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.

The Eagle’s Claw, by Jeff Shaara*****

Shaara is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted when I received an invitation to read and review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; this book is for sale now.

Like everyone else, I bring my own experiences and biases to this novel, and this one is a potential hot potato. I am married to a Japanese citizen, and my in-laws still reside in Japan. The implicit, and at times overt racism that many authors bring to this topic—the Pacific theater of World War II, between the U.S. and Japan—ruins my mood for days, and consequently, I won’t even go near most nonfiction or historical fiction that focuses on this aspect of American history. When Shaara published To Wake the Giant, I signed on to read and review with great trepidation; I was afraid that I would not only hate the book, but emerge from it unhappy enough to abandon the author entirely. Imagine my delight when I found the opposite was true.

Shaara’s signature format is to portray the events that unfold through the eyes of key participants, delivering staggered narratives that include admirals and pilots on both sides as well as a code breaker on the American side. Shaara sticks to the truth, and by now I know this, so I’m not distracted by the need to fact check information that is new to me. His research and attention to detail is matchless, and his capacity to develop characters on the page makes me feel I would know these men if I ran into them on the street. My review copy, sadly, did not have the maps added, merely noting on what pages they would later be added; however, I once more defer to this author’s track record. I would bet my last dollar that the maps are also excellent.

One aspect that is usually a deal breaker for me is the frequent use of the period’s predominant racist slur, when Americans mention the Japanese. There are three syllables in this word, and they should be used. For those that plead that the one syllable word is authentic to the time and place, I would invite them to imagine a similar tale featuring a hypothetical African enemy during the same time period. What would be the expected, authentic term by which Caucasian Americans would refer to such enemy combatants, and to the government from which they hail? For the obtuse, I’ll tell you, it would be the N word. So would you just go ahead and drop it in there for the sake of accuracy, or would you use greater sensitivity and explain the alteration in an author’s note? You’d do the latter. Of course you would. In fact, likely it would be the only way your novel would see the light of day, and rightly so.

But here as well, Shaara gets a pass from this reviewer despite his use of the term I abhor, and the reason is his candor, addressing the racism of the time period right up front. Though you might think it obvious, I have never seen a successful author of World War II historical fiction do this, and he is absolutely clear about it. In fact, I began highlighting the introduction—don’t skip it! And when it was done, I found I had highlighted nearly all of it.

Whether you are drawn to this book from a love of history and the desire to learn a few things painlessly, or for the escapist entertainment that great novels provide, you can’t go wrong here. This is a damn fine book. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair*****

dragonsteethDragon’s Teeth is the third in the Pulitzer-winning Lanny Budd series. Set in 1942—the present, at the time it was written—it provides the reader with a fascinating, well-informed, hyper-literate view of Europe during the years before and during Hitler’s ascent to power. While it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge in order for the reader to keep up with the story, history lovers, political philosophers, and especially those fascinated by the period in question will find it riveting. Thank you Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for allowing me a DRC. This title is available for purchase digitally now.

Sinclair, himself a socialist of the Utopian variety, shows us the ideas of the “reds and pinks” that were plentiful and active—yet in the end, not active enough to prevent a Fascist takeover—during this period. Budd is the heir to a munitions-maker’s fortune, and so his is the life of the idle rich. He amuses himself by hosting salons, popular at the time, which were group discussions regarding alternative political ideas. His wife Irma is heir to an even greater fortune, and is uncomfortable hosting these odd people that speak of redistributing wealth, but in time she relaxes, understanding that this is just one of Lanny’s hobbies and is unlikely to ever affect her personal comfort level. And indeed, Lanny is never going to sully his hands by taking to the streets with working class militants; in fact, apart from buying and reselling artwork, he’s never going to even hold down a job, reasoning that it would be wrong of him to take a job he does not need when someone else really does need it. He is amused and comfortable in his role as armchair socialist and angel financier to a leftwing newspaper. Yet the idea of actually taking power…hmmm.

“It seemed to have begun with the Russian Revolution, which had been such an impolite affair.”

Nobody writes setting like Sinclair. The story begins in Italy following the First World War; Mussolini has risen to power, and we can almost hear the hard heels striking the cobblestones. Budd is somewhat concerned for Hansi, his brother-in-law who is Jewish, but he also believes that money talks, and any unpleasantness can probably be squared away with a donation here and a greased palm there. As long as the seas are safe, the family considers simply waiting out all the unpleasantness on the family yacht, hoping that things will be settled down by the time they want to dock somewhere.

