I Will Die In A Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

Many are reading literature from or about Ukraine at the moment, whether it is history, news reports, fiction or other. Below are a book and a diary I’m reading to both stay in touch and understand.

A Daily Reflection from A Woman in Kyiv

Ukranian author Yevgenia Belorusets lives in Kyiv, each day she writes from her neighbourhood, she goes out and meets people, takes a few pictures. You can read her very moving, human interest diary here.

Today she noticed cosy lights on in a café that has been closed since the beginning of the war:

Ukraine Coffee

Photo by E.Tariq on Pexels.com

I went inside and ordered a cappuccino, a drink I keep trying to find since the war started and, if successful, enjoy in a new way each time.

It is a game I play with myself. Every day I wonder if a coffee kiosk will be open on my route. When I get a cup, I’m immensely happy, as if I’ve received an unexpected gift.

The coffeehouse was open because an employee who had quit before the war offered to come back and work alone.

I Will Die In A Foreign Country, A Novel

Ukraine historical fictionI thought this was an excellent and exceptional novel, that I chose to read because it is too distressing and overwhelming to be bombarded with only the terrible news that is flooding us at the moment.

Rather than look away, here is a novel, whose intention is to pay homage to those who wish to preserve a culture, to protect their homes, to help the wounded, to ease the suffering of the dying, to sing their songs and tell their stories.

Kalani Pickhart is American, passionate about Ukranian history and culture and began to write this story in 2016, in the aftermath of the American elections.

In an interview with New Lines’ Lydia Wilson, Pickhart talks about her motivation and inspiration for writing this novel, which has come to the world at a time when many are trying to understand how these terrible patterns continue to repeat, and searching for some hope in a humanity that appears at times to have gone mad.

Ukraine 2013 – 2014

The novel is set in late 2013, early 2014 and on the opening page, there is a map of Ukraine and a timeline of events at Euromaidan (the site of mass protest), from November 21, 2013 the day the 4th President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, precipitating protests, until late 2014 when the last barriacades and tents were removed from the city of Kyiv.

The novel is about four fictional characters, whose paths cross during this time, the story goes back and forth in time. The text is interspersed with other voices, most chapter headings indicating the place, the date, the voice or a subject, pieces that connect the narrative. With its relatively concise chapters, the narrative never overwhelms, like pieces of a jigsaw, as the story evolves and events unfold, geography is traversed, people respond to what confronts them, understanding broadens, a picture emerges.

Kobzari, Singing

Kobzari musicians Kalani PIckhartThe first lines of the prologue are the collective voice of the Kobzari, whose story of persecution isn’t told until later in the book; like a Greek chorus, they recount aspects of Ukranina history, culture and tradition through the lyrics of song, ensuring a language, a culture and events can be carried forward to future generations.

Where does it begin? Ah, ah. Depends on who you ask…

It could begin with Scythians and Cimmerians, Slavs and the Rus’. Queen Olha. Vladmyr the Great. Yaroslav the Wise.

The Kobzari sing of events that will never be forgotten, like the church bells at St. Michael’s that rang in December 2013, something the church has only done once before: 800 years ago, against the Mongols. This collective voice slips into the narrative seamlessly, drip feeding the reader with an historical context.

Katya, the American Doctor

I Will Die in a Foreign Land Kalani Pickhart Literature UkraineKatya is a Boston based, American doctor, working with the wounded inside a temporary medical clinic at St Michaels monastery. She is an outsider, drawn to the country because she was orphaned there, but grew up in America with no connection to her birth country. Hers, like the author, is an outside perspective, one that wants to know, to connect, to understand.

She has temporarily removed herself from having to face a broken marriage in the aftermath of the death of her son.

Ekaterina, her mother and father named her when they took her home from the orphanage. Ekaterina the Great. Looking over Kyiv, Katya feels neither great nor pure. Her son is dead, her marriage is dead, and her birthplace is on fire.

The Captain

One of Katya’s patients is a man they refer to as Captain, only known to people because he would play an outdoor piano every day on the street during the protests. Katya finds a telephone number and a cassette in his pocket. The Captain’s story is narrated through the playing of an audio tape, created for his daughter Anna. He too is an outsider, a former officer, a man whose loyalties have been dictated to him, who is given little choice. He shares his story in an old oral tradition.

My mother was the one with the gift. She had a soft voice that warbled like a bird, but it was my father who wanted us to learn music. We learned the arts, my father said, to be civilized people because the world was at times a most uncivilized place. I often forgot he survived the war.

The Violence of Spring

One of the  (true) stories the Captain tells is of the composer Stravinsky’s controversial composition The Rite of Spring. He was invited by the Director of the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to collaborate in a ballet. The work was so modern, it attracted a youthful audience and a riot broke out inside the theatre as the traditionalist patrons in the crowd began hurling insults, clashing with youth.

In his notes, Stravinsky said it is an episodic ballet without a cohesive beginning-to-end narrative. Instead, the episodes are bound by one unifying thread: the mystery and the great surge of the power of Spring.

It is a violent ballet, a violent composition, taking place in pagan Russia. During the performance in 1913, the choreographer, Nijinsky, before he went mad, had the dancers move in contorted, disfigured ways. It was obscene, the audience thought – an abomination of the arts, of theatre, of ballet.

Intrigued, I looked this up, it was one of the most notorious ballet performances of the 20th century, shattering the conventions of both classical music and dance. Here is France Musique’s excellent explanation (3 mins).

Micha, Ukranian Engineer

Micha is a Ukranian protest, helping out, an engineer, originally from Chernobyl, who worked in the mines. He was married to his childhood friend Vera, who succumbed to sickness.

The Exclusion Zone

His home is near where Katya was born, they return to visit his mother, to reconnect with a lost part of her, before her return.

