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30 Nov
2018
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Book Review: “Sold on a Monday” by Kristina McMorris

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorrisSold on a Monday is Inspired by a photograph of children with the sign “2 Children for Sale” from 1948 which the author Kristina McMorris stumbled upon. The story challenges journalistic integrity, tugs at your heartstrings and offers a sweet love story. Ellis, an aspiring newspaper reporter in the early 1930’s, desperate to advance his career takes a chance on a staged photo. Casually assisted by Lily, another employee of the newspaper, who is guarding her own secret, he gets his big chance.  But guilt pursues him, and he takes more chances with his career to assuage his worry about his contribution to what happened to the children. Lily with her own burden of shame, and a need to balance motherhood and a career, also pursues a dubious path in search of information about the children. Their individual and joint efforts both separate them and bring them together.

McMorris writes a touching yet gripping story. I turned the pages anxious to learn the compelling mystery of the children. The characters are realistically developed and the plot drew me in immediately. My only criticism of the book, is what seems to me to be unrealistic illegal risks taken by Ellis and Lily. Although the country was less suspicious and legalistic than it is today, I wonder if the actions they take to recover the children would have been realistically possible in the 1930’s? On the other hand, it is fiction and a good read.

I recommend this book which I purchased at a reading by the author.

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21 Nov
2018
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Book Review: “Reliance, Illinois” by Mary Volmer

Reliance Illinois, by Mary Volmer

Reviewed by Bev Scott

I purchased this book at a reading by the author, Mary Volmer.

A fascinating story, set in 1874 on the Mississippi River. The protagonist is a teenage girl of thirteen, Madelyn Branch who pretends to be the younger sister of her beautiful mother, Rebecca, when they arrive in Reliance for her mother’s marriage to a never-met “business man” found in the “Matrimonial Times.” Mr. Dryfus is unhappily surprised because he did not expect his new wife to come with a spirited teenager. Maddy has some unique challenges to confront as well as the usual teenage longing to be pretty and loved. Unwanted in her mother’s new relationship, Maddy takes advantage of an opportunity in the household of the eccentric, wealthy Miss Rose becoming both servant and student. As she searches for her own path, she gets involved in social justice issues, radical early “feminist” schemes and faces the realities of romantic love.

The character of Maddy is finely developed. Both she and the secondary characters are drawn with complexity. As the plot unfolds the author reveals yet another secret, keeping the reader fully engaged until the surprising end of the story. With beautiful writing, vivid description and complexity of character and plot, I highly recommend this book.

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13 Nov
2018
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Book Review: “Sweden” by Matthew Turner

Sweden, Book Review

Reviewed by Bev Scott

This book, written as historical fiction, offers a mostly unknown story of deserters from the Vietnam War and their Japanese peace activist guides committed to help them get out of Japan and escape to Sweden. I found the story of their perilous efforts to escape both the Japanese police and the US military fascinating. I was a young adult at the time of the Vietnam War but the true experiences described in this book were unique and totally new to me. The characters were realistic and the descriptions of events in both Japan and the US seemed historically accurate.

My criticism of the book is that it moved too slowly with more description than necessary of the deserters’ experiences in the Japanese culture and environment. I found myself often bored and skipping paragraphs to move the story along. In addition, the introduction of characters at the beginning of the book was confusing to me. Some serious editing to address these issues would make this a compelling and vivid story.

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10 Oct
2018
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Book Review: “Before We Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott, Author

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa WingateBefore We Were Yours, in the words of the author, was “formed from the dust of imagination and the muddy waters of the Mississippi.” It also recounts experiences similar to those of real children taken from their families during the 1920’s through the 1950’s and who were victims of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Families Torn Apart

Countless children taken from loving families without cause or permission were never seen again by their biological families. Yes, some children were unwanted or rescued from dire situations. Many children, adopted out to families all over the country, were taken off the porch, kidnapped in broad daylight or removed from families using lies and deception. They were not given enough food or proper medical care. They were beaten, tied to beds and chairs and locked in dark closets. Undesirable or problem often children disappeared. Adoptive families were sometimes blackmailed for more money. Paperwork vanished leaving no record of the children’s prior lives. Georgia Tann brutalized these children with the support of the family court system, police and other corrupt officials.

Two Stories

In alternate chapters, Lisa Wingate tells two stories which ultimately come together at the end of the book. Avery Stafford is one of the daughters of Senator Stafford from Aiken, South Carolina. She is a lawyer practicing in Washington, D.C., engaged to her childhood sweetheart and being groomed to take over her father’s Senate seat. At one of her father’s events staged at a nursing home, Avery is confronted by a new resident, May, who has glimmers of recognition in seeing Avery who looks like her grandmother. May claims the dragonfly bracelet from Avery’s arm and appears to know Avery’s grandmother. Avery is intrigued by the mystery of May and begins to investigate the potential relationship with her grandmother fearing there is some scandal involved that would cause damage to the reputation of the Stafford family.

