THE SHELL SEEKERS by Rosamunde Pilcher

I usually don’t purchase fiction books at mass retailers, but since I’m researching the Mississippi River mussel shell button industry in the early 1900s, the word, “shell,” caught my eye. Of course, the story has little to do with shells themselves, but the back of the book description intrigued me, so I bought it.

The Shell Seekers is about three generations of one family, but it is mostly told from Penelope Kelling’s point-of-view and tells the story of her relationship with the other generations. It is essentially Penelope’s life story, flipping back and forth between the present (1984) and her childhood, growing up. It shows how she was shaped by her famous artist father and relatively progressive mother and how that impacted her relationships with her three children.

The story reminded me that parents can have lives children don’t know about and that children can be selfish. It is a story about friendship, love, lost chances, and choices. The historical facts were subtly woven through the book, giving a good sense of what life was like in World War II London (as far as I know, anyway). It showed the strange dynamics present in all families, how they have different values, attitudes, and ways of doing things.

Readers who enjoy stories involving art, generations, and families will enjoy this book. It was a good story, well written, that made me think. I read this book in two days less than a month, 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 and a half.

Source: Pilcher, Rosamunde. (2015). The Shell Seekers. St. Martin’s Griffin; Reissue edition.

THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks

My aunt, who shares my love of historical fiction, loaned me The Widow of the South because she thought I would enjoy it. I did.

To me, this novel is essentially a clean romance with a twist. It basically tells the story of Carrie McGavock’s emotional love affair with Zachariah Cashwell, a soldier recovering from injuries he sustained in Carrie’s house, which was turned into a hospital, during a civil war battle. Carrie, married and suffering from the losses of her children, finds solace in Cashwell. They essentially find themselves soul mates who teach each other how to live again. It’s also about how Carrie, who has lost so much, finds her purpose in life and becomes a comfort for others.

The story is based on real events during the civil war and the battle at Franklin, Tennessee. It is told from the point-of-view of multiple characters, including a sort of omniscient narrator, but mostly Carrie and Zachariah. All the characters had distinct voices.

On the issue of slavery, the story addresses what is not normally taught in history classes (or at least I don’t recall it during my history classes). The issue of slavery was not so black and white (pun not intended) with slaves choosing to stay with their master families out of loyalty and a feeling of being a part of the family but also because they had nowhere else to go after being freed. Some of them felt trapped and it was simply what they were used to. The story showed how some slave owners failed to see their slaves as human beings, not just in the way you’d expect (as property), but sometimes when they made a mistake and fell from some sort of pedestal.

This book was different from the other civil war era books I read, which is one of the main reasons why I liked it. It took me a little less than three weeks 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: Hicks, Robert. (2006). The Widow of the South. Grand Central Publishing.

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

I never saw the movie other than the “don’t give a damn” moment, so this is not so much a review as it is some musings I encountered while reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. After all, we know it’s “good” considering it won a Pulitzer Prize. If you don’t know the premise of the book, it’s widely available so I won’t rehash it here.

I found the language relatively more modern and easier to read than I expected for a book written in the 1930s. I bought the book to read on vacation since I’d never read it before, always wanted to, and I knew it would last me the whole time, so I only had to carry one book. I read the first few sentences of the book at the book store because I wondered if it would be archaic, but immediately thought, “I can read this.” So I bought it.

I thought it was a bit odd that a large chunk of the book’s beginning didn’t mention Scarlett’s son. There were servants to care for him, for sure, but I wondered about nursing and why he wasn’t mentioned. But then I thought this might have been intentional – make the reader forget him like Scarlett seemed to do.

There are incidents of omniscience and head-hopping, but the vast majority is from Scarlett’s point of view and it becomes obvious immediately that she is the main character. Scarlett is not an especially likable character, so I was trying to determine her “save the cat” moment per Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book of the same name. The only thing I could come up with was that modern women (at the time) might’ve related to or admired her spirit and independence, which makes sense to me since it was written not too long after women got the right to vote.

The theme of the book seems to be how it’s human nature to want something you don’t or can’t have. It explores several purposes for marriage: love, lust, convenience, security, and loyalty. The character arc for Scarlett is subtle. She didn’t change much. She’d thought she had changed and had a big revelation toward the end, but then she reverts back to her old ways, digging in her heels and willfully pursuing what she thinks she wants. She does this despite realizing that when she got what she wanted in the past, it wasn’t really what she’d wanted.