I didn’t think people could live there anymore, but I heard stories about some old women whose husbands died, the samosely. I tried to convince my mother not to return. She said it was the only place she ever felt at home. A couple hundred babushkas had returned and she went with them. Women in their seventies, eighties having survived Stalin, genocide.

Slava, Ukranian Protestor

Slava and Micha are friends, she is from Odessa, a place she ran from after what happened to her there, something that fuels her determination. Slava meets a journalist Dascha, their relationship puts them both at risk.

You said you once protested with FEMEN – that is also very brave, I feel we have similar views, that you’re accepting of me.

Though it is novel told in fragments, through multiple narratives and voices, there is a fluidity and yet the plot moves quickly, as the connection(s) between characters are revealed, their motivations and behaviours come to be understood and revelations acknowledge the pressures and complexities of life in this country, some things universal, others unique to their history and geography.

Lest We Forget

As I neared the end of the book, on page 268, I read six pages of names that traverse the globe in culture, nationality, language, showing just how interconnected the world today is. It was the Passenger and Crew Manifest read aloud at trial for the victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The same day I read those names, I read this article indicating that today Australia and the Netherlands  launched legal proceedings against Russia for the downing of flight MH17.

Loss, when it occurs, has memory stronger than the mind, stronger than visual recollection patterned in the brain. It’s something the flesh knows, the muscles know, like a dancer reciting a step done hundreds of times, like a musician playing a song or a scale after decades without practice. It’s something the body knows, something the body is aware of while the mind adapts, responds, reacts.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading/Listening

Podcast: Writing a Revolution: Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising — with Kalani Pickhart

Article: The Atlantic – What Ukrainian Literature Has Always Understood About Russia by Uilleam Blacker

Who Will Bury Me if I Die in a Foreign Land

Kalani Pickhart, Author

Kalani Pickhart, author of I Will Die in a Foreign Land, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. An American, she is the recipient of research fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence for Eastern European and Eurasian Studies.

She currently lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona.

What is the act of love if not bold?

As the world comes apart, nothing to lose-

What is love if not a promise to go on?

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

I loved Catherine Chidgey’s lesser known novel The Transformation, more than the award winning debut In a Fishbone Church, so I was curious about and looking forward to her latest novel.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyThough truthfully, I had been avoiding it due to its 522 pages and subject matter, it does require a commitment. 

After reading and enjoying Marzahn, mon amour also set in Germany, I decided why not just remain in the same location, even though Remote Sympathy takes us back to that tragic period in history.

An incredibly accomplished novel, it is told using four narrative strands in different voices, through letters, diaries, recordings and a community reflection,  backed up but never bogged down by a solid foundation of research and testimony.

The fictional story relates to events during the second world war, around the lives of two German families, the citizens of the town of Weimar and the prisoners of Buchenwald, a camp located just up the hill from the town.

The novel demonstrates the responses of people, in different circumstances, showing how they behave and manage their lives, what they choose to acknowledge and to ignore, the lies they tell themselves and others, faced with the extreme conditions of living under the Third Reich (Nazi Germany).

Four Entwined Narratives

Doctor Lenard Weber, the inventor

Anatomy nervous system of manThe novel begins with an epistolary narrative of letters written by Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter Lotte in Frankfurt 1946, after the war has ended. He is telling his daughter how he first first met her mother, his wife Anna, at an exhibition of ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation that showed the inner circuitry of the human body.

The exhibit further inspired him with his own ideas on the therapeutic uses of electricity and the invention of his Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine that he believed might heal the body of disease.

But it was the eighteenth century writings of John Hunter, the great Scottish surgeon, that sparked the idea for my machine: his theory that the cure as well as the disease could pass through a person by means of remote sympathy; that the energetic power produced in one part of the body could influence another part some distance away.

However, they were living in dangerous times and at the time of their marriage, neither of them knew their family ancestry would drive them apart and that his invention would draw him into the lives of an SS officer and his wife.

But I wanted to tell you about the miracles, Lotte. There are three in this story – I’ll start with the first.

Frau Greta Hahn, the wife of an SS major

SS officer villas BuchenwaldThe second narrative voice comes from the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn, the younger wife of the officer and begins in 1943 as she is packing up their lives in Munich, to move to a villa in Weimar, her husband having taken over as Administrator of the Buchenwald prison camp. He has told her and their young son Karl-Heinz how much they will love it there, being near a forest, a zoo, close to nature.

‘Taking a child to a place like that,’ said my mother.
‘It’s quite safe,’ I told her; ‘We’ll be living well outside the enclosure. We won’t even be able to see it. Apparently the villa’s beautiful – you can come and stay whenever you like.’

An invitation her mother is loathe to take up, even when Greta becomes very unwell.

Greta chooses to live in denial, unlike her friend and neighbour Emmi, who delights in their newfound circumstances and privilege. Her discomfort turns inward and she finds herself in need of a radical medical intervention.

1000 citizens of Weimar

One of the narrative threads is a third person “we” voice, the collective reflections of one thousand citizens of the town of Weimar. This community is proud of their town’s association with a number of past eminent citizens and love to show visitors Goethe’s garden house in the park, with its bee-filled beds of flowers and to speak of others who had called their town home.

The Goethe oak still stands, though, not far from here – the tree beneath which the poet wrote some of his most celebrated verse, and rested with Charlotte von Stein. They say that if it falls, Germany will also perish…

They hear strange noises, they smell the smoke, they see signs of maltreatment, but for every observation that doesn’t fit with their idealised version of home, they have an excuse, an accusation, an alternative perspective, so loathe are they to admit even the thought of what might be going on up the hill. Anyone who shows concern or empathy is scorned by a cacophony of voices.

Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, the husband, the major

This first person narrative begins in October 1954, a taped, sometimes interrupted interview with the major who is under trial. He talks about the stress of his job, the insistence that it was a work camp, the pressure of budgets, his family and his desire to have a large family. It is the perspective of a man in charge of his responsibilities who refuses to acknowledge any human suffering (except his own).

