Storks and Clocks in Strasbourg

stork on cathedralOn the 6th day of our Viking River Cruise we crossed the Rhine and spent a morning in France, touring the beautiful town of Strasbourg. There are many things to love about this historic town, but my mind was on babies when we visited. Or really, just one baby. We have friends who are in the process of adopting a little girl, and while we were in Strasbourg we learned about the storks that come there and build nests every year—like this one on top of the Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre Dame. Inside the Cathedral, I prayed for this child and the family she would become part of. And I loved all the stork-related art all over town.

stork art

So WHY do the storks come to this area of Alsace every year? The geography of Alsace—in the plain of the Rhine with abundant marshland (at least before the canalisation of the Rhine after the second world war) made it a good feeding ground for storks. The area was also within reach of their winter migration areas in North Africa. North Africa! Can you imagine that they fly that far every year?

CathedralBut back to the cathedral. The first version of the church was begun in 1015, but fire destroyed most of the original Romanesque building. By the time that cathedral was being renovated (at the end of the 12th century, this time with red stones carried from the nearby mountains of Vosges), the gothic architectural style has reached Alsace and the future cathedral was starting to develop all characteristics of gothic aesthetics.

There is much to admire inside. I love these reflections by Victor Hugo:

“The church portals are beautiful, particularly the Roman portal; there are truly superb figures on horseback, the rose-window is noble and well-cut, the entire front of the church is a clever poem. But the true triumph of this Cathedral is the spire. It is a veritable tiara of stone with its crown and its cross. It is a gigantic and delicate marvel.”

astronomical clockOne of the most fascinating features of the church is the astronomical clock. A principal work of the Renaissance, this mechanical astronomical clock is an invention put together by various artists, mathematicians and technicians. Swiss watchmakers, sculptors, painters and creators of automatons all worked together to build this amazing automate. The present mechanism dates from 1842 and is especially attractive for the work of its automatons, which, every day at 12.30 pm, all start their show. We were fortunate to be there for one of its movements. It was too tall to capture in a video, but I got a few stills.

IMG_3041The astronomical clock offers you a view of the different stages of life, which are personified by a child, a teenager, an adult and an old man, who pass before Death. Above this are the apostles who walk before Christ. Their passage is punctuated by the beatings of wings and the song of a large rooster. In front of the clock is the marvelous Pillar of Angels, which, in a very original manner, represents the Last Judgment.

cellistAfter touring the cathedral and walking around the cobblestone streets window-shopping (we didn’t really have time for real shopping) we enjoyed gelato at an outdoor café right in front of the cathedral. And an impromptu cello concert. Another magical day.

Orthodox ChurchOh, and I had read that All Saints Russian Orthodox Church was being built in Strasbourg, and we drove past it on our tour bus but it wasn’t close enough for us to walk back to see it close up later. Here’s the shot I snapped through the bus window. Stay tuned for our next day’s excursion to the medieval village of Colmar, our final destination before arriving in Basel to fly home. Thanks for joining me!

(I’ll close with a few more photos in Strasbourg.)

bike scene

 

river scene 3

 

river scene

 

The Cat and the Cradle

IMG_2599Another excursion that I was surprised by on our Rhine River cruise was also in the small town of Kinderdijk, where we visited the cheese-making farm. Again, I’m a city girl, and I rarely find joy in rural settings, but the history and culture and charm of these historic windmills was something I didn’t expect.

 

IMG_2649The windmills in Kinderdijk—the largest concentration of windmills in the Netherlands—are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These 19 windmills are a feast for the eyes, and their story is fascinating.

 

The families who lived—and continue to live—in them keep them working, and they are called “millers.” When I first heard our tour guide use the term, I thought she was talking about people who mill grain. But no, they are people who keep the windmills working.

 

IMG_2646The windmills were erected in the 1600s to drain the Alblasserwaard polders, which had suffered floods since the 13th century. One such flood, the Saint Elizabeth Flood of 1421, is both the source of the name Kinderdijk and of the associated fairy tale, “The Cat and the Cradle”: after the storm, a wooden cradle was spotted on the flood waters, in which a cat jumped to and fro to keep the cradle afloat.

