the maid and the mogul… a match made in literary heaven

Being from western Pennsylvania, though more to the north than Andrew Carnegie was, I requested an ARC of Marie Benedict’s Carnegie’s Maid because historical fiction is my genre of choice and because you can’t live in western Pennsylvania without having some idea of who Andrew Carnegie was and what he did. I’ve seen him covered a hundred times on History Channel documentaries about the ‘men who built America’ but I’ve never read a biography or a history. And I wouldn’t know where to start, so I started with this book, involving a real man’s interactions with a fictional maid in his household.

 

Fictional biographies of real people can be hit or miss but maybe this book doesn’t count as that because Clara Kelley is entirely fictional. There’s an argument to be made that Clara, an Irish immigrant from a tenant farm in the 1860s, is too… perfect but it’s also easy to take her as a summary of those that were good, and even a allegory to Carnegie, an immigrant himself. Almost like telling Carnegie’s story in a different way.

 

That Clara takes on an entirely new identity in order to send money back to her family in Ireland, pretending that she is knowledgeable about the things the ‘new money’ Carnegies are not is an interesting twist I haven’t seen in other novels. It wouldn’t work in all of them, and it’s the real-ness of the Carnegies that makes it work here. Once again, it is almost a story of America that an immigrant was able to come and be something newly created, whether it’s Andrew Carnegie going from factory boy to steel baron or Clara becoming a ladies’ maid instead of a seamstress or washerwoman.

 

Having not read much about Irish immigrants to America at the time of the Civil War, I can’t say if the backstory Benedict gives Clara is realistic, but it is something I’m going to research more.

 

The key plot to Carnegie’s Maid is the friendship between Clara, who serves as a maid to Carnegie’s mother, and Andrew. There are hints of a, forbidden, romance but Clara is, after all, fictional. So it’s never more than would-be, could-be romance and an incredibly strong friendship that I’d like to hope Andrew Carnegie might have had with someone. The idea that someone like fictional Clara influence Carnegie’s philanthropy is a nice one to have.

 

Their relationship ends badly, with secrets spilled and secrets kept, but how could it not end badly when Clara never existed? That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story. It is. It is so good that I sometimes forgot that Andrew Carnegie was real. I found myself incredibly invested in the personal life that Benedict created for him. But, in an epilogue of sorts, Benedict ties some of Carnegie’s philanthropic ideas to Clara’s influence and that is a nice way to end the novel.

 

Andrew Carnegie is an incredibly important figure in American history and, from my novice perspective, he is done justice here.

 

This novel has passed the ultimate test I give to historical fiction novels… it has made me research something real, made me learn more about something I don’t know a lot about, and made me reach for more books!

 

(I received a copy of CARNEGIE’S MAID through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own. This review is posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.)

Advertisements

Old Hollywood glamour brought to life

All I know about Mary Pickford came from Granny Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and all Granny ever said was how much she liked Mary and how Mary was ‘one of them.’ Or something like that. It’s been awhile since I watched that particular old show, though I do love it.

Combining an affection for Granny Clampett and a love of historical fiction, I jumped at the chance to get an ARC of Melanie Benjamin’s novel about Mary Pickford and famed early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, who I had never heard of.

Though I finished the book, my trust in Granny was slightly misguided.

I’ve never been particularly fond of novels about Real People. I haven’t read many because I’m not overly fond of the idea of them. Is it really a biography if it’s largely made up? No. And should a ‘fictional biography’ even be a thing? Not if you ask me. Not before I read THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE and, to be honest, not after reading it.

It took me too long to realize that Fran’s parts of the book are written in first person and Mary’s are third person. At first, I liked it. Then I didn’t like it so much. I’m not sure I understand Benjamin’s purpose with the dueling narratives. Is it because Mary is the Film Star and Frances is the one behind the scenes? That’s what it seems like and, for a story meant to be about an equal friendship, it doesn’t seem quite right.

