Friday, October 30, 2015

Snow Moon Rising, Lori L. Lake

The atrocities committed against the Jewish people in Europe during World War II are well-covered ground in the literary world. The history of the Jewish genocide is well-documented in history books, and the human toll of the war and its depravity are demonstrated through the thousands of fictional accounts that have been written in the decades since the concentration camps were liberated. This is as it should be. The extreme example of xenophobia, greed, and racism displayed by Hitler and his Nazi followers is something that should never be forgotten.

(We often say that the Holocaust should be remembered so that we as a global community can make sure it never happens again. Sadly, we as a human family have failed in this aspiration time and time again-the Rwandan genocide, the crisis in Darfur, and the massacre at Srebrenica are but a few of the examples of modern day ethnic or religious violence.)

While the experiences of the Jewish people of Europe during the Holocaust is very well known, less talked about are the experiences of other groups that were persecuted and brutalized by the Nazis. Physically and mentally disabled children, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Roma people, and homosexuals were some of the groups that were singled out for "special" treatment. It is the Roma, known pejoratively as Gypsies, that are the subject of the book Snow Moon Rising.

The Roma people were a nomadic group, traveling the roads between European countries in large family groups called kumpania. The kumpania, made up of caravans and carts which were both the homes and workplaces of the Roma people, traveled from village to village, finding work when possible, hunting and gathering when work was hard to find. Some members of the caravans became artisans and craftsmen, selling their wares along the way.

Unfortunately, the Roma developed a reputation as thieves and con men. During the early part of the 20th century, many countries had laws banning the Roma people from traveling to certain places, or from being allowed to do certain jobs in the community. There was a deep distrust of the Roma, who were seen as a race separate from the "purer" European people, and were considered inferior, much like the Jews were.

It is into this culture that we are dropped when we read Snow Moon Rising. The book follows two
women, Mischka and Pippi, during the time period from World War I through World War II. Mischka is a young Roma girl at the beginning of the book, already chaffing against the rigid gender expectations of her clan. Pippi is the sister of a young German soldier who is rescued by Mischka's kumpania after he stumbles away from a bloody battle. Mischka and Pippi meet and become bonded in a way that is more than just friendship. Fast forward to World War II, and Mischka ends up in a German labor camp. Pippi, who must pretend to be a a German loyal to Hitler to survive, is sent ot the camp to oversee the production of uniforms for German soldiers. Here, the two women are reunited, and must work together to ensure that the prisoners get out of the camp alive. But the end of the war is not the end of the challenges for these women, because Europe is soon divided between the Soviets and the rest of the western world. Will Mischka and Pippi find a way to be together?

I found the description of the Roma way of life and the persecution they suffered fascinating. It also led me to many a discussion during this Halloween season as to why "gypsy" costumes were maybe not a good idea. Aside from being an exploration of the experiences of the Roma during the first half of the 20th century, this book is a lesbian love story. Mischka and Pippi take turns telling the story, which is actually a series of flashbacks spun out over the course of one evening to their grandson, who has never heard the story of his family's journey to America. Aside from the Roma history I learned, I appreciated an insight into what the life of the average German may have been during World War II. The final scenes of the book left me in tears for all the right reasons.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wake, by Anna Hope

There is no shortage of novels set in World War I or World War II. Those two conflicts, along with the Viet Nam War, defined most of the 20th century. The collapse of colonialism, the Cold War, the rise of America as a world power; so many things can be traced back to the wars and their aftermath. You'd think that over time those books would all start to blur together; that there wouldn't be anything new or different that could be said on the matter. And sometimes it does seem like the same story told over and over again in an endless stream of arrogant generals, miserable soldiers, and grieving mothers and widows. But sometimes an author takes a new approach to the subject that takes the reader to a part of the well-traveled path that is less well known.

Anna Hope manages this feat with her book, Wake. The story takes place three years after the end of
World War I. It follows three different women, all of whom lost something in the war. Ada, the grieving mother; Evelyn, the woman who's lover never returned; and Hettie, a young girl whose brother has come home from war physically unharmed, but emotionally wrecked. The stories of these women are connected by their experiences of war, and through the lens of the return to England of the Unknown Warrior (what we in America would call the Unknown Soldier). The perspective shifts from woman to women in the narration of the story, interspersed with the journey of the Unknown Warrior from a grave in the French countryside to a special resting place at Westminster Abbey.

