The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan****

I enjoyed Ryan’s historical novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, and so I was thrilled when Ballantine Books and Net Galley offered me a review copy for this one. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in rural England during World War II. We have four protagonists, all of them women. Audrey Landon is a widow; her husband died in the war, leaving her with two boys to raise on her own. The old family home, which she inherited from her parents, is falling apart, and she has no means to repair it. In some places, the roof has caved in.

The second is Audrey’s sister, “Lady” Gwendoline. Gwen puts herself first at all times, since nobody else ever has. She married for wealth and convenience, and she lords her affluence over her sister and everyone else. But her husband is a cruel man, and her existence is a lonely one despite its material comfort.

Zelda was a top chef in London, but once her pregnancy became visible, she had to get gone. Her landlord calls her a “trollop,” and she knows she can’t stay there now, so she applies for wartime housing. The volunteer in charge of placing her is Lady Gwendoline, who snickers with amusement as she assigns her to live in Audrey’s house.

Nell is a chef’s assistant at Fenley Hall, the prestigious old pile where Lady Gwendoline and Sir Strickland hold court. The chef, Mrs. Quince, has taught her nearly everything she knows, and it’s a good thing, too; the old lady isn’t getting any younger.

All four women enter a cooking contest held by the Ministry of Food, a “wartime cooking challenge” to showcase recipes that use ordinary ingredients and work around rationing.  The winner will be the new announcer for The Kitchen Front, a wartime radio program—and this program existed in real life.

As in the last story, Ryan develops her four characters in a way I believe; the most benevolent have flaws, and the most unsympathetic, Lady Gwendoline, is complex and capable of change. It is Gwendoline that is most developed at the end, but all four are dynamic characters.

For a brief while, I use the audio version of this book, which I obtain from my local library. Jasmine Blackborow does a fine job as reader in most regards, but there is a side character that turns up in a couple of emotionally charged scenes, an Italian prisoner of war, and when she voices him, he sounds like Dracula, which ruins the magic. For this reason, I recommend sticking to the printed version.

The first half of this story is almost unputdownable, and for a time I nearly forget my other books. But as the climax approaches, things become predictable, almost formulaic, and the ending is a bit too tidy for my tastes. The scenes toward the end with Mrs. Quince are overwrought.  It’s not terrible, but because I am so far in love with the first half, I am disappointed by the denouement. Also, if recipes must be included, as apparently they must, the author should give them character by using the substituted ingredients in the instructions; the more desirable ingredients can be footnoted.

Ultimately I rate The Kitchen Front four stars; five for the first half, three for the second.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett***-****

This book wasn’t on my radar until it hit the best seller lists. The premise is a provocative one, and so I hopped online and ordered a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. It held my attention all the way through, but when it concluded, I felt a little cheated.

The chief protagonists are two girls, twins, raised in a tiny (fictional) town deep in the American South. The whole town is Black, and everyone—everyone—is light skinned. Sisters Stella and Desiree become restless as they come of age, and they conspire to run away to the big city. They pack a few things, gather what money they can, and head for New Orleans. The time is the mid-1900s. They arrive, find a place to stay, and get jobs. One day Desiree comes home from work, but Stella doesn’t. She’s gone. Enough of her things are missing to suggest that she hasn’t met with foul play, yet Desiree is her twin, and she is undone by Stella’s unexpected departure. Not even a note!

Stella is in the North; Stella is passing for Caucasian. But to do so, she has to cut all family ties. Her new husband has no idea.

The story progresses, and Desiree does the opposite, marrying a man who is very dark. Their daughter is what might be called blue-black. Now neither twin can comfortably return to Mallard, with one too Black, and one not Black at all, as far as anyone can tell.

The story progresses through various life changes, and eventually the focus is on the twins’ daughters, one each. Of course, the reader must wonder whether the sisters will ever be reunited, and if so, what will happen then.

When the book is over, I feel as if I am leaving the table before I’m full. There were so many opportunities here, and the author squandered all of them. The protagonists never develop to the point where I bond with any of them, and I cannot tell what the author’s purpose is here.

