Category: Historical Fiction

The Library of Legends

Cover image for The Library of Legends by Janie Chang

by Janie Chang

ISBN 9780062851512

“At first, she had found humans’ hopefulness endearing. Valiant even. Now she couldn’t begin to count all the ways they managed to delude themselves.”

 In the fall of 1937, Hu Lian hopes to somehow get from Nanking to Shanghai to reunite with her mother, her only living relative. However, the Japanese bombing of Nanking throws off her travel plans, and instead Lian finds herself evacuating Minghua University with her fellow remaining students. On foot, they will make the arduous trek from Nanking inland to Chengtu, where they will establish an interim wartime campus. The students of Minghua also have a special charge; they will carry with them the Library of Legends, more than a hundred volumes of ancient stories that were once part of a larger encyclopedia. They will need to preserve this heritage while also continuing their education on the road, so that they can become the generation that rebuilds post-war China. However, politics are simmering among the students as old families with Nationalist loyalties come up against the rising ideals of the young Communist Party of China and the journey will not be without its dangers.

The Library of Legends takes place between 1937 and 1938, in the early days of the Japanese occupation of China. The evacuation of the universities of Nanking takes place in September 1937, about two months before the eventual Nanking Massacre. While many young people are joining the war effort, China’s university students are encouraged to preserve the country’s cultural heritage and intellectual future by remaining in school, training to eventually become the generation that will rebuild China after the invaders are repelled. The story is inspired by true events, and Chang’s father was among the university students who made the inland trek to escape Japanese bombers while struggling to continue their educations. However, Chang also brings a fantasy element to the narrative, telling the tale of how gods, spirits, and creatures of legend are making a westward trek of their own to the Kunlun mountains, where the Queen Mother of Heaven has thrown open the gates—but only for a short time. Soon things that were once real will pass into the realm of legend forever, and the world will become a little more mundane.

Using third person point of view, Chang follows Hu Lian, but also her wealthy classmate Liu Shaoming and a number of other characters, including Professor Kang, who is leading their group of students to Chengtu. While I enjoyed both the historical and fantastical plots that commingle in the novel, I struggled with the narration. It created a certain distance from the characters, and also had a tendency to switch at unexpected moments. Sometimes it would focus in on a minor character who had only just walked into the narrative and then leave just as abruptly. In these moments, I felt that Chang was trying to give a glimpse of the broader war experience happening outside the university group, but these additions tended to disrupt the flow of the main narrative. Interestingly, Chang mentions in the author’s note at the end of the book the she struggled with the point of view while writing the novel.

I had expected the book might incorporate myths from the Library of Legends into the story, but Chang only invents the story of the Willow Star and the Prince, loosely based on the Chinese myth of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The Willow Star made a bargain with the Queen Mother of Heaven for her Prince to be reborn again and again, but only if he remembers their love in his new incarnation can he join her in the heavens. Instead of just stories within stories, the fantastical element is actually much more real than what I had been expecting. Among the servants of Minghua University is an immortal being, who has dedicated herself to helping guide the students and faculty to safety, along with their precious treasure. Along the way she meets other immortals, though most of the humans cannot recognize them as such. She carries with her the message that the gates are open, but that when they close, they will close forever. The guardians are leaving this world, and with this comes the melancholy sense that China will never be the same again.

You might also like Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

She Who Became the Sun

Cover image for She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

by Shelley Parker-Chan

ISBN 9781250621801

“They were two things of the same substance, their qi ringing in harmony like twin strings, interconnected by action and reaction so that they were forever pushing and pulling each other along the path of their lives and towards their individual fates.”

China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother after bandits steal the last of their food, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery when Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place.

She Who Became the Sun is a loose historical fantasy set in the transition from the Yuan dynasty to the Ming, in the mid-1300s. After nearly a century of foreign rule, the Mongol grasp on China is slipping, with famine and peasant revolts fueling the belief that the Khans have lost the right to rule, known as the Mandate of Heaven. The subtle fantastical elements are drawn from Chinese mythology and folk belief, including Zhu’s ability to see the hungry ghosts that linger in the human world after death.

Zhu Chongba’s chief antagonist, General Ouyang, has something of the stereotype of the devious, scheming eunuch who is preoccupied with what has been stolen from him. For many years he has bided his time as the most capable general of the Prince of Henan, serving the very Mongol overlords who executed his family to the ninth degree, and ended his family line by castrating him. He has fought alongside the Prince’s eldest son as his brother in arms, and his accolades surpass those of the younger son, an embittered scholar who prefers to serve as the province’s chief accountant and administrator. Despite my initial reservations, I found Ouyang to be a complex and fascinating character even in his villainy, particularly when set alongside Esen and Lord Wang to show the different facets of (toxic) masculinity in this world.

