Book Review: The Settlers

Five StarsthesettlersThis is a longer than usual book review. It is also unusual for its content. This review is more about the relevance of the story for what we need to know about our own ancestors than it is about the story itself. Let me explain:

Forty-five years ago, two elderly women in the church where I worked in Berkeley, California, paid me to type their father’s journal entries so that they could print copies and share his stories with their younger relatives. As I typed, I was surprised to learn their father hadn’t planned to remain in America. He came to California from Sweden, intending to make his fortune and then return. When it took longer than he had expected, he traveled back to Sweden to marry and then brought his new wife to America. Still he hoped they would return to Sweden. But in the end, they remained here.

Thirty-five years ago, I married a man whose parents immigrated to Canada when he was three years old. His grandparents had moved to Canada in 1927 when their oldest child, my former husband’s father, was three years old. They had left him behind in Yugoslavia with his grandparents because they only planned to remain in Canada long enough to make their fortune and then they would return. Timing was against them. The stock market crash, the depression, World War II, and the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia prevented them from both making that fortune and returning. Instead, in the 1950s they sponsored their now married son, his wife, and their three oldest children as immigrants to Canada.

Thirty years ago, I worked as a consular officer in Stuttgart, Germany. Time and again I had to explain to a visa applicant that I could not issue a visitor visa because it was clear the applicant wished to work in the United States. For that, I explained, they needed immigrant visas. These applicants expressed universal surprise since they all said they had no plans to remain in the United States. They only wanted to work long enough to make their fortune and then return to Europe.

This has always been the dominant immigrant story: the foreign-born generation comes to America to make their fortune. Most fail. But once there are children, there is no turning back. Even the first generation born in American often struggles without finding success.

Recently I have heard a number of Americans who are two or three generations away from their immigrant ancestors explain that they want all today’s immigrants to follow the path they believe their ancestors followed: intentional assimilation into the American community. But they don’t know what they are talking about. They are too far removed from the experiences to know what their ancestors intended.

That’s why it is important for those of us several generations away from our immigrant ancestors to read stories such as Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants saga or O.E. Rolvaag’s trilogy ofGiants In The Earth, Peder Victorious, and Their Fathers’ God. We are too far removed from our ancestors’ experiences to realize not all immigrants of the nineteenth or early twentieth century shared the enthusiasm for assimilation the progency of their future generations now attribute to them, the same enthusiasm they now proclaim they expect all future immigrants to embrace.

In most cases, only one adult in each couple was enthusiastic about the move. Most often, the husband. The women and children came along because they had no choice. The children were more likely to catch the assimilation bug, but not even all of them were destined to succeed.

In The Settlers, the third in Moberg’s four-book series, he extends the story of the band of emigrants from Sweden in eastern Minnesota, focusing primarily on the family of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson. We get glimpses of those who are likely to succeed in the new world. The pressure to remain connected among other Swedes weighs heavily on some, especially Kristina. The vision and promise of quick wealth in the gold fields of California tempt others. Those known as thieves and whores in the old world find blank slates in the new world, blank slates on which they can begin again.

Later arrivals reveal the emigrants did not escape all forms of religious intolerance by leaving Sweden; some who left Sweden to escape the government’s strict religious boundaries brought equally inflexible strictures they were ready to impose on those in the new world. And while Karl Oskar continued to see promise in the new world, Kristina saw bleakness and separation. And the birth of more children did not bring a sense of renewal for Kristina; each child’s birth felt like the small death to Kristina.

At the end of Unto A Good Land, the second volume of Moberg’s saga, Robert, Karl Oskar’s brother, along with his friend and fellow farmhand Arvid Pettersson, had left Minnesota to seek fortune in the gold fields of California. In The Settlers, Robert returns alone, his pockets now full of paper money but his heart still full of pride. The brothers each ponder whether the other might have chosen the wiser path, at least until Robert’s paper money turns out to be worthless. Karl Oskar remains convinced Robert will never stop lying, and Robert realizes he had let himself be tricked out of the fortune he had stumbled upon in spite of his never having reached California.

This volume is not full of optimism, at least not on the surface. It depicts the weariness of the hard work those early emigrants spent for their children’s and their children’s children’s futures. Too few of us understand our family history. Nonetheless, optimism is the back story for this saga. We are the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ hard work and the separation from family they endured. My hope is that we will keep that in mind when we encounter the current group of immigrants, that we will recognize the separation and hard work they are willing to endure for the sake of their children, and that we will be tolerant of their attempts to retain their traditions, just as our ancestors did.