This book is for sale, but don’t break the bank to get it. Read it free or cheap, or give it a miss.

The Dead Are Arising, by Les Payne*

I haven’t been this disappointed in a long time. From the moment I saw this book listed on Net Galley, I was eager to read it, given that the promotion promises a lot of new information about this courageous man, a powerful advocate for the rights of people of color. When I didn’t receive a galley, I awaited the book’s release, and I went out and bought it. Less than halfway into it, I was absolutely sickened.

For starters, not all new information is important or necessary information. There’s a lot of minutiae here, as well as a fair amount of Black History 101 material, interesting to those unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Northern red-lining practices, and so forth, but a real snore for those of us already steeped in these things. But beyond that—and one could argue that these historical basics are necessary inclusions for a lot of readers—Paine goes to a great deal of trouble to destroy Malcolm’s legacy.

Academics do this sometimes, and surely it’s no coincidence that the top three examples that come to mind are all biographies of African-Americans that fought for their rights, and aren’t alive now to object to what is being said about them. (In addition to Malcolm, recent biographies of Frederick Douglass and Muhammad Ali come to mind, the latter two slandered by two different authors.) Picking through the tiny, often insignificant details of their lives and combing through their speeches and writing, these authors go to great pains to “expose” small details that conflict with one another, or other signs of inconsistency, with the clear implication that the subject was a liar and a fraud.

For shame!  

Let’s talk about that for a minute. I am a grandmother myself, and I can think of important aspects of my life, especially my younger years, for which my own motivations were and are complicated, and if asked about them I am sure I would have given different answers in my twenties, my thirties, and so on. Our own thoughts and motives have a lot of layers. Perhaps we become more insightful later in life, or perhaps our memories are no longer as sharp as we believe them to be. But because we are not famous, or notorious, depending upon points of view, we are unlikely to have some academic interviewing everyone that ever fucking knew us, or combing through every speck of written documentation we leave behind us, searching for all possible details that may bring our integrity and veracity into question.

For me, it matters very little whether Malcolm’s early life was exactly as he told it. It is his ideas, and his courage in expressing them, that made him a legend, and that’s what I look for in his biography. In the 1960s, almost no African-American (or colored, as they preferred to be called during that period,) Civil Rights advocates dared to come right out and say that Black people were not only as good, but in some cases better than Caucasians. And it is Malcolm’s political evolution during the last year of his life, the time when he broke with the Nation of Islam and embraced a working class perspective that included fighters of every race, that galvanizes me. Malcolm raised a powerful voice in opposition to the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people, quipping after President Kennedy’s assassination that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.”

This takedown of an iconic Civil Rights warrior is shabby in every sense. For those interested in Malcolm’s political and social evolution, I recommend the book titled Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Usually, the best way to learn about someone is to see what they themselves had to say. In this case it’s doubly true.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone.

Broken, by Jenny Lawson****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded up.

Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess, has a new book out, and I do believe it’s my favorite. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lawson bucks a somewhat disquieting trend, and I am so glad. The trend is to make the first three chapters—most likely what sells the book—sterling, and then fill the rest with mediocre, highly missable prose. In contrast, the earliest part of this memoir is good, but it’s not great. She starts slow and then builds toward most of her best material, leaving me smiling as the book concludes.

But let’s go back to the material at the start, which I find to be random in a way that yearns for the hand of a high profile editor. I’m throwing my hands up, wondering just why a professional writer would blather on like this. Can she write a coherent sentence, and then end it when it’s over? Of course, I continued reading and loved the essays in the middle, and as we draw near the end, she refers to the challenges she encounters in writing, citing her inclination to overwrite, and the resultant paragraphs that contain “a run-on sentence that would make an English teacher cut herself,” and I howled, because that’s it, exactly. Almost exactly, I mean; I was moaning, but I hadn’t reached for anything sharp.

