The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich*****

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read the legendary novelist, Louise Erdrich. I had my reasons—wrong ones, as it turns out—and I am grateful to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy, and thus helping me pull my head out of…the place where it was. This excellent novel is for sale now.

Let me explain, first off. Many years ago, I enrolled in an alternative graduate program that emphasized respect for all cultures and races, and which required, as a graduation requirement, attendance at a full day seminar listening to a locally famous Native storyteller.  The story was delivered in a monotone, with a good deal of repetition and no effort at summarization. So, after dutifully suffering through 6 hours of it on one of the hottest days of summer, I pledged to myself that I’d never go through that again.

Twice, good friends have urged me to read Erdrich’s novels, but I was also told she was an American Indian storyteller whose heritage formed a central theme in her writing. My eyes glazed over, and I vowed to give it a miss. When The Night Watchman drew early raves, I realized that my assumptions about Erdrich might be in error, and I hustled back to Net Galley to see if I might still score a galley. It’s a lesson well learned.

The year is 1953, and the place is the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Patrice Paranteau has finished school, but she doesn’t want to get married. She has seen her friends do so and turn into old women overnight, shivering as they hang the wash to freeze dry in winter, and collecting snow to melt so that their children can take a bath. No thanks. Instead,

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read the legendary novelist, Louise Erdrich. I had my reasons—wrong ones, as it turns out—and I am grateful to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy, and thus helping me pull my head out of…the place where it was. This excellent novel is for sale now.

Let me explain, first off. Many years ago, I enrolled in an alternative graduate program that emphasized respect for all cultures and races, and which required, as a graduation requirement, attendance at a full day seminar listening to a locally famous Native storyteller.  The story was delivered in a monotone, with a good deal of repetition and no effort at summarization. So, after dutifully suffering through 6 hours of it on one of the hottest days of summer, I pledged to myself that I’d never go through that again.

Twice, good friends have urged me to read Erdrich’s novels, but I was also told she was an American Indian storyteller whose heritage formed a central theme in her writing. My eyes glazed over, and I vowed to give it a miss. When The Night Watchman drew early raves, I realized that my assumptions about Erdrich might be in error, and I hustled back to Net Galley to see if I might still score a galley. It’s a lesson well learned.

The year is 1953, and the place is the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Patrice Paranteau has finished school, but she doesn’t want to get married. She has seen her friends do so and turn into old women overnight, shivering as they hang the wash to freeze dry in winter, and collecting snow to melt so that her children can take a bath. No thanks. Instead,

“She was the first person in the family to have a job. Not a trapping, hunting, or berry-gathering job, but a white people job. In the next town. Her mother said nothing but implied that she was grateful. Pokey had this year’s school shoes. Vera had a plaid dress, a Toni home permanent, white anklets, for her trip to Minneapolis. And Patrice was putting a bit of every paycheck away in order to follow Vera, who had maybe disappeared.”

The point of view shifts between Patrice; a local boy turned boxer, Wood Mountain; Haystack Barnes, the white math teacher and boxing coach; and Thomas, Patrice’s uncle, who is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant. Thomas is modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, and the author’s notes at the end mention that his struggle to save the Chippewa land made writing this book an emotional experience.  

As the story opens, Patrice is preparing to track down her sister, who is rumored to have had a baby in Minneapolis, and Thomas is organizing a group of Chippewa to attend the hearings in Washington, D.C. The Feds have sent a letter to the tribe suggesting that since they were clearly successful, they would surely no longer require government aid or protection. Their land would be absorbed by the U.S. government and then sold to private buyers; its current residents would be relocated to cities where they could get work. And it’s a measure of exactly how clueless the average American was about the Chippewas’ plight that Barnes, who lived and worked among them, said, “I don’t understand why it’s so bad. It sounds like you get to be regular Americans.”

There are other points of view as well; the most memorable are the Mormon missionaries that have drawn the short straw and been sent to minister to the “Lamanites.” This religion holds that the inferiority of American Indians is revealed holy truth; only by converting can they be salvaged, and when that happens, the new converts will slowly become whiter. Our two missionaries dislike each other profoundly, which is unfortunate since they may only separate from one another to use the toilet. When the main story becomes intense and at times, very sad, in will pop the missionaries and before I know it, I am laughing out loud.  In addition, I admire the way the strong female characters are developed.

There are three primary threads to follow: what Patrice decides to do with her future; whether Vera will be found; and whether the Chippewa of Turtle Mountain will lose their land. All are handled with the mastery one might expect from an iconic author.

Don’t be the idiot that I was. Get this book and read it now.