 

When the cradle approached the dry land of the dyke, the locals discovered a baby inside—hence the name Kinderdijk, Dutch for “children’s dyke. “

 

IMG_2648The one windmill that we were allowed to go inside had pictures of the family who lived there years ago, with their 15 children! The sad story is that one of the toddlers was running towards the blades of the windmill and the mother rushed to stop her, saving her child, but losing her own life.

 

 

IMG_2654When I put pictures of the inside of the windmill on Facebook, my Goddaughter Katherine, who has three teenagers, commented that her kids wanted to live in a windmill! (They love adventure.) The quarters were so small that I can’t imagine where everyone slept. The beds were tiny, and I heard that the adults slept sitting up. It would take a hardy bunch to want to live there and keep the windmill working!

 

Stay tuned as I move into the city of Cologne, Germany, in my next post.

 

The millers have some big shoes to fill....

The millers have some big shoes to fill….

Cat in Kinderdijk

Cat in Kinderdijk

 

The Help

kind-smart-and-important-film-photo-u1When I read Kathryn’s Stockett’s book, The Help—set in my home town of Jackson, Mississippi—and then watched the movie, with many scenes filmed in Jackson, it was both nostalgic and thought-provoking for me. I loved meeting Kathryn, and actress Octavia Spencer, when they gave a reading at the launch for the book at Lemuria Books in Jackson in 2009. After the event, I spent the night with my best friend from childhood, Jan Connors, and we talked about growing up with “help” in our homes—and even taking them with us on family vacations to do the cooking and cleaning. My family wasn’t wealthy, but in the 1950s and’ 60s, it didn’t cost much to have help.

Lilly Bell in the apron, with another family's maid in Florida on our vacation in 1956.

Lilly Bell in the apron, with another family’s maid in Florida on our vacation in 1956.

Lillie Bell Bunzy (yes, that’s her real name) worked for my family from the time I was about three until she got too old. After she retired, I remember taking Bill—my then fiancé, to meet her in her home in a poor black neighborhood in West Jackson. I remember telling him that she helped raise me, especially when my mother was teaching school. The amount of time I spent with Lillie Bell was evidenced by the dialect I was picking up from her. Fortunately my mother just laughed when I would tell her, “I bes (long e) tired.” I remember as I got older feeling uncomfortable having Lillie Bell call me “Miss Susan” and saying “yes ma’am” to my mother, who was quite a bit younger than her. As the civil rights movement moved onto my radar, my love and respect for Lillie Bell—and other black domestic workers in my friends’ homes—grew. I wondered if I would ever hire “help” in my own home.

I got married in 1970. For about a decade, I cleaned my own house. Well, with the exception of a short period of time during which I hired a friend to clean for me. I was working full time while my husband was in medical school. Finally, around 1980, I hired Bonnie to clean one half day a week for me. She was already working for my mother and my best friend’s mother, and would eventually work at Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports—the business my parents owned from 1982-1997. Bonnie was African American, was an excellent housekeeper (and even did some food prep and ironing for my mother) and my children liked her. But here’s the rub: some people in the cult-like religious group that we were part of didn’t like me having a maid. A few of them actually called me on the carpet for it—saying I was being haughty and acting “like a doctor’s wife” by doing this. Never mind that I was doing a million things for the group at the time, including hosting weekly church services in our home and taking care of the children of other women who were working. I didn’t fire Bonnie.

i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-26When we moved to Memphis in 1988, I hired Marty to clean one day a week for us. Marty was about my age, white, and had quit her desk job to clean houses. She felt claustrophobic working in an office all day, and wanted the flexibility of being her own boss. For a while her best friend cleaned with her, and the two of them could make our house sparkle in about two hours. Our kids were about the same age, and Marty and I would often end up chatting over a cup of coffee before or after (or during) her shift cleaning my house. I considered her a friend, and was sorry when she quit cleaning houses to return to the corporate world.

