A historical novel about one woman’s troubled life in Nebraska in the early years of the 20th century.
After escaping a miserable childhood, Louise Morrissey yearns for and works hard at living a respectable life in Riverbend, Nebraska. But that life is seriously compromised by her extramarital affair with Dr. Benjamin Dewitt Foster. Their child, Marie Alouette, is born blind because of Foster’s gonorrhea, which infected Louise and resulted in the all-too-common ophthalmia neonatorum, known as “babies’ sore eyes.” Louise’s husband, Frank, is impotent, but she convinces him that he impregnated her during a bout of blackout drunkenness, setting the stage for decades of deception. Frank turns out to be a loving parent and Marie, a heroically cheerful little girl. Her father gets her on the Chautauqua lecture circuit as a child elocutionist, and she becomes a big hit. While on tour, a friend tells Frank that he’s likely not Marie’s father. In a drunken rage, Frank races home to confront Louise and the man that he wrongly suspects her of sleeping with, Yonder LaFontaine. Following a tragedy, the story shifts as Louise begins to lobby for laws mandating that newborns be immediately treated to prevent needless blindness. It’s hard, uphill work, and a contrite Foster becomes her ally. Through Chautauqua, she comes to know the famous Helen Keller, who pitches in for the cause. Englert’s novel intriguingly mixes fiction and real-life history. Along the way, the author highlights how guilt becomes both a gall and a goad for Louise; in a final cleansing, confessional speech, for example, she admits that Marie was the victim of Louise’s gonorrheal infection. Englert also effectively uses the idea of blindness literally and figuratively, showing how Victorian mores rule in Riverbend. Louise is even hectored for using the dreaded word “gonorrhea” during her lobbying effort, and the Ladies’ Home Journal loses subscribers in droves after running articles that warn of sexually transmitted diseases. The story also points out the society’s ugly, nativist bigotry, which claimed that only immigrants spread such infections.
A recommended historical novel that almost perfectly captures its time and place.
Set in Gilded Age New England, Forbes’ debut novel follows teenage Penelope Stanton as she struggles through dubious attachments and financial ruin to become a suffragist leader.
“Imagine being sent to a party with a gun pointed at your head.” In 17-year-old Penelope’s case, the gun is metaphorical but a burden all the same—her father’s bank has suffered huge losses during the Panic of 1893, and her erstwhile fiance, Sam Haven, has cut her dead because of it. Penelope’s mother is determined to marry her off quickly to save the family’s fortunes. But instead of meeting an eligible bachelor, Penelope falls for rakish, married Edgar Daggers, whose stolen kisses turn her into “ice cream melting.” She has just enough willpower to resist becoming Edgar’s “personal secretary” in New York and flees to Boston with her best friend Lucinda, who wants to “join forces with the women who seek to improve the lives of women.” Through Lucinda, Penelope meets bloomer-wearing activist Verdana Jones. She shocks Verdana—and herself!—by cogently defending “Irrational Dress,” saying that “corsets and petticoats offer some structure...in a world that unravels as I speak.” Verdana thinks they’re a great team, and soon Penelope finds herself caught up in the fledgling women’s rights movement, even as the tempting Edgar Daggers comes back into her life. What will win out in the end—clandestine love or Penelope’s desire for independence? A delight from beginning to end, Forbes’ novel is full of funny, authentic moments, like poor Penelope’s ignominious accident when she tries to ride a bicycle in skirts, and striking metaphors (“an uncomfortable silence loomed...thick as soda bread”). Forbes paints the smallest details of fin de siècle society—the pop music, the interior décor, the “Beecham’s Pills” Penelope takes for a hangover. In fact, the book feels like it was written at the time, reading like an alternate, feminist take on The House of Mirth’s “well-born lady in reduced circumstances” with a decidedly happier ending.
A sprightly, winning historical novel about an unexpected romance—between a young woman and her own power.
An unusual Vietnam-era novel that features a bicycle race along with much soul-searching.
In 1970, Brendan Leary, the hero and narrator of Harkin’s debut novel, has just gotten out of college and decides to enlist in the U.S. Air Force before he’s drafted into the Army. A photographer with some experience under his belt, he hopes to eventually go to the famous University of Southern California film school, and maybe the GI Bill will help. He thinks that his Vietnam experience will be a cushy billet, editing film behind the front lines in an air-conditioned hut. He’s wrong, of course; first of all, he’s not in Vietnam but Thailand (in an illegal military operation), and he soon finds himself filming the action firsthand, riding an AC-130 gunship as it destroys Viet Cong caravans on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The VC return the favor with fierce anti-aircraft fire. To say that Brendan is terrified every time he goes up would be understatement. The airmen are either “hippies” or “lifers”; Brendan and friends are, of course, laid-back hippies (think M*A*S*H). There are lots of drugs—anyone who only smokes marijuana is practically a choirboy—and a club scene in which Brendan, a drummer, bangs away after hours. He falls half in love with the beautiful Tukada, who works at the club—even though he has another girlfriend stateside—and spends the rest of his hitch desperately trying to save her from her own heroin habit. This is all capped with an exhilarating bicycle race among the soldiers which ends very badly, indeed.
