"Home in the Morning" by Mary Glickman

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“Home in the Morning” reminds us that an excellent fiction can come from a close observation of human lives caught in the swirl and tide of grand social upheaval. Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s, we encounter the lives of four people: two married couples, one white and one Negro. Their lives twine together, try to fray apart for a time, and begin to knit back up by novel’s end.

Jackson Sassaport, a Jewish lawyer who grows up in Guilford, a satellite town of Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, forms the focus of this sweeping fiction. He falls rather hard as a teen for Katherine Marie, the beautiful black girl his own age who works as a servant in his home. He understands his love cannot be requited, and he learns that Katherine Marie has also become the love-focus of Bokay Cooper, a powerfully-built and God-fearing local black teen. Jackson and Bokay go back a long way themselves, and Jackson swallows his passion and supports the two in their effort to make a life together. When Jackson goes away to Yale he meets and falls in love with Stella, the charismatic and strong-willed princess of a powerful Boston merchant family.

The energy and conflict derives from tumultuous race relations on the grand scale and from Jackson’s criminal younger brother on the small scale. Jackson’s brother, Bubba Ray, is rather derivative in my opinion: a spoiled, aggressive, lazy lout, who possesses and displays all the worst qualities of a bigoted Southern white. He commits the stereotypical proto-violence in the narrative, and this precipitates much if not all of the novel’s drama. Personal reactions to this violence border on overreaction in my view, but the resulting portraits wouldn’t be as clear or compelling without them.

These portraits are the book’s great strength. Jackson navigates his way through his life, barely keeping his women folk happy. Bokay Cooper morphs into the militant minister, Mombasa Cooper, victimized by his own following and his own folly. Stella and Katherine Marie, tied together by family, conflict, and political activism, stand together as the great striving duo, united at the end to everyone’s great relief and satisfaction, especially Jackson’s. Author Mary Glickman also instructs her readers in the cultural divide between the South, with its traditional manners, and “Yankeetown,” that generic Northern center of unheeding rudeness. The North is also shown as a hypocritical center of activism for civil rights, pursued from the safety of the rear echelon.

Read this book for the love that flows through it – it’s the love of an honest and wise author for her subject. It shows that the road of progress in race relations, with all its legal roadblocks and cultural landmines, can be followed to the promised land of harmony if the individuals are strong and determined enough.

"The Devil's Footprints" by John Burnside

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Author John Burnside leads us, the intrigued readers, on an intimate tour of the unaccepting and brutish heart of smalltown coastal Scotland in “The Devil’s Fooprints.” But that exploration serves as just the appetizer for the first-person narrator’s – Michael’s – descent into his own low-key, “elective” madness. The devil does indeed leave his footprints all over this story, and in some way, Michael, by turns willfully and unwittingly, follows them. Rather closely.

As Michael grows up his parents are reviled as outsiders. His parents die within a few months of each other during his university years, his mother in negligent homicide, his father in weighted solitude. Michael’s own history includes his victimization by a bully for several months when a grade-schooler, an episode in which Michael finds courage and turns aggressor. However, these just set the stage for Michael's reaction to the horrific suicide by a townswoman, years later, who kills two of her sons along with herself. This precipitates a downward spiral in Michael, mainly because he thinks he may be the father of the victim’s fourteen-year-old daughter.

All this sounds dreary indeed, and I regret that, because Mr. Burnside handles all this with such straightforward earnestness, and the exactly appropriate level of somberness, that Michael’s character generates our sympathies. We’re sympathetic when a prank against an old oppressor turns freakishly fatal, but perhaps less so later when he perpetrates a felonious flight with a minor girl. You’ll not find the stunning, hurtling violence of the internal dialog that so distinguishes Anne Enright’s “The Gathering,” not here. Here we find the contemplative, self-aware, well-meaning man, aware of his ever-loosening grip, yet unable to do anything about it.

The title refers to the town legend that one morning, many years ago, after a night of snow, the early townspeople found footsteps in the snow, deep and burning, sulfuric and discoloring, clear trough the snow to the ground. They are clearly not human, and no known animal could have made them. They hop fences and go right up the side of the church, across the roof, and down the other side. Michael’s misadventure with his purported daughter ultimately results in an impossible trek on foot that nearly kills him, and the ruminations during this walk are worth the price of admission by themselves. Suffice it to say that what possesses people who act like demons becomes far more familiar to us, and is not at all what you think. Pick this piece up and  reflect with the author on the durable fear that priests and landowners feel about the demons that threaten to take them over.