Angie was my next maid. Another white woman, Angie was younger than me and had lots of energy. The only problem I had with her was that she smoked, and sometimes I could smell it inside my house, even though she went outside to smoke. But I put up with it because she was so good at her job. I can’t remember why she quit, but I guess it was time for her to move on.

Sarah came next. She was black, and a little younger than me. Her husband owned a furniture company with his father, and they were hard-working, church-going folks. But here’s what I loved best about Sarah—she was raising two grandchildren, because their mother (her daughter) was in and out of prison for drugs. I would do anything for Sarah. I remember one day when I found her in the kitchen crying, looking at a piece of paper with some legal mumbo jumbo on it. I asked what was wrong, and she handed met the paper and asked me to read it to her. The paper was about her impending adoption of her grandchildren. She was embarrassed that she had never learned to read. There were times when she needed an advance on her paycheck (which I was happy to give her) and a couple of times when I gifted her with “bonuses” because she couldn’t afford her glasses or other essentials. She was working for us when our oldest son deployed to Iraq with the Army, and I remember her telling me every week that she was praying for him. She eventually had to take a long leave of absence due to illness, and I had to hire someone else.

That’s when I had a stroke of good luck in finding my current housekeeper, Agnes. Agnes is from Poland, where she got her college degree, but when she moved to the U.S. it didn’t transfer and she couldn’t afford to go back to school. So she started cleaning houses, and she is extraordinary at it. She also works part time at a sewing center where she does beautiful machine embroidery. Oh, and here’s a bonus: her husband (who works for an HVAC company full time) will come and do anything we need around the house—from repairs to building shelves. Sometimes Agnes will be here cleaning and will notice something that needs attention and she will say, “I’ll see when Greg can come and work on that.” And now Agnes’s younger sister Paula has arrived from Poland and is living with her and helping her clean houses while working on getting into the University of Memphis. These are such good people, and I’m so blessed to have them in my life.

I remember when one of my Goddaughters and her family went to Honduras about sixteen years ago as missionaries. When they got there, they were encouraged to hire a native woman to clean and cook for them. Katherine felt uncomfortable in that role at first, feeling that it seemed elitist, especially in the midst of such poverty. But she was told that it was expected of her—that this was an important way for women in the village to make money to help support their families.

helpers

 

So, at age 67, I have now had “help” cleaning my house as an adult for 38 years, since I was 29 years old. We also have “help” with yard care. And a CPA to do our taxes. And a financial planner. And a lawyer. And a slew of health care professionals to help us as we age—including physicians, a dentist, an optometrist, physical therapists, a physical trainer, and a massage therapist. We are part of a community, and just as people depend upon us for what we have to offer, we depend on others for the “help” they have to offer us. Most days I think the scales are tilted in favor of the help, meaning that we need them more than they need us. And today—just like thirty-something years ago—I don’t care what others think of these choices. If there’s something “haughty” about accepting help, then I guess I’m just a snob.

Martin Luther King, the Orthodox Church, and the Civil Rights Movement #MLK50

As a member of the Orthodox Christian Church, I’d like to share a brief note about Iakovos, former Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America (d. 2005).  A champion of civil and human rights, he walked hand in hand with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, AL, which was captured in this iconic photograph on the cover of LIFE Magazine on March 26, 1965.

mlk-iakovos

 

Archbishop Iakovos vigorously supported the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, exclaiming when the first bill was passed:

“Glory to the Most High! May this mark the beginning of a new age for all humankind, an era when the Word of God charts and guides our lives”.

Today I’m going to share some of the best reflections on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement I have ever read. Anywhere.

My friend and fellow Memphian Ellen Morris Prewitt wrote these words on her blog on Monday, April 2:

MLK50: What Was the Civil Rights Movement?

And on Tuesday, April 3:

MLK50: A Hostile Land

And today, Wednesday, April 4:

MLK50: The Beloved Community

My prayers are with everyone traveling to Memphis and participating in the events of the day.

Throwback Thursday: Microwave Ovens

51ggf9VBaXL._SL1000_Our GE microwave oven quit working last week. It’s about five years old, and I read in the customer reviews for a similar model that they only last about five to seven years. We have a built-in above-counter shelf that was designed for a fairly large microwave, so I ordered another one. I measured carefully, or so I thought, but when it arrived, it was too deep for the space. I hadn’t allotted for the several inches that the electrical cord and plug takes up in the back. And, the specifications online don’t allow for the curved-out space on the back of the microwave where the fan (?) or other parts are encased. All that to say, we had to pack it up to return it and order a smaller one.

Scan 1Meanwhile, we have a really small one that we used to use in our master bathroom, which was upstairs in a previous house, so we’re using it temporarily. It’s amazing how dependent we’ve become on a microwave oven! This started me thinking back to the early days of our marriage, and trying to remember when we got our first one. This picture is from June 17, 1970. It’s one week after our wedding, and I’m cooking and serving the first meal I ever cooked. Ever. (I was barely 19 years old.) It’s oven-baked chopped-up steak and vegetables of some sort. I remember following the recipe, lots of chopping, baking in one of our new Corningware casseroles, and it coming out really tender and tasty.

Scan 2We didn’t have a table yet, so here’s Bill eating on our TV trays. And of course, we didn’t have a microwave. Although they were available for use in homes starting in 1967. But I can’t remember when we got our first one. Probably a few years later, when the prices began to come down.

I was discussing this with a friend today who quit using hers ten years ago, due to the warnings about possible health hazards. I also remember a discussion from about ten years ago with a woman who is a gourmet cook and doesn’t have or like microwaves. I’ve read about how they destroy so much of the nutritional value of the foods and other health issues, but I’m not ready to part with mine. And I don’t really “cook” a lot in it… other than to steam frozen vegetables. Mainly we re-heat leftovers in it, and we do that quite a bit.
So, do you use a microwave? How often and for actual cooking or just re-heating? It’s always fun to hear from readers… here or on Facebook.

Happy Throwback Thursday!

The Saint Nicholas Day Snow

St Nick Day Snow coverThe talented children’s author Charlotte Riggle has done it again. With help from the gifted illustrator, R. J. Hughes, “Charli” has given us a colorful, poignant look at a beloved historic figure through the eyes of two families who celebrate his life in The Saint Nicholas Day Snow (Phoenix Flair Press, October 27, 2017). The story does have an Orthodox Christian setting (and characters) but it will capture readers of all religious and cultural backgrounds. Anyone who loves Christmas and tradition and children and story.

Charlotte Riggle, author

Charlotte Riggle, author

Although Charli no longer lives in the South, she was born in Oxford, Mississippi. Her mom used to go horseback riding with William Faulkner’s daughter. Her grandfather was the dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi. She’s currently living in the Pacific Northwest, between Seattle and Mount Rainier. We met through Saint John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, where she was a member for many years before moving to the Seattle area. My husband and I are Godparents to her youngest child, and I’ve been blessed to be her friend for about twenty-five years.

When Charli’s first book, Catherine’s Pascha, came out in 2015, I knew she had found her niche. Not that this is the only niche available to her. Charli is a brilliant and gifted technical writer and is knowledgeable in many fields. It takes that kind of genius to write a good children’s book. Genius coupled with an intense love for people—especially children, and even more especially children with special needs and disabilities.

If you’d like to hear more from Charli about this project, read her blog post, “Why I Wrote the Saint Nicholas Day Snow.”

The Saint Nicholas Day Snow will make a terrific Christmas gift for your children, grandchildren, Godchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbor kids. Read a description and order the book here or from Amazon.

“The Address,” “10 Days in a Madhouse,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”

9780525501527I just finished reading Fiona Davis’ wonderful new historic novel The Address. It’s about the Dakota, New York City’s most famous apartment house, built in the 1880s. Since I recently blogged about Authors’ Notes, I was interested to read Davis’ note, in which she explains that the book is “a blend of historical fact and fiction,” and then she went on to share some of the liberties she took, as I did with my Author’s Note in Cherry Bomb.

 

11212929_oriI noticed that one of the books that she used as a reference was Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House. Since Bly and the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum where she went undercover as a journalist in 1887 figured prominently in the book, I watched the movie on Amazon yesterday. Wow. Just wow, what those women endured!

 

And this might sound like I’m a glutton for punishment, but last week I binge-watched Season 1 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” More wow. It was so dark, but I couldn’t quit watching it. I see why it won 8 Emmy awards. I haven’t read the book by Margaret Atwood, which was this summer’s most-read fiction book on Kindle, and now I’m not sure if I want to. I’m sure it’s excellent, but those images of abuse and patriarchal dominance are hard to get out of my head.

 Handmaid's Tale

So why am I reading and watching such dark stories? I’m drawn to the dark. To stories of abuse, addiction, dysfunction. And  I’ve always been attracted to historic fiction, especially when there are strong female protagonists/heroines. Of course The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t historic fiction… more like futuristic/dystopian fiction, which is scarier in many ways. My novel CHERRY BOMB has three strong female characters and several pretty strong minor characters who are also women. And the two novels I’m considering writing will continue to focus on strong women who endure suffering and either find healing or make a difference in their life and the lives of others. I hope I’m up to the task. These writers have set the bar high.

Authors’ Notes

Exchanging first novels with Daren Wang at Burke's Books in Memphis on September 20.

Exchanging first novels with Daren Wang at Burke’s Books in Memphis on September 20.

 

Wednesday night I went to a reading at Burke’s Books here in Memphis for Daren Wang, who was reading and signing his first novel, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires. It was a joy to listen to him relate his very personal story of researching the history behind his childhood home in Town Line, New York, the only secessionist town north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Turns out his family’s house and barn were used by members of the underground railroad, so he spun a tale of an escaped slave named Joe Bell and a female abolitionist named Mary Willis. Daren didn’t explain much of this in his Prologue, and as I listened to him talk about his family’s home, I wish he had written an Author’s Note so that all of his readers would know this amazing connection.

Cage MakerI’m currently reading Nicole Seitz’s wonderful new novel The Cage-Maker, which is set in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and also in the twenty-first century through the eyes of a blogger. But it was her Author’s Note (at the end) that endeared me more to the book, as she explains that she was researching her own family history and wanted to know if her ancestor, Ferdinand, was involved in any of the intrigue she uncovered in her research.

Almost a year ago I did a post about the information B. A. Shapiro shared in her Author’s Note and disclaimer for her novel The Muralist. You can read that here.

Her words inspired me to write an extensive explanation in my novel.

So, in addition to a short disclaimer in the front of CHERRY BOMB, I also wrote a longer Author’s Note, to explain which parts of the book were based on real people, places, and events, and which parts were totally fiction. I’m going to share my Author’s Note here. It’s at the end of the book, but it doesn’t really contain spoilers, so whether or not you’ve read the book, you might enjoy this explanation.

Author’s Note (from CHERRY BOMB)

A work of historical fiction is sometimes described as a narrative that takes place in the past in which historical events and people are reconstructed to enhance the story. Cherry Bomb isn’t strictly a work of historical fiction, for several reasons.  For one thing, I have fictionalized the lives of several abstract expressionist artists, especially Elaine de Kooning , who plays a major role in the book. While many of the scenarios in which de Kooning appears in the book were taken from her actual life—her relationship from childhood with her eccentric mother; her early art education in New York; her marriage to Willem de Kooning; and even some of her travels—I have also fictionalized many aspects of her real life. Perhaps the greatest liberty I took was giving her a child, when in fact she never had children of her own.

