Dreaming of Castro: A Place We Knew Well (review)

A Place We Knew Well (NetGalley)
Susan Carol McCarthy
Bantam Books/Random House
release date: September 29

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of a five-year-old. Of course, I knew nothing about it really. There’s a memory of my mom and dad sitting in the living room with a neighbor couple, and I heard “There’s nothing we can do” (My dad was only a few years back from being PlaceWeKnewWell_eCards1stationed on the USS Bushnell, a submarine tender in the Caribbean) and “I have some water jugs in the basement” (my mom, the consummate planner). Kindergartners know little about the world of negotiation and detente and nuclear annihilation. But kids do dream.

In my dream, our little white duplex at the end of the dirt road was swarming with Castros—they’re at the windows trying to get in, they’re walking around the living room, they’re sitting at the kitchen table. Maybe ten of them. They force my mom sit at the table and refuse to let her get up, even when my dad starts knocking on the back door. And that’s as far as it goes (or as much as I remember), but dreamt it over and over for years.

So somewhere in my little brain, I understood that “the Castros” wanted my house.

Susan McCarthy explores that period in her new novel A Place We Knew Well. Wes Avery, owner of a Big Chief gas station near Orlando, notices more than the usual jet flyovers from the Strategic Air Command base nearby: bombers, a Stratotanker, fighters, even, it was rumored, the new U-2 spy plane. The locals say the U.S. is “getting’ ready to kick out Castro”. Wes’s wife Sarah is busy preparing the Women’s Club Civil Defense Committee’s “first-ever Family Survival and Fallout Shelter Show” in just a few days, showcasing a bomb shelter stocked with the supplies every family needs to “be prepared”. If ever a euphemism fell short, that one did.

But as President Kennedy prepares to speak about the international crisis, other storms are brewing. Sarah, whose sights are set on climbing back up the social ladder she descended after marrying down, struggles with tautly stretched nerves even without the stress of nuclear war. Miscarriages, a recent hysterectomy, family secrets—all weigh on her heavily and stretch that wire even tighter, so that she comes to rely on pills to sleep, pills to wake up, pills to keep going. (The sixties were clearly a time when we believed pharmaceuticals could cure all ills.)

Meanwhile, their daughter, high school senior Charlotte Avery, just wants Homecoming to go off without the hitch of nuclear destruction. Big worries for a country of kids who should be enjoying that carefree childhood we all believe in. Mythical maybe, but still. Charlotte dreams of her dress, a dreamy date, the ride in the parade—and wonders if anyone would still be alive by then.

McCarthy captures a tense period in American history and personalizes it with the Averys, right down to the bologna and cheese sandwiches, frosty glass bottles of cola, and that fairy tale naiveté that we’d never, as a nation, reclaim.

It’s a world I don’t completely remember, but A Place We Knew Well made me think I did.

As a special bonus, join me back at This Is My Symphony next week, Wednesday September 30, when writer Susan McCarthy shares her personal memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis–her inspiration for the novel.

Destination: Little House In the Big Woods, Part 2


While my reason for visiting Pepin was really to check off a Little House site from my bucket list, I was charmed by the village itself and  the surrounding area. Driving in on US 61, I turned onto the Great River Road and drove alongside the bluffs, overlooking the Upper Mississippi. Known as the Driftless Area, this region escaped the glaciers of the last ice age and is characterized by high wooded bluffs, deep river valleys, and, of course, the mighty Mississippi. I had no idea.


Pepin itself was already a place for settlers to trade during the nineteenth century. Remember when Pa tramped off seven miles into town one day from the Ingalls’ house in the Big Woods? That town was Pepin.  Settlers who trapped all winter sold their pelts during the early months of spring, and the river gave traders a route for selling those furs. The surrounding countryside, once those Big Woods, is now farmland.

Downtown PepinToday Pepin itself seems to be centered on the Laura attractions and Lake Pepin. The marina was hopping the day I arrived, and it looked like every slip was taken. Brochures for sailing and kayaking trips, as well as guided fishing expeditions were stacked at every cash register, it seemed, and I’m guessing the outdoor adventure industry is a lot more lucrative than the Laura connection. Outside of the harbor area (which was “prettified” nicely), Pepin resembled most other small towns (pop. 837) in rural America.

