Trenton Reads

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Archive for historical fiction

Review: A Thread of Grace

Reading A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell taught me about an aspect of World War II I previously knew very little, if anything, about … the Italian resistance to Nazi Germany and the assistance they offered to not only Italian Jews but also those fleeing from occupied Austria, Belgium, France, Poland.

Russell sets her historical novel in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding mountainous countryside. The novel spans from 1943 to 1945. The Allies are closing in, and the Germans are making a last push, knowing defeat is drawing near, to destroy as many Jewish lives as possible. Most Italians, at this point, are anti-fascist as well as opposing Hitler, some have embraced communism, and many are willing to put themselves at risk to hide Jewish refugees.

Russell introduces a cast of characters that I quickly grew to love. The star of the show is Renzo Leoni, a handsome, fearless Italian Jew who was injured in the Italo-Abyssinian colonial war and now works for the Italian resistance. Renzo, who drowns his guilt over atrocities committed in Abyssinia in alcoholic over-indulgence, has a gift for impersonation and winning people and is able to insinuate himself into the Nazi ranks under several different guises. His mother Lidia, as fearless and sharp of wit as her son, also aids the resistance effort.

Rabbi Iacopo Soncini and his wife Mirella are also primary characters, as is their young son Angelo. Iacopo is willing to risk his life to protect his flock, despite his wife’s pleas to flee with her and their children to the countryside. Instead, Iacopo remains in Porto Sant’Andrea while Mirella becomes a major player in the resistance effort while seeking safety in the mountains. Angelo, sent into hiding at a Catholic school; provides a child’s view of the atrocities of war and it is heartbreaking.

Claudette Blum and her father Alberto were separated from her mother and two young brothers in France, after fleeing Nazi occupied Belgium. Although the fate of mother and sons is never addressed directly, we can only assume that the train they boarded was headed, not to Nice as they assumed, but sadly, to a Nazi death camp. Seeking safety, father and daughter follow an Italian regiment over the Alps and end up in the same village as Renzo Leoni’s band of resistance militia and Mirella Soncini. Claudette falls in love with an Italian soldier who befriended her during her trek through the Alps, and she eventually joins the resistance movement.

Another memorable character is the deserter Nazi medical officer suffering from tuberculosis who estimates that his signature authorized the death of more than 90,000 people throughout the war. In the beginning of the novel, Werner Schramm is seeking forgiveness. Instead, he finds redemption, as he has the opportunity to use his medical training to save the lives of wounded resistance fighters. Also unforgettable are two Catholic priests and two nuns who defy German edicts and risk their own lives to help the Jewish people living and hiding in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding villages.

This was neither a quick nor easy novel to read, because of the difficulty of the subject matter, the large and varied cast of characters (the author wisely provides a glossary of characters which was extremely helpful – all those Italian names!) and the care with which Russell treated her historical subject matter. But it was well worth the time and effort. In the end it was rewarding, first of all, on an intellectual level, because I learned about a little discussed aspect of World War II. I held my breath throughout the story, fearing for the Jews and their Italian protectors, wondering who would be picked off by the hellish brutality of war, and hoping against hope that these beloved characters would somehow survive despite the odds.

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Review: The Boleyn Inheritance

Last spring I devoured Philippa Gregory’s acclaimed novel The Other Boleyn Girl and credit it with reviving my latent interest in historical fiction. I was hesitant to pick up the follow up, The Boleyn Inheritance, certain it wouldn’t measure up to the original. But when I saw a shiny new copy on the shelf at the library, I had to take it home.

The Boleyn Inheritance is narrated by three women, only one of which I can say I really knew and liked by the end of the book. Anne of Cleves was a woman of integrity, grace and wisdom, the only wife of King Henry VIII to survive his tyranny. Well, I guess his last wife – number six, Catherine Parr – outlived him, but only because he died before he could kill her. Anyway, there was something satisfying about the fact that the only truly honorable wife was the one to escape alive.

As for the other two narrative voices, Jane Boleyn and Katherine Howard, the characters were just hard to like. Jane was deceitful and scheming, with allegiance to no one but herself. I was shocked to find myself feeling sympathetic in the beginning of the book, given what I knew about her from The Other Boleyn Girl. I kept hoping perhaps she had seen the folly of her ways and reformed, had become a better woman. But alas, it was not so.

