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Category Archive for 'Historical'

Tommy Orange, a Native American author, describes the contemporary culture of the Urban Indian, one who does not live on a reservation or in the countryside, but in the middle of cities, in this case, Oakland, California. Orange is especially interested showing the need for a unifying Indian culture and the fact that urban areas are totally different from any previous centers of Native American culture. Using twelve characters moving back and forth across three generations, he tells the interconnected stories of these people, the tragedies, the horrors of their lives, their frequent reliance on drugs and alcohol, and their difficulties continuing a culture which may not adapt well to twenty-first century urban life. All these characters come together in the final section, “Powwow,” which emphasizes their various relationships, some of them quite innocent, others not, as a dramatic and powerful ending unfolds.

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In a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly at the very margins of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two women who live on their own terms at the very margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends when they first meet in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow up, they become part of the avant-garde artists and philosophers in Paris, eventually being forced to leave for the Channel Islands as World War II breaks out. Following their story from 1920 to 1970, Rupert Thomson creates a fascinating story of two very unusual women.

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This Prix Goncourt Winner in France, focuses on the country of Burundi between 1992 and 1995, when the civil war began there. Debut novelist Gael Faye creates a lively account of the life of a young boy and his friends between the ages of 10 and 13, concentrating on their emotions, understandings, their family lives, and their coming of age. Leaving the gruesome aspects of the country’s revolution till later, when the boy is older, he brings Burundi and its people to life. Beautifully organized and developed; sensitively depicted in terms of the human costs, both physical and psychological; vibrantly depicted in its historical setting and atmosphere; enlightening in its insights into the lives the children affected; and grand in its scope and emotional impact, Small Country is now at the top of my Favorites List for the year. It’s a gem!

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In a novel of Nigeria which defies the usual stereotypes for that country, author Chibundu Onuzo tells a story of five individuals who form a surprising “family” in Lagos, and two others from the outside who affect the very lives of this group. Author Chibundu Onuzo’s offering introduces Nigeria as a place in which the people themselves feel familiar to the reader – at least at first. Two former soldiers, a wife escaping her abusive husband, a young rebel dreaming of a life as a radio star, and a young teenage runaway who intends to fight if she is in danger, resemble those one might find in books from many other countries. As the action begins, however, the author, while still writing with a smile on her face, places her characters within the context of their lives in Lagos, Nigeria. Two other men also play major roles in the novel: One is Ahmed Bakare, son of a wealthy financier, who has left a good job in England, where he went to school, and returned to Lagos, where he has founded a newspaper, the Nigerian Journal. The second “important” character is Chief Remi Sandayo, who has recently become the Honorable Minister of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a post of little interest to most citizens, and burdened with a small budget. A month after one of the characters finds an underground apartment for them all to live in, the novel becomes something akin to farce. It is Sandayo’s secret apartment, and he cannot reveal himself publicly without instant arrest by the police, while the “family,” which wants to live good lives, also wants some of the money to live on. Gives new life to the traditional novel of place and character.

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“If our mother had ever thought to phone us from wherever she was, we would no doubt have lied cautiously and said everything was fine, not mentioning the strangers who happened to be crowding into the house at that moment. They did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson. The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow moving opera singer…”

As Nathaniel Williams, age fourteen, makes these comments to the reader, he is dealing with the absence of both of his parents as World War II and the aftermath of the blitz are paramount in England. His father has purportedly been promoted to take over the Asian office of a business. His mother, who plans to join him, stays behind with the children in London for the summer, sharing stories with Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister Rachel about her early life growing up in rural Suffolk. When the school year is about to start again in September, their mother disappears, supposedly for Singapore to meet their father. The children remain behind with an assortment of characters like those mentioned in the opening quotation. Who these people really are and what they have done during the war become the main questions for the rest of the novel, as Ondaatje explores who we are, how we interpret our pasts, and what we can do about our futures.

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