            While Elaine de Kooning did paint a presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy, as I describe in the book, she was never a visiting professor at Southern College of Art and Design, although she did serve this post at the University of Georgia. She did spend a summer painting in Black Mountain North Carolina, and produced a collection of work from that experience, although in reality Willem was there with her, whereas she goes there without him in the book. These are examples of ways in which I fictionalized her life for the sake of the story line.

            The photographer Anne Louise Lieberman (“Lou”) and Margaret Adams, the newspaper reporter, are both completely fictional characters, as are the graffiti writers Mare meets in Atlanta. But the scenes in the MTV video with Blondie actually did show the work of graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Jean-Michael Basquiat, who inspire Mare to begin doing graffiti.

blondie w graffiti

           

          I set Cherry Bomb mostly in the 1980s, with flashbacks to de Kooning’s childhood in the 1930s and to the childhood of the fictional protagonist, Mary Catherine Henry (“Mare”), in the 1970s. Mare is a completely fictional character, as is Sister Susannah, an Orthodox nun and iconographer who also plays a major role in the story. Both priests—Father Joseph and Father Mark—are completely fictional, as are all the nuns and participants at the icon workshop at Saint Mary of Egypt Monastery, also a fictional place.

           

"Weeping" icon of Saint Mary of Egypt. Original icon was written by me. My daughter-in-law See Cushman used Photo Shop to add the tears, and my publisher's graphic designer added the gold frame.

“Weeping” icon of Saint Mary of Egypt. Original icon was written by me. My daughter-in-law See Cushman used Photo Shop to add the tears, and my publisher’s graphic designer added the gold frame.

Saint Mary of Egypt is an actual historical figure, and I have kept close to the facts of her life as the Orthodox priest, Father Mark, tells them in the book. The verses chanted by the nuns at the monastery are closely drawn from her life as documented by Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638).  It might be of interest to the reader that Sir John Tavener did write an opera about Mary of Egypt, although he wrote it in 1991, a little later than its placement in the book. The description of the opera in the book is taken from a program from one of its performances. While I haven’t seen the opera in person, I do have Tavener’s CD, Mary of Egypt, which I have listened to many times.

            Of course readers often ask whether a work of fiction is in any way autobiographical. While it is true that I share a number of life experiences with Mare—including time spent with a cult-like group, sexual abuse, and studying iconography at an Orthodox monastery—I have only allowed those experiences to inform the narrative, which is not a fictionalized memoir. I have never lived in a foster home, thrown up graffiti in public places, studied at SCAD, or met Elaine de Kooning. But I am happy for my readers to know that I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity, I have personally witnessed weeping icons, and Mary of Egypt is my patron saint. Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.

Inspiration

Camino Island coverIt’s not surprising to get inspiration for writing a new book while reading a successful author’s work. This happened to me over the weekend, when I read John Grisham’s novel, Camino Island. I couldn’t put it down! But it wasn’t the novel’s prose itself that inspired—although it was inspiring—it was something that happens in the plot itself. One of the characters owns a bookstore, and at one point he is encouraging a novelist to consider historical fiction for her next book. He encourages her to fictionalize a famous person and/or event, which is exactly what I did with the well-known abstract expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning in my novel Cherry Bomb.

Mercer, the novelist character in Camino Island, expresses concern to the bookseller about the ethical aspects of his suggestion, but he assures her it’s done all the time. I’ve argued both sides of this several times in the past here on my blog, and at this point I’m pretty comfortable with the concept. Reading this suggestion gave me pause to reconsider a novel I started a couple of years ago about Jackson Pollack’s final painting, “Red, Black, and Silver.” I wrote the first chapter, which received good reviews from an MFA-led workshop I attended in June of 2015, but mixed reviews from a local writing group, so I abandoned it at the time. I just read it again and am considering picking it back up. We’ll see….