  • Genre: Family Saga, Historical, Literature & Fiction
  • Print Length: 399 pages
  • Publisher: Borealis Books; Revised ed. Edition (September 15, 1995)
  • Original Publication Date: 1956
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Book Review: X


Five StarsxI’ve been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series since I first read K is for Killer in the early 1990s and discovered there were ten books written before it for me to read. I went back and read them all in order and have been grabbing the new ones as soon as they are published. Grafton doesn’t disappoint in X.

I noticed immediately that the 24th book in her Millhone series doesn’t follow her naming pattern. The title is simply X, not X is for something that starts with X. The inside page explains it all, though I didn’t realize it until I reached the final page.

X: The number ten. An unknown quantity. A mistake. A cross. A kiss. X marks the spot.

Grafton’s X is all of the above.

Three quite different stories weave through this novel. Contrary to what I expected, they are not all neatly tied together at the end.

First there is the mystery of Teddy Xanakis, the revenge-seeking ex-wife of Ari Xanakis, a successful and wealthy businessman whose generosity to the community ended at the same time as his marriage to Teddy. Why was she so eager to get in contact with a small-time bank robber recently released on parole? Does X refer to the Xanakises?

And there is the mystery of the assignment of Pete Wollinsky, a PI who was killed during a robbery gone wrong. He died before he had time to deliver a package he had collected from Father Xavier who had held it for safekeeping for more than 20 years. What was Pete’s motivation in hiding both the package and a list he felt compelled to encode to keep its contents secret? Does X refer to Father Xavier?

Finally, Kinsey and her landlord, Henry, draw very different conclusions about their new neighbors, Edna and Joseph Shallenbarger. Which of their conclusions were more accurate?

Grafton tantalizes the reader with these questions, allowing Kinsey to reveal her assumptions and conclusions along the way. But as is always the case with Grafton’s mysteries, there are twists and turns in each of the sub-plots, revealing unknown quantities, mistakes, crosses, and kisses. Assumptions are overturned. Behind each mystery hide even more mysteries.

I regret only two letters remain for Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. It has been too long since the most recent one, and I fear the final one will be here too soon.

• Genre: Private Investigators, Women Sleuths, Suspense
• Print Length: 512 pages
• Publisher: G.P/ Putnam’s Sons; Reprint edition
• Publication Date: August 2, 2016

Book Review: A Fireproof Home for the Bride

Five StarsafireproofhomeforthebrideI don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading a book more than I enjoyed reading Amy Scheibe’s A Fireproof Home for the Bride. The story is fiction so it didn’t happen, but, as is always the case with good storytelling, it could have happened. I know because I was there at the time of the story—1958—in the place of the story—Fargo, ND, and its twin city, Moorhead, MN. So I knew many of the people Scheibe included in her novel. And the events that were true—it is fiction, so not all events were true—happened to me as well.

First, let’s get the storyline out of the way.

In this coming-of-age story, Emmy Nelson, a Minnesota farm girl, breaks away from her Lutheran parents and their plans for her to marry Ambrose, the son of their wealthy farming neighbor, a plan she is happy to follow until her family moves to the nearest town, Moorhead, Minnesota, before her senior year of high school. In Moorhead, Emmy meets Bev, a member of the in-crowd, who introduces her to another possible future, causing Emmy to realize she wants more from life than settling into a predictable routine as farm wife and mother for the rest of her life. She realizes the marriage to Ambrose would secure the financial future for both families, but she isn’t aware of the full range of reasons her parents are eager for her to marry as soon as she graduates from high school.

As she begins to explore other options for her future, including the attention a Catholic boy from Fargo, ND, is paying her, she learns her parents and grandmother, her fiancé and his father, have been keeping secrets from her that threaten to destroy her happy childhood memories and even her life.

I loved reading this story because I recognized so much of my own coming-of-age experiences in it. While I am ten years younger than Emmy, so many of the details are mine.

The story takes place in 1958, the year after a family of killer tornadoes destroyed the Golden Ridge housing development in north Fargo as well as many farm buildings along what is now I-94 across North Dakota and US Highway 10 continuing east into Minnesota. I remember sitting in the basement of our house, convinced that we were all going to die as we waited for the tornado to hit. And in the days afterward, I remember adults talking about how sad it was that six children in one family were all killed by the tornado because none of them knew they should open a door or window so the tornado wouldn’t cause the house to implode. Scheibe changed the details of the family in the novel, but the emotional impact of reading about them brought back real memories.

