Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Healing by Jonathan Odell

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As I sit to write a review on this book, I’m still not sure how I feel about it exactly. And I suppose that’s ok with me.

imagesThe Healing begins with Gran Gran helping Violet, a young girl who’s mother has just passed away. Gran Gran fears that Violet’s body will heal, but her mind will remain broken. The only thing that seems to calm her is hearing the old stories. So Gran Gran tells her story to the girl, beginning around the time of her birth as a slave. The book jumps backwards and forwards between the two time periods, always in a manner that is easily followed. The story captured me. The characters and I didn’t really speak the same language, but they made themselves understood nonetheless.

I’ve said before that I don’t like being told how to think about something, and I felt that way about this book. That I was being coached in the ways of Polly’s religion. Polly is a slave that bursts onto the scene when a doctor is needed for the slaves. The master buys her and then basically does whatever she tells him to do. In return, she heals a group of slaves that previously had no hope of survival. She takes Granada on as an apprentice and proceeds to teach her how to be herself. There are so many pearls of wisdom woven through this book; about being who you were created to be, not who you’ve been told you are; about freedom being something you find in your mind before it is realized physically; about family and belonging and healing. But, there was too much “my god is better than your god” for me to be completely comfortable.

Another thing that I often wonder with historical fiction is how much of people’s attitudes and thoughts are shaped by current standards and thoughts. There were so many times that I thought the slaves acted like servants rather than slaves. As if they had freedoms that I didn’t understand slaves to have.

But always I go back to the parts that I loved, and this line at the end when Gran Gran is describing a group of boys is one of my favorite things of all, “…self assured yet with faces fixed in innocent wonder. The Lord could show Himself at any second and they would see Him first, for He was already in their eyes.” Lines like this kept me reading in expectation. That Jonathan Odell would understand everyday things, while approaching them in a way that highlights something new and amazing.

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

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stripedpyjamasBruno is nine years old when his father is transferred to a new job. The German family packs up their belongings and moves to Out-With. The first time Bruno looks out his new bedroom window and sees the low huts with so many people all milling about in striped pyjamas, you realize that his childlike mind has changed Auschwitz into Out-With; and that his father is the commandante of a concentration camp and that he has no idea what any of it means.

I loved the innocence that a child’s vocabulary brought to such a dark part of history. Listen to his description of Hitler, “The Fury was far shorter than Father and not, Bruno supposed, quite as strong. He had dark hair, which was cut quite short, and a tiny moustache- so tiny in fact that Bruno wondered why he bothered with it at all or whether he had simply forgotten a piece when he was shaving.” His little thoughts were enchanting and I found myself smiling and giggling along with him.

There were times that his ignorance broke my heart, and times when I was glad he had no idea what was going on around him.

Overall it was a good book. It made you think differently about things, and wonder what life was like on both sides of the fence. The only thing I disagreed with a bit was that it seemed to me that the majority of the people wished they weren’t Nazis. There was one particularly unkind guard at the camp, but other than that, most of the adults disagreed with Bruno’s father. Or were not proud of what they were doing. And it seemed to me that if the Nazis were anything, it was proud. It seems unlikely to me that the 9 year old son of a commandante would be so ignorant of the Nazi ideals. Maybe I’m wrong, but the book seems apologetically Nazi and in my mind, that is an oxymoron. The Nazis did not apologize. They thought they were right.

I would recommend “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” to anybody. It was sad, as you’d expect a book about Auschwitz to be, but the sadness was tempered a bit by the imagination and thoughts of a little boy trying to figure life out.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

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The Wild Girl” is a dark and beautiful book that reminds me of King Solomon’s words:Image

“What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

Dortchen Wild grew up next door to Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm and is one of their main sources for the fables and tales that were rewritten and published to make sure the world didn’t forget the old stories that had been told from generation to generation before them.

The story begins as any good fairy tale does, with young love and adventure and excitement. But, soon, the dark realities of life in the early 1800s in the German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel set in. With war in the background and hunger and poverty in the foreground, we read the story of Dortchen who has to battle evil even in her own home.

Near the beginning of the book, Dortchen and Wilhelm are talking about the power that words have. “He said that words have a remarkable power. The word “God” is only three letters, yet how much meaning is in those three letters? It’s vast, unimaginable. Think of the word “liberty”. Only seven letters, yet it changed a whole country and looks like it might change the world.” This sort of thinking sets up the whole premise of the book. How often do we speak or read words and stories without really examining the meaning behind them. We accept them at face value without delving into the depths that are contained inside. Kate Forsyth does that sort of digging for us, though, and this book is a possible insight into the lives of Wilhelm and Dortchen. She never says that this is their story. But, she lets you know that it could have been. Just as it is the story of so many before and after them.

