Home from the Hill, by William Humphrey *****

homefromthehillHome from the Hill, a National Book Award finalist about to be re-released, is the kind of story that lingers and affects the reader’s mood long after it is over. Upon completing the DRC, I felt a sense of loss that only comes with really splendid literature. So thank you Open Road Integrated Media, and thank you Net Galley for hooking me up. And if the spirit of the late, great author lingers among us, I want to thank him for tearing out my heart and feeding it to me with a spoon. It’s that good.

We know from the get-go that this one won’t end well. We think we are prepared for it. The people that live in that sleepy little Depression-era Texas town are a closed-mouthed lot, but the narrator is telling us things that the stranger in their midst doesn’t know. We know it’s a tragic tale because of this, but later we get so caught up in the magic being spun that we forget ourselves, and we cannot help hoping.

Boomer-gens like this reviewer may find colloquialisms and slang terms they had long forgotten; my own family, some of whom harkened from that neck of the woods, used them liberally some fifty years ago. Between this and the skillful use of setting and character, I felt as if I were sitting in the Captain’s den (though women are really not allowed there) listening to Chauncey spin his hunting stories, ones borne of longstanding oral tradition. I almost fell off the bed when I saw the word “larruping”. I had thought it was an onomatopoeia until I read it. I had forgotten the term entirely, but Humphrey brought it back, and I could hear it in my father’s voice, though he has been dead most of my life.

Ahem. The story. All right, let’s try this: what if Shakespeare had written Romeo and Juliet, but instead of his characters fantasizing and vowing not be Capulet or Montague, they had said, “Well of course, I am a Capulet, and you are a Montague, but we’ll give it time. They’ll come around.” But oh my my my, they would have been so very wrong. Nobody is going to do anything of the sort.

In a sense, Humphrey almost makes Shakespeare seem shallow, because the foundation of his tragic love story is this: we may love someone our families may not prefer, yet we are still what we came from. Even as we strive to be better people, different people than those who bore us and those that came before them, a piece of them remains at the core of what we are.

So although Theron wants to be someone better than his mother and certainly better than his father, it’s just not that simple. He is an independent, whole new person, with his own ideas, dreams, and resolutions…and he is still his father’s son. And he is still Hannah’s lad.

Libby loves her parents dearly, and when things go wrong, it is them she turns to. But of course, there is Theron. She loves him, and nobody else will really do. Surely, in a world made of fine people with the best of intentions, there ought to be a way?

Not so much.

I’ve read a few sad-sack reviews written by former literature students who have whined that they were required to read this in college. I want to smack those people upside the head and tell them to be grateful, and maybe go back and read it again.

All I know for sure is that it not only immersed me in another time and another place…it also reminded me of who I am.

All That Glitters, by Michael Murphy*****

allthatglittersThis was a quick read, and a fun one. Don’t be left out in the dark when it hits the shelves in January!

Jake Donovan and Laura Wilson have left the Big Apple in their dust and gone to Hollywood, where Laura is about to enter a new phase of her career with a lead role in one of the new talking pictures. All That Glitters, the new episode of Michael Murphy’s Jake and Laura series, a cozy mystery  if ever there was one, is full of Depression-era flavor, complete with celebrities from the time and place in which is it set. The writing is tight and sassy. Murphy has penned a winner! My thanks go to Net Galley and Alibi Publishers for the ARC.

Jake has promised Laura that his risky gumshoe days are over; he is a novelist now, a new leaf turned over for the woman he loves. Who would dream that Blackie Doyle, the protagonist of his series, would have to solve a real-life murder to clear author Donovan of a murder charge that has been tethered to him by scant evidence and lazy cops? Louella Parsons, a real-life celebrity journalist whom Murphy has borrowed to add spice to his already spunky story, wants to see him behind bars; just think what a scoop it represents!

The story is enhanced by one detective who carries a torch for Jake, and another who creates all manner of ridiculous situations with his obvious, bumbling surveillance. Murphy peppers the narrative and dialogue with generous applications of Depression-era slang that sounded to this reviewer as if it had fallen from the lips of her late parents. In other words: it’s a doozy!

Cold weather has come, and now is the perfect time to curl up in your favorite warm hidey-hole with this extremely entertaining mystery. You never know; you may become addicted to the series.

Stranger things have happened!

Hardcastle, by John Yount ****

hardcastleThis hauntingly evocative Depression-era novel centers around a coal battle near Harlan, Kentucky. Our protagonist is Bill Music (originally Musik, before the Ellis Island people decided to yank the German element from the family name). Music has gone from his family’s bare-dirt farm in Virginia to seek his fortune in Chicago. He worked his way through a nine month electrician’s certification program, did hard labor to support himself, and just when he was ready to go on home, he was robbed. His attackers even found the $20 hidden in his shoe, since they took his shoes also. Barefoot, broke and hungry, he joins throngs of other down-and-out Americans by jumping a freight train toward home. The third day on an empty stomach, he sees a farm with piglets in the back yard and crazed from hunger, leaps from the train with no thought how he’ll get back on one. A twenty mile, post-piglet walk leads him to Hardcastle, a mining town filled with impoverished, bitter miners on the brink of unionization.

