Owlcat’s CBR V review #19 of Countdown City (Last Policeman #2) by Ben H. Winters

Having read the first book in this trilogy of a pre-apocalyptic world, I was so eager to read the second book, Countdown City, I pre-ordered it and was thrilled when it arrived in July to my Kindle.

The story picks up from the previous book, now with only 77 days remaining before the asteroid’s impact in Southeast Asia. The main character, Hank Palace, has lost his job as a police detective with the Concord, NH, Police Department, the result of federalization throughout the country of security venues. The story begins when a former babysitter, who sat for him and his sister when they were little, asks his help to find her husband, who may or may not have gone “bucket list” like a lot of other people and has disappeared without telling her or anyone anything.  This is so out of character for him that his wife is absolutely sure there is much more to his leaving. With the loss of phones, cars, and other normal modern amenities, this is a task almost impossible to accomplish but he relies on his own intuition, as well as his sister, who in the previous book had joined a band of rebels who believe in true conspiracy mode that the U.S. government is not telling people everything and which is generally anarchist. He knows she may have a solution to finding this man through her various contacts, particularly the community that has taken over what used to be the University of New Hampshire. He and she travel there, he finds some answers, and pursues his quest to find the man who apparently is not the person his wife believed he was.

Consequently, he is thrown into several murderous scenarios, almost losing his own life in the process.  Throughout the book, however, because he is such a decent man with a high degree of integrity and determination, despite the world and society around him falling apart, he plows forth with finding answers, whether they are ones he or the wife want to hear.  He has his moments of doubt and many moments of fear and confusion when what had seemed black and white turns out to be grey.  He also discovers some of what his sister and others have told him about the government’s deceptions appear to be true, particularly regarding the “boat people” who travel in horrific conditions from the South Asian countries to the shores of this country, hoping for at least a minimal chance of survival when the asteroid hits by being as far away as they can be from its epicenter and within a country that has boundaries and morals.  He is dismayed and frustrated and angry but these emotions also feed his determination to accomplish the nearly impossible so he can bring some answers and “closure” to his former baby sitter.

In the process he nearly dies, though obviously the reader is aware that isn’t going to happen because there is a third book due within this trilogy.  As in the first book, the Hank’s character is intriguing and admirable, but has enough flaws of his own to make him believable.  Other characters within the story are well developed, likeable in some ways, dislikeable in others, just as in real life.  Winters has woven the story well, though to be honest, although I’ve seen from other reviews that many thought this book was better than the first, I preferred the first.  The plot in this story was slow to develop and the multitude of characters a little difficult to keep sorted.  The ending, however, was quite believable and again, throughout, the book makes the reader wonder how he or she would react under these circumstances, with the impending doom of an asteroid strike that will undoubtedly kill of most human beings throughout the world and which has already affected society in many unpleasant, negative ways.  It is a book worth reading for those questions alone, and now I truly look forward to the third book in the trilogy, though am not certain when it will be available.  When I finished this second book, I had wished I could just keep on reading to the end event!

Owlcat’s CBR5 review #18 of Timeline by Michael Crichton

This is an older book that Michael Crichton published in 1999 and frequently while reading it, I had the feeling I might have read it back then but wasn’t remembering characters or the storyline specifically.  But several times, I would feel, “I think I read this,” but not knowing (or remembering) anything about it, I continued on and the more I got into it, the less I felt like I had read it.  A friend suggested, when I mentioned this to her, that maybe I’d read too much Michael Crichton and that could well be the case.  I loved his books from his first publication, “The Andromeda Strain,” but gradually felt many were too similar in both characters and plots, namely the effects of time travel.  They were different in their locales but they had a formula to them of good people, bad people (especially those who want to exploit the benefits of science and time travel), well-meaning people, idealistic people, ruthless people, and people getting stuck in and at the mercy of the time period, etc.  There were frequently variations on the theme but the theme remained, and this book is included in all of these points.

