A beautifully written, effortlessly measured historical novel.

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ORPHAN IN AMERICA

Three generations of a family venture west in this engaging, intricately embroidered 19th-century historical epic by Avery (Jars in a Pioneer Town, 2010, etc.).

The novel opens with a young boy, Alex, watching his mother die, marking the beginning of a desperately mournful early life. Despite being raised in abject poverty in a New York slum, he remains steadfastly true to his father and is horrified when representatives of a child welfare program rap on his front door and forcibly separate him from his beloved Pa. Alex is put on an orphan train, a service that relocated more than 250,000 vulnerable children from East Coast urban slums to the rural Midwest between 1853 and 1929. After he arrives at his destination, he’s thrown into an experience reminiscent of a cattle auction, in which stern-faced farmers and their wives eye each child carefully for potential adoption. No sooner is he introduced to his new parents than he’s set to work on a farm. A quiet, removed child, Alex finds more solace in nature than he does with his adoptive family. He forges a strong bond with the farm’s workhorses, Delilah and Dandy, and shares all his secrets with them. Avery juxtaposes Alex’s story with that of Will and Libby Pickard, a couple in industrial England. They head for America’s Eastern Seaboard on a ship, the Elijah Swift, and soon become embroiled with the powerful Cambridge family of Baltimore, leading to a number of dark, unexpected plot twists. The author spent several years immersing herself in the history and lifestyle of 19th-century rural America, and it shows; by comparison, the English environments seem quaint, but this doesn’t detract from the overall story. The author’s prose charts a close proximity to the land; for example, in one touching moment, young Alex sifts through dirt and finds a tiny seed. He turns “the seed over several times in his fingers,” sensing its importance without fully understanding its potential to yield new life. On occasions such as these, Avery makes readers remember what it’s like to see aspects of the natural world for the first time. She also captures some of the terse correctness of the classic 19th-century epic novel, but her tone also has a contemporary easiness that makes it approachable and pleasurable.

A beautifully written, effortlessly measured historical novel.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1495433405

Page Count: 626

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 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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