Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

The Lighthouse Road debuts this week but I've already read it three times, each one bringing fresh revelations and reminding me of why I love to read. It begins in an 1896 snowstorm as Thea Eide delivers her son.  She, a recent immigrant with no close family, dies soon after and the entire small Minnesota town of Gunflint raises her son Odd.

“From the first days of his life, Odd had been the whole town’s ward.   All his sweaters were hand-knit by fisherman’s wives; his haircuts given under a bowl by the innkeeper’s wife; the men took him hunting and handed down their own son’s outgrown boots and shotguns; Christmas morning always found twenty gifts intended for Odd on the apothecary doorstep.  The godly wives took him to church on Sunday mornings, and the schoolteacher stayed after class to help him with his lessons.”

Hosea Grimm took Thea in, delivered Odd and helped many in Gunflint. Now Odd lives with Hosea and his ward Rebekah at the apothecary where Grimm serves as town doctor and impresario of activities good and evil.

The Shivering Timber was an unabashed brothel and whiskey parlor that had evaded the reach of the pious Gunflinters and constables by catering to their weird and secret proclivities. It housed a dozen or so prostitutes and was guarded by two woodsmen brothers from Wisconsin on Grimm’s payroll. . . Hosea had a forty percent stake in the place. He also kept the girls in calomel and morphine, gave them abortions, and pulled their rotten teeth.  And he supplied the whiskey.  So he had a king’s reign.”

When a town or a people are beholden, they often ignore evil and as Odd grows and the book moves between the years before his birth to his adulthood, the novel shows the consequences of living in such a blind-eyed society.  As Odd notes: “The blind eye was a bad disease in this town.”

Historical fiction aficionados will relish the picture perfect portrayals of life in the 1890s lumber camp where Thea cooks and acclimates herself to America as temperatures dip to forty below. Geye evokes the cold and camp life with a particular affinity as in “The moon hung gibbous and low, casting the snow in the gorge in bronze light.”  And of the mess hall where “The jacks returned for lunch and for dinner with frosted coats, their faces hoary as ash, wraithlike.  As their coats melted in the mess halls heat, they appeared to be vaporizing.”

As Odd grows, he hauls bootleg liquor for Hosea in his small skiff in an electrical storm, encounters a bear in its den and fights for what he wants. Geye’s portrayal of Odd’s journey toward manhood and of the lumber camp where Thea cooks evokes writers like Per Petterson and Annie Proulx as well as the classic Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

But like such great writers, Geye doesn't just pen precise sentences, he also steers the plot into uncertain waters revealing young Odd’s secret love of Rebekah and Thea’s harrowing story.  This reviewer will not reveal all the memorable plot twists that make the book a thrilling page turner because every reader should be afforded the joy of encountering these as Geye presents them.

Having tagged at least a dozen passages as essential to quote in this review, I’ll end with just one more section to whet your appetite:

“In mid-March, along the river’s frozen waters, two thirteen-year-old boys shattered the glaze on a knee-deep and moon-shaped snow.  They wore snowshoes they’d made of bent ash and moose gut.  Their hats were beaver fur, trapped and skinned and finally sewn while they sat around the fire in the wigwam.  

Odd and Danny Riverfish. They wore bowie knives on their belts and carried shotguns over their shoulders and they dragged a toboggan behind them.”. . .
The boys had skipped school and Odd asked Danny if their teacher would miss them:

“Miss Huff could make a forest fire boring. Besides I don’t plan on ever going to that schoolhouse again. . . Arithmetic never got a beaver tail to fry up, did it?”
“Or a pelt to sell,” Odd said, then fell silent for a moment before he added, “She tells Hosea I’m truant and I’ll get the belt.”
“Someday you’ll be doing the belting.”
“I’ll never be able to whomp Hosea.”
“Sure you will, Someday we’ll whomp him together, steal his money.”
The mere thought of this made Odd despair. His feelings about Hosea were as complicated as his own true history.