The lives of the couple and the Doktor become entwined when the major hears of the medical invention and arranges to have him imprisoned in the hope that he may assist his wife. The presence of the Doktor and the young boy Josef who is their housekeeper, challenge her ideas about the so-called ‘criminals’ being held in the camp next door.

Seeking Salvation Through Lies

Though one man represents power and the other is a prisoner, both men possess something that the other desires, they both believe that some kind of salvation might be able to be obtained from the other. Ultimately both will lie, in the hope of getting what they want.

Though ‘remote sympathy’ refers to the healing action of the machine, it is also a theme running through the novel. Greta’s denial of what is occurring over the fence prevents her from confronting the truth, there is little sympathy for something one refuses to see, but she feels it and pays the price, it is literally eating away at her within.

Likewise, her husband obsesses about budgets and cutbacks, without ever acknowledging the human impact, in personal and institutionally narcissistic acts, depriving inmates of basic necessities in order to meet financial pressures. Privately, he succumbs to behaviours that initially alleviate the stress, but will lead to their downfall.

The Consequence of Willful Blindness, Ignorance and Fear

It’s a novel of great discomfort and incredulity, in that it imagines the inner lives and perspectives of an officer, his wife and son, their military family neighbours – it focuses on this more so than it narrates the lives of the prisoners, as most of the story and gaze takes place outside the camp, among the privileged, including the Doktor himself, who has found himself in an enviable yet dangerous position.

The use of letters, diaries, an interview and a reflection create a slight distance between the reader and the narrative, we too become observers, avoiding the discomfort of a first person narrative told in the present. Ironically, the effect of that is to avoid a sense of connection or emotional resonance, recreating that uncomfortable, debilitating situation of being a silent, unobserved witness.

It is a thought provoking, disturbing read that highlights the failings and frailties of humankind, the inclination to look away or make up stories to avoid confronting brutal harsh truths about our own inhumanity and the ease with which people lie in pursuit of a desire, refusing to acknowledge their own culpability or wrongdoing, their harm.

And it is a nod too, to the small tangible things that humans find to create meaning, to restore hope, to get through another day, the wooden remains of an oak tree, a photo, pages from a book, a prayer card.

And On It Goes

It occurred to me at the end, that Claire Keegan’s disturbing novella Small Things Like These addresses a similar issue in relation to the collective blindness of community, in the culpability and denial of the Irish (in families, institutions and villages) in their incarceration of young women and the trafficking of their babies, more crimes against humanity that we are only just beginning to come out of dark ignorance about, to be truthfully acknowledged.

Remote sympathy is everywhere and nowhere.

Remote Sympathy was published in the UK in April 2021 by Europa Editions.

Further Reading

Tanya Hart (daughter of a Holocaust survivor) Interviews Catherine Chidgey

Lisa at ANZLITLover’s review

Catherine Chidgey, Author

Remote Sympathy Germany BuchenwaldCatherine Chidgey is an award-winning and bestselling New Zealand novelist and short-story writer.

Her first novel, In a Fishbone Church, won the Betty Trask Award, and was longlisted for the Orange PrizeGolden Deed was Time Out’s Book of the year, a Best Book in the LA Times Book Review and a Notable Book in the New York Times Book Review. Her fourth novel, The Wish Child (2016) won the 2017 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the country’s major literary prize and Remote Sympathy (2021) was also shortlisted for the same prize.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing an ARC (Advance Reader Copy)

The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore (1997)

The Magician’s Wife is historical fiction, set in 1856 France and Algeria.

Brian Moore 100

This is the final read for #BrianMoore100, a year of reading his novel’s in what would been the Northern Irish novelist’s 100th year.

This year, I managed to read and review Lies of SilenceThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneThe Doctor’s Wife and now The Magician’s Wife. I enjoyed all of them and plan to continue reading more of his work in the year ahead.

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand’s Letters

According to New York Times essayist and reviewer Thomas Mallon, Brian Moore, in discussing the origins of The Magician’s Wife, gave credit to a note in Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray’s translation of The Correspondence of George Sand & Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert was complaining about the French government and their political priorities, and in his letter to Sand he writes:

“But before concerning ourselves with “social security” and even with agriculture, we send a Robert-Houdin to all the villages of France to work miracles!”

The associated footnote further explains:

In 1856 the French government had sent the celebrated conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to North Africa in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population. His feats, announced as “miracles”, were a great success.

Strangely, the footnote erroneously names the magician in parentheses as Houdini, however, Harry Houdini changed his name (from Ehrich Weisz) in honour of his mentor Robert-Houdin.

In the novel, the character of the magician, Henri Lambert, is inspired by the historical character of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Review

France 1856 Algeria Robert Houdin MaraboutsBeing historical fiction, The Magician’s Wife became one of those books that I often put down to look up the historical characters, such as Napoleon III (the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte – he was the son of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais who married Napoleon’s brother Louis) and his wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. His reign was referred to as the Second Empire and lasted for 18 years (1852-1870).

The first half of the novel is set in France, in Tours, the home of the magician and his wife Emmeline, briefly in Paris, where she is outfitted for the pending visit to one of the Emperor’s chateau.

The second half is set in Algeria, in the cities of Algiers and Milianah.

The Emperor’s Invitation

When the magician Henri Lambert is visited by a highly ranked Colonel Deniau and subsequently invited by the Emperor to the autumn residence, Château de Compiègne for a week of events and festivities, Emmeline is curious as to why these men of politics are interested in her husband and unimpressed by the activities they drag her into.

napoleon III Second empire The Magicians Wife Brian MooreIt becomes clear, that this particular série or group of invitees, are people whose influence might be required, to assist the ruler in his campaigns.

Emmeline looked down the long table to where Lambert was as usual in animated conversation with his fellow diners. Not a first-tier série, this man says. Foreigners, bankers, people the Emperor wants to use in some way. What can he want from Henri?