The book left me with a heavy heart, but it’s the kind of heaviness that reminds me that people are broken and hurting and we need to hear their cries for help, no matter how they are disguised. I didn’t want to put it down. I read it every chance I got hoping for redemption and a happily ever after. I won’t tell you if those come or not. You’ll have to read it for yourself, and you will be glad you did. Enjoy your foray into the tales of your childhood. See how they have changed through the years, and the circumstances that created them, and what may have changed them.

A Pledge of Silence by Flora J. Solomon

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pledgeofsilenceIf you’re anything like me, there are times you are completely unprepared for a book you read. You may have read the description or even a couple reviews to see if it was something that would interest you. But somehow, you manage to gloss over the emotional and traumatic events contained inside. That is, if you’re anything like me.

That’s how it was with A Pledge of Silence. Even with statements such as this in the first chapter: “Margie stepped back into the shadows, wishing she could guide the choices of her young self, but sadly she knew she could not change her fate.” What follows is a journey back in time. We see Margie and her childhood sweetheart, Abe make their college choices. We follow them through the fun times of job seeking and young love. But then, WWII begins, and Abe joins up to be a fighter pilot and Margie is called up in the Army Nursing Reserve and sent to the Philippines to care for our fighting boys over there. The war rages and finally catches up with her. So we watch as she and her fellow nurses become the first U.S. military women to be taken as Prisoners of War by a foreign enemy.

The book is a work of fiction, but the author, Flora J Solomon did her research well, so that it could very closely mirror true events. In fictional novels, you expect a happy ending. However, we all know that real life offers us no such guarantees. Throughout the book, that tension of fiction vs. reality is ever present.

I recommend that you step out of what you know and read this book. It is heartbreaking and hopeful and I think you’ll like it. If you’re anything like me.

Ride the Dark Trail by Louis L’Amour

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I have been trying to write a review of Ride the Dark Trail for a long time now, but every time I sit down and begin looking over my highlights, I end up rereading large portions of the book. Not because I forget what it’s about, but because the story and characters are so engaging that I just don’t want to stop reading. Let me introduce you to a few of the characters. Better yet, let me have L’Amour introduce you to some of my favorite characters yet.

“Well, they hadn’t much to see. I’m a big man, weighing around two-fifteen most of the time and most of it in my chest and shoulders. I was wearing a handlebar mustache and a three-day growth of beard. My hair hadn’t been trimmed in a coon’s age and that beat up old hat was showing a bullet hole picked up back of yonder. My slicker was hanging open, my leather chaps was wet, and my boots rundown at heel so’s those big-roweled California spurs were draggin’ a mite.”

This is Logan Sackett. Main character and narrator of this particular book. Is it just me, or do you feel like you could sit by a fire and listen to that guy tell stories all day? That’s why I just keep reading every time I pick up the book.

“They guessed right on some things, they guessed wrong on Emily Talon.

‘You got nothing,’ she said, and she cut loose her dogs… only they were slugs from a big Dragoon Colt.

They couldn’t believe it. They’d been sure if there was trouble it would come from me, and they paid no mind to the womenfolks, or mighty little. And they didn’t even know about Al.

Em just tilted her old pistol and cut loose, and just as she fired, Al Fulbric jumped from the bedroom door with a shotgun in his hands, and somehow my old six-shooter was speaking its piece right along with them.”

Oh, Em Talon. She is the kind of woman needed in a frontier land. The kind of woman who does what needs to be done, who will stand with her man, and if she outlives him, will stand firm on what they built together. A woman who does what is right, and encourages others to do the same, even if that encouragement comes by force.

There is another woman in the book. Pennywell Farman. She’s younger, but she has a good teacher to follow. After that last fight, Logan says, “I might have held back myself, for fear of the women getting shot, but there was no hold-back in Em.

Nor in Pennywell.

She had got off two shots. I saw her loading up again afterwards. She was pale as a ghost when it was over, but she was thumbing two cartridges back into her pistol, and she was ready.

Man, those were women!” She may have been scared, and new to shooting, but that didn’t stop her. There was shooting that needed to be done, and there she was, so she did it.

