Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

the gilded ladder laura conway hebe elsna 001The Gilded Ladder by Laura Conway ~ 1945. This edition: Collins, 1970. Originally published under author’s name Hebe Elsna. Hardcover. ISBN: 00-233272-8. 159 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Found recently among my mother’s stored-away books was this mildly engaging relationship novel. (One can’t really slot it neatly into the romance category as it has larger ambitions, and the love affairs are off on the sidelines as compared to the niece-aunt partnership at the centre of the drama.)

It is just good enough to get a pass from me, though I doubt it will be high on the re-read list. A keeper, I think, though one for the bottom shelf. It pleasantly helped while away the time I spent in the orthodontist’s waiting room yesterday while my son was getting his braces tightened up a few more notches.

Young Lucy Erskine, ten years old in 1888 when this novel opens, is slightly in awe of her Aunt Madelon. Lucy’s mother is dead; her father’s new wife has produced two step-siblings, and Lucy feels rather out of things and appreciates the occasional attention she receives from her father’s rather glamorous unmarried sister who resides in a small suite of antique-furnished rooms in the Erskine family home.

Lucy has a small but genuine talent for music, both for playing the piano and for composing original little melodies, which Madelon notices and files away for future reference as a trait worthy of further encouragement. Madelon herself is fully occupied with hoisting herself up on the social scale – the “gilded ladder” of the title – and she gains each rung by strenuous though hidden exertions and more than a little single-minded plotting.

In Lucy’s tenth summer, all are agog at the upcoming marriage of Madelon’s old school chum, Lady Pamela, to a wealthy young man who cherishes an altruistic interest in slum projects. Lady Pamela hesitates at the thought of David’s plans to turn the major part of their prospective home into a convalescent hospital for ailing factory girls and as Pamela momentarily bobbles, Madelon slinks in and scoops away the fiancé. Marrying in haste, the two decamp on a honeymoon in France, but tragedy strikes and David is killed in a railway accident, leaving Madelon a devastated widow, albeit an exceedingly wealthy one.

Back then to the Erskine family home, where yet more tragedy has occurred, for Lucy’s father has suddenly died. Bereft Madelon, looking about for a new interest to assuage her grief, offers to give a home to young Lucy, and our story is off and running.

Madelon is truly fond of her niece, but can’t resist speculating about the possibilities of Lucy’s mild accomplishments as a minor musical prodigy to gain entry into noble drawing rooms. Tea for auntie, and a command performance from pretty little Lucy is the unspoken “deal” Madelon makes with her acquaintances in the social strata directly above her own, for Madelon’s new wealth, and, ironically, her past friendship with Lady Pamela, have given her a renewed taste for the joys of class climbing.

The novel wends on its way following Madelon’s steady social progress, and detailing Lucy’s growing awareness of her aunt’s manipulative ways, which Lucy starts to quietly confound when they touch upon herself. Lucy’s growing self-awareness and her rather clever provisioning for an life independent of her aunt’s control were rather admirable and renewed my interest in the plot, which had started to flag just a little.

This is a shortish novel, so things do keep moving at a respectable pace right up until the last chapter, where Lucy’s love affair, originally sabotaged by jealous Madelon’s manipulations, promises to finally come out all right. Madelon herself gets a brutally permanent comeuppance: she perishes rather dramatically just as she reaches the pinnacle of her social ambitions.

More irony here, for, as the author delicately informs us, Madelon’s bitterly hard-won ascent up the social scale is about to be rendered obsolete, as mere wealth alone is now becoming the golden ticket to social status. Madelon was born a generation too early; her long-sought-for prize is merely gilded base metal, and her tragedy is only appreciated by Lucy, who has loved her manipulative aunt for the good qualities of her personality, and by Lady Pamela, who has forgiven Madelon for the long-ago treachery of the stolen husband-to-be.

The writing is far from stellar, being rather pedestrian, more tell than show, full of awkwardly-written dialogue from the lower-class characters, and with the characters remaining at arm’s length from the reader. Despite the flaws, it was well-paced and just good enough to hold my interest, though as the climax of the story approached the strands of plot were increasingly predictable. No surprises there, but I have encountered much worse in some of the “bestsellers” of our present day (Rosemary Pilcher, your name springs to mind), and it was a mostly painless reading experience, though I cringed at the pat predictability of the last few pages.

Though The Gilded Ladder is decidedly a formula story, it is a well-polished one. A search of the internet to find out more about the author yielded little in the way of biographical insight, but it did produce some rather startling information.

Laura Conway was one of the pseudonyms of the terrifically prolific Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published, between 1928 and 1982, something like one hundred (!) popular novels under a variety of names, including Hebe Elsna, Vicky Lancaster and Lyndon Snow.

A long list appears on the Fantastic Fiction – Hebe Elsna web page, and the titles are surprisingly intriguing. Now I don’t recommend you rush out and acquire any of these. If The Gilded Ladder is a fair example of the author’s output then it is a very average sort of casual romantic fiction aimed at the housewife market (forgive my using that phrase – it’s not meant to be derogatory of actual housewives, of whom I myself am one, merely descriptive of a certain cliché) and certainly not “literary”.

But don’t some of these sound quite fascinating in an “Oops, I didn’t do the dishes as I was too wrapped up in my latest dime novel” sort of way?

What could This Clay Suburb concern? What is a Receipt for Hardness? Is it really true that Women Always Forgive? What happened The First Week of September? Are Marks Upon the Snow as sinister as they sound?