What is it about depression and humor, and the connection between them? It’s hard to tease apart all of the components that make Lawson’s writing so compelling; to a certain extent, it’s alchemy of the human spirit, I suppose, combined with skill at self-expression. But there are other components much easier to spot. One is her disarming frankness; for example, she mentions that people, remarking on her twentieth wedding anniversary, ask about her secrets for a long and happy marriage, and she tells us that actually, not all of those years have been happy. There are good periods, and there are bad periods. And then she adds, not entirely jokingly, that part of the reason she is still married is that there are things in her marriage that she doesn’t write about.

But even more compelling is her level of perception, and her ability to understand the subtext of just about everything.

I’ll mention my favorite parts, but I am not giving up any more humorous quotes, because that’s a crappy thing to do to a humor writer. There’s a funny part having to do with shoes, and the kayaking trip from hell, which she dubs “Divorce Creek.” The chapter about Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which is a serious bit for the purpose of informing us, is interesting and may be of help to a number of readers. (However, the searing honesty about her suicidal impulses might actually be a trigger for a profoundly depressed reader.) And the infuriating experiences she has had dealing with insurance makes me want to throw things, but it is important that she includes them here.

If you’re a fan of The Bloggess’s writing, you have to get this book. If you are new to her work, you can dive into this memoir without reading her previous ones. Highly recommended.

Mother May I, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Joshilyn Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted to see that she has another novel coming out this spring. My heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley, Harper Audio, and William Morrow for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

One of the things I love about Jackson is that she recognizes and includes social class as a large factor in the lives of her characters. I am initially sorry to see that her protagonist, Bree Cabbat, is married to a wealthy man, but once the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the story won’t work any other way. Although Bree is rolling in it now, she grew up poor, the child of a single parent that took her back-to-school shopping at a Goodwill two towns over from their tiny Georgia town, carefully making sure that Bree’s classmates not recognize their own castoffs when Bree wore them. Later, theater classes helped Bree refine her accent to make her more employable; acting lessons helped her project the carefree confidence that is common to young adults whose families have money.

Now she is married to Trey, a man “who’d grown up with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys.” As the story progresses, there are frequent subtle reminders of this; Trey has a gun safe; Trey has a bottle of whiskey, a gift, that cost over two thousand dollars; their daughters are in an upscale school with a nice theatre program, and their daughters are enrolled in extracurricular activities like Quiz Bowl and Robotics. Yes, our Bree has come up in the world, alrighty. And so when their baby is kidnapped out from under her very nose, naturally Bree’s assumption is that there will be a ransom, and that she and Trey will pay it.

But this time, she is oh so wrong.

When the call comes, it turns out to be a very elderly woman bent on exacting revenge against Trey’s business partner, who is also his cousin. Bree must do exactly as she says, because if she sees any sign of police, “I’ll break his flimsy neck…I’ll twist his little head right around backward.”

Dear God.

 This story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let me go till I was done with it. I was initially approved for the audio version, and by the time I was given access to the print version, I had finished the first galley. Ordinarily, when something like this happens, I write my review, submit it to both places, and figure my work is done here. But for Jackson I do due diligence and more, and it’s a pleasure to read her book twice, so I did. And while both versions are excellent, I give a slight edge to the audio version. Print is a desirable medium anytime one is reading any mystery, because sometimes we want to flip back to check a detail or two. But Jackson always records her own audio books, and so I know the interpretation of the reader is always completely consistent with the writer’s intention. And in this case, the key side character—Marshall, an ex-cop that was married to Bree’s best friend, now dead—has a distinctive voice that comes through somewhat in the printed version, but much more plainly in the audio. I love the way she voices him, and although Marshall isn’t the protagonist, his role in this story is critical. The narrative shifts between Bree, who speaks to us from the first person limited, and Marshall, who comes to us in the third person.

The story carries an added social justice component: it’s MeToo on steroids. The things we learn about the men in the story add complexity, and though there’s a trigger or two here, I suspect most female readers will find the denouement deeply satisfying. I do.