The book opens with a mysterious seriously ill man whom a vacationing couple find wandering in the New Mexico desert.  When they bring him to a local hospital, his condition creates all kinds of unanswerable questions for both the medical personnel and the police, who are called in because of the unusual situation.  They learn he was a physicist and employee of ITC, a high tech company that on the surface is developing technological advances, though much is kept secret from the media and the public.  They are, however, funding historical and archeological research medieval towns in the Dordogne region of France, and the leader of the historical and archaeological team, Professor Johnston, goes to their New Mexico headquarters with suspicions about detailed knowledge of the site that the ITC staff who visit seem to have.

While he is gone, archaeologists at the site discover an anomaly that appears directly but impossibly linked to Professor Johnston, including a piece of parchment on which he appears to have asked them for help. This makes them question what has happened to him and what ITC really is doing.  Consequently, they fly to New Mexico and discover that ITC has been using quantum technology to travel to Dordogne in 1357 and that Professor Johnston did so but had not returned. Three of the researchers agree to go into time to retrieve him, knowing they are limited by a window of time;  if they and he are not at the transit pad within a specific amount of time, they will be forever in 1357. The fourth researcher, however, chooses not to go, distrusting, Doniger, the founder and the owner of ITC, as well as its technology, convinced they haven’t been told everything regarding the time travel, which according to ITC isn’t really time travel by multiverse travel (as opposed to universe) through quantum wormholes.  Gradually, too, Doniger reveals the evidence of “transcription errors,” which occur when people go back and return too often in time;  physical and mental issues develop, at first not too seriously but eventual become too dangerous for the traveler.

Naturally, the three who do go encounter the expected problems that all residents of that time period experience, and become victims of the war that is occurring there and the barbarism of the medieval way of life.  Included among these trials is the fact that their transit pad has been inadvertently destroyed by one of the military escorts from ITC when he tries to return to the present.  At this point, they attempt to blend in with the populace, which isn’t always feasible, despite their medieval clothing and earpieces that translate the archaic language, and which are communication devices among themselves, as well.  This is how they begin to realize there is someone among the warring factions who also has an earpiece and hears them and is determined to kill them to avoid detection; they don’t know why or how he is there, and are initially unaware of which knight or nobleman he might be, and unaware of the phenomenon of transcription errors that have affected him mentally.

Meanwhile, as they try to rescue the professor and keep themselves safe until they can use a ceramic piece they still have that can call a transit pad to them from the other side, they are unaware of that in the present, a huge explosion has occurred at ITC and they are trying desperately to repair the transit pads so when they are ready to transport back, they will be able to.  Toward the end of the book, there is tremendous suspense, typical of Crichton, within both stories – timing the repair on one side and the attempts of the three rescuers and the professor to be at the right place and time, while fighting for their lives.

What I liked about this story was the details Crichton included around the medieval way of life, not romanticizing it at all, although one of the characters, Marek, who has been totally immersed in medieval history for years, has romanticized it and is shocked when he realizes what a brutal society it was.  Still, he was the most prepared to endure, understand and accept it, which helps him as they try to negotiate their way through the war battles and their personal battles.  I didn’t like the detail that Crichton went into around quantum physics, because even when explaining it, it was so difficult to understand and at some point, I began thinking he was not really explaining it but justifying it as it applied to his story.  I wasn’t sure what was accurate and what wasn’t.

This was a fun and exciting book and if you like stories about time travel and particularly if you like history, you would enjoy it.  Crichton was very good at developing his characters and most acted the way you expect them to act from when you first meet them.  The story moved along well, except at times when ITC was being described, and I admit having a tendency to skim those parts.  I thought the physical landscape and architecture and lifestyle described of the medieval villages and castles were rich in detail and most of that was through the characters’ eyes and experiences, making it more digestible than the ITC-type descriptions.  Toward the end, I didn’t want to put the book down because I wanted to see what was going to happen with each of the characters trying to return and in that respect, was not at all dissatisfied.




Owlcat’s CBR5 review #17 of The German Suitcase by Greg Dinallo

I admit before reading this book, I had a strong bias toward books that are published only online, but the title and synopsis I read of this novel, plus the fact that Greg Dinallo, an author I am/was unfamiliar with, has published hard copy books in the past, I decided to take a chance on reading this.  Being an e-book only, the price was right, too.

