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The Girls From the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage – The 1976 Club goes to Montana

October 13, 2021 19 comments

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage. (1976) Not available in French.

Take five girls anywhere, at any time. Three will be all right, and one will make it. One won’t. There they go.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is Elizabeth Savage’s semi-autobiographical novel. It is set in Missoula, Montana, The Garden City where the Five Great Valleys meet: the Mission, the Missoula, the Blackfoot, the Hellgate, and the Bitterroot.

Five girls, Hilary, Amelia, Doll, Kathy and Janet. We’re in 1934, the summer between the girls’ junior and senior year in high school. Doll struggles with school, she knows she won’t go to university; the others will and Hilary, their leader, knows that this year is a turning point in their lives.

The novel is set during the Great Depression but among families who are doing fine. Hilary’s father has a coal & ice business that is struggling but he’s been investing in land to secure their future. Amelia comes from old money. Doll’s father has kept his job, money is tight but they make do. Janet’s father is a doctor, he replaced the old GP after he retired. Kathy’s father is a professor at Missoula university, a stable job that doesn’t pay well, as Savage cheekily points out: Kathy’s father drank but only right after payday, since that is the only time professors can afford it. Of course, the mothers have no job.

Hilary has a purpose. She wants to succeed and be someone. Her next step is to get into a Greek sorority and she trains her little group for that. She understands how things work and she intends to play by the rules, even if she doesn’t totally agree with them. She has great social skills and understanding of social status. They certainly weren’t city girls, but the fact of the Rocky Mountains didn’t make them country girls, either. They need a clean reputation and it means sticking together and avoiding getting too involved with boys.

Three characters are more developed than the others, Hilary and his ambition, Doll and her acceptance that she’ll marry young and will probably live like her family and Amelia who struggles to find her true self between Anne, her arrogant and selfish mother and her disabled little sister. Her father died (committed suicide?) in a car accident and she feels responsible for her mother and sister.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a vivid picture of Missoula’s middle class in the 1930s. Hilary is the main character but we see her parents’ point view and Anne’s too.

Hilary’s parents, Myra and Hank, have a solid and loving relationship, a traditional one. Myra, the mother takes care of the house and defers to her husband for all decisions. Hank wants to provide for his family and free his wife of any financial concern. The couple has a daughter and a son, they are better off than their parents and impersonated the American middle-class dream.

Elizabeth Savage was born in 1918 and spent her youth in Missoula, where her father was a teacher at the university. She went to Missoula County High School before going to Colby College in Maine. I assume that Kathy is the character who looks the most like her.

Savage draws a portrait of western life and western mentality as opposed to the East and to California. We’re in the 1930s and it’s not good to be openly communist in Missoula. It costs Mr Barry, a teacher, his position at the high school, and it’s not only his ideas that are different:

And Mr. Barry did other things that were not wise. He wore a hat. To this day in the Garden City Where the Five Great Valleys Meet, men wear hats. But proper hats. Proper hats are Stetsons. They don’t make Stetsons anymore, but Monkey Ward makes a sort of Stetson and so does J.C. Penney. That kind of hat indicates that though you may not be a rancher, you live near where the ranchers live and have in mind the welfare of the West. Mr. Barry’s hat had a narrow brim. He said it was a Borsolino and he said it was the finest hat ever made.

It’s not good to stand out, in Missoula. Hilary understands it perfectly. And although Hank approves of Roosevelt’s politics, he will never acknowledge it publicly.

If the truth were known, in some ways Hank agreed with Mr. Barry. Everyone knew the big companies had too much muscle. He even agreed about the new President. Hank hadn’t voted for him, but next time he probably would. That didn’t mean he was going to go all around town saying so.

I enjoyed The Girls from the Five Great Valleys for its sense of time and place. I always love picking up details about everyday life. I was surprised that Capek’s play R.U.R was played in drama class in Missoula high school. I didn’t know that Milky Way candies already existed. (You took a sandwich and a Milky Way.) And I still wonder what eggshells do in coffee. (Then in a crisp housedress and in the kitchen, she started to make the coffee with eggshells in it, the way her husband liked it.)

I also relished in Savage’s sense of humor and observation skills. They come out in statements like Weak people often are unhappy; strong people can’t take the time. Or If your mother is plump it is comforting to know your father is not attracted to storks. Or You can put up with a real mean man; one who is trying to be mean is meaner, maybe because the one who’s naturally mean doesn’t have to try so hard.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a way for Elizabeth Savage to write about Westerners’ ways and let her reader know about her youth in Montana. You learn facts of life from the area like that Any young person in Montana knows that chasing stock is not allowed. It makes them lose weight and it makes them drop their young. or that People on ranches don’t like knocks on the front door because anyone who belongs comes in the back.

As always when I read books set in the 1930s in the USA, I’m surprised by their way of life compared to Europe at the same time and how much we have been Americanized since then.

And the tradition of having a cabin up the mountain to roughen it up was already there and alive. Amelia’s family has one, by a lake, where people go swimming and (trout?) fishing.

No cabin was named, nor did any sign proclaim its owner. This was the result of the same agreement that forbade running water. You had an outhouse and a shallow well with a hand pump. You washed outside if you felt you must wash. Half the fun was pretending to be your own ancestor.

Right!

This is my participation to Karen’s and Simon’s 1976 Club.

Thank you for organizing this event, it’s always a fun way to explore one’s TBR.

I’m looking forward to reading other reviews about 1976 books and hope you’ll pick another year for the Spring.

Check out my billet about The Last Night at the Ritz, another excellent book by Elizabeth Savage.

Lesser of Evils by Joe Flanagan – Great debut noir fiction

September 19, 2021 4 comments

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan (2016) French title: Un moindre mal. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan is an excellent example of what neo-noir can be.

Cape Cod, 1957. Bill Warren is acting as chief of police in the small town of Barnstable. The appointed chief of police, Marvin Holland is in the hospital after a heart attack and might be forced into early retirement. Warren lives alone with his disabled son, Michael, nicknamed Little Mike. His alcoholic wife disappeared on them and never came back.

Several crimes happen at the same time in Cape Cod. Two boys are found dead and were sexually harassed. A man was beaten up after he failed to reimburse his due to loan sharks. The local police start investigating but the DA, Elliott Yost transfers the affair to the State police led by Dale Stasiak.

Warren is furious but he’s on shaking grounds with his team, the town council and the DA. He’s only acting as chief of police and he’s different from Chief Holland, less smarmy and ill-at-ease with the political side of the job. He doesn’t want to compromise and let things slide when it comes to prominent citizen.

The plot thickens as corruption, mafia, sexual predators are settling in otherwise quiet Cape Cod. Who is behind the boys’ murders? Is the Boston mafia trying to set up a place for illegal bets and loans? Who are the crooked cops and the honest ones? How deep in the mud are local politicians?

Warren keeps investigating, even if he’s not supposed to.

Lesser Evils is Joe Flanagan’s debut novel and it’s a tour de force. Everything sounds right and is perfectly orchestrated. The characters are deep enough, well-defined and come to life. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seems realistic –to me, at least, after all, I’ve never been there—and the author comes from the area.

The plot threads are masterfully developed and equally engaging. A lot of characters come into play but the reader is never lost among them and always knows how to place them. It’s suspenseful and I couldn’t put the put down.

Warren is an engaging character, with his kind relationship with his son and his fair dealings with his team. Like Johnson’s character Walt Longmire, Warren was a police officer in the army before joining the police force after the war. We are in a classic neo-noir with an investigator who is honest and is willing to jeopardize his career, put his life on the line to keep his integrity.

You can imagine this story in a black-and-white movie from the Hollywood Golden Age. I read it during the holidays and couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended, especially since, in the Northern hemisphere, we’re heading towards cold Sundays with reading under a blanket.

See Marina’s review here. She’s a little less enthusiastic than me.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – good literature but too bleak for me.

September 15, 2021 12 comments

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2012) French title: Les douze tribus d’Hattie. Translated by François Happe.

As often, I’m late with my billet as The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis was our Book Club choice for July.

In 1923, the young Hattie moves out of Georgia with her family to settle in Philadelphia. They go to the city and away from the Jim Crow laws. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is made of twelve vignettes, each for one of Hattie’s offspring, with Hattie as an Ariadne thread along the book. We meet each child or grand-child at one moment in their lives and through the different chapters, we get an idea of Hattie’s life. Each chapter is a key moment in Hattie’s life and each belong to one child.

We start in 1925. Hattie is now married to August and they have seven-month twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The twins die of fever, no, out of poverty. Hattie and August didn’t have the money to buy the penicillin that could have saved them. This made Hattie’s and August’s lives derail with sorrow.

We leap to 1948 where we meet Floyd, the jazz musician of the family.

We’re in 1950 and we spend time with Six, the future preacher.

We’re in 1951, when Ruthie was born and Hattie tried to leave her husband.

In 1954, Ella, Hattie’s last baby is sent out to live with her barren aunt Pearl, in Georgia.

In 1968, we see what has become of Alice and Billups and why they have a special bond.

In 1969, we spend some time in Vietnam with Franklin.

In 1975, Bell is dying of tuberculosis and we learn about her difficult relationship with her mother.

In 1980, Cassie is schizophrenic and Hattie and August have to hospitalize her. Her daughter Sala comes to live with her grand-parents.

Hattie spent her life taking care of her children, preparing meals, cleaning and worrying about money while August paraded in new clothes, went out dancing and had various affairs. She also had an affair with Lawrence and would have left August if she could have taken her children with her. The untimely death of the twins shattered her confidence for a better future.

It is the life of a woman who never had time for herself, was a tough cookie and never managed to communicate her love for her children. Her love was in the energy she put in feeding, clothing and nursing them. But with nine children and her pregnancies, did she have time for anything else?

On paper, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is my kind of book but I wasn’t too fond of it. The form of the book left me hanging. Each chapter is devoted to one child and then we never hear anything from them again. We leave Franklin in 1948, he’s a gifted musician, he has just understood that he’s gay and then poof! he disappears of the book. That was disappointing, as if they only had an existence to pinpoint a moment in Hattie’s life.

And then I found it too bleak. Not one of them has a better life, except maybe Floyd and Ella but we don’t know for sure. They are all marked by tragedy or illness. One had 50% of his body burnt when he fell in boiling water. One is schizophrenic. One was abused as a child and his sibling knew about it. One is a drunkard. One is separated of her mother to live with her aunt. One is in an abusive relationship.

Bleak, bleak, bleak. Not one uplifting moment in the whole book. It’s not even plausible that, out of nine living children, not one lived to live an uneventful life, especially during the Post-war economic boom. Then I read in the Acknowledgments that Ayana Mathis thanks Marilynne Robinson for her friendship and guidance and I thought “Of course, now the bleakness makes sense.” I really really disliked the only Robinson I’ve read, Housekeeping. All I remember about it are broken souls, bleakness and constant rain.

Hattie’s children have a complicated relationship with their mother as they grew up in a tough environment. They have attachment issues. And of course, seen from the book’s angle, it seems to be Hattie’s fault. August was absent, throwing away money that could have helped the household but he’s not the defective parent. Too much depends on women and the children’s difficulties all seem to stem out of her lack of hugs. I would have liked to hear about the children’s difficult relationship with their father too, but it’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, not of August, as if children only belonged to their mother. And in Hattie’s time, it’s probably true. The responsibility of raising children only fell on the mother’s shoulders.

If I look at The Twelve Tribes of Hattie through a literary magnifying glass, it’s an excellent book. The style is good, you can see it’s well-constructed, the story makes sense and there’s a goal in showing black America from the 1920s to the 1980s, although, in my opinion, the fact that it’s a black family isn’t that important. You could have had the same story in an Irish-American family. The only difference is that, due to their leaving Georgia, Hattie was out of a support system when the babies were sick. No tribe for Hattie’s generation, no sense of community like in American-Italian neighborhoods.

The most disheartening part of it is that the book is called The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not Hattie’s Tribe. Each offspring is on their own. These siblings don’t make one united tribe and that’s probably their parents’ biggest failure.

Have you read this book? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Money Shot by Christa Faust – Gripping and entertaining

September 8, 2021 8 comments

Money Shot by Christa Faust (2008) French title: Money Shot. Translated by Christophe Cuq.

Money Shot by Christa Faust is the first book featuring Angel Dare, a character I discovered in Choke Hold. When the book opens, the reader jumps right in the heart of action: Angel Dare is tied up in the trunk of a car.

Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies. In real life, it takes forever to do little things like pry open your eyes. You spend excruciating ages trying to bend you left middle finger down far enough to feel the rope around your wrists. Even longer figuring out that the cold hard thing poking you in the cheek is one of the handles of a pair of jumper cables. This is not the kind of action that makes for gripping cinema. Plus there are these long dull stretches where people in the audience would probably go take a piss or popcorn, since it looks as if nothing is happening and they figure maybe you really are dead after all. After a while, you start to wonder the same thing yourself. You also wonder what will happen if you throw up behind the oil rag duct-taped into you mouth or how long it will take for someone to notice you’re missing.

Angel Dare is a former porn star who retired and started Daring Angels, an agency for adult modeling. Her friend Sam called in a favor and asked her to do one more porn film with the new male rising star of the industry, Jesse Black. It turns out that it was a set-up as criminals had Sam’s wife.

Angel gets tortured and raped because the men believe she has information about Lia, a girl who came to Daring Angels. She had a briefcase and was looking for one of Angel’s models, Zandora Dior.

The setup is complete when the men kill Sam with Angel’s gun and throw her in a car’s trunk.

As you imagine, she manages to get out of the car and seek for help in the form of James Malloy, her employee in security. A former cop, Malloy works for her to ensure her models’ protection.

Bruised and battered, she’s now on the run from the criminals and the police. She wants revenge and wants to know what’s behind her kidnapping and Sam’s murder.

She and Malloy start investigating, even if it puts their lives in danger.

This is a fast and furious crime fiction book that I devoured. Fast paced, written with energy, it’s a wonderfully entertaining book. Angel is an excellent character, someone you connect with even if her life experience has nothing to do with your own. It’s also a glimpse at the porn industry, its workings and the human trafficking that can be behind it.

Highly recommended for fun, beach and public transport travelling.

As you can see, the French and English covers are quite different but each is in line with the publisher’s editorial line. It’s Gallmeister for France, and you’re familiar with their covers now and Hard Case Crime for the USA.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke – multilayered crime fiction

August 16, 2021 17 comments

Dark Water Rising by Attica Locke (2009) French title: Marée noire. Translated into French by Clément Baude.

I have the French translation of Black Water Rising by Attica Locke because I bought my copy at Quais du Polar, the year she was at the festival for conferences and book signings. I have fond memories of that edition of the festival.

It took me several years to read her book but I’m really happy I put it on the TBR. When the book opens, Jay Porter, a struggling lawyer is organizing a mini cruise on the bayou near Houston for his wife’s birthday. Money is tight, Bernie is pregnant and the cruise is more a boat tour with on a friend of a friend’s boat than a glamourous cruise. Things go rather well until they hear a woman shout on the shore, as if she were fighting with someone. A gunshot, a splash and Jay dives into the dark water to save a white woman. Jay and Bernie are black, we’re in 1981 and getting mixed into white people’s business is risky. That’s why they ask her almost nothing and drop her at a police station and drive away.

We soon learn more about Jay, his past as a civil rights militant and his current caseload. He needs money and so far, his best shot is a hooker, Dana Moreland who got injured in a car accident while she was entertaining the local harbor commissioner who also wants to go into politics. No need to say he’s ready to find a settlement to hush things up. Jay wants to get the most out of him and keeps investigating to find a witness to present to the court to support his client’s version.

Meanwhile, Reverent Boykins is involved in the Longshoremen Strike. The white union and the black union had to merge and the ex-black side is trying to convince the ex-white side to go on strike with them for a better pay. Reverent Boykins is Jay’s stepfather, and his church helped Jay win his trial when he was pursued under false pretenses. The real reason was that the FBI wanted this militant of the civil rights out of the streets. Jay is indebted to Reverent Boykins and can’t refuse to help with the strike and be their lawyer.

This is Houston in 1981, the oil economy is thriving, the city expands quickly and oils companies own everything, literally or figuratively. The three issues, the murder, the hooker and the longshoremen strike have areas where they overlap. Jay, who lives in fear after his short stay in prison, won’t be able to hide and stay under the radar. His past as a militant is about to spill into his present and the unsolved issues demand attention.

Black Water Rising is an excellent thriller. The crime plot is gripping and it mixes artfully a blood crime with white collar criminality and racial questions. It gives a good vision of Houston at the time, a sprawling city at the mercy of oil magnates. Their only god is money and they infiltrate everything for their own profit. A puppet female mayor at the City Hall. A mole in the unions. Some help in federal agencies.

Besides Houston at its turning point, Black Water Rises also questions of the aftermath of the civil rights movement. What did its militants become? Jay is one of the first black lawyer in the area. His companions have settled down into a comfortable middle class or hold on to their glory days like Kwane Mackalvy. It’s a valid question: what do you do after living intense years like this? What’s your new normal? And how do you see the people who came after you, benefited from your combats and don’t even realize what your generation brought to them? (The same question applies to women who grew up after the great feminist battles).

Jay is at a crossroad. He’s going to be a father. He needs to make peace with his past. His practice needs to soar to support his family. He needs to stop living in fear.

But now: who murdered this man in the bayou? Will the unions start a strike that will paralyze Houston’s commercial port and impact oil sales? What will happen to Jay, who keeps being thrown on the frontline while he’d like to take care of his wife? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book!

Very highly recommended.

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle – an excellent thriller set in Brooklyn

August 4, 2021 9 comments

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle (2018) French title: Le témoin solitaire. Translated by Simon Baril.

With The Lonely Witness, William Boyle wanted to write a noir crime fiction novel set in his hometown, Brooklyn.

Amy Falconetti lives in Gravesend, Brooklyn. She moved into this neighborhood with her ex-girlfriend Alessandra and stayed there after they broke up. Alessandra decided to go to Los Angeles to be an actress, left Amy behind and never looked back. At the time, Amy was a natural blonde, wore clothes from the 1940s, was a party girl and worked as bartender at the Seven Bar in Manhattan.

After Alessandra left, she changed of life. She rented a small basement apartment to Mr Pezzolanti who consider her as his daughter. She became a brunette, a teetotaler, started to wear conservative clothes and now lives the life of a mousy church attendant, bringing communion to the elderly in the parish. You can say her lifestyle took a 180° turn.

One day, when she visits Mrs Epifanio, the old lady tells her that her usual caretaker from the church, Diane, has been sick and was replaced by her son Vincent. She didn’t like his snooping in her bedroom and felt that he was up to no good. She felt threatened, even if he wasn’t openly menacing. Amy understand Mrs Epifanio’s disquiet when Vincent comes to Mrs Epifanio’s while she’s still there. She finds him shady too.

Amy starts following Vincent, out of curiosity and for the adrenaline rush. Of course, she tells herself it’s for Mrs Epifanio’s safety. The truth is that her old personality is resurfacing, leaving her mousy devout new self behind.

When she’s on the prowl, Vincent gets murdered right in front of her. Instead of calling 911 and the police, she lets Vincent die, retrieves the knife the murderer used to stab Vincent to death and flees from the scene.

Now she has a murderer on her trail since she has seen him long enough to be able to identify him. She doesn’t know his name but she knows his face. She’s no longer safe.

She starts investigating Vincent’s murder and she enjoys playing Nancy Drew. She secretly loves the thrill of the chase, poking around, asking questions about Vincent, his activities and his whereabouts.

