It's the sweltering summer of 1942, anxious and agitated Emma Washburn awaits the return of her beloved son to the Pines, the Washburn family's rusticIt's the sweltering summer of 1942, anxious and agitated Emma Washburn awaits the return of her beloved son to the Pines, the Washburn family's rustic resort in the Minnesota woods. For days she's been making preparations for Frankie's short visit home before he heads off to Air Force training camp and then on to World War II to serve as a bombardier flying sorties over France and Germany.
Emma isn't the only one awaiting Frankie's return. There is his distant and disappointed dad; the Ojibwe caretaker, Felix, who has served as Frankie's loving surrogate father; and Billy, also Ojibwe, Frankie's childhood friend who now fills a much more intimate place in Frankie's life. The impending visit is fraught, overshadowed by his father's detachment, the forbidden desire between Billy and Frankie, and the specter of war and loss.
Right away the Washburn reunion is threatened with disruption by the escape of a German prisoner from the POW camp across the river. Search parties travel up and down the river and into the woods. As soon as Frankie and his friends arrive, they join in. Frankie and Billy split from the group to search on their own. When a moment of illicit tenderness -- a kiss in the woods -- is witnessed by other searchers, shame triggers a rash and violent act of bravado that results in the death of a runaway Indian girl and the discovery of her sister, Prudence. Covered in blood, suffering shock, Prudence is carried away to the house where she remains mute, refusing to tell the family anything about her life. The Washburns and Felix are left with no choice but to take her in.
This accident is the still point at the center of the novel. Once the gun goes off, everything changes. Emma heads back to Chicago, losing interest in her beloved Pines. Frankie, burdened by grief and guilt, goes off to the war, but not before promising Prudence that he will come back some day and "make it right." Billy enlists in the army and is shipped out. Felix and Prudence, left behind at the Pines, with Emma sending $10 per month for her care and upkeep, limp along in their awkward forced family intimacy.
David Treuer's novel "Prudence" is as an intricate ensemble piece; exploring themes of loss, desire, race, war, and the secrets we keep, through the point of view of five beautifully realized characters -- Felix, Frankie, Emma, Billy and Prudy. The novel does not fall prey to its weighty concerns, neither preaching nor descending into sentimentality. In clear, uncluttered prose, Treuer guides us through 10 years, multiple voices and the very specific choices (many bad ... the joys in this book are few and far between) of his characters.
It is Prudy's story that is the most heartbreaking. Left behind in this tiny village, waiting for what she believes is true love, she endures the cold winters and her nearly regal loneliness with the aid of alcohol and men.
In a beautiful chapter set in a tiny bar on Christmas Eve in 1944, Treuer sets Prudy in action, and we, like the villagers, are mesmerized by her tight-fitting dress, her fluid movements on the dance floor and her amazing capacity for drink. The chapter is a tribute to the James Joyce short story, "The Dead." In fact, the opening sentence is nearly a direct quote, "Mary, the cripple, was literally run off her feet." Like Joyce's gorgeous story, this chapter focuses on a celebration, on politics, on the events of the war, and upon love and loss. At the close, in a beautiful homage to Joyce, Prudy is making her way home, alone in the snow. She is thinking of her dead sister and of Frankie, flying over of Europe.
"The snow glowed between the trees. The stars were out. It must be so cold and lonely up there. So very cold. But it was the same air. It was the same air up there as down here. Prudence closed her eyes and steadied herself. She saw Gracie's little grave behind the Pines, quite and quietly covered with snow. The same air that flowed over Gracie's grave flowed around up there, after all. Five miles up and five miles down. It made no difference. She felt her soul swoon a little. She recovered it and kept on walking."
Along with the intertwined stories of Prudy, Frankie and Billy, Treuer includes a subplot about “the Jew” who comes to visit the village in 1952. Though the story of the Jew does not intersect with the main characters, it is a rich vein that Treuer is right to follow. The Jew arrives, reminding us of other dispersed and destroyed families, of extreme cruelty, of incomprehensible loss, of another tribe at risk. PRUDENCE is a rich and deeply satisfying novel, which Treuer dedicates to “the unremembered,” a status that his characters will not achieve. ...more
I think Lena Dunham's HBO series, Girls, is brilliant and funny. Sometimes it is brutal for me to watch as I am the mother of a 22 year old daughter aI think Lena Dunham's HBO series, Girls, is brilliant and funny. Sometimes it is brutal for me to watch as I am the mother of a 22 year old daughter and the life choices, the sex, the struggles portrayed on the show make me want to bury my head. So, I picked up Ms. Dunaham's essays with high hopes. And, while I liked them, I did not love them. I think the reason I had difficulty with some of the essays was that she mistakes baring-it-all with authenticity. There should be some curating involved in getting the particular messiness of life on the page in a way that reveals universal truths. Her essay "Therapy and Me," was the strongest. ...more
I loved this novel and cannot wait to jump into the second in Ferrante's trilogy. The novel unfolds through much summary, the scenes are few and far bI loved this novel and cannot wait to jump into the second in Ferrante's trilogy. The novel unfolds through much summary, the scenes are few and far between. When Ferrante does step into scene and dialog, the writing actually shimmers we are so hungry for it. This novel explores deep friendships between women, including fierce love, humor, inspirations, jealousies, rivalries, and misunderstandings. It also explores the deep damage poverty wrecks on community, family and self. Beautiful writing. ...more
I was lucky to discuss this memoir with my friend, the writer, Jay Ponteri, and then interview Amy Jo Burns for the Late Night Library podcast. I willI was lucky to discuss this memoir with my friend, the writer, Jay Ponteri, and then interview Amy Jo Burns for the Late Night Library podcast. I will post a link as soon as it goes live. ...more
Lucky for us, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley became interested in the way life and novels are not alike. In a novel, most often, big thinLucky for us, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley became interested in the way life and novels are not alike. In a novel, most often, big things happen, desires are thwarted, hearts are broken and sometimes mended, people change (or not) and then it's over. In life, whether we like it or not, things keep going, and going, until they don't. Smiley wanted to follow her characters from babyhood to death, and thus began her project, "The Last Hundred Year Trilogy," which tells the story of an Iowa farm family from 1920 to 2019. "Some Luck" is the wonderful first installment, and as far as I'm concerned, the next two cannot follow soon enough.