I stayed at A Summer Place Inn on Main Street just two blocks up from the lake. Owner Nancy greeted me at the door and took me to my room. Nancy was the perfect B&B owner for my tastes: she gave me a suggestion for dinner and directions to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (just a block and a half away), told me what time coffee and pastries would be set out in the mornA Summer Place Inning, and otherwise left me on my own. The room was cozy, clean, and decorated in pretty typical (but tasteful) B&B fashion. (Check out Ruth’s Room on A Summer Place’s website for a photo.) The cottage garden around the lawn of A Summer Place was sweet as sweet could be—bordered, of course (!), by a white pIMG_2112icket fence.

Nancy’s dinner suggestion was Harbor View Café and I’d go back in a New York Wisconsin minute. No menus, just their famous chalkboard! I started with a craft beer (spilled a bit because my hubby wasn’t there to pour it correctly for me), and ordered black bean fritters over a warm kale salad. It was served with a timbale of rice which was delicious, but really not needed. Dessert was the chocolate buttercream pie I mentioned here.

This trip was quickly thrown together, but I’d love to return to Wisconsin and take in more along the gorgeous Mississippi—talk about God’s country.

Next time: maybe kayaking?!

Circling the sun: review

Circling the Sun (NetGalley)
Paula McLain
Ballantine Books

There was a time when I thought I was born in the wrong time and place–a time when I dreamed I was meant to stand on the wide savanna scanning the horizon, when I thought I might have my own antelope calf as a pet and sit on the veranda of a house that nestled at the foot of a mountain.

I read Isak Dinesan’s Out of Africa (and saw the movie, too, but it wasn’t nearly so good) and all of Elsbeth Huxley’s books (the best being The Flame Trees of Thika and this time the Masterpiece Theater production was nearly as good!), and Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. The sad thing is I read them all in a period of several months and so keeping the women and their experiences separate is nearly impossible these thirty years later. Instead, I have colorful blur of colonial Kenya in my mind’s eye.

Writer Paula McLain, best known for The Paris Wife, writes about the life of Beryl Markham, who, in her eighties, Circling the sunpublished her autobiography–that West With the Night I read so many years ago. Because of my reading muddle, the only thing I could remember about Markham was her accomplishment as an aviator—but Circling the Sun gives us much more than that.

Beryl Clutterbuck had a childhood marked by a sort of wild freedom that we really can’t relate to today. Her father moved the family from England to Kenya to farm and train horses. But Beryl’s mother couldn’t take the rough life and she left the family and returned to England before Beryl was six. After that, her father pretty much left Beryl to her own devices. She had a roof over her head, food in her belly, plenty of native friends to play with, animals galore, and at least one neighbor, Lady D, who tried to mother her as best she could. Beryl was Lakwet, “a very little girl”, living in wild and wonderful Africa.

All that changed when Beryl was nearly twelve and an evil step-mother (of sorts) entered the picture. Mrs. Orchardson (first introduced as the new housekeeper) expected Beryl to wear shoes and take lessons. No more killing snakes or hunting warthogs. English clothes, not her Kenyan shuka.  Beryl is finally packed off to a girl’s school in Nairobi for a little bit of book learning and (hopefully) a lot of taming.

When Beryl turned fifteen, her father lost their beloved ranch Green Hills. She made a disastrous marriage and, in order to deal with the fall out of that, began her journey towards independence: training to become the first female horse trainer in Kenya.

While Beryl succeeded in her professional life, her personal life was another story—hearth and home would not come easy for her. There was that first marriage. An affair or two. An abortion. Another marriage. A son. A rumored affair with royalty. And all the while her greatest love was just out of reach. McLain gives the impression that colonial Africa was very much a place where staid English men and women could throw off the strictures of polite society and live and love more freely–but where a double standard was still in place when it came to looking away from the “indiscretions” of women.

