Lush and lavish: Amy Snow (review)

Amy Snow
Tracey Rees
Simon & Schuster

Life just seems to move at a slower pace in the summer. Afternoons are hot and humid, the evenings languid. We spend a lot of time on the deck and not so much time in front of the television. It’s a time when we try to break free from our daily routine.  Amy Snow, a novel published earlier this month, makes for a great escape. One of this novel’s blurbs reads: “An abandoned baby, a treasure hunt, a secret. As Amy sets forth on her quest, readers will be swept away …” Pretty accurate, I’d say.

Wealthy heiress Aurelia Venneway finds a newborn baby naked in the snow. Without a thought to propriety, she bundles the little girl under her cloak and rushes into the parlor.amy snow Lady Venneway is cold and distant; she’s just lost yet another pregnancy and the foundling is like a slap in the face. The orphan (named Amy Snow by Aurelia) is banished to the kitchen while the entire household staff tries to keep her out of Lady Venneway’s sight. For a time, Amy is Aurelia’s play thing–eight years younger, she adores the headstrong lady, and is game to join in any of Aurelia’s escapades. And then the two young women grow to be best friends. It’s harder now to stay invisible to Lady Venneway, but the consequences if Amy doesn’t are humiliating. When Aurelia becomes deathly ill–and the prognosis is dire–she demands that her parents permit Amy Snow to be her companion.

The real story begins after Aurelia’s death. Turned out of the house immediately after the funeral, Amy Snow is on her own. Or is she? A mysterious letter is secreted away in her skirt–and Amy soon begins the work of getting to know the real Aurelia Venneway. Before her death,  Aurelia arranged a scavenger hunt, of sorts, for Amy, each clue giving her specific directions: find Enwhistle’s bookshop; stay in Twickenham for three months; travel to Bath. At the end of her travels, Amy doesn’t simply adore her friend blindly but rather with eyes open to Aurelia’s charms … and her faults.

What adds even more fun to the novel is that it was an unsolicited manuscript, submitted by writer Tracey Rees to the Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ Competition–which makes the author’s story a bit of a fairy tale, just like Amy’s. Amy Snow kept me turning page after page–like the post title says, the novel is lavish. If you want to get lost in a world of nineteenth century manners, velvet dresses, carriages, stately horses, dashing young men, and strong-willed women, Amy Snow is perfect for your blanket or beach chair reading.

Destination: Walnut Grove & Plum Creek

sod house
Soddie with sod roof

My goal was De Smet–850 long miles from home–where I’d visit Little Town on the PrairieThe Long Winter, and By the Shores of Silver Lake sites. But I sure couldn’t travel that far without a stop along the way to the banks of Plum Creek. The small town of Walnut Grove, namesake of the TV home of the Ingalls family, is just a few miles from Plum Creek, so I figured a stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store was in order. Except for the fact that TV actors visit Walnut Grove each year for the Wilder Pageant, Walnut Grove doesn’t offer much to LIW fans. Wilder herself only mentioned the town in passing; the family’s home in the area was at Plum Creek. This little town’s fame is totally reliant on the television show.

soddie with windows
Walls like concrete

The emphasis is on ‘gift store’ at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store. This museum was similar to the one on my trip to the Little House in the Big Woods last summer–a lot of books, dolls, and souvenirs for sale, but not much actual Ingalls’ memorabilia. (But of course I did buy two books!) One room housed story boards floor to ceiling, illustrating the family’s journey with photos and explanation of the period, along with excerpts from Wilder’s books. There was a binder of photocopied articles Wilder wrote when she and Almanzo settled in Missouri. A buffalo coat like Pa wore. But other than that? Only a place setting of dishes, a sewing basket, and two balls of crochet thread actually belonged to Wilder. My favorite (and most authentically museum-worthy) display was a few original sketches and paintings by Garth Williams that became the illustrations fans of the books know and love so well.  The originals are surprisingly small–some only 3″ X 3″!

The other room in the museum itself was dedicated to the TV series–magazines, photos, autographs–but that really isn’t my connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder and I admit I barely looked at it. The museum site also has a few other exhibits representing the time period: a chapel, a “Grandma’s House” (which focused on all things housekeeping), and a school room.There was also a sod house on the museum grounds, but it couldn’t compare to the display of sod houses (or soddies as they’re lovingly referred to) on the McCone family prairie grass farm in Sanborn.

