Category Archives: historical fiction

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a based on the life of Mary Bowser, a black woman who spied on the Confederates during the Civil War while working in Jefferson Davis’s home.

I loved reading about her journey from being a slave to becoming an educated woman and then pretending to be a slave so she could help end slavery. Unfortunately despite Mary Bowser being a real person due to her gender and race nothing is really known about her, so the historical accuracy of this book isn’t the highest. I enjoyed reading about her struggle to be an educated black woman in a time when neither of those things were appreciated. I also appreciated that this is a book that is trying to glorify a woman who was an integral part of the Civil War. Finally I enjoyed Mary as a character and the relationships she made with people.

Another good part of the book was how it described the Confederate government and how she managed to evade suspicion by relying on their belief that a black woman wouldn’t be smart or brave enough to spy on them.

However, as much as I loved reading about Ms. Bowser, there is a part of this book I can’t ignore. The woman who freed Mary was named Elizabeth Van Lew (she was a slave to her family and she freed her when she received her inheritance from her father’s death). She was an abolitionist and feminist and became the first female Post Master of Richmond. She was a real historical figure who actually ran the Richmond spy ring that Mary was apart of and that included more than 300 people. I mention this because the book treats her as a self-righteous fool who at first fights for abolition more to spite her family than out of genuine compassion for slaves. She ran a spy ring in real life and yet the book treats her as an idiot whose greatest achievements were actually Mary’s. The reason this bothers me is that it seems almost disrespectful to a woman who fought for the things she believed in and was later ostracized by society because of her differences. An unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a lot of knowledge on what Mary Bowser’s life was like due to her status as a black woman and no one knows what happened to her after the war. Thus it is almost hypocritical for the author to portray Elizabeth in a way that discredits and denies her contributions to the war effort in order to shed light on a woman whose own contributions to the war effort were forgotten about.
I would recommend this book.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:   Recommended
 

My Name is Red by Orhan Parmuk

My Name is Red

Orhan Parmuk introduces us to the culturally rich yet turbulent period of 16th century Istanbul in his murder-mystery novel My Name is Red translated by Erdag Goknar. While the Ottoman Empire has reached its zenith of artistic sophistication under the fervent patronage of Sultan Murat III, there emerges a dire conflict between preservation of traditional Islamic painting and the adoption of European-style illustrations. When the Sultan commissions a guild of miniaturists to illuminate a book in the realist style of the Europeans, the miniaturists must either obey their ruler’s wishes by depicting the universe as the human eye perceives it, or illustrate it as envisioned by Allah. One of the commissioned miniaturists, afraid of his peers violating Islamic artistic traditions, sets out on a killing spree and it is up to us, the readers, to figure out his identity.

Parmuk’s novel transcends the suspenseful nature of our typical mystery thriller through complex philosophical arguments concerning artistic signature and style, blindness and memory. Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of one of the four miniaturists commissioned to create the Sultan’s controversial book or from the perspectives of other individuals who know of the book’s existence and are connected to the miniaturists in some way. Each character talks with a distinct voice, just as each paints with a distinct style. Embedded within each of their narratives are intricate parables that frame their unique personalities and contribute to the unconventional development of this murder mystery.

Availability: SMCM, USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Xuejie Kimball
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: translated book, book with a color in the title

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi  is one of the books from the 2017 Tournament of Books. This book is essentially about two half sisters and their descendants lives as one becomes rich from the slave trade and remains in Africa and one is forced into slavery in America. The book does this by going back and forth between each lineage and spending only one chapter on each person as main characters. The next time the lineage gets its turn it is instead narrated by the offspring of the last  character. The only problem I have with this book is that it can be hard to determine what time period you are in or how old the chapter character is at the start of each chapter, although after a few pages you can figure out what is going on so it wasn’t too bad.

All of the characters feel incredibly fleshed out and real despite their short time as main characters and I would happily read an entire novel about each of them. The book also has different structures for each person. Some chapters begin in adulthood and only focus on one or two days as the character narrates the story of their life and other chapters start out with adults and spend years with them. Meanwhile some other chapters start when the protagonist is a child. It was very engaging especially when some of the chapters end before the conclusion and you are left wondering what happened to the characters while others play out to their conclusion. Finally some characters reappear as parents in their children’s stories while others, often through the horrors around them, are cut off from their families and we don’t know what happened to them.

