The Street Dancers by Elizabeth Starr Hill

I picked this up on a whim from the local Bargain Books years ago, and had forgotten I had it. Readable, to be sure! Though I’m reminded of the wheezy old joke about a kid who belonged to the circus who wanted to run away and join a normal home: Fitzi’s parents live a hand-to-mouth existence as mimes, working in plays and on television when they’re lucky, street buskers when they’re not so lucky….and all too often, there’s no work at all. Treats from Zabar’s when they’re flush, and tuna/coleslaw when they’re not, and never the certainty of whether they’ll be up or down for a day, a week, a month. Fitzi herself has always been part of this life, doing commercials, busking with her parents as one of the “Wolper Windups”. But now she’s hit the point that she wants a normal life. A life like that of the kids she sees outside at recess in the nearby public school. Though she enjoys spending time with her actor grandfather, and loves her parents, she wants out of the theatrical life.

As the story opens, they’re sub-leasing a third-floor walkup apartment in a slightly grubby building while a family of acquaintances is out on tour. It means a room for Fitzi, and even an avocado tree to water and love, but…. You knew there was going to be a but, right? As the book begins, her grandfather has a stroke, and cannot return to his life and job and home after he’s released from hospital. Fitzi’s aunt (mother’s sister) and her husband would like to take Clement in to their respectable home and stable life in Metuchen, but Clement prefers to stay with the Wolpers, close to the environment he’s known for most of his adult life. Used to fluency in movement and speech, Clement is frustrated by his new disability and dependency, and the slowness of his recovery. Fitzi, herself increasingly frustrated with the life she’s hitherto enjoyed, mostly, clashes with her grandfather. Though she finds friendship with a neighbor who goes to school with one of Fitzi’s friends now retired from show business, Fitzi’s increasingly embarrassed by her parents, to the point of fleeing in tears when her parents try to give her a treat by showing up, in costume and makeup, to the friend’s party at school. As this is an after-school special sort of book—though a well-written one!—Fitzi does get her wish, but realizes in the end that the lives of those “normal” kids does not always match the fantasy life she’s built up around the dollhouse her grandfather splurged on as a birthday gift for his beloved granddaughter. We find out near the end of the book that Karen’s family, idolized as ideal by Fitzi, is about to break up; the father’s been having an affair for some time.

As the book ends, Clement is back in hospital, after suffering another stroke while Fitzi’s parents are performing in a matinee. It is she who had to get help, and wait with him in the hospital while Pip tried to get hold of the Wolpers at the theater.

The Street Dancers is more than slightly bittersweet: you (tweens) aren’t the only ones who are lonely, the only ones who have doubts, fears and regrets or who have gone through what you’re going through, and perhaps most dismaying of all, all these doubts and fears do NOT end with some magical transformation into An Adult.The author makes clear that Fitzi’s parents have worries of their own, but love the life enough to continue, despite the financial concerns and uncertainty. And like all afterschool specials, the lesson to take away is: make the best of what you can but where love is, happiness can be found. What to read next? I’d suggest something by Barthe deClements, perhaps, or Judy Blume; both authors are a bit dated, true, but then if the child liked this, now twenty-five years old, chances are they’d like other books rom that timeframe.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

It’s Christmas Day. The long-lost daughter, vanished these twenty years, shows up on her parents’ doorstep; she appears no older than when she left, though ragged, exhausted and weary…and she claims to have been abducted by faeries.

The parents take her in, are gentle and caring. avoid pressing her for details…and don’t believe a word of her mad tale. She’s sent to a psychiatrist, is shouted at by her brother, now a father of four, but she sticks to her story, despite the lack of proof. She ran off with a Fairy Man, not realizing what he was, and has stayed only six months in that other world. She has no explanation for the discrepancy in time between the two worlds.

Is she schizophrenic? Or was she really taken by the elf folk?

