Fiction among the fragrances of spring by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Want to get away from current news stories, weather warnings, and Donald Trump’s hush money election fraud trial? Want to stretch out with a book amidst the fragrance of lilacs, the perfume of flowering crab trees and sweet rhododendrons, and the riotous colors of geraniums and bleeding hearts? Here are some novels to consider this spring.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is another example of the author’s capacity for storytelling.  Like his Ordinary Grace, which I recently reviewed, This Tender Land is a coming-of-age tale set largely in Minnesota told by the 80-year-old narrator of his adventures as a nearly 13-year-old child.  It’s 1932, Depression-era America, a time of desperation,  people who have lost everything are living in “Hoovervilles,” scrambling to feed their families. Few can find work.  Hobos ride the rails looking for non-existent job opportunities. Despite Prohibition, men, struggling with frustration and rage, succumb to alcoholism, devastating their families.

Odie, a white child orphaned with his brother, Albert, is sent to one of the  inhumane residential schools for Indians, the purpose of which is to separate Native American children from their own culture and language. The two boys escape with Mose, a Sioux whose tongue had been cut out and can communicate only through sign language, and six-year-old Emmy, whose single mother dies when a tornado destroys their home.

This is just the set-up of a rolling tale with characters who evoke Dickens,  a story line worthy of Homer (note that Odie is short for Odysseus), and a more raw version of a Mark Twain narrative (see Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi.)  Krueger really knows how to spin a yarn. A story of hatred and loyalty, cruelty and spirituality, danger and survival, meanness and the power of music. The ending will take you by surprise. The book will transport you.

The Women by Kristin Hannah is a well-researched novel, just published in February, about female nurses serving in Vietnam, often close to the front line, living on the edge of death and working around the clock to save lives. At 22 years old, Frances “Frankie” McGrath is the daughter of a conservative, wealthy Southern California family, whose home sports a “wall of heroes,” photos of the men in the family who were worthy of that distinction. New in a nursing career, she feels devalued by her father who doesn’t believe that women can be heroes.  She believes otherwise.

Following in her brother’s footsteps, Frankie tries to enlist in both the Navy and the Air Force but is told that women aren’t serving in Vietnam. The Army accepts her for her untested nursing skills and, to her parents’ surprise and indignation, she ships out. In Vietnam, terrified and sharing a hooch (sparse living quarters) with two more experienced nurses, she gradually learns the ropes. Hannah spares nothing in describing the blood-soaked, limbless half dead bodies arriving in the ER tent and the makeshift OR. They work up to surgical nurses, sewing up patients under the tutelage of war-weary male surgeons who often leave them to tasks not common to nurses on the home front. Their bloodied uniforms barely dried out from one 16-hour day in the operating room to the next. Hardened, Frankie is shipped to Pleiku, where the scene is even more arduous. More wounded are brought in by helicopter than there are doctors available, and Frankie is directed to perform a tracheotomy while the OR is under a mortar attack. She and her co-responders also treat napalm-burned civilians, the elderly, women and children. The graphics are gut-wrenching, but the reader cannot look away.

Ever the patriotic good-girl product of her conservative upbringing, Frankie learns to smoke, drink, swear and fend off advances from the soldiers. Ultimately, there are love complications, an affair, betrayal, and heart-ache that accompany her home after her two tours of duty. She returns to find a deeply divided country that spits on returning vets and refuses to honor either her service or the skills she achieved as a combat nurse.

Hannah’s writing captures the returning veterans’ experiences far more sympathy than reflected in the era’s news stories, print and broadcast. The reader’s emotions are deeply tapped, including guilt about the shame heaped on vets who served in Vietnam rather than flee to Canada or hide behind students deferrals. Readers who read Hannah’s The Nightingale (2015, WWII Europe) or The Four Winds (2021, 1930’s Dust Bowl America) will find this new subject territory, but there are similar themes of catastrophe, love, family, women’s resilience and search for self, all of which serve to pack an emotional wallop.

Her First American by Lore Segal was published in 1985, apparently overlooked in literary circles. It is the story of Ilka Weissnix, a post WWII refugee from Vienna, who arrives in the United States speaking not a word of English. Barely 22 years old, she meets middle-aged Carter Bayeux at a bar. He is an established writer well known in certain circles, a Negro intellectual, drug addict and alcoholic. He takes it upon himself to teach Ilka American culture, the peculiarities of idiomatic English, and the basics of navigating New York.  With eagerness to learn and an abundance of curiosity, she brings openness and candor to new encounters. Her innocence gets her into situations that are often hilarious but reveal deeper truths about the human condition.

She is the “other,” not just as an immigrant but as a Jew, and Carter, despite his status as a member of the intelligentsia,  suffers from depression and feels marginalized as an African-American. The book exists on many different levels. The couple’s co-dependent relationship evolves despite their different complicated backgrounds, which gives Her First American a many-layered texture.  The people who cross their paths are fresh and often quirky, the couple’s own predicaments are unusual, and Segal’s take on these characters as they move toward a perhaps inevitable end is rich and illuminating.

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