I actually visited the Sod House on the Prairie (which is a private venture) first since it was on the way into town. The family has built replicas of different styles of sod houses–a dug out, a sod house with plastered walls and wood floors, a rough soddie with dirt floors and hay roof–and furnished them accordingly. It is a labor of love–and the re-creations gave me an idea of what life would have been like in prairie homes. One word: dirt. Dirt everywhere. Even the display cards in each soddie were covered with gritty grime … and bird poop. So when you look at Garth Williams’ endearing renderings of Laura frolicking on the banks of Plum Creek with the cozy little sod house tucked into the hill like a Hobbit house, just remember: dirt.

on the banks of plum creek
Plum Creek

Even though Plum Creek is just a creek (!) and the “remains” of the Ingalls’ dugout is only a depression in the bank, the site is surrounded by restored prairie that is home to birds and snakes and foxes (oh, my!) that makes a lovely little hike. (Bring bug spray!) In all honesty, I’d skip Walnut Grove and just drive through Plum Creek for a quick walk to stretch your legs and maybe a wade in the creek.

It was those times when I walked on Ingalls’ land and listened to the tall grass rustle, maybe catching sight of a thrush on the wing, that I felt Laura’s legacy. And that’s what I came for.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (review)

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (NetGalley)
Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster

I read Chris Cleave’s Little Bee for book club just about five years ago. And I liked it–with a few reservations. I liked this new novel of his–which also received a great deal of hype–with the same uncertainty.

London, 1939. Mary North, a Pimlico blueblood, signs up to help with the war effort before her parents can intervene. She expects excitement–espionage, even. What she gets is a teaching position. But at nineteen, Mary is still almost as rebellious and childish as her young charges; she doesn’t last long in her first assignment. She does, however, meet Tom Shaw, a young administrator with the Education Authority. Mary importunes until he gives up and offers her a classroom of her own.

[Now did you see how that word ‘importune’ is a little out of place there? It’s just a little too stuffy–the word almost calls attention to itself, doesn’t it? Well author Cleave is a master of using words that call attention to themselves, as in this little beauty: “”Her confusion grew, the heart lucent and the mind lucifuguous, the great clash of music …” What the heck?!] 

Everyone Brave Is ForgivenBut her classroom is made up of London’s cast-off children–the ones who couldn’t be evacuated to the countryside: children with mental handicaps and physical disabilities. Oh, and a negro child Zachary, whose father is an American performing with a minstrel show in London. But Mary treats the children tenderly and offers them some sense of normalcy, even during the London Blitz. She also takes up with Tom, and their love story is a respite in the midst of wartime.

Mary also meets Alistair, once Tom’s roommate, now on leave for a few weeks, a seasoned officer in the British military . She’s drawn to him in ways she wasn’t with Tom–and then he’s gone to war again, this time to Malta. There’s also Mary’s friend Hilda who plays the plain girl sidekick role. We have a jar of blackberry preserves and more than a few near-death situations. A little morphine addiction. A foray into ambulance driving. A loyal servant and a father in Parliament.

I know I sound overly critical–it’s a rollicking World War II saga. But maybe that’s a problem when it comes to war stories, no? It comes too close to trivializing a horror. I’m not the only reader who had some misgivings–USA Today’s review was lukewarm, at best; The Washington Post also had some misgivings. I did read Everyone Brave Is Forgiven straight through one weekend, so that says something–apparently I was able, on some level, to forgive the story’s faults.

But if you want a really good World War II novel, try to get your hands on a copy of Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers.

Magic Trash and the Heidleberg Project (Blogging from A-Z Challenge)

Today is day 13 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theMagic Trash
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: Magic Trash


Take a peek back at “K”–remember when hubby and I took in a Tiger game on opening weekend? After we left in the 5th, I had a list of Top Ten Things To Do In Detroit all ready to go, links and everything on my phone. I came prepared, people! Now you might ask–Detroit? There’s things to do that would even approach a Top Ten list?

And yes, dear reader, there is.

Because Detroit is coming back–it’s a story on the Michigan Radio NPR station just about every day. And if it’s not yet “back”, Detroit is certainly trying. We found Historic Fort Wayne, a Civil War fort and home of the Tuskegee Airmen museum. Closed, sadly, until the end of April. We found Eastern Market, a urban farmer’s market that spills over into some of the surrounding neighborhood with foodie little Magic Trashshops and such. And we found  The Heidelberg Project. Now I’ve heard about the project for years (on Michigan Radio, of course!) and I’ve seen footage on TV news when it was vandalized by arson. Twice.

But you really must see it to believe it.

Heidelberg ProjectI found an incredible children’s book in the gift shop titled Magic Trash that tells the story of Tyree Guyton and his art. As a boy Guyton’s grandfather (a house painter) encouraged him to channel his extraordinary imagination by painting. Like many artists, Guyton was also a keen observer of the world around him. He saw his beloved East Side decline as neighbors left for the suburbs. He watched riots light the city on fire in the late sixties. And he got out of there. This is one children’s book I bought for myself–the illustrations are whimsical and some of the writing, poetry: “Brush greens and blues/On wheels and shoes/Slosh, slap, and splash magic trash”.

Heidelberg ProjectBut Guyton eventually came back to Grandpa Sam’s house and started to transform the ugliness around him into something beautiful. Now this is where is gets tricky because some would look at The Heidelberg Project and question, not exclaim, its beauty. (In fact, some believe that the arsons were, in fact, an attempt to destroy the Project–but art is eternal, no?) And I’m not an expert in contemporary art, so I may not be the best judge. But I do know that The Heidelberg Project is stunning, extraordinary, profound on some level I can’t quite explain. It is vibrant. Alive.

The Project’s mission states their goal is to, “inspire people to appreciate and use artistic The Yellow Houseexpression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community.” One neighbor took that goal to heart. The Yellow House allows guests to sign and date the siding–and has used the money to repair the house: new porch, siding and soffit repair. That’s enterprise–the Heidelberg philosophy in action. Lives enriched. Economic health of one family improved.

Tyree Guyton is an evangelist for his art and his city. At the end of this YouTube video, (which is a must-watch, by the way) Guyton says he believes Detroit will come back. That if he can do one little thing to help that happen, he’s done his job.

We’re planning a trip back this summer.

The Beauty of What Remains (review)

The Beauty of What Remains (NetGalley)
Susan Johnson Hadler
She Writes Press

Writer Susan Johnson Hadler’s father died in WWII when she was only three months old.  Because he was killed in a mine explosion, there were no remains to inter and his wife was sent only his personal effects: socks, glasses, a sewing kit, a few snapshots, a bible, and $38.67.  Hadler’s mother remarried a few years later, and the three-year-old was folded into a new family that had, it seemed, no room for her father’s memory. But Hadler always wondered about him, in part because the welcome letter he had written when she was born was taped inside her baby book. Full of his love for her mother and hopes for her future, the letter was something at least–but not enough.

In her twenties, Hadler dared approach the subject of her dad. “What was he like?” she asked her mother. Put the past behind you, her mother implied–“You have everything you’ve ever needed.” The past is the past. Except for Hadler, it wasn’t.

And so when she’s nearly fifty, Hadler begins to unravel her father’s story. She gets a copy of her father’s war records, contacts some of the The Beauty of What Remainsmen he served with, attends a reunion of the 782nd tank battalion, and finally travels to Mechernich, Germany with her husband to put all the pieces together. They stand in the woods where he died and take in the countryside he saw in his last days and weeks.

David Johnson was a “fine gentleman, good officer.” He was “firm” with the men under his command. David Johnson was “lighthearted, carefree. Nothing bothered him.” Her father was “a quiet man. Kind. Respected.” A good man.

Even Hadley’s mother begins to open up a bit about their brief life together. How the couple was the first of their friends to marry, how their friends gathered at their apartment before leaving for the war, how angry she was at his death. But Hadley also heard love in her voice, the love that became her.

Hadley petitioned and received a memorial marker for her father in Arlington Cemetary, where the family gathered for a brief ceremony, and she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Finding My Father” in the Washingtonian Magazine.  And with that, the family wagons circled around Hadley’s mother who felt as though her privacy had been violated.

Shuffling through all those family photos also led Hadley to finding her mother’s estranged sisters: Dorothy, a lively octogenarian who lived in Brooklyn, New York; and Elinor, sent away in her twenties to a mental hospital, and … well, you’ll just have to get a copy of The Beauty of What Remains to turn that page in Hadley’s family album.

I think what appealed to me most about this memoir was the author’s navigation of all things family. Navigating the waters of family secrets and wading through repressed memories, Hadley speaks her truth–painfully, cautiously, but always honestly.

The Beauty of What Remains is a beautiful story, compellingly told.