Day 1138: The Vengeance of Mothers

Cover for The Vengeance of MothersThe Vengeance of Mothers is Jim Fergus’s sequel to One Thousand White Women, and telling about it faces me with a problem. If you are at all interested in reading either of these books, this is your warning that it’s impossible to tell anything about this one without mentioning the events at the end of the other.

One Thousand White Women was presented as the journals of Mary Dodd, who participated in a (fictional) U.S. government exchange of white women as wives for the Cheyenne for horses. In the 1990’s, the son of the journal’s publisher receives a visitor in his office, Molly Standing Bear, who gives him another set of journals, the basis for The Vengeance of Mothers.

These journals are those of three women—Meggie and Susie Kelly, the wild Irish twins who appeared in the previous novel, and Molly McGill, a young woman participating in the second program of brides for horses. Meggie and Susie are determined to wreak vengeance for the events at the closing of the last novel, which resulted in the deaths of their children. Molly’s group is captured by the Lakota when their train is massacred, but the Lakota give the survivors to the Cheyenne.

link to NetgalleyThe women’s adventures include the return of the dastardly Jules Seminole, who led the army to attack the Cheyenne instead of the group of Native Americans they were supposed to attack; the reappearance of a few of the women from the first book; and a romance between Molly and Hawk, a young warrior.

I found the same things interesting in this novel that I liked in the other, particularly the details of life among the Cheyenne, but Fergus doesn’t give us much of anything new here, except a strange turn to the spiritual. In particular, I found the ending unsatisfying. Still, I enjoyed most of the journey to a limited extent.

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Day 1136: The Wonder

Cover for The WonderLib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, journeys to a small village in Ireland to take on a two-week case. Her assumption that she is being hired by a wealthy family that can afford to bring a nurse out from England turns out to be false. She has been hired by a committee to observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who has reportedly not eaten for months. Her job is to make sure whether the girl is actually eating or not.

At first, Lib suspects that Anna is perpetrating a hoax, but slowly she realizes that the deeply religious girl believes she is living on manna from heaven. Still, she finds the people of the village steeped in ignorance and superstition, the local doctor incompetent, and her employers with a vested interest in a miracle. Her only confidante becomes someone she shouldn’t even be talking to—William Byrne, a journalist.

link to NetgalleyAs Anna shows unmistakable signs of starvation and imminent death, Lib eventually finds out what is going on, but no one believes her. Suspense builds as you wonder whether and how Lib will be able to save Anna.

For me, this was a surprisingly good book. I didn’t think I would enjoy it based on the subject matter, and later, I could not imagine how it would end. It has a great deal of psychological depth and often feels like a mystery.

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Day 1130: The Idiot

Cover for The IdiotI think I read The Idiot when I was about 13, and all I remembered of it was that at a tea party, someone stood on the table and shouted. That memory turned out to be false, but they might as well have, and I can’t imagine what my very young self must have made of this novel. My very old self is having trouble enough with it.

The thing about Dostoevesky—and I have read most of his novels, although none for a long time—is that his characters always behave as if they’re in a frenzy. The Idiot is no exception.

Prince Myshkin returns to Russia from years in Switzerland, where he was being treated for epilepsy, to inquire about a legacy he may receive. On the train he meets Rogozhin, who has just inherited a fortune and is on his way to pay court to Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova. Nastasya Filippovna was orphaned as a young girl then brought up by the lecherous merchant Totsky to be his concubine. Now Totsky wants to marry someone else, but Nastasya Filippovna has threatened terrible scenes if he does. Totsky is scheming to marry her off to Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin for the sum of 75,000 rubles.

When the prince meets Nastasya Filippovna, he is so overcome with pity for her that he becomes irrevocably bound with her fate. Later, when he falls in love and wants to marry Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchin, his entanglement with Nastasy Filippovna ruins him.

Prince Myshkin is completely naive, yet at the same time very perceptive. Dostoevsky wanted to portray in him a simply good man and show how this goodness is overcome by the cynicism and self-interest of society. At times, he is compared to Christ or to a knight.

Although Myshkin is a sympathetic character, he constantly has bad things done to him—is betrayed, libeled, slandered, and cheated—by the people he knows, many of whom are just plain annoying. There is Lebedev, for example, who constantly tells people how vile he is, then behaves badly. And Ippolit, a student dying of tuberculosis, who sneers at the prince, even while accepting his hospitality. Are people really like Dostoevsky’s characters? you may well ask. Of course, Myshkin forgives everyone.

Did I like this novel? I hardly know. I do know that it is one of the last books on my first Classics Club list.

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Day 1126: The Unquiet Grave

Cover for The Unquiet GraveI have long admired several of Sharyn McCrumb’s “ballad series” mysteries, novels based upon old Appalachian ballads, some of which have a chilling supernatural element. I thought that The Unquiet Grave might be one of these, but instead it is more closely related to her The Ballad of Tom Dooley, which I thought had severe flaws.

The Unquiet Grave, like The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is about a true crime, in which Edward Shue was accused of murdering his wife, Zona, in 1897. The story of this incident, narrated by Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, alternates with the narrative by attorney James P. D. Gardner, the resident in 1930 of a mental asylum. How these stories are connected isn’t explained until about halfway through the novel.

