RIVER BEND CHRONICLE by Ben Miller

I found this book, the full title of which is River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa while browsing the local section in my Davenport, Iowa, Barnes and Noble. I love to learn the stories of places by visiting historical museums and reading books. When I started reading the Prologue and recognized the names of some of the people mentioned, I had to buy it.*

River Bend Chronicle is a memoir starting in approximately the late 1960s or early 1970s after the author came to Davenport. I call it a literary memoir because of the detailed, vivid, colorful and fresh, almost poetic, descriptions and writing style. The text is filled with subtle humor. If we’re talking English composition, the long, somewhat drawn out style is inappropriate. But for a literary piece, it fits perfectly. Some of the expressions reminded me of A Christmas Story: ornate, musical, and subtly humorous.

Parenthesis were numerous in the book, especially more toward the beginning. Sometimes they added to the story, so the parenthesis marks weren’t necessary. At other times, they were distracting or didn’t add to the story and could’ve been eliminated. The book also included photographs that I recognized as subjects around Davenport but I would’ve liked to have seen captions. These are minor issues, however, and never tempted me to stop reading.

River Bend Chronicles is not just a memoir or a life story; it’s a study of the author’s life to find meaning and the cause and effect of how and why it turned out as it did. And really, it is the story of a writer and how this particular writer came to be from despair. It seems that, like a lot of writers, the writer was always within Ben Miller waiting to get out, and thankfully it did. I can relate; in all my young experiences, especially despair, I turned to words to cope.

In addition to the content, the words themselves evoke sad overtones of something lost and missed. It’s an insightful, thought-provoking journey of a life from point A to point B.

There seem to be several, weaved-together layers in this memoir. The story is also about a boy’s tumultuous, complicated relationship with his family that reflects in depth on being the eldest sibling amid a dysfunction that seemed to be rampant in families during the 1970s.

The story was engaging, but heavy, taking me a couple of weeks to read 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 would give it a six and a half.

If you’re looking for a light, beach read, this book is not for you. If you like to study people and delve into their minds to find out how they tick, you would enjoy this book. It shows that we Iowans are more than farmers living ideal, rural lives but that many of us live in real cities with real hurts.

Source: Miller, Ben. 2013. River Bend Chronicle. Lookout Books: Wilmington.

*These people were associated with The Midwest Writing Center, a non-profit organization in its pre-infancy (and maybe infancy) during the time period the book covers. I volunteer for MWC and serve on its Board of Directors.

A FAMILY APART by Joan Lowery Nixon

I found A Family Apart on Amazon when I was researching for my pre-civil war era historical novel. The story takes place in 1860 and involves (at least partially) the Midwest so it fits in with my subject’s time and location. And I wasn’t disappointed – this book provided a lot of good information about the appearance of the rural Midwest and about how people lived in their farm communities. As I researched, I also discovered that there are many, many stories taking place during the dawn and the active civil war, but not a vast amount about the pre-dawn years so it was a good find in that regard as well.

A Family Apart is one of a series of seven books about the orphan trains and their passengers. It won the Golden Spur Award and is suitable for juveniles; with the historical information and story structure, it would be a good read for them.

A Family Apart opens in modern times when the grandmother of bored visiting kids in Missouri pulls out their great-great-great grandmother’s, Frances Mary Kelly’s, diary. It then jumps to showing Frances Mary Kelly’s difficult life in New York City helping to support she and her five siblings after her father dies. As an author, I’m not sure I would’ve included the beginning and ending modern times because it didn’t seem to really add anything significant to the story. However, the inclusion doesn’t detract from the story at all either. Plus, since it was published in 1987, approximately 26 years ago, perhaps it was the norm for historical fiction at that time.

The story was engaging; I read it in approximately two days 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 would give it an eight. It was a quick, easily digestible read.

After giving a vivid sense of financially struggling to survive in New York City, the story transitions into Frances’ travel on the orphan train with her siblings to be adopted by families in and around Missouri. I could feel Ma’s desperation and hurt when she sends her children west as well as the anger and confusion in her children who each react in their own way. Even though I knew essentially how the story must end – after all, the great-great-great grandchildren are reading the diary and discovering the story – there was enough tension, action, and conflict motivating me to keep reading to find out exactly how the story gets to that end.

I appreciated this book more because it was based on the true experiences of children being sent west to join new families on the orphan train. The characters and plot points were true to life; it’s an all around well developed engaging read.

Source: Nixon, Joan Lowery. 1987. A Family Apart. Bantam Doubleday: New York.

