Tag: Historical Fiction

Nov 26

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Good Read, A Dignified Cry

Coming of Age, Historical Fiction, Supernatural, World War II 37

I’m baaaaaaaaack! I hope all of my fellow American bookworms have come out of their food comas! I know I’m still struggling. A 4-day-weekend is a glorious thing, but I want a weekend to recover from my weekend. Can we make that happen? Ah, well. I knew it was a long shot.

In the few months I’ve been wandering aimlessly about the blogosphere, I’ve been hearing about The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. In fact, I was told that I absolutely HAD to read it so often that I entered a contest to win the book for free. Lo and behold, my craptastic gambling luck abandoned me just long enough so that I could WIN. Many thanks to Jessica of The Bluestocking Society for running the contest!

In case you, like me, have been living in a literary cave… The Book Thief is about a young German girl who is essentially orphaned and lives with a foster family during World War II. Delightful plot quirk: the entire story is narrated by Death. You know, Death. As in, the Grim Reaper (although Death is amused and annoyed by the inaccuracies of humanity’s interpretations of his likeness.) I realize as I write this that I’m using a masculine pronoun to describe a genderless being, and my inner feminist is protesting. Whatever, Inner Feminist, “Death” in my head is a dude, okay? Gosh. Where were we? (Important Note! My Inner Feminist is NOTHING like Ana Steel’s “Inner Goddess” in 50 Shades of Grey. In fact, my Inner Feminist wants to beat the crap out of Steele’s “Inner Goddess.” Cage Match?)

Our protagonist, Liesel, grows up living a nomadic life. Though she doesn’t understand why, her father has disappeared and her poverty stricken mother moves Liesel and her brother around constantly. Though Liesel is 9, she’s never attended school properly and thus cannot even read. It’s revealed that Liesel’s father (at least, perhaps her mother too) was a Communist (or accused Communist… the truth of things never seems to matter much to totalitarian regimes.) Being an open Communist in Nazi Germany is a one way ticket to persecution, and probably death. Liesel’s mother is concerned for the welfare of her children so she travels to Munich to give up custody. Tragically, Liesel’s 6 year old brother doesn’t survive the journey, and his death fuels her desire to learn to read. This is the first time Death encounters Liesel. (Seriously though, Liesel’s Communist parents weren’t exactly picking between Club Med and Sandals. Escaping the Nazis to join the Communists? Stalin was damn near as murderous as Hitler, he was just quieter about the genocide. Humanity. What a mess.)

Excellent cover art! Death and Liesel are dancing!

Once Liesel is established in her foster family, the war begins to escalate. For young German children, that means school and compulsory participation in the Hitler Youth program. Even though Liesel and her foster family’s hearts are NOT into the Nazi party ideology, they have very little choice other than to do what is expected of them. German people who didn’t participate as expected were treated with suspicion at best- dissenters didn’t have a long life expectancy. Which is why the plot thickens so heavily when Liesel’s family takes in and hides a Jew. Max is the son of Liesel’s foster father’s WWI army buddy (seriously, what a CRAPPY time to be alive to deal with BOTH World Wars.)

In a lot of respects, The Book Thief reminded me of Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi (which is amazing and you should totally read it if you liked The Book Thief.) War is a big fat steaming pile of suck. Poor Death is worked to… well, death… with all the warfare and chaos and genocide throughout this book. Anyway, what I think is interesting about these books is that they go behind “enemy” lines. Normal German people weren’t necessarily awful people by any means. They were stuck in a crappy situation. Some of them took the incredibly brave step of hiding their Jewish friends. Some resisted in other ways by refusing to participate in party requests. Some of them stole books out of Nazi bonfires (cough cough Liesel.) Most just tried their best to keep themselves and their families alive.

When I received this book in the mail, I couldn’t wait to tackle it. Jessica was kind enough to include a short note warning me that I’d need tissues toward the end… And oh, how right she was! I’m not going to go into major spoiler territory because I’m just not feeling like it. I will tell you, however, that I cried and cried while reading the end of this book.

It sounds really stupid to say that you love when books make you cry, but I do. I mean, a book must be exceptionally well-written in order to elicit that sort of response. Plus, my literary cry is very dignified. Unlike my real life someone was mean/something tragic happened/someone died cry, my book and movie cry is quite stoic. Minimal mucus production. Classy tear stream. No hiccups and/or howler monkey sobs. It’s my “dab with a hanky” cry. And I love it.

Anybody read The Book Thief? Anybody notice a difference between their book cry and their serious emotional cry? Tell me I’m not alone here!

