Book Review: One Thousand White Woman by Jim Fergus (1999)

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Review #67

In order to solve the increasingly violent clashes between the United States government and the Native American tribes of the Black Hills, a radical solution is proposed. The Cheyenne are a matrilineal society, meaning that the children belong to their mother’s tribe. The United States asks for volunteer women to marry into the Cheyenne, becoming part of their culture while also trying to introduce Western values within the Native Americans. May Dodd, who has spent a year wrongfully committed to a mental institution, joins a group of women volunteers venturing into the untamed prairies of the Midwest in hopes of finding a new and better life among the “savages”.

It’s clear that author Jim Fergus did an extensive amount of research on the time period and the Cheyenne people prior to writing this novel. Their language and culture are well represented in One Thousand White Woman. He represents the Cheyenne as a people with both good and bad aspects, and thankfully manages to avoid the “noble savage” trope. This is not Dances with Wolves, where the Native Americans are represented as being in perfect and peaceful communion with nature and their fellow man. The Cheyenne are capable of stunning violence as well as loving relationships, just like every society that has ever existed on Earth.

Since the Native Americans are presented as rather primitive I kept waiting for my other least favorite stereotype to rear its ugly head, that of the “white savior”. Also easily recognized in Dances With Wolves, the white savior brings logic and reasoning to a group of people who would would be utterly lost without them. I was pleasantly stunned to see that Fergus somehow evades this pitfall as well. The white woman are looking to be saved more than they are looking to save the Native Americans. Most of them have volunteered for the “Brides for Indian” program to escape horrible circumstances, and have little interest in converting their new husbands to a Westernized system of thinking. The few women that are depicted as attempting to convert or manipulate their Native husbands are seen as an annoying menace.

Considering that Fergus somehow managed to walk the incredibly thin tightrope between cliches, I thought I’d enjoy this book more than I actually did. However, there were a few problems with his writing style that took away nearly all my enjoyment from One Thousand White Women. The first is the Fergus seems to have been trying to break the world record for number of extraneous commas in a novel. This could be something that no one else notices and just annoys me, since I spend an above average amount of time correcting English grammar.

The second thing I found increasingly maddening was how Fergus chose to write his dialogue. He made the decision to italicize any words that are in an English dialect. For example:

“No you don’t, suh, you do not so much as touch my Feeern Louuuuise. Evah. You heah me? Nevah, evah do you lay a finger on my darlindawg

Ya’ve come to the right place, if you’re looking for remote, Broother Anthony that’s for shooore,” said Meggie Kelly greeting the fellow. “Me an’ Susie are a couple a good Catholic gooorls ourselves. An’ we’re ‘appy to ‘aveya along – right Susie?”

Is is just me, or is that the most infuriatingly distracting way to write dialogue? It annoyed me just to type it. Reading this book gave me an active headache, and towards the end of the novel I just started skipping sections that contained italics out of sheer spite. Had I known what I was in for, I would read this book on my eReader, which lacks the ability to italicize words. Although that still would have left the ridiculous drawn out vowels…

It’s rare that such small things are able to detract so greatly from my enjoyment of a book. But both of these issues were so prevalent and obvious that, despite its virtues,  I nearly put One Thousand White Women back on the shelf without finishing it.

My rating: 2/5

You can find One Thousand White Women here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (2015)

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Review #66

Amidst the turmoil of World War II, Madeline Hyde’s husband Ellis and his best friend Hank randomly decide to venture into the highlands of Scotland in search of the Loch Ness Monster. Both men have been deemed medically unfit for the army, Ellis for colorblindness and Hank for flat feet, but that does not stop the glares and whispers when people see them out of uniform. When they reach a tiny Scottish village and check into the local inn, Ellis and Hank begin acting secretive and wild, drinking all day and well into the night. Frequently left behind while her husband is off monster-hunting, Maddie gets to know the locals and struggles to remember who she is outside of her marriage.

Author Sara Gruen is best known for her wildly popular Water for Elephants as well as the tragically underrated Ape House. For her most recent novel, Gruen dives into one of the most famous and enduring legends, that of the Loch Ness Monster. However, anyone going into At the Water’s Edge expecting to be thrilled by exploits of monster hunting will be tragically disappointed. I would estimate that nearly 75% of the novel takes place in the small hotel where Maddie and her husband are staying. This is not to say that At the Water’s Edge isn’t an interesting book with an intriguing plot line, but I did spend a fair bit of time wondering when the hunt for Nessie was going to get underway.

Despite the intense lack of creatures from the deep, the plot of the novel is carried along by the force of Maddie’s character. She is a woman who finds herself married to a man she barely recognizes, one that does not seem to respect her or take her feelings into consideration. Ellis goes from being merely immature to downright repugnant over the course of the novel. Luckily there is a strong and honorable innkeeper available to catch her eye. Gruen takes advantage of the stereotypical Scottish male that has been romanticized by novels such as Outlander. Angus is strong but possesses a gentle heart. He provides for his fellow man in times of scarcity without asking for anything in return. He is a war hero with a tragic backstory. You can probably fill in the rest of the blanks from there.

I couldn’t decide how I felt about the romantic angle in this book. In some ways it comes about naturally enough and doesn’t feel too forced. But on the other hand, why is it in novels that the beautiful but tragically unhappy heroine manages to find her strong and valiant protector in literally the first male she meets after realizing she is unhappy? It’s so utterly predictable that as soon as Angus was introduced and described, I made a note in my book journal: “obligatory love/savior”.

That said, I couldn’t help but rooting for Maddie as she struggles to fit in with life in a small Scottish village. I’ve always loved Sara Gruen’s writing style, she is compellingly readable and my mind sunk into her narrative without a moment’s hesitation.

My rating: 4/5

You can find At the Water’s Edge here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake (2018)

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Review #65

Owen and Mara are bonded as only twins can be. They share everything, and have no secrets from one another. So when Owen is accused of rape by Mara’s good friend Hannah, her world and everything she knows to be true is called into question. As lines are drawn between “Team Owen” and “Team Hannah”, Mara must face the choice between supporting the brother she loves or following her conscience.

This book left me feeling devastated. Author Ashley Herring Blake immerses her readers in a state of nearly desperate melancholy. No matter what choices Mara makes, she is turning her back on someone she loves. An eighteen year old girl is not emotionally mature enough to handle the situation that Mara finds herself in. Blake does a fantastic job of treating her characters like real people. Mara’s confusion, anger, and grief are real and visceral. I felt my heart breaking again and again along with hers.

Mara is utterly shattered when her twin brother is accused of raping her friend. Her emotional annihilation continues as Owen defends himself by saying that Hannah was willing at the time but is “crying rape” after an argument. Mara is an outspoken feminist who has been raised by her mother to rebel against gender stereotypes and fight for what she believes is right.Her faith is further weakened as she sees her mother side with Owen and dismiss Hannah’s claims as an “overreaction”.

This novel feels particularly relevant for where we currently are as a society. The #MeToo movement is making great strides at raising awareness of the sexual assault and abuse that women experience throughout their lives. But there are still instances every day where this sexually abusive behavior by men is shrugged off or normalized. There was a particularly crushing scene in Girl Made of Stars where Mara wears an outfit to school that is deemed inappropriate by her male principal, and she is promptly suspended for “not dressing like a lady”. This incident occurs while her brother, who has been accused of rape, enjoys the support and solidarity of his family and friends.

I could go on about the myriad of instances both small and large that Blake illustrates in her novel and how each one resonated with me and my experiences as a woman. Several of her character’s are also dealing with issues of sexuality and gender nonconformity which helps to paint a more inclusive portrait of a modern day teenager’s experience in high school.

By the time I finished the last page and closed the covers on Girl Made of Stars, I felt wrung out. I was equal parts despairing and hopeful, enraged and uplifted. I would absolutely recommend this novel.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Girl Made of Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

 

Book Review: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh (2015)

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Review #64

 

Every night the boy-king of Khorasan receives a new bride. They are married, often without setting eyes on one another. The new wife is then escorted to her rooms. In the morning, she is dragged from her room and strangled with a silk code. Nearly seventy girls have died so far. Sixteen year old Sharhzad volunteers to be the next victim for this monstrous Caliph, but she has a secret. Her dearest friend was one his murdered wives, and Sharhzad is out for vengeance. Not only does she not intend to die at the break of dawn, but she plans to end this cycle of violence once and for all.