One of the characters who helps Emmy adjust to her new, much larger, high school is the guidance counselor, Reinhold Utke. By the time I reached junior high school, Mr. Utke had been moved into the principal position at North Junior High School where I saw him every day for three years and then again seven years later when I completed my student teaching at North Junior High. I remember being called into his office one day in ninth grade. I didn’t think I had done anything meriting being called to the principal’s office, so I went there apprehensively. He was smiling when I arrived. He explained that my English teacher, Mr. Tangen, had shared with him an essay I had written about an upcoming school bond issue, based on Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Mr. Utke wanted my permission to send the essay on to The Fargo Forum, the paper where Emmy worked in the novel. The Forum printed it, and I learned years later that my father carried a copy of it in his wallet to show others I had written it.

In the novel, Mr. Utke found Emmy her first job at the Moorhead Theatre. My first job in high school was also at the Moorhead Theatre, though Emmy’s starting salary as candy counter attendant in 1958 was five cents more than mine as usher was in 1965.

Scheibe also used a word to describe the Texas farm workers who traveled each spring to Minnesota to work in the sugar beet fields that I doubt most people in Moorhead had ever heard: betabeleros. It sounds like a Spanish word, but it isn’t in any Spanish dictionary. Betabel is the Spanish word for beet. Farmers and the Texas workers added “eros” to refer to those who worked with betabel, just as vaqueros, Spanish for cowboys, is based on the Spanish word vaca, or cow. I only know the word because I spent a summer translating for a Bolivian sponsored by the Lutheran church to minister to the families of the betabeleros in 1973.

I love this level of detail in the novel. But I loved the story on its own merits as well. The major tension in the story centers around a charismatic Chicago man who manipulates men into joining the Citizen’s Council, a xenophobic organization that uses fear of foreigners, especially the farm workers, and raises the specter of a changing demographic destroying the community. The Council’s goal: take over local government. Unfortunately, we see some of those same tactics being used by politicians today, another reason I love this book.

Genre: Family Life, Historical, Literary
Print Length: 384 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: March 10, 2015

Book Review: China to Me: A Partial Biography

Five StarschinatomeEmily Hahn’s China to Me: A Partial Biography is precisely the type of memoir I had hoped to write 40 years later about my own life. Like Hahn, I set out to live and work in a foreign country. Hahn chose China in the middle of turbulent times when Japan was asserting control over much of the country. I chose Iran in the waning days of the greatest period of influence the US had in that country.

Neither Hahn nor I could foresee what the future would bring in our different environments, but Hahn stuck it out longer than I did—nine years to my two-and-a-half. She also succeeded at getting to know her host country and its people more intimately than I, even becoming the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, a fact that allowed her to claim Chinese citizenship so she could remain in Hong Kong when American citizens were ordered to leave after the Japanese took over that city. Her reason for wanting to remain: her British officer lover, imprisoned at a Hong Kong hospital, the father of her illegitimate child.

In contrast, I left Iran at the end of a contract, leaving behind, I hoped, the negative memories I allowed to store up because life in Iran in the 1970s did not match my barely-beyond-adolescent romantic notions. I lacked the strength of character to live a truly independent life. And I lacked–and still lack–the courage to tell my story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. Hahn wrote her memoir immediately after the events. I’ve waited 40 years and am still facing fear of judgment that keeps me from completing my memoir.

While Emily Hahn, Mickey to her friends, also spent plenty of time among other expatriates in China, she moved easily among the upper levels of Chinese society as well. Along the way, she met the illustrious Soong sisters (Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chaing Kai-shek; Soong Ching-ling, the wife of Sun Yat-sen; and Soong Ai-ling, wife of the richest man in China, H.H. Kung) and eventually wrote a biography of the three.

What appealed to me even more than the details of the daring lifestyle Mickey chose, without apology to anyone, was her writing style. She shared the most intimate and revealing aspects of her life as though she were writing to a close friend, inviting the reader to share in her exuberance as well as in her heartbreaks. She included asides within the narrative, a technique all my writing teachers have tried to dissuade me from using. In Hahn’s writing, the asides work. They bring the reader into the nearly 80-year-old story. To see what I mean, following are three excerpts that touched me, the first for how it evoked my own positive memories of Iran, the second for her honesty in acknowledging that her readers prefer to think the worst of the enemy, and the third for the recognition that life sometimes is harder to believe than fiction.