HER KIND by Robin Throne

Her Kind tells the story of Rose Emma Parmlee via her diaries, compiled over her ninety-years of life, addressing her family’s migration from England to final settlement on the banks of the Mississippi River in LeClaire, Iowa. It is a historical novel based on real historical events and documents. While reading Her Kind, I felt like I was perched on Rose Parmlee’s shoulder as she leafed through her diaries. I especially like the touch of the historical record reprints peppered throughout the book. This added credibility to the story and to the illusion I was viewing someone’s personal thoughts and musings.

This is an intelligent story written beautifully; it is not an easy beach-read but the reward obtained matches the need to pay attention. The story is not told chronologically so you get the feel of flipping back and forth through something I would think would’ve been written chronologically. But perhaps Rose was like a lot of we writers who scribble on paper scraps or whatever else is available. So, as the reader, we are witness to Rose compiling these snippets into a cohesive unit, sorting and reflecting.

Her Kind gives a true sense of what it must’ve been like to live in a Mississippi River town in Iowa through several generations. In all, the story is beautiful and elegantly written, almost poetic. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in history, Mississippi River lore, family, or relationships.

The fifth-anniversary edition of Her Kind was recently released by 918studio press (full disclosure, my own publishing company) with a new foreword by Nancy Purington, Iowa City Mississippi River visual artist.

Source:

Throne, Robin. (2013). Her Kind: a novel. 918studioL LeClaire, Iowa.

NINA: ADOLESCENCE by Amy Hassinger

Technically, Nina: Adolescence is not historical fiction. It’s categorized as simply fiction. It’s also not marketed as young adult fiction, although the main character is fifteen. However, the time period takes place around 1987, so those under the current drinking age might indeed consider it historical fiction. Regardless, I read this beautiful story so I decided to review it here. I purchased this book from the author, Amy Hassinger, at a writing conference I attended in June of 2013.

Nina: Adolescence tells the story of an adolescent Nina who struggles with problems both relatively common (sexuality, body changes) and relatively uncommon (little brother’s death, adultery) for teens. The story is told solely from Nina’s point of view with no head-hopping and no omniscience. I read this book in three sittings over a one week period 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 would give it an eight.

The year of 1987 wasn’t referenced (or at least I didn’t pick it up) until about mid-book; however, I could tell it wasn’t contemporary by the mention of using the paper card catalog at the library and the lack of mention of cell phones or computers. The story struck me as someone looking back over her teen years, discovering how the past led her to the choices she made, but showing that rather than stating it outright.

Nina is a compelling character and she ate at me even when not reading; for the first time in a long, long time, I found myself thinking about her between readings and I could read for two hours feeling like it passed in an instant. I was only occasionally jolted back to reality by my son’s video games or the infrequent need to re-read a sentence. The images in the book are startling; they are detailed but in a new way, more detailed in the feeling rather than the tangible.

The themes of teenage depression and being lost are universal so the uniqueness of this story was how they manifested. In the end, Nina seems okay; she comes clean with her parents and starts medication, leading me to question if it was a brain chemical imbalance causing her problems all along. Therapy is mentioned but there are not a lot of details about it, but do I even need those details? The reader knows the problems centered around Nina dealing with her brother’s loss, exposure by her mother in her paintings and over-reliance on her until her mother didn’t need her any longer, the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and the guilt over believing she was responsible for her brother’s death. These are obvious, but I’m still wondering about simply coming clean and getting on medication leading to her recovery. But maybe that’s the way it is. I cannot attribute my recovery from teen depression to any one thing; it was just a gradual realization and decision to live. Maybe one just spirals down as far as he or she can go so all there is to do is to pick back up?

But these questions, these thoughts, these contemplations are what I loved about this book. It made me think about my own life and human behavior. There is no mystery in how what Nina experienced led to her choices and suffering, but those experiences were not so clear to Nina or those around her at the time. This book is not for those interested in vampires, werewolves, or fantasies but for those who want to think about and experience one perspective about the real problems and falterings of the human mind.

Overall, the book was superb. I found the writing quality, pace, plot, and characters excellent.

FINDING MANANA: A MEMOIR OF A CUBAN EXODUS by Mirta Ojito

Finding Manana is not fiction, but it is historical, covering the Cuban exodus, specifically 1980 in this piece. If I recall correctly, I picked this book up on the bargain rack at one of my local bookstores. It took me only a few days to read it; however, I did not read the entire book, 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 would give it a three.

