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

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Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind

theshadowofthewindI’ve been reading so many memoirs and genre fiction books that it Five Starstook me awhile to get involved in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best seller The Shadow of the Wind. I sought the familiar three-act pattern as I read, and I was initially frustrated by the complexity of the story. There were more characters, all with foreign names spelled with vowels with diacritical marks above them, than I could keep track of. And what I thought were minor, though interesting, details were introduced without any indication of their significance. An example: a fountain pen that Daniel Sempere, the main character, believes will make him a great writer because it had once been owned by Victor Hugo, though its price is so exorbitant his father explains he could never afford it.

Thankfully, I continued reading. The book is, after all, the 2015 selection for One Book, One San Diego, a community reading experience, now in its ninth year, sponsored by Public TV and Radio station KPBS, the San Diego Public Library, and the San Diego County Library, with major support from a number of businesses. I started reading it based on the assumption that it must be not just a good book but a great one. I was not disappointed.

On the surface, the book’s story is about Daniel, a boy living with his widowed father in Barcelona. It opens in 1945 when Daniel’s father, a seller of used books, brings Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret, labyrinthine repository of all the world’s books that are in danger of being lost. Daniel’s father tells him to pick out one book for himself, a book he must never give away or sell. His father also warns him that he cannot tell anyone about the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, except his mother, who died several years ago. It is always all right to tell his mother secrets.

Daniel’s selection is The Shadow of the Wind by Juliàn Carax. The creation of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books draws the reader into a fantasy world, the first genre Zafón references in the novel.

The book is a book within a book and Daniel’s life begins to follow the storyline of the main character of Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind. Likewise, the book parallels the life of the author of the book. And Daniel becomes entranced to learn more about the author. In this, Zafón references a second genre, the mystery.

The antagonist of the book comes alive in Daniel’s life, pursuing him in order to obtain the book, the likely last copy in existence since a fire at a Barcelona warehouse destroyed copies before the publisher was able to sell them. In this, Zafón references a third genre, the thriller.

The author selected Barcelona at the end of the first half of the 20th century as the setting because of the drama and upheaval of the previous historical events—the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The city becomes a character itself in the novel. In this, Zafón references a fourth genre, the historical novel.

But Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is much more than any of the referenced genres. The book comes alive to Daniel, leading him to learn about love, fear, forgiveness, redemption, and the power of books. As the story progresses, Daniel also learns about the duality of everything. Love and hate are related. Neither exists without the other. Likewise good and evil, blame and forgiveness, transgression and redemption.

And all those interesting but minor details that nearly derailed my attention at the beginning of the novel? The importance of each eventually became clear. Nothing in this novel was insignificant. Everything supported the message of the power of books and knowledge and the importance of preserving both.

This is my favorite book of 2016 thus far.

More One Book, One San Diego selections:

2014–Monstress: Stories by Lysley Tenorio

2013–Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks

2012–Into the Beautiful North: A Novel  by Luis Alberto Urrea

Moloka’i  by Alan Brennert

Sky of Red Poppies  by Zohreh Ghahremani

2011–The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy

2010–Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town by Warren St. John

2009–The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

2008–Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson

2007–Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Five StarsathousandsplendidsunsDuring years of occupation by the Soviet Union and inter-tribal warfare in Afghanistan, two Afghan women of different generations and regions and very different socioeconomic situations find marriage to the same older man the immediate solution to stay alive when each loses her parents. But marriage brings its own problems, including brutal beatings by the husband for minor or even just perceived infractions of his rules. When their plan to leave him is discovered, both fear for their lives and realize they must take even more extreme action for the sake of their children.

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns explores what it means to be a family. By placing the action in the context of thirty years of changing governments, political systems, and international sponsors, the novel also explores what it takes to develop a stable nation where rival tribal leaders undertake serial switches in allegiances in order to gain power.

Hosseini tells the story well, engendering sympathy for both Mariam, the love-child of a wealthy businessman in Heart and his made, as well as for Laila, the youngest child of an educated man in Kabul and his wife. It was well-paced for the most part, though the final section moved more slowly than I expected.

Genre: Literary fiction
Print Length: 379 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (November 25, 2008)
Publication Date: November 25, 2008
Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC