Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Today’s review lends courtesy to the Not Your Momma’s Book Club, as it was the group’s book pick for the month. I thought it sounded like an interesting historical fiction novel, which you all know I love, so I was pretty excited to read it. The only problem was, it’s such a recent release that I ended up being like, 62nd on the hold list at my library, and I don’t like paying for new books when I don’t know if I’ll like the author or the book for sure. So I thought, well maybe an e-book or Audible had a cheaper copy. Negative on the e-book, but lo and behold, I hadn’t signed up for the free 30-day trial of Audible (this is not a promo)! So, I did that and downloaded Before We Were Yours, my first Audible download. It took me a little to get used to the narrator’s voices, but once I got into the story, I couldn’t stop listening.

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

The book alternates between Memphis, TN in the 1930’s and present time in Aiken, SC between characters Rill and Avery.

In the 1930’s, Rill Foss is twelve-year old girl, who lives in a shanty boat, the Arcadia, on the Mississippi river with her parents, Queenie and Brownie, and her four younger siblings- Camilla, Fern, Lark, and Gabian. They live a simple life on the river, and evoke the magic of nature, love, and music within the family. One stormy night, her mother goes into labor, and Rill stays nearby with Brownie and the midwife, witnessing her mother struggle to deliver twins. It’s a difficult birth, and even the midwife insists on getting her to a hospital before mother and babies lose their lives. Torn about leaving the children and going out into the storm with Queenie in such a state, but finding no alternative, Brownie leaves Rill in charge of her young siblings. Shortly there after, the local police raid the river town of the local children and bring the children to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, deeming them orphans and falsifying paperwork and information. Desperately, Rill tries to keep her siblings together but it’s a futile challenge. The woman who runs the home is a child trafficker- kidnapping, scamming, scheming, blackmailing, and brokering these children to wealthy upper-class and high profile couples. Though the children know the truth, they are beaten, punished, and threatened into submission, or if they continue to deny their “new identities”, they suspiciously die or disappear, never to be heard from again. Rill knows that she has to get back to the Arcadia with her siblings, no matter what the sacrifice.

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In present day Aiken, Avery Stafford is a poised, educated, ambitious and savvy lawyer, raised in a political family and groomed to follow in her senator father’s footsteps. Her parents and her have a complicated relationship, as they are more traditional, having expected her to go to college and get a “MRS. degree” and settle down, like her sisters. Avery is engaged, but she’s comfortable with her fiancé, and they aren’t in a rush to the altar. However, when her father’s health starts to decline from cancer, she’s under a lot of pressure to start making decisions- about her wedding and her career path. She decided to spend some time away from her life in Washington, DC to help with her father’s platform appearances in Aiken, and the discussion about nursing home care comes up. While visiting a local home, she meets a woman named May Weathers, who happens to know Avery’s grandmother, Judy. Finding this odd, since her grandmother’s altzhiemer’s has catastrophically impacted her social outings and Avery had never heard of May before, she visits Judy, only to find more questions than answers. She knows there is a secret in her grandmother’s past, and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. Time is of the essence, and she needs to find answers before her grandmother’s secret is lost in the past.

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I finished the audiobook a few days prior to writing the review, because I needed some time to digest this one. The things that Rill and her siblings went through are absolutely horrendous to me, and it made me ill to know that though this story is a work of fiction, it’s based off the true accounts of survivors that were adopted out by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. It’s a heavy subject to handle, and the novel is haunting. Wingate’s story, right down to the last page of her author’s note, had me in an emotional choke hold. There were moments when I know I made audible gasps, clenched my fists, and released sighs of relief. The suspense of the story lines are wagered just so, revealing everything piece by piece until things come full circle in the end.

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The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I felt like I had struck gold when I found this one in my local Little Free Library branches. My bestie (Hi Josette!) had pointed the two LFL’s in town out to me shortly after I had moved into my new house, and after I had accumulated a few books that I wanted to donate, I went to drop them off in the tiny birdhouse-esque box. I skimmed the titles that were in there, and immediately noticed The Color Purple. Classic! So I made the swap, and took it home.

