All the Little Hopes, by Leah Weiss*****

Recently, I read and reviewed Weiss’s debut novel, If the Creek Don’t Rise, which was delightful. This year’s novel, All the Little Hopes, is better still. My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

Weiss’s story is of two girls born in different parts of North Carolina, both geographically and culturally, and of how they come together and ultimately, become each other’s family. The novels I love best provide a resonant setting, an original plot, and compelling character development; these three elements don’t compete for the reader’s attention, but rather, each of them serves to develop and reinforce the others. That’s what I find here.

Our story takes place in the 1940s, during World War II. The narrative comes to us in the first person, with the point of view alternating between the girls; we begin with Lucy. Her father is a farmer, and by far his biggest crop is honey. As the story opens, government men come to visit, and they want to buy all of his honey for the war effort. Lucy’s eldest sibling and brother-in-law have both gone to serve in the military, and there’s an emotional scene after the government men leave, because they’ve given permission for both sons to return home to help with the honey. Lucy’s mother pleads with her father to write to them and order them home at once; he stands firm, saying that the choice must be their own. Now we begin seeing how conflict plays out in this family, and how the various relationships work. But all of it is done through the plot, so that we aren’t slowed down by a bunch of emo for its own sake.

Bert, whose given name is Allie Bert, lives in the mountains, and her family has far fewer resources than Lucy’s. Her story unfolds with the death of her mother in childbirth, along with the baby. Her father sends her to live with his sister, Violet, who is expecting a baby of her own. He suggests that Violet will need household help, and Bert can provide it; he doesn’t know that Violet has gone stark, raving mad. When Bert arrives, Violet is behaving irrationally and at times, violently. She locks Bert out of the house in a storm, and the nearest house is that of the Brown family. And so it begins.

One of the most critical aspects of this book’s success is Weiss’s facility in drawing the girls, who are just beginning adolescence. At the outset, we learn that Lucy takes pride in her advanced vocabulary. I groan, because this is often a device that amateurs use to try to gloss over their lack of knowledge relating to adolescents’ development. Make the girl smart, they figure, and then they will have license to write her as if she were an adult. Not so here! These girls are girls. Though it’s not an essential part of the plot, one of my favorite moments is when the girls are locked in a bitter, long-lasting quarrel over whether Nancy Drew is a real person. Bert says she is not; Lucy is sure she is. This isn’t silly to them. It’s a bitter thing. Further into the book, Lucy realizes that it’s more important to be understood, than to use the most advanced word she can come up with. And so my estimation of Weiss rises even higher.

When someone comes from truly devastating poverty, the few things that they own take on great importance. Bert arrives with a treasure box, and in it, she keeps things that may seem inconsequential, but that mean the world to her. And Bert is also light-fingered. After meeting Lucy’s mother, who is one of the nicest people she’s met in her life, she pockets a loose button that Mama means to sew back onto a garment. Bert wants this button fiercely, because Mama has touched it. Later—much later—she confesses this to Lucy, and then to Mama, and is flabbergasted when there is no harsh punishment. She explains to a neighbor,

“Mama says sometimes stealing is necessary, but that don’t make a lick of sense. Stealing’s a crime. Back home, there ain’t two ways bout stealing. You get a whipping. You get sent to your room with no supper. No breakfast the next day neither. Stealing is a sin against the Lord Jesus, so salt gets put on the floor, and you get on your knees on that salt and stay there till you cry out and your knees bleed, till you fall over and Pa says that’s enough.”  

One feature of the story is when Nazi prisoners of war are housed nearby, and they become available as labor. At first locals fear them, but then they get to know some of them, and they discover that like themselves, the prisoners play marbles. Gradually, the rules about avoiding the prisoners relaxes to where the girls are allowed to play marbles with them sometimes. “We tread close to the sin of pride when it comes to marbles. I don’t think we can help ourselves.” And now I am veering toward an eyeroll, because (yes, I’ll say it again,) writers are awfully quick to find humanity in Caucasian enemies, whereas we know the story would have been very different had these prisoners been Japanese. BUT, as my eyes narrow and my frown lines deepen, another development occurs that reminds us that these men aren’t really our friends. Again, my admiration increases.

Weiss’s last book was a delight for the first eighty-percent, but it faltered at the end, and so I was eager to see whether this novel stands up all the way through. I love the ending!

