The Outlaw’s Daughter Grows Up

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

By Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti merges two genres, coming of age and crime thriller, into a powerful tale of a daughter learning about her often absent outlaw father, then bonding with him, accepting him for the imperfect man he is, and discovering her own inner strength. Though filled with violence and plenty of death dealing, it ultimately finishes on a hopeful note, and stands as a testament to the goodness and love within even the most ruthless people.

The novel alternates between Loo, the daughter, growing up from age twelve to just shy of eighteen and the nomadic life of her father, an outlaw who freelances in crime. You have Loo and Hawley living together, learning about each other and Hawley’s criminal life centered around how he came to acquire eleven gunshot wounds. How he received these and curiosity about how he will get his last, the twelfth, plus how Loo will react when she discovers what Hawley really is, provide the propulsive drive of the novel.

Hawley has been a criminal nearly from the time he was a teen. He hooked up with Jove, an older man who claimed to be a doctor. Maybe he was, because he teaches Hawley quite a bit about field treating injuries, especially gunshot wounds. Hawley travels with a well stocked medical kit. Bad guys, after all, can’t just present themselves in emergency rooms. He and Jove see each other when they are working on a job for a kingpin named King. King deals in rare artifacts, which Hawley and Jove retrieve for him. When contractors steal from him, King dispatches Hawley and Jove to collect and mete out the criminal version of justice.

King’s a man who lurks in the shadows. Hawley meets him for the first time in a diner, where he also mets Lily, a memorable pairing. Eventually, he marries Lily. They have a baby, Louise, nicknamed Loo. Something terrible happens to Lily, reported back in her hometown as a drowning. This leaves Hawley with Loo. Hawley, though, has business to take care off, so he leaves Loo with Lily’s mom, Mabel Ridge, an eccentric and crusty character, in the coastal New England fishing town Lily grew up in. Hawley returns after four years and takes Loo back. With her, they traverse the country, dodging whatever Hawley believes wants to find them.

Finally, when Loo is older, they settle in the New England town. When she turns twelve, the start of the novel, he teaches her how to shoot. Let’s just say her upbringing bears not the remotest resemblance to that of Anne of Green Gables. She’s odd girl out at school, terrifically strong-willed, constantly rebellious, and sometimes given to violence. Marshall, a student in her school, develops a crush on her. When he kisses her, she responds by breaking his finger. He’s odd, too, and slowly they fit together.

Time passes and we readers she her relationship with Hawley change and deepen. We learn more about her mother, Lily, whom in spirit she bears a striking resemble to. And we feel a certain amount of tension, because it is quite clear Hawley lives an edgy life, waiting for something to happen, waiting for somebody to catch up with him. Then Jove reappears, surprising Hawley and Loo. And then we slid into a climax that calls on all the knowledge Loo has acquired, the astronomy she knows, what she’s learned about the ocean, and, of course, her shooting skills. The ending proves very cinematic.

While the novel contains copious amounts of crime and violence and the ending brings these together in the ultimate test of father-daughter bonding, it’s at its heart a story of girl growing and discovering herself and a father learning again how to love, this time his daughter. Tinti’s writing and mastery of criminal life, weapons, the outdoors, the sea, the sky, and human motivation will impress you, and are another reason to read the novel. w/c

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Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c

The Many Color Coats of Joyce Carol Oates

Man Crazy

By Joyce Carol Oates

In a publishing world where authors generally slot into genres and sub-genres and pretty much remain there for their entire writing careers, Joyce Carol Oates is a renegade. She’s an author who allows an idea, the thread of a storyline, a vague character outline, a headline, just about anything, to spark her imagination and pen to life. These can roll of the press as literary novels, gothic romances, historical novels, murder mysteries, or even lurid excursions into darkness (most recently like Jack of Spades). It’s said of authors that they just have got to write. However true that might be of others, it’s certainly true of JCO; writing for her seems a compulsion, wherein a day isn’t complete without at least a few thousands words on a legal pad. Thus you have an author who produces them and Wonderland, Bellefleur and My Heart Laid Bare, Zombie and Daddy Love, Blonde and The Accursed, Foxfire and this 1997 novel Man Crazy. You really have to admire, perhaps even envy both her versatility and her prolificacy, particularly in the light of the variety.