When I started reading, Celie’s story was very familiar to me, and I couldn’t remember why until I got about 25 pages in, when Shug Avery is mentioned. Then I remembered. I remembered that name, and an actress wearing the awesome red jazz dress, singing. I had seen the movie as a teen, flipping through the Starz freebies. I hadn’t seen the whole movie, just that quick scene, but it was striking enough to stick in my brain at least a decade later. With that in mind, I kept reading, wondering how Celie and Shug were connected, especially because at this point in the novel, I was just learning about Celie’s awful upbringing and abusive new husband.

Celie writes in letters, recounting her days and the things she tolerates just to survive daily. As a poor, uneducated black woman in the southern Georgia, most of the things she observes will break your heart. However, there are often lines in which she shows her strength, in that though she is being physically submissive, her mind is sharp and wanting to rebel. Many times, the cause for her will to rebel is her awful husband, Mr. Albert (no last name mentioned, and she only ever refers to him as Mr.) Then, there’s Shug, Mr.’s long-time mistress. She arrives in Celie’s household sick, and though she is mean to Celie at first, they end up striking up a friendship. Celie also can’t help but be attracted to Shug, which is something Celie has never felt for anyone before. Being horribly mistreated by her father, then shuffled off to Mr., Celie has never known love. She’s had children taken from her, and her sister Nettie never wrote after Celie left her childhood home- she’s lonely, and Shug’s attention is like a balm healing old wounds. Yet the relationship that springs up between Celie and Shug is complicated, and in a time period where class, race, sex, and abuse weren’t debated or discussed, so Celie just writes her feelings in her letters to God.

Then Shug figures something out- Mr. has been hoarding letters from Nettie to Celie. They plot together to get the letters so that Celie can finally read them. As she goes through the pages, Celie learns that her sister has left the small, godforsaken town that they grew up in, and has seen what else life has to offer. She writes of her journey to New York, of Harlem and the support of the black people who send money and well wishes to her and her missionary employers on their journey to Africa. She’s never seen this kind of tolerance, or been treated so kindly. Then, she becomes part of the community in the Olinka village, as well as family to the missionaries who brought her there. Then, the most surprising truth of all- after traveling all those miles, she learns the truth about her and Celie’s past.

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There’s a reason this became a bestseller, not to mention a contemporary classic. The Color Purple is bold, honest, heartbreaking, and empowering, especially for women of color. When Celie finally finds strength to stand up for herself and speak her mind, I cheered. Walker’s frank conversational narration and emotionally charged scenes about the taboo topics create a fast paced, compelling novel. I highly recommend that if you haven’t, you should give it a read- though keep in mind, it’s still considered controversial and contains many triggers of abusive, violent, and sexual nature.

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

The proverbial skeleton is about to be out of the closet! Latham kept me hanging on the edge of my seat and turning pages, determined to figure out who the body was before it was fully revealed…but I truly couldn’t figure it out until the very end.

Rowan Chase is woken up to the sound of construction. When she gets up to investigate, she finds something more mysterious than the renovation. The workers have found a body long dead in her decades-family-owned servants house. Unused but for storage for almost a century, the workers were converting the building into a man-cave for Rowan’s father. Quickly the workers leave, and Rowan calls up her best friend James to help her investigate. When they start looking at the remains, they noticed a wallet, a gun with “Maybelle” inscribed on it, and the messy remaining mix of lime and blood.

in 1921, William Tillman is a young man in the midst of racially tumultuous Tulsa. He’s the son of a Osage woman and a blue collar man, trying to impress his crush Addie and his best friend, Clete. While at a speakeasy dubbed the Two-Knock, Addie and a black man named Clarence walk in, and Clete immediately urges Will to run him off for talking to a white woman. Will is drunk and belligerent, but even then he knows that he doesn’t think this is right- however, he causes a ruckus, picks a one-sided fight, and Clarence is forced to leave. Clete runs to the crooked police, which trickles to the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan (or wanna-bes), and Clarence is killed. Will knows this is just as much his fault as Clete’s and the others.