Interesting! I know there were a number of reviewers on Goodreads who weren’t as taken as they thought they’d be, but I suspect that’s because they were expecting more about the faeries (or however you prefer to spell that). I’m not sure that’s the point of the book. There are more than a few stories, some ‘real’ insofar as oral history can be proven, and some overt fictions, about people taken by the Fair Folk who stay for what seems to be a day, a night, seven years, and return to their home only to find that some horrifyingly long span has elapsed. But do any modern folk really believe those tales? Would you?

And I think that’s what Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s really about: what if someone today claimed to have been taken by the fairies? Believe them? I don’t think so. Instead, we’d do pretty much what the family did: assume the person was mentally ill, help them seek treatment, treat them gently and lovingly…but believe them? NEVER!

Well, hardly ever. Tara sticks to her story, although we see this through not only her family’s eyes but that of her psychiatrist, who breaks it down into terms of someone who’s gone through (I think) a nervous breakdown, interpreting her tale in terms of the underlying psychological underpinnings of folklore as seen through the eyes of someone who has retreated from reality.

Yet there’s the dentist, who insists that her teeth are that of a much younger woman, and suggests that the family test her saliva with a new technique that can determine someone’s age. She’s being stalked by a man whom she claims is the fae who stole her, and brought her back, and who beats up the long-ago boyfriend in a quite convincingly real fashion. The old woman living nearby claims to have been herself abducted by the fairies; is she telling the truth, or is this another example of mental illness? Certainly she was treated for just such a problem, though with very different techniques than those used on Tara. But she’s on the ball enough to not only send an email for the first time but also recognize that the cat whom Tara’s nephew brings to her is not her own—another subplot implies he’s shot her moggie and is trying to make amends. After Tara vanishes, the (ex) boyfriend sees a revival in his musical career, composing and singing as if he’d been given…well, a fairy gift.

In the end, Tara vanishes in a puff of taxicab exhaust, and we’re left only with a brief scene in which Tara’s brother sees his wayward eldest daughter speaking to a man who matches Tara’s description of her abductor. The brother, a farrier doing quite well for himself even in this day and age of modernization and mechanization, comes over, but the stranger is gone before he arrives.

What actually did happen to Tara? We’ll never know. But I do appreciate the ambiguity in the Otherworld which Tara presents to us. On the one hand, these fae of hers are no dainty sprites, small enough to sleep in the bluebells they so love, but the size of humans, and seemingly without moral scruples about sex or nudity. On the other, it could have been a commune or psychopaths.

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin

Well, my opinion of those authors who churn out endless installments in serial books for kids just went up a notch; A Corner of the Universe is one of the better books I’ve read in the past few years…and I don’t like much.

It’s the summer of 1960, between one school year and the next, between the turmoil of the Korean War and the social upheaval of the Sixties. Hattie Owen is twelve, a bit too grown to properly be a child, but not quite old enough to be truly mature; certainly, she’s not yet allowed to eat in the family’s parlor after an unfortunate incident a couple of years ago involving a deviled egg. Her parents run a respectable boarding house in one of the huge rambly old Victorian mansions from an era in which people had huge families; some of the residents have been there since before Hattie was forn. Hattie’s looking forward to another summer just like all the previous ones, in a small town that never changes except with the seasons—snow in winter, heat in summer and the immutable streets and inhabitants…

…well, you knew that wasn’t going to last, or there wouldn’t be much of a book.

Except…of course there’s an except. Hattie’s got an uncle whose existence was kept secret from her, more or less; he was institutionalized shortly after she was born and while they’ve met when she was a toddler, she does not remember him. The ‘school’ is closing, and so “Uncle Adam” must come home and live with his parents until they find another facility. Martin does not specify what precisely Adam has—either schizophrenia or autism—and to a large extent that doesn’t matter. He is different from everyone else, acts differently, cannot control his emotions and reactions as everyone else, including Hattie, can.

Needless to say, the summer is complicated just by Adam’s physical issues; he can’t be left alone, but is an adult with all that entails—he develops a crush on one of the boarding house residents and is devastated when he discovers her in bed with her lover. He wants to befriend Hattie, but not only do the other kids in town act like Mean Girls, his awkward attempt at a birthday party just for her goes badly awry. In the end, he commits suicide, unable to face going back into another institution or living in the, to him, bewildering outside run by behaviors he cannot possibly understand.

