Historical Fiction is our genre for September. It would seem pretty clear cut; historical fiction takes place in the past. But the genre definition is complicated by time itself. Whereas, we might consider The Great Gatsby or Grapes of Wrath works of historical fiction, in actuality, when written, they would have been considered contemporary fiction.
These days, genres are sometimes blended by authors. So a work may be historical fiction in one part of the book and contemporary fiction in another as the work moves back and forth between time periods. The Chaperone is an example of that, as is one of today’s novels for review.
Sharon’s Pick: ORPHAN TRAIN: A NOVEL by Christina Baker Kline
I have been fascinated with the Orphan Train piece of American history for more than 40 years. At one time, I had read all the books available. That time is past. More books were written. My interests moved on to other areas. But I never forgot my intrigue; I still have a computer folder on Orphan Train facts and figures and research resources. But, while not forgotten, the Orphan Train episodes got pushed to a back drawer of my mind, lying fallow, waiting for me to finally write that novel I promised to do long ago.
Now I needn’t bother. Christina Baker Kline wrote the book I wish I had written. And over 9200 reviews on Amazon would seem to support my admiration for her novel.
Kline’s prose sings as you read it. She possesses amazing skill with description and dialogue. There was never a page, paragraph, or sentence I skipped through. She engages you from the start and never lets go of her grip until the end. Actually, that is inaccurate. I am still gripped by the tale and think of it occasionally.
Before there were state-run child-welfare systems, the orphan trains, removing children to new homes in the Midwest, were seen as a solution to the hordes of young children in poverty in their homes or living on the streets of New York City and other East Coast cities. Between 1853 and 1929, more than 200,000 were relocated to the Midwest and beyond. New York City alone accounted for more than 30,000 children in the 1850s.
Though most were, not all the children were orphans. Authorities deemed relocating children preferable to letting them stay with families struggling to survive. And most of the transported children were not willing riders. The fears and expectations of these youngsters are an aspect Kline develops so well.
Through a variety of circumstances, Vivian, a rich old lady in Maine, meets Molly, a Penobscot teen in the state’s foster care system who is assigned to help her. Vivian’s stories of the 1920s and 1930s intertwine with those of modern-day Molly, making for some interesting contrasts and comparisons. Given my fascination with the orphan train phenomenon, I found the story in the past more compelling than Molly’s tale.
But Molly’s tale as a foster child served as an important counterpoint and contributed to the book as a whole. Molly either works court-ordered community service hours or ends up in the juvenile justice system. She chooses, wisely, to help Vivian. The job? Clear the attic’s decades-old accumulations in various trunks. Molly knows that she and a rich old lady living in a big house have nothing in common. She is not coming to the task with a glad heart.
As they work together, Vivian shares stories attached to the items. Vivian reveals she was a “rider” who lost her home and even her name. Vivian’s survival of worse conditions than Molly’s helps the teen realize how much they have in common. A bond forms between Vivian and Molly leading us to believe that Molly, too, will survive the child welfare system and thrive in her new world. She sees how similar their two situations have been and learns to see beyond herself and her own circumstances. Developing empathy is very difficult for abused children since they can find it hard to get outside of themselves and their needs.
I personally connected with this book. From my perspective, as someone whose mother grew up bouncing around from the orphanage to various foster situations, the story told a truth about how we treated unfortunate children in the past and how we still do today. Oh, the situations differ, of course, but abuse, whether physical or emotional, is still endemic, sadly. If Christina Baker Kline’s novel shines a light on that, she has accomplished far more than she may have set out to do.
KATHY’S PICK: Sky of Red Poppies, by Zohreh Ghahremani
“Maybe the poppies’ secret, their significance, indeed what made them so unique, lay in their brief existence. Like the misty memory of my mother, something about the poppies both dazzled and troubled me.”
Ghahremani’s prose is, at times, breathtaking. Her ability to capture the essence of a sixteen-year-old’s feelings of fear and awakening is awe-inspiring. As you read and become enveloped in this fearsome world, you are pulled in and become a part of it.
Not many books do that for me.
This one, written by a local author here in San Diego, is engaging and horrific. Ghahremani was born and raised in Iran, and I wondered as I read it how much was sheer storytelling and how much was based on reality.
The central characters in this small, elegant, and eye-opening book are two schoolgirls in 1960’s Iran who come from decidedly different backgrounds. Roya is born to a wealthy family, sheltered from the ugliness of life. But there are secrets.
Shireen comes from a more modest background, completely aware of the real world and angry about the Shah’s attitude toward his people. She is deeply religious, and Roya is not. Shireen is fiercely independent, allowed to speak her mind and question authority in her head. Roya is subservient and quiet. You can feel the tension in this girl/woman who knows the truth, but is careful to choose her audience because she knows the SAVAK, the secret police, are everywhere.
They meet in school where Roya begins to admire Shireen’s strength and learns of her questioning nature toward government. This awareness is added to by the teacher, a man who openly questions the government while teaching, and subsequently loses his job. The ignorance is peeled away for Roya, and she opens her eyes to the truth of her circumstances.
Roya witnesses a fellow student being hauled away by SAVAK, a force that literally eliminates any opposition. That student was never seen again, and it is the beginning of her awakening. Roya’s father had cautioned her not to discuss the secret police with anyone but never told her why.
Her tentative questions at home are shot down quickly and she begins to talk to others quietly about the forbidden subjects of government and how the Shah conducts their lives, how little choice they have to live freely. She and Shireen and Shireen’s brother have guarded conversations and question each other about the truth and what’s right.
The family secrets, the threat of SAVAK coming to the door, and the relationships between the adults and the younger generation are explored fully. Several threads emerge to follow throughout the story, some horrific, some tragic, some sweet.
At the conclusion, Roya lives in America and when it comes time to sell her father’s house, she brings her son and begins to reflect on her past. The sweetness and regret are palpable for a young mother who has finally made a life for herself on her own terms. You always knew she would, but how she garnered the strength and grew in the face of a revolution is the gripping part of the story.
Roya and Shireen had kept a diary they traded back and forth. “Now that the fog of ignorance has lifted, what used to be hope for the future has turned into regrets of the past. The lion’s den had been there all along in clear view, and only a step away. Years later, it is so easy to see the many signs of danger that we missed. I open the diary to a page where I have written, ‘Hooray, Shireen is coming to my house!’ And all of a sudden, I am seventeen again, anticipating the thrill of finally having my friend over.”
Poppies represented emotions to Roya – the blood red color reminded her of the revolution in the streets. The bright red was a happy, hopeful color. The odor of them caused fear; the opium her father smoked at first socially, then obsessively, came from the poppies and evoked sadness and fear. She saw the poppies come from the earth, strong, lifting themselves toward the sun, then bending face down into the earth in complete humility.
A great read. Not a light, beach read for sure, but I highly recommend picking this up when you get a chance.