A bleak, unsentimental but ultimately static evocation of early American lives.


An unvarnished tale of seafaring, slavery and new beginnings set in post-Revolutionary North Carolina.

In her debut novel, Smith takes liberties with linear narrative and employs ever shifting points of view but still doesn’t quite manage to imbue her stoic characters with inner lives. As the Revolution trickles to an end, the seaside town of Beaufort is in decline as its once-thriving harbor empties and its young men seek opportunity elsewhere. Aging widower Asa, who owns a turpentine plantation, maintains a prickly detente with his son-in-law, John, a former pirate who ran away to sea with Asa’s only daughter, Helen, who later died giving birth to a daughter, Tabitha. When Tabitha contracts yellow fever at age 10, John thinks, in desperation, that a sea voyage will restore her health. His hopes dashed, John returns to Beaufort to bury Tabitha alongside Helen. The scene shifts to earlier, happier times: Helen and John, a penniless sailor–turned-soldier, meet at a regimental tea and quietly fall in love. While John is off fighting the British, Helen expertly runs the turpentine enterprise while Asa pursues political ambitions. John and Helen reunite after she escapes captivity aboard a British ship. (All potential for swashbuckling romance is studiously ignored.) Meanwhile, Asa’s slaves play out their own scenarios of parenthood and loss. Moll, a companion to Helen since both were 10, is married against her will. Her firstborn son, Davy, is her only consolation. When Davy and John set out for the frontier, motherly love compels Moll to take a suicidal risk. Though Smith’s homespun prose conveys a sense of the period without undo artifice, this is more a diorama of archetypes than a fully-fleshed drama.

A bleak, unsentimental but ultimately static evocation of early American lives.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-233594-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

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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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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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