Amy makes irrational and dangerous decisions; she’s like a superhero who changes of skin, mixing her old self and her new one, to create a third self. She’s not as wild as she used to be. She’s not as quiet as she wanted to be. She’s an ex-barmaid to tried the skin of a church spinster. None of these personalities are real or fit her.

Vincent’s murder pulled the trigger to another transformation and she’s now on a new life journey to understand what the next stage of her life will be.

But let’s not forget that The Lonely Witness is a thriller. Boyle explores Amy’s inner struggles but he also moves the plot forward quickly. It’s full of twists and turns and it was hard to put the book down.

Brooklyn is a character of the book. As I said in introduction, William Boyle wanted to write something set in Brooklyn and his growing up in the area shows in the descriptions of Amy’s surroundings. He knows the place and the reader can feel it. Amy walks a lot and it’s an opportunity to describe the buildings, the streets, the shops, the metro and its weird connections. All the characters are Italian-American, we’re in the neighborhood of the film Saturday Night Fever. I felt that I was in Brooklyn with her and wished I could go there too and feel the atmosphere of the area too.

Excellent pick by Gallmeister.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane

July 28, 2021 5 comments

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane (1989) French title: L’homme qui a perdu son nom. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane is focused on Joe Sterling, an untethered young man who needs to find his way back to his identity. This explains why the French title is L’homme qui a perdu son nom, or The man who lost his name.

Joe Sterling comes from a family who owns a ranch in Deadrock, Montana. His father inherited it but made a career at the local bank before his promotion as bank manager in Minneapolis. He moved his family there and became another man. Joe’s father never sold the ranch. He leased it to his rival and neighbor, Mr Overstreet, who wants nothing more than to buy it because its plot of land is inserted into his property. Of course, Sterling refuses, out of pride. The rivalry is kept alive.

When Sterling senior dies, the ranch goes to his sister Lureen, who is supposed to keep it safe for Joe’s future. The understanding is that she owns the property deed but the moral contract says that Joe’s the actual owner and is entitled to the rent’s money.

Joe used to spend his summers working at the ranch under the supervision of Overstreet’s foreman. He also went out with Ellen, Overstreet’s daughter and got beaten up by a local boy, Billy Kelton. These summers are part of his identity, moments of happiness and rightness. It’s also in the abandoned house of a forgotten rich man from the silver rush that he experiences his first deep encounter with painting.

Joe loved Montana and the ranch but didn’t see himself operating it. He chose an entirely different path: he went to Art School at Yale, became a successful painter in New York and lost his mojo.

He moved to Key West, met Astrid and lived off the rent from the ranch and from his commercial drawings. Indeed, after dropping his career as a painter, he started to work for his university friend Ivan who sells electronic devices and is always in need of explanatory drawings for the instruction manuals.

At some point, Lureen stops sending the rent money, Ivan comes with a drawing order for a ridiculous and useless Miss X machine and Astrid sounds unsufferable. Joe leaves Key West and drives to Montana, to take over the ranch and hopefully find his identity.

Joe doesn’t fit anywhere. He starts raising cattle on the ranch but, even if he doesn’t make any fatal mistake, he knows that full-time ranching isn’t his calling. He doesn’t paint anymore. He doesn’t know if he still loves Astrid or not. He’s in an uncomfortable zone where every area of his life itches.

He fumbles through life and needs the time in Montana to reconnect with his aunt Lureen, his uncle Smitty and the local community. He explores his family’s history and the dynamics between the three siblings: his father, his aunt and his uncle Smitty. His father was a bit estranged and feared by his siblings. Uncle Smitty never recovered from the war and is a little swindler who takes advantage of his sister Lureen. She covers for him, out of love. Joe finds out that his father was not popular in Deadrock, especially after the bank forclosed several local ranches.

Joe realizes that he doesn’t really belong to the Deadrock community. There’s a striking scene where Joe is at a funeral and makes a speech about the deceased only to realize that he was talking about another man with the same name.

Keep the Change was published in 1989 and in a way, reflects the atmosphere of the 1980s.

Joe doesn’t really want to conform to society’s expectations. He doesn’t want to be a white middle-class man with the white picket fence, the two kids and a job. He rejects the Miss X project because deep down, he’s against all these devices that the industry shoves down our throats. He’s at odds with the yuppie atmosphere of the 1980s. He doesn’t want to be a blind consumer.

He also doesn’t understand the need to own land. It’s an urge he doesn’t feel and that makes him at odds with the Montana mentality. There are beautiful passages where Joe rides his horse on the ranch, he contemplates the beauty of the land surrounding him and he doesn’t feel any pride for owning it. Its beauty is enough to satisfy him.

Greed is not in Joe’s bones. The book title is Keep the Change, and in my mind, I hear Joe saying it as he checks out of the American society and doesn’t bother to gather his change before turning its back to it.

For a change, my edition includes a very interesting foreword by the translator, Brice Matthieussent. He’s also the translator of Jim Harrison’s books. Since McGuane and Harrison were excellent friends, wrote to each other once a week and did fishing trips together, it’s interesting to see that they had the same French translator.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart – a Texan family saga

July 18, 2021 2 comments

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) French title: Le sillage de l’oubli. Translated by Marc Amfreville.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is set in the fictional town of Dalton, in Lavaca County, Texas.

The Skala family settled there when the first Czech immigrants of the family arrived from Europe. This area is full of Czech families. The plot covers three periods of time: 1895, 1910 and 1924. Each year is a turning point in the saga of the Skala family.

The book opens on a dramatic scene. We’re in 1895 and Klara Skala dies in child-birth. Karel, the baby, survives his mother and Vaclav, the father will never be the same.

The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that land became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.

Vaclav and Klara had already three boys, Stanislas, Thomas and Eduard when she died giving birth to Karel. The four boys have a very hard childhood with their father who is only interested in acquiring land, farming and breeding race horses. These horses are his passion. The boys do the heavy work in the fields, including pulling the plow that the race horses are too precious to pull. They grow up without affection.

In 1910, Guillermo Villasenõr arrives from Mexico with a lot of money and three daughters to marry. He knows about the Skala boys and intends to settle in the Lavaca County and marry his daughters to these farm boys.

The girls get their first glimpses of their future husbands, what they see, instead of blond-haired and handsome Czech farm boys, like they’ve been told by their father to expect, are weathered young men straining against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, their necks cocked sharply to one side or the other, their faces sunburned despite their hats and pealing and snaked with raised veins near the temples, their boots sliding atop the earth they’re sweating to unearth. The four of them work harnessed two abreast in front of their father, who’s walking in their work, one foot to each furrow spitting stained juice between his front teeth and periodically cracking a whip to keep the boys focused and the rows straight.