The book also deals with several themes including evil being passed from generation to generation, responsibility and guilt. It also asks questions like who is ultimately responsible for the horror of slavery?, are people whose families have done horrible things responsible for them? and how can we piece back the stories of family lineage and history when we might not have details for a lot of it?

Availability: SMCM, USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Tournament of Books

Read Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall’s review of Homegoing.

Pacific Glory by P. T. Deutermann

Pacific GloryImagine being the captain of a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. Your ship is called a “tin can” because of its lack of armor and 5” guns are the largest guns available to you and the other destroyers in your unit. Now imagine sailing into battle against the major Japanese surface fleet: four battleships (including the heaviest battleship ever built with the largest guns ever put on a warship), eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. Fiction? Nope. This is what happened in the action off Samar during the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, and it’s the story Pete Deutermann tells in Pacific Glory, a novel featuring a U.S. Navy destroyer captain and a U.S. Navy pilot flying off an escort carrier into the battle.

I started reading Pete Deutermann novels after either his first or second novel in the mid-1990’s and would read his grocery list if he were to publish it. He’s now written about 18 novels, many of which are military and/or political thrillers. But several of his books, including Pacific Glory, are novels set in World War II. Deutermann is a retired Navy destroyer captain (and his father was a destroyer division commander in the Pacific in World War II), so I have every confidence while reading his World War II Navy novels that the technical aspects of the book are spot on.

Most discussions of the battle of Leyte Gulf tend to focus on Halsey’s actions in abandoning the San Bernardino Straits, a debate with which Deutermann is quite familiar. But a lesser-known — far more heroic — story from Leyte Gulf is the action off Samar. Deutermann wrote this book because he always wondered what he himself would have done as a destroyer captain in Taffy 3, the small U.S. task unit — seven destroyers and destroyer escorts and six escort carriers — that took on the biggest firepower in the Japanese fleet. Note: one interesting feature on Deutermann’s website (www.ptdeutermann.com) are photos of the ships/classes of ships discussed in the novel.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Mary Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended

The Death of Denmark Vesey by James Paul Rice

Death of Denmark VeseyThe book’s basic plot is the story of Denmark Vesey, who in 1822 tried to create a slave revolution in Charleston. Denmark Vesey was an actual person who did plot to overthrow the slaveowners. The plot was betrayed before it could happen and based on that information and the title you can probably tell that this doesn’t end well for him. But this leaves the author with a problem, if the main character of your story has their fate determined by history then what will keep the audience invested in the story? To solve this problem Rice adds a 16 year old slave named Lucinda, who isn’t part of the conspiracy but is aware of what is going on and is sympathetic to the rebellion, to the story. Through her the audience can now become invested in her struggle to determine right and wrong. Thus the story is split between Lucinda, Vesey, the white prosecutors and a third person perspective.

Because this book is based on an actual event the historical accuracy is important. Unfortunately it is hard to determine because the trials were kept secret, Vesey never admitted guilt so he didn’t provide details and the Charleston government immediately tried to suppress information about the plot from the general public. The author also claims that Vesey was born in Africa when it is generally accepted that he was born in the Caribbean, although it is possible that this is incorrect. He did however make a point of adding some actual quotes about the trials into the dialogue of the novel.

I enjoyed this book but I will get some parts that bother me out of the way. First the book has a nasty habit of changing perspective in the middle of chapters without any warning or indication of who is currently speaking. It kind of ruins the immersive experience when you have to figure out whose thoughts your reading. Second, a lot of Vesey’s narration comes in the form of a journal where he lays out the details of the plot and who’s involved which he decides to keep despite the fact that he got rid of all the other incriminating evidence, including the names of people involved, when the plot was betrayed. It just seems incredibly stupid from an otherwise intelligent character. The third  problem is that Vesey himself could be viewed as an insulting stereotype created by a white author. While Vesey is an intelligent man who wants to end slavery despite being a free man, which are admirable qualities, he also is portrayed as a violent psychopath. Historically the plan involved murdering slaveowners in order to ensure that all the slaves could escape to Haiti, which can be interpreted multiple ways; the author takes that to mean he wanted to massacre every white person in Charleston including children in order to exterminate them before fleeing to Haiti. The only exception he makes is to allow other men to abduct, enslave (and probably rape) virgin white women who will be taken to Haiti. Also, he often lies to the other people by saying that the White people are planning to massacre them and brings reluctant people into the plot under threat of death. This portrayal does mean that the book can be seen as an endorsement of the racist stereotype of black men being angry, murderous rapists who can’t be trusted. This also undercuts the horror of the trial where he isn’t allowed to question some of the witnesses against him because the reason given, that they are afraid that his followers will murder them if they find out that they testified, is totally justified.

