Dear Jeanine Cummins,

What I read

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine working on a novel for five years and then *voila*–publicity tour cancelled–death threats–hateful reviews. (I guess if anything else, the blowback has spoken to the power of the written word … but I’m sure that’s little consolation and hardly how you thought this would turn out.)

Let me start out by saying that I raced through the first half of the book. You had me from the first page. I was riveted as Lydia and Luca raced to escape Los Jardineros. Held my breath as they hid in the missionary van and jumped onto La Bestia. The action was movie-like in its suspense; the characters just like me. Very John Grisham-ish, I thought.

And that was my first hint that something was not-quite-right. You see, Lydia seemed so … white. I get the whole we-are-all-the-same-on-the-inside thing, but Lydia’s story–a migrant’s story–was one about which I knew nothing. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, not my own. I wanted insight into the immigrant experience, but what I got was fiction that recycled features from the evening news. And this was probably my biggest disappointment: you wrote in tropes, cliche. Exciting ones, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted more.

I should probably mention I read nothing about the American Dirt controversy until after I finished the novel. My bookish friend Denice lent me her copy with an urgent, “I need to know what you think about this” and I didn’t want others to sway my opinion. Even the two of us spoke only briefly about the controversy.

And after reading several articles, I feel as though some of the criticism was well-founded. But even though the reviews might have some merit, I don’t think the entire burden should be laid at your feet. Flat Iron Books did you wrong–they were looking to make publishing waves and a whole lotta money and you got caught in the cultural cross-fire. Flat Iron heralded your book as literary fiction when in reality it was an exciting thriller, and you took most of the flack.

But, Jeanine, some of those reviewers were just. plain. nasty. I’m so sorry. Sadly, in our Trumpian universe people–even those who are woke–even those who have been on the receiving end of invective themselves–feel justified in name calling and taking broad swipes at those with whom they differ. Even *gasp* liberals and progressives. Whatever happened to respectful discourse?

Would I recommend American Dirt? Yes. With maybe a side note to read one of the articles below to put the novel into perspective. Was I sorry I took the time to read it? Not at all. As I said, it was an exciting thriller. It might even make a good movie.

But most importantly? It made me think. And that’s what compelling stories are all about.

What I lived

Following the American Dirt threads through the interwebs and reading link after link was fascinating. My takeaway? Listen. Just listen when you know little about a culture or experience that is not your own. Don’t stand on your liberal (or conservative!) soapbox and preach. Just. shut. up.

Here are some threads for you to follow, Dear Reader . Listen carefully.

Washington Post: Publisher cancels ‘American Dirt’ book tour: ‘Serious mistakes’ and ‘concerns about safety’ This article has a video excerpt of Cummins speaking at Politics and Prose Bookstore which is worth watching; just listening to the strain in her voice, it’s easy to recognize the toll this has taken on the author.

AP: Author tour for controversial ‘American Dirt’ is canceled Oprah chose the novel for her book club read and has faced some backlash from the Latinx community; concise read.

Slate: Will the American Dirt Fiasco Change American Publishing? Great discussion of how publishers might avoid a debacle like this in the future.

Texas Monthly: The Real Problem With ‘American Dirt’ Regional perspective with tons of links for additional reading, including this link to titles about the migrant experience written by Latinx.

1A (NPR): What The Controversy Over ‘American Dirt’ Tells Us About Publishing And Authorship A panel discussion focusing on “who has the right to tell what stories?” One quibble–one of the panelists scoffed at the fact that Cummins had Lydia ride La Bestia when a middle class woman in Mexico would have gone to the airport and taken the first flight to Canada. Except that Lydia did think of that and didn’t want her name showing up on the flight manifest. That made me wonder just how closely some of the critics read the novel.

A good life

What I read

It’s been eight years since Amanda Copin’s The Orchardist was published; I’ve had the title waiting in my Kindle queue for at least three. And I’m more than a little sheepish to admit 1) I let the book sit idle for so long and 2) if memory serves me, it was a Kindle deal. Because, really. This book is such a beauty that I would have gladly paid full price for the hardcover–and read it the day it was released.

Is this a beautiful cover, or what?!

I try not to read reviews of books I write about until my own is published. Something to do with a niggling little worry in the back of my mind that I will accidentally repeat what I read. So trust me when I say I’m not the first to call this novel poetic, lyrical, dazzling. (Even though it is.) Nor am I the first to think the storytelling is a little bit Annie Proulx. Or Charles Frazier. (Even though it is.)

Talmadge came to the Pacific Northwest when he was nine, along with his mother and sister, after his father died. Then Mother died and sister Elsbeth disappeared. Yet even as an orphaned young teen, Talmadge worked their land and tended to his orchards. Apples, mostly. Plums. Apricots, even. He’s watched over–mainly from a distance–by the village herbalist, Caroline Midday. And despite hardship and back-breaking work, Talmadge has made a good–if solitary–life for himself.

But then Della and her sister Jane enter his life, the story unfolds, and it’s as if the first fifty years of his life have led him to this moment. The girls, just barely teens, are pregnant and all but feral. Filthy. Starving. Distrustful. Talmadge leaves food on his porch; they stay hidden in the orchard. Until the babies come and then the girls–and their one surviving baby Angeline–need shelter and care. And, dare I say, love.

