historical fiction · review

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

37946436If Gavrilo Princip had not fired the shot that started World War I, Lucius Krzelewski would have had to slowly make his way through the ranks of the endless Austro-Hungarian medical bureaucracy to become a doctor. Instead, he enlists as a medical lieutenant and is shipped to a field hospital somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, follows him from his days as a student to the hospital to the end of the war, as he grows from the textbook definition of a callow youth into an emotionally battered field surgeon.

Lucius, when we first meet him, is the privileged youngest son of an aristocratic family living in Vienna. He doesn’t know how to make small talk. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk to women (including his mother). He stutters under pressure. The only thing that brings him pleasure is scientific observation. Medical school is pure joy for him, once he finally convinces his parents to send him and pay his tuition. Study does start to wear a bit thin when he realizes that the extremely stratified bureaucracy above him means that he will barely be allowed in the same room as patients for ages. It doesn’t take much wheedling from his closest friend to encourage him to enlist when war breaks out.

Because the Austro-Hungarian Army is desperate for anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, Lucius is readily accepted and sent to a field hospital near the Eastern Front. On arrival, Lucius learns that all of the previous doctors and medical personnel are dead or fled. The only one who knows anything about medicine is a nursing sister called Margarete. Without her, it’s a wonder anyone would have survived either in Lucius’ hands or during the doctor interregnum. There are scenes in the first half of the book that reminded me strongly of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov who found himself in a similar situation as an untested doctor in a remote part of the Soviet Union. Lucius slowly becomes a competent surgeon and field doctor under Margarete’s roughly diplomatic tutelage.

Patients and personnel at an Austro-Hungarian field hospital on the Austrian-Italian front.
(Image via Wikicommons)

In addition to Lucius’ growth, a major theme of The Winter Soldier is the growing problem of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier, named Horvath, is the first case Lucius has a chance to observe in his field hospital. We never learn what Horvath saw, but his condition is so extremely debilitating that Lucius fights to keep him from being re-conscripted by a sadistic Austrian officer. At the time, “shell shock” was viewed as cowardice or malingering. Men with this condition were subject to horrific punishments and “treatments,” in order to get them back into the fight. Lucius’ intervention has awful consequences, deepening The Winter Soldier from bildungsroman to a more complicated portrait of a naïve man caught in the middle of a collapsing empire at war. His intervention also means that his romance with Margarete takes a sharp turn towards tragedy.

The Winter Soldier is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read about World War I. Characterization is fully-realized, which I appreciated. What I loved about this book, however, was the way Mason recreated the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its catastrophic end. The book highlights the divisions between the empire’s ethnic groups which became fracture lines by the end of the war. Many of the recruits did not speak German (the empire’s official language) well enough to follow officer’s orders. There are shortages of everything. Transportation is a mess. All of that comes through sharply through Lucius peripatetic attempts to find Margarete in the later half of the book.

I would strongly recommend this book to readers looking for a good read about World War I.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Dream Country, by Shannon Gibney

37683438Who is to blame for the conditions that are turning Kollie Flomo into someone consumed by violent anger? The proximate cause is the tension between Black Americans and African immigrants who are forced into close quarters at Kollie’s Minneapolis high school. But what caused that tension? To answer that question, Shannon Gibney takes us back in series of connected stories about Kollie’s ancestors in Dream Country. In Kollie’s story, every terrible thing that happens is the result of another terrible thing that came before. The chain of blame stretches across an ocean and two centuries.

Kollie is the child of Liberian immigrants who came to the United States after the first Librarian civil war. He has memories of being in Liberia, but he has spent most of his life in Minneapolis, though mostly with other Liberian immigrants. The other Black students at their school—African Americans—enforce a sharp division between themselves and the African immigrants. The Americans mock the Africans’ food, dialect, and attitudes. The Americans call them primitive and every action and comment makes Kollie’s blood boil. After Kollie starts a fight at school and puts another student in the hospital, his parents ship him back to Liberia. They believe it’s the only way to save him.

Kollie’s story takes the first third of Dream Country. Once he arrives at the airport, the perspective shifts to a Liberian man on the run in 1926. Togbar has just run away from his village in an attempt to escape a forced labor crew. After Togbar’s narrative, we go back further in time, to 1820, as freedwoman Yasmine pushes her family to Norfolk, Virginia. In Norfolk, the family can get a boat to the new colony of Liberia. There are hints in these narratives and the shorter ones that follow to let us know that Kollie is descended from Togbar and Yasmine.