The language herein is not complex; it’s clearly written at a tween level, but the ideas are heartbreaking. It’s rare that I cry for a book written for this age group…but I did. I’m sure there are other books for kids which introduce mental illness in age-appropriate ways; this one struck me for its presentation of the uncle as a human being…who’s ill. Not a monster. Not demonized. Not pitying, or romanticized. There isn’t a lot of historical detail about how mental illness was treated at the time, but perhaps not necessary in a book of this level; I don’t think that’s the point in any case.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Jill MacSweeney is a teenager mourning the loss of her father. She lives in a wealthy neighborhood in Denver, Colorado.

Mandy Kalinowski is a teenager, pregnant and desperate to escape her mother’s household. She lives in the decidedly downmarket town of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The two meet when Mandy contacts Jill’s mother in order to arrange a private adoption. The catch is that Mandy needs to come to Denver to have the baby, and to have her expenses paid. Robin agrees, and Mandy sneaks out of her mother’s house to take the train from Omaha to Denver.

The two girls don’t exactly hit it off. Jill remains suspicious of Mandy and wary of her mother’s determination to adopt a baby so soon after her own husband’s death; she asks an acquaintance to investigate this intruder into the home she regards as her own. Mandy finds Jill and Robin almost incomprehensible in their insistence on clean living and nutritious eating; she desperately keeps her secrets hidden–the stolen watch, her mother’s threats, and ultimately who the father of her child is. It is only when Jill answers the phone when Mandy’s mother calls, that she realizes the extent and depth of seediness that Mandy was attempting to conceal that her resolve flipflops.

In the end, there’s a happy ending: Robin adopts…not Mandy’s baby, but Mandy herself1.

The book alternates between Jill and Mandy’s perspectives. On the plus side, this allows the author to present each girl’s hidden thoughts and motivations; without that additional background, each girl seems decidedly unpleasant to the other when they first meet, and indeed both continue to get on one another’s nerves until the denouement of the book. I do appreciate the skill with which Zarr turned the two girls’ (and many of the readers’) initial impressions of one another upside down during the course of the book as we learn more about their perspectives.

On the minus, there was rather a lot of hidden motivations; that strikes me as a potential pitfall as the relationship between the three continued past the end of the book. Shouldn’t they have come clean before the adoption process was completed? Unfortunately, the split perspective allowed only half a book to develop each of the main characters, and I’m left wondering a great deal more about the two girls. Especially Mandy: while it’s possible she could be explained away by “abusive stepfather, neglectful mother, impoverished (culturally and financially) upbringing” but she struck me as being mentally ill/disabled in some way, and I wish Zarr had delved into this aspect a bit more.

I have to confess that I didn’t particularly like any of the three main characters, although they did develop during the course of the book. Mandy seemed to be a not terribly bright bit of poor white trash with a personality disorder that turned daydreams into obsessions, fantasies into stalking. Jill and her mother seemed like pretentious upper-crust do-gooders. (Doesn’t help that Jill has an after-school job at a chain bookstore called “Margins”. Twee coy, much?)

This is another agenda-driven book, and in that regard, reminded me of These Things Hidden. Not because they both concern teen pregnancy, but rather because they’re both written about a real-life issue—How to Save a Life about adult adoption and These Things Hidden about the Safe Haven child welfare laws—and in that regard, seem a bit awkward. While the underlying plot point in How to Save a Life was a bit subtler, the fact that the author did conceal it that long made the denouement seem almost like a shaggy dog plot twist.

1yes: there are laws allowing the adoption of people who are over eighteen, for situations just such as this, when the biological parents refuse to relinquish their parental rights, their child cannot be adopted while a minor.

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Jean Patrick Nkuba is a gifted runner, talented enough to aspire to the Olympics. Unfortunately, this is the late 1980s and early 1990s in Rwanda, and Nkuba is Tutsi1.