Fight of the Century, by Michael Chabon et al*****

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union, a large cross section of the finest writers alive have written essays, each about one landmark case. Chabon and his co-editor, Ayelet Waldman, contributed their advance to the organization, and all of the contributing authors did so free of charge. As for this reviewer, I’d have been interested in an ACLU publication, even if I hadn’t heard of the writers involved; and I’d have been interested in anything written by Chabon, even if the story or topic wasn’t in my lane. As it is, I count myself beyond lucky to have scored a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It’s for sale now.

This is the sort of book that invites skipping around, either according to subject, or according to the authors you love best. Because of this, I recommend buying it in paper rather than digitally, because flipping around out of order in digital format is a pain in the butt. Also, this is the sort of classical reference material that you’d want on your shelf. In fact, I want a physical copy for myself.

I haven’t read all of the entries, but I’ve read enough of them to recommend it to you. The cases discussed are meaty and interesting, and they aren’t the standard fodder that shows up in every undergraduate course on Constitutional law. Each entry is succinct, and the writers refrain from self-promotion. The entries I appreciate most so far are by Jesmyn Ward, who discusses the use of anti-loitering laws to transform free Black boys and men into slave laborers; Timothy Egan, who details a 1962 decision regarding the right to receive Communist literature in the U.S. mail; and Louse Erdrich, who discusses digital snooping and surveillance used against the Dakota Pipeline protesters in 2016. I know there are many more I want to read, but I am posting this now so that you can get a copy while it’s in the stores.

Here’s your chance. You can get an outstanding addition to your home library while contributing to a worthwhile organization whose work is more crucial now than ever. Highly recommended.

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.

Hill Women, by Cassie Chambers*****

Cassie Chambers was born and raised in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States. With the determination handed down to her by her mother and grandmother, she attended Ivy League schools and became a practicing attorney. This memoir is her story as well as a defense of the women from her homeland, a manifesto opposing stereotypes and misconceptions. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It will be available to the public January 7, 2020.

Eastern Kentucky is in the heart of Appalachian Mountains, and its residents are stereotypically called hillbillies by outsiders. As a scholar whose childhood was rooted there, Chambers is in a unique position to share the culture’s nuances and strengths. She was raised by parents that had to save up to buy her a set of Old Maid cards from Walmart; going out to dinner, which happened Sundays, meant a single Happy Meal at McDonald’s shared three ways. But her mother’s determination to graduate college drove home the value of an education, and when Cassie had the opportunity to spend the last two years of high school at a boarding school for high achieving students, she leapt and her family supported her.

Chambers’ narrative is intimate and deeply absorbing. She weaves her own story into the larger story of Appalachian women: their culture, their history, their strengths and the challenges they face. She discusses the difficulty of receiving public services in an area that is spread out among hills and hollers, devoid of transit and low on personal transportation, and that has no government buildings to speak of; she also describes the pride that sometimes prevents its residents from accepting help for which they are qualified. She has a bottomless well of riveting anecdotes that illustrate the sense of community and willingness to lend assistance to neighbors in need even when those offering help have nothing extra to give; the Justice system often fails those that need protection from domestic abuse, as well as those addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she discusses remedies, including Jeanette’s Law, which reverses Kentucky’s absurd legal requirement that victims of domestic abuse must provide the spouses that they are divorcing with an attorney at their own expense. This was one of Chambers’ most important projects. Another is having expungement fees waived for low income residents, an especially urgent matter since in Kentucky, felons aren’t allowed to vote. Democracy is sidelined when class and race become obstacles to participation in civic life.

But the most memorable tidbits are the more personal stories, for example that of her Aunt Ruth, who married late in life. Before they were wed, Aunt Ruth had a conversation with Sonny, her husband-to-be, in which she explained to him carefully that if he ever hit her, she would be forced to kill him, in his sleep if necessary, using a large claw hammer, and so if this was likely to be a problem then the wedding should be canceled. (It wasn’t.)

The best memoirs combine a social issue or political problem with a personal story told by a top-drawer storyteller, and Hill Women succeeds richly in both regards. I recommend this book to women everywhere, and to those that love them.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

The Broken Road, by Peggy Wallace Kennedy**

“I was perhaps Daddy’s most important legacy of all.”

Thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review.

I was a child during the Civil Rights era, and although I didn’t live in the American South, I recall news footage of Kennedy’s father, George Wallace, the man that the author rightly attributes as a harbinger of the Trump movement. Instead of “Make America Great Again,” Wallace urged his constituents—including the Klan, whom he openly welcomed to his campaign—to “Stand Up for America.” When the federal government signaled that it would enforce the segregation ban, Wallace made headlines around the world by literally standing in the door of the schoolhouse in order to turn the first Black student away from a public school in Alabama.  My own father was a redneck of the first order, but even he distanced himself from this extremist. Wallace ran for U.S. president but was defeated; upon returning to the governor’s mansion, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. By that time Malcolm X was dead and could not have told us that this was a case of chickens coming home to roost, and yet it may well have been.