Over and over, these characters try to start over, to find a place where they can build a life out from under anyone’s thumb, only to fail. Anger builds over the generations until it seems to explode in Kollie. What causes these characters to fail so many times is racism, classicism, colorism, and other prejudices the hold them down. In Yasmine’s time, we see two varieties of this. White Americans firmly believe that Black people are inferior. The Black Americans believe that the indigenous people are inferior, that they are bringing these “savage” people the “blessings” of civilization. Prejudice rolls down hill; it’s little wonder that Kollie feels so stuck and angry.

Dream Country is a powerful novel. The characters never get lost in its profound statements about historical injustice. The setting and the structure bring a fresh perspective to questions about why there is tension between Black Americans and Africans and between Whites and people of African descent. It’s hard to read like many novels about important ideas, but I say that in the best way possible. The book’s ideas are challenging; they’re supposed to make us uncomfortable. I hope a lot of readers discover it. It needs and deserves to be read widely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

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Notes for bibliotherapuetic use: Recommended for readers who need to see the historical injustices of racism because they don’t understand why people of color can’t just get over it.


historical fiction · review

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

27428407There are two paired questions I hear all the time from students studying World War II. The first is, how much did ordinary Germans know about the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The second is, how could they not know what was happening? In Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (translated by Anthea Bell), we see a small family of aristocratic Germans who are so clueless about what was happening outside of themselves that I wanted to scream at them. This disturbing novel follows the von Globigs and a handful of their acquaintances over the course of a few weeks in January 1945. They’ve been isolated from the truth of the war up to this point, but the war is heading straight towards their little piece of East Prussia and they will no longer have the luxury of sitting to one side.

Last fall, I read Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale, so I had a very good idea of what was going to happen to any German who got caught by the Red Army. I can’t entirely fault the von Globig family for not knowing; the Red Army was still in their future. But I can fault them for their self-absorption. Katherina von Globig is a society lady who has deliberately isolated herself in her rooms of the family manor, Georgenhof, after the death of their daughter two years previously. Grief is hard, especially for a parent, but Katherina still has a living son, Peter, to keep an eye out for. Auntie, Katherina’s relative-in-law, who lost her family’s estate in Silesia in the 1920s and who lived through World War I should know better than to shut out the world. The Polish and Ukrainian “servants” should definitely know better. And yet, the family carries on with their own amusements. Katherina reminisces about the movies she’s seen and her affair with the local mayor. Peter plays with his trains. Auntie keeps an eye on the family goods so that no one steals anything. None of them has an eye on the horizon, even though Katherina occasionally tunes into the BBC.

Meanwhile, Drygalski keeps butting into their business as the local housing manager. The little martinet wants to use the large house to billet refugees and, any way he can, stick it to the aristocrats who’ve always looked down on them. Peter’s tutor, Dr. Wagner, carries on teaching the boy Latin. A parade of refugees—the higher in rank, the more self-absorbed and out of touch with their rapidly changing reality—comes through Georgenhof. Only a few characters have healthy senses of self-preservation. Most of them are fixated on what they’ve lost, their family heirlooms, their instruments, etc.

It’s only towards the end of All for Nothing that the characters get swept up in the cresting wave of refugees from the east. I don’t want to give away the characters’ fates, but I can say that bad luck strikes the family and their acquaintances with an almost divine sense of retribution. There are moments of kindness and mercy, as well as moments of opportunistic cruelty and murderous chaos. With blind luck in the mix, it’s a wonder anyone makes it out of this novel alive.

Kempowski’s novel—through Bell’s lucid translation—has the feeling of folklore throughout. There are few details about the characters given, except for easy to recall facts that stand in for development. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, I see All for Nothing as a fable that serves to teach us lessons about the impossibility of staying neutral when others commit terrible crimes in one’s name. So, we drift along with the characters as their fortunes change from moment to moment. We have to experience along with them their good and bad luck. There is backstory of some of the characters, but nothing to distract us from what is happening during those cold weeks in January 1945 with the Red Army coming as fast as it can to snatch them all up. All for Nothing is extraordinarily effecting in answering at least one of the questions we always ask about the Germans on their home front.

historical fiction · review

The Sixteen Pleasures, by Robert Hellenga

8497521It’s hard for book conservators to find adventure in their professional lives, at least adventures by normal standards. But when the Arno floods in 1966, Margot Harrington finds her chance. The beginning of The Sixteen Pleasuresby Robert Hellenga, sees her traveling to Florence on her own dime to help the hundreds of volunteers who arrived to save priceless works of art and clean up the city. The meandering novel tells Margot’s story as she grows through adversity into the person she was always supposed to be—all while doing work that librarians, museum curators, etc. would consider heroic.

