Category: Historical Fiction

The Underground Railroad

Cover image for The Underground Railroad by Colson Whiteheadby Colson Whitehead

ISBN 978-0-385-54236-4

“Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.”      

Cora is a third-generation slave born on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been a stray since the age of ten, when her mother became the only slave to ever escape the plantation, evading an infamous bounty hunter in the process. Since then, Cora has lived in Hob, the cabin for outcast slaves rejected even by their own people. So when Caesar approaches her about running North, Cora assumes it is a joke, or worse, a trap. The punishment for even discussing escape could be death. But Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, and when the balance of power on the Randall plantation shifts, running starts to seem like an option worthy of consideration. Via the lines of the Underground Railroad, Cora will live many lives after she escapes Randall, but the shadow of slavery will pursue her wherever she goes.

In Colson Whitehead’s imagining, the railroad that spirits Cora and Caesar to freedom is real and literal, rather than metaphorical. However, this is as far as Whitehead takes it; the railroad is a tool that enables him to transport Cora easily from place to place, through the different incarnations of the Black experience of America. He does not spend his time developing the premise of the railroad, or linger on the journey, though there is a nod to the fact that building and ventilating such a network would be a mighty feat of engineering. Rather, the railroad is a curious detail that adds atmosphere to the story, and facilitates Cora’s development as a character in the various chapters of her life. Whitehead delivers his fantastic additions in a matter-of-fact tone that causes them to blend seamlessly into the more factual aspects of the narrative, as he presents the horrors of slavery with equal directness.

The Underground Railroad is divided into episodes punctuated by the steps of Cora’s journey towards the promised freedom of the North. It is not a story delineated by strict notions of time; Whitehead freely borrows episodes and details from later periods to create amalgams. The trip from Georgia to South Carolina is not just a crossing of a state line, but in many ways takes Cora and Caesar into the concerns of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century free Blacks, confronted with the eugenics movement and  medical experimentation on non-consenting parties. Across the border again, into North Carolina, Whitehead conjures a white supremacist separatist state where Blacks can be executed on sight. Here we find echoes of the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s sojourn in her Amsterdam attic, as well as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Although Whitehead plays fast and loose with the facts, he does so in a way that condensed the impact of the real events that inspired his fictions and elaborations. After South Carolina, there is a sense of dread that hangs over the book. Freedom feels elusive, perhaps even delusional, with each new fresh start less hopeful than the last. While starting over from each new location and perspective was occasionally tiresome, the technique was effective in building that sense of dread, and the niggling question about whether Cora can ever truly be free in a country built on the back of slave labour. When we leave Cora on the road, her next destination and chapter unwritten ahead of her, I wanted to believe she might still find true freedom, but could no longer quite bring myself to believe it could be true. In this way, The Underground Railroad has haunted me long past the final page.

You might also like Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyanby Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

Disclaimer:  I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brother arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

In her trademark exquisite prose, Esi Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, unexpectedly freed by a fight between Erasmus and Christopher in which he is a proxy, he discovers that there is little call for—or acceptance of—a Black man with such skills. He is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked. His freedom proves to be a complex thing.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though he does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was rebelling against in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take him to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. The reader will not lack for entertainment on this account, however it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes this novel unforgettable.

Pachinko

Cover image for Pachinko by Min Jin LeeMin Jin Lee

ISBN 978-1-4555-6392-0

All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this?

When teenage Sunja meets Koh Hansu in the market of her small Korean village of Busan, she has no idea that their love affair will irrevocably alter the fates of all the generations of her family that will follow after her. Pregnant and unwed, she makes a marriage of convenience with a kindly Korean Christian pastor, who is on his way to Japan to minister to the downtrodden Korean community there. Soon the separation from Korea becomes permanent, as World War II destroys fortunes, and then the Korean War rends their homeland in two. Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in Japan, will live their lives and likely die there, but they will never be Japanese. Brothers Noa and Mozasu follow this fate down different paths, grappling with what it means to be a “good Japanese” or a “good Korean,” and who you are when you have no place to call home.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Pachinko fictionalizes the Koreans who arrived in Japan during the colonial period, and the succeeding generations who found themselves stateless after Korea was divided, and Japan refused to recognize them as citizens. Many generations of Korean Japanese would never see Korea, and yet would be unable to claim the land where they were born as their home. It is a narrative that is at once sweeping and minute, capturing three wars and four generations, and yet also sinking down into the day to day lives of the Baek family as they struggle to make their way in Japan.