The ending would ordinarily be deemed over-the-top, but because I believe the characters and story so completely by the time we get there, I also believe the resolution.

The one thing I would change here, if I wanted to be picky, would be to find a way to inject some of the epic laugh-out-loud humor I have enjoyed in Jackson’s earlier books. But that’s a tall order, given the intensity of this one.

One way or the other, this book is guaranteed to be one of the year’s very best. Don’t let yourself be left out. I strongly recommend this book to you, even at full cover price.

On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.

The Children’s Blizzard, by Melanie Benjamin****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version when I realized I was running behind. This book is for sale now.

I wanted to read this novel because it is different from everything else in my queue. I have a history degree and have taught American history, but I’d never heard of the Children’s Blizzard, which was real. The story is set mostly in and around “Godforsaken Omaha,” and I seldom see fiction set in Nebraska, so that is also interesting.

But once I had the book, I had second thoughts. Here we were, in the midst of this miserable, frightening pandemic, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t able to host my family for Christmas; I couldn’t see my grown children or tiny grandchildren in person…and I was going to read a book where small children froze to death in the snow? What exactly had I been thinking of, to request such a book? And so I shuffled it onto the back burner.

Then I saw that my online friends had liked it, and so with a deep breath, I pulled out my review copy, turned on the audio copy and began. And my friends were right; this is a good story.

The thing that makes the difference is that the blizzard is done before the story is even halfway over! I had envisioned slow, agonizing deaths that would take up the whole novel, and that isn’t what Benjamin does at all. While the deaths are indeed sad, she doesn’t draw them out gratuitously—and not everybody dies. Instead, the story is primarily about the aftermath, the way that these Scandinavian settlers respond to what has occurred, and the role of the ambitious reporter that covers the tragedy.

Benjamin does a fine job developing the characters, primarily the women involved, and I especially appreciate her unsentimental approach. Friends, if you ever find yourself feeling starry-eyed about the distant past, wishing things were simpler and done as they were long ago, this book will snap you out of it quickly. Believe it.

I recommend The Children’s Blizzard to those that enjoy historical fiction, and I especially recommend the audio book to you. The reader does a nice job of incorporating a Scandinavian accent without overdoing it, and it makes it easier to relate to the characters. I enjoyed it, and would happily read Benjamin’s work in the future.

The Autobiography of Mother Jones, by Mary Harris Jones*****

Note: I wrote this review before I began this blog, and I was shocked when I found I had somehow not included it here. There’s no disclosure regarding a review copy, because I didn’t get one. I bought this book and paid full cover price, and I will keep it until it is pried from my cold, dead hands.

Mother Jones has been called “the most dangerous woman in America”. Some refer to her as an anarchist, but in her autobiography, she denounces anarchism, though allows that these folks have their hearts in the right place. She has been called a syndicalist (which is probably closer to the truth), but the fact is that she was motivated by what she saw right there on the ground in front of her. When the Russian Revolution unfolded, she was by her own account past 90, and by the account of another biographer, in her mid-80’s, so either way, she was very, very elderly, yet she championed its achievement at the Pan-American labor conference held in Mexico:

“…a new day, a day when workers of the world would know no other boundaries than those between the exploiter and the exploited. Soviet Russia, I said, had dared to challenge the old order, had handed the earth over to those who toiled upon it, and the capitalists were quaking in their scab-made shoes.”

Jones’ career as a political organizer began shortly after she turned 30. She was a married woman, her husband an iron worker, and she stayed home with their four small children. “Yellow fever” (which I think is malaria) came and killed her whole family, and then as if that wasn’t enough, the great Chicago fire swept away her home and all her possessions.

Some would have turned to suicide. Some would have gone looking for an elderly widower to marry. Some would have gone off to find distant relatives and live with them as little more than domestic servants.

Jones reinvented herself and gave the next fifty-plus years of her life to making the world a better place.