Though she sometimes wonders what might have happened if her life had taken other turns, Margot comes to realize that if her mother hadn’t been so fascinated with Italy, she wouldn’t have been in a position to help the other book conservators in Florence after the Arno Flood. Her fluent Italian and in-depth knowledge of book making mean that she’s indispensable (despite what some of the other males in Florence think). After initially working as a translator for an American librarian, Margot leaves to work for a convent with a strict no-men-who-aren’t-priests rule. The unique opportunity brings Margot solace. She’s finally found a place where she feels peaceful and useful.

The Sixteen Pleasures might have ended there, except that two of the nuns discover a copy of Petro Aretino‘s Sonetti lussuriosi. The Sonetti are a series of erotic poems with very explicit illustrations allegedly suppressed by the pope. How they ended up in a convent could be its own novel. The book gives Margot an idea to give the convent an independent income at last and save it from the financial depredations of the Bishop of Florence.

Mud Angels_Florence flood
Volunteers called “mud angels” move damaged books out of a flooded building, 1966.
(Image via University of Michigan School of Information)

In other hands—like those of Dan Brown—this novel could have turned into a historical thriller, with mysterious and menacing men following our heroine across Europe trying to get the book back. This is not that book. There is some skullduggery around keeping the book out of the bishop’s hands, but The Sixteen Pleasures is much more leisurely than that. The book leads Margot to a life-changing love affair and some important epiphanies about what she wants; there are no secrets that will change history forever.

Some readers (myself included sometimes) may be frustrated by the slow and wandering plot. The book never settled on what I thought it would. Instead, the book kept its focus on Margot’s personal growth. I enjoyed Margot’s company, but I felt like several of the events and characters in the book were lost opportunities. (There was also quite a bit of repetition in the book that bothered me.) The Aretino book sometimes becomes a sideline. Margot falls in love with a man who buckles under pressure and who disappears after their affair ends. The nuns get left behind until almost the very end of the book. This book disappointed me, I’m sad to say, even though it looked like it would be very interesting. After all, how often does one get to read a story about a book conservator who has interesting adventures? Sadly, this novel is not the best example of the premise.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Refuge, by Merilyn Simonds

39082310Cass MacCallum has had a life of ups and downs. At ninety-six, she has more or less made peace with it. She lives in her little house on her little Ontario island, waiting for her body to finally give out with age. But then someone from Myanmar starts to send her emails, claiming to be the granddaughter of Cass’s long lost son. At the beginning of Refuge, by Merilyn Simonds, Nang Aung Myaing shows up at Cass’s house with a request for help with her claim for asylum.

Cass was always her father’s favorite and, unfortunately, loathed by her older sister, May. When their father dies and May makes it impossible for her to stay on the farm, Cass takes her newly minted nursing degree and goes to Mexico City. Through a few lucky coincidences and with the generosity of the people she meets, Cass builds a fuller, more interesting and useful life. (I’ll admit that I raised my eyebrows when Cass met and nursed Frieda Kahlo.) The vivacity of Cass’s life in Mexico is a bright contrast to the cold, grating existence in Canada, with a sister who will not forgive her for anything.

While we learn more about Cass’s life in Mexico, we also see her stubbornly refusing to believe Nang Aung Myaing’s story about her heritage. At first, I didn’t understand Cass when there was compelling evidence to believe the new arrival. It’s only as Cass unspools her story that I saw what she had once had and what she’d had to let go that I realized what it might cost Cass to accept that she might still have living family. She loved her son and her son’s father so much, that one would think having something of them back would be a boon. By the same token, however, accepting Nang Aung Myaing means that she can’t avoid dredging up her grief over their loss.

