Day 1115: On Canaan’s Side

Cover for On Canaan's SideBest Biweekly Book!
I just wanted to comment that this is the third book in a row I’ve reviewed that has a title starting with “On.” That has to be unusual.

While I was reading On Canaan’s Side, I kept comparing it to Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. I think that’s because, although it approaches its subject matter much differently, it has one goal similar to the trilogy’s. It covers events in almost the same period, only in terms of one woman’s life span. But it does so in a mere 256 pages and with a limited number of characters, as opposed to Smiley’s three large books and a plethora of characters.

Lilly Bere is almost ninety years old. Her beloved grandson Bill has just died, and Lilly has decided to follow him. Before she goes, she writes an account of her life.

Lilly grew up in Dublin, but shortly after the First World War, she has to flee to America. The army mate of her dead brother has become her fiancé, Tagh. But after he takes a job as a Black and Tan, Lilly’s father hears he is on a hit list, and she with him.

Lilly’s cousin is no longer at the address she has in New York, so she and Tagh travel to Chicago to try to find her second contact. They are just settling down when Tagh is murdered at an art museum.

Lilly must flee again. In her subsequent life, she finds friends and love, but she also has mysteries in her past that Barry skillfully spins out.

The point of view is kept at Lilly’s, and we feel we get to know her and share her joys and sorrows. This novel’s prose is quite beautiful, and I was touched by events in Lilly’s life. Whereas I felt distances from Smiley’s trilogy, I was pulled into Lilly’s story. This was another excellent book I read for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 930: Early Warning

Cover for Early WarningEarly Warning is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It continues the story of the Langdon family, picking up in the 1950’s and ending in 1985.

The family, which began with a couple and their children and the occasional appearance of other relatives, expands during this period to grandchildren and eventually their children. As you can imagine, by 1985 we are dealing with many characters.

This is one of my criticisms of the novel. With so many characters, we don’t spend very much time with any, which creates distance from the novel. I already felt this with the first book, and this feeling increases for the second.

But is the purpose of this novel to follow the characters or the main events during these times? It seems to be the second, as we look at the ennui of suburban housewives in the 50’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its associated protests, the counterculture and Jonestown, to name a few. Smiley manages to have at least one family member involved in each of these events or movements, which is quite an accomplishment for one family from Iowa.

Of the Langdon children whose families are the focus of this novel, Frank concentrates most of his attention on business and sexual escapades, while his wife Andie struggles with a feeling of pointlessness and self-absorption. Neither of them pays much attention to their children, except that Frank puposefully fosters competition between his two twin boys, Richie and Michael. All of his children suffer from this upbringing, and the boys are at times truly scary.

Joe is the only Langdon to stay on the farm, and although he was one of my favorite characters in the first book, we don’t see much of him in this one. He and Lois have had some lucky breaks, and the farm is in better financial shape than their neighbors’, but decisions of the Reagan administration make small farms a tough business.

Lillian and Arthur raise a rowdy and happy family in Washington, D.C. But Arthur’s job with the CIA brings him under terrific pressure, and a tragic loss creates ramifications for years. This family has more than its fair share of sorrows.

Claire eventually marries a doctor and settles down in Iowa. But she has selected her husband almost in competition with a friend and eventually regrets her choice.

The novel is saved somewhat at the very end by a touching event linked to the presence of a character who isn’t explained until the end, one who appears in the middle of the book and at intervals throughout. At first I found the introduction of this character confusing, but I figured he had to be a family member, so then it wasn’t too hard to guess who he is.

I will read the final book, but I fear that the distance I feel from the story will only increase.

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Day 785: All Aunt Hagar’s Children

Cover for All Aunt Hagar's ChildrenAs in his wonderful novel, The Known World, Edward P. Jones attempts to depict an entire community in the short stories included in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. This goal is more difficult to accomplish, because the community is a much larger one—the African-American citizens of Washington, D.C.—and the stories take place over much of the 20th century.

Several of the stories have to do with the migration of the characters from the rural South to the city. In “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” Ruth and Aubrey Patterson are a hopeful young couple from across the river in Virginia at the turn of the 20th century. Ruth, though, is homesick, and when she finds a baby boy in a tree one night, Aubrey becomes jealous. This story is first in the collection, but the last story echoes it. Anne Perry, of rural Mississippi, meets George Carter, a sleeping car porter, and moves with him to Washington. In the story “Tapestry,” Jones uses a technique he also employed in The Known World where he breaks off to tell Anne’s entire life. But he twice tells what her life might have been had she married a different man.

The emphasis on rural roots is also important in “Root Worker.” Dr. Glynnis Holloway’s mother has been treated for mental illness for years until her care worker, Maddie Williams, talks the reluctant doctor into consulting a root worker, a wise woman. In the rural North Carolina setting under the care of Dr. Imogene, her mother improves, and Dr. Holloway surprises herself by apprenticing herself to Dr. Imogene.

Another strong theme is that of moving into the middle class. It pervades many of the stories but particularly “Bad Neighbors.” When Sharon is in high school, her family has made it to the middle class, but they are disturbed when the Staggs move in across the street, for they are not considered respectable enough. Sharon’s father is responsible for encouraging the neighbors to club together to buy the Staggs’ house so they can evict the family. Years later, Sharon realizes some truths when she is saved by Terrance Stagg.

Perhaps the thread I least identified with was the presence of folk lore as if it were real, a sort of magical realism. For example, in “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River,” Laverne spends a lively afternoon at the grocery store fending off the devil. Years ago, her grandmother got away from him by wading into the Atlantic Ocean to go to heaven.

Although overall, the stories are not as effective as the novel The Known World, they are compassionate to even the lowest of their characters. I particularly found touching “Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister,” about Noah Robinson, whose grandson Adam was lost after his drug addict parents abandoned him. The little boy is found, illiterate and frightened, and Noah faces a future of raising his grandchildren instead of the carefree retirement he envisioned.

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