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Nov 15

My BFF and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Historical Fiction 16

Bookworms, let’s talk. You know how when you were in middle school you would occasionally tire of age appropriate fare and steal things from your parents’ bookshelves? No? I find that hard to believe. While you’re coming to terms with honesty, I’m going to tell you a story.

When I was in middle school I met my BFF. She’s my best friend to this day, so it’s not weird AT ALL that we refer to each other as “besties” or “BFF.” We’re entitled, we’ve put in the years, yo. Anyway. When I was in middle school, our language arts teachers encouraged us to read outside of assignments… By “encouraged,” I really mean “required,” but it was so much more fun than algebra I didn’t mind in the slightest. Anyhoodle, my BFF started reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It is a fabulous book, but WILDLY inappropriate for 12-year-old girls. Really though, 12 is about the age you get away with reading Forever because it’s Judy Blume and your mom doesn’t realize it’s about S-E-X. So. No harm done. After several giggly slumber parties spent reading the scandalous bits of The Pillars of the Earth, my BFF finished the book and we continued on with our glittery eyelidded, lip smackery adolescence.

Me, BFF, and my “nephew” on my wedding day, nearly three years ago. I’m much too lazy to dig through shoe boxes to locate and scan photos of our 12-year-old selves.

Then came Oprah. Oprah added Pillars of the Earth to her book club in 2007, and I found it in my mom’s stack of books (a double copy, no less! Read more about my mom’s incessant double purchasing HERE.) It all came flooding back. The middle school scandal… My BFF’s assurance there was a great story underneath the smut… I’d discovered my love of historical fiction by this time, so I snagged Mom’s spare copy (and a few others) and was on my way.

The Pillars of The Earth takes place in the middle ages from 1123-1174. This book predates even the bubonic plague- it’s SUPER old school! The story is centered around the building of a cathedral in England and all the folks involved in the building, the town, the government, the clergy, and the scandal. It’s actually kind of rare to find a lot of historical fiction about “normal” people. It’s a lot more appealing to a mass audience to incorporate major historical figures into their fiction to grab a little extra recognition. (Note the PLETHORA of historical fiction starring the Tudors and Renaissance Florence…) Name recognition aside, life for the rank and file was pretty stinky, dirty, and hungry. However, I happen to want to know what it would have been like for ME to live way back when.

Let’s face it, my current existence is not that of a high society lady. I have to scrub my own toilets and save up for things I want. I shop at Wal-Mart. So… If I were living in the 1100s, I would have been living in a one room hut snuggling the family sheep for warmth. Appealing, no? Whatever, the grit is where it’s at!

The Pillars of the Earth is way too long to give a play by play, but I will tell you it’s a whole lot of awesome. I highly recommend it to any historical fiction buffs out there! There is also a “sequel” which is amazing as well called World Without End but since it’s set a full 200 years after the end of Pillars of the Earth you won’t miss anything by only reading one or the other.

So, Bookworms, what do you think YOUR life would have been like “once upon a time”? Do you like to imagine yourself as old school royalty, or do you prefer to indulge in the lives of the regular folk? Tell me about it!

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Nov 06

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry: The Giver, Part 2. Only not.

Children's Fiction, Coming of Age, Dystopian, Friendship, Historical Fiction 13

Hello Again Bookworms! I bet you’re all dying to know what happened to Jonas and Gabe, aren’t you? Well… Too damn bad! This book doesn’t mention them at all!

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry is the second in The Giver series. It takes place in another dystopian society, but this one is NOTHING like the one Jonas and Gabe came from.

Our heroine is a girl named Kira. She lives during the same time period as Jonas, but in a society very different from the one we met in The Giver. Kira’s society is brutal. They lack modern conveniences and live in squalor. The society is ruled by the passionate voice of the people…No pills in to keep the masses in check. Everything that is ugly about humanity is shown in a harsh light. Kira was born with a twisted leg, which requires her to walk with a cane. In this harsh society, people who have deformities or are in any way incapable of working are abandoned in a field to die. The sick aren’t cared for- they’re sent to the field. After Kira’s mother passes away, her neighbors try to confiscate her home and send her to the field as well. An orphaned girl with a disability doesn’t have a place in this society. In an attempt to prove her worth to the society’s ruling body, Kira presents herself and her weaving to the Council of Eddifice. The Council recognizes Kira’s talent for weaving and gives her new lodging within their headquarters.

Kira is given a single task. She is set to mend the beautiful cloak that the Singer wears once a year. The Singer’s sole responsibility is to sing the story of human civilization at the annual festival. Though this book doesn’t really touch on religion, the Singer’s significance seems holy in nature. It’s the glue that binds the society together. Being put in charge of the robe is an honor and quite a responsibility for Kira, but the council tries to make it worth her while, so to speak. (Really though, it’s not like she could leave. Her only other option is to try to go home and face the angry mob that wants her in the field…)

I imagine the Singer’s cloak to look a lot like the one displayed in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I like musical theater. Hush.