Because the narrative is seen through the eyes of Emmeline, it remains a mystery for some time as to what use the magician might be to the Emperor, however both the Colonel and Napoleon III attempt to bring her close, in order to help persuade her husband of the mission they have in mind for him.

Colonial Conspirators

They want the Magician and his wife to go to Algeria, to perform tricks of illusion, posing as a superior French version of their influential marabouts (a kind of spiritual leader/healer/wise man), in order to inculcate fear of their power and diminish faith in their spiritual leadership. It was an attempt to destabilise and weaken people in preparation for the French armies to continue their conquest and colonisation of the country.

“There, marabouts or saints have a political and spiritual influence which is greater than the power of any ruler…And because of that, only the marabout can proclaim a jihad or holy war against us. At the moment, Your Majesty, all of Algeria is in thrall to a certain Bou-Aziz, a charismatic marabout who has risen up in the south and is said to possess miraculous powers.”

The Female Gaze

Brian Moore Algeria 1856 Magicians Wife

Photo by Noureddine Belfethi on Pexels.com

It is a fascinating story and all the more interesting because Moore chooses to view events and see those involved in this ‘act of illusion’ through the eyes of the accompanying wife.

Emmeline is never quite in support of the events she is dragged along to participate in, openly showing her disapproval despite their promises to elevate her and her husband in society.

Bored by her provincial marriage and uneventful home life, she briefly considers a liaison with the Colonel, initially responding to his attention, though sees through his contrived flattery and begins to resent him, seeing that he too is looking for acclaim and willing to use whatever means necessary.

A Desert Awakening

The Colonel warns her that a visit to Algeria will change her, and this perhaps is the only truth he speaks, for she has a kind of awakening herself, though not in a way that necessarily benefits the mission they are on.

The turning point for her comes, when their servant Jules falls sick and she is the only one to comfort him. What she learns about him in this little time they spend together, awakens her to certain realities about their lives and the impact of what they are doing there. She becomes the sole voice of conscience with regard to this duplicitous mission, moved by the words and aura of the spiritual leader.

She thought of Bou-Aziz, of his grave, dignified speech, of his resolve to pray for God’s guidance. And in that moment in the courtyard of a French fort surrounded by illimitable desert she remembered the Emperor’s study in Compiègne, the Emperor with his waxed moustaches and his lecher’s smile, puffing on his long cigar. ‘I have great plans for Algeria. In the spring, I will bring our armies to Africa, subdue the Kabylia region and complete our conquest of the entire country.’ But this conquest that the Emperor desired would not ‘civilise’ these people as he promised but instead bring more forts, more soldiers, more roads, more French colonists to profit from Algeria’s trade and crops. And more mahdis, more jihads, more repression.

It is extraordinary that Moore chose to write about this intriguing piece of history, given he was an Irish author living in exile in America, writing about French political activities in Algeria. As is to be expected, though it is a history far from home, he succeeds in making the story a conduit for many of his themes and literary preoccupations.

It was an insightful and sympathetic reading journey, to read about this period and event in history, from an alternative perspective, painted by the outsider, written through the eyes of another Brian Moore protagonist, a viewpoint he favoured, that of a woman.

And I’ll certainly be adding the Château de Compiègne to my list of near future places to visit.

Further Reading

Article New York Times: Sleight of Hand by Thomas Mallon

France Inter: Robert Houdin, un sorcier blanc en Algérie Dec 5, 2021

The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis

Tango Milongas Buenos Aires Argentina UruguayAn Immigrant Story

This is the story of Leda, a girl from a small Italian village outside of Naples, who when she learns that her cousin Dante is taking the ship to Buenos Aires to seek his fortune and future, attaches herself to him in the months before he leaves, making him make her a promise, to wait for her.

To follow him means becoming betrothed to him and the story opens with their proxy marriage, Leda marries Dante in the village, with her father-in-law standing in the place of the groom. Thus she sets off two years after the promise is made to join her husband, her father’s parting gift, the violin that belonged to her grandfather, the instrument she was never taught to play, but longed to know its secrets.

She was restless, she didn’t want to wait; if migration was the only way to push open the confines of her world, then she wanted it to happen now, she wanted to embark right along with Dante, cross the ocean and begin scraping her destiny out of foreign rock.

An Unforgiving city, Buenos Aires

On arrival in Buenos Aires, she is met by Arturo, who informs her of the dreadful accident. She discovers she in this bustling, unforgiving city, alone, without friends or family, a melange of voices and languages, familiar and unfamiliar. And as a young woman, the work she can do won’t be enough to keep on the room Dante had kept for them.

All the buildings were tall old mansions that the rich had abandoned to the foreign hordes decades ago, during a legendary bout of yellow fever. Stately houses now crowded with the families of the poor. Bakers and grocers with their wares in wood crates on the sidewalk, and cafés shut down to sleep for the day.

Music and Dance, The Tango

The novel is about Leda’s desire and determination, to make a life for herself, to play the violin, to live without being observed, to be the observer, to walk a fine line between freedom and safety, as she finds a way to enter the world of music, a world forbidden to women, as a man.

And isn’t that strange she thought, the way one city can swirl inside another; the way you can be in one country yet carry another country in your skin; the way a place is changed by whoever comes to it, the way silt silt invades the body of the river.

violin tango milongas buenos aires The Gods of Tango

Photo by Felipe Lima on Pexels.com

She arrived in Buenos Aires in 1913, just as the music of the tango was transforming. After weeks of watching, an opportunity arises to join a group when an altercation leads to the stabbing of a violinist. From there she, who has become he, is spotted by Santiago, a bandoneón (a type of concertina found in Argentina and Uruguay) player, who puts together a quartet and is aiming for a higher class of establishment, the cabaret and dance halls. Because the tango has crossed the ocean and sparked a fire in the night establishments of Paris.

