This Tender Land

William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land channels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey in an endearing coming of age saga with Dickensian characters who are just as memorable as the heroes from David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.  Although the author adds an epilogue explaining how the four main characters finished their lives in old age, I was sorry to see them grow up, and will probably always remember them as the four young “Vagabonds” who escaped the clutches of evil and followed the river on a life-changing adventure during the Depression.

Ten year old Odie, short for Odysseus, a natural storyteller who also plays the harmonica, is the narrator.  He bands together with three other orphaned escapees from the Lincoln Indian Training School: Albert, his older brother; Mose, a mute Indian boy who had his tongue cut out; and Emmy, the beautiful curly headed six year old with a talent for changing the future, as they paddle in a canoe from Minnesota’s Gilead River to St. Louis on the Mississippi in search of a home.  They meet an array of well meaning characters, including a band of traveling faith healers, a few ornery swindlers and displaced families,  but the villain they are  constantly trying to escape is the headmistress of the school, a cruel and abusive personification of her nickname, the Black Witch.

Krueger follows these heroic children as they travel through Hoovervilles and shantytowns, farmlands and flooded river flats.They meet hobos and scammers, are imprisoned by a farmer, and befriended by Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade and Mother Beal, who shares what little food she has.

Like Odysseus, Odie finally makes it to Ithaca, but Kreuger offers a few surprises and a better ending than Homer’s tale.  Our hero finds hope and renewed faith in a compelling story of family and friendship.   I was sorry to come to the end of the book, and the characters, especially Odie, will stay with me for a while.

If you are looking for a book to discuss in a book club, William Kent Kruger’s This Tender Land offers a wealth of characters and plot lines in an easy to follow narrative.

What to Read (Listen to) Next

51M04zBndRL._SL150_  After reading Sam Anderson’s teaser in the New York Times Sunday magazine – New Sentences from Dan Brown’s Origin: A Novel – I ordered the book on line from my library, but I am number 297 on the waiting list.  Although I read Brown’s The Da Vinci Code years ago, I steered away from his other books when Tom Hanks became the image of Robert Langdon – I had imagined Pierce Brosnan as the professor/adventurer.

Origin is number five in the series with Robert Langdon,  and this one promises the secrets of the universe with predictions for the future.  Anderson actually makes the case for not reading the book, but Peter Conrad for The Observer says it may the antidote to the real world –  ” a specimen of phoney fiction, expertly designed to confuse the credulous…{Dan Brown’s} deranged fantasy increasingly looks like our daily reality…”

Sounds like fun and I have too many credits on Audible – maybe I’ll just listen to the abridged version, or maybe instead –

download Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied Sing.51C0X7VufEL._SL150_

What are you listening to?

 

The Scribe of Siena

Unknown-3Melodie Winawer creates a compelling adventure with time travel back to medieval Italy in The Scribe of Siena – history, romance and art mingle with an historic mystery.

Beatrice, a neurosurgeon from New York City inherits a thirteenth century mansion when her brother, a medieval scholar dies suddenly in Siena, Italy.  Soon after she arrives to settle her brother’s estate,  she discovers the journal of the fourteenth century artist, Gabriel Accorsi in her brother’s research paper, and finds her own face in one of his paintings.  Suddenly, she is mysteriously transported to Siena in the year 1347, months before the Bubonic Plague is about to eradicate the city.

Yes, there is romance; yes, the heroine knows more than she can tell; and yes, the parallel between worlds is conveniently accommodated with much of the fourteenth’s century’s inconveniences sublimated.  Yet, despite the trite plot underpinnings, Winawer manages to create a captivating tale full of well-researched historical trappings.  Most of the story takes place in fourteenth century Italy when medieval life was primitive, with Church and art providing respite from the misery of everyday life.  Italian paintings from the Middle Ages were darkly mystical, and Winawer uses this artistic mysticism as the conduit between the modern world and a mysterious 700 year old conspiracy to destroy the city of Siena.  Political intrigue with the Medici family offers a sinister subplot, threatening Accorsi’s life as well as the possible extinction of Siena’s population.

When Beatrice meets Accorsi, of course she falls in love, but her new medieval life also offers her a chance to reinvent herself as she works as the city’s scribe, creating contracts, recording lists, even writing a copy of Dante on parchment.  Winawer creates a strong character – a brilliant neurosurgeon clearly in charge of herself but also with empathy for her patients – who manages to maneuver the unexpected difficulties of her new environment.   Although Beatrice does conveniently revisit the present in time to be saved from the Plague by modern antibiotics, clearly her heart is in the fourteenth century where she eventually finds a new life.