Life in headquarters is very different than what Kira has grown up with. She’s got electricity, running water, and plentiful meals. She is no longer subject to the cruel tribal life she is used to. She meets another resident there, a boy named Thomas. Thomas is gifted in wood carving and has been given the task of carving the story of human civilization into the singer’s staff. As Kira runs low on thread, she’s introduced to an old woman who lives in the woods. The woman becomes her mentor and teaches Kira how to dye thread to make the colors she needs to continue mending the cloak. The most difficult color to come by is blue, but unfortunately there is nothing they can grow in their gardens that will produce a blue dye. (I found it interesting that Lowry chose the color blue as the missing link, because I’ve read a few historical fictions that also focus on the difficulty of cultivating blue dye. Lapis lazuli was the best source of the color, and because it is a gemstone/mineral as opposed to a plant, it was often prohibitively expensive. Just a little nugget for your brain banks.)

It’s such a pretty color! But hard to find. Yay for chemicals so we can have blue dye! (And old ladies can have blue hair. Don’t hate on the blue hair.)

As time goes by, Kira becomes more and more suspicious of her surroundings. Kira begins to hear wailing at night. When she and Thomas discover the source, they find a very small little girl named Jo, who is little more than a toddler. She is being kept there in training to take over the duties of the Singer when the time comes. Jo has a gift for singing, but is tiny and frightened. Kira and Thomas try to ease her fears, but they’re beginning to see that their new lives are rather unusual. During the ceremony that year, as Kira admires the work she’s done on the Singer’s robe, she notices that the Singer’s ankles are chained. He is a prisoner. It occurs to her that she, Thomas, and Jo are prisoners as well.

Kira has one friend from her old life, a little boy named Matt. When Kira explains her problems with the blue thread, Matt tells Kira that he’s come across a village in the woods that HAS blue. Blue cloth everywhere. When Matt returns from his mission with more than just blue cloth for Kira to use… He returns with the father she thought was dead. As it turns out, though he was left in the field to die (after being attacked by his own people, no less) and was rescued by a group of people from this mysterious village. Kira’s father offers to take her to the village in which he lives, but Kira declines (at least temporarily) to help improve the society she lives in.

Okay. So that’s a story right? I didn’t like this book as much as I liked The Giver, but it wasn’t bad at all. I’ve got a weakness for historical fiction anyway, and the way Kira’s society lived felt very much like a bygone era as opposed to a future time. I didn’t even mind the long descriptions of thread dyeing- I like to read about how things were done once upon a time. I never actually want to have to DO things the old fashioned way, but you know. If there’s a zombie apocalypse, I figure I can make a living being an herbalist and dying thread or something. I don’t know. I just like learning things. So there. I know what you’re thinking though. WHAT IN TARNATION DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH JONAS AND GABE?!?!?!

You are just going to have to wait for book 3, now aren’t you? Yep. This is the sequel that’s not a sequel at all. Have any of you read Gathering Blue? What are your thoughts on Kira’s society?

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Sep 26

Gone with the Wind

Classics, Historical Fiction 31

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a book with an aura around it. I have never watched the movie in its entirety (for shame, I know), and until recently I hadn’t read the book either. I am a huge trivia buff and attend a monthly trivia night. It’s for charity, so I don’t feel like a jerk for winning all the time. Because it’s not ME winning, it’s the CHARITY winning. See? Anyway, at trivia one month there was an entire category on Gone With the Wind, and I, Katie the bookworm, couldn’t answer any of the questions because I hadn’t read it. I had to remedy that, fast.

I was expecting the book to be a bit of a chore- I thought the language would be antiquated and it would just be about a bunch of fancy people sitting around in rooms. Everyone knows Jane Austen is the only person who could pull THAT off, so I wasn’t enthused.

I WAS SO WRONG. This book was amazing. I’m from Illinois, ye olde Land of Lincoln. Everything I knew about the Civil War came from a Northern perspective. That’s not really surprising- everyone knows that history is written by the winners, but I was fascinated by the Southern perspective presented in this novel.

Slavery was an ugly, filthy, horrific institution and I’m not about to go defending it. However, I take an Anne Frank approach to humanity when I say that I think deep down all people are basically good. Nobody starts out a monster- the world has to break you somehow to turn you into an asshole. The people of the South certainly didn’t see themselves as monsters. They were refined people who held fancy barbecues and debutant balls. Sure, they owned slaves, but most people considered themselves kind owners. At least it appears that way in Scarlett’s family. The devotion of Mammy, Prissy, and Big Sam illustrate that sometimes the relationships between slaves and their owners were almost familial- and the affection between slave and owner was mutual.

