An involving, richly atmospheric historical novel about the clash of cultures in frontier America.

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Naapiikoan Winter

The lives of two strangers converge in a 19th-century Native American encampment in this historical novel from Williams (Walls for the Wind, 2015, etc.).

This story is based in part on the experiences of David Thompson, a real-life 19th-century Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader who left behind an account of his adventures. Williams has absorbed that story, mixed it with several other histories of Hudson’s Bay Company’s interactions with Native American peoples in the Rocky Mountains, and produced a richly detailed novel that displays a consistent but low-key authority. The stand-in for Thompson here is 17-year-old Donal Thomas, an indentured servant of the company who’s sent to live with the Pikani (also known as the Naapiikoan) for the course of a brutal winter in order to learn their ways and lay the groundwork for trading relations. He’s surprised to find in their encampment a young woman who’s not Pikani—a healer who’s been living among the tribe for years. She’s Isobel Ochoa y Ramirez, the daughter of Mexican hacienda-owner Don Armando Ochoa, and when she was a small child, Apache warriors captured her and her father; they killed him, enslaved her, and taught her the rudiments of medicine. These were brutal, lonely years in which “she believed in nothing, and loved no one,” and they ended only when Utes tribesmen kidnapped her and eventually traded her to the Pikani. Williams tastefully mines the dramatic potential of his characters’ outsider statuses, and his portrayals of Donal’s and Isobel’s perspectives are pointedly well-done. However, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its evocation of the cultures and political tensions among the Native American peoples it chronicles, from the Apache to the Ute to the Pikani to the Peeagan to the Blackfoot. The personalities and dialogue in these sections bring the old cultures to life—a literary territory that’s been well-marked-out in books by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear. The book fritters away its building tension in the closing act, but in general, Williams has crafted an absorbing reading experience.

An involving, richly atmospheric historical novel about the clash of cultures in frontier America.

Pub Date: May 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5327-1056-8

Page Count: 296

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: May 25, 2016

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

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THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK

One of Kentucky’s last living “Blue People” works as a traveling librarian in 1930s Appalachia.

Cussy Mary Carter is a 19-year-old from Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. She was born with a rare genetic condition, and her skin has always been tinged an allover deep blue. Cussy lives with her widowed father, a coal miner who relentlessly attempts to marry her off. Unfortunately, with blue skin and questionable genetics, Cussy is a tough sell. Cussy would rather keep her job as a pack-horse librarian than keep house for a husband anyway. As part of the new governmental program aimed at bringing reading material to isolated rural Kentuckians, Cussy rides a mule over treacherous terrain, delivering books and periodicals to people of limited means. Cussy’s patrons refer to her as “Bluet” or “Book Woman,” and she delights in bringing them books as well as messages, medicine, and advice. When a local pastor takes a nefarious interest in Cussy, claiming that God has sent him to rid society of her “blue demons,” efforts to defend herself leave Cussy at risk of arrest, or worse. The local doctor agrees to protect Cussy in exchange for her submission to medical testing. As Doc finds answers about Cussy’s condition, she begins to re-examine what it means to be a Blue and what life after a cure might look like. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, once Cussy begins traveling to the city for medical testing, the stakes get higher, as does the suspense of the story. Cussy's first-person narrative voice is engaging, laced with a thick Kentucky accent and colloquialisms of Depression-era Appalachia. Through the bigotry and discrimination Cussy suffers as a result of her skin color, the author artfully depicts the insidious behavior that can result when a society’s members feel threatened by things they don't understand. With a focus on the personal joy and broadened horizons that can result from access to reading material, this well-researched tale serves as a solid history lesson on 1930s Kentucky.

A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4926-7152-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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