Sunday, September 29, 2013

Necessary Lies

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain is a powerfully moving story set in rural North Carolina in 1960. It tells the story of a young woman, Jane, newly married to a pediatrician, who wants her own career helping others. She has recently graduated from Woman's College and gets a job as a social worker in the welfare office overseeing clients in a rural, poverty stricken county near Raleigh.

On the job she meets the Hart family: two teenage girls being raised by their grandmother in a small tenant house on a tobacco farm owned by Davison Gardiner. The younger of the two, Ivy, basically oversees the household as her aging grandmother has serious health issues and her feeble minded sister, Mary Ella, has a two-year old son that needs looking after.

Jane is warned by her superior, Charlotte Werkmann, not to get overly-invested or personally involved with her clients. The hallmark of good, effective social work among the county's population is to stay detached in order to keep the proper perspective on the needs of the children and families she serves.

Jane learns that North Carolina's "eugenics" program--the routine sterilization of not just those who are institutionalized, but any and all who fall below an IQ of 70, those who have epilepsy, or those who are deemed unlikely to ever get off the welfare rolls--has already sterilized Mary Ella without her knowledge or consent, and now have their sights on doing the same to younger sister, Ivy. The better she gets to know the Hart girls, the more outraged she becomes at the system which seems to offer these girls no choice.

What ensues is the story of lives forever changed by one person's stubborn challenge to a system which may or may not serve the best interests of those most vulnerable in society.

Some of the things in Chamberlain's book shock my sense of what it means to be a woman in 2013 in the United States. The fact that a doctor would not write a birth control prescription for her unless she had a signed permission note from her husband felt like a huge slap in the face. Yet, I have no doubt that thinking existed in the past. How far we have come!

It was also quite a shock to realize that involuntary sterilization of people occurred at such rates! I knew that it has happened to people who lived in institutions, such as the severely mentally handicapped and those in psychiatric care in the past. I assumed that these procedures always had the ok of nearest living relatives or guardians.

To discover in the Afterword that 7,000 people in the state of North Carolina alone, into the 1970s!, were being sterilized based on intelligence, their use of the welfare system, or even because they were epileptic remains shocking to say the least!

I read Necessary Lies in a matter of hours because it was such compelling reading. I felt myself getting entwined in the lives of the characters. I also really enjoyed Chamberlain's technique of writing every-other chapter from Jane and Ivy's perspectives.

I would highly recommend reading Necessary Lies. Chamberlain has done an outstanding job depicting the time and place and presenting us with characters you feel are standing right behind you, looking over your shoulder as you read. Get your book club to consider this one--you will find a plethora of things to discuss!!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stark, Vivid, Heart Rending Reads

Two books I have read in the past few months may strike some readers as bleak.

Yesterday I finished Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

What do you think of convicted killers? How do you feel about public execution? How would you like a convicted killer who's been sentenced to death living with your family?

Agnes Magnussdottir knows death is coming for her. What she doesn't know is when.

Sentenced to death for taking part in the killing of two men at a remote farmstead in Iceland in 1828, Agnes is sent to live out her remaining days (the number of which has yet to be determined) with the family of a government official at the Kornsa farmstead. Kent's novel narrates the final months of Agnes' life: her conversations with the priest she has chosen to offer her spiritual guidance and the women who inhabit the same space and shape her last days.

Agnes feels that her voice, her story were not heard during the trial. As one of three people convicted for the bloody, vicious murder (along with a young woman and a male neighbor), she is desperate to be heard and understood. Her need to tell her story becomes even more urgent when she learns that officials are working toward eliminating the death penalty for the younger woman.

It is an intricately woven story, as vivid as it is stark in details of the landscape, the characters, the period, and the social situation. Kent's storytelling draws you in, gets you involved in the lives of these people. I began to wonder exactly for whom the burial rites were taking place: Agnes? The priest Toti? Margret? her daughters? the community? the reader?

Will Agnes be heard? Will the tale she tells, the confession she makes be enough to save her from meeting her death?

If you enjoy historic novels this will be right up your alley. It is a rich study of character, personality and spirit. There is much fodder in here for book club discussions as well. What an extra surprise to discover Kent's end notes that the novel is based on historical people and events!

The other story I read which also had somewhat bleak circumstances but rich, unforgettable characters is Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century in Pacific Northwest, the novel is the story of William Talmadge--a solitary man with an apple and apricot orchard who tends not only his trees with gentle care, but also the two runaway girls who have escaped the horrors of the sex trade to seek refuge in his orchard.

The girls are scared, battered and pregnant. Slowly they learn to trust Talmadge. A kind of family forms until one day when a group of men appear in their orchard with guns and the shattering tragedy forces everyone to face the the ghosts and baggage they have been carrying all along.

I found Coplin's characters rich and complex. Once I started reading it was impossible to stop! It reminded me of Kent Haruf's Plainsong novels with the common thread being making family out of the people around you rather than relying on blood relatives to fulfill that role.

The Orchardist is also another period piece (historical fiction) which I have become a fan of. I admire the amount of research that both these authors did into the time and place of their settings. In both cases the environment and social setting are hugely important and in both novels these details are superbly executed.

While a colleague of mine felt Coplin's novel was depressing, I saw in it several moments of hope in the midst of bleak realities. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have recommended it to many people!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant

I believe that every person alive carries with him or her the wounds inflicted by life.

For some people, those wounds are gaping, festering sores which never seem to heal. They are obvious to the bearer who either tries to hide the wounds or flagrantly displays them for all to see.

For other folks the wounds are now barely visible scars—rarely noticed by themselves or others unless the light shines on the exact spot in just the right way. Then, in that moment, it might be remembered as something which has helped to make that person who he or she is.

The Tulls, parents and children alike, are no different. Anne Tyler’s characters in Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant reminded me of my own extended family of origin in many ways. Like Pearl, my own grandmother raised her three children, two boys and a girl, as a single parent back in the day when that sort of thing still had a negative social stigma about it. I have seen the sorts of behaviors and attitudes that result when one parent abandons a family—the sorts of questions and longings that result.

Tyler writes each chapter from the perspective of a different family member. I enjoy this style of writing and the way it allows an author to develop characters. I find it allows readers a certain knowledge and intimacy with the family, their relationships, and what makes each person in the novel “tick.”

After my book club read Tyler’s novel, Digging to America, about two families whose lives become intertwined when they meet each other at the airport where their adoptive children arrive, I knew I wanted to read more of her work. Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant rose to the top of my list when the first hints of autumn floated across my senses last week. Autumn has always been my favorite season. For me, it carries with it a certain amount of homesick longing—the exact type of longing experienced most by Ezra Tull. He spends a lot of time throughout the novel preparing food and arranging for a family dinner that will likely never measure up to his expectations because he longs for the idea of a family gathering. My homesick longing is, the older I get, for that nostalgic idea of family as well—the type of family and belonging which I imagine more as a feeling than a real, physical entity could capture.

Bravo to Tyler for another outstanding and enjoyable novel which was so easy to identify with!