Striking, if uneven, historical fiction that chronicles a difficult period in American history.

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THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

An impeccably researched debut novel that chronicles a West Texas family’s struggle through the Great Depression.

In 1921, high-spirited, impetuous teenager “Skitchy” Chapman lives with her parents, Ephraim and Kate; her brother, Buddy; and her sister, Belle, on the family’s ranch in Reeves County, Texas. But once Skitchy starts attending barn dances with her older brother and sister, she grows up quickly. She soon falls for an outsider named Pink Campbell, a trumpet player in the barn-dance band, who came to Reeves County to try his hand at farming cotton. Skitchy’s parents initially disapprove of the match, but Pink’s support through a crisis gains her family’s respect, and the two marry; Belle marries a local man, Jackson Tieger. Skitchy farms cotton with Pink, and Belle and Jackson move to a neighboring town, where Jackson has inherited a run-down hotel. Entrepreneurial, enthusiastic Skitchy hates the isolation of the farm; she struggles to understand Pink’s lack of ambition and wonders about the future of their marriage. When the owners of the Campbells’ cotton farm sell the land, Belle and Jackson invite Skitchy and Pink to move into their hotel and help run it. The two couples weather the Great Depression in the hotel, living through childbirths, marital difficulties, business ventures, racial conflict and dust storms together. All four are changed by the passage of time—and one of the marriages doesn’t survive. McDonald depicts the lonely, arid West Texas landscape with an evocative, spare touch; her obvious talent makes the overly florid depictions of sex more glaring. McDonald devotes each chapter to a single year and covers the period between 1921 and 1943; this narrative choice helps move the story along, but it sometimes feels forced—particularly in the first half, when many chapters consist of only a few scenes. McDonald’s story, and her realistic, nuanced characters, would likely have been better served by jettisoning the emphasis on chronology and developing fewer, more fleshed-out chapters.

Striking, if uneven, historical fiction that chronicles a difficult period in American history.

Pub Date: July 15, 2012

ISBN: 978-1621416951

Page Count: 346

Publisher: Booklocker.com, Inc.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2013

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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