THE COVENANT

Is this 900-page South Africa saga much more spotty and ill-shaped than Chesapeake and Centennial—or does it just seem so because we can't automatically fill in the gaps of history ourselves this time? In any case, Michener is using his familiar approach here: tracing a region's history through a few families, with a not-always-congenial mix of soap opera, celebrity cameos, and textbook lessons. He begins with a glimpse of prehistoric Bushmen crossing the desert (going south) in search of water, but then he quickly introduces the first of his central dynasties: in the 1450s, black youth Nxumalo is inspired by white gold-traders, treks north to the rich city of Zimbabwe, and witnesses its tragic abandonment; 350 years (and 300 pages) later, his descendant plays Brutus to the Caesar of mad, mother-obsessed Zulu king Shaka (who unifies the tribes via constant bloody warfare); and in the 1970s, Prof. Daniel Nxumalo, non-violent black activist, will be tried for high treason. Overall, however, the varied non-whites—Hottentots, Xhosa, Zulu, Coloured—get relatively little space here, with the prime focus on the Europeans. The Dutch Van Doorns are the key clan, beginning when young Willem is among a group of castaways forced to settle on the Cape in the 1640s: he impregnantes a beloved Malay slave (the start of the "Coloured" population) but marries an imported Dutch bride and, after founding a top winemaking farm (with crucial help from a Huguenot refugee), proudly coins the term "Afrikaner"; his grandson becomes one of the "trekboers" who move east with herds, battling blacks for land; and when English rule comes in the early 1800s, this hinterlands branch of the fiercely Calvinistic Van Doorns will be at the center of Boer resistance-taking part in the Great Trek north to escape Anglo laws, suffering Zulu massacre, reaffirming their supposed land "covenant" with God in the 1838 Battle of Blood River, rebelling against English language and regulation with full-scale (or guerrilla) war, dying in Kitchener's concentration camps, supporting Germany in both world wars, but finally establishing Afrikaner control through slow acquisition of administrative positions. (In the 1950s Detleef Van Doom, seemingly singlehanded, institutes detailed apartheid.) And the English are represented by the Saltwoods: 1820s missionary Hilary incurs Boer wrath by opposing slavery and wedding rescued slave Emma ("his marvelous little assistant with the laughing eyes"); knighted brother Richard organizes relief for starving Xhosa; Richard's grandson Frank is one of Cecil Rhodes' "young men" (soon disillusioned) and performs ugly Boer War duties before standing up to Kitchener; and the 1970s Saltwoods will defend civil rights while a distant American relation digs for diamonds, befriends Prof. Nxumalo, and loves a Van Doorn. A wealth of fascinating material—and Michener does his best to balance Boer intransigence (with its religious base) against imperious English mistakes, to find shreds of decency among patterns of cruelty and obtuseness. But, despite a chapter devoted to apartheid horrors (So. Africa has banned the book), the non-white side of things never becomes humanly specific. And one somehow ends this huge volume with little feel for historical continuity or for the physical setting (a surprising lapse from Michener). . . and none at all for contemporary South Africa. (You'll get far more real sense of the people and place in fiction by Nadine Gordimer or James McClure.) Still, despite these flaws and the more usual ones—B-movie dialogue, preachy digressions, corny coincidences. clichÉs and stereotypes galore—Michener's flocks of fans will certainly get the bulk and variety and epic events they expect; and, when all is said and done, how many surefire bestsellers are as clean-hearted, well-meaning, and undeniably educational as a Michener mammoth? Easy to put down, then (in both senses of the word), but worthy and welcome.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 1980

ISBN: 0449214206

Page Count: 1242

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1980

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A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

A WEEK AT THE SHORE

A middle-aged woman returns to her childhood home to care for her ailing father, confronting many painful secrets from her past.

When Mallory Aldiss gets a call from a long-ago boyfriend telling her that her elderly father has been gallivanting around town with a gun in his hand, Mallory decides it’s time to return to the small Rhode Island town that she’s been avoiding for more than a decade. Mallory’s precocious 13-year-old daughter, Joy, is thrilled that she'll get to meet her grandfather at long last, and an aunt, too, and she'll finally see the place where her mother grew up. When they arrive in Bay Bluff, it’s barely a few hours before Mallory bumps into her old flame, Jack, the only man she’s ever really loved. Gone is the rebellious young person she remembers, and in his place stands a compassionate, accomplished adult. As they try to reconnect, Mallory realizes that the same obstacle that pushed them apart decades earlier is still standing in their way: Jack blames Mallory’s father for his mother’s death. No one knows exactly how Jack’s mother died, but Jack thinks a love affair between her and Mallory’s father had something to do with it. As Jack and Mallory chase down answers, Mallory also tries to repair her rocky relationships with her two sisters and determine why her father has always been so hard on her. Told entirely from Mallory’s perspective, the novel has a haunting, nostalgic quality. Despite the complex and overlapping layers to the history of Bay Bluff and its inhabitants, the book at times trudges too slowly through Mallory’s meanderings down Memory Lane. Even so, Delinsky sometimes manages to pick up the pace, and in those moments the beauty and nuance of this complicated family tale shine through. Readers who don’t mind skimming past details that do little to advance the plot may find that the juicier nuggets and realistically rendered human connections are worth the effort.

A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-11951-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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