With that achievement, he would be able to drag himself out of the morass that is his country and the prejudice the majority population, in control of the government and politics, have used to quash his people. Raised by a father who held firmly to a belief in equality, the child Nkuba is not prepared for the overt hatred of Hutu for Tutsi he encounters after his father’s death. As he grows, his running improves with the training he receives from his coach. He must, however, make compromises with his background and beliefs in order to achieve the freedom of movement necessary to compete in races throughout Rwanda and in neighboring countries, chiefly among them a false identity card listing him as a Hutu. A thread running through the book, not surprisingly, is Nkuba’s struggle with whether he should be clear about his Tutsi heritage in the face of a government which cannot decide whether he should be held up as an example of how open-minded it is about minorities or squash all the groups which it does not wish to allow.

Further complicating matters is Nkuba’s love for a girl whose father is one of the country’s Hutu activists; their relationship deepens and they become lovers. As the Hutu attacks on the Tutsi rise and the country, Nkuba’s dreams of making the Olympics fade. Alas, his beloved Bea is caught in an attack which he believes her dead and he emigrates to the United States, where he continues his college education. Some years later, he discovers that Bea survived, and returned to Rwanda to track her down; they meet, and although he discovers that Bea has their daughter, he returns to the country which he believes will provide him the opportunity he wants rather than remain in the home that he loves with the family and people who’ve supported him.

Running the Rift is worth reading and I’m glad there are such books available; it strikes me as a thoroughly sympathetic novel about what it must have been like for the Tutsi through the 1990s in Rwanda, and it’s well written and researched. I recommend it for Americans, especially those who aren’t familiar with recent Rwandan history, as it includes a fair bit of social commentary woven into the text: the international response to the upheaval in Rwanda was to pull their own nationals out of the country.

Please do not regard this as a criticism of the book; I include it just as a note for any readers who have issues with possible cultural appropriation: the author is a white American2, though (and this is NOT damning with faint praise), she is herself a long distance runner, which I’d bet allowed her to better describe Nkuba’s training. Rather, this is why Americans might want to read Running the Rift; it brings up some uncomfortable points about why the United States didn’t do more to intervene in Rwanda.

1For people who didn’t pay attention, Rwanda went through what I’m going to briefly and euphemistically call a devastating genocide in the early to mid-1990s; during this, the Hutu majority, which at the time held political power, killed a significant portion of the Tutsi minority.
2same goes for Nancy Farmer’s book, A Girl Named Disaster: good book by a knowledgeable and sympathetic author, which I liked, but I wonder what the locals might have to say for themselves.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

What would you do if you found a child on your doorstep? What if the dearest and most desperate hope in your heart was to have a child of your own…and no one would know if you claimed this child as yours?

As the book begins, Tom Sherbourne has just returned home to Australia after four years on the Western Front. The tranquility, isolation and routines of a lighthouse keeper appeal strongly to him after the tumult (to understate things considerably) of the trenches of World War I. At first he serves largely as temporary replacement for the regular lighthouse keepers who need time away, but he learns the trade and works his way up to the point of recieving a permanent position himself, that of lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, off the southern coast of Western Australia. The supplies boat comes only once every three months, with food and mail; there is no other way to communicate with the mainland…or right up Tom’s alley.

There’s a complication: while waiting to finalize arrangements for his transfer to the lighthouse, he meets and comes to like a girl who’s lived in Partageuse all her life—Isabel Graysmark. She’s only sixteen, he’s (literally) been through the wars, so he suggests she wait and think about it. The life of a lighthouse keeper may suit him, but he cannot imagine that a vivacious teenager would so similarly love it that she’d give up all society but his. After a few cycles of the mailboat, she returns to the island with him as his bride.

She too comes to love the wild windswept surroundings of Janus Island, but…you knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you? Yes, alas: Isabel cannot bring a child to term. She’s miscarried several times, the most recent pregnancy lasting until seven months and ending just a few days before the pivotal event of the book: a dinghy washes ashore in the pre-dawn hours, with a dead man and a living baby, just a few weeks older than that most recent loss would have been.