The Old World, Europe, ignited by songs from the grim conventillos of New Babel. To think she’d crossed the ocean to find this Argentinian music, only to find it sailing back to Europe, closing a vast loop around the world.

Transformation and Transgression

The transformation in her life and work, follows that of the transformation of the tango, the addition of the bass, the piano and finally the addition of a voice, some instruments were rising into prominence while others began to disappear.

The tango without the bandoneón was no longer considered the tango. That strange German instrument had been absorbed into the music,, altering its essential texture and slowing its pace.

Leda finds a way to be one of the guys, unveiling her own passion as she navigates a dangerous situation that must remain secret if it is to be sustained.

Haunts of the Past

Throughout the novel, her thoughts return often to her childhood friend Cora, Dante’s sister. Something happened to Cora that haunts Leda, that she keeps suppressed, but the unwilling memories rise up and have their own effect on the decisions she makes, as she navigates the tricky path chosen.

It’s an enjoyable read and an insight into what must have awaited those who left Europe for Buenos Aires at the beginning of the twentieth century, what a tough environment it was for women to survive in and the development of this music and dance that came with its own set of rules and transgressions.

Carolina de Robertis, Author

tango Carolina de Robertis Gods of Tango Argentina

Photo by Marko Zirdum on Pexels.com

Carolina de Robertis, a writer of Uruguayan origins is the author of two earlier novels,  Perla (2012) and The Invisible Mountain (2009), translated into 17 languages.

Her most recent novel Cantoras (2019), a novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize

“I wanted to explore the immigrant experience, and for a woman immigrant, the only way for her to fully access the underworld of the tango on her own terms without becoming a prostitute was to dress as a man.”

Further Reading

NPR Interview: An Outsider In Buenos Aires Goes Incognito, For Love Of Tango

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

A historical fiction novel about words both entices and because of its popularity also made me hesitate.

Background

Scottish lexicographer Dr James Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884. The only word Dr Murray ever conceded had been overlooked was “bondmaid”, meaning a girl bound to serve without wages.

When author Pip Williams discovered this omission, the idea for her debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was born. Jenny Valentish, Guardian

Pip Williams Language Words DictionaryAnd so I dive in and find myself often using the dictionary feature on the kindle – yes there are a lot of lost words, or words that are no longer in common use, and one of the main words, and locations, the scriptorium had me confused right from the start – a tin shed where a few learned, self-important men are compiling the first edition of the Oxford dictionary? Even as I write these words, the spellcheck has underlined that word in red.

We are introduced to this place and the main character Esme as she is crawling around beneath the table in this scriptorium, we don’t understand a lot about why she is there, as her father appears to be raising her alone without childcare.

A slow build up in the early years, the pace picks up finally when Esme is old enough to go to town and meet a few unconventional women and hears new to her ears, ancient popular but unknown words, and when she meets Tilda, an actor and suffragette her vocabularly and life experience widen even further.

It is the late 1880’s, an era of slow progress, both on the dictionary and on the rights of women.

black and white book business close up

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Esme grows up and begins to work with her father, collecting “slips” and the necessary quotations, that give words the right to be part of this grand dictionary.

The problem being that much of a women’s world is left out, words that have existed, often for centuries, but have either not been written in any notable works or are deemed not appropriate for polite society. 

Esme has found her calling.

It’s an interesting journey through a particular period of history, though I found the character of Esme to be a little two-dimensional compared to some of the secondary characters and one of the characters appears mostly through letters, which rather than illuminate some of the mysteries in Esme’s life, just had me asking why this one character if she was so important to her life, wasn’t present. The story seemed to lose pace towards the end or perhaps just went on too long, as I began to lose interest.

There are moments of humour, but also predictability – in Esme’s 30’s her like of words pertaining to women and the poor are discovered by the villainous Dankworth, as the slips flutter to the floor, who should arrive but her literary knight (not yet in armour) Gareth, the compositeur. She ponders the words “manhandled, pillock and git”.

A slow consciousness raising and cast of characters across the class divine in Oxford, with the controlled compilation of the Dictionary at the centre of it.

Further Reading

Guardian Books: All words are not equal’: the debut novelist who’s become a lockdown sensation by Jenny Valentish

Lisa’s Review at ANZLitLover’s – a more passionate take on the history and the bias resulting from it being a virtually male endeavour

Guardian Review: A Gentle Hopeful Story 

 

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

“I have felt for years that there was much more to say about the psychic distance between west and east and those who tried to make that journey in the 19th century.” Rose Tremain

Islands of Mercy Rose TremainSet in late 1800’s Ireland, Bath, London and Borneo, this is the story of a community of people whose lives intersect in the town of Bath, a dual narrative of events concerning those who live there and the efforts of two men in Borneo with ambitions slightly at cross purposes.

As I reread Tremain’s quote above, and wonder about the journey’s taken by some of the characters, I realise the irony too in the different paths of what a journey west to east meant. For an ambitious woman travelled from Ireland to England and a man from England to Southeast Asia’s Malay archipalego.

The novel opens with the ambitious young woman Clorinda, who travels west to east, from Ireland to Bath, and after some months of work realising she is unlikely to raise her status to where she strives, she sells her family inheritance, a necklace of rubies, to purchase rooms she turns into a salon de thé, where society can mix and gather and she can listen and observe.

One afternoon she observes a couple in earnest conversation, until the young woman abruptly gets up to leave, having taken neither her tea or cake.

old temple facade reflecting in roman baths in england

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The young woman Jane, referred to by locals as ‘Angel of the Baths’ is the daughter of the esteemed Doctor Adeane and known for her therapeutic treatments and hands on healing that relieve the aches of the body, the pains of their souls, her voice of encouragement leading them to bathe in the waters of Bath.