The novel is actually two within one, with the primary story beginning when an advertising agent, Stacey Dutton, with a penchant for retrieving discarded goods for personal use, and thus having a goldmine of interesting furnishings, etc., finds a Steinbach suitcase discarded on a sidewalk behind a famous apartment building in New York City.  She retrieves it and immediately begins thinking of how it could be used in an advertising campaign that she and her company are about to embark upon with Steinbach & Company, who have produced high quality suitcases in Germany since the mid-19th century.  When approached with the idea of following the suitcase’s journey, including through the Holocaust, the CEO of Steinbach & Company, Sol Steinbach, is intrigued and excited about this approach. Questions are then asked:  who owned this suitcase? how did it come to be discarded in New York City and why? what is its connection to the Holocaust? and what is inside, as it is locked and things are clearly stored inside it.

After a lot of research, it appears the suitcase belonged to a prominent New York City orthopedist, Dr. Jacob Epstein, a Holocaust survivor as well, and the founder of a famous Jewish foundation that is involved in charity work and honoring, among others, Gentiles who helped save Jews during World War II.  He and his family are approached by the ad agency to engage in telling the story of the suitcase’s travels and in the process, honoring the Holocaust victims and survivors, which he agrees to do.

As the agency and he embark on this process, a young newspaper reporter, looking for the story of a lifetime that might guarantee his job at the newspaper for which he works and which is laying people off – and, incidentally,Stacey Dutton’s boyfriend – begins to suspect and unravel secrets surrounding the suitcase, Dr. Jacob Epstein, and another Holocaust victim (albeit Gentile), Max Klein.  His suspicions arise when he notes that there are two photographs of the same Auschwitz tattooed numbers on the arm of Dr. Epstein, and the two photos clearly show a different style of writing the numbers!

The second story within this novel is the history of the suitcase, but more, the history of the people involved in World War II, including Dr. Epstein himself, Max Klein, and others involved in helping Dr. Epstein and Max’s girlfriend, Eva, escape the SS and Gestapo after having originally been given waivers to practice at the hospital regardless of being Jews, needed because of the lack of German doctors.  The waivers are suddenly revoked, and their stories become a history of the fears, flights, and hiding, ultimately ending in the concentration camps for Dr. Epstein and fortunately for the girlfriend, in Italy, where her parents lived and which has not experienced the complete horrors of the rest of the European Jews.  The suitcase belonged to Max Klein and was given to Dr. Epstein at the beginning of his flight out of Germany and he managed to keep it with him throughout his incarcerations.

Meanwhile, Max Klein, who had to reluctantly become part of the SS to protect his own family, becomes the target of a particularly vengeful military officer because of his involvement with his Jewish girlfriend, Eva. He is sent to Dachau to work as a doctor on the ramps from the cattle cars and make the decisions of which Jewish prisoner went where, to a line that would send them to the gas chamber immediately, or to a line where they would become overworked and underfed slaves and die a slow death.  He tries to avoid this but cannot without jeopardizing his family, and so learns what other “good” German doctors learned at these ramps, how to shut down, make the choices, and then drown the memories in drink and sleep.

It is here at the ramp where he recognizes his best friend, Jake Epstein, who is transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau.  He rescues Jake by telling other doctors at the ramp that he and the accompanying doctors from Auschwitz have been sent to help with the prisoners’ suffering and dying from typhus, since they haven’t enough doctors at Dachau for this, and who cares if Jews die treating other Jews. Both Jake and their mutual doctor friend Hannah contract typhus in the process. From here, their relationship is complicated by various events, including the suspicions of Gestapo and SS officers and, eventually, the Allies arriving at the camp, which results in unrestricted vengeance by prisoners and some of the U.S. troops.

The stories in the present and the past are told alternately in every other chapter and at first, I thought this would be distracting, but I actually liked the style, partly because I didn’t have to wait until later in the book to learn how a specific present-day scene related to the past.  As the book went on, it became easier to figure out what had happened in the past, even before it’s revealed totally, but even so, that did not interfere with either part of the novel.

