loulamac’s #CBRV review #54: Look Away by Harold Coyle


While I know it’s not politically correct, I LOVE Gone with the Wind. I grew up with it (along with Luke Skywalker, Scarlett O’Hara is one of the defining influences in my life), and so I’m a sucker for a sprawling American Civil War epic. Unfortunately Look Away, the first in a pair of civil war novels, doesn’t quite fit the bill. Sprawling (as in over-long) yes, epic not so much.

After a brief prologue that sets the scene by showing the tensions the anti-slavery movement brought to the fore in 19th century America, the novel opens in New Jersey in 1859. We meet James and Kevin Bannon, sons of a nouveau riche Irish immigrant, and quickly learn that Kevin has pinched James’ fiancée. No sooner is this revealed than the poor girl is floating in the river, and James has been packed off to the Virginia Military Institute. Thus it comes to pass that the two brothers end up on opposite sides in the ensuing conflict, and the rest of the book charts their experiences in the first two years of the war, as they each struggle to find their place in the strange new worlds they are thrust into, make friends, fall in love, watch comrades fall in battles they survive and try to hold onto their sense of humanity.

Unfortunately it’s not very well written. Not self-published vanity project kind of bad, but not great. While I don’t doubt the historical accuracy and amount of research done by the author, the level of detail that goes into the battle scenes is unnecessary. Rather than transport you into the peril and turmoil of some of the most famous military clashes of all time (Bull Run and Gettysburg to name just two), you end up confused and bored by the endless descriptions of march and battle formations, and the loading of rifles and muskets. The characters are badly drawn ciphers, and more than once I had to remind myself which brother was which, who was on which side, and which plucky yet repressed girl they were in love with. Rather than being swept along, I found reading it to be a real chore.

Right then, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to watch a couple of episodes of North and South…

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #81: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

While the book may be large, and information packed, it isn’t necessarily very dense non-fiction. I couldn’t zip through it like a novel, but it wasn’t as dense as some other non-fiction I’ve read. From what I’ve recently discovered, this book would probably count as narrative nonfiction. Using the lives of three separate participants of the Great Migration, Wilkerson explores the causes and effects of the Great Migration, puts some myths to rest and shows how the effects can still be felt to this day. Her three subjects represent different aspects of the Great Migration, though they are close to each other in age, Ida Mae being the oldest of them. All three are from different regions, ended up settling in different parts of the North and West, and left the South in a different decade. Since Wilkerson explains that the train lines basically determined where people went, which is why Chicago tends to have people with a background from Mississippi, Newark and New York migrants tend to be from the southern east coast, and so forth (I can’t quite remember all the examples but it was fascinating). As a result, her choices made perfect sense to me. Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropper’s wife that left Mississippi in the ’30s and ended up in Chicago after a short stay in Milwaukee. George Starling fled Florida in the ’40s after he had protested against unfair wages, and settled in New York City. Robert Foster, a doctor, left his home in Louisiana (and his wife’s home of Atlanta) for the opportunities of LA in the 1950s. The three combined represent different backgrounds, destinations, and social-economic classes.

Full Review.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #65: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

A Year of Wonders blew me away, and I also loved People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Despite this, I haven’t actually read her award winning novel March because I feel like I should read Little Women first. Caleb’s Crossing is another piece of historical fiction inspired by true events, like her previous novels (the Civil War a true event, even if the March family was fictional). The narrator, Bethia, is completely made up by Brooks, but there actually was a Native American man named Caleb who graduated from Harvard in the mid to late 17th century.
Bethia is the minister’s daughter on the island that is now known as Martha’s Vineyard, living with her father who is intent on building relationships between the new white settlers and the island’s Native American population, her older brother who wants to follow in his father’s foot steps, and a much younger sister. The novel begins as Bethia finds out that her father plans to have Caleb move in with them and tutor him in order to make him a bridge between the two communities as well as help with converting the local populace. Little does her father know that Bethia and Caleb have been friends for years despite conventions of the time that restrict their interactions based on both gender, and ethnic and cultural differences.

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. 

lyndamk #cbr5 review #5 & #6: Two Books on France in Vietnam

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 and Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam examine the French colonization of Indochina and its Dirty War in Vietnam. While Indochina is less accessible, Embers of War is a engaging and readable book. History buffs should definitely check these out. Read more at my blog …

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #3: I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation by Bruce Chadwick


George Wythe was an American patriot. He signed the Declaration of Independence and served as one of Virginia’s representatives at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He was a well-known judge and a law professor at William and Mary (America’s first law professor, they say). Friend and mentor to Thomas Jefferson and a well-respected pillar of the community, George Wythe was admired by all who knew him, so it was quite a shock to the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, when he was murdered by his grand-nephew.

Wythe was 80 years old when he, along with two members of his household, fell suddenly and violently ill. His servant Lydia Broadnax, a freed slave, and his protégé Michael Brown were also stricken, with Broadnax eventually recovering and Brown dying within a week. Wythe hung on for two weeks, all the time insisting that he had been poisoned by his sister’s grandson—and ironically, his own namesake—George Wythe Sweeney.

It wasn’t hard to believe, of course. Everyone knew Sweeney as a gambler and a wastrel who had taken advantage of his uncle’s generosity time and again. While living with his uncle in Richmond, Sweeney forged checks and sold some of Wythe’s valuable books to pay gambling debts. Wythe never pressed charges in those cases, hoping against hope that Sweeney would mature and settle down, but even his generous spirit had to draw the line at his own murder. Wythe lived long enough to not only accuse Sweeney but to cut him out of his will.

The court of public opinion was roundly against Sweeney and the case against him seemed air tight. All signs pointed to arsenic poisoning, a star prosecutor was on the case, and there was even a reliable eye witness in Lydia Broadnax, who claimed to have seen Sweeney put something in the coffee that morning. Yet as with many a famous trial, mistakes were made. During the autopsy, the doctors failed to perform basic tests for arsenic that would have proven the cause of death. Two well-known attorneys eager to make names for themselves by winning an unwinnable case came to Sweeney’s defense. And Broadnax was prevented from testifying because Virginia law did not allow blacks, free or slave, to testify in court.

I Am Murdered provides an interesting account of law and politics in the United States’ early years. Chadwick delves into the relationship between Wythe and Jefferson and recounts their impact on Virginia law. He also paints a colorful picture of Richmond, which was apparently the Sodom and Gomorrah of colonial America with all its gambling houses and brothels. The botched autopsy and the doctors’ initial misdiagnosis of cholera illuminates how even the very best doctors of the day were prone to dreadful screw ups. Finally, the simple detail of Broadnax not being permitted to testify puts the period’s race relations front and center in the narrative.

I’d have to say that I Am Murdered is more about the history of Virginia than it is a historical crime story, which is fine, just not what I was expecting from a book with, you know, murder in the title. So even though I enjoyed the book and found the history interesting, I felt strangely dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s because it held so much potential to be a sensational true-life crime drama: the villain in the story is so shameless he tries to get his victim to bail him out of jail! Edmund Randolph, one of the attorneys who defended Sweeney, was the same attorney who drafted the new will that cut Sweeney out of his inheritance. My God, can’t you just see this as an episode of Law and Order: Colonial America?

As a slice of early American history, I Am Murdered is well worth the read. Just know that’s what you are getting, with a little murder on the side.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Whites of Their Eyes

A look at the Tea Party and how they have interpreted the American Revolution to fit their own ideas. Not bad, but wouldn’t have minded a longer, more in depth argument. I may have waited too long to read this one since I’m not sure how relevant it is . . . I mean the idea of changing history to suit one’s ideas is but I’m just not sure about the context of the Tea Party.