Despite tackling several serious themes, oversimplification takes the bite out of this historical drama.

DON'T HANG MY FRIEND

A post–Civil War YA drama about a teenager who aspires to become a doctor, and his confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan. 

In the 1870s, teenager Tom Slocum lives in a small town on the Illinois River and dreams of traveling west in search of adventure; he’s particularly drawn to the idea of getting the opportunity to fight “Indians.” One day, he has a chance encounter with a doctor, Robert Steele, who arrives in town by steamboat from Scotland. An untethered, seemingly wild dog threatens Rachel, the girl whom Tom pines for, and Dr. Steele calmly shoots the dog dead. The owner of the dog, Murphy, a local Klan leader, is enraged by the killing, and no less upset when Dr. Steele protects a former slave, Isaiah, from his aggression. Rachel’s leg is badly wounded from a fall from a horse, and Dr. Steele saves it from amputation by countering the infection with carbolic acid, a foreign technique that’s largely rejected in the United States. Tom eventually helps Dr. Steele operate on a man’s chronically infected arm, and he’s persuaded to pursue a career as a doctor. But when Tom’s father dies, the teenager is sent to an orphanage that discourages education and works him mercilessly. He eventually escapes and reunites with Dr. Steele, who takes him on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, Murphy and his Klansmen terrorize the town; he never forgave Dr. Steele for killing his dog, or for his defense of former slaves, and a climactic showdown seems inevitable.  Raffensperger (The Diary of Young Arthur Conan Doyle, 2017, etc.) ambitiously combines a lot of complex elements into a brief novel, including the transformation of the country in the wake of the Civil War, the continued legacy of vicious racism, the immorality of arranged marriage, and the halting progress of medical science in the United States. Dr. Steele emerges as an engagingly contradictory character—educated in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Paris, he’s a model of cosmopolitan refinement and moral progressiveness. However, he’s also tough, hardened by the experience of war, and still considers himself something of a country boy. The principal draw of the book is his influence on Tom. But although the story unfolds briskly, the cast that surrounds Tom and Dr. Steele lacks depth. Of course, it isn’t easy to convert the febrile racism of the evil Murphy into a character with substance, but nevertheless, he’s depicted merely as a depthless scoundrel. Part of what makes the post–Civil War years such a captivating period of study are its endlessly complex moral contours, but Raffensperger only pits good vs. evil—moral enlightenment versus the defense of prejudice. Also, even though this is a relatively short novel, there are still too many gratuitous detours away from the central storyline; for example, one chapter is devoted to Dr. Steele’s reminiscences of romantic companionship in New Orleans—a subplot that could have been excised without any narrative cost. 

Despite tackling several serious themes, oversimplification takes the bite out of this historical drama. 

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-940773-31-5

Page Count: 206

Publisher: History Publishing Company

Review Posted Online: Feb. 1, 2018

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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