty” Grimké, a fictional African-American slave “gifted” to Sarah Grimké on her eleventh birthday.
Monk Kidd alternates between the first-person accounts of Sarah and Handful, and these two perspectives allow the reader a broad view of Charleston life at that time. The two girls inhabit the same world but in two very different ways, and both women are trapped but in different ways. Sarah is trapped in her restricted female role by inflexible societal norms; Handful is trapped in her slave role by poverty, cruelty and oppression. From an early age Handful senses the intractable barrier between her and her white mistress, but the privileged Sarah takes longer to perceive their great divide. Later in life, Handful tells Sarah: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”
One of Monk Kidd’s most intriguing characters is Handful’s mother, Charlotte. She lives with the cruelty of slavery that breeds what Monk Kidd calls the “cold fire of hate.” Even though her name is in the landowner’s inventory book as part of the “goods and chattel,”—“right after the water trough, the wheelbarrow, the claw hammer and the bushel of flint corn,” Charlotte tells her daughter: “Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.” Her strength plants the seed of resilience in Handful, who grows up believing that her body might be “goods and chattel,” but not her mind. “I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind for what I know is me,” she says.
Monk Kidd navigates all the complexities of the world at that time; nothing is straightforward, and nothing is easy in the face of overwhelming societal and economic pressures. Sarah vows to “put feet to her words” and take action to abolish slavery, but in so doing, she sacrifices family connections, friendships and love. Sarah rejects slavery and moves north to join the Quaker movement to abolish slavery. She then discovers that the Quakers might want to abolish slavery, but they still want racial segregation. Even the abolutionists she and Angelina work with urge her to ease off on her feminist cause. She tells them, “Now sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks.”
I almost didn’t read this book because Sue Monk Kidd’s previous two books, while beautifully written, did not stir my soul. I wouldn’t have read this book, but a friend whose opinion I trust encouraged me to do so.
I am grateful to that friend, for this is a worthy read.
by Audrey Thomas
Dundurn Press, 2014
Local Customs features an enigmatic historical event, intriguing characters and two noteworthy geographical locations. With bones like that a story needs only quality writing to flesh it out and breathe life into it, and Audrey Thomas certainly provides that.
“It is worthwhile having an adventure, if only for the sake of talking about it afterwards.”
This novel, based on the historical figures of George Maclean and Letitia (L.E.L.) Landon, tells of the adventures of British administrators and missionaries living in the Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast in the early 19th Century. Landon, a widely read poet of the day, marries Maclean and leaves London to accompany him to his African post.
Thomas re-creates Victorian London and the moist tropical Gold Coast with clarity. Landon and Maclean lived in Africa at a time just after legal slavery ended but when racism and exploitation of African citizens was still rampant and accepted, when missionaries offered “Christianity the way the serpent offered the apple,” and words like picaninny did not turn heads.
Each character takes his or her turn relating the events leading up to a mysterious death. The cause of death was never resolved in real life, and Thomas doesn’t resolve it for us in this novel either. She hints, and she steers us in certain directions, but she leaves some questions intriguingly unanswered, so the results are not conclusive. Rather than being unsatisfying, this leaves delicious room for readers to imagine and suppose.
The different perspectives give the story rich layers. Readers have plenty to ponder because Thomas warns us to be wary about what we believe. The poetic character, Landon, admits to “doctoring” her letters and building up her husband in the eyes of her family. From this we can conclude that she also might not be completely truthful about her relationship with other men in her life.
One character we don’t hear from directly is one who might have much to tell. Ekosua, the African mistress of George Maclean, plays a role in the story, but we don’t hear from her what it is. Again, this leaves delicious room to speculate and suppose.
by Nancy E. Turner
People in the Arizona Territories in the late 1800s lived on a knife edge between life and death. The snap of a rattler, a well-placed arrow, or an infection in a time before antibiotics could slice away the life of loved ones with breathless efficiency. That looming possibility of an untimely end to beloved characters is one of the reasons why These Is My Words is such a gripping story. Nancy Turner handles the life and death on which this novel turns deftly. She surprises us with the loss of characters when we least expect it. She pulls others away from certain death in the nick of time. The result is, with each turn of events, we must keep reading to see if the time has arrived for a character’s demise.
Turner unfolds the events of her novel through journal entries written by the main character, Sarah Agnes Prine. Prine is a fictional woman based on the author’s great-grandmother. It’s not surprising that many readers believe this to be non-fiction. The journal entries, for the most part, feel authentic, with only occasional stretches to a fictional feel to carry the story along. Sarah’s entries evolve over time as she gains more knowledge and education. After she finds a dictionary, she sprinkles her entries with new-found, savoury, big words.
In her travels around Texas and Arizona, Sarah encounters Comanches, Apaches, soldiers, and fellow travellers of varied ethnic origin. Turner sprinkles in people and events from history (Geronimo and Doc Holliday, for example) to show what life was like then in the area.
As a pioneer woman, Sarah Prine must handle all of this while navigating the line between femininity and survival. She balances pretty dresses and shotguns, breastfeeding and cattle wrangling, and baking and bartering. We can’t help but be charmed by this strong female character, taking on all comers.
Turner’s had to use straightforward, simple language to tell Sarah’s story, and it’s all the more powerful for it. Succinct phrases like, “. . . children mourn in little bits here and there like patchwork in their lives,” and, “. . . being forsaken is worse than being killed,” sum up Sarah’s moments perfectly.
All of the members of my book club really liked this book. We liked the characters, the pacing, the suspense, and the setting. And we particularly admired the perfect final line.