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.

Walking with Hemingway

What I read

I finally read the book everyone (as in nearly 20,000 reader reviews on Amazon) has been talking about–Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. And, oh my goodness. It’s worth every bit of the chatter.

You certainly don’t need me to give you a synopsis–and I won’t. Except to say it’s the story of Kya Clark, the Marsh Girl, who lives with incredible loss and isolation and eventually finds her own measure of peace.

I like a good story set in a time and place not my own, and Owens captured the beauty of living in the marshland along the North Carolina coast in the middle of the twentieth century. Kya was an artist (and an accomplished biologist) and I couldn’t help but wish the book had been illustrated with her sketches and watercolors. (I can see a companion volume, modeled on The Diary of an Edwardian Lady. )

I found an interesting interview with the author on this podcast–Owens is interviewed in the first twenty minutes–that includes an interview with Barbara Kingsolver, who also has a profound gift for laying the natural world in the laps of her readers so that we exclaim, “How exquisite … How inimitable … is our world.” There’s talk of a movie, and though I don’t usually watch The Movie of the Book, I might be tempted to in this case if only to see this countryside on a big screen.

Speaking of countryside …

What I lived

The water came up in a tile sunk beside the road, lipping over the cracked edge of the tile and flowing away through the close-growing mint into the swamp ~ “Summer People”

A few weeks ago I went on a Hemingway tour in northern Michigan with Chris Struble of Petoskey Yesterday. Many readers know that Hemingway spent his boyhood summers at the family home on Walloon Lake and later, after returning from the war, in Petoskey. But what remains of Hemingway’s time in northern Michigan is really the landscape itself.

So the trip was a wonderful blend of Hemingway lore (Chris is the current president of the Michigan Hemingway Society) along with readings from the Nick Adams stories. We got a feel for Hemingway’s life in Petoskey after the war and went from his rooming house to the library to the City Park Grill. We stopped at the Red Fox Inn and the Horton Bay General Store, both of which he frequented, then drove down a narrow country road to Horton’s Bay. Along the way, Chris read passages from the Nick Adams stories, and while there were no museums–and only one bronze sculpture–we were able to experience the countryside Hemingway loved so dearly.

602 State Street ~ Red Fox Inn

[Although I’d highly recommend a tour with Petoskey Yesterday, here’s a driving tour if you’d rather explore on your own. This article from the New York Times would make a great before-tour read. But be sure to bring along a copy of the Nick Adams Stories, and maybe a good Hemingway biography, to get the full effect.]

On the road

What I lived and what I read

Last week I took my first journey out on my own in the little trailer I call Bag End. I needed to see if the story I’ve been writing was actually set in southern Ohio (it is!) and I also visited a few historical sites: Grant’s birthplace and childhood home, and abolitionist John Rankin’s home.

Stonelick State Park

When we met for coffee the week before the trip, Friend Denice was reading David McCullough’s The Pioneers about the settlement of the Northwest territory–and especially Ohio. Perfect! (I loved traveling to South Dakota and Wisconsin while reading Pioneer Girl.) I started the book the weekend before I left and almost finished it in Stonelick State Park where I camped. The blind courage of those early settlers who couldn’t even make their way through the woods without clearing trees and who depended on a stockade fence (!) to keep them safe from Indian attack is beyond my understanding. I also thought about those indigenous peoples who had no concept of humans “owning” land and how incredulous they must have been when these white squatters had the audacity to take over their ancestral home. (Sadly, we know how the story ended.)

John Rankin House overlooking Ripley and the Ohio River

The rock stars of my trip were the docents who showed me around Ulysses S. Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, his childhood home in Georgetown, and the John Rankin House in Ripley. They were engaging storytellers and ambassadors for Ohio tourism, and they don’t get enough recognition. At each site the guides suggested other landmarks to take in, which is how I learned about the John Rankin House, my favorite stop of the trip. The abolitionist Rev. Rankin was one of the first conductors on the Underground Railroad. He built his house on the top of a bluff overlooking Ripley, so he could track the movements of the bounty hunters in the town below. Runaways were led to his home by a single light in his window–it is estimated he guided over two thousand to safety.

Ulysses S. Grant sites

I learned a lot about traveling alone with Bag End. I officially hate trucks, expressways, and wind. But taking rural routes? While I loved the pace and the space the country roads offered, they added nearly 100 miles each way and the fatigue was overwhelming by the time all was said and done. I’ll need to move slower and stop overnight more often than I did–over four hundred miles in a day proved to be too much. But that’s what this trip was for–to figure out how I can comfortably roam on my own.

By the time I was within an hour of Stonelick, I knew my story was indeed set in Ohio. The corn fields and roadsides were exactly where I saw my character Patty walking, and the Gas ‘n Go could have been any number of seen-better-days garages. My soundtrack as I explored was a local blue grass station and I can imagine Pops humming along with If Teardrops Were Pennies. Although I didn’t work on the piece while in Ohio, I did some pretty substantial organization of the story–so I know which direction I’m headed.