Hitler is out and agitating, but no one really thinks he will take over the world; if he were going to do that, he surely wouldn’t stand in the streets and scream about it, now would he? And we feel, through Lanny and his family, the stark startled horror when his power increases and his Storm Troopers become an official government organization rather than simply a pack of street thugs. At the same time, we also experience his and others’ perplexity at the name chosen by the NSDAP, because it invokes the name of Socialism for a system that is actually far-flung from it, and it calls out to the working class even as it pounds their unions to dust and sends their leaders to concentration camps.

While the working class of Europe starves or stands on line at a soup kitchen, the Budd family has the traditional six meals daily; when they are not at home, they do the charitable thing, and instruct the servants to find some “worthy poor” to consume the unused meals. Well…not in the house, of course. Somewhere else.

At times, the tone is satirical, and in a few places made me laugh out loud, mostly in the beginning. Later the tone changes and is sharper, angrier. I found it deeply satisfying.

Particularly fascinating is the statement that “He who could get and hold the radio became God.” In one form or another, this has been true since the radio was introduced into first-world homes nearly 100 years ago. Major media sources had the monopoly on information, apart from the printed press. The radio, then television…only recently have ordinary people had the means to record and disseminate information on the phone they carry with them everywhere. And it’s interesting to see the changes that result.

Perhaps your thoughts will travel in different directions than mine did in reading this interesting nugget, but it is bound to make you think. If you are looking for some escapist material to take to the beach or curl up with by the fire, this isn’t it. This is fuel for the brain, fierce material that came from a time when all of Europe had to decide which side they were on.

For those that love history, literary fiction, or political science—or all three—highly recommended!

Wayfaring Stranger: A Novel, by James Lee Burke *****

wayfaringstrangerThis reviewer has long been in awe of James Lee Burke’s poetic lyricism and his ability to weave together complex story elements so that they segue together at the novel’s end in a miraculous yet entirely credible manner. At times the author hints at magical realism, but the buck always ends right on solid ground. I wouldn’t care to see it any other way.

This is his most recent release, but I didn’t receive an ARC for this; I got it for Christmas. It was perched at the top of my wish list, and rightly so. Take Burke’s capacity to spin great fiction—here it is a blend of historical and detective fiction—and add to it his absolute disillusionment with American capitalism, in particular with regard to oil companies, and with the cops who favor the elite and shaft the poor, and he’s talking my kind of talk.

The cherry on the sundae? This man is old enough to be your grandfather, most likely, yet he has labeled this book Weldon Holland #1. That’s right, it’s the beginning of a new series.

I love it.

Our story commences in the dust bowl, in the midst of a worldwide depression. Two badass youngsters named Bonnie and Clyde have shot up the South. Burke sends them across the Holland family property at the outset, but they disappear and the story continues. I was momentarily confused, because I had heard that this novel was about Bonnie and Clyde. Now that I’ve read it I can tell you honestly that it isn’t, but it is.

Weldon Holland grows up and fights during World War II; he rescues a starving woman from the rubble of a concentration camp, and he falls in love with her. They are married, and when he comes home, he brings her with him. It is a miracle that he makes it back alive, given the incompetent leadership of his platoon. And yet, that same arrogant, self-absorbed son of a bitch that nearly got him killed ends up funding the pipeline that Weldon and his war buddy and business partner, Hershel start up. Sometimes life bites you in the ass and comes back for seconds, and this is one such instance.

“When you live in a democracy, there are certain things you believe will never happen to you. Then a day comes when the blindfold is removed and you discover the harsh nature of life at the bottom of the food chain.”

Time and again, those with wealth and power find ways to insult and ignore people in whose footprints they are not fit to walk. When they do things that are morally wrong, they become inaccessible rather than own up to their misdeeds. When they absolutely must discuss these things, they take the passive voice. It’s the same one mass killers use to address their victims’ families in a court of law after their lawyer tells them that an apology may make a difference in their sentencing. They never say they did things; things happened.

And Bonnie and Clyde? What of those two angry young people that the sheriff never intended to even try to arrest rather than kill? How do they fit into this more contemporary tale?

I think the answer is that they become a metaphor of sorts; it’s entirely possible that their foolishness was just their way of “getting even for the rest of us.”

When I write reviews, I generally do so quickly and easily. It’s not usually a hard thing to do. Yet in this case, I’ve stewed about this book for three days since I finished reading it, and I am still not satisfied that I have done it justice.

I guess that’s the thing about magically realistic literature; it has to be read to be understood.

You just have to read it. Pay for the book. Pay for it in hard cover. You won’t be sorry.