Their story is a hard one. Della and Jane have run away from a whore house where they were beaten and abused. Michaelson, the man who runs the business, sets out to find the girls, twice. Talmadge manages to outwit him once, and the second time Michaelson shows up, tragedy is close on his heels.

But somehow Talmadge and Caroline Midday and Cree, the Nez Perce man who oversees Talmadge’s harvest workers, build a happy life for themselves and the one around whom their world comes to revolve: Angelene. The surviving baby who brings a sweetness to their life they wouldn’t have imagined. Talmadge would do anything to protect Della, Angeline’s aunt-turned-mother … but we all know that our best intentions are often thwarted by those we love.

The end of the novel becomes a sweeping drama and I would have been satisfied without twists and turns. But because The Orchardist was lyrical and poetic and dazzling, I was content to stay with Talmadge and Angelene and Della to the end.

What I lived

The winter has been mild and wet, but I’ve been wrapped up in a tight cocoon of grandchildren and reading and stitching. I have no complaints!

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my return to stitching. Especially since it’s been over thirty years since I’ve picked up a needle and thread. When my kids were young I stitched up a storm and even made my boys what I called Christopher Robin shortie overalls for church. But single parenting and finishing college and earning a living got in the way of all that–sadly, I think now.

And, oh my! have embroidery patterns evolved. Gone are the alphabets and bunnies and bonnet girls. HellO whimsy! I’ve also made several Ann Woods Mr. Socks . I struggle, wondering what in heavens name I will actually do with the stitching I complete–and I think that’s somehow related to retirement. Life is no longer commoditized. My accomplishments don’t have a value assigned by a contract or addendum. I stitch because I want to–not necessarily for the payback. Believe it or not, my mind is really taking some time to wrap itself around that idea.

Book drop @ Frederik Meijer Gardens

I’ve also become a Book Fairy–which is just about as close to a super hero as I will ever get. Check out the Book Fairy website here and think about becoming one yourself. Readers, we could flood the world with books.

Think about the power in that for a minute …

Tis the season

What I lived

Stage Coach Barn Holiday Open House

My season’s holly and jolly has been of my own making so far, and if the festivities ended here, I would declare myself satisfied. (I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the holidays, once even cancelling the whole shebang. But that’s grist for another post!)

This year I jump-started December with a trip to Stage Coach Barn Sale’s Christmas open house, and it was a barn full of shabby chic holiday. (I purchased two “doo-dad” mason jars for writing prompts and a birch log candle holder, but I could have done so much more damage. So much!) The next weekend it was off to the Christmas Lite Show’s holiday walk. Instead of driving this year, I walked with friends Mary and Elizabeth. And, yes, it was toe-numbing cold, but you can’t say no to a two-mile walk through this holiday extravaganza! I laughed and chit-chatted and had coffee and goodies … holiday cheer.

Lowell Historical Museum Victorian dollhouse

This week I met friend Denice for brunch at Sweet Seasons, a cafe and bakery in downtown Lowell, followed by a visit to the Victorian dollhouse recently donated to the Lowell Historical Museum. The nine-room dollhouse is an Eye-Spy wonder. No detail is spared, right down to the portraits on the walls which are actual family photos. The couple who created the house collected pieces from their travels over decades, and, as they say, viewing this exhibit is worth the price of admission. After the museum we got our steps in at the Grand River Riverfront park which features one of the longest timber-framed bridges in the country–it’s majestic to walk along, to say the least. (You can read about the afternoon from Denice’s point-of-view over at her blog Denice’s Day.)

Can you even?

Friends, you don’t know homemade candy until you’ve tasted one of Denice’s homemade peppermint patties. She only makes them at Christmas and I am the proud recipient of a gift bag of these goodies which I am hoarding for my own pleasure in a very Grinch-like manner.

And, really? What more do we need this Christmas season than a bracing walk in the cold, the conversation of sweet friends, and the hope of twinkle lights?

What I’ve read

It’s been a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I’m afraid. I find myself a bit impatient with any title that doesn’t catch me within the first few pages–I’ve even added a folder to my Kindle labeled “Slush”. Maybe it has something to do with getting older, but I keep thinking of all the luscious books I could be reading and think, “Ain’t nobody got time for this!”

I did read a provoking novel titled Southernmost by Silas House. It wasn’t a light read, but it spoke to me in a new way about the power that doubt has to transform our lives. Asher Sharp is a Pentecostal preacher with a wife and young son. His life has been lived on the solid rock of his beliefs–until a flood devastates the Tennesee countryside he calls home and at the same time shakes the foundation of his well-ordered life. A gay couple ask for shelter in the flood’s aftermath and Asher turns them away, just as his beliefs would have him do. But he is floundering to justify his actions–and the doubts emerge. Although it sounds bleak, and although Asher ends up losing nearly everything, Southernmost is a story of hope.