And a newcomer that I am very interested in meeting in his own book. “The rider sat erect, holding the reins easy in his hand, a dark and handsome young man whose what-the-hell sort of smile was in odd contrast to the coolness of his eyes.” Milo Talon. A name I have long been familiar with, but with no more information than simply the name. And let me tell you, the years of waiting were not for nothing. Milo Talon did not disappoint. “‘There’s only one of you,’ Chowse said, trying for a bluff. ‘You’re buckin’ a stacked deck.’

‘Stacked decks don’t always turn up the cards a body would expect,’ Talon said mildly, ‘especially when I’ve got all the aces. I didn’t come in here to lose anything, and if you’ll recall, I opened the game. Of course,’ he straightened form the bar, ‘if you boys want to see what I’m holding you’ll have to ante up, and the chips are bullets… forty fives to be exact.’

‘I’m betting,’ he said easily, that I can deal them just a mite faster than you boys can, and without braggin’ boys, I can say I ain’t missed anything this close since who flunk the chunk.'”

And that is just a few of the characters. We haven’t mentioned Reed Talon, Barnabas Talon, Al Fulbric or even any of the bad guys.

Logan is on his way to California. He’s wanting to see the ocean for the first time. But, when he sees some men harassing a lady, he is unable to leave her on her own. He stands up for Pennywell and takes her out to Em Talon’s place to be taken care of. Once there, he finds that before she married Talon, Em’s last name was Sackett. She’s a Clinch Mountain Sackett and she’s in trouble. Naturally, Logan stays to help her out of her troubles. The story goes from there, and in true L’Amour fashion, things aren’t easy, but they’re worth it. This is one of the things I love about L’Amour’s writings. If you read carefully, you see a man who understands and values life. He doesn’t hit you over the head with the things he holds true, but the imprint of it lies just beneath the story. I love all the recollections of Em and Talon. When you read them, it’s as if you are remembering a true love of your own. And if you are blessed enough to be living with your love, you appreciate him all the more. If not, it would leave you longing for one of life’s greatest treasures. Because a strong relationship between husband and wife is nothing to be taken for granted. It is something to be nurtured and fought for. I leave you with this interaction between Logan and Em.

“‘You stand tall in any outfit.’ I said. ‘I’d like to have known your husband.’

‘Talon was a man… all man. He walked strong and he thought right, and no man ever left his door hungry, Indian, black man or white. Nor did he ever take water for any man.’

‘He was a judge of the land,’ I said, ‘and of women.’

‘We had it good together,’ Em said quietly, ‘we walked a quiet way, the two of us, and never had to say much about it to one another.’

She paused. ‘I just looked at him and he looked at me and we knew how it was with each other.’

Hours later, well down the trail to Brown’s Hole, I remembered that. Well, they’d been lucky. It was not likely I’d ever find a woman like that, but no matter what any man says, there’s nothing better than two, a man and a woman, who walk together. When they walk right together there’s no way too long, no night too dark.'”

Treasure Mountain by Louis L’Amour

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In Treasure Mountain, some of the boys go in search of the final resting place of their Pa. He acted as guide for a group of treasure hunters when the boys were little. Now, however, their Ma is getting along in years and wants to know why he never made it back to her. So, Tell and Orrin set out to find and follow Pa’s final trail.

The Tinker shows up in the beginning of the book and decides to ride along with them. And a man named Judas Priest who tells them, “I look for a grave as well as you. I also look for the reason why there needs to be a grave.” His father Angus Priest had accompanied the group that Pa led.

Treasure Mountain is another book with a lot of familiar as well as semi-familiar characters. Tell, Orrin, Tyrell and the Tinker all feature in here, Logan and Nolan are mentioned in stories. We catch up with Nell, one of the Trelawney girls from back home, as well as a whole group of baddies who give chase to the Sacketts, up into the mountains where they feel most at home. Books with more than one Sackett are some of my favorites, and when they sit around a fire at night telling stories, well that’s just icing on the cake. One of my favorite stories comes from this book. I’ll share it with you here. If you like it, and I know you will, then come on back and read the book that is written all around it and I can tell you you’ll enjoy it too.

“Nolan was forted up down in the Panhandle country with some Comanches yonder a-shootin’ at him.. One of them got lead into him. He nailed that one right through the ears as he turned his head to speak to the other one, and then he wounded the last one. Nolan walked in on him, kicked the gun out of his hand, and stood there looking down at him, gun in his fist, and that Comanche glared right back at him, dared him to shoot, and tried to spit at him.