Read this book and allow yourself to sink into the exciting yet complicated lives of a group of sure-to-be-classic characters.  Buy it for everyone you know.

Summing it Up:  Read this for the story of a young man’s survival in a small town in turn-of-the-century Minnesota.  Devour its depiction of immigrant ships, lumber camps, towns with secrets and cities where the young try to start afresh and of fierce love that will not quit.  Choose it for your book club as you’ll want to talk about the ending the minute you finish reading.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Gourmet, Historical Fiction, Book Club

Publication date: October 2, 2012

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House is the story of Joe, a thirteen-year-old boy, who tries to understand why his mother, Geraldine, was brutally attacked because he wants to help his family become whole again. Louise Erdrich weaves three unique sagas in The Round House and each is a masterpiece.  First, there’s a suspenseful tale of the rape and attempted murder that makes the reader flip the pages to find out whodunit and if he’ll get his just desserts.  Second, is the humorous, satirical, coming-of-age story of Joe, a character as original and engaging as Arnold Spirit in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  And lastly there’s Erdrich’s gold standard, exquisitely picture-perfect view of life on a North Dakota reservation complete with heartache, injustice, and a solid sense of community all told with a vibrato resonance.

You can’t tell if a person is an Indian from a set of fingerprints. You can’t tell from a name. You can’t even tell from a local police report.  You can’t tell from a picture.  From a mug shot.  From a phone number. From the government’s point of view, the only way you can tell an Indian is an Indian is to look at that person’s history.  There must be ancestors from way back who signed some document or were recorded as Indians by the U. S. government, someone identified as a member of a tribe.  And then after that you have to look at that person’s blood quantum, how much Indian blood they’ve got that belongs to one tribe.  In most cases, the government will call the person an Indian if their blood is one quarter – it usually has to be from one tribe.  But that tribe has also got to be federally recognized.  In other words, being an Indian is in some ways a tangle of red tape.

On the other hand, Indians know other Indians without the need for a federal pedigree, and this knowledge, like love, sex, or having or not having a baby – has nothing to do with government. “

Why, why, why did someone rape and attempt to murder Geraldine Coutts?   She’s a good woman, a kind and loving wife and mother and a respected member of her community.  
“My mother’s job was to know everybody’s secrets.  The original census rolls taken in the area that became our reservation go back past 1879 and include a description of each family by tribe, often by clan, by occupation, by relationship, age, and original name in our language.  . .  It was my mother’s task to parse the ever more complicated branching and interbranching tangle of each bloodline.  Through the generations, we have become an impenetrable undergrowth of names and liaisons. At the tip of each branch of course the children are found, those newly enrolled by their parents, or often a single mother or father, with a named parent on the blank whose identity if known might shake the branches of the other trees. Children of incest, molestation, rape, adultery, fornification beyond reservation boundaries or within, children of white farmers, bankers, nuns, BIA superintendents, police and priests. My mother kept her files locked in a safe. . .”

If Geraldine was attacked for the secrets she knew, what will happen if those secrets are unearthed?  Joe and his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, try to find out the attacker’s identity so he can be brought to justice. Joe’s antics with his good friends, his relationship with his bawdy aunt and elders, and his encounters with Father Travis, the local priest, offer comic relief thus allowing the serious themes of identity, greed, racism and injustice to infuse the reader.  In the hands of a less skilled writer, the story might have seemed maudlin or melodramatic, but Erdrich makes each page an adventure. 

This is a more accessible book than many in Erdrich’s oeuvre and it should thus appeal to older teens as well as fans of works like The Master Butcher’s Singing Club. It’s a stand-alone novel and is the second in a planned trilogy that began with A Plague of Doves.

Summing it Up: Read this for a rip-roaring good story. Relish it for its delightfully inventive, yet completely realistic characters.  Remember it for the lessons it imparts on justice, healing and overcoming evil. Savor it for the way it mimics classics like To Kill a Mockingbird in presenting hard truths in a palatable and engaging format. Select it for your next book club discussion. 

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Gourmet, Grandma's Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: October 2, 2012

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