The young man is Valentine Ross, also a Doctor, who works for her father. His brother, inspired by Darwin and passionate about nature, is on an expedition and has just arrived where the second part of the narrative takes place, seeking refuge with an Englishman Sir Ralph Savage, referred to as Rajah Sir on the island of Borneo, where he has gifted a parcel of land in return for favours to the Sultan of Brunei, built himself an impressive mansion and is infatuated by a local man Leon, who harbours ambitions of his own.

After this encounter with Valentine, Jane goes to London to spend time with her childless, unmarried, financially independent Aunt Emmilene, an artist. She is like a mother to Jane and it is during this visit that Jane discovers more of the essence of who she is, an aspect captured by her Aunt in a portrait she sits for. The events that unfold create a significant dilemma for Jane, that she must navigate.

The world, Jane already knew, reeked horribly of old, exhausted things. Day could follow day without a single original or exciting moment stirring her pulse. But now Aunt Emmeline – by far the most exceptional and independent person the Adeane family – was going to reveal something new.

brown bare tree on brown rock formation

Photo by Iqx Azmi on Pexels.com

Sir Ralph is intent on improving what the Creator has given him telling his lover that he wished to go down in history as one who had ‘enabled happiness’. Leon advises him to begin by building a road.

‘A road to where?’ Sir Ralph had asked.
‘Sir Raff,’ said Leon? ‘There is no “where” in Sarawak. There is only Nature. Men begin; Nature finishes.’
‘Then what is the point of the road?’
‘The point of the road is to try to be’.

The narrative in Borneo centres on the men and the colonial struggle, whether it’s to create manors and roads and capitalist ventures or chasing butterflies and being distracted by ruined goldmines. Regardless of their pursuits, there are warnings embedded in their endeavours and the risk of danger to those who are ignorant of the environment within which they operate.

At a certain point while reading, when I thought of all the female characters, and realised how strongly independent all of them were, and looked at the relationships they had to the men around them, I wondered if this novel was actually satire. For most of the yearning and longing is done by the male characters, the female characters are all strong and given the era and location, none of them sit around in parlours pining for suitors, they’re too busy creating their lives, working and supporting each other.

It highlights some of the issues of that era, but does so with a cast of characters that are not stereotypical, which makes it all the more interesting to read, because it defies expectation and presents an alternate scenario by focusing on those who defy convention, transgressing this straight-laced, Victorian society daring to live in ways outside mainstream society and getting away with it.

One of the more shocking historical revelations was the mention of the Private Member’s Bill entitled the Married Woman’s Property Act, a measure to address and reverse the fact that though an unmarried woman could inherit, by law, as soon as she married any property automatically was transferred to her husband.

At one point there is a conversation between Jane and her friends in London, where they discuss literature, a french author’s novel is set in a morgue and asks a lot of the reader, not least a strong stomach, they note there is nothing like it in England.

The French and the Russians are the only writers who follow a dark road like this one. Because they have no fear of scandal, no fear of fear. They show human life in all its difficulty. And they know that readers are wolves.
‘Wolves? I have never thought of them like that. Do you think Miss Austen’s readers are wolfish?
‘Yes, Even they. They tear at the flesh of her stories. They love to see the wicked punished or humiliated. Do we not gloat when Fanny Price rejects Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park?

It was an enjoyable read, albeit at times perplexing, because I kept asking myself questions about what the author was doing, when I realised and read more closely the difference in attitudes and dialogue of the male versus female characters. It had this daring and thought provoking intention, that didn’t quite come off in its execution, so there many moments of reader satisfaction. In a brilliant review in the FT, Natalie Whittle describes it exactly:

“In Islands of Mercy, Rose Tremain seizes the traditional image of a cautiously celibate Victorian England and blasts it with a suite of women for whom transgression leads neither to emancipation nor to damnation. Her female characters live spontaneously, sometimes dangerously, but they are not alone in making spirited sexual choices. And, in an act of pleasing literary reversal, it is a “fallen” man who leaves the country in desperate exile. These are the strengths of what is otherwise a problematic narrative, split neatly but strangely into two streams, one in Bath and the other in Borneo.” Natalie Whittle, FT

Further Reading

FT Review: Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain — Victorian transgressions

Review: by Lisa at ANZLitLovers

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf

One of the best works of historical fiction I have read in a while and all the better because its based on the author’s great-great grandparents own story, a reassuring factor while reading, because so many obstacles get in the way of the two main protagonists coming together, the young Irish immigrant Henry O’Toole and Sarah, the black slave he first encounters on the road in a storm, who treats his injured hand.

1840’s Virginia

The story is mostly set in 1840’s Virginia on Jubilee plantation. In the front of the book is a sketch of the property, showing the house, the slave huts, the cotton fields, the whipping tree, the kitchen gardens and kitchen house. There is also a map of the region inside the cover, showing where various important locations to the story are, giving it a strong sense of reality, a reminder that these are real locations, that continue to exist today.

“I remind myself that I’m Henry Taylor now. The further south I go, the less likely they’ll know me for Irish. With fewer immigrants down this way, our accents don’t count so much as Irish, Scottish or Swedish. We’re just foreign, which suits me fine. But I keep the Taylor. O’Toole is asking for trouble.”

inspired true story Irish immigrant black slaveHenry is making his living as a blacksmith, after the disappointment of arriving in New York and struggling to find work due to discrimination by employers against the Irish – Irish Need Not Apply.

His story begins in the fields of Ireland around the time of the potato famine and it is the memory of the cruelty of the English landlords that contributes to his sympathy towards the plight of the slaves, though blind to his own privilege. As he arrives on the plantation where Sarah works as a house slave, his ignorance of the South and their ways threatens to put her and those around her in danger.

The other main character is Maple, also a slave, but sister to the Master’s wife, they have the same father, but she became separated from her mother, husband and daughter when her sister married, forced to move with her. Maple is full of anger and desperate for news of her family. She resents the presence of the blacksmith and would like nothing better than to wipe the smile off Sarah’s face.

“I want to tell him to leave her alone. Leave all of us alone. Just ’cause that girl don’t know how to hold herself more precious don’t mean he ought to take advantage, dipping in and out like drinking at the well. He ain’t no different to the rest of them.”

Short Chapters, Three Characters, Fast Paced

The novel is written in short chapters, reminiscent of the style of Bernice McFadden and the issues raised by a mixed race couple reminded me also of Octavia Butler’s excellent novel Kindred.

There is a subtle rhythm in the narrative, where hopes are raised and dashed simultaneously, for Henry, Sarah and Maple. Henry wants to be close to Sarah while Maple wants to rescue her daughter, who lives on another plantation. Their actions in pursuit of their sole desire make it all the more difficult to achieve. It’s like a universal force that acts on them all at the same time, as their objectives and the means they use to attain them intersect, hinder and/or help them.

“There’s two ways to keep a child when you’re held a slave. You can hold her precious, right close to your heart, pouring all your love into her because you know you could lose her any day. Or you can hold her loose, not loving too deep or caring too much or getting too close, knowing that you could lose her any day. Two sides of the same fear.”

It’s a compelling read, with great characters and you really are left wanting to know more, wishing to know more about the lives of these three characters and those whom they are connected to. It’s a book that evokes a very visual response, I felt at times as if I were watching the scenes unfold and can imagine how much more tense it would have been to see this on screen.

Read Soul Lit

I read this along with Didi from Brown Girl Reading in the Read Soul Lit Feb Read Along Group, which is one of her initiatives for Black History Month in the US. I will reading a few more novels this month to acknowledge that as well, reviews to come of a Toni Morrison novel and Colson Whitehead.

About the Author

Tammye Huf is an American author now living in the UK. Her debut novel A More Perfect Union was inspired by the true story of her great-great grandparents, an exploration of identity, sacrifice, belonging, race and love. It was featured on the Jo Whiley Radio 2 Book Club.

Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines and she was named third-place winner of the London Magazine Short Story Prize in 2018 for ‘Prisoner’.

Further Reading

Kindred by Octavia Butler

The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Black History Month – 26 Black Americans You Don’t Know But Should

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War The Balkan TrilogyI’ve been aware of The Balkan Trilogy for a while and curious to discover it because of its international setting (Romania in the months leading up to the 2nd World War) though equally wary of English ex-pat protagonists living a life of privilege cosseted alongside a population suffering economic hardship and the imminent threat of being positioned between two untrustworthy powers (Russia and Germany).

This is the first of three books that make up Olivia Manning’s semi-autobiographical Fortunes of War or The Balkan Trilogy, there are another three that make up A Levant Trilogy. 

The story is chiefly about a young couple and their first year of marriage in Romania on the eve of war. Guy, a young English literature professor returns to Bucharest after a summer in England, with his new wife Harriet, a woman he met and married within a month. We know nothing about that month, their romance, or why/how they came together so impulsively.

Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty accompaniment of marriage.

Displacement Heightens Perceptive Ability

Over the course of the novel we get to know through Harriet’s perceptive observations and awareness of her own flaws and Guy’s, their characters, why they act in the way they do and the effect they have on each other, due to their differences. These aspects of personality are reflected through the way they interact and respond to others around them.

Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She herself had taken it for granted that it was for her alone.

It took a little while initially to overcome my reluctance in be among this crowd, (averse to novels where purposeless woman follow their husbands around wondering why they are unhappy with life), many of the characters and their behaviours in the set-up stage of the novel are tiresome, but the ability of Harriet to see through each of them, in an effort to better know her husband, after a while becomes more and more engaging.

Finding an Ally in Foreign Territory

She finds company in Guy’s friend Clarence, the similarity in their perceptions is both a comfort and an admission of her own more selfish inclinations.

The difficulty of dealing with Guy, she thought, lay in the fact that he was so often right. She and Clarence could claim that their evening had been spoilt by the presence of Dubedat. She knew it had, in fact, been spoilt not by Guy’s generosity but by their own lack of it.

Harriet lacks purpose and so it’s no surprise that her energy and focus turns towards analysing and judging others. In a way she reminded me of Hadley Richardson in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, women who find themselves in the shadows of the larger player, their husband’s lives, men whom other people are drawn too and seek attention from, leaving the wife as a companion and bed warmer for the few hours he finds himself solitary.

They too, are stories of the lives of young internationals, professors, diplomats, journalists, the locals they fall in with, the cafes, restaurants and hotels they frequent, the political background constantly a source of conversation, the lack of family and a rootlessness that drives them to seek each other out in this environment that throws people together, who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. Harriet however, due to her lack of involvement in events, becomes the detached witness, the reliable narrator, of character(s) and of this twentieth century war.

It is precisely her position as a civilian external to the public sphere and to the war effort, together with her apparent lack of faith in politics, that validates her as a detached witness. Carmen Andrés Oliver

Shakespeare Foretells All

Shakespeare Troilus and CressidaThe novel becomes even more interesting and ironic when Guy decides to produce an amateur production of the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida, deliberately diverting the attention of his fans and followers, young and old, at a time when war is creeping ever closer and everyone else not involved in his amateur dramatics is frantic with worry. The play is the tragic story of lovers set against the backdrop of war.

The Balkan Trilogy The Great Fortune

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Harriet is embarrassed by the idea of the play, sure it’s an endeavour that will fail, hoping it will, despite the fervour with which everyone invited to participate has responded.

Now she was beginning to realise she might be wrong. Contrary to her belief, people were not only willing to to join in, they were grateful at being included. Each seemed simply to have been waiting the opportunity to make a stage appearance.

Dropped as one of the players, Harriet is upstaged by Sophie, a woman whose affection for Guy and history that precedes her, adds to the tension of their marriage.

The Great Fortune is Life

As the novel ends, they take a look inside the window outside the German Bureau, where a map is updated daily and what they see leaves us wondering what will happen next, as Europe itself is a bed of tension and danger, depending on where one’s loyalties lie.