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun uses three different perspectives to tell the story of Nigeria’s civil war. Reading the book made my heart hurt, my head ache, and my body grateful–for nourishment and love and all the things I have; things that are given and taken away and given back to Adichie’s characters throughout the book. The characters experience starvation, loss, guilt, shame, and regret..but also satisfaction, happiness, thankfulness, and desire.

I haven’t been so moved by a novel since I read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Similar to Foer’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun follows multiple characters who have experienced both deplorable tragedy and deep, penetrating love. It is also, ultimately, a book about forgiveness. Like Everything is Illuminated, the book makes a judgment about what is forgivable and what isn’t, and what it takes for us to realize the difference.

At the end of my copy of the novel, there was an interview with Adichie in which she posits “emotional truth” as the most important aspect of a good work of fiction. If Half of a Yellow Sun has anything, it is emotional truth. If you are looking for a good post-colonial history lesson, a novel telling African stories from an African perspective, as well as a romantic tale of star-crossed lovers and family ties, be sure to read this incredible story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Helena Klassen
Rating:  Highly Recommended

The Last Midwife by Sandra Dallas

The Last Midwife

I bought The Last Midwife after I received a gift card to Barnes and Nobles as a Christmas present. I remember agonizing over choosing one of two books that cost $16 dollars (paperback prices have increased) and I chose this one. After finishing it I kind of regret my decision.

The basic plot of the book is that Gracy, who is the last midwife in a small Colorado mining area, is accused of murdering an infant and the town begins to split itself as to whether she did it or not and who did murder the infant. The main character was decent, the author loved the time and place (1880 Colorado) and put a lot of time into making the setting seem real and she has a sincere dedication to recreating the realistic attitudes of a small mining town in the late 1800’s (although I am giving her the benefit of the doubt on this).

However, the book appears to be two books that have been wrapped into one. Despite that the entire plot of the book is described as a murder mystery it doesn’t factor much into the story. Instead of the murder being a constant source of tension or thought it is really only brought up when the next stage begins. Despite the book advertising the town tearing itself apart this is only shown in the courtroom scenes (which account for less than 1/5 of the book) and a chapter, the rest of the time it is only talked about in passing. The creation of evidence against Gracy is only in about 20 pages of the book and they barely speculate on who actually killed the child. Time that could be spent preparing a legal defense never occurs because we never have a scene of Gracy talking with her lawyer before the trial and the defense seems to  be made on the fly despite the evidence not changing. The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring the rest of Gracy’s life which I honestly enjoyed much more and there are a few compelling stories in it that would have been great if they were fleshed out more. Those would also be more fulfilling as the ending leaves open many plot holes if you think about it. Finally there are a few weird morals to the story that I am just going to chalk up to the author really trying to recreate the morals of the masculine dominated society but can be incredibly sexist if those are what is meant to be taken away from the book.

I know I’ve gone on for a long time but this part deserves its own paragraph. The book has a weird incest rape revelation in the last 10 pages of the book that is  entirely pointless within that short time. What I mean by pointless is that while it could be argued that it provides motivation for the plot starting event  – there were already a few reasons that I could come up with that don’t open up major plot holes if you think about it for a second and don’t change the progression of events or the character’s personality. And in my opinion you shouldn’t add something as horrifying as incestuous rape into your book if it doesn’t serve a vital function. I honestly don’t know why that was included as it was only speculated on at the beginning of the novel and then brought up at the end and turned out to be entirely meaningless. To be clear it wasn’t described it is instead relayed by a character who is barely present in the story.

I would recommend with reservations mainly because it was an average historical fiction book until that ending and I really love historical fiction. However, I would only recommend this book to people if they enjoy historical fiction as much as I do and are willing to put up with some undeveloped themes (I honestly don’t have time to get into it), weird gender politics, no character development (don’t have time) and a totally bullshit ending. However, if you are willing to try reading this book and skip all the murder and trial sections I think it could be a great book.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:  Recommended with reservations