Min Jin Lee relies on third person omniscient narration, which can comfortably encompass the many successive generations of characters born into the Baek family. This allows for deep insight into each subsequent character as they take their place at the heart of the story for a time, before passing the torch to the next generation. Interestingly, however, I found that I related more to the older characters who we get to spend more time with. While I had more in common with the younger generations, like Mozasu’s son Solomon, and his girlfriend, Phoebe, I was less interested in their stories. Nevertheless, Lee’s characters and the history that propels them are what gives Pachinko its depth. I was particularly compelled by the friendship that develops between Sunja, and her sister-in-law, Kyung-hee. Kyung-hee knows the truth about Sunja’s marriage to Isak, but she never shuns or judges her. Rather, the two women become allies, and it is through the strength of this bond that they carry the family through its many trials.

Thematically, Pachinko is about the experience of otherness in various forms. For the first generation of Koreans, it is being away from home in a strange land where they are considered less-than. For their children, it is being born in Japan but never accepted as Japanese. And later in the novel, Lee begins to introduce alienated Japanese, like Haruki, Etsuko, and Hana, who struggle with the strictures that are supposed to define their Japanese identities. Haruki is gay, and has a disabled brother, both shameful facts in a conformist society. He keeps his sexuality a secret, even marrying a woman of his mother’s choice. After his mother’s death, he is faced with social pressure to put his brother in an institution. Etsuko is rejected by mainstream society after her affair and divorce, and is left feeling unable to marry the Korean Japanese man she loves, because it would further disgrace her family. Her daughter Hana already lives in the shadow of Etsuko’s divorce, and finds her options limited by the taint of her mother’s fallen reputation. Their fates wend together with the Baek family, exploring how the strictures impact Japanese and Koreans alike.

Pachinko is a striking portrait of both struggle and family, and how the one shapes the other. As the author herself put it an interview with The Atlantic, “even in darkness, there are still weddings. There are still children. There’s laughter. You can’t just look at the dark and you can’t just look at the light: Real human lives are a constant interplay of light and dark.”

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You might also like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Little Women/The Other Alcott

Cover image for Little Women by Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott / Elise Hooper

ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340

“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.

What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.

One of May Alcott's original illustrations for the first edition of Little Women, 1868While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.

If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.

The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover image for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thienby Madeleine Thien

ISBN 9780345810427

“It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society.”

In the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli enjoy a relatively sheltered existence at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where Sparrow is permitted to teach, and his niece Zhuli is permitted to study, despite the fact that Zhuli’s parents have been designated “class enemies.” But soon the forces growing against Westernization and bourgeois occupations like musicianship will overrun the Conservatory as well. In the present day, Marie travels from Vancouver to Hong Kong to try to uncover the details of her father’s mysterious suicide there two decades earlier, and to perhaps find out what has become of Ai-Ming, the Chinese student she and her mother took in during the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square student protests. The two timelines spiral together, uncovering family secrets, and decades of contested Chinese revolutionary history.

Although Madeline Thien’s novel follows two timelines, one bears significantly more weight than the other. The past reverberates into the present, and echoes there, but the present otherwise feels much less significant to Thien’s story than the past. Marie’s first person sections feel rougher and more abrupt, less fluid and polished, less immersive than the third person narrative of the past. She seems more important as a witness to history than as a protagonist in her own right. Her mother, Kai’s wife, has no name of her own, and no backstory. The heart of the tale rests with Sparrow, and Kai, and the results of their choices, their actions, and their failures to act. What will they do to survive the revolution, and what sacrifices will they make in its name?

The novel asks many questions, among them, how does one communicate authentically when everyone is regurgitating slogans and reciting platitudes to protect themselves and their families? In Canada, Marie’s mother cannot even read a letter she receives from China without a dictionary, because she does not know the simplified written Chinese mandated by the state. Do Not Say We Have Nothing offers many alternate forms of communication, from music, to mathematics, to encoded stories, and secret records not written by the victors. However, the Chinese speakers in my book club noted that Thien’s grasp of Chinese was rudimentary, and her use of it often incorrect. The alternate forms of communication become acts of resistance, such as the copying and distribution of illicit literature, or transcribing Western music into jianpu notation to make it more accessible to a Chinese audience. Music itself becomes a loaded form of expression, because it is open to interpretation. The same piece of music can be seen as a revolutionary anthem, or a ballad for those lost in the fighting. In this way, Thien’s fictional composer Sparrow echoes the real Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was repeatedly denounced and then redeemed during various waves of the Russian revolution. Several such pieces of music are referenced repeatedly, and Glenn Gould’s performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations become the soundtrack of the story, which circles back on itself in the same way. History repeats, varies, but never fundamentally changes.