But now it’s a week until Christmas and my reading will be jingle all the way. I’ve got two winter titles–The Mistletoe Promise (“a love story for Christmas” states the blurb!) and A Week in Winter (Can you say, “Maeve Binchy”?) that are as fluffy as whipped cream on cocoa–and just what I want to wrap up the holidays.

To read–or not to read

What I read

Imagine you dance three waltzes with a man twice your age at your step-sister’s wedding–and the next morning he asks for your hand in marriage. Imagine you marry him twenty-four hours later. Imagine spending two nights as his wife before he leaves to lead his regiment in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Imagine not seeing that husband again for two years.

You’ve just met Placidia Hockaday. (And because she is the second Mrs. H, Placidia is now step-mother to one-year-old baby Charles.) A whirlwind of a romance, to be sure, but it’s war time, after all. Major Gryff Hockaday lost his first wife to typhoid and felt he must “gamble his heart on winning something worth coming home to.” It’s my guess the scenario happened more times than we might think.

But what we also know from the beginning of The Second Mrs. Hockaday is that Placidia is in jail, charged with the murder of an infant son born while Major Hockaday was away, and the novel turns on the circumstances of that pregnancy and the baby’s death–a Sophie’s choice if there ever was one. Author Susan Rivers unravels Mrs. Hockaday’s story in a series of letters to her cousin Millie, inquest testimony, and diary entries discovered by Mrs. Hockaday’s son Achilles after the death of his parents.

I’ll be careful here because to say much more would be a certain spoiler. Let’s just say that Achilles Hockaday and his aunt Mildred face their own devastating choice. It was Major Hockaday’s wish that the diaries be destroyed so that no one would know the couple’s secret. Will Achilles honor that wish? Or will he read his mother’s diary and–perhaps–have his world destroyed by what he learns? When is it best to leave well enough alone?

It’s a powerful tale, Reader.

What I lived

I was as captivated by the story of Achilles’ Hockaday’s dilemma as I was his mother’s. To read or not to read, that is the question. What makes that dilemma even more intriguing is that fact that after I die my children (and grandchildren, for I’ve gifted my personal writing to one of them when they come of age) will read–or not–my journals and stories.

We parents spend years sifting through our children’s lives. We listen to their dreams and fears when they are young. Stand by them when they stumble. Pray that they turn to us when life gets difficult, hoping we can offer even a bit of direction. But what do those children know of their parents? Probably something of our childhood and family, our pastimes and jobs. But I’m guessing very little about our inner demons or what of life has made us heartsick. We parents are masters of the stiff upper lip, believing, perhaps, it is not the natural order of things to reveal the dark night of our soul to our children.

But my family will have the same opportunity as Achilles. They’ll become privy to what was sublime in my life. And what was hellish. If they read my writing, I hope they come to understand me in a deeper way.

And maybe–as did Achilles–allow the writing to soften their hearts.

Mercy

What I read

I’m a little late to the party judging from the nearly 13,000 Amazon reviews for Sue Monk Kidd’s Invention of Wings. The historical novel provides an imaginative back story for the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, Southern aristocrats turned Abolitionists and feminists. Kidd adds to their story a difficult and demanding mother, a spirited slave Hetty, and a glimpse into the social constraints of the South. Young Sarah, intelligent and headstrong, wants more than anything to take up law when she grows up–just like her father and brother. But that dream is punished out of her early when eleven-year-old Sarah writes a manumission letter for her personal slave Hettie. Such things aren’t done in the South. And certainly not by a girl.

Eventually, jilted by a suitor, torn by her father’s death, and weary of her mother’s cruelty, Sarah make her way North. She rooms with Abolitionist Lucretia Mott, then tutors the children of Quaker Israel Morris, becoming active in the fight to end slavery. After several years, Angelina joins her and together they inspire (and appall) audiences with their fiery speeches.

Invention of Wings is loosely based on the Grimke sisters lives, but the story Sue Monk Kidd weaves is captivating. It wasn’t until the novel’s end that I realized I had heard about these famous-not-so-famous women before. The Grimkes are the “G” in My Town’s public art project titled Rad Women A-Z which I wrote about here.

I also just finished a tender story about two young sisters titled This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash. I found the story reminiscent of Catherine Hyde Ryan’s novels: orphaned girls, fathers who failed, and attempts at redemption. Throw in a little baseball, 14 million missing dollars, and a bad guy–and you’ve got a story worth reading.

What I lived

We had a tree that we loved.

It was a majestic willow that grew far beyond our expectations. I gifted it to my husband nineteen years ago for his first step-father’s day. She shaded our beloved Trixie and got in the way of many a game of ladder ball. I grumbled after storms left her switches all over the backyard. Each summer the orioles would cling to her branches for cover before landing on their feeder.

But last week, after a stormy winter, wet spring, and windy September, I noticed her leaning. Then “Hmmm. Those roots are buckled more than I thought …” and later the same day, “Oh my goodness–it’s even worse.” Not a good sign.

Two days later the arborist came out and declared removal an emergency. Her branches leaned on the garage. She was a danger to people and property.

Over nearly twenty years, Willow watched our lives unfold–the good, the bad, and the ugly. We found a measure of grace in her shelter–and I hope her mercy remains with us still.