The characters, both past and present, were totally believable in their actions and reactions.  Those who had to make horrible choices were clearly fraught with ethic dilemmas throughout.  The moral dilemmas were evident in both the past and the present, when people had to choose the lesser of two evils and choose if not making a decision was the right decision to make.  At times, particularly among the modern characters, it was easy to dislike some of them, but then I would find myself realizing that they weren’t all bad and had consciences and were struggling just like most of us would.

The ending was not terribly surprising but it was satisfying, and I would recommend this book.  I also discovered that my bias toward publishing only as an e-book was totally unwarranted and that’s encouraging because it could mean more books for more people at lesser cost.  But I will definitely read some of Dinallo’s other books now.

Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #16 of “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman

Apparently, this is M.L. Stedman’s first novel, which I would not have guessed.  It is an incredibly complex story filled with complex characters, histories, geography, and emotions.  As I began reading it, I immediately sensed that this was a story about good people with good intentions, while also realizing it was not going to end well.  Ultimately, it does end “well” in the way a Hollywood movie has to end “well” and that, for me, was it’s only flaw, but an understandable one, because the author apparently needed to relieve the reader of the intense sadness that builds up throughout the final third of the book. There isn’t a “bad” person in this book but everyone is affected by what turns out to be a bad situation.

The story begins by introducing a WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne, who returned from the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme unscathed physically but tormented with survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and having shut down and compartmentalized his feelings to protect himself.  This latter approach to life had begun in response to a harsh childhood and was exacerbated by his war experiences, so by the time he arrives in the town of Port Partogeuse, Western Australia, he has become someone who will never love and will always be alone, and at this point, is perfectly satisfied with this understanding.  He sees himself as flawed and incapable of being a person who could be loved and appreciated. Nevertheless, we see an inkling of the person he’d rather be when he rescues a woman who is on the same boat as he when he is traveling from Sydney to Port Partageuse; she is accosted by an arrogant, abusive man and he runs interference for her, and she in turn is surprised by the quiet way and self-deprecating manner he in which he presents himself.

As part of this persona, he has accepted a position to maintain the lighthouse on Janus Rock, a small island off the coast of Western Australia, feeling it is suitable employment for someone like himself, who should be alone. He understands there will be only seasonal contact with the supply boat, approximately every third month, and no shore leave for very long lengths of time.  Just before leaving Port Partageuse, however, he meets an unusual young woman, Isabel, 10 years his junior, who sparks a joy within him he hasn’t experienced before; while posted at the lighthouse, he receives intermittent correspondence from her and they reunite as friends the next time he returns to shore, and they hastily marry with her agreeing to go to Janus with him, understanding the social deprivations there.  They are so in love with each other and each is in awe of the other so that little else matters.  He in particular is so enamored of her willingness to love and accept him as he is, even when she’s unable to penetrate his reluctance to share past details about his life, that he will do anything for her, and this becomes the source of his horrible moral dilemma.

While on the island for the first two years, Isabel suffers two miscarriages and a stillbirth, and she becomes angry, sad, guilty-ridden and despairing.  Tom doesn’t know how to comfort her or make her return to him emotionally.  Their isolation only exacerbates the situation.  And then a rowboat washes onto Janus Rock and in it is a dead man and a live baby.  Tom immediately wants to report this to the authorities but after much pleading from his wife, he relents to her need to keep the baby, who is only about 3 months old, and they’ll pretend it’s theirs.  They bury the dead man, who has no identification.  Tom feels torn between what he has done and what he should have done, i.e., reported the baby’s survival so that if there was a mother waiting for her, she could be returned.  Nonetheless, they name the baby Lucy, and Isabel becomes the mother she believes God meant her to be by sending this child, arguing with Tom that the mother undoubtedly drowned, as evidenced by a woman’s sweater that had been in the boat.

Over time, they become an ideal family and Tom is as much enamored of the child and fatherhood as Isabel is of the child and motherhood, and they are wonderful parents. During one trip to shore, however, the seeds of doubt begin to emerge for Tom when he hears of a woman named Hannah who lost her husband and child at sea.  He begins to feel a rift between himself and Isabel as they struggle with the possibilities that Lucy belongs to this woman and they, Tom in particular, realize their decisions have caused horrible pain to another human being.  Tom begins to relate the guilt he feels with their initial decision to the guilt he feels about surviving the war, and over time he begins to feel more and more guilty. He also realizes that no matter what choices he makes now, there will be trauma for many involved, himself included, and we see him struggle in a no-man’s land of conscience.