Tom, the ever-dutiful, wants to log the event and return the baby to the mainland, but Isabel has already bonded with the infant. They persuade themselves that no one will know that the child is not theirs, presuming that she has died with the man in the boat, lost at sea. The three spend several blissful years on the island; the child they’ve named Lucy grows healthy, loving and strong, alone with her parents and Janus Island.

It is not until they come to shore for a prolonged break that Tom and Isabel discover that the child’s mother survived, and has been mourning the presumed loss of her child ever since, wandering the community driven to near-madness by her loss. Horrified at what they’ve done but unwilling still to relinquish the child they’ve come to love as their own, Tom and Isabel flee back to the lighthouse.

In the end, Tom is unable to bear the thought of the heartbroken Harriet; he has written notes to her over the intervening months to notify her that her child is alive, and in the end, he turns himself, and “Lucy” in on the mainland. He is arrested, and Lucy returned to her birth mother, now a stranger, and Isabel is left alone while her husband works through the trial process and her daughter is distraught at being removed from her mummy to a family of strangers.

This is straight-up chicklit, and a reasonably readable example of same. I, like some of the readers, really really really disliked Isabel for refusing to relinquish Lucy, though I can understand why she did it; did she really think she was going to get away with it? What happened when the child grew up a bit more and started resembling her birth parents? Ultimately, it’s good beach reading, with a moderately plausible plot, but with only a little more characterization than others in the category.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson

Taylor Edwards is a fairly typical high-ambition seventeen-year-old, despite being the ‘talentless’ middle child; her older brother is determined to be a lawyer like their father while her younger sister is similarly determined to be a ballet dancer, while she spends her summers in language immersion courses and oceanography internships.

Or at least she has for the past five years, since she did A Terrible Thing to her BFF, Lucy, and the boy they both had a crush on, the summer that they were all twelve. Tragically, her father has been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer on the day of Taylor’s birthday in May; the family decides that they will spend one last summer together in their summer home in the Poconos.

…which means that Taylor must confront both Lucy and Henry, in addition to being tossed into the deep end of her first summer job, all in addition to spending as much time with her father as she can in his last few weeks of life. (This is the ‘second chance’ of the title: making up with her friends, whom she dissed five years previously when they were all twelve: she fell in crush with the cute boy with whom her BFF had already decided she was going to fall in love that summer…but didn’t tell either of them about BFF’s feelings for Cute Boy.) Oh, and take in the dog left behind by the long-term renters who’d departed only a week or so before the family arrives.

The novel ends, as it inevitably must, with the death of the father, but the children have grown and developed personally; Taylor has made up with Lucy and Henry, Warren has branched out from his studies to court a girl who is herself studying to be a veterinarian and Gelsey learns how to make friends and have sleepovers.

Overall, it’s a good straightforward ‘teen angst’ book for kids who’ve outgrown Judy Blume; it has no fantasy elements, no supernatural characters, no magic. Just a family facing the death of the father/husband, told from the perspective of the middle girl. It does have a certain degree of “rich white girl” problems, set as it is in a town of largely summer residents escaping the heat of The Big City, but dealing with the death of a parent is fairly universal. In that regard, it’s appropriate for a range of readers. In some ways, I wish Matson had chosen to concentrate on either the father’s illness or the children’s maturation during the summer, as she has to split the book between the two processes, and I’m left feeling a bit like she gave them both short shrift. That said, they would not have had the opportunity had their father NOT had pancreatic cancer, as that’s why they’ve all come together back to the Poconos. Otherwise, they would have just continued on their paths of separation.

What to read next? If it’s the “death of a parent” aspect, I’d suggest Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, for kids who liked the straightforwardness of this book plus elements of friendship/boys, or Patrick Ness/Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, for kids who prefer books with a supernatural element.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What’s the correct way to react to someone with a severe physical deformity? (Keep in mind that chances are they’re not unaware of their appearance.) How do you handle it should your child react, as children will tend to do, with either a piercingly audible query about ‘that funny looking person’, or worse, burst into tears? It was just such an encounter that prompted Palacio to write Wonder…and yes, she includes that in the book, albeit from the perspective of the person with the deformity. She spent the rest of the afternoon not only chagrined at her reaction and that of her children but also wondering “How should I explain this to my children? What is the correct response? …and what must it be like to be that person, always aware that people are whispering about you, staring (or NOT staring) at your disfiguration?”

