THE WAR CAME HOME WITH HIM: A DAUGHTER’S MEMOIR by Catherine Madison

Photo from Amazon

I came across The War Came Home with Him while shopping on Amazon. Other than being a historical account and involving Veterans, who I find have fascinating stories to tell, I also have something in common with the author. Technically, it’s actually my father who has it in common with her. My grandfather, my father’s father, was also a POW in Korea. It also changed him and he didn’t talk about it. My father has been researching my grandfather’s captivity, so I thought it might be instructive.

The War Came Home with Him has alternating chapters starting with Alexander Boyson prior to his capture and trading places back and forth with his daughter, Catherine’s, story starting when she was a little girl. It beautifully tells the story of both of their lives, his before and after the time he was a prisoner, and hers of her life with him. It’s heartbreaking how being a POW negatively impacted the author’s life, but it’s also hopeful in that it’s clear the author has forgiven him, understands him to some degree, and has made peace. This memoir doesn’t glorify war or gloss it over; it is what it is, through the author’s eyes and the father’s. The author’s perspective is based on her memories and her father’s based on her research and writings her father left behind, making it believable and, as far as I know, highly accurate. I also liked how the author arranged the chapters, subtly tying what her father went through as a Korean War POW to her own memories of how he was as a father, and how he brought that part of the war home with him.

The War Came Home with Him is interesting, tells a good story, and provides deep insight into the author’s and her father’s life. And I also believe it’s an important book. I read it pretty quickly even with the holidays, so, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it an eight and a half.

Source: Madison, Catherine. (2015). The War Came Home with Him. University of Minnesota Press.

OUT OF THIS WORLD by Mary Swander

I also bought Out of this World at the first annual Clinton Book Festival on August 29, 2015 while I was there promoting my book, Taming the Twisted. I’ve met Mary Swander before, enjoyed her poetry, and like books telling the history of where I live in Iowa.

Out of This World is a memoir broken into four parts about Mary Swander’s adult life living in the middle of an Amish community in east central Iowa. Living in an Amish community, however, is just one of the “out of this world” themes in the book. It’s also about learning to live in her own body, which doesn’t tolerate food and chemicals the same as most other people in the world, sort of like her body rejecting our modern way of life. Mary had the unique opportunity of finding the detailed story of the previous owner of one of the homes in which she lived, thereby living essentially in someone else’s world. She also lived in a converted schoolhouse, also unusual. Though lots of people live in pastoral settings, including Iowa, in a sense, that’s also a way of living “out of this world.”

The picture Mary creates of the Amish part of Iowa was interesting; though I live near there, I’ve never had the chance to be immersed in the community as she has. For the setting, Mary also creates a beautiful and accurate picture of Iowa. I’m here and am familiar with the landscape, but if I wasn’t, I think I’d know what it looks, sounds, smells, and feels like. She also weaves in interesting bits of history, facts, and philosophy. Reading Out of This World made me wonder about my own attraction to solitude and about how a lot of people say they would or want to choose clean, simple living and eating, but we don’t. In Mary’s case, she was essentially forced to live clean if she wanted to live at all.

Out of This World interestingly portrays one person’s experience in one setting during a particular time in her life, which is I suppose what makes it a memoir. If you’ve never been to Iowa and want one perspective about how it is to live here (contrary to some beliefs, we are NOT all the same, just as nobody nowhere is the same), you’ll enjoy Mary Swander’s book. It did take me a bit of time to read it with the holidays and other commitments, so, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a six and a half.

Source: Swander, Mary. (1995). Out of This World. Penguin Books.

SEEKING SIGNS by Staci Angelina Mercado

Photo from Amazon

I bought Seeking Signs at the first annual Clinton Book Festival on August 29, 2015. I was there promoting my book, Taming the Twisted, so was drawn to this book that has a similar idea – a novel based on a local historical event. Seeking Signs tells the story from Elsie Seamer’s point of view. After Elsie’s sister, Minnie, is found hanging in the barn on June 20, 1913, Elsie becomes amateur investigator seeking to debunk the coroner’s ruling of her sister’s death as a suicide.

The story builds as Elsie delves deeper into solving the mystery until a terrible event beyond her control brings the final understanding of truth. As Elsie’s story is told, so is her sister’s weaved through passages from newspaper articles appearing at the time and Minnie’s diary, and her family’s, dealing with a grave illness.