I recommend this book very, very highly. Here’s why: the language will stun you with its simple effectiveness and the rightness of its diction. The characters will strike you as real, as will their symptoms. And the thematic issues of motivation, secrecy, and near-demonic possession will challenge you and bring you new understanding. You will understand more about human nature, and there is no higher compliment I can give to a piece of fiction. Congratulations to Mr. Burnside for this quiet, shaded triumph.

"Miss New India" by Bharati Mukherjee

“Miss New India” contains the story of Anjali (Angie) Bose, who grows from sheltered nineteen-year-old in a backwater India town into a sadder but wiser young woman with growing skills and ambition. It embraces a much larger canvas, though, nothing less than the dizzyingly rapid modernization of the second most populous nation on Earth. Angie Bose’s journey opens this transformation before our eyes, cutting a clear slice for us and laying it on a slide for our microscopes.

Growing up quietly, steeped in traditional middle-class (and middle-caste) Indian virtues, Anjali, from the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, learns good, accentless American English, and shows a spark of intelligence. She gets an associate degree in business and hopes the husband her father finds for her can be intelligent, good-looking, and kindly. Unfortunately her betrothed young man mistreats her badly - criminally - in their one brief meeting, and she escapes to modern, bustling, 21st-century Bangalore. Things don’t go very much better for her in the big city, though: at rock bottom she ends up in a holding cell in a Bangalore jail, facing every manner of threat and menace.

What a creation is Miss Anjali Bose! Pretty, innocent, lucky, unlucky, endlessly engaging, unforgettable. Author Bharati Mukherjee draws such a realistic girl; she’s nineteen going on thirteen, it seems, for much of the book. I kept waiting for her to grow up a little, get some perspective, make a mature choice for a change! Then I would cast my mind back to her origins, and the scant weeks since her emergence from her sheltered existence, and I reflect that she’s perfect. She has the exact worries, hopes, and reactions that such a girl would in real life. Congratulations and laurel wreaths to Ms. Mukherjee on her perfect creation.

Through this endearing and frustrating heroine, the author shows us the wrenching changes now contorting India and changing its face. In graphic detail: the closed, insular town with its backward-looking mores, the mod big-city aspirations, and the mod-big-city criminality. The flooding of India with apparently limitless new rupees (lakhs and crores of them!) brings with it every new convenience and technology, and unfortunately every new kind of venality, too. Some plot elements seem, on surface, over-contrived – Angie’s falling in with a vastly wealthy family, the spurious international terrorist roommate, her serendipitous relationship with the entrepreneur Girish, the looting of the crumbling Raj-era estate – but these chances and drawbacks represent the new chances that India is taking with itself. May she ride a hot streak to glory!

It’s been quite a while since I met a character as charming and demanding of our attention as Angie Bose. I trust she will make thousands more readers as besotted with her as I am. Watch for this publication in May, and don’t let it go by. It will clearly be worth your attention for its great virtues: its unblinking look into modern India, and its main achievement, the quirky, delicious heroine.

"Stations West" by Allison Amend

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Allison Amend brings us the multi-generational saga of the Haurowitzes in “Stations West,” published by the Louisiana State University. It covers the settlement and development of Oklahoma from territory to state from the late 19th Century through the years of the Great Depression. We follow the lives of Boggy Haurowitz and his descendants through settlement, oil and the dust bowl. It’s typical of generational sagas: it deals with long lives of the principals, and in this example, not much of those lives turns out very well.

Boggy’s grandson Garfield’s bitter, alienated narrative takes up a lion’s share of this story, but his stubbornness and irascibility and loneliness don’t seem completely grounded in his childhood experience. The women’s stories are of course more difficult, more subject to caprice, and more unjust. The stigma of having a child out of wedlock dooms one to a lifetime of servitude and yearning. Another’s deafness makes her somehow a match only for a simpleton. Garfield’s mother spends her entire life a whore, and dies alone in a Sierra Nevada winter.

The other chief “character” is the Oklahoma landscape, by turns dusty, barren, and dusty, filled with men with dust in the creases of their careworn faces. This narrative lays out the modest successes and grand tribulations of three generations of Oklahoma settlers, but delves deeply into the internal dialog none. Conflict tests and batters and alienates and sometimes kills the principals, but resolution to these conflicts is too often hopeless. A particular example: the disgraced and disfigured Dora, secretly the mother of an illegitimate child, who has pined after Garfield all her life, so thoroughly takes charge over his funeral arrangements that only then is she believed to be his wife.

Hardship, doggedness, and luck of all kinds will ever determine the path of people’s lives, and, in settling the American West in particular, these character traits and fortunes become displayed in high relief. We could look to Willa Cather for depth and focus in covering this ground. In any event, pioneer sagas will never be my particular cup of tea.