Although the book’s summary suggests that Kennedy is vastly different from her father politically, her prose indicates that her true, bitterest grievances all center on his philandering betrayal of her sainted mother and his failure to be a strong provider and dedicated family man. She tells us that even in the 1960s, she felt his racist rhetoric was wrong, and so I waited for what I thought must surely come next: the moment she either confronted him or simply moved out of the house to another part of the country to restart her life in saner surroundings. None of this happened, as it turns out. She stayed in the governor’s mansion, thrilled by the relative affluence and privilege she regarded as her due following a tumultuous, sometimes impoverished childhood.

The title is taken from a Hemingway quote, and in her own story designated the location of her maternal grandparents, whose simple, homespun nurturance provided relief to her mother and herself when her father went on the road politicking and didn’t send money home for them to live off of. At the beginning of the book she uses the expression often enough to beat it to death, but once her father becomes governor she rarely speaks of these kind, gentle people. Toward the end, she parenthetically notes that her grandmother died at some point back in the middle of the book.

It’s interesting that although Lurleen Wallace was elected governor in order to circumvent what was at the time a state law against successive terms for her husband, the author says nothing at all about her mother’s civil rights policies. We see that she won the governorship in a landslide and was loved by all, and yet if her policies diverged much from George’s, that would have created screaming headlines. It’s just one of the many inconsistencies within this memoir.

The last several chapters are devoted to her father’s redemption politically, or so she asserts. He never hated African-Americans, she tells us, but only did and said those things in order to gain office. Later in life, he asked a handful of Civil Rights leaders for forgiveness and spoke in Black churches about his error. She follows this up by pointing to the large numbers of Black voters that returned him to the Capitol.

I find myself wondering a lot of things, and foremost among them is why anyone would consider a candidate that makes the cold-blooded decision to promote violent racism for the sake of gaining office to be morally superior to one holding the genuine belief in the inferiority of other races and ethnicities. Wallace, she tells us, didn’t sign onto the Klan’s program because of his convictions, but because of what they could do for him. And while the parallels she draws with Nixon are apt ones, the rationalization of her late father’s destructive, ethically bankrupt lifetime is chilling in its own way, but she underplays this aspect of his career.

Her “daddy” lived long enough to appoint her 26-year-old attorney husband to the state bench.

The second star here is reluctantly provided because she does some very nice things at the outset with regard to her description of time and place in the life of poor white folks in mid-twentieth century rural Alabama.  If you’re looking for a silver lining to this wretched work, there it is. It’s all I can find.

I would place this book in the child-revenge category along with Christina Crawford, Patti (Reagan) Davis, and Carrie Fisher.  Read it if you want to wallow, but when you’re finished, you will likely want to shower and gargle.

Best Poetry 2019: A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, by Damaris B. Hill*****

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Guest House for Young Widows, by Azadeh Moaveni**

Those of us in the United States don’t have much of a window on the women of ISIS, and I thought this title might help me understand them better. In some ways this proves true, but in the end, I couldn’t finish this book and I can’t recommend it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for letting me read it free and early.

Here’s a quote that provides a thesis:

Many of these women were trying, in a twisted way, to achieve dignity and freedom through an embrace of a politics that ended up violating both…The political fractures from which [ISIS] arose have not been fixed. History has shown that unless conditions genuinely change, a new insurgency always arises from the ashes of an old one.

Moaveni shares the case studies of individual women that have been drawn to the Islamic State. Although the organization provides its women with a measure of security and protection, promoting higher education—in the service of the organization, of course—and sometimes furnishing jobs, it draws not only women that are desperate for food and shelter, but also women from comfortable middle class backgrounds. Once they are in, they find it difficult to leave. Moaveni demonstrates myriad ways in which women provide essential support for ISIS.

There are three things that I liked about this book. The research is well done; the women discussed here provide the reader with individual stories and therefore humanize them; and she acknowledges the disparity between mainstream Islamic belief and ISIS.

On the other hand, despite disclaimers within the narrative, I was overcome by a crawly sensation when I realized that the author’s overall purpose is to rationalize the choices made by women within Islamic State. She says they are relatable; I am appalled and unpersuaded.

Those that dislike a dictatorial regime should indeed advocate for a better system. How great a risk each person is willing to assume is of course an individual decision. But there is nothing that justifies or mitigates the atrocities visited on innocent people by this dreadful pseudo-religion. 

When push comes to shove, the only real dilemma for me is whether to provide one star or two in review. The second star is reluctantly assigned on the basis of the writer’s solid research; yet the ideas within it are entirely abhorrent.

Never, never, and never.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.