You can get this book now, and if you love excellent historical fiction, excellent Southern fiction, or excellent literature in general, you should get it sooner rather than later. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the list at your local library. This is one of the year’s best, hands down.

Today We Go Home, by Kelli Estes**-***

I expected to love this book, and I wanted it to be great. The premise is terrific: Larkin, a wounded warrior home after falling apart while on tour in Afghanistan, finds the diary of Emily, a woman that fought in the American Civil War (albeit in drag.) It’s a cool idea, and between the feminist moxie and my enthusiasm for local writers, I was ready to be wowed. It didn’t work out that way, but my thanks still go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

The contemporary component is the part I found strongest and most appealing. I haven’t seen a lot of novels featuring women in uniform (or freshly out of one,) whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the pain that Lark carries for her best friend, Sarah, is visceral and in places, haunting. Sarah served with Lark and died in an ambush that Lark believes she could have prevented. Lark sees her die, and then has flashbacks and nightmares that make my gut roil. Lark’s mama is dreadful, and I am heartily weary of seeing mothers take it on the chin in fiction, but I like the relationship between Lark and her grandmother and the way it is developed.

I had hopes for the second thread, the one about Emily fighting alongside her brother in the Civil War, but this part is unfortunately plagued by historical revisionism and too much convenient coincidence. For a woman to be as forward-thinking as the politically correct Emily—and this is the first time I have ever used this term in a negative way, leaning much farther to the left than your average American—would have been very unusual indeed, and for Emily to have slipped beneath the social radar in other regards would have been nearly impossible. Emily thinks at one point that her brother David is gay, for example, but she worries only for his safety, because she herself is sure that gay people are just made that way by God. And while this is a lovely sentiment, a researcher could turn under every historical rock and go through every collection of Civil War diaries and letters, and she would probably not find this sentiment in any of them. And in another case, Emily is sympathetic toward a runaway slave, not only in the sense that slavery is wrong or that the runaway is toast if his pursuers find him; she views him as her social equal. Aside from the late and admirable John Brown, and possibly his sons, it would be a hard thing indeed to find such a Caucasian person in the early 1860s, North or South. Many that fought against slavery assumed that former slaves would be deported to Africa; nearly nobody is on record during that period suggesting that Black folks were equal to whites, or that they could become friends and neighbors on equal footing.

I imagined Ta-Nehisi Coates reading this novel and howling with laughter at its naiveté.

To round it out, Emily virtually trips over another woman-disguised-as-a-male soldier, and given the vast numbers of men fighting in the Civil War, even the most generous estimate of women that served covertly makes this unlikely enough to be ludicrous.

I am not sure whether the pacing of the novel is also slow, apart from these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, or whether it was slowed by them, that sad moment akin to one in which Toto has pulled the curtain aside and revealed that Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little dumpy bald guy talking into a microphone. All I know is that by the thirty percent mark, I was forcing myself to continue reading because I had a review copy and an obligation. I actually like having one galley with a sedate pace that I can read before I turn out the light, but my frustration with the issues noted above prevented me from reading it and then dropping off into peaceful slumber. At the sixty percent mark, I let myself off the hook. I took a quick look at the denouement to check for mitigating developments at the end, and then closed the book.

Estes is a talented writer, but I believe she has tried to do too much here. A simpler novel focusing exclusively on Lark would likely have been stronger. However, she is a writer to watch, and I believe she will do fine work in the future.

This book is for sale now.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton*****

I am late to the party, but it’s still going strong. Stuart Turton’s masterful debut generated so much talk that I couldn’t not read this book, and it lives up to the buzz. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark.

Aiden wakes up stranded in the woods, and he has no idea who he is. Strangers rescue him and he’s taken to an aging English manor house, where a party is taking place. Everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t know any of them, and in time he realizes that he is living inside the body of another person at the scene of a murder. Every time he wakes up, he is in the body of a new host  at the same party in the same house, often someone he has already seen from the outside while he inhabits a different body; he lives through the same day he has just experienced, but through a different perspective. He will never be permitted to leave the manor or be restored to his own body until he is able to solve the mystery; he is in a competition with others in more or less the same position.  At the outset, he is inside Jonathan Derby, and everyone obsequiously attends to his needs. He is injured. He needs rest.