Both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang are grappling with the tension between what they believe to be their immutable fates, and the evidence that they might have agency over their own destinies. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. Yet Zhu struggles to accept those strengths, worrying that to draw upon them is to attract the attention of the heavens, and have the gods realize that an imposter has slipped into Zhu Chongba’s shoes. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.

General Ouyang, on the other hand, believes that his is a fate that has always been waiting for him, from the day that the Mongols killed his family. It was a slumbering but inevitable giant, waiting to be roused, and it is Zhu Chongba who has awoken it. For Ouyang—who is more than a little in love with Esen, eldest son of the Prince of Henan—this is an unforgivable catalyst that will harm the only person he cares about. What he fails to realize is that it is his own shame and self-hatred that is the true root of this destruction. His love for Esen is both humanizing and tragic, poisoned as it is by his preoccupation with fate and vengeance.

I was drawn to this novel expecting a Chinese historical fantasy, but in the end the aspect of the story that grabbed me and would not let go was juxtaposition between Zhu and Ouyang, two gender nonconforming characters who recognize one another as being “of the same substance.” They can each see things that the people around them miss with their binary view of the world, but still differ in their ability to accept the ways in which they themselves do not fit in. She Who Became the Sun has a satisfying arc for a single novel, following both characters to pivotal moments in their narrative, but I am also tremendously looking forward to the planned sequel. In addition to following Zhu and Ouyang to their fates, I am particularly hoping to see further development of Ma Xiuying, the daughter of a disgraced Red Turban warlord who marries Zhu after her fiancé also falls from grace. Unfortunately, the sequel currently has no confirmed title or release date.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Canada Reads Along 2022: Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

“How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those did the saving.”

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 brothers 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 Plantation 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.

I first came to love the work of Esi Edugyan with Half-Blood Blues, which was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey on the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. In Washington Black, Edugyan brings her trademark exquisite prose to the story of a slave who gains his freedom under complicated circumstances. 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, he discovers 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 careless actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though Titch 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 resisting 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 Wash 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 was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Olympian Mark Tewksbury. Tewksbury emerged early as a strong debater on this year’s panel, with powerful, well-articulated opening statements, and the ability to find the strengths of the other books in the title he was championing. He emphasized the strong writing in his selection, and the way Edugyan’s descriptions transport the reader to a different time and place. On Day Three, host Ali Hassan asked the remaining champions to open with a statement about why they chose their books. Mark Tewksbury spoke to the relationship he felt to the character of Washington Black, drawing parallels between accepting his own gay identity and Wash’s struggles as a to find his place in the world as a freed slave with visible facial scars.

Throughout the week, Washington Black was often called out alongside What Strange Paradise as the book on this year’s table with the most beautiful writing. Suzanne Simard described it as cinematic, and as a fellow writer Christian Allaire praised its craft. The debates thus far however have focused more on theme and character than on prose or craft. This very much echoed the fate Edugyan’s first book Half-Blood Blues faced when Cameron Bailey defended it on Canada Reads 2014. However, Washington Black also came up against criticism, particularly regarding the ending, and the centrality of Titch’s character to Wash’s journey. Wash’s quest for closure comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, because it is not ultimately something he can find in an external source.

After a day of rapid-fire debate, when the time came to vote both Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black, while Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against Five Little Indians. The outlying vote belonged to Christian Allaire, who voted against Scarborough for the third day in a row. Per the Canada Reads rules, in the event of a tie the panelist who did not vote against one of the two books up for elimination is required to cast the tiebreaking voting. Since Christian Allaire was defending Five Little Indians, which also had two strikes, he naturally voted against Washington Black, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.  

Just tuning in to Canada Reads 2022? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller.

You might also like:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Cover image for Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

by Malindo Lo

ISBN 978052555261

“Lily understood why her mother had worn the church dress to Macy’s. Even if it was ugly, it declared her investment in respectability. Her mother was a real American wife and mother, not a China doll in a cheongsam, relegated to operating the elevator.”

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily begins to question more deeply, and to find the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club begins with a series of small moments in which Lily realizes that she is different from the girls around her who are beginning to date boys and compete the Miss Chinatown beauty pageant. When Lily discovers a lesbian pulp fiction novel in a rack at the drug story, it opens a world of possibility to her that she could hardly have imagined alone. It is through the medium of the book that she dares broach the subject to Kath, and through Kath she finds access to the world of the Telegraph Club. Even though they are both minors, Kath has been there before with an older friend, and knows how to obtain a fake ID for Lily.