Nolan laughed, picked that Injun up by the hair and dragged him to his horse. He loaded that Indian on, tied him in place, then mounted his own horse and rode right to that Comanche village.

He walked his horse right in among the lodges and stopped.

The Comanches were fighters. No braver men ever lived, and they wanted Nolan’s hair, but they came out and gathered around to see what he had on his mind.

Nolan sat up there in the middle of his mustang, and he told them what a brave man this warrior was, how he had fought him until he was wounded, his gun empty, and then had cussed him and tried to fight him with his hands.

“I did not kill him. He is a brave man. You should be proud to have such a warrior. I brought him back to you to get well from his wounds. Maybe some day we can fight again.”

And then he dropped the lead rope and rode right out of that village, walking his horse and never looking back.

Any one of them could have shot him. He knew that. But Indians, of any persuasion, have always respected bravery, and he had given them back one of their on and had promised to fight him again when he had his strength.

So they let Nolan ride away, and to this day in Comanche villages they tell the story. And the Indian he brought back tells it best.”

Galloway by Louis L’Amour

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“There’s a saying that when guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns.” -Flagan Sackett

It’s the kind of statement we’ve heard in our lifetimes too, isn’t it? Something I have learned from reading the Sackett  books is that the hearts of men don’t change. As Solomon once said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” No matter what the customs, or laws of the land are, there will always be men who stand firmly on the side of right, and there will be men whose thoughts and actions are motivated by evil. I have loved that L’Amour recognizes that and has touched on it in each of his books. As he recalls the relationships between groups of people, he comments on the fact that neither side is blameless in their treatment of each other. That the actions of men committed to honesty and fairness are undermined by those motivated by personal gain or malice.

This book has Flagan Sackett escaping from a group of Jicarilla Apaches. He is captured by them and tied up, awaiting torture. But, while he lays there looking for escape, he doesn’t hate the men holding him. He simply understands his situation as part of their culture. The Apaches had such respect for strength and courage that they would test the men they captured through torture to see how strong they really were. I know that I have not explained well the mind of an Apache warrior, but I also know that I do not have the capacity to explain it to you. I suggest that you read L’Amour’s books, and find a love for a people group that have historically been feared, resented, and guiltily pushed to the backs of our minds.

So, back to Flagan. He manages to escape the Apaches, but is unfortunately naked when he does so. To us, this sounds embarrassing. To a man alone in the mountains, naked is dangerous. It means no warmth, no protection for feet from sharp rocks, and no weapons for protection or for killing some much needed meat. But, as Galloway said, “We Sacketts don’t die easy, and Flagan is a tough man. He’s been up the creek and over the mountain. He’s fit Comanches and Arapahoes on the buffalo plains, and about ever’ kind of man or animal. He’s a tough man.” He makes it back to civilization, while on the way making enemies with Curly Dunn, a man whose actions can not be classified as pure.

“You’d better be careful. The Dunns will think you’re crowding them.’

‘It’s open range and there’s enough for all.’

‘That isn’t what they think, Mr. Sackett. There are six of the Dunn boys, and there’s their pa, and they’ve a dozen or more men who ride for them.’

‘Well, there’s two of us Sacketts. That should make it work out about right. Of course, if need be, there’s a lot of us scattered around and we set store by our kinfolk.”

I love when a group of Sacketts come together. And this book has a great group. Logan and Parmalee join Flagan and Galloway in the fun and the fighting. Even with all the commonalities that the Sacketts share, there are so many ways in which they differ. Throw in a couple friends and you’ve got a crowd of characters matched by none, with conversations that can’t be beat. “We don’t have so many words as you,’ I told him, ‘so we have to make those we have stand up and do tricks. I never figured language was any stone-cold thing anyway. It’s to provide meaning, to tell other folks what you have in mind, and there’s no reason why if a man is short a word he can’t invent one. When we speak of beans that have been shelled out of the pod we call ’em shuck-beans, because they’ve been shucked. It’s simple, if you look at it.’

‘Learning,’ Galloway added, ‘isn’t only schoolin’. It’s looking, listening and making-do. If a man doesn’t have much or if he’s in wild country he’d better get himself to contemplate and contrive. Pa always taught us to set down and contemplate, take our problem and wrassel with it until there’s an answer.’ Pa taught them well, and that’s just what they did. And you are going to enjoy reading all about it. Well, if you’re anything like me, you will.