The central character of Wonder, “Auggie” (August) Pullman, was born with a severe facial deformity, Treacher-Collins syndrome. Now ten, he’s undergone something like twenty-seven surgeries, and still has considerable facial deformation; he still has difficulties eating, and choking is a real hazard. He’s been homeschooled until now, though as he reaches the fifth grade (both in age and in academic achievement) he and his family are coming to realize that it may be time for him to enter a conventional school. Not only has his mother approached the point at which she can no longer teach him—she’s terrible at fractions—but he’s also begun to mature to the point of wanting relationships outside his own family.

The main story arc of the book takes place during Auggie’s fifth grade year at a private school, Beecher Prep. As most astute readers will have guessed by about the second chapter in, yes: despite a pre-school year intervention from the school’s principal assigning him a couple of informal guides as he settles into the school, Auggie has to deal with the stares, the revulsion, the “teasing” and the outright bullying that we’d all expect…and not just from the kids. At one point, the parents of the Mean Kid approach the principal with a request that Auggie be withdrawn from the school as they do not believe he’s up to the school’s standards1. At least the kids are up front about it; there’s a “game” among some of the students that they have thirty seconds to wash his ‘germs’ away if they touch something he’s touched. As the year wears on, the more open-minded kids do undergo a sea change; at first, it’s only a couple of kids who will voluntarily spend time with Auggie, but by the spring, others come to tease him in an affectionate way: at one point, he makes a joke about being the basis for “UglyDolls“, and the next day the girl to whom he was speaking gives him a keychain-sized one with a note “For the nicest AuggieDoll in the world!” This isn’t universal; the Mean Kid Julian didn’t have his own revelation about Auggie’s condition which made him a better person. That’s only reality, though. Not everyone is going to come out a better and more sympathetic person as a result of knowing someone like Auggie.

Palacio shifts between several of the kids’ viewpoints: Auggie gets the most stage time, but his older sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of the kids at school also get several of their own chapters. This might be a bit disjointed for some kids, but I think it works here; it’s nice to hear what the other characters think. As a kids’ book, I’m guessing it’s pretty much on the mark in terms of plotting, characterization and reading level. Reading it as an adult, I did pick up certain “after-school special movie of the week”, the kind in which everyone Learns a Lesson and the Mean Kids all become better people, but that’s not necessarily a complaint!

What to read next? Try Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, and its sequel, After Ever After. The medical issue is very different—leukemia rather than an intrinsic part of the child’s appearance—but both concentrate on the child’s reaction to the problem more than on the treatment of same.

1Treacher-Collins, at least in Auggie’s case, has no mental component. It’s purely a physical issue.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Quick: what did Lindbergh do? Fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris, yes.

Anything else? Had a baby who was kidnapped, pro-German/anti-Semitic political leanings, involved with aviation…yes, also all true….if you’re thinking of Charles Lindbergh.

That’s what he did. What did she do?

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the titular “Aviator’s Wife”, was herself an aviatrix and author, in addition to the roles more conventional for the time of wife and mother and staunch supporter of her husband’s career and viewpoints while he was alive. She wrote and edited a number of books, including her husband’s autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, and her own, and Gift from the Sea, among others. The majority of her adult life, however, was spent as wife to (and in the shadow of) the renowned Charles Lindbergh; Anne not only remained behind with the children as they grew up, but publically supported her husband’s activities and political views1.

Charles and Anne both struggle with the publicity resulting from his trans-Atlantic flight; being in the public eye meant scrutiny of his opinions on proper breeding and isolationist stance during the lead-up and during World War Two. The 20-20 hindsight of intervening decades has largely discredited both, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Aviator’s Wife, being told from Anne’s perspective by a modern author, does suggest that Anne didn’t hold with her husband’s political beliefs but felt obligated, as a loyal wife, to support him in public.

