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Good Literature for Children & Adults

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

When I was a young teenager I watched the film Anastasia on television and was completely fascinated by the possibility that a woman who was called Anna Anderson was, in fact, Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of Tsar Nicolas II. The thought that when the Romanov family was assassinated in 1918 there was a survivor, Anastasia, was, to me, a wonderful thing.

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The discovery this spring of a new novel, I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon, was a delight. If you do not already know the history of the story you will enjoy reading this even more than I did, as it is truly a captivating story.

The structure of the novel is as interesting as the story, for the author weaves together the past and the present, the beginning and the end of the story, commencing at the end of each and bringing them together as the truth is finally revealed.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 ended the reign of the Romanovs. When Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, he and his family were held under house arrest, before being executed. The Russian Tsar, his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, Duchess Olga, Duchess Maria, Duchess Tatiana, Duchess Anastasia, and the young Tsarevitch Alexei were brutally executed on 17 July 1918. Their assassination was the end of the monarchy, there were no heirs, and the Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin was formed.

I Was Anastasia describes the life of the family before the tragedy, the happy times on their estate, and then the worry of the looming revolution, as the Tsar and his wife attempt to shelter their children. And, then, the terrible privations and assaults as the entire family are held captive, and then murdered.

But, there is also the story of Anna, who claims to be the daughter, Anastasia, and sole survivor. Anna Anderson’s story is compelling – many believed that she was truly Anastasia – but some may simply have been supporting her claim to enrich themselves. No one wanted to accept that the entire family was dead – that there was no hope for the future of the monarchy in Russia. This was a large family, connected to royalty across Europe and, of course, related to the British monarchy.

After the assassination the bodies of the Romanovs were thrown into a mineshaft and lay undiscovered until 1979, though two bodies were missing, Alexei and one of the daughters were not among the others. They were not found until 2007, some distance away, and all have now been confirmed, by DNA testing, to be the Romanov family. I was rather sad when DNA testing proved beyond a doubt that Anna Anderson was simply a convincing fraud.

Reading I Was Anastasia was a wonderful way to re-visit this fascinating story. The book begins with a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” How I wish it was!

 

 

 

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

Paula McLain thought she had Ernest Hemingway out of her system after writing The Paris Wife, about the writer’s life in Paris, his first marriage, and his years in Toronto. She set him aside while writing Circling the Sun, a wonderful novel inspired by the life of aviator Beryl Markham. But Hemingway wouldn’t let her go, so we have a new novel Love and Ruin, about the years that Hemingway lived with Martha Gellhorn, from their meeting during the Spanish Civil War until their separation toward the end of the Second World War.

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Martha Gellhorn hit New York City when she was a young woman, and found it a place where “none of these marvelous people expected anything of me. I could be whomever I chose.” She would find the same freedom in Paris.

Anyone of my generation probably has a reasonable amount of knowledge about both Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, though we may have forgotten the details. I rather envy the young people who are more likely to find this novel fresh and full of discoveries.

Martha Gellhorn was a young writer and journalist, well educated, and at the beginning of her career when she met Ernest Hemingway, while on a family holiday in Key West. He was 8 years her senior and already a well-known writer. She is flattered by his attention and he is attracted by her youth and beauty, and by her intelligence. They both have assignments writing about the escalating Spanish Civil War, and meet again in Europe. This part of the novel, the days spend in Madrid as the fighting comes ever closer, is riveting.

As the story moves forward, the back story of the lives of the characters is revealed, Martha Gellhorn’s time working for FERA, meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt, and following the story of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. As the relationship between Gellhorn and Hemingway becomes one of commitment, he removes himself from his marriage (his second) and they make a life together in Cuba.

During this time Martha Gellhorn accepts an assignment in Finland, another strong part of the novel, as she writes about the Russo-Franco War. Martha Gellhorn was one of very few American female journalists in Europe at this time, and she was often the only woman to travel deep into zones of conflict. The stories she filed revealed the hardships and bravery of the citizens, as well as the facts of the military action.

During all of this time Hemingway is writing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And, as well as her magazine pieces, Gellhorn is also writing fiction, but to far less acclaim than her famous partner. They marry in 1940 – days after his divorce – and find they are the celebrity couple of the day. Heady and exciting at first, it soon becomes more a hardship and it is very hard on their relationship.