Through the club, Lily and Kath meet older lesbian women who are regulars there. Though the city’s queer night clubs have a less than savoury reputation—sometimes deserved, sometimes demonized—they are also places where the girls can catch glimpses of future lives for themselves they never would have dreamed possible, including long-lasting partnerships. However, the older women are also limited in their ability to help girls who end up in trouble with their families if their secret comes out. The threat of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” looms over them, even if they are supposed to enjoy freedom of association according to a 1951 California Supreme Court ruling.

The story is told entirely from Lily’s point of view, so there are large swatches of Kath’s experience we do not get to delve into when they’re not together. This is particularly noticeable in the last quarter of the novel. But though Kath and Lily have much in common, their stories are not the same. Chinese Americans face a double burden of racism and suspicion of communism as the new communist government takes hold back in China, but goes unrecognized by the American government. When Lily’s father refuses to name one of his patients as a known communist, the FBI confiscates his immigration papers, leaving him with no proof of his legal status in the United States. “My parents lectured me for half an hour about how the government would put us in camps just like the Japanese if they thought we were Communists,” Lily’s friend Shirley Lum explains after Lily and Shirley attend a picnic that turns out to have been hosted by suspected communist sympathizers. There are many ways in which Lily’s experience of the queer community is not quite like Kath’s, including people repeatedly calling out her race and asking her if she speaks English.

I purchased this novel on pre-order more than a year ago, but put off reading it for a long time because I suspected it would be a bit of a darker or heavier read. It recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, reminding me that I really wanted to get around to it. I found it open-ended but hopeful, and not nearly as grim as it could have been despite the subject matter it deals with, including racism, homophobia, interracial relationships, and McCarthyism. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values of your family and community that you have been taught to hold dear. But at the core it really is a story of first love even in the face of adversity. In Kath, Lily finally finds someone who sees her, and who understands her love of math and science fiction, and her dreams of outer space.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is based on a short story originally published in 2018 in the collection All Out edited by Saundra Mitchell. Set in San Francisco, Malinda Lo describes the city in detail, but relies heavily on street names. This is useful if readers want to consult a map, but doesn’t do much to evoke the atmosphere of the place. What she does much more successfully is delve into San Francisco’s queer history, while also attempting to bring to life the largely undocumented history of the Asian American women who found their way into the predominantly white spaces of San Francisco’s lesbian community.

Also by Malinda Lo:

Ash

Adaptation

You might also like:

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

American Duchess

Cover image for American Duchess by Karen Harperby Karen Harper

ISBN 978-0-06-274833-1

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Funny, but in the midst of all this, I thought how very regal was dear, blind Mrs. Prattley in the almshouse with her black shawl pulled over her shoulders and her graceful, blue-veined hands folded in her lap while I read to her. She, too, had lost her husband years ago, and there was such an inherent, silent nobility about her. God forgive me, but I would have preferred to be spending time with her.”

In 1895, Consuelo Vanderbilt, eldest child and only daughter of railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt, became one of the most famous of the wealthy American heiresses to trade money for title, when she married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in a lavish ceremony at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The marriage, however, had been masterminded by Consuelo’s mother Alva, a determined social climber who arranged the engagement, planned the wedding, and carefully leaked choice information to the press to whip up a stir in advance of the ceremony. American Duchess follows Consuelo’s life in a mismatched mercenary marriage, her scandalous, much publicized divorce, and her efforts to chart her own course and find happiness in the second part of her life, even as Europe was torn apart by the second great war of her lifetime.

American Duchess is narrated in the first person by Consuelo, beginning around the time of her social debut in 1893, but somehow manages to fail to achieve the intimacy usually created by being inside a character’s head. Rather, the way Consuelo depicts herself feels measured and carefully constructed, as if she is presenting herself for public scrutiny, and wishes to put her best foot forward. As a result, while I felt I learned interesting details about her unusual life, I didn’t feel much in the way of emotional attachment to her character. In fact, Harper seems to be trying a bit too hard to hit the notable public highlights of Consuelo’s life, even when they figure little in the emotional arc of the story she has chosen to tell, which is more focused on the contrast between her two marriages.

A similar problem exists with another figure who pops up regularly, but does not actually play a prominent role. Harper frequently name drops Winston Churchill, who was cousin to Consuelo’s husband, heir to Blenheim Palace before the birth of their son, and a good friend of the Duchess. However, this quickly becomes tiresome since he is more of a novel historical reference than a fleshed out character. Perhaps Harper was worried that a more substantial presence would take over the story, but in that case, less would have been more. As it stands, he is an often referenced, but otherwise underdeveloped figure.

