I’ve read a few really good books this summer, and I want to tell you about them before summer is over and you have excuses to not read them… So put up that hammock, make a glass of lemonade, and grab a box of tissues… (All good literature is tragedy, right?)
Heron River is a beautifully written book. I simply couldn’t stop reading it; I read far too late in the night for the five evenings it took me to finish it. The very first sentence grabbed me: “This is how Madeline will remember it years later.”
There is a lot of darkness in this novel. There are a lot of characters’ voices too, and I loved that. Each character speaks in his or her own voice, and Hugh Cook does such a marvelous job of writing their voices and their thoughts, that most of the time he doesn’t even have to tell us who is speaking, because the reader knows who it is. Each chapter is a different narrator, and not once did I regret that the next chapter was told by someone else because each voice carried the story forward in a new way.
Madeline is perhaps the main character, but really, there are two others who are just as important: her son, Adam, who is damaged in a childhood accident and now, as a young adult, lives in a group home; and Jacob, the thirteen-year-old paper boy. Their lives weave in and out of the lives and deaths of many others in the small river town of Caithness, where the darkness of one summer’s events alters everyone’s lives.
Yet despite the murders, the break-ins, the muggings, there is always a sense of hope and possible redemption. Many of the characters are not who you think they are, and many are better than you hope. There is evil, but it does not win. And that’s not a spoiler.
This book by Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) also has a gripping first line: “Lydia is dead. But no one knows this yet.”
So begins the family drama of a mixed race couple, James (Chinese) and Marilyn (Caucasian) and their three children, Nath, Lydia, and the much younger Hannah. They live in a small Ohio college town (it’s the seventies) where James is a professor; Marilyn is a brilliant college dropout stay-at-home-mom; and the children are Asian Americans in a midwestern sea of white kids.
Ng weaves her story back and forth across time — beginning with the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Lydia, the panic, and the discovery of her body in the lake across from their house. And with her death begins Ng’s lyrical examination of family relationships: the dysfunction, the hurts, the misunderstandings, the secrets, the expectations, the love…
James has never fit in, and he puts all his dreams of being popular and well-liked on his beautiful daughter. Marilyn cut short her goal of being a doctor to marry James, so all her dreams are transferred to her smart daughter. Lydia becomes what her parents dream for her and loses herself. Only Nath, her older brother, understands, and the thought of him graduating and leaving for Harvard, sends Lydia into a tailspin.
The police believe it is suicide, though no one in the family can reconcile suicide with what they know of their beloved daughter. Or what they think they know. In the end, the secrets we keep from those we love, derail everyone of us and require forgiveness — perhaps forgiving ourselves is the hardest of all.
This is small town Indiana, where the opioid crisis is rampant. Like the town where I live now, everyone knows someone who has been or is affected by drug addiction. Jaycee is a young twenty-something waitress who is raising her little brother because their mom is an addict who can barely function. Jaycee has endured embarrassment and fear and has worked at turning it all into courage with the help of her eccentric neighbor Sudie, who teaches her how to rescue injured animals and trust in the Lord.
Tragedy is never far from an addict, and Jaycee endures the worst. With her mom in prison, and her little brother gone, Jaycee finds love in the wrong place and has just discovered that she is pregnant when a handsome, nice guy starts work at the diner. Their relationship blooms until he discovers her pregnancy.
Jaycee has everything stacked against her — poverty, drug addiction in her family, an abusive relationship, pregnancy — but she has faith. Buoyed by her elderly friend, she never loses her hope, even as she considers whether to give her baby up for adoption, or keep him and love him as the replacement for the little brother she lost.
This book moved me for many reasons: Sorrells knows the hopelessness and poverty of small rust-belt towns, and yet she believably allows Jaycee to rise above it. Jaycee has friends who care for her, grit and courage, a love of the injured animals she helps, and a faith that helps her get through the struggles. You can’t help loving her and cheering for her and be moved by her strengths. Keep your box of tissues nearby.