My general problem with historical biographies and novels about real people is how much is made up. It can be done well. Or it can be done not quite right. This book falls more in line with not quite right. Things go too easily for Mary and Fran, even when they’re going badly. Everything is colored with old Hollywood glamour and it makes things almost too… Hollywood. Like, their life reads like a script that will have a happily-ever-after because that’s what the audience demands.

That’s not real life.

Even when Frances goes to Europe during World War I as a filmmaker, and sees the aftermath of Verdun, it’s through the lens of ‘filmmaker’ and that takes something from the realness of the war.

It is, however, a good look at the fabled Old Hollywood of entertainment history. It sent me to Wikipedia to research the actors and directors and, to be honest, that was almost more interesting at times than the book.

One thought that stuck with me as I read the book was a question about the source material Benjamin used. Were there articles written about Mary and Fran? Did they write autobiographies or even leave journals detailing their friendship? Did some other witness to their friendship leave stories behind? The answer to all that seems to be maybe. It is, according to Benjamin’s afterward. She even admits that fights she created between the women were created solely based on the fact that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion didn’t work together again after one particular movie.

So what, I wonder makes this better than writing biographies about two of the most powerful women in early Hollywood? Possibly, probably it’s just that I shouldn’t read these types of books.

That being said, I did read it and I did, for the most part, enjoy my time reading it. If you like historical biographies and old Hollywood, this is the book for you.

(I received a copy of THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE through NetGalley and Random House Ballantine Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Putting the History in historical fiction

Blame it all on Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My addiction to historical fiction, that is. Blame it on Little House on the Prairie and all the books that followed it. My mom read me the books as I learned to read and they were the first chapter books I read on my own. I still have the same copies as I did when I was little, because well-worn books are well-loved books. Obviously. In any case, I spent some lovely early childhood years wishing I lived on the prairie. Mostly. I don’t like bugs and playing catch with pigs’ bladders filled air just seemed… no. I do admit to being a tv fiend as well, so I was definitely influenced by the reruns of Little House on the Prairie that I watched whenever I was allowed.

Huh. Now that I think about it, that was my first book-to-screen adaptation experience. I like that.

Anyway, the thing that naturally happens after when finishes being a child is that one is an adult who understands things just a little bit better. Sometimes not much at all, but a little bit. This happened to me.

It turned out that I don’t just love little girls on prairies in the second half of the 19th century, especially ones who grow up to marry the man they love. Possibly Almanzo Wilder was my first book boyfriend before I knew what a book boyfriend was, even though he’d been dead for forty-plus years. I was too young to know that, or care! Oh but for that simpler time…

Capture2

But I digress. It turned out that I love all history. Just the word history makes me happy. I have a degree in it, for pete’s sake. And I (still) love to read. So, finding myself an adult in need of something to read, I feel page over spine in love with the genre of Historical Fiction. Though, in retrospect, I realized I’d already read a lot of the stuff – Little House and Anne of Green Gables (Gilbert Blythe was definitely my true first book boyfriend, and he was fictional!) to name just two. But Historical Fiction is definitely my addiction and I am not sorry about it. Show me a cover with a castle or some bygone era fashion and I’ll read the jacket, or jacket equivalent if I’m online. If the jacket and summary make it fairly clear there will be no iPhones or Teslas in the story, I’ll probably give the book a try. If it so much as looks like World War II, the American West, or Tudor England… count me in!

Totally addicted.

But this particular genre is not without it’s drawbacks, as I’m sure anyone who has a favorite genre will say. You see, when you love something, you tend to know a lot about it. And when you know a lot about something, you tend to get annoyed when someone gets it wrong. And when someone gets it wrong in a book you want to love, you tend to want to throw the book out the window.

I love history. So I know things like the fact that the Union Pacific Railroad was completed, thus making the first transcontinental railroad, in 1869. It’s an important part of American history, you see. So when I recently found myself reading a novel about the Japanese internment camps in America during World War II that, apparently for the simple sake of making on character able to have worked on said railroad because… reasons, moved the date to 1895, or later. That’s a twenty-six year difference, or more, because the character says in 1942 that he came to America, then got a job with the Union Pacific as a cook, and was there when the two lines met. And the author wrote him as in his early 20s when he came to America so… he would literally not have have been born when the lines met!