How to cover so much time, how to depict full lives in all their humdrum complexity, the good, the bad, and the sloppy in-betweenery, proposed a problem for Smiley and so she made up a nerdy and extremely satisfying structure. Each of the three volumes in her trilogy covers 33 1/3 years, each chapter is one year long, and each year is represented by roughly the same number of pages. The structure reminded me of the timelines in elementary school history lessons.
The year stretches out, world events such as the Depression, World War II and the Cold War, national events and trends such as McCarthyism and movement off the family farm into cities, as well as the very specific life events of the Langdon family, college, combat, marriage, birth and death, sheep shearing and crop choices are all points on the timeline. Within each chapter, the point of view shifts between the characters. We readers get to see not only how history shapes their lives (and by extension our own) but also how the characters misremember, forget and conflate the events of their lives. In a letter included with the advance reading copy of "Some Luck," Smiley says: "As their stories are told and retold, only you, the reader knows what really happened, what their secrets were, why, in the family grave plot, there are names no one recognizes." Each of our lives, it seems, is a story we have made up.
"Some Luck" begins on the debt-burdened farm of Walter and Rosanna Langdon. It is the eve of Walter's 25th birthday and he is walking the fence line, contemplating the choice he's made to strike out from his strict father's successful farm just up the road, and what that choice means for his family. On his walk, Walter observes a huge horned owl swoop from a dead tree:
"The owl floated out for maybe twenty yards, dropped toward a snowy pasture. Then came a high screaming, and the owl rose again, this time with a full-grown rabbit in its talons, writhing, going limp, probably deadened by fear. Walter shook himself.
"His gaze followed the owl upward, along the southern horizon beyond the fence line and the tiny creek, past the road. Other than the big elm and the two smaller ones, nothing broke the view — vast snow faded into vast cloud cover."
Life on the farm is just this, raising food, harsh beauty and gazing outward — toward the horizon and the future.
Over the years, the Langdons will have six children, each with their own interesting life, messy desires and flaws that will compel them out into the world, some far from the farm that the family both loathes and loves. There are deaths, blizzards, droughts, and accidents, as well as births (some excruciating), celebrations and beautifully narrated family meals, like a particular Thanksgiving near the end of the novel, when Rosanna reflects upon her family.
"She could not have created this moment, these lovely faces, these candles flickering, the flash of silverware, the fragrances of the food hanging over the table, the heads turning this way and that, the voices murmuring and laughing. She looked at Walter, who was so far away from her, all the way at the other end of the table, having a laugh with Andrea, who had a beautiful suit on, navy blue with a tiny waist and white color and cuffs. As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing — a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious. Rosanna wrapped her arms around herself for a moment and sat down."
That length of the table represents the span of "Some Luck," the hardship and loss, the way a family of three expands to 23. By the time we come to this lovely scene, we have witnessed so much life with the Langdons, we have earned our place at the table as well. And, lucky us, we will be there again, as soon as we can get our hands on the second volume in "The Last Hundred Years Trilogy."...more
Reading “Wallflowers,” Eliza Robertson’s debut story collection, is like taking a solo swim across a chilly lake. You become mesmerized by details — tReading “Wallflowers,” Eliza Robertson’s debut story collection, is like taking a solo swim across a chilly lake. You become mesmerized by details — the silken texture of the water, the cool air on your arms as they rise and fall, the rhythm of your breath, the dark scrub of trees on the distant shore — without ever forgetting the mysteries and potential dangers that lurk beneath. In this captivating book, people drown in gray water, shacks burn on stony beaches, planes crash into rivers, hummingbirds are trapped and tethered to wrists, neighborhoods flood. Grief and loss cast long shadows over these stories, which sometimes bring us to the threshold of disaster and sometimes explore its aftermath.
In “Who Will Water the Wallflowers?” a girl cat-sits for a neighbor, choosing to sleep at the neighbor’s house, sharing boiled eggs with a family of raccoons that lives in the hedge, exercising her independence from her mother, who remains at home roaming their empty rooms and washing in their bathtub the river stones she collects for a massage studio. All the while a deluge threatens to flood the neighborhood.
