Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Euphoria by Lily King

Jacket

I found out about this book by proofreading one of my library’s booklists. I can’t even remember which one, because I waited forever on hold and now the details are fuzzy. This happens to me a lot – I request something, and then when it comes I think “why did I request this?” but I usually read/listen to it anyway. It was probably on the “Historical Fiction” list.

The book is about anthropologists studying the tribes along the Sepik River in New Guinea in the 1930s. It is loosely based on the real life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, but I didn’t know much about Mead so I had no idea how the love triangle thing was going to work out (and as I found out later, King didn’t actually follow their story, so even if you know how Mead’s story ends, that won’t spoil it). Here’s the scoop: Andrew Bankson (based on the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson) has been studying the Kiona tribe for several years. Depressed after the deaths of both of his brothers, he has lost sight of the purpose of his studies and attempts suicide, which members of his tribe avert. While recovering, he meets Nell Stone (Mead), an American anthropologist who has just written a controversial book about the sex lives of the last tribe she studied, and her Australian husband Fen (Reo Fortune). The couple seems worn and exhausted by their recent experiences with the violent Mumbanyo tribe, and they talk about going to Australia. Lonely Bankson becomes determined to keep them there and talks them into studying the Tam tribe, a few miles up the river from the Kiona, so that he can have them nearby.

A strange relationship develops. Bankson waits a few weeks, then travels to visit the couple. Only a few minutes after he arrives, he falls seriously ill, and Fen and Nell take turns nursing him back to health. It is unclear at this point which of our love triangle is attracted to whom – it’s almost as if Nell and Fen both have become infatuated with Bankson, while Bankson has eyes only for Nell. As Bankson recovers, all three of them delight in working together and appreciating each other’s intellect, and together they come up with “the grid” – a method of arranging groups of people according to their character, which Bankson later publishes in a paper under all three of their names. But there is trouble in Paradise – Nell is obsessed with the seemingly female-dominated culture of the Tam, and as she writes her ideas furiously, is once again threatening to overshadow Fen, who is already jealous of her status as a published author. As Fen’s jealousy simmers, he becomes obsessed with going back to the Mumbanyo to retrieve an artifact that he thinks will make his career – even though it is a sacred object to the tribe. Meanwhile Bankson, his love of anthropology rekindled by Nell’s example, falls so deeply in love with her that he neglects his work with the Kiona to spend most of his time with the Tam. Tension builds until Fen makes a rash decision, which leads to Nell and Bankson making rash decisions, and so many unfortunate events follow that I can’t tell you anything more or I’ll ruin it.

Just read it. If you like love triangles, or stories about people who become immersed in or obsessed with their work, or historical fiction, or anthropology in general, you might enjoy it. I myself was shocked by how colonial these anthropologists seemed – they just parked themselves in the middle of a tribe, and rather than trying to blend in unobtrusively, they seem to have no concerns at all about corrupting their data by influencing the tribes they hope to study. (The Star Trek fan in me was scandalized by their blatant violations of the Prime Directive.) If you are looking for facts about Margaret Mead’s life, however, you might look elsewhere. Some reviewers on Amazon complain about the license King took with the events, and of her factual mistakes (for example, she mentions monkeys in a region where no monkeys are found), but I tend to go with the author’s explanation of the book: “While I have borrowed from the lives and writings of these three, I have told a very different story.” In other words, there’s a reason it’s a novel, people, and not a biography. If you want biography, there is plenty of source material on these three. Speaking of which, I just got Margaret Mead’s autobiography, so I have some reading to do…