Still clad in a widow’s black garments, she put her hair up in a chaste bun and left Mary Harris Jones behind. From this time forward, she would be “Mother Jones”. Think of it! The cinders from the American Civil War were barely cold, and women had no position in American political life, including the labor unions. Yet by becoming a mother to workers everywhere, including the women and small children laboring in mines and textile mills, she became a force to be reckoned with. It was a brilliant piece of theater, entirely sincere in its intention and in many cases successful. She was one of the most ardent champions of the 8 hour day:

“The person who believed in an eight-hour working day was an enemy of his country,a traitor, an anarchist…Feeling was bitter. The city [Chicago] was divided into two angry camps. The working people on one side–hungry, cold, jobless, fighting gunmen and policemen with their bare hands. On the other side the employers, knowing neither hunger or cold, supported by the newspapers, by the police, by all the power of the great state itself.”

When Mother speaks, people feel they should listen, and if she speaks in their better interests, they listen harder. And in the early days, at least, the boss’s goons and the local law thought twice about putting a hand on Mother. It wasn’t nice!

Later, as her impact on their wallets hardened their resolve, they would deal with her less gently. She didn’t care. She spent nights in jail when she could have left town instead. Sometimes she traveled into a coal mining enclave where every bit of property besides the public roads was owned by the mine owners. Even homes that had been rented to miners were closed to her, as was made clear enough to break almost anyone’s heart. She describes a mining family that held a union meeting at which she was present in the coal fields of Arnot, Pennsylvania. The following day the company fires and evicts the family, and “they gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much…and the sight of that wagon with the holy pictures and the sticks of furniture and the children” made the local miners so angry that they decided to strike and refuse to go back to work till their union was recognized.

The quote most well known that shows up on tee shirts, posters, and coffee mugs among the liberal and radical milieu today is knocked clean out of context, in my view. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” was delivered in order to get working men out of the local church, where the priest was trying to cool down the heat and persuade the coal miners to wait for a reward in heaven. “Your organization is not a praying institution,” she reminded them, “It’s a fighting institution!” She tells them to leave the church and meet in the local school, which their own tax dollars had bought. And she later tells other miners that striking is done to provide “a little bit of heaven before you die.”

From Chicago to the coal fields of West Virginia, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, she was found among railroad men and their families, machinists, textile workers, and above all, miners. She had no use at all for union officialdom, and though she occasionally praised a senator or governor who saw the light of day and called off the hounds of vengeance so that unions could be organized and the workers represented, more often than not she saw them as perfidious and untrustworthy.

When Eugene Debs became a candidate for U.S. president, she embraced his campaign, though she stayed among the workers, which I think was the correct thing to do. But when Debs comes to speak to coal miners and the union officialdom wants to meet his train quietly with a few representatives, Jones proposes all the union members go to greet him. They stampede down to the train, leap over the railings, and lift Debs onto their shoulders, she says, shouting, “Debs is here! Debs is here!”

I could have been finished with this slender volume quite quickly if I hadn’t been making notes (most of which, as usual, I cannot fit into my review, but then I should leave you some choice tidbits to find for yourself, and there are still many of them!) The chapters are brief, and so the book can be read just a few minutes at a time. And the introduction is written by one no less auspicious than Clarence Darrow himself.

You may look at the price and wonder whether you should pay that price for this slender little volume. The answer is, oh hell yes. Please remember that the words of the woman herself are worth twice as many from some armchair hack who wants to pick it apart and wonder whether she was really 83 or 85 at such-and-such moment? Spare yourself the blather and go straight to the primary source. It’s worth double the cover price!

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah****-*****

“‘My grandfather was a Texas Ranger. He used to tell me that courage was a lie. It was just fear that you ignored.’ She looked at him. ‘Well, I’m scared.’

‘We’re all scared,’ he said.”

Kristin Hannah’s electrifying new novel, The Four Winds, is set during the Great Depression in the American Dust Bowl and California. It’s a story about courage, and about the ways that love can transform us. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to review. It’s for sale now.