(Incidentally, I do admit that pretty much the only time I’m willing to do math is when I’m figuring out history. Sorry not sorry.)

The author of that book did preface the book by saying that she shortened distances between places (thankfully not between Japan and the United States… just towns in Wyoming) and moved dates around. A little. She said it was just a little. Twenty-six years is not a little!

books-old-library-ancient-times-646640

This is an example of the problem with the genre I love. I used this example because that book and it’s inaccuracies are still on my mind. Because I wanted to read that book. Badly. I didn’t, and that’s on me and my… issues with the genre I love so much it ends up being a love-hate relationship. I don’t think I’m the only one with this book lover problem. I hope.

I do get that these books are meant to be fiction, that drowning a book in facts and details and minutiae is not going to make for a compelling novel. There has to be some adherence to actual history, though. Doesn’t there?

Every article on writing advice and tips says to write what you know. That applies here as much as anywhere. Write the historical fiction (because I want to read it) but keep the history true. Don’t change history to fit your characters, change your characters to fit history. Don’t write that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon 1989 because you want your millennial computer geek to have created a program for Apollo 11 with Mark Zuckerberg. It happened in 1969. Write about someone who created a program in 1969 and leave Mark Zuckerberg out of it.*

The sum of it is that historical fiction should be true to history. Invent characters and places, sure. But – for example…

  • don’t write a novel about the Civil War and leave out the gruesome details of slavery because it is not politically correct today – those details are history
  • don’t have World War II end when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 – it did not end then, anything else is alternative history and
  • (most importantly) don’t pick what you want to be true about your character and twist history to fit it – work harder on your character instead

And now I will step off my soapbox and go find a historical fiction novel to read. Anybody got any suggestions?

*I know of no books that combine Neil Armstrong and Mark Zuckerberg. I just made that up for the sake of examples.

“A Want of Kindness” by Joanne Limburg

33271065If I have a weakness when it comes to books, a fail-safe fallback genre, it is historical fiction. Specifically historical fiction based on queens and kings. Specifically based on queens and kings of England. Show me a queen on a cover or in a blurb and I will read that book.

It is not, therefore, at all surprising that I was excited to read Joanne Limburg’s A WANT OF KINDNESS.

To make it even more appealing, her story is centered on Queen Anne of England. Queen Anne, if you don’t know, is not like either Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Queen Mary, or the wives of Henry VIII who were queens who did not rule. Queen for only five years, her reign was neither glamorous nor marked by controversy nor long enough to qualify for Hollywood films. She was the second oldest daughter of King James II and she succeeded the William III, who had ruled jointly with her sister, Mary. She was the last monarch from the House of Stuart, as she died childless. Childless despite at least seventeen pregnancies and only one child, a son, surviving as far as age 11. She was married from 1677 until her husband’s death in 1708. So her story is one of tragedy, on the whole, and yet the beauty of a reportedly loving marriage despite so much tragedy.

This, perhaps not surprisingly, does not make the sort of thing Hollywood believes it can make money on. And, to be honest, it probably can’t.

It’s really too bad.

I first learned about Queen Anne in my college English history class, and even the professor talked about seventeen pregnancies and no children. And then we moved quickly on, because Queen Victoria was coming after some Georges. I have thought about her sometimes since, wanting to know more but never wanting it badly enough to search out a biography. I’m a terrible history buff sometimes!

But this book, this fictionalized account of Queen Anne’s life from her childhood to her ascension, is really quite incredible. Possibly because, despite not having the glitz, glamour, intrigue, and longevity of the more famous queens, she lived in an incredible time. She was at the center of religious upheaval. She had seen her father, her uncle, and her grandfather struggle in their reigns. She witnessed wars with France and Spain and the Netherlands.

