From the raptures of Appalachian Spring to the many, complicated facets of women’s lives in that time and place: a superb...

A PARCHMENT OF LEAVES

Breathtaking both for its beauty and its pain, House’s second (after Clay’s Quilt, 2001) tells a finely nuanced tale of a Kentucky mountain family in the tumultuous WWI era, as the taking of a Cherokee bride unleashes passions that create life and destroy it.

Vine seems a vision to young Saul when he first sees her as he and his brother Aaron ride by her house on horseback, but she quickly proves real, giving emergency treatment when Aaron is bitten by a copperhead. The feelings between Saul and Vine being mutual, their courtship is brief despite her mother’s misgivings, and she moves from all-Cherokee Redbud Camp to all-white God’s Creek, where Saul and Aaron live with their mother Esme. For a time all is well: the couple build their own house, Vine gives birth to daughter Birdie and becomes a beloved daughter to Esme. But work pressures increase for Saul, a logging foreman, as the clouds of war gather, and he must go away to distant mountains from which he can rarely get time off to travel home. In his absence, Aaron moves from brazenly staring at Vine to making an unwelcome advance. Rebuffed, he disappears, much to his doting mother’s dismay. When he returns a few months later with a pregnant bride of his own, however, Esme is not much relieved, as Aaron beats his wife, drinks, disappears for days at a time, and still lusts after Vine. His attempt to rape her in front of Birdie is the point of no return: Vine kills him in self-defense but keeps it a secret, watching in agony as Aaron’s “disappearance” eats away at Esme and at Aaron’s wife. Finally, she’ll see her secret come between her and Saul when the war ends and he returns home for good.

From the raptures of Appalachian Spring to the many, complicated facets of women’s lives in that time and place: a superb combination of wonder and suffering.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2002

ISBN: 1-56512-367-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2002

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

THINGS FALL APART

Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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