Author Harkin has had a successful career as a Hollywood cameraman, and his idea of mixing war and photography in this novel is clever. He shows how it’s the photographer’s job to make the war look good while also providing some distance. It’s ironic that both guns and cameras “shoot” people, and the pictures help to make the carnage exciting, almost attractive; the Viet Cong and their supply trucks become like simple figures in a video game. Harkin also shows how Brendan realizes, over time, that the Americans are inflicting as much damage on the Thai people as on the avowed enemy, vulgarizing a beautiful culture and trashing the economy; bar girls and masseuses make more money than local professionals, and everything is sold cheap. In a final scene, readers discover that Thai Army Sgt. Prasert, a supposed friend, has been nursing a raging hatred for Americans all along, and readers will find it hard to blame him. But in a particularly tear-jerking scene, Brendan, his friend Tom, and Tukada perform their own very loopy three-way wedding. In the end, the tone of the book seems Shakespearian, as everybody in the narrative ends up losing. And Harkin’s prose is lyrical at times: “With a hundred incarnations of Death as their companion, ground pounders never had a chance to be lonely, especially in the hot and spicy nighttime when they were caressed by their desperate mistress, Fear.”
An excellent, thoughtful book about the Vietnam War.
This sequel to Stainer’s Joachim’s Magic has Joachim Gans back in Elizabethan England, where he is accused of heresy while his apprentice, Reis Courtney, works his way toward manhood.
The story opens at sea, where Joachim, Reis, Hans Altschmer, Thomas Hariot, and others from the failed Virginia enterprise are returning home. Reis, swept overboard, is rescued from drowning by Hans. Ashore, Reis is left with his Uncle Allyn and family at their hardscrabble farm in Surrey while Thomas and Joachim are summoned by the queen, who wants the master metallurgist to find a more efficient way of refining saltpeter for gunpowder due to the looming war with Spain. Rescued from Surrey, young Reis joins his two mentors in an audience with the queen, an exciting and intimidating experience. He also meets Robert Marchette, who will be an important and generous influence in his life. He accompanies Joachim to Bristol to help in the saltpeter venture under a royal grant. But Jews are not welcome in England, and soon Joachim is charged as a heretic (he has never tried to hide or deny his faith). This very delicate case goes to the queen’s Privy Council and is finally dismissed. But by then Joachim has had enough abuse from these English, and he returns to his native Prague. Sir Walter Raleigh tries to tempt Reis to join his planned expedition to “El Dorado” in South America. It is indeed tempting, but Reis declines and is hired by Marchette where, his foreshadowed talent emerging, he becomes the horse trainer on Marchette’s country estate.
Characters and character carry this inspiring YA read. Some are historical. Joachim and Thomas have major roles, while Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh, and others are relatively minor but important to flesh things out. Others—Marchette, Hans, Hugh Salter (who finally stops whining and finds his vocation)—are fictional but no less real and admirable, each in his way. Change is a strong motif. Hans has become a changed man from the previous novel, now a stalwart friend of Joachim’s and a cheerful and indefatigable giant who teaches Reis and Hugh the value of work and the manly art of self-defense. It’s easy to lose patience with the jejune Hugh, but the adults keep the faith in him and are rewarded. Patience is indeed a virtue here. Joachim, Thomas, Hans, and others know instinctively that they have an important job—to make a man, a good man, out of Reis—and each does his job admirably, mostly by being an excellent male role model. And Stainer does a wonderful job of evoking the contrasts in a great city as an awestruck boy first encounters it: “The sounds of London Town assailed his ears, the hawkers, the street vendors, the bustle of many people moving about their business. The smells combined fresh baked bread and a sour smell of offal, sewage and something else quite indefinable.”
An excellent, comprehensive read for any serious student of the Elizabethan Age and anyone concerned with intolerance.
Not the first and probably not the last probing into the true case of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861), America's first serial killer, but a masterful study of his innocent wife, Georgiana, and of a time long past.
Debut novelist Nickels has wisely chosen to focus not on Holmes himself but on his third wife, Georgiana Yoke. Georgiana (1869-1945) is a mixture of the adventurous and enlightened and the naïve; she leaves her teaching job in Indiana to stay with her uncle in Chicago, the plan being to see this wonderful coming world’s fair and to see what the next stage in her life will be. It’s not long before she is wooed and won by Dr. Holmes. Holmes, whom Erik Larson wrote about in Devil in the White City (2003), is the classic psychopath, utterly charming and able to explain away…well, anything which might strike one as shady. Georgiana is hopelessly smitten and fiercely loyal. Holmes, a con man and bigamist, very likely had a genius IQ. He was always on the go, needed very little sleep, and always had his hand in one scheme or another. He protested his love for Georgiana and treated her royally. And he always had plausible explanations for his dodgy doings, his frequent absences. Finally, things began to catch up with him. He was arrested in Boston, and the more the police dug, the more appalling things they unearthed. Holmes was convicted of four murders and went to the gallows—with unnerving aplomb—at the age of 34. Nickels writes very well and researches thoroughly. We get a feel for the life of a shopgirl in a big Chicago department store and of a girl in small-town Indiana—and the different but equally stifling mores of each place. The portrait of Georgiana is wonderfully fleshed out. She is naïve but does not realize how much so. Her loyalty to Holmes is both touching and painful for the reader. She is shunned by the townsfolk and badgered by the press. This comes to a head when she finally has to face the truth and confront the monster in court.
A portrait sensitively and well-limned; hopefully we will have more from Nickels.