I sadly suspect that the titles may be the best part of many of these…

Child of Passion (1928) The Third Wife (1928) Sweeter Unpossessed (1929) Study of Sara (1930) We are the Pilgrims (1931) Upturned Palms (1933) Half Sisters (1934) Women Always Forgive (1934) Receipt for Hardness (1935) Uncertain Lover (1935) Crista Moon (1936) You Never Knew (1936) Brief Heroine (1937) People Are So Respectable (1937) Like Summer Brave (1938) Strait-Jacket (1938) This Clay Suburb (1938) The Wedding Took Place (1939) The First Week in September (1940) Everyone Loves Lorraine (1941) Lady Misjudged (1941) None Can Return (1942) Our Little Life (1942) See my Shining Palace (1942) No Fields of Amaranth (1943) Young and Broke (1943) The Happiest Year (1944) I Have Lived To-Day (1944) Echo from Afar (1945) The Gilded Ladder (1945) Cafeteria (1946) Clemency Page (1947) The Dream and the World (1947) All Visitors Ashore (1948) Midnight Matinee (1949) The Soul of Mary Olivane (1949) The Door Between (1950) No Shallow Stream (1950) Happy Birthday to You (1951) The Convert (1952) A Day of Grace (1952) Gail Talbot (1953) A Girl Disappears (1953) Catherine of Braganza (1954) Consider These Women (1954) A Shade of Darkness (1954) The Sweet Lost Years (1955) I Bequeath (1956) Strange Visitor (1956) The Marrying Kind (1957) My Dear Lady (1957) The Gay Unfortunate (1958) Mrs. Melbourne (1958) The Younger Miss Nightingale (1959) Marks Upon The Snow (1960) Time Is – Time Was (1960) The Little Goddess (1961) Lonely Dreamer (1961) Vicky (1961) Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1962) Take Pity Upon Youth (1962) A House Called Pleasance (1963) Minstrel’s Court (1963) Unwanted Wife (1963) Too Well Beloved (1964) The Undying Past (1964) The Brimming Cup (1965) The China Princess (1965) Saxon’s Folly (1966) The Queen’s Ward (1967) The Wise Virgin (1967) Gallant Lady (1968) Heir of Garlands (1968) The Abbot’s House (1969) Pursuit of Pleasure (1969) The Mask of Comedy (1970) Sing for Your Supper (1970) Take Heed of Loving Me (1970) The Love Match (1971) The King’s Bastard (1971) Prelude for Two Queens (1972) Elusive Crown (1973) Mary Olivane (1973) The Cherished Ones (1974) Eldest Daughter (1974) Distant Landscape (1975) Link in the Chain (1975) Cast a Long Shadow (1976) Family Duel (1979) Bid Time Return (1979) Long Years of Loving (1981) Red Headed Bastard (1981) Heiress Presumptive (1981) My Lover – The King (1982)

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Three “relationship” novels read this month with varying degrees of enjoyment. All three are much discussed elsewhere, so I feel justified in giving them each what amounts to a very arbitrary micro-review. Of these three I doubt I will be returning to The Mistress of Nothing or Letter from Peking. Miss Pettigrew, however, will immediately be moving onto the keeper shelf.

the mistress of nothing kate pullingerThe Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger ~ 2009.

This edition: McArthur & Co., 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55278-868-4. 248 pages.

My rating:  6ish/10.  (Mostly for the first half of the book, which was quite engrossing, and the fact that it sent me away curious to learn more about the real Lady Duff Gordon. The last half deteriorated to a 3 or maybe, generously, a 4.)

This book won the 2009 Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction, to which I can only say that it must have been a quiet year in publishing.

Somewhere as I did a bit of internet research on the author and the novel, I read that Kate Pullinger worked on this for ten years. I’m assuming that it was very much a peripheral project, though I also saw that she received an Author’s Society grant to travel to Egypt for her research, and a series of Fellowships from the Royal Literary Fund. I personally think that the author should also have spent some time working on how to write a convincing bedroom scene, because the sexy bits in this one were blush inducing for all the wrong reasons, reading as though they’d been grafted into a reasonably serious historical novel from something much more slight and bodice-ripperish.

Based closely on Lady Duff Gordon: Letters From Egypt, edited by Lady Duff Gordon’s mother, Sarah Austin, and daughter, Janet Ross, and published in several volumes between 1865 and 1875, The Mistress of Nothing is, first and foremost, well researched. It is also beautifully written for the most part, making the latter plot and stylistic inconsistencies all the more glaring.

Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon was well known for her beauty and sparkling wit and moved in the highest social circles in England, though she and her husband were, relatively speaking, not all that wealthy. Lady Duff Gordon was a noted scholar, and specialized in translations of German literature. She was also doomed to an early death, for she had at some point contracted tuberculosis, and, soon after the birth of her third child, was told she must leave England for a warmer, dryer climate. Travels to South Africa and then to Egypt brought some respite, and The Mistress of Nothing follows the Egyptian sojourn which ended in Lady Duff Gordon’s death in Cairo in 1869. She was 48.

The Mistress of Nothing provides an intriguing if superficial portrait of Lady Duff Gordon, but the focus of the novel is on another genuine character, her personal maid, Sally Naldrett. Sally accompanied her mistress on her travels, and on the trip to Egypt was Lady Duff Gordon’s sole companion, as limited finances precluded anything resembling an entourage.