Crossing by way of the rice paddies was out of the question on such a dark night. The coolies explained this to me and then set off at a good brisk trot along the newly built road. I don’t really know why I bother to tell this incident. It has no value as an anecdote. I only want to evoke, if I can, for my own sake, the sensations of that night. I have known China so thoroughly, all her scents and noises and colors, that it is easy for me to bring back the feeling of a familiar moment there. The streets of Yangtzepoo in Shanghai, for instance, or the dust-choked air of Peking in summer. The wet pathways of Hangchow along the lakeside, and the drifting silence of one of those flat boats with canopies. The hard sharp rocks and the soft gliding clouds of the Yellow Mountain. It is easy to think of these. I could draw pictures of any of them. I would know at midnight where I was if I should wake up in any of these places; I would recognize the smell of it and the sound of it. But that night in my chair, gliding along the dark road from Madame’s house, was a special moment. It had no familiarity. It was not China, and it was not me. Somehow we, the coolies and I, had become new people in a different universe. We trotted along at the bottom of a deep, dark canyon of blackness and all the exciting pleasures of the afternoon, my talk with Mme. Chiang, the poem we had read, the sunlight on my neck as I crossed the field, the flowers I was carrying even now, in the back of the chair—they were not there. I had it all in my mind, like something I had read in a book, but it was no more real than that. My whole life was just that: a book I was reading. That moment, then, that was the proof. Once and only once, for the first time, I closed the book and laid it aside. I sat back in the chair as it jounced and joggled along to the soft pats of the coolies’ feet on the road, and wondered: Now what?

I want to tell the truth, in so far as I know. I have heard since this all happened that the Japanese stretcher-bearers were brutal in their work that day, slamming sick men around regardless and “pulling splints off of broken limbs, et cetera, et cetera.” I saw nothing like that. The stretcher-bearers I watched were gentle and considerate. I don’t suppose you like to read that. I admit I don’t much like writing it. It isn’t artistic; it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the picture, and it isn’t fashionable. It would be easier just to report atrocities. Please bear with me, though: I do want to tell the truth. It seems to me that the truth doesn’t hurt anyone in the end.

What followed sounds incredible. That is the trouble with real life: you can’t write it down as fiction because it is so impossible. I’ve known that happen a dozen times. You will have to believe me because this is the truth. I reached into that thick-pressed crowd and plucked out by the arm one Freddie Kwai, a student from Shanghai and a nephew of Sinmay’s [Hahn’s Chinese lover].

I picked out Hahn’s memoir because of my interest in learning about China from 1920 to 1940, the years my great uncle worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. By the time I finished reading, Mickey Hahn had become a new subject for my fascination, one I wish to explore thoroughly. Thankfully, she wrote 52 books and 181 articles for The New Yorker, material that will keep me reading for some time to come.

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, History, China
Print Length: 454 pages
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Original Publication Date: 1944

Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

bonfireofthevanitiesFour starsBecause of the length of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, I was willing to read the first 75 pages to get to the heart of the story. After all, Wolfe writes very well. When I reached the inciting incident, what the Amazon summary calls “a freak accident in the Bronx,” I thought I was at the beginning of an important story, one that would explore the disparity in the conditions of life for the rich vs. the poor, for whites vs. persons of color and even, perhaps, begin to explain the source of the inequities. Instead, the inciting event, the “freak accident,” serves only to point out exactly what the title promises—that all is vanity.

While Sherman McCoy may be the central character in this novel, and the only character whose life at the end differs significantly from what it was at the beginning, he is no more likable than any of the other players, each of them involved only for what they can get out of life to polish and prop up their images and reputations.

He makes a wrong turn after picking up his mistress at the airport and ends up in the Bronx, a part of New York that he knows little about and even less about how to get out of. His bossy mistress badgers him, figuratively poking his ego, questioning whether he really knows what he’s doing or where he’s going. In this haze of dealing with his wounded pride, he jumps to a conclusion about the intentions of two young Black men he encounters as he searched in the dark for a ramp to a road back to Manhattan. To his credit, he quickly realizes he may have misjudged the two men, but instead of insisting on reporting the incident, he allows his mistress to win the argument as she replays his original assumptions and flatters his male ego by pointing out his heroism at saving her from a terrible situation.