This is a re-imagining of the tale of Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights. This collection of Middle Eastern folklore is from unknown origins and contains the popular legends of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. The beginning chapters of The Wrath and the Dawn follow the legend of Scheherazade pretty closely. Every night the Caliph (King) visits his new wife, intending to have her executed at dawn. And every night Sharhzad spins out a little more of a story, being sure to reach a climax or an interesting twist just as the sun breaches the windows of her bedroom. Hoping to hear more of the story, the evil king allows her to live another day.

Author Renee Ahdieh draws a sumptuous portrait of life in ancient Arabia. Sharhzad’s life in the royal palace is filled with colorful silks, rich damask, and tables laid with fresh fruits and cheeses. Conspicuously absent from the narrative is the inherent sexism of the culture during this time period, allowing her protagonist a level of freedom and expression that would almost certainly not have been tolerated from a woman. Sharhzad is a strong, outspoken woman who never hesitates to speak her mind. From the onset of the novel, her every fiber is focused on wreaking vengeance upon the man who stole her friend from her. She is determined to survive at all costs.

Until all of a sudden she is magically transformed into a lovelorn girl. This metamorphosis comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t seem rooted in logic. Sharhzad begins to fall in love with the Caliph for reasons that are never fully explained. He has murdered dozens of women but by the end of day three her heart is fluttering? It seems to be a case of a character performing an action simply because it is needed to further the plot. This is meant to be a love story, therefore Sharhzad must fall in love whether or not it fits in with everything we know about her so far.

Ahdieh attempts to soften the king by allowing him to open up to his new queen, sharing stories of his early life and giving him opportunities to defend her honor and whatnot. There is also a mystery surrounding his decision to kill all of these innocent women, which we are led to believe will absolve the king of responsibility for his actions.  But the bodies of seventy dead women cannot be denied, and Sharhzad’s sudden and inexplicable decision to throw her lot in with a man who has allowed these acts of violence rings false.

Somehow, despite my objections to the love story presented in this novel, I found myself drawn into the story of Sharhzad as she struggles between the pulling of her heart and the revenge in her mind. And when I finished The Wrath and the Dawn, I immediately put the sequel, The Rose and the Dagger, on a wait list at my local library. So kudos to the writing style of Renee Ahdieh, for drawing me into this story almost in spite of myself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Wrath and the Dawn here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Side-note: I’ve never actually read One Thousand and One Nights. How does it compare?

 

Book Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008)

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Review #61

Alice Lindgren has no idea how she ended up in the White House. A quiet book-loving girl from rural Wisconsin, Alice dreamed of being marrying her childhood crush and becoming a librarian. But a tragic accident changes the course of her life, and Alice finds herself married to man whose political views don’t align with hers, and whose political ambitions far surpass her own dreams. Alice finds herself struggling to remember who she is in a world of privilege and power.

I connected immediately with the protagonist in American Wife. Alice is a book-nerd who feels more at home within the pages of a novel than she does with others. She is not always comfortable in social situations, and deals with a lot of anxiety when meeting new people. I identified with Alice’s relationship with her grandmother, an equally avid reader who often neglects her family in favor of a world between the pages. I have always credited my grandmother with my love of reading, and the bond between Alice and Emilie was sincerely touching.

The plot of American Wife is a like a slowly moving river that gradually picks up speed as it goes along. It meanders its way through the key points in Alice’s life, showing the intimate snapshots of her life rather than drawing back to see the whole picture. There are wide jumps in time, and the story is not always linear. After a hundred pages or so, a small part of my brain kept asking when the book would be “getting to the point”. But the story of a person’s life doesn’t work like that, and instead Sittenfeld winds us through the aspects of Alice’s life that have led her to where she is now. All those little triumphs and tragedies that make up a person. And although it does move slowly, American Wife is far from static.

I was not aware until completing this novel that author Curtis Sittenfeld is a woman. This explains the focus on the bonds between women in this book. Alice’s relationships with her grandmother, her mother, her best friends, and her daughter are the keystones of her character. As Alice’s life takes her far from her country upbringing, the strength of these relationships are what sustain her through the transition. While reading this novel, I found myself treasuring the female relationships in my life. So many books focus on the “frenemy” circle of female friends, and it was nice to see something so open and trusting.