When the two women reached Egypt, they were fortunate in acquiring an Egyptian dragoman/factotum, one Omar, who by all reports was a devoted and efficient assistant and of great aid in every way possible. At some point Sally and Omar developed an even closer relationship; Sally became pregnant and gave birth to Omar’s child, a development unrealized by Lady Duff Gordon until the actual birth. Her Ladyship reacted in an extreme manner, refusing to have anything  to do with Sally and stating that the child was to be given to Omar’s family (he was already married to an Egyptian woman) and that Sally was to return to England. Sally ended up marrying Omar – under Muslim law he was permitted multiple wives – but there was no reconciliation between her and her mistress, and Sally disappears from Lady Duff Gordon’s narrative, though she was very much still present at least on the fringes of the household for quite some time before Lady Duff Gordon’s eventual demise. Omar stayed on, and retained his position in the household as well as Lady Duff Gordon’s good graces, being recommended by her to serve in the Prince of Wales’ household after her death.

All of this is true to the historical record, and quite fascinating it is, too. It’s very easy to see why Kate Pullinger decided to elaborate on the real life framework of this dramatic trio of personalities; the story as it stands is enthralling.

Where the fictional treatment starts to unravel is where the real life letters leave off and Pullinger’s pure invention takes over. Once the (fictionalized) virginal Sally discovers the joy of sex with Omar, the narrative changes from an interesting examination of expatriate life in 1860s Egypt to a mushy pastiche of Sally’s (imagined) thoughts and emotions and Pullinger’s inventive fabrication of what Sally gets up to once cut adrift from her once-benevolent employer. Though willing to go along with the tale, I was unwillingly lost along the way, and closed the book with a feeling of deep disappointment. It was so close to being such an excellent read…

Well, I see the above got longer than the promised micro-review, though I really didn’t say too much; it’s a largish topic and there are all sorts of things I could say about the fascinating character of Lady Duff Gordon, and the roles of women in the 19th century, and class distinctions, and the vast gap between mistress and servant despite their years of physical intimacy, and the political situation in Egypt and the whole aristocratic British person living abroad thing. But others will have said it already, so I will (and not a moment too soon – the morning typing time is running out) move on to the next book on my list.

letter from peking pearl s buckLetter From Peking by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957.

This edition: Cardinal, 1964. Paperback. 218 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Pearl S. Buck was a prolific writer, with a number of excellent novels to her credit – The Good Earth, The Living Reed, Peony – and a whole slew of other stuff. Some of which, sadly, is not very good at all. Like this one, which sounded promising, started out not too badly, and slid downhill fast.

This might have made a decent short story, but Pearl S. Buck, by dint of much repetition and needlessly florid meanderings, padded it out into a novel.

Here’s the gist of it.

An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. (He’s the head of a Chinese university; you know already from this that it’s not going to end terribly well, what with the whole Cultural Revolution thing on the horizon.)

Back in America, the woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, which has been conveniently waiting for her in perfect order all these years, complete with faithful (if gruff) hired man. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. Much emotion ensues. The woman talks. A lot. Both to herself and to anyone else who will provide a shoulder to cry on. The son decides “enough of this already, Mom’s micromanaging my life. No more confidences.” More tears.

Then the woman, all on a sudden whim, decides to track down her father-in-law, and finds him in the most unlikely circumstance, living in a small shack under the protection of a local big-wheel landowner, having lost his memory but still being cognizant enough of things to insist on dressing himself in Chinese silk gowns, of which he apparently has a whole closet full. (The father-in-law lived in China many years, and left after the death of his Chinese wife – the heroine’s husband’s mother – which was highly unpleasant. She was a revolutionary activist, and was  put up against a wall and shot. Instant martyr stuff.)

Not one but two prospective suitors materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???! By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared.

Heroine is a deeply unpleasant woman, for all of her heartfelt moanings in this first-person monologue. She is a complete and utter snob, self congratulating herself on her amazing superiority in embracing the Chinese culture of her beautiful husband – long passages on how physically gorgeous mixed-race people are – while those around her are so gosh-darned bigoted. She insists that the good old days in China were absolutely wonderful; the peasants were happy; her servants loved her; her beautiful life was so fulfilling. Why did those nasty Commies have to ruin everything? In the meantime she bosses her son around, patronizes the Vermont people who fulfill all of the roles her Chinese peasants used to, and puts off dealing with her husband’s crucial issue. Eventually she gives permission for him to take on a wife-in-absence, giving her yet another lowly person to mercilessly critique.

By the end I hoped that neither of the suitors ended up with her; they seemed nice fellows. And I wished her new daughter-in-law best of luck, and rejoiced for her sake that the son had decided to move far, far away.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Pearl S. Buck, and enjoyed most of it. This one, as you may have gathered, not very much.

miss pettigrew lives for a day winifred watson 001Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson~ 1938.

This edition: Persephone Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-906462-02-4. 234 pages.

My rating: 8/10

What a relief to turn to this playfully frivolous novel after Pearl Buck’s dismal thing.

Middle-aged Miss Pettigrew, supremely inefficient governess, is on her uppers. Down to her last shilling, she knocks on the door of one Miss LaFosse, following up a lead from an employment agency.

Miss Pettigrew is welcomed in and definitely proves herself useful, but in a most unanticipated way. Dashing young men, cocktails, nightclubs…ooh, la la! Miss Pettigrew has never experienced such a whirl as she does in this utterly life-changing day.

That’s all I’m going to say. A whole lot of fun, this light and airy novel. If you haven’t already experienced this silly, happy thing, seek it out immediately, and enjoy!