With this kind of living conditions would you blame the boys to be willing to do anything to escape their father’s literal and figurative yoke? They know Villasenõr’s arrival is a ticket out of their father’s power. They grab that ticket, even if it’ll tear their family apart.

Fast forward in 1924. Karel is married to Sophie, it’s December and she’s about to give birth to their third baby. She wanted to go to church, even if it’s far and risky with her pregnancy. She’ll break her waters during the church service and, contrary to Klara, will get a midwife’s help in time. Meanwhile, Karel waits and drinks. He hires two teenagers to go and take care of the farm while he stays in town with Sophie. The boys also have to deliver the moonshine beer he makes, discretion needed since it’s the prohibition area. The boys will not follow orders and take ill-advised initiatives. This will trigger another dramatic event for the Skala family.

The Wake of Forgiveness goes back and forth in time, between 1910 and 1924. It covers thirty years in the life of this Texan family. Life is hard and we follow Karel’s point of view, the boy whose birth triggered the family’s unhappiness. Although he never says it aloud, it is clear that he carries the weight of depriving his brothers of a mother and his father of his wife. He doesn’t know how to make up for that and he sure doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He’s a hard man but, despite his harsh upbringing, he’s a better father than his own, playing tenderly with his daughters.

I’ve read The Wake of Forgiveness in an excellent translation by Marc Amfreville. Machart’s style is beautiful and haunting. Nature and men are one, each has power over the other. As you can see in the two previous quotes, Machart compares humans to the land and shows how the land impacts humans. Human emotions find their counterpart in the mesmerizing descriptions of the landscape. The land and the climate shape the humans who settles there, imprinting their mark on people’s tempers. With subtle brush strokes, Machart takes us to Lavaca County, among these farmers who live a hard life and with this family who needs to find their way to happiness through forgiveness and redemption.

A very powerful book and another great find by Gallmeister.

Down by the River Side by Richard Wright

June 30, 2021 13 comments

The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright. (1961 / 1938) French titles: L’homme qui a vu l’inondation (translated by Jacqueline Bernard et Claude-Edmonde Magny) and Là-bas, près de la rivière (translated by Boris Vian)

Folio has a collection of short books of around 100 pages sold at the unique price of 2€. They usually put together one to three short stories from a writer and for me, it’s a way to discover a new author without reading a full novel or read something short. (obviously).

The one entitled L’homme qui a vu l’inondation by Richard Wright was published in 2007, after the Katrina hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. It includes two short stories, The Man Who Saw the Flood, written in 1961 and more importantly, Down by the River Side, written in 1938. It has a foreword by Julia Wright, the author’s daughter.

Both stories are about floods by the Mississippi river. The Man Who Saw the Flood relates the aftermath of a terrible inundation. A family of black peasants come back to their house, only to find it destroyed, full of mud and with their tools broken and seed rotten. They are hungry and the father and husband has no other choice than go and work for a white employer. It feels like going back to slavery, in an economic way.

Down by the River Side was written in 1938 and is based on the 1927 flood. It opens on a terrible scene: a man is at his house, his wife is in labor and the delivery is difficult. He’s there with a midwife, his mother-in-law and his other child. The water level is increasing at high speed and he regrets to have stayed there when he had a chance to leave. He has sent out Bob to get a boat and his only goal now is to take his wife to the Red Cross hospital in town. This man could be anybody and Wright named him Mann, only to drive the point home, I suppose.

Bob comes back but has stolen a boat from a white man, which is a terrible offense in that part of the country. Mann decides to take the risk and use it anyway. If he doesn’t, they drown in their house.

Wright describes the flood with an implacable accuracy. (He was 19 when the 1927 flood occurred): the dark water, the powerful current and the unrecognizable landscape. It’s hard to know where to row to as almost everything is under water.

Of course, Mann don’t get away with using a white man’s stolen boat, even if it’s a life-and-death situation. The whites show no compassion for his wife. No brotherhood or empathy stems from these extreme circumstances: the whites remain on their side and the black remain niggers to them. No seeing past the color of the skin, even in this devastating flood. The whites are evacuated and the black men are requisitioned to patch the dam with sandbags in last and futile attempt to protect the town from the furious rising waters.

Julia Wright can’t help but making a parallel between this story and the terrible Katrina hurricane and the poor management of its aftermath by the authorities. Let’s be honest, if such a disaster with such a death toll and so many mistakes in the crisis management had happened on a plant, its director would have been trialed and condemned for not ensuring their workers’ safety. The politicians got away with it, no matter how high the number of casualties…

On a lighter note, you’ll see at the beginning of my billet that Down by the River Side has been translated by Boris Vian, writer and jazzman extraordinaire. When I read the title in English, I immediately hear in my mind the eponymous jazz song, a terrible contrast to the scene of desolation brought by the flood. I imagine it’s all silence too, except for the noise of the rushing waters and the relentless rain, a total opposite to its upbeat jazz namesake. This effect is totally lost in translation. The French title, accurately translated from the English, Là-bas près de la rivière, triggers nothing but soothing walks in a calm and chirpy corner in the countryside. The vibe is more “A River Runs Through It” than “murderous brown waters”. Language…

This is 20 Books of Summer #5.

The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

The Signal by Ron Carlson (2019) French title: Le signal. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right?” We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”

Somehow air came to his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his handand closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”

He’d been there ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times. We’ll do this every year. They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew.

In The Signal, Ron Carlson writes the story of a last hiking and fishing trip between Mack and Vonnie. We’re in Wyoming, in the Wind Rivers Mountain area.

Mack and Vonnie met when they were teenagers. Mack’s father had a ranch and turned it into a dude ranch during ten weeks each summer to bring in additional income and keep the ranch afloat. Vonnie came as a guest with her parent and fell in love with the West. Enough to come back to the area.

As mentioned in the opening quote, Mack and Vonnie had been married eight years when Mack spiraled down into a hole of alcohol and bad decisions. One of them was driving illegal merchandise, including drugs, through Wyoming. He finally got caught, ended up in jail and lost Vonnie in the process.

They are now taking a closure trip to Clarke Lake and the book opens with Mack waiting for Vonnie to show up at their meeting point at the beginning of the trail.

What Vonnie doesn’t know is that Mack also agreed to do a job for Charley Yarnell, a shady entrepreneur. Mack needs the money to keep his family’s ranch. All he has to do is to find a beacon that fell from an airplane. Yarnell gave him a military Blackberry that should detect the beacon as soon as it is within a mile range of it. It sounds simple enough and a way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Signal is divided in six days, one per hiking day. Carlson takes us to the Wind River Mountain trails, lakes and wilderness. Vonnie and Mack take a hike down memory lane, trying to make peace and put an end to their relationship. Vonnie has moved on and lives with Kent now and Mack needs to accept it, even he still loves her.