For me, the novel went on too long in those years between Beryl’s early success as a horse trainer and her life as an aviator, which, surprisingly, filled little of the book.

But I enjoyed Circling the Sun in a special way since it gave me a peek into a world I had once loved so much.

A Life Well Lived: The Boston Girl (review)

The Boston Girl
Anita Diamant
release date: December 9

The Boston GirlIn Anita Diamant’s latest novel, eighty-five-year-old Addie Baum tells her granddaughters the story of her life as a girl growing up in Boston in the early twentieth century. Arriving with her family from a small village in Russia, Boston might offer refuge from pogroms, but not from poverty. Her family of four lived in one room—Papa works as a leather cutter, Mameh takes in laundry, and together they scratch out enough of a living to pay for rent and food. Barely. But Addie was a firecracker of a girl, determined to speak English well, attend school, and, like so many immigrants before and after her, follow the American Dream. And it was the neighborhood settlement house that opened Addie to that wider world.

Addie first had to sneak out of the apartment to attend Saturday Club where girls from Italy and Ireland and Russia both share her immigrant story and become fast friends. She spends part of each summer at Rockport Lodge, a hybrid of summer camp and boarding house, where she hiked and picked blueberries and went to town dances—the fresh ocean air of the countryside in stark contrast to the crowded urban (dare-I-say) slum in which she lived for the rest of the year. But it was enough to give her dreams of Something More.

And so Addie quickly became an American Girl, her customs and values clashing with her parents’ narrower view of the world. While she moved quickly towards that Something More, life as a first generation immigrant was not all sweetness and light—this new world also brought  family conflict, illness, and death.

The bookended chapters in which Addie speaks to her granddaughters seem almost unnecessary—I think Addie’s story was powerful enough to carry the novel on its own. For some reason, this was not a quick read for me; it certainly was not as engaging as Diamant’s The Red Tent from over a decade ago. But I felt as if the pace of the plot (which covers over seventy years of Addie’s life) mirrored the pace of a life well-lived. And while I sometimes grow weary if a novel moves too slowly, I didn’t in this case. Because it was Addie herself, this firecracker of a girl, that compelled me to read on.

Civil War Herstory

Neverhome (NetGalley ARC)
Laird Hunt
release date: Sept. 2014

Ash Thompson sets off down the road to fight Mr. Lincoln’s War. The family farm in Indiana was an idyllic place–a barn with a hayloft, a grove of trees, horse corral, “good chairs”. A blissful place for a young couple to start their lives together. But one of them had to defend the Republic: Ash was strong; her husband Bartholomew was not. That’s right–her husband. Because Ash was really Constance, and she was fighting her past as fiercely as she would fight the rebels.

So with bound chest and  hat pulled low, she sets off and soon joins a band of other men and boys looking to enlist. Ash arm wrestles, drinks whiskey with them, sleeps under the stars with them and finally reaches a
Union camp by a river where she is rewarded with a muzzle loading Springfield (“and  they said you could use it to kill a man a quarter mile away.”) and a shovel to dig latrines.

Ash sets himself apart as a quick shot and a hard worker–there’s no task he doesn’t undertake with single-mindedness. He becomes legend when he breaks rank to scale a tree to cover a woman who, overcome with fervor at seeing the blue boys marching past, immodestly rips open her bodice.  Later that night, a fiddler starts in with a new tune around the campfire, “Gallant Ash went up the tree and helped a sweet old girl along …”

I was slow to warm up to Ash and his story; it moved slowly. Until author Laird Hunt whispers of Ash’s past and I was drawn in to wonder at the mystery of Ash’s mother’s death and whatever pain had come between Ash and Bartholomew.

Hunt tells Ash’s story lyrically–even the horrors she experiences take on a kind of haunting beauty. Her friendship of sorts with her unit’s commander is a thread that weaves through her story to the last and the respect they showed each other was genuine. When Ash is taken prisoner the novel was a bit reminiscent of Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women and I don’t as a rule like novels with similar plot lines. But the novel’s last few pages bring Ash and Constance together as they fight off each of their demons, only to lose and win the very same fight.