Meanwhile, this morning I took a pair of my husband’s shoes to a shoe repair store. It’s a tiny mom-and-pop type place. When I walked in, I was immediately hit with the lovely aroma of leather and shoe polish. It was almost intoxicating. Looking around the small one-room shop, I saw tons of old shoes, lots of black rags and tools that I assume are used in cobbling. The two older gentlemen working there both wore black aprons over their ragged pants and shirts. The aprons had a sheen to them, probably from years of rubbing up against shoe polish and other elements in the shop. At first I didn’t even notice the older woman in the corner, also in a black apron and ragged clothes, polishing shoes. It wasn’t until I was leaving when she chimed in a pleasant voice, “Thanks for coming in. You have a nice day, now.”

Peabody Shoe Repair in Nashville, Tennessee (not the shop I visited today in Memphis, but this is what it looked like!) photographed by Jerry Park Photography. http://jerryparkphotography.com/peabody-shoe-repair/

Peabody Shoe Repair in Nashville, Tennessee (not the shop I visited today in Memphis, but this is what it looked like!) photographed by Jerry Park Photography. http://jerryparkphotography.com/peabody-shoe-repair/

As I drove away, I realized that my brief visit to the shop was like a scene from a novel, with rich characters and a setting that aroused all the senses. I do worry a bit about the place being a fire hazard, and can’t imagine how it passes inspection, if there are inspections at places like that. Whatever I write next, I’m inspired to use words that will show my readers the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of my settings.

Before We Were Yours (book review)

Have you ever been sad when you finished reading a book? That’s how I felt this weekend when I finished reading Lisa Wingate’s amazing new novel, Before We Were Yours. I didn’t want it to be over! I didn’t want to let go of Rill and Avery and the other characters I grew to love and care about so much. Although Wingate’s ending helped a lot—she satisfied my curiosity, and gave closure where needed. But don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this review (I hate when that happens).

cropped-UntoldStoryBlogHeader

 

My other immediate response to the book (other than not wanting it to end) was this: “I wish I had written this book!” Her main character, Rill, is about the same age as Mare, the protagonist in my novel, Cherry Bomb. They are both spunky orphans with big hearts. They both suffer great injustices. And they both have mysterious connections to other characters in the book.

Lisa speaking at the Memphis Library on June 2.

Lisa speaking at the Memphis Library on June 2.

I met Lisa at an event at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center on June 2. She was invited to speak about Before We Were Yours, a novel based on the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage scandal that happened in Memphis from the 1920s to 1950, when the cruel director, Georgia Tann, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country. She focuses on one family in particular—the Rills—who live in a shantyboat that often docks along the Mississippi River at Memphis, near Mud Island. This is only a few blocks from where I live, so I was fascinated by her description of the life these “river gypsies” lived so close to my neighborhood, Harbor Town. She conjured up Huck Finn-type stories that drew me into a different time, a time that sounded magical and almost unreal.

 

But reality invades when young Rill and her siblings are kidnapped while their parents are in the hospital—where her mother is giving birth to twins. The story of the horrors they endured at the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home in 1939 is intertwined with the life of present day wealthy federal prosecutor, Avery Stafford, in Aiken, South Carolina. Avery happens upon some information that leads her on a search back through her family’s history, and she discovers connections that can either lead to healing or possibly upheaval for herself and her family.

coverIn her “Note from the Author” at the end of the book, Lisa explains how much of the story is “true,” and shares some of the avenues she took to research the book. A former journalist, it’s obvious that she’s done her homework. But this book is so much more than history. It’s literary fiction at its finest. Richly drawn characters, vivid settings, compelling dialogue, and smooth transitions are some of the tools she uses to tell this story. As she goes back and forth between 1939 and the present day, she keeps the reader safe, without confusion.

Wingate is the bestselling author of more than twenty novels. Her work has won or been nominated for many awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize. She lives in southwest Arkansas, but is moving to Texas soon. I look forward to being with her in January at the 2018 Pulpwood Queens Book Club’s annual Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas, where we will both be presenting authors.
Before We Were Yours is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ever. It’s right up there on top of my all-time favorites list with Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. Buy it and read it. You’re welcome.

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