Unfortunately I think this is a case where I would have been better served by a biography, since I was more interested in the period and subject matter than the story Harper was trying to tell. I kept finding myself stepping away from the text to go look up historical details, contemporary newspaper accounts, photographs, etc., rather than wanting to read the book itself. So if you have a good non-fiction account of the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, or the other Million Dollar American Princesses to recommend, let me know in the comments!

You might also like Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

Mistress of the Ritz

Cover image for Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjaminby Melanie Benjamin

ISBN 9780399182242

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “This is what an occupation does—it wears you down until you accept evil. Until you can no longer fully define it, even. Let alone recognize it.”

When American actress Blanche Ross marries French hotelier Claude Auzello, she gives up a free-wheeling lifestyle for a more staid existence as the wife of the manager of the beautiful and famous Hotel Ritz, on the Place Vendome. Marrying in haste, they soon find themselves at loggerheads over their differing expectations. Over decades, they broker a fractious peace, but all of that is swept aside when the Nazis occupy Paris, and make the Ritz their headquarters. Now the Auzellos are faced with a deeper question; do they acquiesce or resist?

Mistress of the Ritz is told in alternating chapters, beginning with the Auzellos whirlwind courtship in 1923, and then jumping ahead to the Occupation in 1940. However, Melanie Benjamin often blurs these distinctions, switching to the 1940s, only to have Blanche spend pages reminiscing about the events that were recounted in the earlier chapter. The novel is based on true events, but in the Author’s Note, Benjamin concedes that the historical record of the Auzellos is so slight that most of the book comes from giving her imagination free rein. This takes fullest expression in the character of Lily Kharmanyoff, an unlikely friend who pushes Blanche to question her comfortable situation.

The relationship between Claude and Blanche is the lens for the rest of the story. There is always a third in their marriage, and sometimes a fourth. They both love the Hotel Ritz; it is the child they never had. Yet Claude’s emphasis on the duties of his job, and his conformation to the establishment’s conservative and old-fashioned rules inevitably causes tension with his independent-minded wife. While some American women found more freedom in pre-war Paris, Blanche is stifled by Claude’s unfamiliar French Catholic world-view. When Claude takes up visiting a mistress on Thursday nights, and forthrightly explains this to Blanche in French fashion, the fissures in their marriage only widen. It is on this cracked foundation that they become the managers of the Nazi’s Paris headquarters, walking a fine line between collaboration and resistance. Unable to quite trust one another, they must make their own decisions about how to protect the staff, the hotel, and their secrets while avoiding retribution from their occupiers.

Benjamin sets up two facts as points of suspense which are of questionable effectiveness, in that the reader is not likely to be surprised or deceived. Part way through the book, Claude begins receiving mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. He tells Blanche he has taken another mistress, but it is immediately clear that this not the case, though Benjamin obfuscates for a hundred pages. The reader is unlikely to be surprised by the revelation that he is working with the Resistance, so this point is only useful in heightening the tension between Claude and Blanche. Such devices, carried out too long, begin to make to protagonist look unobservant. At the same time, Benjamin veils Blanche’s origins with questionable effectiveness, trying to play her Jewish heritage off as a big reveal towards the end of the book. Leaving aside the fact that no one’s identity is a plot twist, Benjamin also sacrifices the opportunity to explore the emotional implications Blanche must have felt, living as a secret Jew under the nose of the Nazi command in Paris. This aspect of her psyche was much more interesting to me than her tribulations as the wife of a condescending philanderer, but the latter receives much greater emphasis.

You might also like A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

by Sara Collins

ISBN 978-0-06-285189-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “But this is a story of love, not just murder, though I know that’s not the kind of story you’re expecting. In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who’d want to read one of those?”

Frances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But The Confessions of Frannie Langton is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers, George and Marguerite Benham, to whom she was given by her former master, though in London she is technically free. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station.

The frame narrative finds the former slave known as Frances Langton in her cell at Newgate prison, furtively scribbling her “confessions” to her lawyer, whom she addresses as “you.” The lawyer has begged her to give him something—anything—that will help him in his defense of her, for to this point she has maintained that she remembers nothing of the night the Benhams were murdered. But Frances has her own ideas about the story she wants to tell, and she will not pander to the judge, the jury, or anyone else. Newspaper clippings, court transcriptions, and extracts from the diary of George Benham are interspersed between her chapters so that we see Frances largely through her own eyes, but occasionally catch glimpses of how she was seen by those around her.

By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She is a keen observer, though she often deludes herself in the matter of love, losing sight of that which would normally be obvious to her keen intellect. “Sometimes I picture all that reading and writing as something packed inside me. Dangerous as gunpowder. Where has it got me, in the end?” she laments. She wants to be seen, but every time she reveals her true self, she is forcibly reminded that “there are many who find an educated black more threatening than a savage one.”