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Three unrelated novels which share the common theme of adolescent girls coping as best they can with circumstances beyond their control. Frost in May and The World My Wilderness are undeniably much stronger and deeper novels than In Spite of All Terror, which, though competently written, fits more appropriately into the “juvenile historical fiction” category, but I’ve grouped them together here.

frost in may antonia whiteFrost in May by Antonia White ~ 1933.

This edition: Virago, 1981. Introduction by Elizabeth Bowen, 1948. Softcover. ISBN: 0-919630-36-7. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I have known Antonia White as the gifted translator of a number of Colette’s novels, but I hadn’t realized she was an author in her own right until Frost in May crossed my path in an always-worth-examining green-covered Virago edition.

The novel is autobiographical fiction, based on the author’s childhood experiences attending convent school, and was the first in an eventual series of four books following the same character from her ninth through twenty-third year. Following Frost in May are The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House, and Beyond the Glass, and together they give an account of Antonia White’s formative years, and the emotional turmoil which shaped her adult life. The “transgression” in Frost in May which resulted in the fictional Nanda being expelled from convent school is a genuine event, and the real Antonia was marked for life by it.

It is 1908, and nine-year-old Fernanda – Nanda – Grey is being sent to The Convent of the Five Wounds in London in order to immerse her fully in her new life as a dedicated Catholic child; her father’s conversion several years earlier and his fervent seeking after ways to prove his devotion to his new faith have overflowed into Nanda’s life. She worships her father and seeks to please him in every detail of her life, and though she is understandably wary of this new experience, she is prepared to embrace her life among the nuns with eager dedication, as much for his sake as for her own.

Her experience at first is beyond strange to her; being in some ways better than she had anticipated, but also frequently much more harsh. The strict hierarchy of boarding school life is exacerbated by the dictatorial conduct of the nuns. A few are gentle and benign, though even in the kindest the stern core of duty prevents too much softness from showing, several are judgemental, demanding, and deeply sarcastic, seeming to set their young charges up for continual failure, all in aid of “breaking their worldly spirit” in order to prepare them to fully bow down to God.

Nanda tries her best to fit into this new culture, and gets along quite well, though she is continually haunted by feelings of deep inadequacy, both because of her lowly status as a mere convert to the faith rather than a “born” Roman Catholic, and because of her lack of social status among the many wealthy and aristocratic students.

As the years go by, Nanda makes several close friends, though the nuns forbid “particular friendships”, and is well on her way to forming her own ideas as to her adopted religion and her personal relationship with it, when a tragic misunderstanding loses her both her place in the convent community and the love and respect of her adored father.

The novel is a cutting exposé of the hypocrisies of several of the main characters, including Nanda’s demanding father, and her vaguely inefficient mother, and the effect of those hypocrisies on the sensitive and deeply feeling Nanda. She faithfully seeks to please her superiors and to adapt to their wishes and demands, while continually mulling over her own place in the world, and the contradictions she observes.

Very well written, and provides a fascinating account of life in a particular type of convent school. Suitable for competent youthful readers, perhaps early teens and older, but definitely would be most appreciated by those old enough to look back on their own formative years and relate Nanda’s experiences to their own.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay ~ 1950.

This edition: Collins, 1950. Hardcover. 253 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This fabulous novel deserves more than the rudimentary review I am giving it here; I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years. After the war ends, Barbary’s stepfather is mysteriously drowned in the ocean near the family villa; possibly in retaliation for his unenthusiastic but undeniable cooperation with the Germans. Barbary’s mother, a hedonistic artist much more in love with her second husband than anyone fully realizes, emotionally draws away from her children, though Barbary in particular worships her mother with fervent dedication. When it is suggested that Barbary return to England to live with her father, her mother acquiesces with what seems like relief.

The culture shock which Barbary faces in post-war London society is sudden and severe. Her upper-class father has remarried and has a young son; Barbary views her stepmother with scorn and refuses to take any sort of interest in her younger half-brother. Her aunt and cousins are at first amused at her brusqueness and mildly sympathetic – they too have suffered in the war – but Barbary’s sullen refusal to adapt soon turns sympathy into bare tolerance. Barbary falls in with a group of young men who are living a precarious life amongst the bombed-out houses; they survive by petty thefts and view the London police as bitter enemies to be evaded at every turn. Barbary finds in this ragged outlaw world an echo of her wartime life in France, and she enters into a tenuous relationship with these new companions, hiding her activities from her father under guise of studying at the Slade School of Art. He in turn is unwilling to dig too deeply into his daughter’s private life, feeling that giving her space and time will ultimately win her affection.

Tragedy strikes, and Barbary is found out; the consequences of her double life and the bringing together of her estranged parents lead to unexpected revelations, though the reader has had inklings all along of secrets too terrible to be told.

I’ve described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. If you liked Crewe Train, or The Towers of Trebizond (which I’ve just finished – very good indeed!) you will be thrilled with The World My Wilderness.

in spite of all terror hester burton 001In Spite of All Terror by Hester Burton ~ 1968.

This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272011-2. 150 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This next novel is a slight thing compared to the two that preceded it in this post, but it has its merits as well, as a piece of memorable historical fiction. The author has based the story on her own recollections of 1940, when she was a was a 27-year-old Oxford-educated school teacher watching the evacuation of thousands of schoolchildren to the English countryside in preparation for the anticipated bombing of London.