She can be a bit challenging for readers who wish to peg her as something. For example, you read her gothic novels and look for more of the same and find yourself disappointed when you encounter something completely different. Which is simply to say, with JCO, the way to enjoy her best is to give yourself over to variety and skillful writing and not expect exactly the same thing next time; or familiarize yourself with her novels and stick with those more in keeping with what you like to read. With her, you’ll surely find something.

So, here you have from 1997 Man Crazy, a tale of how a teen, Ingrid Boone, makes all the wrong choices in pursuit of her need to be loved, choices that lead her into a murderous satanic motorcycle cult (it doesn’t get much more lurid than this!) that almost takes her life but in a complete reversal, instead, proves redemptive, bringing her what she wants in her early twenties. Not at all like what preceded it, her highly regarded We Were the Mulvaneys, and what followed, another entry in her Gothic Saga. Man Crazy dovetails with Foxfire, and more the precipitating early years covered in Mudwoman. It’s often pulpy and vulgar, verging often on insanity conveyed in a tumult of very loud words.

Even among the pulp, as always with her, you’ll find some keen observations of human life, things in the back of your mind that you just can’t articulate, but which she can, as through Ingrid near the end of her dangerous search for love: “For what I can remember is but a fraction of what was, as all that is is but a fraction of what was.”

Which is to say, even what may seen the lesser Oates is usually more than what most authors offer you. w/c

Girls Revolt in the 1950s

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

By Joyce Carol Oates

What could be scarier to the hidebound male sex than assertive, feminist females running in packs and extracting retribution on those males for sexually abusive behavior? Thank goodness the always versatile and inventive Oates set her “Confessions of a Girl Gang” in the 1950s, in an era just before the modern feminist movement built steam and acquired spokeswomen. Because you would think that many of the girls’ complaints would have been diminished or nearly eliminated by now, or by 1993, when the novel published. Yet the sexual abuse, the fact of being relegated to second class status, the presumptions of weakness, all continue to this day. Perhaps that was one of Oates’ points in writing the novel: to illustrate just how limited our progress on equality for women despite the fog of progress.

Five girls, gang names Goldie, Lana, Rita, and Maddy, coalesce around the natural leader, Legs Sadovsky, who sports spiked hair atop a boyish figure. Maddy is like an organization’s secretary, keeping a journal of what transpired when the girls were mere budding adolescents. She’s looking back with some early maturity ensconced in a highly disciplined career and warns us from the beginning that Foxfire, their gang name, went off the tracks. As the tale progresses, we learn that Foxfire revenge escalated from physically harmless, though humiliating, vandalism to kidnapping, from congregating in Legs’ bedroom, to buying a house that serves as their clubhouse and residence, as well as hope for an expanding gang of young girls, who many would regard as runaways. What happens to the girls, and especially Legs, who is generally the focus of Maddy’s attention, when the gang skids into the danger zone? Well, that’s as intriguing as revengeful girl gangs in the 1950s.

Oates writes with a fierceness tempered with introspection that both reflects Legs rebelliousness and Maddy’s admiration and concerns for her and what has transpired. While not one of Oates’s best, still a cut above novels and recommended. w/c

Dawn Powell Tells Her Story

My Home Is Far Away

By Dawn Powell

Anyone with the least bit of introspection understands just how difficult being honest with oneself can be. Then there is the dynamic of family and friends, the desire to be truthful often tempered with the fear of offending and alienating. Add to this mix clarity of writing and the spotlight of publication and you can appreciate the personal trial and relief of the best probing memoirs, and this most personal autobiographical novel of the great and woefully under appreciated observer of high artistic society at mid twentieth century, Dawn Powell.

Readers and admirers of Powell will certainly appreciate the insight she affords us into her upbringing. Though not as biting and satirical as her best known collection of New York novels, among them The Locusts Have No King (a personal favorite), The Wicked Pavilion, or the Golden Spur, My Home Is Far Away entertains with a brand of humor quizzical like a child’s but written with the precision of a highly accomplished author. As an example for those on the fence about jumping into the book, here’s a passage introducing us to Marcia’s (Powell’s stand-in) and her sisters’ vacation on their aunt and uncle’s farm:

“The finest feature of life on the farm was the vacation from manners. Voices were never lowered; indeed, a normal tone was regarded as city affectation, and a suspicious attempt at secrecy. You could hear Uncle Louie talking far off in the barn to visitors, and even in the very same room he and Aunt Betts shouted at each other as if they were acres apart. It may have been that this constant noise kept them from being lonesome. At any rate, the shrill nasal pitch maintained indoors and out by the couple and all their neighbors managed to convey hearty good humor, open hearts and solid virtue. Marcia and Lena tried to achieve the same effect in their speech but it evidently took years of training to get your voice to come twanging through your nose that way, and when you tried it your very palate seemed to whirr like a banjo string…. Fancy table manners were also suspect, indicating a desire to seem better than ordinary folks. Such airs as ‘Please pass the butter’ were almost insults, and likely to be reprimanded by Uncle Louie saying ‘What are your arms for?’”

However, Powell’s young life was anything but a barrel of laughs. Her mother died when she was very young. Her father, though loving, was at best a hapless itinerant salesman, and her stepmother was, to put it mildly, selfish and cruel to the three sisters (Phyllis, Dawn, and Mabel). Her portrayal of her stepmother is scathing and life with her the very definition of child abuse. From this, Lena (Phyllis) and Marcia desire nothing more than to escape.

Readers not familiar with Powell’s work can easily enjoy this autobiographical novel on several levels. The childlike observations expressed with adult sensibility are delightful even if you know nothing of Powell. Powell’s recreation of 1900s Midwestern life reminds us of a more rugged, more self-sufficient, and harsher America. It also illustrates the diversity then of life in America, with myriad cultures living just in the area surrounding Powell’s hometown of Gilead, Ohio. And perhaps most of all, there’s the resilience of Powell and her sisters that will touch many readers. w/c

Growing Up Mormon

The Latter Days

by Judith Freeman

Judith Freeman thinks back over her upbringing in a Mormon community, seeking the threads that led her to become a writer and how her younger years influence and reappear in her writing, as it does, for instance, in her first novel, The Chinchilla Farm. (Oddly, in direct contradiction of her bio in the book itself, the dust jacket notes that she is at work on her first novel, an error the publisher hopefully will correct in a reprint or a trade edition.)

Her young life proved eventful by anyone’s definition: youthful marriage, the challenge of a very ill child, divorce, a long-term affair with a famous heart surgeon, and estrangement from her religion. However, what really stands out and what most readers will find fascinating is the picture she paints of growing up Mormon in Ogden, Utah, for then (she was born in 1946), as probably now, it was a place unto itself, unique in comparison to other places in the U.S.

Mormon beliefs and the church comprised the central feature of her upbringing. She came from a large family, though not nearly as large as other Mormon families. Living in a large family comes with its own set of issues, not the least of which revolve around your place in the lineup and feelings of affection from your parents. Even more though, and something many might at first blush find comforting but upon reflection might understand as stifling was the dominance of community in everyday life. For, in contrast to most religions in this country, Mormonism is all encompassing, an inescapable feature of living; in other words, it’s not something you visit only on Sundays. How such community bears down on living and maturing, how it restricts individuality and promotes a very strong sense of group and group thinking, comes through in Freeman’s remembrances.

Freeman writes cleanly and simply and, thus, brings emotional power to many of the events of her life, and might have you seeking out her novels. And while she grew up as a Mormon, nonetheless, family and religious beliefs exert an influence on most people. Many of these people, in conscious ways and through drift, move beyond these powerful influences of their youth. It’s this relatable story that Freeman tells so effectively. w/c

About the Edwardians by an Edwardian

The Edwardians

By Vita Sackville-West

“Oh that bloody book! I blush to think you read it,” wrote Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, whose press, Hogarth, had published The Edwardians to surprising success. Comparing your work to Woolf’s is an ideal way to torture yourself. In Vita’s case, double the anguish, because they were lovers and Vita admired Woolf.

Of course, Vita faulted herself too much. In its own right, The Edwardians is quite good. It highlights many of her writing skills, skills that many contemporary authors could learn from. The weaknesses come in the form of a couple of didactic passages, what some may consider excessive exposition, and a predictable and less an organic ending.

However, these criticisms pale when measured against the many strengths and rewards of the novel. These include an insider’s observation of high society at the beginning of the 20th century, the sexual mores of the British aristocratic class, the societal shift in the run up to World War I, and, for those fascinated by VSW (as we are), additional insights into her thinking and view of life.

