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"Partitions" by Amit Majmudar

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British India was divided into India and the two Pakistans upon gaining its independence in 1947. Systemic violence accompanied Partition, as the division was called, as groups perpetrated all manner of crime against each other. “Partitions,” the debut novel of Amit Majmudar, contains for us a close-up view of the horror, and adds a layer to our understanding (or to mine, at least): it wasn’t only Muslim vs. Hindu – there was a third substantial group fighting for its independence and identity, the Sikhs.

Each of these groups is represented by Mr. Majmudar’s fateful quartet: the riots force Dr. Ibrahim Masud, a Muslim physician in the Punjab city of Amritsar, into the flood of refugees heading for the new Pakistan. Simram Kaur is a fifteen-year-old Sikh girl whose family tries to drug and then kill her rather than let her be defiled by a non-believer. And the heart-breaking little Hindu twins, Shankar and Keshav, get separated from their mother in a crowded railway station. Mr. Majmudar uses an elegant device to bring the four together and keep them that way: the spirit of the boys’ dead father watches over the four and tries in his nearly helpless way to keep them safe, because he knows they need each other.

It takes the four nearly the entire book to meet up; each endures numerous close scrapes where any one of them could have wound up dead or worse. Dr. Jaitly, the twins’ deceased father, urges the quartet onward in his if-wishes-were-horses way, and we suffer and hope along with him. Dr. Masud is the saintly, stuttering, indefatigable center of this inchoate family: he suffers injury and dehydration without complaint, treats every case of sickness and injury that comes his way and there are many in the swelling tide of Muslim refugees. He attracts a battalion of orphan boys and stray dogs to help him on his way and keep him safe. Of all the partitions implicitly or explicitly built up in the narrative – ethnic, religious, social, moral – it’s clear Mr. Majmudar is an equal-opportunity admirer of courage and generosity. By completely ignoring the partitions everyone else seems to require, these final four are a microcosm of the possibility of love and hope.

Mr. Majmudar has crafted a touching, suspenseful, uplifting, gratifying story. This is another reason I love reading debut novels so much. We meet another highly capable practitioner, with a wise heart and a real gift for unfolding a beautiful story.

"Words Made Fresh" by Larry Woiwode

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Larry Woiwode bestows on us ten thoughtful and fearless essays in “Words Made Fresh.” He tackles subjects as disparate as education, faith, the role of place in artistic inspiration, John Updike, William Shakespeare, and Bob Dylan. And throughout, he poses questions and conundrums, expresses doubt and hope, and passes judgment in a graceful, even-handed way.

Right out of the box he gives us a hint of the depth and unblinking earnestness we will encounter in each piece. In “Guns & Peace: An American Icon,” we find a startlingly frank questioning of his own motives when attending to a mercy killing of a deer after an automobile accident. The physical description of the landscape and his perception of it is stark and memorable – perfect. In “Homeplace, Heaven or Hell: On the Order of Existence” he launches a theme to which he returns again and again in other essays: the role of the childhood home in the creative process. He handily debunks the big-city critics and guardians of orthodoxy who would label a writer from the hinterlands as “regional,” which when they use it is nothing but pejorative. He flips the table over on them, saying not only is region and homeland important in the creative process, but an accurate and faithful attachment to it is a prerequisite part of any great art. He applies this principle in turn to such diverse writers as John Gardner, John Updike, and Shakespeare.

Mr. Woiwode holds with John Gardner that true fiction must have a moral element, that the author’s intent regarding the moral issues propounded must be clear and that lessons and ideas flowing from the action must point in the right moral direction. Mr. Woiwode several times avers his service to Scripture, and always admits that this places him far outside the mainstream of academia. Well, not outside the mainstream, diametrically opposed to it. I am aware of the “on the outs” status of Christianity in current “correct” thought; Mr. Woiwode, while staking his ground squarely and usually straightforwardly, fails in main to acknowledge the cynical and exclusionary way in which the vast community of honest, self-avowed Christians of the U.S. were hoodwinked into supporting illegal and immoral schemes hatched by administrations enjoying their very support.

The long, elegiac piece on Updike (“Updike’s Sheltered Self: On America’s Maestro”) deserves a broad audience. Written to the highest standard of critical essays, this comprehensive appreciation gave me more pause and more food for thought than anything I have read, ever, on Updike. Unified, persuasive, well-paced, even-handed, this is the main attraction of this collection. The treatment of Gardner’s “Mickelsson’s Ghosts” is an outstanding example of what I aspire to on the “Deeper Appreciations” pages. (It embarrasses me for you to look at them now. I am substantially re-writing the “Housekeeping” essay – and hope to fashion an actual conclusion for it.) I need to get to that piece and see what Mr. Woiwode’s fussing about.

Enlightening, thought-provoking, well-written in the extreme, Mr. Woiwode does himself, his faith, and his craft proud. This is an important collection for anyone interested in today’s literature, thought, education, or culture. It’s only too bad Mr. Woiwode’s faith puts him in the wilderness of “incorrectness.”