However, just because there were some decent folks who owned slaves and treated them well, that didn’t make it right. Unfortunately, plantation owners had a TON of land to work and couldn’t afford to employ a huge brigade of free men. It’s like if today you went to a farmer’s place and told him that his very expensive tractors were now property of the government and he’d have to figure out some other way to bring the crop in. The plantation owners were pretty well flabbergasted. So, the war broke out. (Side note on the slavery thing- most people in the North had never seen people of color. Many of them were every bit as racist and mistrustful of slaves as people in the South, they just didn’t need the labor as desperately. There’s a scene with Scarlett and a carpetbagger seeking a nanny that illustrates this poignantly. God bless the abolitionists, but we Northerners should get off our high horses- odds are our ancestors weren’t exactly enlightened.)

You know what happens when you’re on the losing side of a war? Your house and farm are burned or occupied. Your valuables are looted. Your family is scattered. Your friends are killed. It’s an ugly business, war.

Katie Scarlett O’Hara is the heroine of our story (I mention her full name specifically because my name is Katie…) She is the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and widely considered to be the prettiest belle in Clayton County, Georgia.

There are a lot of people who idolize Scarlett. She’s beautiful, she’s feisty, and she is swept into one of literature’s great love stories. Personally? I would not hang out with Scarlett. She is a narcissist of epic proportions. She goes around stealing other people’s fiancés (even her sister’s!) and plotting ways to attract attention. She can barely tolerate her own children. Scarlett’s biggest concern is Scarlett, and her own fabulousness.

But dammit, for all her flaws, she’s the lady you want to have on your side during the Zombie Apocalypse (assuming of course, it’s not just the two of you about to be eaten. She’d blow out your kneecap if it meant her own survival.) Her single-mindedness serves her well in surviving the reconstruction of the South. Having no moral compass really helps you re-establish your fortune when your friends and neighbors are still floundering. Scarlett suffers no guilt fraternizing with carpet-bagging northerners. She’ll make friends with occupying forces if it’ll get her ahead. She does what she has to do to get her fancy fanny back into the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed. She toys with the emotions of Rhett Butler (who is himself a scalawag- a term used often in this novel, for which it earns endless brownie points) while carrying a flame for the only man who ever turned her down. (I’m going to go ahead and say it- Ashley Wilkes is kind of a weenie. Sorry dude.)

She’s also the greatest procrastinator of sadness I’ve ever seen. She’s confronted with tragedy after tragedy, but rather than deal with her feelings and accept her grief, she puts it off. She decides to think about it later, when it doesn’t hurt as much. I don’t know what therapists would say about her coping mechanism, but it keeps Scarlett in fighting form. I love this book for giving me another perspective on history. I love this book for having such flawed characters. I love this book for not giving Scarlett a perfectly happy ending. I just love this book. Read it!

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Aug 30

Badass & Biblical: The Red Tent

Historical Fiction, Religion, Women's Studies 25

Yesterday I wrote about Pope Joan, and I’m feeling theme-y, so let’s continue with the historical fiction/women in religion vein, shall we? The Red Tent by Anita Diamant tells the story of Dinah. Who is Dinah? Yes, that is the name of Alice in Wonderland’s cat, but more importantly, Dinah was in the Bible. I grew up Catholic, so it’s with great shame that I admit that the bulk of my knowledge about Dinah’s family history I learned from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “It’s all there in chapter 39 of Geeeenesis”… (We saw it in Chicago with Donnie Osmond playing Joseph when I was like 11. Then my mom played the soundtrack in the car constantly until the cassette was eaten. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a genius, yo.)

The woman on the cover reminds me of the Statue of Liberty for some reason. I have issues.

Striking a chord yet? Jacob is the patriarch of a ginormous family that includes 2 wives, 2 handmaidens (women who bear children when the wives cannot), 12 sons, and one daughter. Dinah is that daughter. The Red Tent is told from Dinah’s point of view. We get to experience the cameraderie of the “red tent” (literally where all the women in the compound hang out to menstruate) and learn of the women’s relationships in the polygamist family. Since Dinah is the only female child, she’s allowed to spend time in the red tent long before she’s “of age” and is adored by her various mothers.

In the bible, Dinah only gets a couple of lines of recognition. Her lines go something like this.. She marries (or is forcibly taken as a wife- the Biblical text is unclear) Prince Shechem who does not worship the God of Abraham and her family (as you may predict) FLIPS OUT.