I hope these observations didn’t contain too many spoilers. I now want to watch the movie so I can see how they adapted this massive story to the screen. Despite its nearly 1,500 pages, it only took me a month 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 an eight and a quarter.

Source: Mitchell, Margaret. (1936). Gone with the Wind. Macmillan Publishing Company.

THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER by Luis Alberto Urrea

Photo from Amazon

Luis Alberto Urrea is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Midwest Writing Center’s David R. Collins Writer’s Conference on June 22, 2017, so I decided I should read at least one of his books. I was happy to discover he wrote historical fiction, so I chose The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

The story takes place in the late 1880s in Mexico and essentially presents the life story of Teresita from before birth through death. It is beautifully written with vivid imagery and Spanish words sprinkled in to give it Mexican flavor. It is full of the supernatural and spiritual, intertwining them beautifully.

If there was one different choice I may have made as an author, it would’ve been to begin the story later. Showing Teresita’s mother and fate before Teresita was a little girl reminded me a little of backstory dumping or the author forcing in facts. The extra material at the beginning delayed my getting engaged with the story.

Once I did, though, when Teresita hit her pre-teen years, I was hooked. There are a lot of characters in the story and the author trades point-of-view among them, but there is a “family” tree at the beginning of the book and it didn’t take me long to get a handle on who was who. The writing seemed authentic and painted a vivid picture of life in pre-civil-war Mexico. And I loved that it was based on family lore substantiated by discovered articles. Though I don’t know for sure, of course, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of historical fiction based in Mexico, so this provided a refreshing new period and place to explore.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Mexican history, the supernatural, spirituality, and coming-of-age stories. I enjoyed it, so much his other historical fiction book is on its way to me. Just because of the slow start, 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: Urrea, Luis Alberto. (2005). The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Back Bay Books.

HE SELECTED LETTERS OF LAURA INGALLS WILDER edited by William Anderson

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The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder was another title I picked up while visiting the Rocky Ridge Farm Laura Ingalls Wilder site. I debated whether I should even write this review since I’ve read and reviewed so many LIW-related titles lately, so I thought I’d make it a sort of “bonus review.”

The letters themselves aren’t of any particular literary quality or great writing in-and-of themselves. I skipped reading the larger-fonted headlines between a lot of the letters, but I did very much appreciate the editor’s transitional sections and background/contextual information.

I found that the value in this book, like in many of the about-LIW books, is the insight it provides into this human being’s life. Even if you’re not a LIW/Little House fan or a writer, it’s interesting to be able to study someone’s life so intimately. And when you add what’s written about Rose into the mix, you get insight into a mother-daughter relationship carried out in a particular time period. I find that fascinating. There have been few people (if any) who have been written about more than the Ingalls/Wilders, so the information just isn’t available about most people.

So…I would recommend this book to all the bonnet-heads, of course, but also anyone interested in psychology and sociology-type topics as well.

Thanks for reading. Now back to your regularly scheduled historical book review blog post.

HAMMON FAlls by Dave Hoing and Roger Hileman

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Dave and Roger were co-presenters at an author event I attended in early November 2016, at the West Liberty, Iowa, public library. I traded my book, Taming the Twisted, for their title, Hammon Falls.

Hammon Falls follows three generations through the years 1893 through 2008. The characters include Will; his grandmother, Margaret; his grandfather, Orville/Luka; his father, George; and his mother, Cora. Though there was a learning curve to get the characters straight in my head, it was short. I loved how these characters’ stories were intertwined, going between them and back and forth in time. Generally, I don’t like stories that switch points-of-view but it worked well for me in Hammon Falls. The story shows how our families’ lives are tangled, for better for worse, and sheds a light on how family members relate to each other and how choices affect one another. There are no “good” or “bad” guys/gals; they all have different perspectives and experiences that give them redemption and faults. In other words, they are human.

By the end of the book, I was satisfied that all of the questions and loose ends were tied up, except for one. I never learned how Will met his wife or what happened to her. Perhaps there’s a sequel coming? I also enjoyed the local connection of the story’s setting; though Hammon Falls and Waterton are fictional towns, they are similar to two real towns in Iowa.

Though fiction, I think Hammon Falls depicts how a family could have evolved through history. I read this one quickly, 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: Hileman, Roger & Hoing, Dave. (2010). Hammon Falls. All Thins That Matter Press.