Frances consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. “What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it,” she warns. Collins nods to the real slave narratives of the period, naming one of the characters Olaudah, in reference to Olaudah Equiano, and Frances takes her name from Francis Barber. But Frannie is determined to write her own story on her own terms, even if “most publishers can’t see past their noses. Probably not far enough to see a woman like me.” She spends little time on her slave upbringing in Jamaica, focusing instead on her fate after her owner brought her to London and turned her over to fellow scientist George Benham. But it is Mrs. Benham who becomes the centre of Frannie’s world, bright and shining, but also eccentric and troubled, descending further into laudanum addiction every day.

Although framed by a murder mystery, the novel is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance. Frannie’s greatest defense also condemns her. “I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done,” she opens the book. And it is here her heart remains throughout the story, leading towards the inevitable tragedy, and final revelation of her trial.

You might also like:

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Learning to See

by Elise Hooper

ISBN 978-0-06-268653-4

“I could tell my commercial success put off some of the men who been working for a long time. They viewed me as a hack. After all, what did I know? I was just taking pictures of rich people. All of their talk about artistic philosophy and technique made me feel inferior and bored me to tears.”

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, an unlikely figure took up the calling of capturing for posterity the breadlines, shantytowns, and migrant farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange was a portrait photographer, sought after by the elite of San Francisco society. Though she was friends with members of the city’s prestigious f/64 photography club, such as Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, she was not a participant, perhaps because her work was considered too commercial. But as her rich clientele dwindled, Lange took up her camera for a new purpose, capturing many of the most famous images of the Great Depression as we remember it today. In Learning to See, Elise Hooper fictionalizes Lange’s journey from New Jersey girl to San Francisco society photographer to one of America’s most famous photographers of the nation’s pivotal moments.

Hooper paints a portrait of Lange as a modern, independent businesswoman and artist, who evolves into something of an artist-activist. In the afterword, Hooper notes that many of Lange’s contemporaries described her as difficult and controlling, but the novel takes Dorothea’s first-person perspective, and tries to imagine her life as she saw it herself. She expected the same degree of control over her work that her male peers enjoyed, but because she often worked for the government in the latter half of her career, she often did not have full control over her projects. She would be told where to go, and what she could and could not photograph. Her images did not belong to her, but to the various government agencies by whom she was hired by to depict the Great Depression, and then the Japanese-American internment. The latter photos were considered so incendiary that her work was impounded. Ansel Adams took her place, capturing images that were more to the government’s liking. Likewise, Lange took many photos of African-American sharecroppers who were hard hit by the depression, but the government chose not to use them, declining to make the depression a “race issue.” You can see some of Lange’s images in the back of the book.

Hooper pays particular attention to Lange’s family dynamics, from her abandonment by her father as a child, to her first marriage to painter Maynard Dixon, their two sons, and their subsequent divorce. As work dried up during the difficult years of the Depression, Lange made the wrenching decision to foster out her children so that she could keep working for the government, which required her to travel. With her husband unable to sell any of his work, she was the sole provider, a fact which strained her marriage, and caused resentment in her children. Although she enjoyed a happier second marriage, she remained responsible for the children, while neither of her husbands were ever faulted for their own part. Hooper captures this tension, deftly demonstrating the constraints that limited a working woman artist at the time; without birth control or childcare, she was at the mercy of childrearing responsibilities, and judged harshly for any she dared to throw off.

In addition to Dorothea’s marriages, Hooper pays special attention to two of her friendships, first with Fronsie Ahlstrom, the girl with whom she traveled to San Francisco in the first place. Hooper acknowledges that Fronsie mostly disappears from Lange’s biographies after this period, and that her role in the novel is largely fictionalized. However, Dorothea’s relationship with fellow photographer Imogen Cunningham was better documented—in fact, Cunningham was the original subject of Hooper’s project before the research trail led her to Lange instead. These two friendships buttress the narrative, providing the support that the men so easily overlook.

Hooper spends the first part of the book fully setting the scene and chronicling Lange’s development. While this part of the story is slower, it gives weight to Lange’s evolution, and contextualizes her decisions. Learning to See begins at the end, when Dorothea receives an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective of her work in 1964. We occasionally revisit this last year of her life throughout the book, illustrating the length and strength of her friendship with Imogen, her carefully repaired relationship with her older son, and the amount of time it took for the value of her work to gain to broader recognition. While the book rushes in portions, and drags in others, the overall portrait is nevertheless fascinating.

You might also like The Other Alcott