A heartening novel about art, war and the tug of family relationships.

REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON

A Texas rancher wants to commemorate his son, killed in World War I, by commissioning a statue, but we discover this public act covers up a failed relationship.

Sculptor Francis “Gil” Gilheaney has had a checkered career. He moved to San Antonio shortly after completing a work honoring the heroes of the Alamo, but one of his recent works, The Pawnee Scout, has been destroyed by a drunken mob in Omaha. He’s intrigued by an offer that comes to him from Lamar Clayton, owner of a vast tract of Texas range. While Lamar doesn’t readily reveal his feelings, it’s clear he’s grieving for Ben, his only child, who died as a young soldier at St. Etienne on the Western Front. Gil takes the commission because of the challenge—and perhaps because at the age of 60 he has only one more great work in him. Accompanying him is his daughter Maureen, also a sculptor, now 32, unmarried and living in the shadow of her genius father. As Gil and Lamar get to know each other, hidden parts of their past begin to emerge. We learn, for example, that Lamar’s parents had been killed by Comanches on the frontier, and for two years Lamar had been raised by the tribe. He’s still suspicious of Jewell, his sister, whom the Comanches had sold to the Kiowa and who had tried to teach Ben “Indian ways,” especially before his sojourn to France. We further learn that when he was part of the tribe, Lamar participated in atrocities that Ben found out about. Gil feels that to make a masterpiece he has to come to “know” Ben, and he even goes to the cemetery in France where Ben is buried. Although tempted to give up the commission altogether, Gil finally decides to complete the work.

A heartening novel about art, war and the tug of family relationships.  

Pub Date: May 24, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-26581-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2011

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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