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

godinruins I heard that Kate Atkinson was going to write a “companion novel” to Life After Life, and I got excited. Then I forgot about it for a while…until I found out that librarians can sign up for Advance Reader Copies. So I did. And I read it. And now I am slightly sorry that I have to wait until it comes out (May 5 – place your holds and Amazon preorders now, people!) to tell patrons about it. Anyway. If you read Life After Life, the main character in this book is Ursula’s brother, Teddy. Unlike Life After Life, which allows us to see hundreds of different possible outcomes for Ursula, A God In Ruins has only one plotline for Teddy – his life unrolls, told from his own memories or flashbacks from his daughter and grandchildren’s perspectives. Ursula is only mentioned in passing – she dies in her fifties in Teddy’s version of the story, and Teddy often regrets her absence from his life (he lives on into his nineties). There is a minimum of the usual Kate Atkinson weirdness where you can’t tell what is real and what isn’t, so those who don’t like her fanciful treatment of reality will like it just fine…until the end, where reality takes a raincheck and ha ha, fooled you, it really is a Kate Atkison book after all. But I won’t tell you about that and spoil the surprise. The best part about this book is the characters. We get to see all of the family members we met in Life After Life through Teddy’s lens rather than Ursula’s, and the differences are interesting. (For instance, it’s very apparent that the siblings’ experience of their mother differs greatly. You would think that Teddy, being his mother’s favorite, would love her more than Ursula does – but you’d be wrong.) Even more interesting are Teddy’s daughter, Viola, and her children, Sunny and Bertie. (Teddy of course marries the girl next door, Nancy, who Ursula saved from a murderer in one of her lives.) Viola is a difficult character. I wanted to feel sorry for her, and sympathize with her sorrows, but couldn’t help wanting to slap her silly for her self-obsessed insensitivity. Viola is truly a rotten person. By contrast, Bertie is almost too good to be true, and her brother Sunny will break your heart. By the end of the book you love Teddy’s grandchildren as much as he does.

If you like historical fiction about World War II (from the British perspective), or psychological fiction about parents and children and the ways our families make us who we are, or if you liked Life after Life, you might like this book. I know I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these characters and this setting again.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

ivory-billed-woodpecker

My book club read McBride’s The Color of Water a few years back, and since we all enjoyed it we decided to try his fiction this time around. Also the movie will be coming out, and as all readers know you gotta read the book before the movie ruins it.

The Good Lord Bird of the title refers to the ivory-billed woodpecker, which starts as a symbol to one of the characters and becomes a sort of metaphor for John Brown’s abolitionist movement by the end. Our story begins when John Brown visits the town in Kansas where our protagonist, Henry, lives with his father, a slave who works mostly as a barber. In an altercation with Henry’s master, John Brown accidentally shoots the innocent barber, and in the confusion that follows, takes Henry along with him to “free” him. There are a few complications: John Brown is convinced that Henry is a girl (because he is wearing a genderless flour sack common for slave children of the time, and is small for his age), and Henry is not particularly keen to be freed. As he tells us over and over throughout the book, Henry is not concerned with much beyond his own comfort and his next meal,  but he goes along with John Brown because it seems like less work than his previous life, and he knows he will be punished as a runaway without Brown’s protection. He tries at first (rather feebly) to inform Brown that he’s a boy, but comes to realize that he is probably safest as a girl and so proceeds to wear dresses and try not to get caught.

Christened “The Onion” by John Brown early on, “Henrietta” becomes a sort of mascot to Brown and his ragged army (which consists mostly of his own sons). Through Onion’s eyes, we see the whole story of John Brown’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to begin an insurrection – from his years of stirring up the Free Staters in Kansas to his eventual disastrous attack on Harper’s Ferry.

The good and the bad thing about this book is that it is narrated by a young boy who isn’t very educated and doesn’t see the big political picture. It took me a long time to warm up to the Onion – by his own admission he’s not very brave, and it’s hard to respect him – but once I stopped to consider his position it was easier to understand his inability to act for himself. In those days, a slave (or a child, or a woman) just didn’t act for him or herself, and needed to toe the line just to survive. The rules changed according to the white man’s whim, and Onion can hardly be blamed for keeping his head down.

Some of the best parts of this book were the portraits of famous abolitionists. John Brown knows Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and just about everyone who was anyone in the movement, and through the Onion, we get to meet them all. (I had to look up Frederick Douglass just to be sure the author wasn’t pulling one over on me, but Douglass really was married to both a black and a white woman – just not at the same time as McBride suggests.)

All in all, it’s a good book. Just take the historical parts with a grain of salt, since this historical fiction is pretty heavy on the fiction side (example: the Douglass bigamy). But what it lacks in factual accuracy it more than makes up for by evoking the spirit of those times and letting us see through the Onion’s eyes how even though John Brown didn’t actually accomplish a lot while he lived, what he did accomplish took on a life of its own after his death and helped to move the entire country toward the Civil War.

I read parts of this and listened to parts. The audiobook reader is excellent and really brings the dialogue to life. (His overblown preachery John Brown voice is hilarious.)

I’m having a hard time coming up with readalikes for this one so I’m giving up so I can post this. If you know any, comment.