So Limburg’s fictionalized account Anne’s life is not what can usually be read about queens and kings. The intrigue is not romantic. She never had affairs, though it could be argued from her letters – actual things Anne wrote that Limburg uses to illustrate the story – that she had something bordering on romantic love for Sarah Churchill. She tried to do good, for herself and her family, for her country, and for all. And she succeeded, most of the time, even if it never really seems like it. And the reason it never really seems like it is because she never gets her happy ending. Never gets the things she wants more than any other.

Queen Anne deserves more recognition as an important part of British history. She truly is one of the most tragic, yet interesting rulers of England I have read about. And Limburg’s portrayal makes her all the more fascinating and charismatic.

If you have a weakness for this genre, and don’t mind a distinct lack of bursting corsets and illicit rendezvous in shadowy corners, this book is a definite Must Read.

(I received a copy of A WANT OF KINDNESS through NetGalley and Pegasus Books in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Mad Miss Mimic” by Sarah Henstra

I freakin’ love this book! And I am so sad it only took me two days to read it! I’m going to read it again, no doubt about it.

But onto the details first…

Sarah Henstra’s MAD MISS MIMIC is about one Leonora Sommerville who lives in Hastings House with her sister and her doctor brother-in-law in Victorian era London. Leo, as she prefers to be called is seventeen and her older sister is desperately trying to marry her off despite the facts that she suffers from selective mutism, stuttering, and outbursts of mimicry. Naturally, Dr. and Mrs. Dewhurst decide the bad doctor’s business partner, the future Lord Rosbury, is the perfect match for the unmarried sister – he needs a pretty wife who won’t say much, after all.

This does not work out, for anyone.

As you might expect.

Dr. Dewhurst is perfecting the art of morphine, on the poor of London who suffer terribly at his hands, while keeping his wife dosed up on laudanum. The future Lord Rosbury is arguing for a ban on opium after getting very rich already on importing opium into England. Leo figures she really ought to get married to someone who doesn’t mind her speech problems, of which her sister is absolutely horrible about, so she resigns herself to a life as Lady Rosbury.

But then…

Somebody keeps blowing things up in London and killing people, all related to the potential opium ban. And Leo begins to suspect that Dr. Dewhurst and her future husband isn’t all it seems on the surface. So, with the help of Tom – the lockpick, pickpocket, mechanical genius who is working against the partnership already, she begins to investigate.

And the twist there? Tom loves Leo and Leo loves Tom.

All the wrong social circles, though, of course.

But there is drama, there is suspense, there is medicine, there is mystery, there is history, there is romance, there is angst, there is love… and everybody should read this book!

(I received a copy of MAD MISS MIMIC through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Even In Darkness” by Barbara Stark-Nemon

I’m a sucker for World War II fiction. There really isn’t any other way to put it. That being said, I was very excited to get into Barbara Stark-Nemon’s EVEN IN DARKNESS. The story she writes is one of those tricky historical fiction ones that are based on actual events, in this case her great-aunt Klare’s experiences during World War I, World War II, and the years in between.

This balance, I’ve learned from reading a lot of these books, can be delicate because the author must keep true to historical fact, keep true to the characters who were real and who were important, and keep a narrative going that makes everyone want to keep reading.

Stark-Nemon does that well in this story.

The places her great-aunt existed, including Thereseinstadt, are described in ways that I have read them described before but not with the intense detail that might leave the narrative lacking. The focus is kept solely, for the most part, on Klare Kohler and what she sees as she goes from an eighteen year old girl with the world at her fingertips to a survivor of Nazi death camps and beyond.

Honestly, the thing I wanted more from the story was a longer, more detailed note at the end. Stark-Nemon referenced her family and how they survived but she didn’t mention Ansel Beckmann, the Catholic priest who figured so heavily in the story and who I am not sure was even real, or details on Bernhardt Steinmann and Melisande Durr, who were heroes in the story. I want to know more about them. So, basically, I want a non-fiction accounting of this story too.

And that, it seems, makes it an excellent book.