This book tells the autobiographical story of the author, Mirta Ojito, starting on May 7, 1980, when her family was finally given the permission and means to leave Cuba as they had been working toward doing for years. It then goes back to previous years, telling the story of why and how her family came to want to leave Cuba. Mirta’s story was fascinating and well-told, but her story didn’t fill the entire book. Instead, the author filled the book with stories about historical events surrounding Cuban politics as well as other stories. These are the parts I skipped.

The first alternative chapters were stories told from political figure perspectives and I just couldn’t get into them. They seemed distant, boring, and devoid of emotion to me; well written and valuable in their own right, but not what I was looking for after I read Mirta’s chapters. Some other chapters, I believe, were told from ordinary citizens’, like Mirta’s, perspective and were likely quite interesting, but I was so engrossed in Mirta’s story and her voice, wanting to find out what happened to her and if she was able to get to the U.S. that skipped those chapters as well.

The switching of points of view jolted me and I don’t think they were appropriate for a memoir, which I assume is a story told from the author’s perspective. How can you get in someone else’s head and witness events where you weren’t present in a memoir or autobiography? I realize that the author likely conducted extensive research and wanted to use the results of those efforts, but I think she could’ve created three separate works: her memoir, a collection of stories of other refugees or ex-Cubans, and a factual non-fiction story about the political events surrounding the Cuban exodus.

Parts of Finding Manana I did read, Mirta’s story, were intriguing, tension-filled, and had me turning pages, anxious to see what happened. Most of it was told well from Mirta’s perspective and were consistent, except for a brief passage on page 162 where she put herself in an exchange between her mother and father when she was at school; I attribute this anomaly to editing. I greatly enjoyed Mirta’s story, but because of having to flip pages to find where it picked back up, the pace was off and it reduced the ease of reading. I love the title and the dual of the meaning of Manana meaning tomorrow in Spanish and it being the boat the author took to Florida.

Source: Ojiot, Mirta. 2005. Finding Manana: A Memoir of Cuban Exodus. Penguin Books: New York.

ACROSS FIVE APRILS by Irene Hunt

I found this book on Amazon via a general search for civil war historical fiction. I was especially attracted to the premise because the story centers around the home front in Southern Illinois.

Since my books, Taming the Twisted and Taming the Twisted 2 Reconstructing Rain, also take place around the time of the civil war in the Midwest, I wanted to see how Irene Hunt handled the subject. It is a Newberry Honor book suitable for juveniles, and, with the historical information and story structure, would be a good read for them.

Across Five Aprils begins in April of 1861 with Jethro, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, planting potatoes. Although the story does continue through April of 1865, the bulk of the story takes place in 1861 to 1862, with only the last few chapters covering the final years of the civil war.  Perhaps it was a choice or a coincidence, but I believe this reflects how the war itself seemed to drag on to those at home and, to those outside of active battlefields, perhaps became just a fact of life until the end neared. The book’s climax seems to coincide with the war itself’s as well.

The story was engaging; I read it in approximately a week and a half 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 would give it a five and a half.

At some points, I had the sense of having the benefit of the knowledge of the future rather than the story taking place in that time frame. For example, the author referred to a “cornshuck bed;” to be writing from the perspective of that time period, I think one would have simply written, “bed.” She also mentioned a field of study and clarified with it was “later called physics.” This is not bad and is likely beneficial for the young readers who comprise target audience. It was just something that stood out.

The point of view seems to be third-person omniscient but with the bulk of the story limited to Jethro’s perspective. I’m not sure if this so-called “head hopping” was intentional or not. Jethro is definitely the main character experiencing the character arc. During the story, he goes from being a naive boy excited about the prospect of war to a mature boy knowing first-hand the horrors of war experienced at home. In the end, the readers get a sense that the civil war made or perhaps allowed him to become a man earlier than he otherwise might have been. He is conflicted about his own views of the war; he’s influenced by those around him though he realistically doesn’t ever seem to form a solid opinion.

I enjoyed the plot points of this book. Of course, it contained the usual themes one would expect in a civil war period book: who will survive the war, who will die, who will desert, how hard it is at home, etc. This story’s plot also includes a deadly accident suffered by Jethro’s sister, Mary, prior to the story opening, the romance between his sister and his teacher, and strife between family members.

The author is adept at bringing in her descriptions and appearances subtly and naturally. She also does a good job of conveying the varying views about the civil war within the north, south, and individual households. The scenes about Jethro’s adventures spending the night at his sister’s beau’s home and going to town also adds to the tension and interest of the story.

