A wonderful slice of history that animates mid-19th century Texas.

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STEIN HOUSE

Historical fiction is anything but boring in McIlvain’s (Legacy, 2012, etc.) latest work.

The year is 1853; Helga Heinrich, a German immigrant, has just arrived at the port town of Indianola, Texas, with her four children. Her husband, Max, should have been there, too, but he leapt off the pier at the beginning of the voyage and drowned. Although Helga misses Max, she is secretly relieved that she no longer has to deal with his alcoholism. She hopes that with the help of her sister Amelia, who came to Indianola years ago and married a doctor, the children will have a better life. As history sweeps through Texas—including the Civil War, yellow fever, drought, hurricanes, and newfangled inventions like railroads and washing machines—Helga finds herself running Stein House, a prosperous boardinghouse with a diverse clientele that includes a fussy warehouse owner, an abolitionist sea captain and a freed slave. McIlvain faces the South’s history of slavery head-on, contrasting the Germans’ distaste for the practice with the pro-slavery land they now live in. It makes for a fascinating glimpse into a world that isn’t as black and white as it might seem, as the Heinrichs are vehemently against slavery yet still feel fierce pride in and loyalty to their new home of Texas when it secedes from the Union. When Reconstruction occurs, McIlvain skillfully illuminates the complex events that bred resentment in the South, showing everything from the unique points of view of Southerners who are also recent immigrants. Although the novel (which won first place for general fiction from the Texas Association of Authors in 2014) occasionally veers off into a bit of a history lesson, this is no dry textbook—Helga and her family’s successes, hardships and heartbreak show history from a personal perspective.

A wonderful slice of history that animates mid-19th century Texas.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2013

ISBN: 978-1491709535

Page Count: 302

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: June 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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