Trail Angel

In the immediate wake of the Civil War, a family heads to Montana in search of gold.

Annabelle loses her husband in the Civil War, and all her brothers die fighting for the Confederate side as well. Federal tax collectors ravage her considerable inheritance, and she decides to leave Charleston, South Carolina, for Montana with her family to start a new life. Her clan is led to Montana by a former Union colonel and Josey Angel, a Union soldier infamous for his proficiency in killing his adversaries. The colonel decides to lead the wagon train along the Bozeman Trail, a passage that counts as a shortcut but remains notoriously dangerous. They risk encountering deadly snakes, hostile Native Americans, and vicious bandits—Josey’s primary task is to keep the group safe. At first, Annabelle is intimidated by his dark reputation and aloofness but is overwhelmed by curiosity; there seems to be more to this man than a knack for violence. He can be not only gentlemanly, but thoughtful as well, and he is clearly burdened by the memories of savage conflict, of things seen and done. Debut novelist and career journalist Catron poignantly captures Josey’s wounded soul that resists a full plunge into cynicism: “Josey never much questioned the morality of the killing because he never expected to outlive the war. The way he saw things, a number needed to die before both sides lost their taste for it.” Annabelle is haunted by her own loss, and gradually she and Josey develop a bond that flirts with romance. And Josey’s skills as a soldier are sure to be tested soon—a band of mysterious horsemen furtively tracks the group, promising an imminent confrontation. The story takes place in 1866, barely a year after the end of the Civil War, and the resentment that remains is palpable. Annabelle is bitterly unforgiving of the sacrifice of her husband and brothers and of the destruction caused by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s ferocious march through the South. Affectingly written, the bond between Annabelle and Josey is a first gesture toward forgiveness and a hopeful sign of the possible reconciliation of the two battle-weary halves of the nation. This is an unsentimental but moving tale, composed with emotional intelligence and historical insight. A timeless tale of love and adventure on the American frontier.

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4328-3280-3

Page Count: -

Publisher: Five Star

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2016

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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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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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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