“Summer of My German Soldier” by Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

“Time to get going on my ambition. It’s not the only one I have, but it’s the only one I work at.”

Exciting news, fellow readers!

I have, inadvertently, just read one of the most banned books of the 2000-2009 era in school libraries! Summer of My German Soldier came in at #55, according to my Wikipedia-ing for background to use in this review. I am rather proud of this accidental discovery, and the reasons for my pride and happiness are many.

First and foremost, as evidenced by the photo of my book it is not a new book. No, I got this book in fourth grade – and I was in fourth grade before 2000. I remember it was fourth grade because it’s even marked with a reading level grade five, age eleven and up and I was not at those milestones when I got it. I don’t remember exactly why this book called to me. Possibly my mother had introduced me to Anne Frank. What I do remember is this – I loved this book. I scoured the library for the sequel (which I may look for again because I only remember it being beyond my understanding at the time). I made sure I did not lose this book when we moved. This book has never not been on my bookshelf with all the other books I love.

And that is the second reason for my reader joy – it’s been a years since I read Bette Greene’s pre-teen novel, though I did read it a couple times between fourth grade and now, and I still love it. Just enough time passed that I forgot just enough that I was able to rediscover passion for the story of Patty Bergen in the four days it took me to read this book.

“Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see what people might use for grounds to ban this book on; child abuse (physical and emotional), the use of the n-word among other racist things, a twenty-one year old man declaring love – in words alone – for a twelve year old girl, religious intolerance…

However, I do not believe in banning books. Certainly not on the grounds that they accurately portray history in a fictional setting, and that would be the story of this book. 

In case it isn’t clear, Summer of My German Soldier takes place during World War II. It is set in a small town called Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Patty Bergen is the daughter of the only Jewish family in town. They are wealthy enough to employ a housekeeper named Ruth who is African-American. There is a POW camp for German prisoners on the outskirts of town.

If we compare that to history, we find that:

  • small town Arkansas was probably not the most open-minded place in America for Jewish families to live
  • African-Americans and white people did not live in the same parts of town, especially in the South, during the 1940s
  • white families often employed housekeepers and staff who were not the same color as them
  • the n-word was a part of daily language, for better or for worse
  • there were POW camps for German prisoners of war all over the United States during World War II
  • it was not necessarily seen as against the rules or against the rule of law to use a belt on your daughter when she did not do as you wanted her to do

In essence, the truth hurts sometimes but it is still the truth. To paper over truth because of modern sensibilities is to ignore what mistakes were made, and risk the mistakes happening again.

“Maybe you’re right, but maybe, just maybe, we all have an enormous capacity for believing in anything that will provide us with a bit of comfort.”

“I’ve found this here a cold world, a mighty cold world, and a man and a woman, well, they needs a little comforting ‘for they freeze to death.”

This book should be read, not banned.

In any case, the summary of the book is more than why people might wish to ban it.

Patty Bergen’s parents are rich, on the comparative scale of Jenkinsville, and they do not particularly care what she does so long as she does what they expect her to do. Her mother’s mix of hyper-criticism of her looks and total lack of interest in her is heartbreaking. Her father is obsessed with no one ever seeing fault with him or the world he has created, so much so that he uses a belt on her for playing with a poor boy but buys her the finest steaks. Until a prisoner escapes from the POW camp, Patty’s only real friend is the family housekeeper, Ruth. It is Ruth who gives her the nuturing she craves and needs, and she substitutes Ruth for her parents with such intensity that she prays the prayers Ruth teaches her rather than the ones she learned at synagogue.

Patty hides the escaped prisoner, seeing it not as treason but as an act of kindness. It is obvious that it is a kindness she wishes someone would show her if she ever got away from her parents. She is able to see the prisoner, Anton, as a young man away from his home and his family and in need of help. And he sees her not only as a means to an end but as a kindred spirit who will look past labels and see the honest truth of anything and everything.

Summer of My German Soldier is a story of three different people, as different as possible in that time and that place, sharing a tiny spot in time during which their beliefs, their values, their hopes, and their dreams are called into question.