Tom Wolfe paints memorable word pictures of the characters, complete with the idiosyncratic dialects of McCoy’s southern mistress and the New Yorkers of various ethnic stripes. He went overboard in his attempt to render dialogue according to dialect, making me thankful that he didn’t try to stick with the non-standard spellings throughout. After getting enough of a sense of the differences in the dialects, I skipped over the transliterations. That cut down a bit on how much I had to read to finish the novel.

My specific copy also contained eight entirely blank pages, beginning with page 535 and every three or four pages thereafter until page 563. I didn’t feel I missed anything by skipping those pages.

I wish the novel had dealt more seriously with the inciting incident and that more of the characters were changed. But that’s a judgment from 30 years after this book was written. Hopefully, such a story won’t need nearly 650 pages to tell.

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Print Length: 623 pages
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (November 1987)
Publication Date: November 1987

Book Review: Light on Snow

Five StarslightonsnowIn Light on Snow, 12-year-old Nicky Dillon and her father, Robert, struggle to set up a new life in a new place after having left New York two years earlier. Her father could no longer tolerate living in the city where Nicky’s mother and her infant sister, Clara, were killed in an auto accident, turning their world upside down.

One winter evening before Christmas, Nicky and her father take a walk in the woods behind their remote and isolated home. While walking, they hear a cry her father recognizes as a baby’s cry. They find an infant girl abandoned in the snow, wrapped in a sleeping bag. They rescue the baby and bring her to the local hospital. But they cannot leave behind their thoughts about the baby.

The mother of the baby, Charlotte, appears at the Dillon home, intending to thank them for saving the baby, but her arrival angers Nicky’s father while sparking a connection for Nicky who sees Charlotte as a replacement for her mother and the baby as a replacement for her sister. A storm isolates them, preventing Charlotte from leaving and putting Nicky and her father at risk of being considered her accomplices. Eventually, they both accept Charlotte’s explanation for the circumstances of the baby’s abandonment and begin thinking of themselves as her protector.

Both Nicky and her father need to find a way forward, first in the situation they find themselves harboring Charlotte, and then in life on their own. The encounter with Charlotte serves as a catalyst to break their pattern of hiding from life.

The novel raises questions about what it takes to make up a family. Are Nicky and her father a family? Or are they the remnants of a family that was broken when Nicky’s mother and sister died? Does a family need both a mother and a father? Can a broken family be fixed? Or are these questions about what makes up a family just devices to represent the denial Robert is still caught up in regarding the death of his wife and child?

The novel doesn’t answer these questions. But it catches the reader in its simple language, told from 12-year-old Nicky’s viewpoint, though 18 years later when Nicky had reached 30 years old. Is the story appropriate for a 12-year-old reader?  I think so.

  • Genre: Literary, Contemporary Fiction
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st edition (October 1, 2004)
  • Publication Date: October 1, 2004

Book Review: Reach for Joy

Four starsreachforjoyIn Reach for Joy, Tessy Reyes (a pseudonym) tells of her 30-year marriage to an independent survivalist who controlled her and her children until she succeeded at getting away from him. During that time, she bore ten children, nine of whom survived. Her memoir opens with the memory of the child who didn’t survive, a heartbreaking story, even more so when she puts it into context later in her story.

The family often lived without heat, electricity, water, or plumbing. She home schooled her children so that both she and her children wouldn’t need to leave the house. For many of those years, Tessy’s husband forbade her from driving and spied on her whenever she left home for errands.

Reyes wrote her story in order to give support to other women who may be in abusive, controlling relationships. Her hope is that her story will give courage to others to escape sooner than she did.

While I sympathized with the author throughout the book, I hadn’t realized until I finished reading it that the author used a pseudonym instead of her real name. Other names in the book are also pseudonyms. And this made me feel a bit like I was tricked into sympathizing with her. I immediately went back to the beginning of the book–a Kindle version–to see if I missed something. I didn’t.

Because I was surprised that she chose a pseudonym, I did some online research and eventually found her website where she indicates she is not afraid to use her name, but she chose a pseudonym to protect others from being easily identified. Is this a good enough explanation for a pseudonym? I don’t know. I believe her story is real—unfortunately so. And I applaud her goal of encouraging other women who may be in similar relationships to find the courage to get out. But I feel her case would be stronger if she used real names or at least pointed out in the beginning that she chose pseudonyms for a good reason, for the protection of the privacy of others.

Genre: Memoir
Print Length: 185 pages
Publisher: Northwest Sourdough
Publication Date: June 1, 2016