The story is straightforward. Young aristocratic Sebastian is coming of age and is tormented. He feels trapped in the predictable life he sees laid out for him, lord of the manor and all the obligations and constrictions his duke title entails. He is a tightly wound ball of anger and rebellion, though his expressions of rebellion remain confined within his well-off world. He revolts by having liaisons with various women, the two most important of whom are Lady Roehampton, Sylvia, best and girlhood friend of his mother (who quietly is “… quite content that Sebastian should become tanned in the ray’s of Sylvia’s Indian summer”), and, reaching downward, the middle-class wife of a doctor, Teresa. Sybil devastates him by breaking off the affair at the insistence of her husband, for the sake of propriety. Teresa rejects him when he offends her middle-class values of faithfulness and loyalty, which befuddle and antagonize him. Finally, he seems resigned to spending his life fulfilling the role he was born to. Until, that is, he again meets Anquetil, after participating in the coronation of George V, the ceremony rendered in vivid and enlightening detail by Vita.

Anquetil and Sebastian become acquainted early in the novel. Anquetil functions as a critical observer of upper class society, which he disparages with wit and wonder, and as a catalyst to Sebastian’s rebellious spirit, as well as that of Viola, Sebastian’s sister. It is in this early chapter where Vita dons her lecture robes, as Anquetil launches into a long, though intriguing, disquisition on the choice before Sebastian. Everybody, not the least Sebastian and Viola, esteem the rough and ready explorer Anquetil, who is something on the order of a Shackleton. Vita, who possesses considerable powers of description, paints him as having “A startling face; pocked, moreover, by little blue freckles, where a charge of gunpower had exploded, as though an amateur tattooist had gone mad …” His association with Anquetil further riles Sebastian. As for meek and mild Viola, by the conclusion of the novel she reveals herself, to Sebastian’s astonishment, as the true rebel.

Strict distinctions divided the upper and lower classes in Victorian and Edwardian England. In the sex department, the upper class believed in exhibiting decorous behavior as an example to the lowers who otherwise might cavort in the manner of rutting animals. As for their own sexual conduct, as The Edwardians illustrates, especially Sebastian’s mother planning weekend accommodations for guests at the great country house Chevron and dinner seating arrangements, the uppers regularly switched and shared partners, and (a variation on noblesse oblige, perhaps?) extended an appendage down into the lower ranks. (For a peek at the rich pornographic sub rosa activity of the periods, see, for example, the underground Victorian publication, The Pearl.) When found out by a spouse, usually through an indiscretion that created a buzz too loud to ignore, accommodation usually proved the accepted strategy. Thus, Lady Roehampton gives up Sebastian and at the insistence of her husband George leaves with him for a station in the colonies.

Teresa, the morally cinctured doctor’s wife, assiduously adheres to the strict code espoused and flaunted by the upper class. Believing he has wooed her and that she has happily succumbed, her rejection of his sexual advances, made at a Chevron weekend with her husband downstairs playing bridge with the biddies, stuns him.

Vita, you may know, rebelled against most every stricture of accepted sexual and spousal behavior. She conducted numerous lesbian and straight affairs, the most famous and most scandalous with Violet Trefusis. She abhorred being addressed as Mrs. Harold Nicolson and she would burn anyone who attempted calling her such to the ground with a look. A bit of knowledge about Vita will increase your delight in reading most of the social passages in The Edwardians.

In the short introduction, Juliet Nicolson, Vita’s granddaughter, focuses on the novel as one of societal change. And, indeed, you’ll see this theme thread throughout the novel. The privileged, for the most part, ignored it. The class most dependent upon them lamented it. But some, especially those like Viola, embraced it enthusiastically.

While on the subject of social and societal upheaval and Vita and Harold’s unusual life style (delineated artfully in the superb Portrait of a Marriage), Vita’s main character names are very telling. Sebastian and Viola, as you probably know, are the brother and sister in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the comedy, Viola assumes the role of lost Sebastian, dressing like him. And it is Viola in the novel … well, we can’t disclose everything, now can we? Vita herself often during her affair with Violet dressed as a man, a soldier in fact, and sometimes a wounded one at that. In The Edwardians, you will find how the brother and sister deal with rebellious spirits and change fascinating. w/c