When they reached the window, they saw the dot of Paris hidden by a swastika that squatted like a spider, black on the heart of the country.

They stood staring at it for a while. Soberly, Guy asked: ‘What do you think will happen here? What are our chances?

Harriet responds:

We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.’

It is a unique novel in its close observation of the response to pending war of a small community of English people thrown together by circumstance, viewing the approaching war from inside a part of Europe that is less well traversed in English literature, given less attention at the time of writing and being rediscovered again now.

Olivia Manning, OBE (1908-1980)

Manning met her husband when he was on leave for a month in July 1939 from his first British Council post in Romania. They married in August and nine days later he was ordered back to Bucharest, so the couple left London as war was looking likely to commence. During the war, they lived in Romania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.

She returned to England in 1945. She wrote novels, short stories, sketches, screenplays, nonfiction books, essays and reviews. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died four years later.

The Great Fortune was first published in 1960.

N.B. This book was a review copy ebook, kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Tituba of Salem Village, A Novel Based on the Witch Trials of 1692 by Ann Petry (1956)

I read this for two reasons, one I’ve been wanting to read Ann Petry for a while, The Street and The Narrows were republished in 2020, so I’m looking forward to reading them, but the main reason I chose this title is because I’m an avid reader of Maryse Condé, who wrote I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. One of her inspirations was this book written for young people by Ann Petry, which predates her novel by 30 years, so it made sense for me to read this one first.

For her the story of Tituba was a story of courage in the face of adversity. It was a lesson of hope and dynamism.

Witch Trials of Salem, History

The witch trials of Salem began in March 1692 with the arrests of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and the black slave, Tituba, based on forced confessions. The trials were started after people had been accused of witchcraft, primarily by teenage girls, though traced to adult concerns and adult grievances. Quarrels and disputes with neighbors often incited witchcraft allegations.

Women who did not conform to the norms of Puritan society were more likely to be the target of an accusation, especially those who were unmarried or did not have children.

It marked the beginning of a period of paranoia in which nineteen women and one man were hanged, before the governor of the colony sent a report to London about the cases of 50 women and a general pardon was granted, putting an end to a disturbing chapter in the history of the village, subsequently renamed Danvers.

Though Tituba was acquitted, prisoners were required to pay the cost of their stay in prison, including the cost of chains and shackles. She was eventually sold for the price of those fees, though it is not known to whom. Ann Petry shares her theories, which we discover here, and Maryse Condé has another.

It is one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria,  a cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, fake news and lapses in due process.

Review

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsI had read nothing about the witch trials before, though I’d heard of them, but I’m glad that this was my introduction, to see this little segment of American history, through the eyes of the innocent black slave, Tituba and her husband John.

As the book opens and Tituba and John are in the kitchen of the Barbados home they live in, the scene is so evocative, you can’t imagine how their lives are going to change so abruptly, having been so stable for so long – but then the harsh reality of them being commodities, slaves, sold like jewels, to pay a debt, their lives irrevocably changed, within 24 hours they are on a ship heading for the Bay Colony of Boston, their new owner the Reverend Parris.

Her husband instills in her the importance of staying alive and maintaining good health.

“Remember, always remember, the slave must survive. No matter what happens to the master, the slave must survive.”

Petry’s descriptions of the environment are so evocative, the contrast so great, from the warmth of the island to the damp, unwelcoming cold climate of Massachusetts.

Tituba is caring and empathetic, she has a traditional knowledge of herbs from the island, learned from the women in her family, in Boston she searches in the woods for substitutes and is helped by another woman with knowledge of herbal medicine. She is sensitive to people, animals and the environment.

Tituba Samel witch cauldron fire

Photo by Plato Terentev on Pexels.com

Sometimes if she stood still, used all her senses, sight and sound and touch and small would make a place speak to her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

She decided it was not an evil house. It was sad and gloomy. Nothing about it suggested happiness in the future. It had been a long time since anyone had been happy in this house. People leave something of themselves in a house, and the spirit of this house was frighteningly sad.

However, these people live in fearful times and among people whose belief system instills fear and suspicion. They bear children whose imaginations run wild, their behaviour’s running even wilder.

She finally accepted the fact that Abigail was her enemy, and though young, a dangerous enemy. On the other hand, Samuel Conkin, the weaver, was her friend, and though a new friend, a very good friend.

Tituba Salem Witch Trials Weaver Thread Ann Petry

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Tituba is a wonderful character, depicted with compassion and understanding, put in a situation where young people are drawn towards her but unable to overcome their own inner hurts, exaggerate and invent scenarios, combining imagination and superstition, creating drama that spirals out of control into very real consequences for those accused of “witching”, until the farce that it is, becomes all too clear, though not without lives having been lost.

Elena Ferrante in The Lying Life of Adults shows that sometime erratic behaviour of an adolescent and its consequences. Ann Petry shows how childish games, immaturity, attention seeking and hurt can claim lives, and though her book offers a message of courage in the face of adversity, it also offers a warning to that same youthful audience, that lives can be irrevocably damaged by the actions of a few.

I loved the character Petry created, her many talents and her resilience and the imagined appreciation that did exist, even if that might have been willful fantasy, knowing that in the era in which she lived, it was rare indeed for any person who purchased a slave to treat them as her weaver did.

Petry offers perhaps the most persuasive explanation of all—that cruelty begets cruelty, among children as well as adults. At least half the novel takes place before the trials, building the case for the horrors that follow. Anna Mae Duane, The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, Johns Hopkins University Press

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Article, Smithsonian Magazine: Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the Star Witness of the Salem Witch Trials by Stacy Schiff; Nov 2015

Play: The Crucible (1952), by Arthur Miller

Essay: Ann Petry

Story of the Week: Harlem Ann Petry (1908-1997)