THE TINSMITH

A haunting tale of quiet courage and friendship in the face of racism, corruption and cruelty that runs from the Battle of Antietam to a remote fishing village in British Columbia.

Anson Baird, an assistant surgeon in the Union Army tending to soldiers wounded in America’s bloodiest day of battle, befriends an escaped, light-skinned slave. Suspecting the escapee to be on the run after murdering his sadistic overseer, Baird gives him the identity of a dead Union soldier, William Dare. The story is rife with the horrors of the Civil War and slavery: Doctors stack soldiers’ amputated arms and legs like cordwood; a hired hand mercilessly whips a naked, pregnant slave; blacks, whites, Chinese and Native Americans die brutally. Bowling probes the deadly persistent affliction of American racism with a steady, sensitive hand, as Dare’s contemporaries accept, reject, torture or conspire against him based on their assessment of whether he’s white or black. Following the Civil War scenes of slaughter and brutality, the book skips nearly 20 years ahead and thousands of miles west to the Fraser River in Canada, where Dare has established himself as the successful owner of a salmon cannery “in a world indifferent and even hostile to virtue.” Yet the scourge of racism stays with him like the brand on his cheek that he tries to conceal. When the competing, corrupt cannery owners play the race card against him in an effort to drive him out of business, Dare summons his old friend Baird and fights back, overcoming his oppressors only “to find nothing in life but deceit and shadows” and “something that couldn’t be killed even if he used all his strength.” Bowling has crafted a powerful, beautiful, tragic and sometimes eerie novel marred only by the clumsiness of a few bit players’ stilted dialects: a Scot’s “dinnas” become grating after a while, and a Swede’s phlegmatic utterances sound out of place and awkward. Other than those faint quibbles, though, the story makes for a searing yet subtle treatment of racism, greed, good and evil.

A dynamic, dazzling yarn.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-1926972435

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Brindle & Glass

Review Posted Online: Oct. 18, 2012

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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