Much has been said about this novel being a loose re-telling of the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. I had no idea going in that this novel was anything other than a work of fiction, but apparently Sittenfeld took the broad strokes from Bush’s life and worked them into the character of Alice Lindgren. The comparison doesn’t become blatantly apparent until the final act, when Alice and her husband find themselves in the White House, but many of the important milestones from Bush’s childhood and early life are represented in American Wife. Some people have called this a breach of privacy in the lieu of yellow journalism, especially since the character of Alice finds herself in a few situations that the First Lady would certainly not want associated with her person. While I personally did not find that the book intruded on Bush’s life in a deliberately harmful or malicious manner, that would be a judgement for each individual reader to make.

While reading American Wife I chose to distance the character of Alice Lindgren from any resemblance to the former First Lady. Removing the political factor, what is left is a novel with wonderfully written protagonist that I thoroughly enjoyed.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Wife here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik (2017)

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Review #59

When her outgoing and tenacious friend Pia suggets a river rafting trip in the isolated woods of Maine, Wini is uncertain and afraid but ultimately agrees to attend. Together with their other friends Rachel and Sandra, the four women meet up with a young man named Rory who guarantees them a rafting trip that is unforgettable and “off the grid”. But their off the grid adventure quickly becomes disastrous when the unexpected occurs.

Reading this novel, I was strongly reminded of Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror film The Descent. The Descent is a film about six female cave divers who find more than they bargained for in the depths of the Appalachian caverns. It has strong similarities to The River at Night. An almost complete lack of meaningful male characters. The love/hate relationship that often exists in groups of female friends. The sense of humility that people feel when confronted with the sheer power of nature. Since The Descent is one of my all-time favorite horror films, I was immediately drawn in to the story of the four woman who venture into the wilds of Northern Maine.

There is also an element of the classic “cabin in the woods” genre. We are given numerous descriptions of the dangers of the region before the women embark on their trip. They stay at a pokey little lodge the night before their trip, and one of the women begins to feel apprehensive about their upcoming expedition. There’s even a scene with the archetypal “guardian at the gate”, in this case an overweight shirtless man and his cronies who have recently shot a deer, who warn the group to turn back, that this river “does not belong to them”. All that was missing was for one of the group members to begin making statements like “What could go wrong?” or “I’ll be right back”.

Despite all the apparent cliches, this genre has maintained its popularity because it’s really good fun. The River at Night is no exception, it promises a suspenseful and thrilling adventure in the woods and that is exactly what it delivers. I was easily drawn into Wini’s narrative. She is a woman nearing middle age who is beginning to realize that she hasn’t accomplished much with her life. Her friends are all in a similar situation, having dealt with disease, divorce, and raising children for so long that their true selves seem to have been lost in the muddle. The rafting trip represents a chance to reclaim a piece of their fearless youth, and it is only once things begin to go awry that they realize how impossible a task they had set for themselves.

Ferencik has an imperfect grasp of foreshadowing which caused me to raise an eyebrow now and then. She will make an ominous statement about future events, only for said event to occur in the following paragraph. That doesn’t exactly keep me on my toes. And some of the troubles that beset the group seemed a bit contrived. But these were minor flaws which did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Overall, The River at Night offers a fun and exciting addition to the nature thriller genre. Reading this novel felt effortless, like stepping into cool water on a hot summer’s day.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (2018)

Image result for alison weir jane seymourReview #58

The third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour was the Queen of England for barely more than a year. Having served in the court of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane saw the fall of both women when they failed to deliver an heir for their King. She was widely praised for her virtue and devout Catholic faith, and clung to her religion even as Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. She died of complications following childbirth at only twenty-eight years old. Renowned historical biographer Alison Weir writes a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s life as seen through her eyes.

This is the third installment in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous novels, and was interested to see how Weir proceeded after the tumultuous and widely documented reigns of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Not nearly as much is known about the life of Jane Seymour, given that she was married to King Henry for a mere eighteen months. I was surprised, therefore, when I picked this book up from the library to find out that it was nearly six hundred pages long.