Gellhorn is offered an assignment in China. Their separation while she was in Finland was difficult for Hemingway so it is decided that her will come to China as well. A mistake for Gellhorn - “I was Gellhorn before I knew him. I had to be that now before I was his wife, or anything else for that matter”. As much as she loves Hemingway she begins to resent his attitude of superiority and her lack of freedom.

They had built an idyllic existence in Cuba, two writers living and writing together. They had weathered Hemingway’s divorce from his second wife, and Hemingway’s three sons had developed a close relationship with Martha Gellhorn; but there was growing conflict and they were moving from being a team to being competitors as Gellhorn’s reputation as a journalist grew. She needed travel and work of her own, as much as she needed Hemingway, perhaps more. He needed an adoring wife. Full stop.

After the bombing of Pear Harbor, with America in the war, Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, separately, make their way to Europe. Martha Gellhorn landing on Omaha Beach with the troops, and continuing to make her way through Europe submitting stories to Colliers, until the end of the war when she reported Dachau and Bergen Belsen. By now (should I say, of course?) Hemmingway had found a new woman – and Martha Gellhorn has well and truly made her reputation as a journalist known to all.

 

A Cold Death in Amsterdam by Anja de Jager

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I recently realized that, for me, mystery novels are like snacks – delicious and enjoyable, but often have to be set aside for proper meals. I usually read a mystery novel between more serious literary novels – and sometimes it is hard to put them aside when I know there are more in a series. I have just read the first in The Lotte Meerman mystery series by Anja de Jager, A Cold Death in Amsterdam, which is followed by A Cold Case in Amsterdam, and a third to be published in June, Death on the Canal.

Anja de Jager was born and raised in Alkmaar in the Netherlands before moving to England where she worked in The City. Her father was a policeman so it is a world she is familiar with, and she has used this as inspiration for her novels. She has also set part of her first novel in Alkmaar, less than an hour’s drive outside of Amsterdam. We are introduced to Lotte Meerman, a police detective who has just concluded the investigation of a very disturbing case. Solving the 15 year old case of a missing child – found murdered – has left her traumatized and barely able to cope with day to day living, let alone the next case demanding her attention. Lotte complains of insomnia and nightmares – and by noon she is already on her fifth cup of coffee. She is 40ish, childless, and divorced. There are a lot of difficult family dynamics, and Lotte is still conflicted about her relationship with her parents who divorced when she was young.

Anyone who knows Amsterdam even a little will recognize the familiar presence of bicycles, the meandering canals, and landmarks in the old part of the city, The Westerkerk, the nearby neigbourhood of Jordaan, and the many markets.

The story takes place in winter, just after Christmas, and the city is cold. As is part of the current investigation. A man was murdered some years earlier and the case was never solved, but has now re-opened when another murder occurs, the victim a man who was associated with the earlier murder. Things become even more difficult for Lotte when it appears that her father, a retired policeman, might be involved – and not in a good way.

Anja de Jager said in an interview, “A few years after my father retired, police officers from Amsterdam visited him to re-open the investigation of a murder in my hometown that had stayed unresolved for over a decade. That image of the retired police detective being asked questions about an old case stayed with me even though in my book I changed everything else. I set the crime in the world of finance, which is where I work.”

The Lotte Meerman series is new to me, and it has everything I like in a mystery novel. The setting is one where I’d love to spend time, the detective is interesting in her own troubled way, and the investigation kept me engrossed in the novel. I can’t wait to read the next one, and the next one. Yum, yum.

 

White Houses by Amy Bloom & Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees

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Sometimes, entirely by coincidence, there are two novels about the same topic published at the same time. This spring we have two fascinating novels about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. The two women met in 1928, and remained friends for the rest of their lives. The most intimate of those years were just before and during the two presidential terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1933 -1945, and are those documented in White Houses by Amy Bloom and Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees.

During this time Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok wrote to each other frequently. After both women died in the 1960s the most explicit letters were destroyed, but the rest of their private correspondence was opened in 1998. This extensive archive of letters indicates that the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok was most certainly a passionately intimate one for many years.

Both Amy Bloom and Kelly O’Connor McNees re-imagine the relationship, writing about both the personal relationship, and the years in which it was at it’s most intense.

White Houses by Amy Bloom was released a few weeks earlier than Undiscovered Country so I read it first. The novel begins on a Friday afternoon, April 27, 1945 and ends on Monday morning, April 30, 1945, with a brief glimpse of Sunday, November 11, 1962, a few days after the death of Eleanor Roosevelt.