Their trip takes a bad turn when they encounter aggressive poachers and when Mack’s beacon search proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected.

The book starts as a love autopsy, a cathartic hike to mourn their couple and turns into a suspenseful story as Mack’s side mission collides with their trip.

Mack’s introspection brings him to analyze his past. He was born on a ranch, loved it but was never a rancher. He’s not good with fire arms, not good with cattle and is not cut out to manage a ranch. However, he can’t imagine live anywhere else than on his childhood ranch. He tried to make a living in IT but he was never really successful. His life took a dive when his father died as he lost his human compass and became untethered. His grief engulfed him and he lost his sense of direction.

Ron Carlson’s writing is sumptuous and I wish I had more quotes to share but I read it in translation. Carlson weaves the landscape into Mack and Vonnie’s story. This is their anniversary hike and this outdoor trip is part of their relationship. Nature is what brought them together and now they expect it to heal their wounds to be able to move on. The descriptions of the wilderness and how Mack and Vonnie connect to it and through it are truly excellent.

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister, with a marvelous translation by Sophie Aslanides.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – it will knock the wind out of you

June 6, 2021 22 comments

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. (2019) French title: The Nickel Boys.

Boys arrived banged up in different ways before they got to Nickel and picked up more dents and damage during their term. Often graver missteps and more fierce institutions waited. Nickel boys were fucked before, during, and after their time at the school, if one were to characterize the general trajectory.

The Nickel Boys by Colson whitehead is based on the real story of the Florida School for Boys aka the Dozier School.

According to Wikipedia, it was a reform school operated by the state of Florida in the panhandle town of Marianna from January 1, 1900, to June 30, 2011. A second campus was opened in the town of Okeechobee in 1955. For a time, it was the largest juvenile reform institution in the United States. […] Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

I knew I wasn’t going to read a pleasant story. Whitehead opens his book with the present time, when forensic archeologists from the University of South Florida search for body remains in unofficial graves around the campus.

Then it moves back in time to tell us the story of Elwood Curtis who was sent to Nickel in the 1960s. Elwood was a black boy from Tallahassee. He was quiet, a good student, a hard worker and he had won a scholarship to college. He was on his way to college when he hitchhiked and was picked up by a man driving a stolen car. A policeman arrested them and Elwood was sent to Nickel.

Back home, Elwood was a fervent admirer of Martin Luther King, he had a record of one of his speeches and he was deeply moved and shaped by King’s ideas. The most important ones to him were to have and keep a sense of self-respect and also to commit to non-violence for things to change.

Elwood was ill-prepared for Nickel where there are no rules but arbitrary ones. He stepped up to help a smaller boy who was molested by older ones. It was a set up and he was sent to The White House, the place where boys were beaten up.

We are in the 1960s, Florida is still under the Jim Crow Laws and segregation is in place. At Nickel, the white and black boys live in separate buildings. They have a different name for the White House.

The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.

Elwood had to stay in the infirmary for a couple of weeks after the beating. From what I read on Wikipedia, Whitehead didn’t invent anything, it was like this. The beatings could be so violent that the boys had their underwear embedded in their skin.

Elwood was never the same after that.

Luckily, he befriended Turner who was street smart and had good instincts to navigate the system and land them into a less exposed job than working in the fields. They became part of Jaimie’s crew and they did deliveries in town, mostly of goods stolen from Nickel. Some food donated by the State never reached the boys. They also did repairs, painting jobs for influent people in town. It was a system. This corruption isn’t mentioned on Wikipedia, so I can’t tell if it stems from the writer’s imagination or not. It sounds plausible, though. The leading figures in town knew everything, they were part of a system and it was the law of silence. They stuck together against the authorities. I can’t help thinking that the State of Florida chose to turn a blind eye.

Segregation was in full force, with its injustice and its sheer stupidity. See for yourself:

Their leader was a quiet-natured boy named Jaimie, who had the spindly, undernourished frame common to Nickel students. He bounced around Nickel a lot—his mother was Mexican, so they didn’t know what to do with him. On his arrival, he was put in with the white kids, but his first day working in the lime fields he got so dark that Spencer had him reassigned to the colored half. Jaimie spent a month in Cleveland, but then Director Hardee toured one day, took a look at that light face among the dark faces, and had him sent back to the white camp. Spencer bided his time and tossed him back a few weeks later. “I go back and forth,” Jaimie said as he raked up pine needles into a mound. He had the screwed-down smile of the rickety-toothed. “One day they’ll make up their minds, I suppose.”

I remember reading something similar in The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé. Black people having a light skin and being obliged to live in the white neighborhoods where they knew no one.

For Elwood, Turner and all the boys who had to live there, it was even harder if you were black. You can see in Nickel Boys the –alas—usual mechanisms of camps and abuse. When the boys arrive, they think there are rules:

Right now, all of you are Grubs. We have four ranks of behavior here—start as a Grub, work your way up to Explorer, then Pioneer, and finally, Ace. Earn merits for acting right, and you move on up the ladder. You work on achieving the highest rank of Ace and then you graduate and go home to your families.”

(It reminded me of the camp system in Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout It wasn’t a legal reformatory camp but the spirit was the same. It lets me think that it was the mindset of the time and that common people found normal to reform boys in such a way.)

But Elwood soon realized that the rules are a joke. The wardens do as they please and the boys live in constant fear. The rules change all the time and without any warning. You never know if you’re going to breach some unknown rule or if something you’re used to doing hasn’t suddenly become forbidden. And since punishment can lead you to the White House…

For Elwood, this system is his undoing. He wants to believe that he has a chance to go out if he behaves properly, he needs to hope that things will improve if he follows the rules. His character was shaped by King’s speeches and he tries to practice what King preaches. He thinks that self-respect is important for his dignity and that quiet but persistent mind resistance will undermine the Nickel institution. Elwood believes in King’s speeches about respect, about loving your enemy to make a difference. But hardship and abuse shake up his faith in King:

Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

A tall order, indeed. Turner is different, let optimistic, more realistic and cynic.

You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.

Turner is right. It’s easy to hide behind a “system” or to say it was “like that back in the day”. I was shocked and horrified by the abuse against the boys in Nickel. But I knew I was going to read something horrible about this school and I braced for it. I expected what I read. What took me by surprised and knocked the wind out of me is an anecdote from Elwood’s high school days at Lincoln High:

On the first day of the school year, the students of Lincoln High School received their new secondhand textbooks from the white high school across the way. Knowing where the textbooks were headed, the white students left inscriptions for the next owners: Choke Nigger! You Smell. Eat Shit. September was a tutorial of the latest epithets of Tallahassee’s white youth, which, like hemlines and haircuts, varied year to year. It was humiliating to open a biology book, turn to the page on the digestive system, and be confronted with Drop Dead NIGGER, but as the school year went on, the students of Lincoln High School stopped noticing the curses and impolite suggestions. How to get through the day of every indignity capsized you in a ditch? One learned to focus ones’ attention.