Alternately, we learn of the five children Rill, Camellia, Lark, Fern and Gabion who live on a shanty boat on the river with loving but unconventional parents, Briny and Queenie. The children are left alone when Briny takes Queenie to the hospital for medical care for a difficult delivery of twins. They are “kidnapped” from the boat by the police and taken to the house of horrors managed by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. After weeks of uncertainty and fear yet hoping that Briny will come for them, they discover the brutal truth of their situation. Camellia disappears, perhaps dying from injuries suffered from a beating. Rill, the oldest at twelve, is told that Camellia never existed, that there were “only four of you.” Lark and Gabion are the first to be adopted out followed by Fern and Rill.

Summary

Wingate provides gripping descriptions of horrors the children suffer. Avery’s search for clues to solve the mysterious connection between her grandmother and the enigmatic May is compelling.  Alternating chapters to develop the characters and the plot of the two stories is well done. The character of Avery seems a bit shallow in contrast to the depth of the shanty boat children. Perhaps it is her rationale for her search that is shallow, the reputation of the Stafford family. I couldn’t help believing that Avery had some additional personal motivations.

I recommend this impactful book. For several days, I shuddered thinking about the horrors these fictional, as well as the real children, suffered at the hands of a greedy, manipulative, and unscrupulous woman. Fortunately, for some children, there were “happy endings.”

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8 Aug
2018
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Book Review: “The Search for My Abandoned Grandmother” by Mary Ames Mitchell

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Search for My Abandoned GrandmotherMary Ames Mitchell describes in detail her search for her English grandmother’s grave or burial site. The author’s mother, Betty May, last saw her mother, Eileen Maude, when she was seven in 1932 as she boarded a train in London with her brother to spend the summer holidays with her father in France. Betty May’s parents had divorced and the partings had become customary but this last time Eileen Maude acted differently and said goodbye with tears in her  eyes. Shortly after this parting she became sick and died. Betty May grew old in the United states, not knowing what happened or where she was buried.

Mitchell, interested in genealogy, decided to travel to England to search for her grandmother’s grave, and meet or connect with remaining relatives from her grandmother’s extended family who might help her search. She prepared for her first trip by contacting English cemeteries, reviewing scrapbooks, photo albums, talking to her mother’s brother and a step sister, conducting an internet search on the British National Archives site, visiting the local Family History Center, and contacting her English relatives. What she calls her “grandmother-search project” ultimately included three trips to England and two-trips to Scotland to visit cemeteries, churches and official record sites. She visited Betty May’s first cousins, her own second cousins, second cousins-once-removed and step cousins.

In addition to the detailed search for Eileen Maude, Mitchell very smoothly intersperses the biographical details of her grandfather’s extraordinary life and what she knows of her grandmother and their marriage. Although the details of her search are occasionally tedious, I found the story compelling. Like the author I was disappointed when she hit a “brick wall” and elated when she discovered additional clues. I recommend this book if you are interested in genealogy and family history as I am.

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17 Jul
2018
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Book Review: “Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers” by Sara Zeff Geber

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review by Bev Scott, bevscott.comThis book is introduced by the gerontologist Harry “Rick” Moody, who reminds us all that we are all “solo agers” if we live long enough.  He says, “Successful Solo Agers have learned how to age alone and they have lessons we all need to learn.”

Sara Zeff Geber provides the guide book for that learning.  She covers the preparation needed to enjoy the second half of life, deciding how and where to live and ensuring care in one’s oldest age.  The information she covers is essential for aging as singles, married couples with or without children.  It is a rich resource and one all of us will use as reference as we ambivalently approach the tasks of preparing and making decisions for retirement.  Utilizing the worksheets and thoughtfully answering the questions can help us discover what will give us joy and fulfillment as well as care, comfort and financial security.

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9 Jul
2018
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Book Review: “Prairie Fires – The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser, book review by Bev Scott Author

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Reading and preparing this summary and review of Prairie Fires has been a long-term endeavor. Caroline Fraser has done a brilliant work describing the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in the historical context of the time. She won both a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Award. She begins the historical detail before Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and describes the nine decades of Wilder’s life. Wilder died in 1957 but Fraser also gives us a postscript, describing the controversies which surrounded her estate. Fraser draws on letters, diaries, land and financial records filling in gaps in Wilder’s biography. As an amateur historian especially interested in American history, I was engrossed with the setting and the detail Fraser provided; and it took time for me to absorb it all.