We begin just days before the end of the Second World War, but then quickly move to a time some years earlier. We meet Lorena Hickok, a journalist reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign in 1932. Lorena soon accepts a position with the Roosevelts, moving into the White House, and quickly becomes fast friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. They travel together, Lorena working as an investigative reporter with the Federal Emergency Relief, and Eleanor Roosevelt getting a look of the lives of Americans most affected by the Great Depression. They appear to be simply “middle-aged women who liked each other: sisters, cousins, best friends”.

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Reading Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees a few weeks later, I found it a much more engaging and intimate portrait of the two women and their relationship. I immediately liked them both better than I had in the earlier novel. They are more fun when they are having fun, and more desperate when they are not. Franklin Roosevelt is also made more human, with his good looks and charisma evident. I had not been aware that Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had what is now known as an “open marriage”, both having intimate relationships with many other partners who often lived with them in the White House.

Kelly O’Connor McNees has managed to breath life into her characters, in a way that I felt Amy Bloom was not. The story is the same, but better somehow. There is more passion, there is more adventure, and there are additional fictional characters who give the reader a sense of the true desperation of the Great Depression. The small towns with empty storefronts were as sad then as they are today in the many towns affected by closed mines and factories.

These two women came from completely different backgrounds, but felt an immediate attraction, enjoying each other’s intelligence and determination. Eleanor grew up in wealth, with a private school education, while Lorena fought to pull herself out of poverty. Their friendship, unequal as it was in many ways, provided them both with much happiness. They appear to have loved each other for the rest of their lives, though they often spent many years apart, often with other partners.

Both books tell the story of a same sex love affair between two women at a time when this was considered scandalous. Of course, they were not the only women – and men – who were having relationships outside of marriage, and not the only ones with same sex partners. But, if discovered the relationship would have destroyed careers and reputations. 

White Houses by Amy Bloom and Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees give readers two different versions of the same story, making for an interesting exploration of the lives of two women and the time in which they lived. Historical fiction at its best.

 

 

 

The Light-Keepers Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol

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Jean E. Pendziwol is one of my favourite authors of Canadian Children’s picture books. She has written the text for, most notably, Me and You and the Red Canoe, and Once Upon a Northern Night.

I have eyed her novel The Light-Keeper’s Daughters for some time, and chose it for a long plane trip earlier this month. With a three-hour delay before a five-hour flight I had a lot of uninterrupted time to enjoy this book.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, the story moves back and forth from the past century into the present time. Anyone who has driven through Northern Ontario and around the top of Lake Superior will recognize the majestic and spectacularly beautiful landscape. The light-keeper is Andrew Livingston, a Scottish immigrant; his wife Lil was born in Canada, her father Scottish, her mother Ojibwe.   Daughters Elizabeth and Emily, twins, were born in the 1920s on Porphyry Island; and with two older boys the family was complete. They lived on the island all year round, the children learning how to help their parents with the light and foghorn, their father teaching them to read and write. Eventually the boys left for schooling but the girls remained at home. It was a severe climate but their lives were full of the wonders of the natural world and they were not unhappy.

This part of the story is revealed through the journals of the light-keeper, and by the memories of Elizabeth, now an elderly woman. Elizabeth has lived out of Canada for most of her adult life, but she has recently returned to Lake Superior and moved into a retirement home. Elizabeth is now blind, and when her father’s journals are discovered and put into her hands, she is unable to read them.

It is Morgan who reads them to her. Morgan is a teenager girl, recently caught painting graffiti on the fence at the retirement home, and now, as punishment, she is scraping and repainting the fence. Morgan is a teenager struggling to find her place in the world, edging into trouble, and currently living in foster care. She is angry and confused and, as it turns out, she is much more in need of Elizabeth’s attention than she could have imagined. This unlikely pair builds a relationship that begins with need and ends with true affection.

The passages from the light-keepers journals about daily life on the island paint a picture of a time long past. There are beautiful days picking wildflowers, herbs and edible wild plants, as well as the harvest of the gardens. There is fishing and trapping and hunting. There are also ships in distress, and some who founder.

As Elizabeth remembers her childhood she realizes that she knows things that have been hidden deep in her memory, and were not understood by the child she once was. There was a great deceit in this family that affected all of the children, and the generations to come. The complicated story and the truth of the past is slowly revealed as both Elizabeth and Morgan make discoveries, along with the reader of this satisfying novel.

Published just last year, The Light-Keepers Daughters has become a book club favourite, and has been published in many languages and read around the world.

 

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