Regis Patoff may be my favorite character in Yount’s story. The name itself is great; I will leave the reader to uncover its origin, one of the few humorous moments in the story. Patoff offers Music the heart-stopping salary of three bucks a day, more than he used to make in a whole week, to be a mine guard. He deceives Music by telling him that the mine is too small to attract union drama anyway, and so he will be paid this handsome amount to routinely trudge around the property at night three times a week.

When something looks too good to be true, it generally is.

Music moves in with Regis and his mother, the wonderfully drawn Ella Bone, who takes to him as a second son. When all hell breaks loose, Music is in too deep to walk away. Winter is coming; he has been away so long that he can no longer imagine the faces of his parents or siblings, but Regis, Ella, and his beloved Merlee are right there in front of him. He stays.

The reader should expect to deal with a certain amount of Appalachian/country dialect. If English is your second language, you will want an e-reader for definitions, or a native English speaker to guide you through some of the vernacular.

For me, however, it created an immediate bond. Two generations ago, my father’s people were miners; they were comfortably ensconced in more lucrative, less dangerous work by the time I was born. Until I read Yount’s novel, I was unaware of how many cultural artifacts had leeched into my own childhood from the mines of the Depression era. Immediately a little girl calls her grandfather “Pappaw”, and I found myself missing my own Pappaw, who died in 1977. One of the main characters calls out the greeting, not hello but “Hydee!” and I can hear my father’s voice, gone 35 years, as clear as day. When you read the word “victuals”, hear it as “vittles”, and it means food, usually a good meal. And so it went.Somewhere along the way I realized I had flagged so many terms I hadn’t heard for ages that those reading my review would not want to march through all of them with me, so I will leave off here and continue with the story.

For me, this was a page-turner. The last star fell off the review during the last ten percent of the story, when some historical inaccuracies too great to dismiss as mere story-telling devices came up. The greatest was the depiction of the United Mine Workers as a union made up entirely of communists. And given that contemporary working class history is my field of expertise, it really grated. For those who want the truth, here it is:

During the early years of American union struggle, most industrial unions banned anyone who was not Caucasian; who was not an American citizen; or who was a communist from their ranks. The UMW refused to let its ranks be decimated by these distinctions, believing in solidarity. So yes, people who were communists and said so openly were allowed to join, and if the ranks voted them into leadership, they were allowed to take their posts. The union did not yield to red-baiting. There were white folks in the union who didn’t think people of color should be allowed in, but the UMW pointed out that solidarity was the best way to keep workers all on the side that would fight for their interests.

Yount correctly depicts the UMW as inclusive of every ethnicity, race, and nationality, but it incorrectly paints the UMW as a communist union, to the extent that in order to stay in the union, members were ultimately expected to renounce their Christian beliefs and take up little red flags. It is preposterous. When it came into the story, I expected some other thing to happen in order to undo the incorrectness of it, but he left it lay there, the dead elephant in the room. It really got in the way of the story. It was just stupid, and I did a complete 180 from being really entertained and enjoying the story and its characters, trying to determine what would happen in the future to the main surviving players, to being aggravated at the lie on which the resolution of the tale hinges. I also didn’t like the implication that mine workers were dumb enough to be led around by the nose without having known who was leading them. Many of them (including my grandfather) had a low or nonexistent literacy level, but that didn’t make them stupid, just poor.

For other readers, the whole story may be entirely enjoyable. The characterizations are endearing, the setting palpable. When Yount brought winter, my feet got cold. His writing is really strong.

But watch the history. Changing major historical events and realities through fiction is a dangerous thing, because when emotion runs high, people bond to what’s in the text, and if they have no reason to believe otherwise, they assume they are getting the truth, or the mostly-truth. And this author hasn’t merely tampered with some minor realities for the sake of a good story; he has stood the historical record on its head.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg *****

friedgreentomatoesIf I had to whittle several decades of reading down to thirty favorite books, this one would make the cut. It is wonderful on so many levels. Flagg has published a number of glorious, whimsical yet not shallow novels, always set in the deep South. This one is the jewel in her literary crown.

Have you seen the movie? If you have, this book may be easier for you to read. I read it, and absolutely (as you can see) loved it. The issue for other readers I’ve talked to is that the book hops back and forth in terms of setting, including time period, and it doesn’t provide an obvious heads-up that this is what is happening.

There are two stories being told, one that of a contemporary woman who is unhappy with her life, menopausal and fearful that she is losing her husband’s attention, bored and feeling worthless. She is spending part of her weekend at a nursing home where her husband’s wife resides, but the woman hates her and won’t let her in the room. It is in the lobby where she is faithfully stationed, downing the candy stash from her purse for comfort, that she meets one of the home’s residents, who tells her pieces of her life story, a little more each visit. But in the book, we are taken back in time in other ways. Suddenly we are reading a small town newspaper, and if you are a person who skips chapter headings, you’re likely to find yourself entirely confused.

I won’t give away more of the plot, but for the time in which it was written, this novel bravely took up one progressive (IMHO) cause about which not much was being written. It’s very subtle. Other parts of the story will leave you laughing so hard that you either can’t catch your breath, or if you are old enough, you may not hang onto…something else.

Highly recommended.