The story follows the “formula” of a mystery novel, with the amateur detective being “called” to solve the crime, reaching a point of no return, and enlisting the aid of a partner. But, perhaps because the mystery is based on an actual historical event in a real place at a real time, it didn’t feel like it was following any sort of formula or recipe. It’s simply a face-paced, suspenseful story. The fact that it’s based on a real event makes it all that much more fascinating.

I got so engrossed in this book that won the Midwest Book Gold Award for historical fiction in 2013 from the Midwest Independent Publishers’ Association, that I didn’t even take notes as I read. The book was easy-to-follow, pleasant to read, and pulled me through to the end. So, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a nine.

Source: Mercado, Staci Angelina. (2013). Seeking Signs. Four Feathers Press.

SHELL GAMES by Jeffrey S. Copeland

Photo from Amazon

Shell Games is non-fiction, classified as true crime/biography/history, but it reads like a novel with well-developed characters, action, drama, and suspense.

The book tells the story of Pearl McGill who was involved in the initial establishment of a union and protection of workers’ rights in the button industry in Muscatine, Iowa, around 1910. I bought the book because my next novel will take place around the same time period and will involve the clamming part of the button industry. The working of the clammers and button makers was well-researched and weaved well throughout the story. I felt like I got to learn about every aspect of the life of a button, from the mussels being plucked out of the Mississippi River to the buttons being sewn on cards and packed for shipping. The book also gave me a good sense of what Muscatine looked, felt, and smelled like in that time period.

I noticed some typos and confusing moments, but they didn’t detract terribly from my reading. For example, when Pearl was kidnapped, I was surprised that she wasn’t more afraid for her roommate when she gave her kidnappers her address. At one point, the book mentions how Pearl stopped by to get a library book she’d put on hold; I found it odd that she would’ve been spending much time reading leisurely with so much turmoil in her life (it didn’t mention that the book was related to strikes or workers’ rights). I was also surprised that Pearl wasn’t concerned about her boss finding out about her involvement with the union when she agreed to such a high-profile role; she didn’t seem to consider it until she saw her boss at a meeting. Finally, I was confused about the timeline. The story starts with Pearl’s arrival in Muscatine on July 9, 1910, and the story seems to take place all during the summer months, with no mention of winter, but the epilogue states that the agreement Pearl helped to work out occurred in May, 1911.

Shell Games is overall a good book, appropriate for those who enjoy historical novels or biographies. It would also appeal to those who like to read about by-gone industries or are interested in union formation history. It did take me a little longer than normal to read it so, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a six and a half.

Source: Copeland, J. 2012. Shell Games: The Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist. Paragon House: St. Paul, Minnesota.

CATTLE KATE by Jana Bommersbach

Photo from Amazon

Cattle Kate is a novel based on the legend of the lynching of Cattle Kate as a cattle rustler on July 20, 1889, in Wyoming Territory. In reality, the woman lynched never heard the name Cattle Kate; she was never referred to by that name until she was dead.

The book puts the reader in Ella’s (later known as Cattle Kate’s) shoes to set the record straight, telling her story in her words. It reads like an autobiography because Ella’s story begins when she was a child in Canada. It follows her family’s travels to Kansas and finally, her own travel to Wyoming Territory. Ella’s voice comes across like she is writing a letter to the reader, which fits in the “this is the real story” theme. The dialogue is true to life, at least it’s how I imagine those in the West spoke in the 1880s. There were a few typos but nothing too distracting and they didn’t significantly pull me out of the story.

Part I of Cattle Kate is told in first person from Ella Watson’s point of view; there isn’t really a traditionally character/story arc, but it is interesting and kept me reading. If you enjoy reading autobiographies or biographies, you will enjoy Part I, which ends violently and graphically. Part II is told in the third person and Part III contains notes pertaining to each chapter, which I enjoyed greatly. My own historical research has been based in the Midwest so I’d never heard of the Cattle Kate legend. I liked reading Ella’s story in her own words, the story of how the myth came to be, and where all of the facts the author used to pull it all together came from.

Cattle Kate is part fictional story and part history lesson. It did take me a little longer than normal to read it so, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a seven.

Source: Bommersbach, Jana. Cattle Kate: A Novel. Poisoned Pen Press: Scottsdale, AZ.

FROG MUSIC by Emma Donoghue

Photo from Amazon

Frog Music is historical fiction based on a murder that occurred in the sweltering summer of 1876 in San Francisco, California. I found it on Amazon with a keyword search involving American historical fiction and murder while doing a comparison for marketing my own historical fiction book, Taming the Twisted.