It is when Gardner starts telling his doctor about the case that the story began to lose me. For almost immediately, he maunders off into long stories about his boss at the time of the trial, Shue’s defending attorney, Dr. Rucker. I am sure that McCrumb’s intention, both in this novel and in Tom Dooley, is to tell colorful stories about the region, but the fault in both of these novels is that she gets readers interested in one story only to invoke the wandering memories of some old man, going off in twenty different directions.

link to NetgalleyI did not have the patience for this, so I gave Gardner’s section about 20 pages of time to get back on the subject. When he didn’t, having read more than half the book, I quit reading. I sympathize with what McCrumb is trying to do, trying to invoke the story-telling of an old man who knows a lot of local history, but she lost me twice using this same technique. I think she needs to find a better angle into these true stories of West Virginia.

This is the second book I read for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 1108: His Bloody Project

Cover for His Bloody ProjectI was actually reading another novel on my iPad when I picked up His Bloody Project because my iPad needed charging. I was so riveted by it that I couldn’t go back to the other novel until I finished this one.

In 1869 Scotland, 17-year-old Roddy Macrae is in jail awaiting trial for the murders of three people. Roddy has admitted the murders and is ready to take his punishment, which in this time means hanging. His advocate, Mr. Sinclair, thinks there are mitigating circumstances and asks him to write his account of the crimes.

The entire novel is made up of documents—first, Roddy’s account, then the medical reports of the victims and psychiatric evaluations, finally the account of the trial and what happened afterward. Although there is no doubt who committed the murders and little doubt of the outcome of the trial, Burnet manages to conjure up a great deal of sympathy for Roddy and a terrific amount of suspense.

Not only does Burnet create a complex psychological depiction of Roddy, he also deftly depicts the life of highland crofters in the mid-19th century. The novel deals with such issues as class discrimination, the inequities in the lives of crofters and their domination by the landlords, the limitations of our system of justice, and the beliefs held in the infancy of psychiatry. These observations make the novel sound heavy, but it is eminently readable. This is one of the books I read for my Booker Prize project, and I’m really glad I did.

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Day 1104: Vanity Fair

Cover for Vanity FairVanity Fair is a reread for me for my Classics Club list. It has been a long time since I’ve read it, though, and I was curious about whether I would have the same reaction to it.

The novel, of course, is Thackeray’s famous satire of society that follows two English girls through their launches into society and later lives. One is Amelia Sedley, the gentle, conventional heroine who has been the only girl to befriend Rebecca Sharp, the charity student. Amelia is only eager to marry George Osborne, her long-betrothed fiancé. Rebecca is determined to be a success and marry a rich man.

It may be perhaps predicted that good, honest Amelia suffers much more than conniving Becky. Early in the book, Amelia’s marriage to George is threatened when her father loses his fortune. Even though we readers already know that George cares for no one more than himself, Amelia goes into a decline.

Meanwhile, Becky makes her own improvident marriage. She runs off with Rawdon Crawley, the heir to her employer’s fortune, thinking that she will be able to bring Miss Crawley around.

The early days of both marriages are set against the backdrop of the battle of Waterloo, as both George Osbourne and Rawdon Crawley are serving officers. With them is George’s best friend, Dobbin, who falls madly in love with Amelia at first sight and helps her throughout the novel.

As a girl, I thought Amelia was completely insipid and admired Becky Sharp. But it must be said—Becky has no morals. This time through, although I still found Amelia a bit tiresome, I found myself sympathizing more with Rawdon and Dobbin.

In any case, this novel is often funny and always entertaining. Although Thackeray presents us with a conventional heroine for the time in Amelia, you can’t help thinking he had some admiration for the unsinkable Becky. By following her adventures, Thackeray shows us the foibles of members of polite society: the fights over inheritance, the sycophancy, the treatment of people as their fortunes wax and wane.

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Day 1102: The Essex Serpent

Cover for The Essex SerpentBest Book of the Week!
In 1885, Cora Seabourne is a recent widow and is happy to be so, as her husband abused her. For the first time, she feels free and is not eager to remarry, even though surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett is in love with her.

Cora is interested in fossils and has made a heroine of the early fossil finder Mary Anning, so she moves with her son Frankie and her friend Martha to Essex, where she can explore the sea coast. Soon after arriving, she hears rumors of the Essex serpent, a monster that has been supposedly terrorizing the area. There are rumors of slain farm animals and lost children. Cora hopes to find a living prehistoric animal. The villagers are more superstitious, and an aura of dread soon develops.

Cora finds happiness rambling around the countryside, so she delays introducing herself to the Ambroses, Reverend William and his wife Stella. But when she finally meets them, they become fast friends. In particular, Will and Cora enjoy debating such subjects as science versus religion, a topic made even more controversial since Darwin’s discoveries. Sadly, it soon becomes obvious that Stella has tuberculosis.

This novel evokes the ideas and preoccupations of the Victorian age. Although it has quite a few characters, they are all convincingly portrayed. I was deeply interested in the novel. It presents a fully realized world, vividly imagined and described.

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