A moving depiction of a family’s struggle to stay together.

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EMPTY CHAIRS

A young boy finds himself pulled between his dedication to his small-town family and his fascination with the world beyond. 

In this debut historical novel, Joe McDowell lives on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina, frustrated by his family’s worsening financial straits. The bank demands the loan on their property be repaid sooner, and Ted, Joe’s older brother, is drafted to fight the Nazis overseas, shorting them on labor. Then an accident leaves Joe’s Dad hobbled, unable to work efficiently, and Ruthie, Joe’s sister, is obliged to temporarily leave school despite being a stellar pupil. Martha, Joe’s mother, is compelled to take a job working at a local restaurant, and peddles vegetables in town. When Martha learns that her mother has become gravely ill, she travels to Raleigh with Joe to visit her family, and he is enticed by a different world, one with tantalizingly rich cultural opportunities and the promise of escape from ceaseless poverty. His teenage sister, Katie, has already defected to city life, and while her selfish defiance irks him, he can’t help but also be drawn to an alternate destiny. Martha, too, feels it magnetism when a man from her past offers a reprieve from her family’s endless troubles. Eventually, Joe is forced to decide which realm he will inhabit, one that honors his obligations to his family’s generational business, or one that propels him into the exciting unknown. In her book, Davidson Keller delicately portrays Joe’s burgeoning inner turmoil, haunted by what he sees as Katie’s betrayal, but also her salvation. The moment Joe finally tells his father he’s thinking of leaving the farm one day is rendered in heartbreakingly poignant language: “I walked along with him, feeling tired now. I had told him, and the relief was like dropping a huge sack of potatoes. I didn’t think I would change my mind, remembering the electric surge I got watching those boys at NC State.” And Martha’s tortured ambivalence is equally affecting, a confusion Joe detects and is terrified by. This is an unusually wise work, both sensitive and powerful. 

A moving depiction of a family’s struggle to stay together. 

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5427-8561-7

Page Count: 356

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 27, 2017

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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