How do you write a six hundred page fictional biography on a woman’s life that is not well documented? Turns out, you add an insane amount of extraneous detail, milk any morsel of archival evidence, and generally drag things out far longer than is necessary. Reading Jane Seymour felt like an exercise in extreme patience at times, since Weir seems to be striving for a nearly day-by-day record of Jane Seymour’s life during leading up to an including the death of Anne Boleyn.

I think part of the problem is that of all Henry VII’s wives, Jane Seymour is the least interesting. The letters and documents that mention her all describe her as “devout” and “pious”. She was not well-educated like the two queens who came before her, so we simply don’t know if she had strong opinions on anything other than her Catholic faith. And because Jane is defined by her religious devotion, she makes for a rather nondescript character. She lacks the fierce fight and devotion of Katherine of Aragorn, or the wild chaos and manipulative personality of Anne Boleyn. She is simply plain Jane. Weir seems to  understand this, and a great deal of her novel is focused on Katherine and Anne’s tumultuous and historical battle for control of the King. At times, Jane feels like a supporting character in her own narrative.

Jane’s primary character traits are her devotion and her dutifulness. She never seems to take any initiative in deciding her own fate, instead allowing others to take agency over her future. I had to fight the urge to begin taking tally of the amount of times Jane is described as “lowering her eyes” when others are discussing key religious or political ideals. The emotion she seems to convey the most strongly is pious indignation over the sins of others. Which doesn’t make for a terribly interesting protagonist. Instead, Jane feels for all the world like that one coworker we’ve all encountered who smugly informs you that your various sins have condemned you to hell.

I’ve read several of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always appreciated her attention to detail and her dedication to research. The Tudors and their court are often sensationalized as a historical Harlequin romance novel or a medieval soap opera. Weir grounds her novels in historical fact, even if this means that some of the sex appeal is lost. She does her best with the third wife of Henry VII, but ultimately there isn’t enough research available to maintain the narrative. I wonder why she felt the need to make this novel six hundred pages long, when half that length would have told the story equally well.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017)

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Review #57

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.

This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.

In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.

Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a red herring. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than  plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.

The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage. Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.

I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Alice Network here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (2018)

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Review #50

Alice and her mother Ella have spent most of their lives on the run, moving from town to town in hopes of outrunning the streak of bad luck that seems to plague them. When they receive word that Alice’s grandmother, a celebrated writer of fairy tales, has passed away, they think that perhaps their troubles are behind them. But when Alice and Ella finally begin setting down roots in New York City, Alice begins seeing visions from her past walking around the city streets. When her mother goes missing, leaving behind only a message to “Stay away from the Hazel Wood”, Alice must journey into the dark and twisted world of her grandmother’s fairy tales in order to get her mother back.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, this debut novel by author Melissa Albert combines lyrical prose with modern slang in a way that comes across as charming rather than jarring. I enjoyed the descriptions of twisted forests and monstrous creatures that were occasionally interrupted by references to modern technology. It was a bit like reading Alice in Wonderland if Alice had been equipped with the latest iPhone.

The basic premise of The Hazel Wood is that Alice’s grandmother stumbled upon a magical fairy tale realm known as the Hinterland. She explored the area, gathering the tales of its various creatures, and later published their stories as a book. By doing so, she unknowingly opened a gateway by which the fairy-tale characters gained the ability to cross over into our land. It is the idea of words building worlds, of something that is inherently fictional becoming increasingly solid as it feeds off the collective interest of its fans. The Hazel Wood is at its strongest when focused on this premise.

Unfortunately, it takes a frustrating amount of exposition before the reader is introduced to the fairy tale world at all. There are large sections where the novel reads more as a the mystery novel than fantasy. And it also functions as a “buddy road-trip” story, as Alice and her friend Ellery head off in search of the hidden Hazel Wood. These different elements work well in their separate spheres, but fail to come together as a cohesive unit.

I won’t comment too much on the ending of the novel, except to say that it felt very rushed and unfinished. When you read three hundred pages of a girl attempting to get to an enchanted fairy tale realm, and then spent barely fifty pages in said realm, you come away feeling a little bit cheated.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Hazel Wood here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman (2018)

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Review #49

 

When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.

I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)

Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.

As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.

Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.

Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!