Elsa is born into a wealthy family, but this doesn’t do her much good. She is tall, ungainly, and considered homely by her parents, a contrast to her two younger, more adorable sisters. She was very ill when younger, and the family liked having her tucked away in her room so much that they would like her to remain there. When company comes over, it is suggested that she go “rest.” Affection and kindness are denied her entirely.

One day, in a fit of unheard-of rebellion, she buys herself a silk dress and sneaks out to a speakeasy. There she meets Rafe, and before long she is rolling in the hay. When the morning sickness comes upon her, her furious father drives her to the Martinelli farm, (“Italians, no less!”) and she is unceremoniously dumped there. The baby is a Martinelli, he tells them, and it—and its mother—are your problem now.

Rose and Tony Martinelli are not affluent like Elsa’s parents; she learns to haul water and do farm chores, and she learns how to make delicious, cheap food the Italian way. But her father’s abandonment is a blessing in disguise, because the Martinellis are good people. She is happy there with them. She marries Rafe, and she bears two children. But the land has been over-farmed, and soon the dust storms come and destroy nearly everything they have built:

Past the outhouse, a murky, urine-yellow haze burnished the sky. Wind picked up, barreled across the farm from the south. A board flew off the chicken coop and cracked into the side of the house. Rafe and Tony came running out of the barn. The cows mooed angrily and pushed into each other, pointing their bony butts into the dust storm.

The door opened. Rose yanked her to her feet, pulled her into the rattling, howling house.

Elsa and Rose ran from window to window, securing the newspaper and rag coverings over the glass and sills. Dust rained down from the ceilings, wafted from infinitesimal cracks in the window frames and walls. The candles on the makeshift altar blew out. Centipedes crawled out from the walls, hundreds of them, slithered across the floor, looking for somewhere to hide.

A blast of wind hit the house, so hard it seemed the roof would be torn off. And the noise. It was like a locomotive bearing down on them, engines grinding. The house shuddered as if breathing too hard; a banshee wind howled, mad as hell.

Friends, this isn’t even the climax. This is sixteen percent of the way into the story. And misery and tribulation continue to rain down on this poor little family and thousands more like them. The crops die, and the livestock that doesn’t starve is killed by breathing dust. Children, including Elsa’s little boy, fall ill with dust pneumonia; no matter how hard they try to prevent it, so much dust is in the atmosphere that it makes its way into the lungs, and so the youngest and oldest are soon in trouble.

The first half of this novel is a rough read. There’s sorrow, and suffering, and loss, and grief, and I find myself eyeing the page numbers and thinking to myself that if this were written by anybody else, and if I didn’t owe a review, I probably wouldn’t finish it, because who wants an entire story of this? But at about the halfway mark, things begin to change.

By now, Rafe has hit the bricks. Never a man of character or great resolve, he sneaks off into the night, leaving the three remaining adults to care for the children and the farm. And it is now that change takes place. Without Rafe to anchor the family as is traditional during this period, Elsa is left to make the decisions about her children’s futures, and in doing so, she changes.

Hannah portrays the Depression era American West vividly and accurately, and this is when the story grows legs. The plight of agricultural workers is likewise dealt with in clear, immediate detail. My one quibble, and it is the source of the missing half star in my rating, is her inexpert portrayal of Communism, which plays more than a passing role in the last thirty percent of the story. The first time I saw farmworkers’ struggles as “shutting down the means of production,” I cleared my throat, but I told myself it was possibly a typo that might be edited out in the finished version. The next two times I saw it, I started making notes. This is not a technical error; this is a dumb-butt error (trying to elude the censors here) that should have been caught on the first pass, and because it appears when the climax ramps up, it is a distraction that interferes with the flow of the narrative.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written novel, set during an interesting time period. Particularly arresting is the development of the relationship between Elsa and her adolescent daughter, Lareda, whose point of view is shared alternately with Elsa’s.  Setting, character, and plot work together seamlessly to enforce one another and move the story forward, yet if I had to hang my hat on one laudable aspect of this book, it would be character development.

