Is there yet any doubt that the historical novel is alive and well once again? Houston has made another significant...

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SNOW MOUNTAIN PASSAGE

A well-researched and vivid retelling of the Donner Party's 1846 winter ordeal and the struggle for control of the California territory.

This time, there's a dual narrative, shared by elderly Patricia Reed's "Travel Notes" recalling her family's experiences and an omniscient story focussed primarily on her father James Frazier Reed, who had been "banished' from the Donner Party (and thus separated from his family) after he had killed a neighbor in self-defense during a fight. This split focus is occasionally distracting, but it does create considerable suspense, as the bulk of the tale recounts Reed's solitary "passage" through the Sierra Nevadas to the West Coast, where he falls in with such hardy souls as California "liberator" John C. Fremont, Commander John Augustus Sutter (a "self-appointed ambassador at the farthest edge of the civilized world"), and Abner Valentine, an amoral opportunist whose ragtag "militia" uses the occasion of the (recently begun) Mexican War for plunder and profit. Houston (Continental Drift, not reviewed, etc.) subtly links the acquisitive energies of these and other adventurers to the pride that had set Reed apart from, and in opposition to, his westering companions (his family of six had traveled in a lavishly furnished "Palace Car" that exhausted the oxen pulling it), which his daughter—years after he had returned as one of their rescuers—understands and forgives ("It was his own desire and refusal to be thwarted that had put us on the trail . . . and also brought him back into the mountains to carry on the journey"). And when the details of how the starving, exhausted travelers (who were stranded in the Sierras through an unusually cruel winter) are revealed in a long, harrowing climax, the novel gathers real tragic force. This is one of the essential stories of the American westward movement, and seldom has it been told with such exemplary passion and pathos.

Is there yet any doubt that the historical novel is alive and well once again? Houston has made another significant contribution to the genre's revival.

Pub Date: April 3, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-41103-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2001

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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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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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