Socially conscious melodrama at its best.

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An idealistic North Carolina social worker defies her employers to save impoverished children from overzealous social engineering in Chamberlain’s well-researched page-turner.

Chamberlain’s author’s notes point out that from 1929 to 1975, North Carolina’s state-fostered Eugenics Sterilization Program sterilized thousands of women and men. Her novel, set in 1960, examines the impact of such interventions on a tiny, almost feudal enclave of tobacco farmers. Two narrators represent opposite poles of Southern society. Against the wishes of her doctor husband, Jane Forrester, a recent college graduate, has taken a job in Raleigh with the Department of Public Welfare. Ivy Hart, 15, is struggling to keep what is left of her family intact. Her father, Percy, was killed in an agricultural accident. Davison Gardiner, who owns the farm where the white Harts, and their black neighbors, the Jordans, live and work, allows Ivy, her diabetic grandmother, and her beautiful and mentally challenged sister, Mary Ella, to continue occupying their shack rent-free. Gardiner regularly supplements their paltry wages (and welfare checks) with food donations, presumably out of guilt over Percy’s accident, although Ivy’s mother, who is institutionalized, scarred Gardiner’s wife in a fit of rage and grief. As the Harts’ newest caseworker, Jane soon finds herself in an ethical quagmire. At DPW’s instigation, Mary Ella, mother of 2-year-old William (father unknown), was involuntarily sterilized in the hospital after his birth. Ivy is sneaking out at night to meet Gardiner’s son, Henry Allen. By the time Jane realizes that Ivy is several months pregnant, she has succumbed to departmental pressure to petition for Ivy’s sterilization on the grounds of childhood epilepsy and low IQ. Once Ivy delivers her child, she will suffer the same fate as her sister, unless Jane is willing to buck the system at the expense of her career. The stakes mount to dizzying heights (even for such an isolated pocket, Gardiner’s unbridled sway over his tenants seems extreme); Chamberlain certainly knows how to escalate tension.

Socially conscious melodrama at its best.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-01069-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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