Child of the slums, orphaned fifteen-year-old Liz Hawtin is a scholarship student at a girls’ grammar school; her evacuation in 1939 to the village of Chiddingford is a welcome development, as it spells her escape from the cold and critical aunt who has reluctantly taken on her sister-in-law’s child.

Taken into an aristocratic family, Liz realizes that her own intellectual ability, which is seen as so superior and is so deeply resented by Aunt Ag back in Nile Street, is no more than mediocre compared to the standard set by the intellectual and accomplished Bruton family. Recovering from that humbling hit to her self-esteem, Liz slowly becomes an accepted and valued member of the family, and gains self-confidence and renewed ambition as she is introduced to the greater world beyond her narrow London bounds.

The climactic event of the novel is the evacuation of the Dunkirk soldiers, which Liz experiences from the English side of the Channel. The episodes concerning Dunkirk from the viewpoint of one of the Bruton sons, and descriptions of the Blitz in London are what makes this slightly clichéd book stand out; the scenes are well-described and memorable.

Reading this book, I realize yet again what a wonderful thing well-written juvenile historical fiction can be. For though we all know the basic facts of events such as Dunkirk, it is the creative retellings we read in the impressionable days of our youth which bring so many of these events to life, opening up our minds to future exploration of history both through “adult” fiction and through first person accounts which perhaps are a bit too frank and detailed for a youthful audience.

I also appreciated the author’s refusal to neatly tidy up Liz’s story at the end of the book; we see her poised at the start of the next year in her life, on New Year’s Eve on the brink of 1941, knowing full well that what comes next may be far more challenging than the year she has just come through.

Hester Burton wrote eighteen novels, mostly historical fiction for youth, and she was noted for her meticulous research and her undeniable story-telling abilities. In Spite of All Terror was her sixth book. A vintage author to keep an eye out for if you have history-savvy teens, and for yourself as well. This was a fast read at only 150 pages, but despite its not-too-bothersome flaws (it was a bit too neat and tidy on occasion) it kept me interested all the way through, with abundant period detail adding value to the tale.

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sapphira and the slave girl willa catherSapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather ~ 1940. This edition: Knopf, 1940. Hardcover. 295 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This book passed the ultimate reading test last weekend. I picked it up while browsing the treasure trove of vintage books at the very recently opened (a year or so ago) Pulp Fiction Coffee House & Robbie’s Rare Books right downtown on Pandosy Street in Kelowna, British Columbia. I settled down with Sapphira and an excellent coffee mocha, and then I read and read and read. The place was busy; the conversation levels loud; I was a at tiny, tippy, table-for-one and it wasn’t exactly what one would consider prime reading conditions, but it didn’t matter. The story won out.

When Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert first moved out to Back Creek Valley with her score of slaves, she was not warmly received.  In that out-of-the-way, thinly settled district between Winchester and Romney, not a single family had ever owned more than four or five negroes.  This was due partly to poverty–the people were very poor.  Much of the land was still wild forest, and lumber was so plentiful that it brought no price at all.  The settlers who had come over from Pennsylvania did not believe in slavery, and they owned no negroes.  Mrs. Colbert had gradually reduced her force of slaves, selling them back into Loudoun County, whither they were glad to return.

Sapphira Colbert is now in her late fifties, and she and her husband Henry Colbert have lived in Back Creek Valley for thirty years. Between them they have built up a modestly successful business in a notoriously poor region; Henry is the flour miller. Sapphira herself is of modestly aristocratic stock; her mother was born in England, and Sapphira’s family heirlooms furnishing her house and her own finicky attention to “proper” speech and deportment set her apart from most of her neighbours. For the last five years Sapphira has been wheelchair bound; she suffers from dropsy and suffers even more from the loss of her physical freedom, though she still rules her household and keeps a keen eye on the mill and Henry’s doings there.

And Sapphira has recently not liked what she is seeing. One of her most-favoured slaves is pretty and intelligent Nancy, the half-white daughter of Till and granddaughter of Jezebel; the third generation of a family line owned by the Dodderidge family. Sapphira has made something of a pet of Nancy, keeping her as a personal servant and giving her trinkets and pretty clothes, but recently she has turned on the bemused girl, lashing out at her verbally and physically. Nancy has no idea why her beloved mistress has turned against her, but everyone else on the place has an opinion on the matter.

Nancy has been in the habit of cleaning Henry Colbert’s bedroom over at the mill – Henry and Sapphira lead very separate lives, and no longer share their marriage bed – and has started bringing Henry small nosegays of flowers, which she leaves in his room. The two have recently been seen in earnest conversation, and Sapphira, viewing Nancy’s lushly blossoming adolescent figure with a cynical eye, suspects that her husband and her slave girl are up to something even more intimate in the hours of the night.

She is mistaken, though. The relationship between Nancy and Henry is innocent through and through. Henry views Nancy as a pure young girl, and himself as her paternal protector. It has never crossed his mind to look at her in a sexual way, and she herself is  vehemently virginal, shuddering at the thought of sex with anyone, least of all her fatherly patron.

Henry is a noble character, of a sternly righteous Lutheran heritage; the thought of slave ownership is anathema to him, and only his vast respect for his wife has made it possible for him to keep quiet about what he sees as a fundamentally wrong practice. It is pre-Civil War Virginia, though, and marriage laws are such that Sapphira is unable to sell her property – including her slaves – without her husband’s permission. She has made her intention of selling Nancy clear to Henry, and he has categorically refused to allow such a thing, believing that Sapphira owes her slaves a permanent benevolent protection, adding fuel to the fire of Sapphira’s suspicion. So Nancy continues to receive sharp words and sharp cuffs, while Sapphira muses on other ways to revenge herself on her two supposed betrayers.