The story ends at the precipice of loss: Just as the mother places stones in her pockets to bring next door and show her daughter, a dike breaches. Muddy water, “a sinewy rush of it, the brown of upchucked peanuts,” uproots trees. The girl and cat make their way to the roof, where she calls for her mother while “fatty brown water laps at the first stair.” Amid this catastrophe, there is delicate beauty — the small hands of the raccoons dipping eggs into puddles, the generosity of the girl toward a drunken neighbor, the mother sipping her orange juice from a brandy snifter and the wallpaper flowers in the flooded bathroom suddenly thriving with all the water. “The wisteria sucks at it,” Robertson writes. “The hyacinths stand straighter. The peonies open their petals and sing.”
In an interview with the CBC, Robertson, who was born in Canada but now lives in Britain, said she is drawn to “a particular, slanted reality.” Often the grief in her stories is so huge the telling requires an oblique approach that can contain the crushing devastation without slipping into sentimentality. In “Ship’s Log,” the story unfolds as the young narrator digs a hole to China in the aftermath of his grandfather’s death. In “Roadnotes,” a woman writes travel letters home to her brother as she journeys south, following the wave of autumn colors from Vermont to Missouri, making discoveries about her dead mother and their dysfunctional family along the way. In the peculiarly titled “Thoughts, Hints, and Anecdotes Concerning Points of Taste and the Art of Making One’s Self Agreeable: A Handbook for Ladies,” abuse and revenge are revealed through an etiquette manual: “Learn to keep silence even if you know your husband to be wrong. The stoutest armor is a cordial spirit (and spirit in the glass doesn’t hurt).” In the particularly powerful “Where Have You Fallen, Have You Fallen?” the action unfolds in reverse and interweaves mythology while telling the story of a girl who has lost her mother and brother in a boating accident and must now make a new life in a faraway town with her uncle.
Robertson pays careful attention to the smallest detail, the one rich with opportunity and heartbreak: “She was seated with her uncle in the front row, and could even detect a milk stain on the reverend’s chest. It felt so disrespectful, that stain.” But “Wallflowers” also asks big questions, not only how we survive loss and achieve intimacy, but whether we are strong enough, like the flowers on the wallpaper, to stand straight and sing our sorrows to the world....more
I am a huge fan of Amy Bloom's work. I recently had the opportunity to hear Ms. Bloom speak. She talked about her tremendous interest in how we buildI am a huge fan of Amy Bloom's work. I recently had the opportunity to hear Ms. Bloom speak. She talked about her tremendous interest in how we build families. This interest is jacked up, on steroids in the novel, LUCKY US. Mother's abandon their daughters, babies are stolen, partners are tempted away and in the end, through luck and love, a family is born. In her conversation, she spoke about the novel vs. short stories. In the novel, she said, the words are required to will you to move forward, not the dialog, not the action but the language must will you to turn the page. Ms. Bloom does write lovely sentences. But it is the what next, what is coming, how will these characters respond, that keeps me more deeply interested in a novel. With this novel, LUCKY US, the story comes out in an episodic form, there are letters, an orgy, a random incident that changes everything, a telegram, chance meetings. It's a fun read. And, I have to say, I enjoy her story stories more than her novels. Run to the book store and pick up "Come to Me." You will be delighted. ...more
This novel was one of the most satisfying reads. I loved it. Vast in its scope, vivid in its characterizations, I feel in love with this group of frieThis novel was one of the most satisfying reads. I loved it. Vast in its scope, vivid in its characterizations, I feel in love with this group of friends. ...more
Though Ms. Glass can write excellent dialog and lovely lyric descriptions of setting. And The Dark Sacred Night was not a favorite for me. The shiftinThough Ms. Glass can write excellent dialog and lovely lyric descriptions of setting. And The Dark Sacred Night was not a favorite for me. The shifting POV left me cold at times, for just when I was deeply involved with a character, say Lucinda the grandmother, I was suddenly whisked away from her to meet entirely new characters. It was like starting a new book 3 times in a row. The novel is a bold and risky endeavor for this reason. I was asked to leave behind characters I liked for characters that didn't interest me as much. ...more
Of the memoirs I've read by Ms. Reichl, this was my least favorite. I enjoyed it, but I have to say, there was a snarky and sometimes cruel edge to heOf the memoirs I've read by Ms. Reichl, this was my least favorite. I enjoyed it, but I have to say, there was a snarky and sometimes cruel edge to her observations that made me uncomfortable. I loved the inclusion of recipes....more
No one can write such seductive food prose. I listened to this book while I cooked dinner every night for a week. Man-0-Man, did Ruth make my dinner sNo one can write such seductive food prose. I listened to this book while I cooked dinner every night for a week. Man-0-Man, did Ruth make my dinner seem flaccid and boring the first couple of nights. By the end of the week, I totally upped my game, made this delicious meal for friends as I listened to the penultimate chapters. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/S...
Then, I downloaded the next in her series of memoirs, Garlic and Sapphires....more