I won’t go into details about the decisions and results, but will say that I was in tears in several parts of the book, including the end that I previously described as a bit too “Hollywood.”  I felt somewhat manipulated at the end. Throughout the rest of the book, however, I truly felt these characters were totally realistic, well-developed, and each and every one of them deserved better than they got! Yet I also felt there were impossible decisions these characters had to make, and as each did so, could understand and feel the heart-wrenching agony for each of them.  There were some unexpected decisions but even these made sense from the point of view of the character, and none of the final decisions or choices left me thinking they weren’t true to character or to the story.

This was a book full of exploring isolation, courage, loss, grief, desperation, trauma, guilt, and morality, with a clear understanding that often right and wrong are indistinguishable, and what is considered right or wrong can be colored by one’s past, even when the past is long buried – it has its way of surfacing. Once I had finished reading this book and sat with my feelings and tears, I knew it was also a book that would stay with me for a very long time, and even while reading it, I could easily find myself asking, “What would I do?” I vacillate between giving this three stars or four, but decided it may not be great, but it’s very, very good, and a favorite, thereby earning five stars. I do warn readers, however, to be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride and to have plenty of tissues on hand toward the end.



Owlcat’s CBR5 Review #15 of “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini

I have read Hosseini’s two previous novels and had thoroughly enjoyed both, so I anticipated enjoying this novel, as well, and happily, I can say I was not disappointed.

The book begins with an opening Afghan folk story that is a parable that the opening character tells his son and daughter, and this parable sets the tone for the rest of the book.  The parable describes a father whose must sacrifice his son to a monster, only to discover when he hunts the monster down, that the child is actually better cared for and happier than he would ever be had he remained with his family.  The choice then becomes one of guilt if he if he retrieves his son just to fill the void in his own heart, or guilt and sorrow at leaving him behind.  The so-called monster recognizes the difficulty of his choice and gives him a day to decide; when he chooses the selfless decision to leave his son there, he is then rewarded with a loss of memory so that he does not remember what he has done nor remembers his son;  even so, however, he feels a hole in his heart that he never understands.

This parable is reflected throughout the novel, sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly, and particularly in the story that follows the three “main” characters, Soboor (the father), Abdullah (the son) and Pari (the daughter).  The novel itself begins in the early 1950s in Afghanistan and ends in contemporary times in Afghanistan, France, and the United States.  These three characters are walking from their village to Kabul, where, unknown to the children, the daughter will be left behind with a couple whose wife desperately wants a child.  Being four years old, Pari quickly adapts to her new life, but Abdullah is so much older that he desperately feels the horrible tear in the fabric of their relationship and he never forgets her, always hoping to find her. Gradually, other characters are introduced and developed, some within their interactions with the three original characters, some individually and among each other.  As generations pass, the predominant theme is this broken bond of relationships and the their effects on everyone who experiences them as lives go on.

The characters’ stories are formed around each other, the events of numerous historical significance (i.e., the war with Russia, the Taliban, the U.S. arrival after 9/11), and the U.S.’s gradual winding down.  This is not a story about the wars, but rather, the conflicts and upheavals from them that contribute to the characters’ development and decisions.  Some escape literally to other countries, the U.S. and France; others remain; others return;  and some of the more peripheral characters who end up being involved with the Afghan characters, come for humanitarian reasons, often on a temporary basis that turns into a permanent one. All have an impact on each other and sometimes it is not clear what their relationships with Abdullah and Pari are or will be.

Hosseini’s characters develop in ways that are remarkably realistic and are clearly formed by their families, their experiences, their environments. Two can face the same experience and/or issue and each has a believable reaction that can be totally different from each others’ and both are understood and easily accepted by the reader.  The emotion within the various stories is at times heart-wrenching and unbelievably sad and yet, watching the characters endure and continue on despite this is a statement of the determination and malleability of the human mind.