How Sapphira plots her revenge, and how Nancy is able at last to escape her wrath is the storyline which runs through the book, though there is a lot more going on here too, and numerous cleverly drawn characters besides the three key players.

Willa Cather tells her story in a spare, clean style, mincing no words whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the frequent colloquial language made me wonder rather why this novel has not suffered the same criticism as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has recently received; Sapphira, her compatriots and the narrator herself have no problem with calling anyone a “yellow girl” (for the half-white Nancy) or a “darkie”; “nigger” is an everyday expression and is used abundantly throughout.

Perhaps it is the overall theme, a critique of the practice of slave ownership, and an ongoing discussion of moral obligations, which has made it less of an issue? Or maybe the book is just that much more obscure that publicity has so far escaped it. In any event, it is there, and slightly shocking to a modern day reader; I did find myself glancing around to see if anyone was reading over my shoulder, and I angled the book to prevent a casual glance from catching the potentially offending words.

An excellent read, which kept me engaged even through the increasing melodrama, and Nancy’s continual jittering vapours. Sapphira as the key antagonist is cold and calculating, and we are very cognizant of her manipulative ways, but we are also given a chance to see behind the façade, to glimpse her fears and insecurities and internal conflicts, as well as those of every other major character.

In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather lives up to her reputation as a brilliant writer and a keen observer of American culture and personal history.

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when jays fly to barbmo margaret baldersonWhen Jays Fly to Bárbmo by Margaret Balderson ~ 1968. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272010-4. 220 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Bárbmo is the mystical place in Lapland folklore where the migrating birds fly away to; some never go there, like the jays. The riddle of the intriguing title is made clear in the final pages of this engrossing historical fiction novel.

Fourteen-year-old Ingeborg lives on the remote Norwegian island of Draugoy, where her family household, consisting of her widowed father, an aunt, and elderly hired help Per (an obviously troubled man with a mysterious past), eke out a precarious but modestly comfortable living through farming and fishing. But even their small and isolated society is about to feel the effects of events in the greater world. It is 1940, and Hitler’s troops are advancing through Europe and into neutral Norway, with an aim to annex Norway’s ice-free shipping ports and to ensure crucial supplies of iron ore from Sweden which was handled through the Norwegian shipping system.

Norway falls under German control without much resistance; the royal family and the government escape to England to form a government-in-exile for the next five years; thousands of young Norwegian men begin to filter out of their homeland to train with Allied forces in other parts of Europe, and in Scotland and England; and as the years turn over even the farthest settlements are occupied by troops of the Wehrmacht.

This is the greater historical background to Ingeborg’s story, and against it the more detailed personal events of the novel take place. Our young heroine struggles with her place in her family, fiercely resenting her aunt’s attempts at turning her into a “proper” Norwegian housewife; Ingeborg would rather be out roaming the woods with her dog Benne, or out in the barn with the animals, or sitting with Per and badgering him for tales of his travels. Her father treats her with deep love but yet with a patronizing attitude, never letting Ingeborg forget that she will never be a part of his man’s world. He refuses to discuss her mother with her; there is some great mystery there which all of the adults skirt meticulously around, as if protecting Ingeborg from something which will harm her.

Being a properly traditional bildungsroman, Ingeborg tenaciously discovers the secrets of her origin. She faces and overcomes the loss of everything she holds dear, and in the end discovers who she really is and where she really belongs.

This novel is short and aimed at a juvenile audience, so by necessity glosses over large periods of time and merely hints at some events, but the author pauses at perfectly timed intervals to go into the exquisite details of Ingeborg’s inner and outer lives; the novel is beautifully written. The horrors of war are unflinchingly discussed; the evils of the Nazi regime and the atrocities surrounding the scorched earth policy of the retreat from northern Norway are tellingly depicted.

If there is any weakness to this story, it is that the realities spoken of – the historical facts – are so brutal as to be almost unbelievable, making accompanying research a necessity – heads up to those using this novel as part of a social studies/history curriculum.  Some details of the story are also perhaps a bit too lightly touched on, but appropriately so for the intended youthful audience.

But don’t overdo the background research; let the story tell itself, because it is first and foremost just that, a personal story of a quest for self-understanding. The dramatic events which unfold are viewed through a single set of eyes, that of the young narrator.

The seasons of the Scandinavian northland, the months without sun, the joy of returning daylight, the nomadic travels of the reindeer-herding Laplanders and their yearly brief relationship with the farmers and fishermen of the summer ranges are all wonderfully depicted.

This novel received the Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1969 in the author’s native Australia, and was a runner-up for the UK’s 1968 Carnegie Medal. It is also something of a one-of for the author. From the quality of the writing I had hoped to find some similar later works, but nothing comes to light except for a few light fictions for younger children published in the early 1970s.

A snippet of biography found online explains the author’s familiarity with the setting of her story, and her obvious passion for the sharing of the brutal experiences of the rural Norwegians during the German occupation.

Australian children’s book author Margaret Balderson first made a name for herself with When Jays Fly to Bárbmo, a coming-of-age story about Ingeborg, a Norwegian girl who experiences the German invasion of Norway during World War II. The fear of invasion, and then its traumatic reality, provoke the young woman into a soul-searching quest to validate her own personal identity. This debut novel won awards across the English-speaking world.