The title seems to have two meanings. The most literal is that the entire country of Great Britain is having a wake for the Unknown Warrior as he finally returns home from war. This one soldier comes to symbolize all of those lost on fields of France and Belgium, and each person who watches the body in its ornate coffin travel by ship, train, and finally carriage to it's final resting place assign him meaning based on the people they lost in the war. But I think that the title also represents the awakening that the women in the novel have as they learn to accept and move past the grief and depression that four years of war and its aftermath wrought. These women learn to let go, each in their own way, of whatever is holding them back from moving forward with life. Ada must learn to let go of the fantasy that her son is really alive, and find a way to reconnect with her husband. Evelyn must find a way to let go of her hopes for the future with her beloved Fraser, and take the first steps towards finding new love. Hettie, who works in a dance hall to help her family survive financially, wants nothing more than to move away from her mother's oppressive beliefs and find her first love. More than anything she searched for freedom and joy in a world where most of the men of her generation have returned from war damaged emotionally and physically.

The men in the novel represent various classes of soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike, and there are some fairly dark descriptions of the horrors they witnessed. Each has come home, but none of them are able to just pick up their old life. Hope does a good job with her portrayal of how youthful enthusiasm and patriotic action was twisted and mangled into fear, cynicism, resentment, and hopelessness. As the Unknown Warrior reaches his final resting place, so too does the book reach its end, and like the citizens of the UK, the reader is left feeling ready to move on to a future that is brighter than the tragic past.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Where is Coco Chanel When You Need Her?

Coco Chanel once famously said, "Once you've dressed, and before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off". While she was talking about fashion, I think there is some relevance in that quote for writing as well. While good fiction can be mutli-layered and complex, adding more characters, more plot lines, more words just for the sake of them can take a decent story and put it over the top.

I think that Kristin Hannah should have taken that advice when writing The Magic Hour. It is the
story of a psychiatrist named Julia who must flee her practice in disgrace after a scandal involving a patient of hers who perpetrated a violent act at school. When her sister, the sheriff in the small town where they grew up, calls her to consult on a case, she sees both an escape hatch and a chance to earn some redemption. A little girl has shown up in the town-battered, bruised, malnourished, non-verbal, and animalistic. The sheriff wants Julia to assess the girl, and get her to tell them who she is. As Julia begins to work with the girl, she realizes that she has stumbled upon a feral child-a child who has essentially been raised  without any normal human socialization. As Julia becomes closer to the girl, she is determined to protect her from any and all outside influences that might want to exploit her.

This is the first Hannah book I've read, and I will admit that the kind of women's fiction she writes (a la Lifetime movie) is not really my jam. But I was intrigued enough with the premise that I think I would have been OK with the book if only she had followed dear old Coco's advice. There is a LOT going on in this book. There's the scandal that sends Julia away from her lucrative Los Angeles practice; the feral girl; a love story between Julia and one of the doctors in town, who in turn has his own secret that he is protecting; a love story between the sheriff and one of her deputies; a rocky relationship between the two sisters that must be resolved; a group of psychiatrists who want to study the girl like a specimen in a jar; and finally, the girl's father. The girl's father and his back story was the last straw.  See, the girl's father was a man who was accused of killing his wife and child (the girl) when they disappeared years before. Convicted of their murder, he was in jail until DNA tests determined that the girl was really his "murdered" offspring. When he comes to collect her, there is a war of wills between him-rich, arrogant, self-centered-and Julia-caring, nurturing, mama-bear like. It was just one thing too many. The love stories were irrelevant to the main plot, and the added convolution of the father being a convicted killer who maybe isn't a killer but is still a "bad guy" pushed it into the absurd.

Bottom line, I wasn't really feeling this one by the end. But I did finish it, so that's something, I suppose. So, lovers of Lifetime movies, have at it!