The story is told in the present tense from the third person limited point of view; the main character is Blanche. The book grabbed me violently in the first few pages with its description of the brutal murder which immediately sets ups the mystery I wanted to keep reading to solve. It goes back and forth in time with essentially two chronological starting points. It starts at the murder and also a few weeks prior when Blanche meets the murdered person, Jenny. The story switches back and forth between these two times, though they are both moving forward until, toward the end of the book, when the first story line (the meeting) catches up with the beginning of the later story line (the murder). I found this way of storytelling interesting and both kept me engaged. I had no trouble orienting myself in the story’s time.

Given the main character’s profession, the number of sex scenes shouldn’t come as a surprise, and they are told as tastefully as can be. And uncliched, with which I find many authors tend to struggle.

As mentioned, Frog Music is based on a real murder and the real witnesses who testified at the inquest about the murder. The characters are authentically human with both good and undesirable qualities. I found it difficult to completely love or completely hate any of them which testifies to their dynamics. Ultimately, Frog Music is a story of love between a mother and her child and how it overtakes the mother, even if at first she doesn’t want it to.

The book was obviously well-researched and I liked the Afterword that talked about the real people and the way San Francisco appeared in 1876.

I read this book within a little less than a week. So, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it an eight and a half.

Source: Donoghue, Emma. 2014. Frog Music. Back Bay Books: New York, NY.

DREAM CHASERS OF THE WEST by B.L. Wettstein

Photo from Amazon

I found Dream Chasers of the West: A Homestead Family of Glacier Park at a souvenir shop during my trip to Glacier National Park in 2015. I was intrigued by the back of the book description about Clara Miller who left Minnesota at thirty and unmarried in 1913 to homestead in Montana. The fact that it was a true story intrigued me more.

I’ve long time been a fan of the history of people and things – more of the development through time rather than politics. Clara Miller Smiley’s story was no different. Though it’s a biography, Clara’s story (and her family’s) is told like fiction. It’s full of dialogue, description, and showing rather than telling. There are occasional paragraphs where the author writes an aside or wonders about what Clara may have been thinking at the time; though these asides weren’t necessary, they were brief and didn’t detract from my reading.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will just say that Clara experienced joy in her life but also incredible hardship. She lived through the depression and worked in the new tourism industry, all while trying to find her true self and follow her passion. Clara, always a storyteller, dreamed of being a writer and publisher; maybe she didn’t achieve literary fame but I’m certain she entertained dozens of people with her stories, usually a writer’s goal anyway.

I read most of this book while still in Montana, finishing the last few chapters after I returned home. It was a fascinating story and interesting to try to find the places in real life that were written about. So, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it an eight.

If you have been to Glacier National Park or are just interested in pioneering stories, you will enjoy this book.

Source: Wettstein, B.L..2006. Dream Chasers of the West: A Homestead Family of Glacier Park. Riverbend Publishing: Helena, MT.

LAURA INGALLS WILDER PIONEER GIRL by Pamela Smith Hill, Editor

Because my books, especially Taming the Twisted and its sequel were heavily influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder (LIW), I ordered The Annotated Biography of Pioneer Girl in December 2014, but because of a sellout, I didn’t receive it until into the second half of March 2015. I was surprised by its volume because I hadn’t looked at the page count; I’m such a huge LIW fan, I knew I wanted it regardless.

Pioneer Girl is like a textbook on LIW and the Little House books as well as a treatise on how LIW became a writer and the Little House books were written. The main part of Pioneer Girl consists of the original autobiography LIW wrote upon which the Little House books were eventually based. It also includes parts only intended for Rose Wilder Lane, her daughter who was editing the manuscript, and notes about two revisions it went through with different potential publishers.

This book is as much of a historical text as it is about LIW. After nearly every other sentence, the reader is directed to the annotations which provide more information about the people, places, items, and events mentioned in the main text. I’ve heard some people have referred to the book as boring; however, if you love LIW or are fascinated by the pioneer times in United States history, you will absolutely love it as I did. It is the most comprehensive account of LIW that I’ve seen.

As an author, I did wonder if LIW was so skilled that she made the deliberate choices Pioneer Girl’s editors’ analyzed in the annotations or if she made those authorial choices by intuition so that the intensive studies conclude things that LIW didn’t consciously make. LIW didn’t have an MFA or any formal novel writing training; she just knew how she wanted the stories to read and what sounded good to her ears. I believe, in general, authors make more intuitive than conscious choices when writing, and it is simply readers’ fascination with them that makes them more lordly than they are. At least that’s what I like to believe. It gives me hope.