As the children grow up, and Charles spends more and more time ‘traveling for work’, Anne herself struggles to reconcile her own desire for individuality with the societal expectation that she remain a helpmeet to her husband and mother to their children, even after the children have left home and the husband has proved himself not entirely the man she (and he) thought he was. In the end, neither attempt proves successful; though they remained married until Charles Lindbergh’s death in 1974, both Anne and Charles had affairs— she with the family doctor and he, perhaps not surprisingly, with a pair of Bavarian sisters and his East Prussian secretary, with whom he had a total of seven more children.

Overall, it’s well done.

Keep in mind, of course, that this is a novel, not a biography. As with Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin’s picked another ‘sidebar’ woman about whom to write a fictional biography. This is like her first two books in that Benjamin also sticks quite close to the truth, at least insofar as external events go, she extrapolates quite a bit in regards her subject’s inner thoughts, hopes, dreams and monologues.

I suspect that this one may be a bit more uncomfortable for readers than Benjamin’s first two books, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life was, for the most part, within living memory. Modern readers with more than a smattering of political awareness may come away wondering how spineless someone would have to be to continue supporting another’s clearly anti-Semitic opinions, despite their good Jewish friends. Modern women may come away mumbling about how spineless a woman would have to be to sit back and let their husband do all that. I’d argue that it’s still an interesting read; she was who she was, and if Benjamin inspires some readers to delve deeper into the lives of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, so much the better. Certainly, Benjamin doesn’t claim that her novel is anything other than fiction, though based firmly in fact…and both Charles and Anne were prolific diarists and autobiographists, not to mention being fairly well documented elsewhere in contemporaneous news sources and political files.

Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t a uniformly grim novel enumerating the protagonists’ failings! Benjamin does include the joy both took in flying, and flying in the ’20s and ’30s was adventurous to say the least. Her descriptions of taking wing in those early planes, noisy and mechanically cantankerous, are worth reading if only to give an idea of what exactly it was Charles Lindbergh did dare to do with his beloved Spirit of Saint Louis, not to mention the delight Anne must have taken in her own flights. Benjamin also slips in a fair bit of sense of the times and also retrospective humor: as an example, the book and the relationship begin in the ’20s with a ballroom dance, and end, more or less, with the festivities attendant on the launch of Apollo XI, during which Anne dances the Monkey with Buzz Aldrin and convinces Spiro Agnew to try the Twist with her.

For those inspired to look farther for non-fiction autobiographies, try Susan Hertog’s Annie Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, Benjamin ends her novel with Morrow Lindbergh, now in her seventies and a widow, taking a solo flight in her own airplane from the 1930s—a not too terribly subtle way of expressing the subject’s own personal trajectory into personal independence and freedom…but Morrow Lindbergh did live for another twenty-five years or thereabouts, not covered in the novel. (She died in 2001, on her daughter Reeve’s farm.)

1In fairness, I’m not sure how much of that support came from Anne’s own belief in same or whether she felt, as many women her age did, that she had to become so completely part of her husband’s life.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

At the risk of sounding like a Jasper Fforde novel, this is a book in which Something Awful Happened in the Long Ago, and it’s this concealed mystery around which the plot revolves. Just as a warning: I’ve put spoilers down at the end, though not many and somewhat cryptic.

The introductory scene in the book gives some hints as to what this secret might be: Our Protagonist, Laurel, is sixteen in 1961, and the oldest of five siblings (Iris, Rose, Daphne and, breaking away from the floral/vegetative theme, a little brother Gerald). For the moment, she’s torn balancing her desire to tear away from her fuddy-duddy parents and time-consuming sisters with her love for that self-same family and the stability granted that her parents’ love for one another and the family’s love for one another. Laurel has hidden away in her ‘childhood treehouse during a game of hide-and-seek, the better to contemplate her own dreams of the future, when she sees a strange man approaching the house. Theirs is a fairly remote house—such things were easier fifty years ago in Englahd—so random strangers are a rarity. She regards him curiously…only to see her mother stab this man to death, using the familial Ceremonial Cake Knife…and there the central mystery ends until we reach the denouement of the novel.