Which is the whole point of a journey, no?

I was Anastasia: review

I Was Anastasia
Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday
release date: March 27, 2018

I read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra in high school when I measured books by length–the longer the better–and  by heft. At nearly 700 pages (Amazon tells me the hardcover weighs just shy of two pounds) the book kept me captivated for at least a few days. I read it in a rush, transported to tsarist Russia. I sighed over the love story of Nicholas and Alexandra, despised Rasputin for the dastardly sway he held over Alexandra. I longed to live in their grand homes, to wear beautiful gowns like the tsarinas. It’s probably safe to say I wouldn’t have been one of the peasants shouting at the gates of Alexander Palace.

Massie’s book read like a novel, and I still recommend it to a certain sort of my students today: the dreamers, the romantics, the lovers of fairy tales. It is, in fact, the whole of my understanding of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Anything I read about the events in a history book is lost in the cobwebs.

Story is that powerful.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia

Ariel Lawhon’s recently released novel  I Was Anastasia is the first person account of Tsar Nicholas’s youngest daughter Anastasia, and her life in exile with the family. It is also the story of her life as the only surviving Romanov, a woman who lived as Anna Anderson but claimed to be Anastasia. Anna tried for years to get the courts to  rule in her favor so that she could inherit what was left of the Romanov estate. The story she tells is compelling: surviving the execution, she became a refuge smuggled out of post-war Europe. Anna came under the care of a number of wealthy benefactors. Some truly believed she was Anastasia; others were only interested in trading on her social cache. She spent time in a sanitarium in Germany and was later institutionalized in a mental asylum after a suicide attempt. Her fervent supporters included Gleb Botkin, the son of the Romanov’s physician who was murdered with the family. It was Gleb who arranged Anna’s move to the United States and her marriage of convenience to retired history professor Jack Manahan. As Anna’s memories unfolded in the novel, I was right there with Gleb–frustrated that others didn’t see the obvious truth of her claim.

I don’t think there is a Nicholas and Alexandra devotee who hasn’t wondered at one time or another if the tales of Anastasia’s survival were true. There have been at least six Anastasia contenders throughout the years, and our fascination with the story produced countless books, a movie staring Ingrid Bergman, and a Disney film. What a perfect ending to a fairy tale that would be–and the tale Anastasia tells in I Was Anastasia is believable and captivating.

Or is it?

A Piece of the World: review

A Piece of the World
Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow

a piece of the worldChristina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train made me curious to read more about the orphans shipped cross-country at the turn-of-the-century. So when I read about her latest novel A Piece of the World and it’s subject–the painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth–I immediately put the book on my wishlist.

And summer seemed like the perfect time to check it off.

My appreciation of Andrew Wyeth came in a round-about way. Like everyone else I was intrigued by the news of the Helga paintings discovered in 1986, and was surprised to find a second of the book The Helga Pictures at the bookstore where I worked. Then, on a trip to Washington D.C. a year later, I was able to view the collection at the National Gallery–without even knowing the work was on tour when I planned the trip. What an incredible story: over 300 never-known works by a famous artist, the intimacy of the pictures, curiosity about the relationship between artist and subject.

A Piece of the World sparked in me the same curiosity about Christina Olson, the subject of Wyeth’s famous Christina’s World. 

Christina Olson grew up in a farmhouse on the coast of Maine. Her parents were stern, but loving, and worked themselves (and their children) hard to make ends meet. Always a clumsy child, Christina’s physical condition gradually deteriorated until she had difficulty walking. By the time she was in school, Christina fashioned cotton pads for her elbows and knees, so she wouldn’t suffer cuts and scrapes. Even though her parents were willing to spend precious savings so that a specialist could diagnose her condition, Christina refused, hiding from her father when they arrived at the doctor’s office. Christina wanted to be loved for who she was, clumsy falls and all.

That stubborn determination was Christina’s constant ally–and ever-present enemy. It was that determination that allowed Christina to run the farmhouse as her parents aged and fall in love with a summer visitor. She attended dances with young people at the town hall, and fished with her brothers off the coast. And it was one of the qualities that painter Andy Wyeth admired so much in her. Wyeth himself suffered from a limp, and this might have been what allowed Christina to be open to their friendship. But Christina was also set in her ways and held on to hurts and perceived insults. She was a difficult woman if one was not one her good side.

Kline alternates between Christina’s back story and the thirty year long friendship that developed with Wyeth as he painted on the Olson property each summer. And like my fascination with the Helga pictures, I became curious about Wyeth all over again. (I must say that the internet made research a little easier this time around!) Michael Palin produced an episode about Wyeth for his BBC series titled Michael Palin In Wyeth’s World and I was able to find it on YouTube. The episode gave some great insight into Wyeth, but Palin interviewed the real Helga–and believe-you-me, the fantasy is much more satisfying that the reality.

If you like historical fiction or have always admired Wyeth’s painting, I can’t see how A Piece of the World would fail to please.