If you are missing the swashbuckling adventure and time travel back to another century of Diane Gabalon (Outlander) or Deborah Harness (Discovery of Witches), try Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena.  

Related Review:   Discovery of Witches

 

 

To the Bright Edge of the World

9780316242851_p0_v5_s192x300    Eowan Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World had me remembering the startling blue of the icebergs and the crisp cold of the Alaskan air when I visited several years ago. Ivey’s story is based on the actual 1885 expedition of Colonel Allen Forrester, and references diaries and letters from the exploration of the newly acquired Alaskan Territory as the foundation for a compelling epistolary novel.

The real Forrester explored over a thousand miles of wilderness and become the first to chart the Copper River, leading an expedition as significant as Lewis and Clark’s.  The novel uses the imagined letters of Colonel Forrester to his wife, Sophie, as well as his formal accounting of his findings as he travels the unexplored Wolverine River area in Northern Alaska with a small crew.

Forced to remain behind because of her pregnancy, Sophie keeps her own journal and sends letters to her husband.  When she miscarries, Sophie, a former schoolteacher with a penchant for studying birds, purchases a camera, and embarks on her own expedition to capture pictures of nesting birds in the woods surrounding her home at Vancouver Barracks in Washington.

As Allen Forrester suffers starvation, disease, and bitter cold traveling through uncharted Territory, he also discovers the power of the local culture, and Ivey weaves old otherworldly legends into her tale, treating them with respect and awe.  The women with feathers growing out of their wrists, calmly washing clothes by the river full of geese; the old medicine man with the black hat who can fly and transform into a raven who steals Sophie’s hair comb; the monster in the river who almost kills one of Forrester’s men – all add flavor to the steady reporting of the mundane as well as the explorer’s  battle with the unforgiving elements of nature.

Ivey grounds the story in the present by creating a fictional descendant of Forrester, Walter, who is seeking a home for the artifacts and papers he has inherited.  Walter is getting old, and has started a correspondence with Josh, the museum curator in  Alaska, who has agreed to digitize the papers and establish an exhibit. Through Josh, Ivey offers pictures interspersed through the narrative, and updates on the current political and environmental turmoil.  Ivey muses on the power and beauty of Nature, and comments on the disconnect between preserving the culture of the past while moving on with demands of the present.

“How can we say this person is valued less or more, is better or worse, because they are a part of one culture or another, and why would we want to?”

To the Bright Edge of the World combines adventure, history, and romance with discovery – not only of forbidding new land but also of inner truths.  As a reward for both Allen and Sophie, as well as for the reader, Ivey projects a fictional continuation in the ending as the couple continues to explore – both plausible and satisfying.  A fellow reader suggested this book would be both engaging and uplifting – she was right.

 

 

 

Mightier Than the Sword – and my fifteen minutes

9781250034519_p0_v1_s260x420My fifteen minutes of fame came as a character in Jeffrey Archer’s latest installment of the Clifton Chronicles – Mightier Than the Sword.

Rarely do I enter contests; even more rarely do I win one – yet, Jeffrey Archer picked me. My prize – my name as a character in his next book – Mightier Than the Sword. Although I was hoping to be the evil mastermind, my namesake is a minor character appearing only briefly but consistently. Maybe you can find it – if you don’t blink.

If you are a fan of the Clifton Chronicles, you are primed to expect adventure and sabotage,  connecting the network of established characters in the Barrington and Clifton family trees.  Harry Clifton uses the book’s opening bombing incident on his wife’s new ocean liner as fodder for his latest successful spy thriller, and remains true to his moral compass as well as his penchant for crime solving, as Archer weaves Harry into a Russian undercover plot to suppressing state secrets reminiscent of a Solzhenitsyn exposé.  Emma, Chair of Barrington Shipping Company, faces her own issues with old nemesis Virginia, beautiful ex-wife of her brother Giles.  Sebastian, son of Harry and Emma, now a young handsome finance wizard, had my undivided attention, since he is the character who interacts with my namesake – on more than one occasion.  More characters reappear, but Archer carefully provides background for anyone who has not read the previous books in the series.  If you are a new fan, you might consider starting at the beginning with a binge-read, saving yourself from the angst of the inevitable cliff-hanging ending.

Reading an Archer novel is like watching an episode of your favorite television series.  The plot twists are usually surprising, the villains sometimes win the battles, the heroes are vulnerable, and satisfying solutions usually prevail.  I dare you to not read the books quickly as I do, furiously seeking the next outcome.  Maybe in the next installment, Dr. Rosemary Wolfe will return and play a bigger role in Sebastian’s life – I hope so.

Related Reviews: Previous books in The Clifton Chronicles