This story has a house-that-Jack-built quality, because each time Aiden wakes up, he can recall everything he learned when he was inside someone else. This advantage is offset by the fact that each host is more difficult to occupy, with the personality of the host warring for control over the body that he shares with them.  Several curves—including more murders—are added to the mix.  The reader has to decide which events are related to the murder, and which are extraneous; on top of that, some of the characters Aiden encounters are liars.

When I began reading I tried to keep track of the information, but soon it became obvious that I would need a flow chart to stand even a small chance of solving this thing, so I gave up and rode along, enjoying the progress of the story, but clueless as to how it would work out. Even so, it is a complex enough tale that I learned quickly not to read it after I took my sleeping pill.

Not only is it cleverly conceived and well paced, but there is character development, made possible with Anna’s back story and the humanizing of the Plague Doctor. I can only tip my hat in awe.

So Turton has a monstrously successful debut novel, but the pressure is on in terms of what he writes next. Can his second effort live up to the reputation he has created for himself? Whatever he writes, I want to read it.

Highly recommended.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis*****

“We will choose what we take with us.”

This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it rises and we must look at it.

As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it, is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is 1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and her parents and brother were still alive.

I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.

But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.

Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion, Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the wealthiest man in Bound at the time.

As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town fears him.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never married.  We can also see that she is solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures herself against her late parents.  Judith is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to be broken by him, as her mother was.  So Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.

But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way.  How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright?  Isn’t that right, Olva?

Olva just smiles.

In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative writing assignment related to point of view.)

What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature; once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset. And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.

This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson***-****

3.5 rounded up.

Cussy Mary Carter delivers books to the rural poor folk of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky during the Great Depression. I read this quixotic tale free and early, thanks to Sourcebooks and Net Galley; it’s available for purchase now.

Cussy is the daughter of a miner; her mother is dead, and her father is dying slowly of Black Lung, known to them locally as “the miner’s sickness.” She has no siblings. The government pays her to follow every possible winding path to reach out-of-the-way homes, loaning books, magazines, and the scrapbooks assembled of odds and ends by the librarians themselves. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise grim little town.

I like Cussy Mary, but I have to admit that I am more attached to Junia, her mule—and if you read this book, you’ll see why. Everything Cussy does is fraught with peril, and though I seldom do this, I cheat and look ahead because although I can tolerate any fate for the human characters here, I need to know whether anything will happen to Junia. Junia serves as Cussy’s transportation, watchdog (watch mule?) and best friend. Ordinarily I am no more attached to hoofed animals than any other city dweller, but this plucky critter has me at hello.

One of the best single moments in historical fiction occurs when Cussy Mary is confronted by a rattlesnake on a path. A shot rings out, and a neighbor woman steps out of the trees holding a gun and yells, “Back. That’s my supper.”

The story’s greatest strengths all have to do with setting and historical detail. Cussy Mary and her father are among a relatively rare racial group that no longer exists, people possessed of blueberry-blue skin. They were often shunned by those they lived among, some of whom regarded them as “colored” (as did local law), and others of whom feared they carried a curse. I had never known about the “blues” before reading this novel, and this is historical fiction at its best, that which educates us and makes us like it.

I would have liked to see more subtlety and ambiguity in the development of Cussy Mary and the lesser characters. Everyone here is either a good person or a bad one. Richardson’s good people never have bad moments or vice versa. I understand when Cussy Mary turns down offers of food even though she is hungry; part of it is the pride that is an inherent part of the culture, and she also fears that those making the offer may be giving up their only food of the day. I understand this the first time she tells us, and the second, and the third…but by the time I see it again (and again, and..) I am rolling my eyes and wishing fervently that once, just once she will say thank you and scarf down the biscuit, or the apple, or the whatever. On the rare occasion she accepts food, she takes it to someone else, and then she goes home and eats thistles. It makes it difficult to believe her character, because nobody is that saintly every minute of every day.

Nonetheless, I recommend this book to you, because there’s nothing else like it. If there were a body of fictional literature widely available regarding this time, place, and its people, I might say differently, but as far I can see, this is it, and the setting is strong enough to just about stand on its own. Those that enjoy the genre will want this book.