Laura Ingalls was born after the US Army had devastated the Dakota Indians. The Homestead Act gave white settlers official permission to take the land in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Dakota Territory once occupied by Native Americans. She and her family lived through the natural disasters of drought, extreme heat, locust swarms and blizzards. Her father was unable to make a living for his family as a farmer. The family lost everything and literally skipped out of town to escape debts. Often overwhelmed with responsibilities and anxiety, Laura worked to help support her family, running errands, serving as a companion and seamstress, turning all her earnings over to her parents. At fifteen, she passed the exam to become a teacher of small children at a little school a few miles from home.

Almanzo Wilder came each weekend to pick her up in his wagon. She agreed to marry him in 1885 when she was 17. Although their first year of marriage was a magical one, Laura worried about money and the debt that Almanzo had accumulated to provide her a handsome house. In 1886 a baby girl, Rose was born adding another worry. Fraser points out that the economics were impossible. After expenses and setting aside seed for the next year, there was a little more than $40 to live on for another year. Even imagining that living on $40 was possible, disasters seem to stalk the Wilders: drought, cyclones, failing crops, fire, diphtheria, Almanzo’s crippling stroke. The title of the book, Prairie Fires refers to one of the disasters they confronted. They ultimately decided to leave.

Ingalls Family photograph

The Ingalls Family

Chicago and North Western Railway Company poster c 1870 encouraging immigrants to move to Dakota using their railroad

When they finally settled in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894, Laura would “step by cautious step, sieze control of their circumstances” proving herself adept to find ingenious ways to earn income, live frugally and manage their meager assets.  Fraser paints a picture of the grit and determination of Wilder’s struggle to survive. This was the beginning of their journey back from the brink of ruin. As Fraser describes, Laura Wilder’s life was a “titanic struggle to tame yet another wilderness alone with her crippled husband and a seven-year-old.” Because he was disabled by his stroke, Almanzo could not work a full day on the farm. They moved into town and he began a business making deliveries and hauling passengers. Laura worked keeping books for the oil company.

When her father died, Laura wrote an essay about her earliest memories of him. She described his greatest gift was his contentment with what he had. It was a powerful essay, remembering all of the songs he played, passionately describing everything about him. It was a beginning of her writing.

Her daughter, Rose, also began writing. At twenty-two after following a beau to San Francisco in 1908, she began writing newspaper stories. She shed her sense of inferiority and feelings of being unwanted and adopted a “belief in her superiority, a self-assured rejection of authority and those who wielded it.” She endeavored for the rest of Laura Wilder’s life to be her writing instructor and guide. The former strict matriarch, acknowledging her own insecurity, took her daughter’s hand and launched into a new career. This new relationship between mother and daughter lasted for the next forty years. (For a deeper look into Rose and Laura as collaborators, see article in The New Yorker, “Wilder Women.”)

By 1916 Wilder was a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist. She developed her voice and themes through her involvement and activism as a clubwoman, member of a Masonic organization, farm activist, secretary-treasurer for the Mansfield branch of the federal Farm Loan Association as well as a prolific columnist for the Ruralist. Wilder’s first national magazine article came through her daughter’s connections and marked their first collaborative clash. Using her former husband name, Rose Lane had a burgeoning career as a celebrity biographer by 1917. She was also a talented and insightful line editor. She wrote several pages of suggestions for a project Laura was working on urging her to pay attention to the rules of good writing, show rather than tell, stick to a narrative voice, provide colorful details and pay close attention to transitions.

Laura Wilder was working on her autobiography and writing children’s stories. Rose Lane discouraged her from writing children’s stories as trivial with no opportunity to make a name. Initially, her autobiography was rejected despite Rose’s revisions but was ultimately accepted, and she was asked to re-write it as a children’s story. Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods sold strongly during the Depression. Wilder was already hard at work on another book. Her books ultimately were listed in the top twenty bestselling children’s book of all time!

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott Author

Laura Ingalls Wilder on her porch, home in the town of Mansfield, Missouri, early 1900’s

Laura Ingalls Wilder became one of the most significant influencers of our American culture. She showed children how to be poor without shame, demonstrated the heroism of endurance, celebrated the simple pleasures and how to make the best of what you have. She spoke against government intervention and opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal believing everyone could and should support themselves. She never acknowledged, perhaps never recognized, that the homesteading both her parents and her own family took advantage of was a gift of the government.

In Fraser’s biography of Wilder, we come to see that her autobiographical novels are stories that transform the brutal hardship she experienced into the American myth of stoicism, a romantic idealism of poverty and the ethos of individualism. We see the contradictions in her strength, perseverance and grit as a woman to aggressively pursue survival without debt with her belief that women belonged at home and in the kitchen. We also see the influence of her cultural times when we use today’s lens to identify the racist language and stereotypes in her books.

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott

Farmer at the plow, “breaking” prairie sod.