As I’ve noticed in other books set in the civil war time period, the author sometimes resorts to summary, especially when talking about the battles and politics of the war. This has me questioning the necessity of these battle descriptions. One the one hand, the characters would be concerned with them, but other than what they actually say to each other about them or experience personally, I’m not sure it’s needed. However, if people were obsessed about the war as the characters in this book seem to be, perhaps it is necessary, but, instead of summarizing, I might make it a topic of dialogue more often than Ms. Hunt did. I think this is a personal author-choice that I must resolve in my own work.

Overall, the book was about a family going through a difficult time. I found the writing quality, pace, plot, and characters above average.

Source: Hunt, Irene. 2002. Across Five Aprils. Berkely JAM: New York.

AN IOWA SCHOOLMA’AM Edited by Philip L. Gerber and Charlotte M. Wright

An Iowa Schoolma’am Letters of Elizabeth “Bess” Corey 1904 – 1908 is a research book I found in writing my next novel which takes place in Camanche, Iowa, in 1908. This is sort of a prequel to Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Core, 1909 – 1919, which I haven’t read. It is a non-fiction book containing Elizabeth’s letters almost exactly how she’d written them with notes by the editors of enclosures or explanations of certain people, places, or things.

I found the book interesting, though I didn’t get much concrete research material. It did, however, give me a feel of the time period, including how people communicated, traveled, and dealt with the weather.

The book contains letters Elizabeth Corey wrote mostly to her mother while she was either training to be a teacher or teaching students away from home, boarding with a local family. There are gaps, of course, when she was at home and didn’t need to write letters to her mother who kept the correspondence. Once chapter does contain letters Elizabeth wrote at home while taking over there while her mother was in Omaha, Nebraska, having and recovering from a surgery.

I love reading books like this with real artifacts of real people who lived in real times. It makes me a little sad that all of the emails, tweets, and social media posts are so fleeting. I suppose if you really wanted to, you could cull the Internet as nothing is ever really deleted. But there’s nothing to be passed down from generation to generation and discovered in some attic somewhere.

I read this book relatively 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 a six and a half.

Source: Gerber, Philip L. and Wright, Charlotte M., Editors. (2011) An Iowa Schoolma’am Letters of Elizabeth “Bess” Corey, 1904 – 1908. University of Iowa Press.

THESE IS MY WORDS by Nancy E. Turner

I bought These is my Words by Nancy E. Turner at a gift/souvenir shop near Phoenix, Arizona, when I was visiting in February 2017. I pulled it out of my to-read stack because I’ve read several civil war era stories recently and was in the mood for a change.

The book is written as a diary from Sarah Prine’s point of view, starting in 1881 when she was a girl until 1901. This point of view really allows Sarah’s humor, cleverness, and strength to come through. The fact that her writing gets better as she ages made me feel like I was reading an actual diary and not a novel.

Right away, you enter Sarah’s life on her journey from Arizona to Texas. With so many horrible things that happened to her in those first several pages and so much more of the book left to read, I found myself dreading what obstacles awaited this character who I already liked so much. Even though so many horrific things happen to Sarah, the book seems to give an accurate feel for the time period and how life was for some people, especially in the newer territories with Indians, robbers, and death so common. I wondered if someone could face such things today without going insane; I kind of doubt it.

To me, this is very much a character-driven book because even though there is what I would consider an overarching plot structure with a climax, etc., it’s more to me like a telling of a life story with all of the good things and bad things that happen in life. It felt very real and not contrived to fit a plot structure as a lot of novels seem to do.

I loved how Sarah was so naive at times, like about love and how she tried to be pious (I wanted to tell her she was just fine the way she was), but at the same time, she was also so gutsy.  I did enjoy Sarah’s and Jack’s relationship, but I was bothered by the front cover’s assertion comparing them to Rhett and Scarlett. I didn’t particularly like Rhett or Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, but I did like Jack and Sarah. Plus, Jack and Sarah are so much nicer to each other and more honest. I can definitely see a similarity in their passion for each other, though, so maybe it was to that which USA Today was referring.

This book stuck with me a long time after I read it, which took me just over two weeks, 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: Turner, Nancy E.. (1998.) These is my Words. Harper Perennial.