The secondhand textbooks thing is shocking enough in itself. But these insults stem from deep-bone hatred. There are gratuitous. The system allows to treat black students as second zone citizen but it is people who write insults in textbooks, not the system. I thought about the Black Lives Matter movement and all we hear about racism in the USA and said to myself “They’re never going to move from this if it was so ingrained and if they don’t do a federal sort of Truth and Reconciliation commission and put everything in the open.”

The Nickel Boys is an excellent book. It’s short, it packs a lot of information, the characters are engaging and it’s thought-provoking. No wonder why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

PS: Serendipity. I’m writing this billet and just heard about a similar story in Canada with the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino

May 13, 2021 12 comments

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino (1996) French title: J’ai tout entendu. Translated by Jean-Luc Defromont.

Another Kube pick for me: What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino. I’d never heard of it but I understand it was made into a successful Hallmark movie in 1997. I’m glad my book cover doesn’t display the film poster since I’d rather have original illustrations.

Back to the book.

Ten-years old Sammy Ayers is left behind at the Greyhound station in Barrington, Georgia. His mother is gone, he’s all alone and the station manager, Jenkins lets him sleep on a cot in a small room at the station. When it is clear that no one is going to claim this boy, Jenkins keeps him and in exchange for room and board, Sammy cleans the place. Between Lucille, the owner of the station’s diner and Jenkins, Sammy grows up in Barrington and becomes a local figure. Upon his arrival, out of self-protection, Sammy pretended that he couldn’t hear or speak. This is how he learns the whole town’s secrets.

As the narrator of the story, he relates his life and the event that took place twenty years ago, in 1966. He’s not 55-60 years old.

The town’s royalty are the Tynans. Alford Tynan was a legendary lawyer. His son Tolliver is a weasel who had an epiphany and became a preacher. In passing, Gearino makes cutting remarks on Southern preachers, their lack of mandatory education and sometimes lack of morals. Tolliver is all that. He’s respected because he has enough glibness to lead a lot of people to baptism. He hides his conniving crooked dealings and his greed under a Christian mask.

The town’s trash are the Thackers. Archibald is the patriarch of his extended family. He’s ambitious but knows how to play the race game in the South. He goes in to refuse collection and hides his business savvy under the cover of the black dummy. Play the stupid black man, use a white stooge as the front of your business and the whites will leave you alone.

Sammy hears everything and puts things together too. He has a grudge against Tolliver who bullied him in class. He knows who he is under his mask of respectability. He tells us about his revenge, his search for his mother and Jenkins’s history.

It was an enjoyable story full of the guilty pleasure you feel when a character gets the better on people who tolerate him and look down on him. I had a very nice time in Sammy’s company and the novel is built as a well-oiled machinery with good storytelling.

According to the comments I read on Goodreads, the movie stripped the book of all its edges to make it a very moral and wholesome story. I can’t tell you since I haven’t watched it but with the Hallmark tag, I suppose it’s true. Well, I prefer stories with complex characters.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Déjà Vu

May 12, 2021 10 comments

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017) French title: Le chant des revenants. Translated by Charles Recoursé.

This is a book I received in my monthly Kube subscription.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward takes us to a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. It’s owned by an African-American family. JoJo, 13 and his sister Kayla, 3, live with their maternal grandparents Mam and Pop. Their mother Leonie is a drug-addict and motherhood is only a second thought for her. Leonie married a white man, Michael, who is currently in prison. Michael’s parents are racist and never accepted Leonie as a daughter-in-law. They have never seen their grandchildren.

Mam is dying of cancer and Pop tries to hold everything together. JoJo has reached this pivotal age between childhood and adolescence when children appraise their parents and his parents’ value is down to zero. He even calls them by their first names. He understands he needs to grow up quickly. He does his best to help Pop, to take care of Kayla who relies on him and spend time with Mam.

After three years at Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitenciary, Michael is released on parole and Leonie decides to take her kids to a road trip accross the State to bring their father home.

Jesmyn Ward dives into this family’s past: their golden son Given was murdered at 18 by Michael’s cousin, Pop did time at Parchman too and Mam is a healer. Given’s death was masked as a hunting accident. Given visits Leonie when she’s high, both a soothing and a frightening figure in her life.

I know this book has won a lot of awards, that critics brought up comparisons to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner but honestly, I wasn’t blown away. I had a feeling of déjà vu that made me sigh with disappointment and weariness.

The structure of the book uses the several voices device. Like in Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult or Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan, narrators switch from one chapter to the other. It sounds more like fashion for contemporary fiction than an artistic choice and it made me long for a good old omniscient narrator.

The supranatural elements of the story didn’t agree with me either. The ghost of Given and the one of Richie, a young boy from Pop’s past, insinuate themselves in the livings’ lives. Both deaths have been masked into something else and the two boys don’t rest in peace. And it’s not new, I’m not fond of books with ghosts and haunted people.

The theme of the book itself isn’t really original. Maybe I’m just tired of Black/Indian/Aborigine children raised by worthless or absentee parents and who have to fend for themselves. There’s Blood by Tony Birch and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and now Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Each of these book is good in itself but reading the three within a year proved to be too much to me.

If you’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, I’ll be glad to discuss it with you in the comments.

For another vision of this novel, have a look at Buried In Print’s review.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult – Good reading time

May 1, 2021 14 comments

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (2014) French title: La tristesse des éléphants. Translated by Pierre Girard

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult was our Book Club read for April. It’s a tricky book to review because the risk of spoilers is very high and any hint at the key clue of the book could totally ruin the book for other readers.

So, I’ll go with a light summary of the plot. Jenna Metcalf is 13, she lives in New Hampshire with her grandmother. Jenna’s parents used to run a sanctuary for elephants and Alice’s researches were about grief among elephants. Her father Thomas has been in a psychiatric ward for ten years, since Jenna’s mother Alice disappeared during a fateful night. An elephant caretaker was killed by an elephant, Alice was wounded and she disappeared from the hospital. No one has heard of her since.

Jenna has Alice’s notebooks and she hopes that they hold clues that will help her find her mother. She can’t imagine that her mother left her behind. Her first investigations are online, tracking missing persons and looking for information about her mother and that night’s event. At some point, she decides that she needs help.

She hires Serenity Jones, a medium, in the hope to find out if her mother is dead or alive. Serenity is a gifted medium but she lost all credibility after a public mistake. She used to help the police find missing persons, dead or alive. But she became cocky, used her talents for money and fame and lost her touch. She reluctantly accepts to help Jenna.