This book was a little different in my compulsive reading motivation. I was not so much compelled to keep turning pages by any twists, turns, suspense, or mystery, but because of my passion for this era of time and my love for LIW. So, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a nine.

Source: Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Pamela Smith Hill, Editor. 2014. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. South Dakota Historical Society Press: Pierre, SD.

A publication of the Pioneer Girl Project. Nancy Tystad Koupal, Director; Rodger Hartley, Associate Editor; Jeanne Kilen Ode, Associate Editor.

A WALK WITH ESTHER by Deb Bowen with Cassie Bowen

I obtained A Walk with Esther as a trade when meeting with the author, Deb Bowen. I’d seen a story on the local news about Deb and her book on the recent Holocaust anniversary. When I looked at her website, I learned about the A BOOK by ME project where Deb partners children with Holocaust survivors or World War II Veterans and adult mentors to write books telling the survivors’ or Veterans’ stories. I loved this idea so I emailed Deb and we had a wonderful visit about our respective writing and projects. I traded Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters for A Walk with Esther.

A Walk with Esther not only tells the stories of these three Holocaust survivors named Esther, but also Deb’s journey with them. The book is also a memoir of how A BOOK by ME was created and affected Deb’s and her daughter’s, Cassie’s, lives. It’s also more than walks with Esthers, but also with other Holocaust survivors and those touched by World War II.

I was pulled into the stories; I would look up from reading them and realize an hour had passed. I liked Cassie’s perspectives, too; they added even more to the gap-bridging aspect of the book. I read the book as part sales pitch, like an extra long sales letter to get the reader to support the worthy cause. But even though this thread of asking for support was weaved through the stories, they were so interesting I didn’t mind. Plus, they were effective – they made me want to support the effort.

Along with the stories about the Holocaust survivors or Veterans themselves, the book also presents photos of the authors and illustrators who created the A BOOK by ME products and photos of the books’ covers. Other photos and facts related to the stories, World War II, and the Holocaust are also included, which I found very interesting and added value to the book.

Be aware, after you read this book, you will be touched by the stories and will want to do something to promote the A BOOK by ME project. However, you will also feel Deb’s gratitude by simply purchasing the book. The proceeds from A Walk with Esther go back to Deb’s A BOOK by ME project, so you’ll know you’ve helped to fund something important. More than just financially, however, you know you are helping these stories stay alive, doing your part to help prevent the past from repeating. And you get to learn something, too.

I loved this book and reading all of the stories; I found myself coming back to it as quickly as I could. So, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it an eight and a half.

A Walk with Esther along with all of the A BOOK by ME books published to date are available to purchase on www.abookbyme.com. The website also offers a wealth of information about the project, including how you can help.

TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE by Nellie Bly

In March 2015, I attended a National History Day showcase at my son’s school. As we browsed the talented students’ projects, I came across an exhibit one articulate young lady prepared about Nellie Bly. She told us that Nellie Bly was a reporter who got herself committed to an insane asylum in the 1880s to write a story about it in Ten Days in a Madhouse. I went home, found the e-book on Amazon, and purchased it for 99 cents (I found it later for free here).

Ten Days in a Madhouse was written in 1887; it’s easy to read and filled with humor, despite the horrible conditions Nellie Bly endured. At the time, it was easy to get committed; an internet search for insane asylum commitment reasons will show you an array of what could be viewed as typical problems today. All Nellie had to do was pretend she didn’t know where she came from; otherwise, she behaved totally sane. Even she seemed surprised at how easy it was and that she wasn’t discovered.

The story itself tells a story of mistreatment and cover-up; any patient who tried to tell anyone otherwise was judged as providing proof of her insanity. The book talked about beatings, rope lines, cold inedible meals, and frigid baths taken in the same water as all of the other patients. It was all covered up by the nurses who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle with fresh fruits who teased and tortured the patients (some of who were sane).

After Nellie’s expose’, the conditions at Blackwell Island in New York City changed for the better, at least on paper. Though I have to wonder after reading what Nellie witnessed if I can trust that things actually improved.

The website nellieblyonline.com contains a wealth of information about Nellie Bly, the pen name for her real name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, along with a link to the free electronic book. Nellie pioneered investigative reporting and is also known for reports she did about working conditions and traveling around the world.

I don’t know if the students at my son’s school learned anything at the showcase, but I did and I think some of what Nellie witnessed may end up in my next novel…