The question of how history is recorded and remembered is also fundamental to Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The Book of Records, passed down through generations and families from one steward to the next, both predates and reflects the reality that Marie is slowly uncovering as she delves into her father’s past. The protagonists of The Book of Records find themselves exiled and wandering in the desert, a fate that will eventually befall Zhuli’s parents, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer. Meanwhile, the heroine, May Fourth, takes her name from the early twentieth century movement in China that opposed Japanese encroachment into Chinese territory, a part of history almost forgotten by the characters, and largely unmentioned in the story, but which lives on in the copied and recopied page of the book.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is slowly paced, and the level of interest was inconsistent between sections. I was also disappointed to learn that neither Thien nor her publisher took the time to ensure that her use of Chinese was correct. However the novel is an interesting portrait of how different characters react to the curtailment of free speech and creative expression under a repressive regime, and asks interesting questions about how we record and remember history.

Fall 2017 Fiction Mini-Reviews

Hey there, stranger! Yes, I know, it’s been a while. After a busy summer of travel, at the beginning of September my husband and I started the process of buying our first home.  We took possession at the end of October, and moved in November 1. It was a big change that has pretty much consumed my life for the last several months! I didn’t read as much as usual, and my writing time was eaten up by packing, packing, and more packing. Then the packing become unpacking, and things are slowly starting to get back to normal. Here are a few mini-reviews of some of what I read while I was away.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Cover image for Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston by E.K. Johnston

ISBN  9781101994580

This YA novel is a loose modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Hermione Winters and her best friend Polly are newly elected co-captains of the Palermo Heights cheer leading team, heading into their senior year, and their final summer cheer camp at Camp Manitouwabing. But all of their plans for the summer are thrown off course when Herimione is drugged, raped, and left in the lake. The book is an interesting and deliberate divergence from the commonly experienced reality of many rape victims, in that Hermione enjoys a supportive family, and is helped by police and counselors. However, she faces controversy in the community, and the wrath of her ex-boyfriend, Leo, who blames her for what happened. Although the identity of Hermione’s assailant is unknown, this is not really a who-dunnit. Rather, it is an emotional chronicle of the consequences of rape, further magnified by the fact that anytime Hermione encounters a boy who was at camp, she must face the idea that he could be her rapist. The biggest standout of this book is the strong female friendship depicted between Hermione and Polly, who echoes Shakespeare’s Paulina.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Cover image for Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford by Jamie Ford

ISBN 9780525492580

This is Ford’s third historical novel, this time set in Seattle during the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. Ford opens on the better remembered 1962 fair, and uses it to echo and reflect the main action of 1909. The plot was inspired by a fascinating newspaper clipping from the AYP Expo, advertising the fact that an orphan boy was one of the raffle prizes at the fair. The fate of the real boy is unknown, but in his novel, Ford imagines what might have become of a young half-Chinese boy named Ernest, whose winning ticket is sold to the madam of an infamous brothel. Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Ernest comes to the red light district as the temperance movement is surging in the city, and finds himself caught between the Japanese house girl, Fahn, and Madam Flora’s stubborn daughter, Maisie. As usual with Jamie Ford, I was most fascinated by the carefully incorporated local history. This seems to be his passion, and I often wonder what would happen if he tried his hand at non-fiction. (Disclaimer: I received access to an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book through the library where I work.)

The Turner House

Cover image for The Turner House by Angela Fluornoyby Angela Fluornoy

ISBN 9780544705166

Fluornoy’s debut novel is a complex family tale that follows how the thirteen Turner siblings must grapple with what to do with the house on Yarrow Street where they grew up after their mother is too old to live alone any longer. Fluornoy focuses on the oldest sibling, Charles, aka Cha-Cha, and the youngest, Lela, separated by more than twenty-three years in age, and eleven siblings. Cha-Cha is in therapy after having claimed to have seen a ghost, and Lela is struggling mightily to hide a gambling addiction. Flashbacks illuminate the history of their parents, Francis and Viola Turner, who came North to Detroit for the promise of a better life than the one the South offered its black citizens. Thematically, the book deals broadly with place, both the importance of the Turner family home, and the history that resides there, and also the city of Detroit. Fluornoy also addresses the legacy of addiction within and between generations of a family, and how families understand mental health and addiction more generally. The plot is slow moving, but the highlight is the complex family dynamic amongst the many siblings.

Homegoing

Cover image for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi by Yaa Gyasi

ISBN 97811019947142

“You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia and Esi are half-sisters who have never met. First divided by their mother’s secrets, they will soon be divided by an ocean when Esi is sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic. Effia remains in Ghana, sold in marriage by her step-mother to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves are held in cramped dungeons before being loaded onto ships bound for America. In present day America, Marjorie wrestles with her identity as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, while Marcus struggles to complete his PhD knowing that many young black men of his generation are dead or in jail, and that only chance has kept him from the same fate. In a sweeping family saga, Yaa Gyasi follows the sisters’ bloodlines over hundreds of years, one child from each generation, tracing the impact of colonialism and slavery across the centuries, between Ghana and America.