I strongly recommend this novel to you.  

Band of Sisters, by Lauren Willig*****

Lauren Willig is an established author, but she is new to me. Band of Sisters, her newest release, has made me a fan. I read it free and early, and my thanks go to Net Galley, William Morrow, and Harper Audio for the review copies. It will be available to the public March 2, 2021.

A group of Smith College alumni sail to France on a mission to help civilians suffering extreme deprivation during World War I.  “They carry money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray,” says the promotional blurb, and that’s what happens. It’s hard to make plans when you don’t know which way the battle may turn or where bombs may fall, but these are plucky women, two doctors among them, and several of them are members of wealthy, influential American families as well. The story is based on actual women and events, and the teacher in me wishes I were still in the classroom and able to order sets of this excellent novel to share with honors students, girls especially, who need to see more of themselves in the study of American history.

Our two protagonists are Kate and Emmie, best friends and roommates a decade ago, united in this adventure. Kate is the only woman among the “Smithies” that doesn’t come from money and that doesn’t pay her own way; she is led to believe no one else paid their own way, either, but it isn’t true. And this is a chewy, inviting historical truth that we don’t see often in fiction. Though social class divisions are every bit as present and sharp today, assumptions made by most Americans have become more generous. During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a widely held belief that rich people were better in other ways as well, whether they had earned their fortunes or inherited them. They considered themselves to be God’s own chosen ones, and their wealth was one more sign that the Almighty loved them a bit more than others. Poverty was considered shameful, a thing to be concealed; there were no government funds of any kind to help the poor, and if there had been, women like Kate would have just about died before accepting them. Taking charitable contributions was a sign of personal failure and possibly dishonesty to most people back then. And the truth is, Kate isn’t impoverished, and she surely hasn’t failed at anything, but she has to work to earn her living, a thing most Caucasian women in the U.S. didn’t do in 1917. She is horrified when, midway through our narrative, she learns the truth about her travel expenses, and this creates one of the crises within the story.

Willig is a fine novelist. The pace never flags, and there’s never a moment of revisionism that makes me blink. She is true to the time period and the characters. Emmie’s character is a harder sell, to my way of thinking, because she comes from tremendous wealth, but her family has made her feel unworthy because of her physical appearance, and by the end of the book, I love Emmie as much as I do Kate.

I’ve plucked a sample for you, a scene in which Kate and Emmie are evacuating an area which is being overrun by the Germans:

[Kate] wanted Mrs. Barrett; she wanted Dr. Stringfellow; she wanted anyone who could tell them what to do and where to go. Grecourt looked different already, the anemones churned up by the tread of two hundred soldiers, tents dotted around the lawn, Maybe, if she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she could make it a week ago; the ground bright with flowers; slipping into story time and holding Zelie on her lap while Nell read to the basse-cour children in French about little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, joking with the unit around the supper table about their amazing ability differentiate between types of guns.

But it wasn’t a week ago. The Big Bad Wolf was here, he was on the march, with his big, big teeth and big, big guns, and maybe she wasn’t the best the Unit could have, but she was what they had right now.

By the time we reach this part of the story, I could not stop reading if I wanted to. It would have been impossible.  

The hardest characters for many writers are the children, and although we have no child protagonists, there are numerous scenes in which children play a part. How does a child act when he is traumatized by war? Willig is in perfect form here as well.

I received both the digital review copy and the audio, and I used them both. At the beginning there are so many women introduced to us at once that I felt lost with just the audio, and so I listened and read along to keep track. The narrator, Julia Whelan, does a superb job with a challenging manuscript, changing her tone and point of view to let us know which woman’s point of view we are hearing. My only concern regarding the audio version—which is much easier to follow once you have learned the most important characters—is that the story begins with a lengthy list of the women that participated, and it’s not great to listen to. I recommend you fast forward the audio to somewhere between five and seven percent, and then dive in.

I requested this galley because a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I respect recommended it to me, and all of them were absolutely right. This book is a gem, and I highly recommend it.