A worthy historical-fiction exploration of the African-American struggle for freedom.

WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED

In Greenburg’s debut, the McGhee family wends its way from Alabama slavery to Nashville’s unstable freedom to a hard-earned Indiana farm, never fully escaping Jim Crow’s shadows.

The Civil War over, James and Lily McGhee, with his parents, Amos and Clara, want land. Both men are woodworkers where there’s no work for blacks. The family settles briefly in Tennessee, and James’ oldest son, Clayton, whose point of view powers the narrative, finds a job in a mercantile store. James rides to Indiana searching for farmland, facing prejudice at every point, until LaFayette, where he stops two ruffians from committing rape. He’s jailed for his trouble, but after the affair is sorted out, he finds a derelict farm outside town. He’s also made a friend of the local sheriff, Colegrove, one of many intriguing characters who appear, play a pivotal, solid role, and then frustratingly disappear: Nashville storekeeper, Miss Lenore; Moberly, Fabrizio, and the Llewellyns, whites who help defend the McGhees when brutes acting for the rich Henderson Jeffries attack their farm; and Judah Furnish, a psychologically damaged veteran symbolic of war’s tragedies. Greenburg’s familiarity with the locale lends credence. His characterization of the McGhees and their enemies, the Jeffries, are of a type but nuanced. Other characters—an Irish gangster, a good-hearted Polish teamster—are more familiar. Leaping forward, the second portion compresses multiple years into exposition, establishing conflict between Henderson’s son, Peter, and Clayton. Peter schemes with the KKK–like Horse Thief Detective Association to seize Clayton’s farm. The drama here focuses more on the Jeffries family, with unhappy, laudanum-addicted mother Annabelle's fight to wrench her son from his father’s influence overshadowing the book's most powerful element—the post-bellum battle of African-Americans to prosper against prejudice: "Without your fear they have to kill you to stop you getting on with your life."

A worthy historical-fiction exploration of the African-American struggle for freedom.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-908737-87-8

Page Count: 450

Publisher: Dufour

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

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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 deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

THE UNSEEN

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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