Homegoing opens in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s, and concludes in America in the present day. Extremely ambitious in scope, it employs an unusual structure that alternates between the two bloodlines, with a new narrator for each generation, meaning that Homegoing has a total of fourteen point of view characters. This requires the reader to settle into a new perspective every twenty or thirty minutes. However, two factors keep this structure working. First is seeking the connection back to the previous story, to find out what has become of the mother or father since we left them behind. And next is looking ahead for the new character’s romantic interest, a necessity in order for the family tree structure of the novel to function, making every chapter a love story in its own way. The chapters are not quite short stories, though each has a distinct narrative arc. But the full function of the novel comes in the layering and juxtaposition of each subsequent piece, until they are all taken together.

I was personally most drawn into the chapters set in Africa, perhaps because the story was less familiar. The American side of the story traces the family from plantations to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era, and through the modern day, history that I have at least a decent grasp on. I knew much less about tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante, and how the British exploited it to fuel the slave trade. Another fascinating chapter, featuring Effia’s great-granddaughter, Abena, recounts the introduction of cocoa farming in Ghana. It remains one of Ghana’s chief agricultural exports to this day. However, the chapter that gave me the biggest emotional punch in the gut was about Kojo—Esi’s grandson—and his wife, Anna, who are living free in Baltimore when the Fugitive Slave Act is introduced in 1850.

Homegoing is a multigenerational epic that walks the fine line between hope, anger, and despair as the tales of Esi and Effia’s descendants unspool. Each chapter is a slice of life set against the background of a particular historical era, be it the Great Migration or the War of the Golden Stool. The full effect of the novel is such that in the end, the reader knows more about Marcus and Marjorie’s families than they do, the fall out of slavery and colonialism depriving them of their history and culture. The book is a potent reminder that the history is always there, just beneath the surface, and that the story has always been waiting to be told, though the voice of the victors has long drowned it out.

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You might also like The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

The Lost History of Stars

Cover image for The Lost History of Starsby Dave Boling

ISBN 978-1-61620-417-4

“Living on the veldt taught nothing about the real value of space, creating the illusion that it was limitless. The great open distances of our land, which had once felt like a warm invitation, now stretched out on the other side of the camp’s fence like a cruel taunt.”

Fourteen-year-old Lettie and her Dutch Afrikaner family have a farm deep in the South African veldt when the Boer War comes to their doorstep. The British Army has instituted a scorched earth policy to root out the guerilla fighters who have resisted British attempts to lay claim to the Dutch South African republics, and the valuable natural resources that have been discovered there. With her father, grandfather, and brother still out on commando, Lettie, her mother, and her younger siblings are rounded up and marched to a concentration camp, while their farm is looted and burned. Inside the barbed wire of the camp, Lettie continues trying to fight the war with her own small acts of defiance, while also finding a way to survive the horrifying conditions with her hope for the future intact.

The Lost History of Stars is a story about a forgotten tragedy. Dave Boling was tracing his family roots, when he discovered that his grandfather was a soldier in the Boer War (1899-1902). However as he learned more about the conflict, the idea of telling a story about his family history was quickly abandoned in favour of bringing the story of what happened to the Boer women and children back into the historical memory. Although there may not have been genocidal intent, the British concentration camps in South Africa were the forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps that now define that term in our collective consciousness. More than twenty-thousand Boer women and children died of disease and malnutrition in the camps, in addition to the many uncounted black Africans, who were interned separately.

Speaking about his novel in public appearances, Dave Boling has revealed that The Lost History of Stars went through many drafts before emerging in its current form. The first was a sprawling narrative of war in the line of his first novel, Guernica. The next focused in on Lettie, her mother Susannah, her aunt Hannah, and Bina, the native woman who worked for them. All four characters remain in the final draft, but Lettie is the only point of view character. The decision to make Lettie the sole narrator, while focusing the scope of the story, also removes most of Bina’s point of view, as native Africans were held in separate camps. Bina’s main role in the final version of the story is as a source of wisdom for Lettie, but we learn little about her own ordeal.

One of my worries going into this story was that it would feature an ill-conceived romance between Lettie and Tommy Maples, one of the British soldiers assigned to guard the camp. Fortunately, the relationship between Lettie and Maples is not overly romanticized. She has complicated feelings about him that evolve and change over the course of the book, but Boling does not depict it as anything other than an unequal relationship. Maples is not generally a villainous figure, and he can even sometimes be sympathetic, but it is clear that he and Lettie can never really be friends given the circumstances under which they meet, and a romance could not come to any good end.

Lettie is a heart-felt narrator, who depicts both realistic trauma, and the ability to hold onto hope in trying circumstances. Her voice forms the heart of the The Lost History of Stars. In addition to shedding light on a forgotten tragedy, the central conflict, based on far-flung wars for natural resources, has a continued contemporary relevance.

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