UPDATE: Apparently how Will met his wife and what happened to her is mentioned the book and I obviously missed it. I still wonder if there might be a story there, though, that could be sequel fodder… 🙂

CLOUDS OVER BISHOP HILL by Mary Davidsaver

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Full disclosure: This book was published by MWC Press, with which I’m affiliated as president of the board of directors of Midwest Writing Center. This is, however, an honest review (i.e. I really did like it.)

Clouds Over Bishop Hill is not historical fiction in the strictest sense (it takes place in 2008); however, the story revolves around a historical item, specifically a 1915 painting by Bishop Hill, Illinois, artist Olaf Krans. Bishop Hill is a former Swedish communal society in approximately north central Illinois. It is a real place with museums and interesting spots anyone can visit. Olaf Krans was a real artist who lived there and painted portraits of Bishop Hill’s early residents. Clouds Over Bishop Hill centers on one such fictional painting (or rather, the apparent absence of it).

The story starts with feet running with a murder college graduate, Shelley Anderson, stumbles upon on her way home to Bishop Hill for the summer. In addition to the murder mystery, there’s also a mystery around where and how a particular Olaf Krans painting came to be based on the foggy dreams of one of the town’s elders. It is a fast-paced story with the characters encountering greed, deception, murder, and some romance, too. The main character, Shelley Anderson, embarks on a character arc that leaves her changed and more grateful for her hometown.

Clouds Over Bishop Hill will appeal especially to those familiar with Olaf Krans paintings and/or Bishop Hill, Illinois, but it is also a good cozy mystery read in general. There are murder and suspense, but nothing gory or gross. The ending is satisfying but leaves room for a sequel. I read this book relatively quickly, so on the 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.

Source: Davidsaver, Mary. (2016) Clouds Over Bishop Hill. MWC Press: Davenport, Iowa.

LAURA WILDER OF MANSFIELD by William Anderson

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I purchased several books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Family Series while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, in early June, 2016. Laura Wilder of Mansfield is the third in the series and the third one I read.

The book chronicles Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life after she came to Manfield, Missouri. It talked about their arrival, time living in town, and years building the Rocky Ridge Farm as well as Laura’s writing career and her relationship with her daughter, Rose, as well as her writing career. Also included are brief stories about Laura’s travels outside of Mansfield and visits she and Almanzo enjoyed from others. To the average reader, Laura Wilder of Mansfield may be a bit boring, reading like a textbook. To huge LIW fans like me and self-proclaimed “bonnet heads,” it will be fascinating.

The book definitely has a specific target reader, of which I belong. It is a short book, so due to that and my interest, 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: Anderson, William. (1974). Laura Wilder of Mansfield.

THE STORY OF THE INGALLS FAMILY by William Anderson

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I purchased several books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Family Series while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, in early June, 2016. The Story of the Ingalls Family is the first in the series and the second one I read.

The book essentially discusses Laura’s ancestors, parents, and siblings, including her immediate family’s travels, the subject of most of her Little House books. It was particularly interesting to read about how May, Pa, Carrie, Mary, and Grace lived subsequent to the time period covered in the books. It also talks about Laura’s life as an author and includes several interesting appendices, including Grace Ingalls’ diary, family tree information, and family letters. To the average reader, The Story of the Ingalls Family may be a bit boring, reading like a textbook. To huge LIW fans like me and self-proclaimed “bonnet heads,” it will be fascinating.

The book definitely has a specific target reader, of which I belong. It is a short book, so due to that and my interest, 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: Anderson, William. (1973). The Story of the Ingalls Family.

THE STORY OF THE WILDERS by William Anderson

I purchased several books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Family Series while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, in early June, 2016.The Story of the Wilders, the second in the series, was the first one I read.

Almanzo Wilder was the subject of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel Farmer Boy and also her husband. The book describes the lives of the actual Wilders from when they lived in Malone, New York, through their travels west. In addition to containing information about Almanzo, it also talks about his life outside of Farmer Boy, his siblings, and his parents. To the average reader, The Story of the Wilders may be a bit boring, reading like a textbook. To huge LIW fans like me and self-proclaimed “bonnet heads,” it will be fascinating.

The book definitely has a specific target reader, of which I belong. It is a short book, so due to that and my interest, 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: Anderson, William. (1973). The Story of the Wilders.