I first read about the cultural practice of Bacha posh (Persian for dressed like a boy) a few years ago when I read The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg. It’s fascinating to me that this practice of turning a girl into a boy was/is culturally accepted. Nadia Hashimi has written this engrossing novel about two Afghani women — great grandmother and a hundred years later her great granddaughter — who lived for a time as Bacha posh, and how it affected them, their families, their lives.
Rahima lives in a family of only daughters in modern day Kabul. The sisters (and their mother) are at the mercy of their bitter, opium-addicted father. They can attend school only when the father allows it, and his capricious personality keeps the family in a state of poverty and forced seclusion. Adopting the ancient tradition of permitting a daughter to be a son (Rahima becomes Rahim) allows her to attend school, go to market, chaperone her sisters, and live the free life of an Afghani male. That is until she reaches puberty, when she must return to being Rahima, the powerless, subjected woman/child bride.
Rahima’s unmarried aunt visits the household often and brings stories of the outside world, as well as a special story of Shekiba, the girls’ great-grandmother who lived a century before, and also spent much of her life living as a farm boy and then as a harem guard. The novel alternates between stories of Shekiba’s life and the life of Rahima, who is married off at thirteen to a modern-day Afghan warlord as his third wife.
The tragedy and powerlessness of the lives of these women is hard to read. At the mercy of every male, the lack of change in the lives of two women who lived a hundred years apart is heartbreaking. In fact, Shekiba’s story ends with a note of hopeful modernity that never comes to pass, or if it did, it was only a few decades of allowing women relative freedom.
The author’s powerful prose and the tragic lives of her finely drawn characters will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. The only downside is that the Afghani names are hard to follow and every character is named, no matter how small their part in the book. Their names were hard to keep straight at first, + I kept wishing for a glossary of Persian words–I read a kindle version and there was none. But persevere– you will come away richer for having read this book.
The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts is another book that caused me to stay up too late at night to read. It took several chapters before it became a just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-go-to-bed book, but don’t give up on it. The story takes place in 1956 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, yet it takes place in Sinking Creek Pennsylvania. Amish Country. Pennsylvania, the free state, where the signs that say Whites Only are unwritten, and folks just have to figure out where they are on their own.
Three narrators tell the story: Emma, an Amish woman; Delilah, a southern African-American woman who has come to Sinking Creek with her husband and family (Sinking Creek is where he grew up); and Sparrow, Delilah’s teenaged daughter. All three characters are putting one foot in front of another after tragedy, and the pain and secrets they are living with bind them together in ways that nothing else can.
One of Delilah’s twin sons, Carver, drowned in the Alabama River while Sparrow was supposedly watching him. Delilah’s pain and guilt is so huge that she cannot forgive her daughter for not watching him carefully enough, or herself for putting Sparrow in charge of him that day. Less than a month later, husband and father, Malachi moves the family from Montgomery to his old hometown in Pennsylvania, thinking that the move will help his wife and daughter heal from the tragedy. They move into a house next to the church where Malachi will be the new preacher, across the woods from an Amish farm.
Emma lives there with her husband John, a deacon, and their teenaged son, Johnny, in a house filled with secrets, pain, and deceptions. Sparrow and Emma bond immediately, for Sparrow is in desperate need of a mother and Emma needs a daughter. Delilah and Emma are cautious with each other, for they are worlds apart in culture, but, as they discover, bound together in their pain. It’s a friendship that even race troubles in the town can’t divide. “I don’t know how to fix it, but I’ll stand with you,” Emma tells Delilah. I am reminded of the verse from Ecclesiastes, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”
This is powerful writing and as relevant today as it was then.
If you’ve read this far, you might see a thread, a theme in all these novels. It was completely unplanned. I just read them during June and July and loved reading every single one. The writing is powerful and intense, the themes of loss and pain resonate, and the characters’ inability to communicate their suffering prevents their healing. Only when they let go of bitterness and secrets and are able to embrace forgiveness, is redemption possible. Because of the nature of the tragedies in all these books, they are recommended for adults.
If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you thought. Happy August.