While Refuge begins with a woman winding down her life, it ends with a reclamation of what life she still has left. Nang Aung Myaing brings back some of the brightness and urgency Cass felt when she lived in Mexico, or when her lover or her son were still alive. This book is full of life and the struggle to stay alive, which I always find profoundly moving. Even with the bits I didn’t quite believe (Frieda Kahlo!), I really enjoyed Refuge.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction

The Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka

40206964Over the course of Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, several characters ask Ivory Frame what her project of recording bird and animal calls is for. She struggles to answer every time. No one seems to understand that she’s trying to save these sounds in case the animals go extinct. This is reason enough for her, but everyone else thinks is a waste of time, a fool’s errand, an elaborate way of coping with the tragedies of her past, or some combination of all of the above. The more we learn about Ivory, the more I started to agree that her project is some combination of the aforementioned and also one of the most elaborate works of art and science ever attempted.

Ivory is 92-years-old when we meet in a remote cabin in Canada. Her only companion is Skeet, a fellow biologist. Skeet knows not to press Ivory—unlike the journalists and colleagues who occasionally ask—about her past. Anything before 1950 or so is off limits. But things have changed. A pair of letters (one to each of them) have Skeet worried and send Ivory down memory lane.

Before she was a biologist, Ivory was a girl from an unhappy home who wanted to be an artist. When her parents send her to an art school in Paris after her latest expulsion from a convent school, Ivory finds herself in the middle of the city’s Surrealist renaissance. The Surrealists’s excitement and iconoclasm encourage her, but none of her works quite capture how she sees the world or expresses what she wants to say. The only thing that feels right is the passion she has for Lev Volkov, a Russian expatriate artist on the run from the Soviets. The first part of Ivory’s life was full of emotion and activity—which makes it easy to see the other decades as penance or exile.

The Dictionary of Animal Languages is a very slow burn. Tagging along with an old woman as she ruminates about her past does not make for the most gripping reading, at first. But patient readers will find, as I did, that a bit of mystery about what exactly happened is just enough bait to keep them going until they’ve gotten to know Ivory so well that the last third or so of the book is emotionally devastating in the best way. This book is a powerful and brilliantly constructed story about loss, love, and communication of all types.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich

40168569Horsemen of the Sandswritten by Leonid Yuzefovich and translated by Marian Schwartz, contains two novellas. In The Storm, students are treated to a terrible (in content, form, and intent) lecture from a public safety officer while events conspire to bring about what looks like divine retribution for that officer. The longer Horsemen of the Sands is a framed story about a Russian soldier in Mongolia who is treated to possibly tall tales about the notoriously violent and unstable Baron Roman Fyodorovich Ungern-Sternberg. Schwartz’s translation is skillfully done and highly readable.

The Storm begins in a rural classroom somewhere in the Soviet Union. A public safety officer is giving a lecture about road safety, possibly in response to an incident involving one of the student’s fathers. For such a short novella, there are a lot of moving parts—which I love as a fan of books in which random events start to look a lot like fate. As the officer’s lecture continues, the students get increasingly upset. The officer starts making things up to keep their attention as they squirm, to the point where one boy is moved to vomit outside the class. That boy then makes a prayer that the officer will be struck by lightning. Ordinarily, the prayer wouldn’t do anything, but in Yuzefovich’s hands, that prayer left me wondering if what happened was an accident or a sign of something else entirely.

Ungern-Sternberg in 1921. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me)

Horseman of the Sands is a story within a story. It begins when a Russian soldier meets a Mongolian man whose father and older brother fought for Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a historical figure who led a rogue regiment into the country to…actually, I’m not sure what he was up to because the actual history is just so weird. The Mongolian man offers to give the Russian a gau (protective amulet) allegedly worn by the Baron. The Russian then listens to the Mongolian’s strange tales about the Baron’s apparent imperiousness to bullets, his volatility, and how the Mongolian’s family members were ultimately killed by him. The stories the Mongolian tells make it seem like the Baron is just following his own off-beat drum. The conclusion, however, makes us wonder if there was a cunning sort of method to the man’s madness.

Fate takes a hand in both novellas, either by accident or by apparent design. Not knowing one way or the other provides plenty of food for thought: do the bad guys deserve what happened to them? Are they actually being punished if they don’t know that what they did lead to physical pain? Is a story less powerful if there’s a mundane explanation for seemingly supernatural events? The Storm and Horsemen of the Sands are puzzling in a way that I think could inspire interesting discussion for book groups, especially groups with a philosophical bent.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.