Fraser not only writes a detailed story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and the historical times in which she lived, but she also chronicles the life of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane was Wilder’s editor, instructor and guide who revised and rewrote her work frequently without either of them acknowledging Rose’s contribution. Rose had no compunction to expanding the truth and including creative additions to the story that never happened. Wilder apparently saw nothing wrong with Rose’s fictional reporting. Neither of them heeded the strict standards that emerged at the time from the journalism school at the University of Missouri. Wilder accepted Lane’s practice of merging truth and fiction, publicly claiming that her books were true when at least some of the story was fiction.

Prairie Fires is a detailed, carefully crafted historical work. Fraser places the life of Wilder in the cultural context of the events on the American Plains of the nineteenth century and social forces and seismic shifts of the first half of the twentieth century. These events and social forces molded and shaped Wilder’s voice and philosophy which are embedded in the Little House stories. This cultural context helps us understand their enormous influence. Despite my frustration of so much attention given to Rose Wilder Lane, I highly recommend this book.

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30 May
2018
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Book Review: “The Black Rose” by Tananarive Due

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Black RoseThe Black Rose, by Tananarive Due. is based on the truly inspirational story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, Madam C. J. Walker. She was born in 1867 on a plantation to slave parents who died from yellow fever, “Yellow Jack,” when she was about eight years old. From abject poverty, unable to read but with drive and belief in herself Sarah Breedlove overcame incredible odds. She lost her first husband who was beaten to death by a mob. Then, she worked long hours to establish a successful laundry business only to be humiliated by a white client who found flecks of blood on the white table cloth Sarah had washed. She searched for a solution to her itchy dandruff scalp, the source of the blood flecks, but the existing products did not help. Experimenting with different concoctions in her kitchen, she successfully created a new formula that worked.

After she met C. J. Walker, an advertising wiz, she established a successful hair-care products business and hair schools for women using the Walker method. She was driven by her belief that her mission was to help African Americans to improve themselves and become self-sufficient. Her passion, tenacity and dedication contributed not only to her success, but also to her denial of the risks to her health and to the estrangement of C. J. and her daughter, Lelia.

Tananarive Due has done excellent work in turning a project initially begun by Alex Haley, who became fascinated by Madam C. J. Walker and had begun research for a major novel, into a fascinating and engaging story. She has created a vivid historical narrative of Madam Walker’s life. Although fiction, the book provides an inspiring portrait of America’s first black female millionaire, philanthropist and amazing pioneer.

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3 Apr
2018
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Book Review: “The Boleyn King” by Laura Andersen

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

I love historical novels, and I needed a distraction during a cross country flight. The book The Boleyn King offers creative alternative history by imagining that Anne Boleyn actually gave Henry VIII a son who became king. Within the historical context of a threatening war with the French and Catholic unrest at home, the fictional William trusts only his older sister, Elizabeth; his best friend, Dominic who serves as his counselor; and Minuette, who was raised by his mother, Anne Boleyn and serves as Elizabeth’s Lady in Waiting.

The story moves at a good pace providing intrigue and romance which is only increased with the discovery that both William and Dominic are in love with Minuette. This love triangle kept me reading but, I wondered if the character of Minuette could realistically exist in the royal household. Although the book provided the needed distraction on my flight, the story lacks depth and seems to be written for a younger audience. On the other hand, it is an innovative alternative to history and will easily provide a light distracting read perhaps for your summer vacation.

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31 Jan
2018
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Book Review: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott

The Sympathizer Book Review by Bev ScottThe Sympathizer tells the first-person story of a communist spy embedded in South Vietnam during the “American War.” He serves as a loyal aide to “the General” of the South Vietnamese army at the same time he shares information with his communist handlers loyal to North Vietnam. He evacuates with the General when the U.S. pulls out of South Vietnam and ends up in California as an immigrant. Continuing his close connection to the General as well as his relationship with his handlers, he ultimately returns to Vietnam in a futile attempt to infiltrate North Vietnam and is captured and held prisoner. Held in isolation for a year, he is required by the “faceless” Commandant to write his confession before he is freed. This confession is the first-person story of the book.

I began reading this book as part of my preparation to travel to Vietnam last December. The author, Viet Thanh Nguyen has won a Pulitzer Prize and several other prizes for this book, but I found it very hard to read. The focus switches from description to dialogue, from one location to another, from one character to another without punctuation or explanation. Despite the gripping, wry and historical nature of the story, and what many consider brilliant writing, I had to force myself to continue to read it.

I did finally finish it and valued the Vietnamese perspective it provided. I gradually adjusted to the writing style. I agree that it skillfully draws the reader into the mysteries of Vietnam’s political intrigue. I also appreciated learning more about the impact of selfless commitment and passion to a political cause. The book raises evocative questions regarding the interplay of morality, power and a strong belief in a greater cause while also revealing multiple views on the subject. I am glad I read it.

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