As for Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, she was vain, greedy, shallow, and like fellow narrator Jane Boleyn, without moral compass. I could almost sympathize with her despite this because of her age – she was Queen of England at age 15 – and the fact that she had grown up in the perversely driven Howard family without guidance or example. Still, she was difficult to know – or maybe there just wasn’t much to know.

Overall, it was a great read, not quite as good as The Other Boleyn Girl but surprisingly close. I think my issue was with the narrative voice. I preferred the singular narrative voice of Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl. It felt like I got to know her better over the course of the book.

As with The Other Boleyn Girl, I took issue with some of the language, wondering if it was really appropriate to the time period. In several instances, Katherine Howard described someone or something as being nasty. My teenage daughter’s speech is peppered liberally with this term, but was it a commonly used adjective in Tudor England?

The novel provides a fascinating, in depth picture of King Henry’s fourth and fifth marriages, although I wish it had been fleshed out with a little more information about the economic, political and religious state of the kingdom at the time. Gregory does a marvelous job of portraying the decadence of Henry’s pleasure-seeking court as well as the desperate political and social climbing of England’s most prominent families as they schemed and labored to be his most favored, no matter what the cost.

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Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman


Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett’s debut novel, is set in England, 1527, in the heat of the Catholic-Protestant struggle. The story is told from the vantage point of Sir Thomas More’s family, specifically his adopted daughter, Meg Gibbs. At first, I thought I was going to have trouble liking her character, but by midway through the book she felt like a friend and by the end, I was sad to say good-bye.

During Meg’s childhood and young adult years, More is a favorite of the English court, as well as a respected intellectualist. Their home is constantly filled with the prominent intellectual and political figures of the day, and clever Meg embraces the urbane, humanist thinking that surrounds her. Meg is sharply intelligent, passionate in her opinions, warm and loving to both her family and friends and the disadvantaged citizens of London.

After her marriage to her childhood tutor and lifelong love, who is now a respected doctor, Meg works as a female healer in the streets of London. She is torn between loyalty to her father who, somewhat uncharacteristically, is fanatically persecuting Protestant “heretics”, and her own more tolerant religious views. Eventually she can remain silent no longer and dares to oppose the torture and killing that her father has sanctioned.

Historical fiction fans will appreciate the glimpse into the infamous reign of King Henry VIII from the perspective of Sir Thomas More, from More’s glory years as Lord Chancellor of England to his downfall as an ardent Catholic when Henry increasingly embraced Protestantism. As a reader, I felt invested in the lives of this cast of characters and held my breath as England became a hotbed of religious fanaticism, wondering how it would affect Meg and her family.

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Review: One Thousand White Women


One Thousand White Women, by Jim Fergus, is the fictionalized account of what happened when a Northern Cheyenne chief asked U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant to send his tribe one thousand white brides. According to the book’s prologue, Chief Little Wolf did indeed make this request – to U.S. Army authorities, not President Grant – and it was promptly denied. One Thousand White Women paints a portrait of what might have happened if the answer had instead been yes.

The story is told through the journal entries of May Dodd, who agreed to participate in the bride program to escape the insane asylum in which she had been unfairly imprisoned by her family. The first installment of brides travels from Chicago through Nebraska Territory to meet their soon-to-be Cheyenne husbands. The story that unfolds in the pages of May’s journal is one of struggles and triumphs, friendships formed, battles fought as the brides try to assimilate into the Cheyenne tribe and adapt to the rigors of living in the untamed West.

Despite the fact that the voice of May Dodd sometimes feels forced and doesn’t quite ring true, the stars of this story are most certainly the women – both the white brides and the Cheyenne wives and daughters of May’s new husband, Chief Little Wolf. The brides are a motley crew of women, from Irish immigrant twin sisters to a bitter and prejudiced Southern belle. These women feel like friends by the end of the book. I liked May’s counterparts more than I liked her.

Especially charming is the author’s rendering of the brides’ various accents. The Irish sisters Meggie and Susan: “Showt up Martha … If they were plannin’ to kill us, they’d a doon so by now.” Swiss Gretchen: “Yah, you got a goot man there, May!” And Daisy Lovelace, a girl from the south if ever there was one: “It belonged to my dear departed Motha … Ah was to wear this gown myself, when Ah married Mr. Wesley Chestnut of Albany, Georgia. But after Daddy lost everything in the wah, Mr. Chestnut had a sudden change of heart, if you know what Ah mean.”

At the heart of this yarn is the sad truth of what happened when two cultures collided. As one character aptly observed, there wasn’t enough room for the natives and the whites in this country, the whites weren’t going away, and the natives weren’t going to win this one.

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