Balderson was born and raised in Australia, but in 1963 she left for Europe. She settled for two years in Norway, where she worked in the winters and explored the countryside in the brief northern summers. In the Arctic nation, according to Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers contributor H. M. Saxby, “she experienced in a deeply personal way the innate rhythms of that land as expressed through its seasons. In particular, the Dark Time of the long Arctic winter became for her symbolic of an oppression of spirit which evaporates with the miracle of each spring.” Balderson’s experience of that cycle is reflected in Ingeborg’s life, as she passes through the darkness of living under occupation and emerges into freedom and adulthood.

A grand example of a “living book” which will be of interest to homeschool families and history teachers. I would say that it is suitable for ages 10 or so to adult. Highly recommended.

My edition is the OUP softcover, published in 1970, and it is graced by a wonderful cover illustration by one of my very favourite literary artists, Victor Ambrus. The first chapter heading is also illustrated, but sadly the rest of the volume is without decoration. I wonder if the original edition has more pictures? If so, I would love to get my hands on one…

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the web of days edna leeThe Web of Days by Edna Lee ~ 1947. This edition: D. Appleton-Century, 1947. Hardcover. 1st edition. 276 pages.

My rating: 3/10. The 3 points is for, um,  something.

Let’s see, now.

The best I can come up with is that it was engaging in that I read it to the end, hoping for some sort of unpredictable plot twist to crank it up a notch. (Sadly, that never happened.)

*****

Every once in a while I read a real clunker, which serves to remind me that all vintage books are not really worth saving.

The Web of Days was mesmerizing in its awfulness; I read it cover to cover, with increasing queasiness. Like the proverbial train wreck, I just couldn’t look away.

In a phrase: Melodramatic Gothic Southern Romance.

Prim, virginal, stunningly beautiful Yankee governess Hester Snow is engaged by the master of the derelict Georgia plantation called Seven Chimneys to care for his young son. The boy’s mother is a hopeless alcoholic, and Miss Snow finds the plantation to be an absolute disaster – the house is filthy, the servants sullen, and the master’s wife and mother viciously scornful of the new governess’s insistence on tidying up and tackling jobs for herself.

Hester immediately sets about fixing everything. Single-handedly she whips the house servants (ex-slaves, as this story takes place just after the end of the American Civil War, in Georgia) into shape, tames her sullen young charge, Rupert, and attempts to save the self-destructive mistress, Lorelie, from herself. She catches the attention of every man who sees her, from the riverboat captain who has delivered her to her new home, to the master of the Seven Chimneys plantation himself, Saint Clair LeGrand. More importantly, she has herself fallen in love with Saint Clair’s estranged half-brother, Roi LeGrand, who gallops in and out of the story on his fiery steed, Sans Foix.

Lorelie conveniently wanders out into the swamp and drowns herself one night, leaving the field open for Hester to marry the new widower, which she promptly does. Roi gallops in, chews on the scenery for a bit, and gallops off, leaving Hester deeply embroiled in a deep dark situation wherein her new husband schemes against her and attempts to engineer the death of young Rupert. It’s all to do with inheritances and such; Hester was assigned under the late Lorelie’s will the care of Seven Chimneys and Rupert, cutting out Saint Clair. (It’s complicated.)

Hester resurrects the plantation by master-minding a return to profitable farming; she also gets pregnant and eventually gives birth to young David, Saint Clair’s son, but widely suspected by all, including Saint Clair, to be Roi’s child. The plot sickens, er, thickens, ending in the violent demise of Saint Clair and the reunion of Hester and true love Roi. (That’s the condensed version. Now you won’t have to read the book! You may thank me for saving you that.)

As an orphan tumbling about in the world trying to make her own way, one would think Hester Snow would be a somewhat sympathetic character, but author Edna Lee has created an absolutely unlikable protagonist, whom I increasingly despised as the book progressed.

My biggest “queasy-making” issue was that the character Hester Snow is viciously misogynistic towards to the many black characters she encounters; I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a reflection of the author’s personal feelings as well. She (Hester Snow) is also very full of herself; self-confidence is an admirable trait, but add to it deep smugness and ruthless ambition, and you get a Scarlett O’Hara-type figure, but with less likeability. Scarlett had her moments where the reader could “get” why she was like she was and sympathize somewhat with her attempts to maintain control of her own life in an unkind world, but I’m afraid Hester never inspired such a feeling in me, much as I wanted her to.

The writing style itself is rather interesting, in that it is has a very nineteenth century feel to it in the phrasing. If deliberate, this is a good conceit on the part of the author, as the story is written in first person narration by Hester Snow herself, and the voice sounds authentic. There’s a fair bit of bodice-rippingly bad sex in a 1940’s style, in that we never really get a description of the act itself, just the prologue and epilogue; the velvet stage curtain swishes shut at the bedroom door.

A real period piece, but “of an inferior period, m’lord”, to paraphrase Bunter in one of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales – a quotation which I adore and use much too much.

Debating the fate of this book, I’m tempted to chuck it onto the giveaway pile, but while doing an internet search on the author I see she has several other “bestsellers” of her time which receive a fair bit of discussion: The Southerners, The Queen Bee, and All That Heaven Allows, among others. The Queen Bee was made into a 1955 film starring Joan Crawford, while All that Heaven Allows was made into a 1955 film starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. (1955 was a good year for Edna Lee, apparently.) Both received a fair bit of popular, if not critical, acclaim, which just goes to show I’m not sure what – maybe that melodrama sells?!