Jenna also hires Virgil Stanhope, the cop who was on her mother’s case. He left the police force and now works as a PI, tracking unfaithful spouses. Jenna hopes that he will reopen the investigation and help her.

This unlikely trio teams up to look for Alice. That’s the basic plot. Now my opinion about the book.

The point of view alternates between Jenna, Serenity, Alice and Virgil. Jenna’s, Serenity’s and Virgil’s voices make the story move forward. They relate the current investigation and come back to their personal history, their mistakes and how they arrived at the point where they all met. Alice talks about her research, about the elephants, her life in Africa and her marriage to Thomas.

I enjoyed reading Leaving Time, I was looking forward to the next chapter and had an excellent reading time. The book was suspenseful, well-written and well-constructed. Maybe too well.

It’s flawless like a well-oiled machine, like a Hollywood blockbuster. I thought while I was reading, “I bet she has a degree in literature and studied creative writing.” Bingo, according to Wikipedia. You can feel it when you read. The characters are designed to have issues, our improbable trio of amateur sleuths have the conflicts you expect. Each character of the drama that happened ten years ago has a secret past and personal wounds. It’s as good as a TV series, and I say that without any contempt.

I was absorbed and interested in Alice’s research about elephants. I was invested in the story, I was in New Hampshire with the characters and forgot where I was for a while. The ending threw me off.

Jodi Picoult will never be a genius of literature but it’s OK. She writes well and holds her reader’s attention. Sometimes we don’t need more, because entertainment and escapism are a precious commodity in today’s world.

Open Season by C.J. Box – my thoughts about Joe Pickett vs Walt Longmire

April 7, 2021 6 comments

Open Season by C.J. Box (2001) French title: Détonations rapprochées.

Open Season by C.J. Box is the first instalment of his crime fiction series.

Set in Saddlestring, Wyoming, it features the Game and Fish Warden Joe Pickett. In this first volume, Pickett has been appointed in Twelve Sleep County for three months, after his mentor Vern Dunnegan suddenly retired. His friend Wacey works in the adjacent area.

Joe moved into the Game & Fish state-owned house with his family, his wife Marybeth and his daughters Sheridan and Lucy. Another baby is on the way. The family barely survives on Joe’s salary.

Box describes the inconsistence between game warden recruitment requirements and the wages they get for their degree and dedication:

There were 55 game wardens in the State of Wyoming, an elite group, and Joe Pickett and Wacey were two of them. Wacey had received his B.A. in wildlife management while bull-riding at summer rodeos before Joe had graduated with a degree in natural resource management. Three years apart, both had been certified at the state law enforcement academy in Douglas and both had passed the written and oral interviews, as well as the personality profile, to become permanent trainees in Jeffrey City and Gillette districts respectively, before becoming wardens. Each now made barely $26,000 a year.

No wonder Joe’s family struggles to make ends meet.

Joe is still a rookie and has acquired an unfortunate notoriety when a poacher, Ote Keeley, took Joe’s gun while he was writing Keeley a ticket for poaching. Joe isn’t a good shot, at least on fixed objects. He’s an honest game warden, a job he loves and takes seriously. He’s an ordinary man with a strong moral compass.

When Ote Keeley stumbles and dies in Joe’s garden, Joe gets involved in spite of him. Ote Keeley has been shot. Sheriff Barnum leads the investigation and the case involves an endangered species and the project of a gas pipeline from Canada to California. A classic case of protection of nature vs greed and the promise of jobs for the locals.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I also read Craig Johnson’s crime series also set in Wyoming. So, how do the two compare?

I’m afraid Box isn’t half as good as Johnson. If I compare Open Season to The Cold Dish, Johnson is superior to Box in plot, characterization, sense of place and style.

Here, I guessed the plot quite early in the story, but maybe Box improved in the following volumes. The characters are less quirky and original, even if having a game warden who isn’t an excellent shot is a great idea. I wasn’t in Twelve Sleep county the same way I feel transported to the Absaroka county.

Saddlestring was a classic western town borne of promise due to its location on the railroad, but that promise never really played out. In the 1880s, a magnificent hotel was built by a mining magnate, but it had faded into disrepair. The main street, called Main Street, snaked north and south and had a total of four stoplights that had never been synchronized. The two-block “downtown” still retained the snooty air of Victorian storefronts designed to be the keystones of a fine city, but beyond those buildings, the rest of Main Street looked like any other American strip mall, punctuated by gun shops, sporting goods stores, fishing stores, bars, and restaurants that served steak.

This is almost everything we learn about the place. Open Season misses the little moments we have in The Cold Dish, Longmire going to the Busy Bee Café, the exchanges with Lucian, the former sheriff and all the little interactions with the locals that make the place come to life.

Johnson’s books are also closer to Nature Writing. Contrary to Box, who was born and raised in Cheyenne, Johnson isn’t a native from Wyoming. And yet, he has a way to describe nature and its impact on people’s lives and way of thinking that is a lot more convincing.

Johnson’s Wyoming is also more multicultural than Box’s. In the Longmire series, Johnson has native American characters, the Cheyenne reservation is part of the local life and there’s a volume about the Basque community. Craig Johnson has been to Quais du Polar several times and I remember hearing him say that books set in Wyoming that don’t include Indians don’t reflect local life properly.

And Box’s Wyoming is made of white people who love guns, hunting and fishing.

Today was, he knew, likely to be the last Sunday for at least three months that he would be able to cook breakfast for his girls and read the newspapers—and now he hadn’t even been able to do that. Big game hunting season in Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming, would begin on Thursday with antelope season. Deer would follow, then elk and moose. Joe would be out in the mountains and foothills, patrolling. School would even be let out for “Elk Day” because the children of hunters were expected to go with their families into the mountains.

Wow. A day off school to go hunting!

Both books include funny details about local life, like the electric plugs on parking meters to heat cars during the winter or the local way to shield their hats from rain:

A few ranchers stretched plastic covers, sometimes referred to as “cowboy condoms,” over their John B. Stetsons but few people owned umbrellas.

Can you imagine the Stetsons with the plastic over them? Sounds like a funny sight.

Style-wise, Johnson is more literary. The descriptions are more poetic, little thoughts about life are peppered in the books. It’s deeper in a off-handed way, especially considering Johnson’s great sense of humor. I love writers with a good sense of humor.

The general feeling is that Box describes a more conservative white community than Johnson. I’m sure both Wyomings exist, but I’m more inclined to read Johnson than Box. I’ll probably read another Box or two, to see how the characters develop and because it’s still good entertainment.

Recommended as a Beach & Public Transport book.

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