There is hope interspersed at times and the story line was occasionally a bit difficult to follow, but in the end, it all tied together very nicely and understandably in a way that demonstrated the good and the bad of the human race, and, as well, demonstrated how everyone in the world really is like everyone else, particularly when family is involved. I highly recommend this book.

Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #14 of Modern Weirdness – Tales from the Parallel Universe – 10 Short Stories and a Novel Excerpt by Dave Champoux

This will probably be one of my shorter reviews because it’s about 10 different short stories that I’m lumping together and the final one of which I didn’t read because I was burnt out on the “weirdness,” and the novel excerpt, I only skimmed to see if I would be inclined to order it.  Full disclosure, too:  I once worked with the spouse of the author.  Additionally, the book was a free download in a promotion to encourage sales and recognition.  All that said, here goes.

I have given the book two stars as an OK book, and considered, unfortunately, giving it only one star.  However, when I began reading the stories, I initially liked them, particularly the first few, particularly “No Other Baby Can Do This,” because I liked the way Champoux, who was being the typical new father here, was not taking the trite way out when projecting his fears for his daughter’s future.  Rather, he reflected on her future with all the fears we parents encounter but kept her as a pre-toddler in the story with adolescent behaviors, and it was an interesting and creative approach.  I found at the end of the story, I wanted more.

There were a couple of other stories within the collection, including “Devil” and “Walker’s Foot” that were weird but intriguing, but after reading them, gradually I became tired of the weirdness that began appearing in the other stories.  I might have been better off reading these stories one at a time with long intervals; my mistake may have been in trying to read two or three at the same time and within a week’s time, all of them, so that I became overly saturated with the weirdness.

What I did like was the author’s telling the stories in the first person, which allowed the reader to more clearly understand the perspective and thought processes going on within each story.  I also liked his locations of the stories, since they were local to me and I could better relate than some to the influence of the localities, especially, for instance, in “Radio Free Hampshire County.”

As for the novel excerpt, it was intriguing and written well and I would conceivably read the entire novel but at a later date.  It felt more real and less strange than the stories in the collection but it was also difficult to tell in what direction it was going. But because I liked the overall style of the author, albeit not necessarily all that “weirdness,” I would be inclined to give him another chance.  I wish, in fact, that I had read the novel first, and, as I said, spread out reading the stories over a longer period of time.  My bad perhaps.

Owlcat’s CBR 5 Review #13: Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline

This book was a very fast read for me because the history and the characters were so enticing.  It’s two stories that are parallel to one another, which sounds a little gimmicky but that isn’t true at all, although one story is a little weaker than the other (Molly’s) and I’d almost have preferred the novel focused just on the historical story that is the reference in the title, the so-called orphan trains that went from New York City to the Midwest from the late 1850s until the late 1920s.  I had heard about the orphan trains but knew no details and had thought they were just a phenomenon of the 1800s, so was very surprised to discover they continued well into the 20th Century. 

The book begins in 2011 in Spruce Harbor, Maine, where a 17-year old Penobscot Indian foster child, Molly, is living with a family in which the father had wanted a foster child but whose wife is angry and suspicious about Molly because of her troubled past. We see the situation through Molly’s eyes:  her feeling abandoned by her own family after her father is killed in an accident and her mother dissolves into drug abuse and poverty;  her feeling unwanted and abandoned by numerous foster families;  and her knowing that she is basically unwanted where she currently resides and distrustful of the people assigned to care for her. Over the years, she has developed numerous coping skills to prevent more injuries to her psyche, including developing a Goth exterior and not getting close to anyone, including her foster parents and her Child Services therapist. She will soon be 18 and aging out of the system and has given little thought to what that might mean for her, but assumes it will be just one more abandonment. 

Molly does like to read and seems to relish stories around people who are independent and reflecting her own character and determination.  At one point, she is discovered stealing one of three copies of “Jane Eyre” from the local library and consequently is assigned community service hours, and becomes involved with helping an elderly woman, Vivian, who is 91 years old, sort through and discard decades of materials in her attic.  Molly at first sees this simply as a task to get through and doesn’t expect to connect with Vivian or share any of her own life with her, but as time passes and more is revealed through the sometimes odd items they come across in the attic that Vivian had been unable to part with and the many letters and other writings, she begins to realize that Vivian’s life, although separated by many decades from her own, is also very similar to her own.  Both lost their fathers and had institutionalized mothers;  both were passed from home to home;  and both had cultural identities that were reflected in talismanic keepsakes, a Claddagh necklace for Vivian, Native American fetishes for Molly, and which they had lost touch with through their respective journeys.