I may tackle Edna Lee again in future. It was an interesting experience, and greatly highlighted the excellence of much of my other vintage reading in comparison to The Web of Days‘s deeply schlocky shlockiness.

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away jane urquhart 001Away by Jane Urquhart ~ 1993. This edition: McLelland & Stewart, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-8650-4. 356 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

*****

What a beautifully written novel this one is. I am quite in awe of Urquhart’s lyrically gifted writer’s voice. But, I find myself musing, maybe a bit too much of a good thing? There is a story in this book as well, a normal narrative tale about an Irish family’s migration from the Old to the New World, which is in and of itself interesting and compelling, but which loses some of its power because of the gauzy, mystical clouds which the author shrouds her every scene in.

Away is a hybrid of historical fiction and magical realism, both genres which are notoriously hard to master all on their own, let alone in combination, as Urquhart has attempted ambitiously and generally successfully here.  The twin threads in this case do work surprisingly well. But – and here’s my biggest objection – so much is thrown at the reader both plot- and style-wise that it tends to dull one’s appreciation of the more delicate nuances of the intricate prose after a while.

Does one concentrate on the sober narrative for the story, or does one allow oneself to be swept away into the mystical bits? I tried to do both, but it felt an awful lot like work by mid-novel. I’m glad I read Away, because now I can tick it off my Must-Read Can Lit list, and I appreciated it as a work of art, but I’m not sure I will be re-reading it any time soon, if ever. I am definitely open to reading more by Jane Urquhart, but it would need to be at a time in my life when I could block off the necessary uninterrupted time to really concentrate and fully embrace the experience. Not quite sure when this magical time would be, though!

*****

The three most short-lived traces: the trace of a bird on a branch, the trace of a fish on a pool, and the trace of a man on a woman.

                                                                 -an Irish triad

The novel begins at the end of the story, with an elderly woman bidding farewell to her Ontario lakeshore home as it is about to be erased by the relentless expansion of a limestone quarry. As she wanders through the rooms of her doomed house, we see glimpses of artifacts of her life and the lives of her family and her ancestors. The author steps us back in time, one hundred and forty years before and thousands of miles away, to the storm-washed shores of an Irish island, where a teenage girl is about to stumble upon a scene which will mark her and her descendents irretrievably deeply, hence confounding the third line of the triad quoted at the beginning of the tale.

Irish Mary wades into the surf to pull out the body of a beautiful young man, barely alive and about to die. Before he expires, he opens his eyes and whispers a name – “Moira” – which the enchanted Mary embraces as her rightful new own. And when, some time later, Mary-now-Moira is found sleeping in the embrace of the dead man on the beach, she does not respond to the people around her, being lost in a dazed trance. The obvious explanation is that she has been bewitched by a daemon lover, and has lost her true soul, which has wandered “away” into the faery realm. She must be treated with care and compassion, in order that her soul may return to her one day.

Which it does, with the help of the local priest, who also sets her up with a suitably inclined husband, Moira-turned-back-to-Mary settles back into her normal life, though the edges of the other world are always visible to her. Mary has a son, and, when the potato famine inevitably strikes, sets sail for Canada with her husband and child. They go through all of the usual miseries, and fetch up eventually in the vast Canadian forest, where fellow immigrants surreally materialize from the woods to build the new family’s first shelter for them in a sort of dream sequence.

The family is successful in their new life, and a daughter joins the son, but Mary is being called by her other world once again, and one day slips away for good, following the call of the water wherein dwells her spirit lover.

More predictable historically fictional bits follow, as Mary’s children grow into adults and set off on lives of their own. Her son pragmatically moves ahead without bothering too much about the mystical heritage of his mother, but the daughter is a true creature of both worlds, and she finds her own beautiful young man, a charismatic Fenian rebel who has sworn himself to dance out the story of the Irish immigrants’ woes to the politicians deciding their fates. As may be supposed, this all ends most badly, but the line of daughters continues on, until we are back again in the doomed house with the rattlings of the quarry blastings shaking its foundations and its lone last inhabitant, Mary’s great-granddaughter.

*****

Is Away a book all Canadians should read? From the number of high school and college reading lists this one now appears on, it would seem that the powers-that-be would think so.

I don’t.

It’s certainly a gorgeous thing as a piece of literary art, but a rarefied type of read, I suspect best appreciated by those open to the fantastical elements so liberally used here. As a piece of historical fiction, the tale is flawed in that it assumes the reader will be coming to it from a place of prior knowledge, and is perhaps rather unreliable in its narration of actual events. It somehow misses feeling quite real. It could be tough going for many, especially those without the knowledge of context to separate fact from fantasy, or to fully appreciate the inferences the author relies on throughout.

Wonderfully lush and truly lovely, but too rich and paradoxically vague for everyday and everyperson consumption, I’m thinking.

*****

On to Lisa Moore’s February, for which I hold high hopes.

At present, here are my personal picks for the Canada Reads rankings.

For #1 spot, a tie between Indian Horse and Away. I may revise this once I’ve had some thinking time, but I’d better decide quickly, if I want to beat the debates!

Two Solitudes, in its half-read state, follows. It is rather too much of a period piece, but it is not necessarily a bad book, more of a product of its time in its earnest dullness.

The Age of Hope is at the bottom of the pile. It’s a common little thing, engaging and interesting enough, I willingly admit, but not worthy of the Canada Reads top laurels, in my opinion.

Dark horse February may shake things up.

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