The official “now” framing story is that of the family, now grown and gone their separate adult ways; though still close, the children don’t see each other more than once every few weeks or months, their father has passed away after fifty years and their mother is in an assisted living facility, in failing health herself. Laurel, now herself in her mid-sixties, has never thought to ask her mother about not only that strange man beyond what Dorothy and Stephen were willing to tell her at the time, but also simply more about their lives prior to meeting one another. How many children ever do? It is the reminder of her own mortality in the shape of her mother’s approaching death which prompts Laurel to delve deeper into her mother’s past. At first it is only a matter of assembling a “book of memories” to prompt her mother’s failing memory that inspires Laurel, but some odd responses—fear or surprise where there should only be pleasant reminiscence…and occasionally the reverse—prompt her to delve deeper.

Through a combination of vague suggestions from her mother, gradually sinking deeper into the gentle senility of extreme old age, and on Laurel’s own part a fair bit of organized historical research at The British Library and other lesser venues and a few interviews with survivors who knew her mother in the early ’40s, Laurel begins to piece things together. The intruder in 1961 was one Henry Jenkins, once a Famous Author, but now a near-vagrant having fallen to pieces after his wife’s death in one of the many bombings during the Blitz. But why has he come to Laurel’s mother, Dorothy, and perhaps more importantly, both to Laurel and to the readers, why did the seemingly mild-mannered homebody Dorothy Nicholson stab this stranger? The readers, being party to the “then” chapters, find all this out as Laurel uncovers the dusty past, of course; in the end, Laurel’s learned more than she ever really wanted to know about her mother’s past, though not the whole truth.

“In the Blitz” begins her mother’s story, or rather middles, as so many good novels about twentieth-century Britain do; Dorothy’s family has been killed in the bombings, leaving Dorothy, a girl in her late teens, on her own to support herself with very little experience or education. From thence continues a story of family secrets, personal secrets, spousal abuse, unreliable narrators, and double crossing, ending with a conveniently timed bomb, killing the girl who (‘fess up, you’ll agree with me!) the girl who deserves to die does die, and the girl who deserves love and life survives…but with a slight change in just who became whom.

Then-and-now stories’ inherent need to flip back and forth between the two portions of the novel may leave some readers a bit cold, for the very simple reason that authors are essentially trying to write two separate novels, combined into one. In the hands of a skilled author, such as Kate Morton, the interwoven plot(s) will at least…well…interweave plausibly, but I always end up with the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve just read three-quarters each of two different novels, bunged up together. In this case, I would have liked to learn more about the years intervening between the murder in 1961 and the mother’s death in 2011, more about the childhood of Dorothy and Vivien, and not to mention more about the peripheral characters such as the nanny Katy and the erstwhile beau Jimmy; what were their lives before and after intersecting with the Dolly/Vivien morass?

It doesn’t help that there’s a possible mental illness subplot that wasn’t terribly well developed; without that, Dolly’s reasons for blackmailing Vivien don’t seem quite so plausible, though had she lived, we might have found out as much about the true Dolly as we did about the woman masquerading in her place all those years.

As with many of my previous reviews, I feel there should be a disclaimer: I read this in less than 24 hours, and finished it willingly, enjoying it for the most part. Editors and librarians just like picking books apart to analyze them…This is definitely a book to read twice, the before-the-denouement and the after-the-denouement reads; as with Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost, there are enough unreliable narrators and plot twists to make the book mean one thing before you know and one after. Though perhaps not so complexly.

The Major Plot Twist actually does make sense in the end: neither Vivien or Dolly had many people who knew them closely enough to care enough about where they’d gone to track them down in the event they vanished, especially during the turmoil of the Blitz. Staying out of the way of their acquaintances might be more of an issue, though “Mum” took care of that neatly enough by slipping off to the contentedly bucolic life on a smallholding, tied up in her family.

Reading on a Rainy Day
Fantasy Book Critic