Vivian’s story  begins several chapters into the book, and was for me the more interesting of the two, partly because it was more detailed and partly because she seemed to overcome horrendous situations, one after the other.  I was also drawn to her young character initially, when it focused on her 7-year old self as a recent immigrant to New York City when she and her family arrived from Ireland, to her preteen years, when her life began to slowly improve, because with a grandchild at 11 now, this resonated more intensely for me.  Nevertheless, I think I would have been intrigued by her because, once again, it’s a character who copes with almost apocalyptic scenarios. What would have happened to me in her situation? She lost so much, including her name when given a more “American” name (no one could easily pronounce or spell her Irish name), not once but twice, and endured so much with a resignation that reflects how deeply she had to bury her past life.

Vivian first endures  shattered expectations of coming to New York City, where her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s apparent mental illness are exacerbated by the extreme poverty and realization that life is worse than it was in Ireland.  She then loses her entire family in a tenement fire. This is in the late 1920s, shortly before the Stock Market crash and well before there were any real social service safety nets, and as a result, for a while, she lives in an orphanage run by the Children’s Aid Society, which had been sending orphans and “street urchins” out of New York City on these orphan trains for many, many years, and placing them with Midwestern families, ostensibly for adoption but more often than not, they became indentured servants. Most in the Society truly thought they were offering these children both redemption and an opportunity to better lives compared to what they were enduring in the city. Some, mostly babies, did have the good fortune of being adopted, but most, like Vivian and her closest friend on the train, Dutchy, became hired hands. It’s hard to believe what life on a farm for a city child must have been like, where they could no longer live by their own initiatives and wit but were at the mercy of the elements and the back-breaking work on the farms. Most had never seen animals beyond pigeons and rats! Vivian was initially placed with a family that ran a dressmaking shop because she could sew and at first, though difficult, was able to do the work and maintain a semblance of normalcy, though forced to sleep in a hallway alone and was often hungry because of the locked refrigerator. When the Stock Market crashed, she was removed from that placement because they could no longer afford to keep her, and transferred to another family where she was expected to be a mother’s helper, but which was extremely poor and where the mother was emotionally unstable.  Her life became unbearable when the father in the family attempted to rape her (you see it coming), and the mother blames her and forces her out of the home in the middle of a cold, Minnesota winter’s night.  Her story improves after that, gradually, until eventually she becomes the a wealthy store owner and she and her husband retire to Maine.

The best part of her life, however, holds a major sad secret that she never revealed to anyone over the years, not even her good, second husband, but which she finally reveals to Molly during the times they begin more seriously discussing her life. This is the result of a portaging assignment Molly is required to pursue at school when studying local Wabanaki history.  The author quotes Bunny McBride, in Women of the Dawn, in an epilogue that is crucial to the story:  “In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions.  Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind. Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.”  Molly pursues this them with Vivian, and ultimately with herself, in terms of portaging metaphorically, realizing both of them had done so over time. 

Interestingly, many of the peripheral women in this book seem to have major psychiatric issues, Molly’s mother, her foster mother whom we meet at the beginning of the novel, her other foster mothers that she thinks about at times when comparing her current placement with those, Vivian’s mother, and the two women Vivian encounters in her two bad placements.  As a result, these peripheral women are either cruel or distant enough to validate both main characters’ wariness to connect. Yet through their mutual stories, and with a lot of hesitation, Vivian and Molly do connect; they have come to recognize the similarities in their stories but also the similarities in their personalities, and are thus able to trust one another.

I don’t think I’m writing a good review here;  I find it difficult to choose aspects of the book that kept me reading it, yet, as I said, it was a quick read.  I wanted to get to the next part of each character’s story.  I do recommend the book but have to admit I can’t tell the reader what to look for that resonated so well with me.  I guess the reader will have to find their own reason to enjoy the book.