Shechem tries to make amends by offering Dinah’s family a bride price fit for royalty (isn’t it wonderful to see women bought and sold like chattel? Of course, her brothers DID sell Joseph into slavery out of jealousy, so…) Shechem also agrees to be circumcised (and volunteers his men for the same treatment.) Unfortunately, this isn’t enough  to placate her brothers, so while all the men of Hamor are distracted by the pain of their newly shorn genitals, Dinah’s brothers show up and slaughter all the men in town. How civilized of them!

In this version of her story, she falls madly in love with Shechem and is absolutely devastated by her brothers’ murderous rampage. We follow her through the aftermath, and the trials that follow. She leads a heck of a life!

This book is wonderful. Historical fiction at its best. Is there a woman out there who hasn’t wished during an especially bad bought of cramps that she could just retire from society for a few days? Who wouldn’t want a metaphorical Red Tent? The one in this book had a lot of wine in it! So my worms, take a chance and read Dinah’s story. You won’t be sorry!

Have you ever felt like a footnote in your family? Did your brother have a famous musical written about him that you weren’t even IN?! Let’s talk about it!

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Aug 29

Pope Joan: More Than Myth?

Historical Fiction, Religion, Women's Studies 13

I was a women’s studies minor in college, and as our final project, we had to write a research paper on… anything to do with being a woman. Pretty broad topic, right? I had just finished reading The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown and I was completely obsessed with the idea that women may have been written out of important roles in the Bible. I set about writing my research paper on the subject. My results were inconclusive and random. It’s a fascinating subject-but it’s unbelievably frustrating to try and research anything to do with the Bible. I don’t even know how old the Old Testament is-several thousand years? There is no way to corroborate facts or compare accounts or even find reliable primary resources from that long ago. My grand dreams of unearthing some previously overlooked tidbit to piece together the absolute truth of religion and humanity ended with a wimper.

There’s a silver lining, though! My women’s studies professor, Dr. Stacey Robertson (who is awesome and writes books and can be found here) presented each graduating senior with a book. Because I had been so enthused about my research project, despite turning up no spectacular insights, she presented me with Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross.

Pope Joan! Joan of Arc! If you want your daughter to be noted in the annals of Christian history, you’d better name her Joan!

Pope Joan is based on a legend widely accepted during the middle ages that a woman disguised as a man somehow rose through the religious ranks and became Pope. You are taken on Joan’s journey from her poverty stricken childhood to the halls of Rome. At a young age she demonstrates a particular aptitude for learning and is taken under the wing of a rogue tutor in spite of the commonly held belief that girls should not be educated. We follow Joan through school, through a Viking battle (seriously- marauding Vikings!), through her stay in a monastery, and all the way to her work as a priest/physician in Rome.

Joan is eventually elected as Pope, and is only exposed as a woman when she gives birth during a procession through the streets. You read that correctly. She takes a lover, gets pregnant, and OOPS gives birth in the middle of the street. The birth also kills her (so ladies, don’t get any ideas.) It makes for enthralling historical fiction, but could it be true?

The middle ages are nearly as bad as biblical times for digging up reliable resources, so historians mostly dismiss the story of Pope Joan as a legend. What historians agree on, however, is that for centuries the Vatican and much of the population BELIEVED the story to be true. Supposedly, there was even a special chair used during medieval papal coronation proceedings with a keyhole shape in the seat used to check the newly elected Pope’s genitalia. (Lest they suffer another embarrassing birthing episode mid-parade.) If you watch The Borgias on Showtime, you’ll have seen this chair in action. You’ll also have heard Jeremy Irons bellow “LECHERY” a lot, which is awesome.

Personally, I think it would have been entirely possible for a woman to have lived as a man in a monastery. People in the dark ages didn’t exactly bathe often, and bulky brown robes don’t accentuate one’s figure. I think a woman who wanted to learn may have seen a life as a monk as her only option. Convents at this time were hit or miss on allowing the education of their sisters, so taking the male route through religious education would have been a more secure plan. While I have no doubt that there were women who did fly under the radar and join monasteries and the like, I don’t think there ever was ACTUALLY a female Pope. The giving birth during a public procession bit smacks of “cautionary tale.”

But hey- this is historical fiction! That’s what makes it so much fun- taking history and making it pop! I love this book- I feel like it writes women back into a religious tradition that has largely written them out. I know this review sounds kind of controversial, but seriously give this book a chance. You won’t be sorry! What about you, bookworms? Do you think it’s possible that there was ever a female pope? I’m open to theories!

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