THE UNION QUILTERS, historical fiction by Jennifer Chiaverini

I heard historical fiction author Jennifer Chiaverini speak at a luncheon, but not being a quilter or even enjoying the act of pulling thread through fabric, I wasn’t so much interested in her books as I was in her as a successful author. That changed when I stumbled across her The Union Quilters novel on the bargain rack at my local Barnes and Noble because I was working on my first two Taming the Twisted books at the time which take place in a similar time period.

The Union Quilters begins near the beginning of the American Civil War. The main story ends prior to its conclusion with an Epilogue dated 1868. The story was well-told. I read it in a little over a month so on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to five for I was up until the wee morning hours, I would give it a three and a half.

Though its historical fiction, the story provided a good history lesson of the Civil War. I enjoyed the letters that arrived home to the Elm Creek Valley from the enlisted men, although they got a bit long at times. The story contains many characters and it took many pages before I could learn who they were enough to keep them straight. It seemed that Gerda was the main character.

Other than the typical plot lines one would expect to find in a book covering the Civil War of who lived and who died, other plot lines included the missing Joanna and the scandalous alleged love affair between Gerda and Jonathan, this last plotline being most intriguing to me. Gerda also seemed to be the character to experience the greatest character arc, coming to accept her situation by the end of the story and realizing the greatest internal change. The story seemed to divert its focus away from Gerda and her story at times, which disappointed me since I perceived her to be the main character.

I also found myself a bit bored occasionally with all of the battle descriptions, but perhaps that’s because I’ve done so much research on the topic. I found myself wishing the story would’ve just stuck with the home front. There is already so much literature available about Civil War battles, but for the most part, it was interesting.

Overall, the book was well-written and free of typos as one would expect from Dutton. I found the pace, plot development, characters, enjoyability, and insightfulness above average. As a writer, I might have leaned more toward dialogue and scene-building than toward exposition. There was a lot of summary, but, overall, it was an easy read and beneficial to my studies.

Source: Chiaverini, Jennifer. 2011. The Union Quilters: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel. Dutton: New York.

GETTING THERE: THE ROLE OF RESEARCH FOR READERS

IMG_0029One of the questions I’m usually asked when I talk about my novel, Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters, is, “Have you ever been to Croatia?” I have never been to Croatia. But I found photos of the area of the country in which my story took place and used those while writing. I also have a good friend from Croatia who I spent several afternoons with talking about Croatia and her experience during the civil war there in the early 1990s. With her permission, many of the descriptions and storylines from Nada’s story came directly from her.

IMG_0036With a story like Missing Emily, it is probably quite obvious that at least some degree of research was involved. But what some readers may not realize is that there is some degree of research involved in every book, even poetry collections. For example, I wrote the vast majority of poems in Crush and Other Love Poems for Girls while I was a teen or pre-teen (although they went through extensive revision before going into the book). To find the poems, I went back to my writings and journals from that period of my life and harvested the poems I’d written at that time. I also went to the bookstore to see if there were any poetry books for pre-teen and teen girls; finding none, I went ahead with the idea.

IMG_0051I completed similar research for my other poetry collection, The Other Side of Crazy. When I journal, I often simply write down whatever comes into my head, sometimes without even realizing the words have any meaning. I also write down snippets – one or two poetic lines. When I was putting together the initial poems for that collection, I reread my journals to look for material. I had some poems that were poems I wanted to include, but I also found poems. Some of them resulted from the random musings I didn’t find any meaning in until I went back and reviewed them. Some of them were spurred by the snippets, either into their own poems or combined into a poem.

IMG_0060For Taming the Twisted, though I grew up in Camanche, Iowa, I had to research to take it back in time to 1860. I completed extensive historical research through books, newspapers, and the internet, covering Camanche, specifically, but the time period and Iowa generally as well. I also completed character research wherein I searched for and found old photographs of each of my main characters. I kept them on a magnet board in front of me as I was writing, so I could always keep their appearances in mind.

IMG_0068I also took a “walk the ground” trip, as shown in the photos. I went to Camanche, parked, and walked nearly five miles over all the areas where my characters would have walked. I had a map of as near to the time period as I could find and superimposed the current street names and landmarks. I took photos and many notes, finding the exact spot of my main character’s home and the places she frequented. This research was invaluable because it helped to crystallize the setting in my mind.

IMG_0083When you talk to authors, you will likely find that in addition to enjoying words, writing, and stories, they also enjoy research. As you read, try to think of some ways in which research may have been needed to create the book. With a well-crafted book, it may not be obvious because the research will be weaved in with the story so well, it might seem as if the author had been there. But they may not have; it may just be a result of extensive and quality research.