As Rowan tracks down the past on her house, the town, and the skeleton in her back yard, Will recounts the time leading up to the Tulsa race riot of 1921. In alternating chapters, the reader is piecing together the clues that will reveal who the skeleton is, while Latham describes a dark and scary time in American history, and reminds us that history often repeats itself if we let it.

My in-real-life book club picked this for our monthly read. We wanted a female author or a strong female lead, and out of a strong pile of books fitting the bill, we chose Dreamland Burning and got both. I’m curious to see what the members of the group thought about the book, but I was definitely absorbed in it by 50 pages in. I will say that both main characters bothered me at first- their privilege was showing and made them a little unlikable in the beginning for me- but once I got into the unraveling of the story, I realized that both Rowan and Will were able to change for the better and I was so proud of them by the end.

I plan to do some more reading up on the events in this book, but I did do a few searches, and what I have found about the riot is nauseating. There are images of the KKK, images of the town on fire, articles with info disputing how many people of color were killed that night, and even worse things. I highly suggest this read, as it is such a good mystery and a great way to open discussion on race, class, and historical context, but I also would say to keep in mind that this book, though fictional, is still based on a true, horrible event. It’s certainly one that’ll open anyone’s eyes.

Texts From Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

Texts From Jane Eyre is another very witty and clever book that I highly recommend for a change of pace and a good laugh. The book is comprised of short “screenshots” of text conversations between some of literature’s most memorable characters and authors, including Jane Eyre (hence the title), some done in a modern style and some retaining their classic voices.

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Because it’s such a short book and again, I don’t want to spoil it for you, here are just a few classic characters you will “chat” with:

  • Circe:
    • “where did the pigs come from Circe?”
    • “i don’t know, a pig farm, a pig mommy and a pig daddy who loved each other very much…”
  • Jane Eyre:
    • “I KNEW IT. DID YOU LEAVE BECAUSE OF MY ATTIC WIFE IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT”
    • “yes. Absolutely.”
  • Hamlet:
    • “darling i don’t mean to criticize but you really hurt your father’s feelings last night”
    • “hes not my real dad. why do you even like him”
  • Nancy Drew:
    • “do you think you can come get me?”
    • “are you tied up again?”
    • “i’m just over at the cave by the old mill”
    • “so you’re tied up…in a cave.”

If you giggled at any one (or all!) of these, then you’ll really enjoy the rest. It’s a perfect way to get to “connect” with some of your favorite literary characters in one place. It’s fast paced, light fare, and well worth checking out!

 

 

 

 

Banned & Challenged Books Week

Hi Everyone! I’m blogging outside the box today because it is #BannedBooksWeek! I decided to do a little research on the honorary week, and suggest you check out the American Library Association (ALA) list of banned and challenged books!

I did so myself, and wasn’t surprised at what I saw on the banned books list- mostly books that were ahead of their time or had controversial points of view. As it is, some of these are still talked about in controversy! What did surprise me is that I read most of these novels between middle and high school ages- formative years. Each one has broadened my understanding of the time periods, taught me to see both sides of conflicts and resolutions, helped me sort where my moral values stand, and fueled my love for historical fiction!

Banned Classics:

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Ulysses, by James Joyce
1984, by George Orwell
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Then we reach the challenged books. This list really surprised me. I know I read about a third of these before I even entered middle school, and I haven’t read any of these post high school graduation. To think of a child reading challenged books- *gasp*! Of course, when I skimmed through the entire selection of challenged books, I understand many of them had adult themes- sex, mostly, but also drugs, violence, strong language and other controversial content that would make any movie “Rated R”. But some of these on my list- Junie B. Jones, REALLY?!- were shocking.

Challenged 1990-2009:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine

The Witches, by Roald Dahl

Blubber, by Judy Blume

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

Carrie, by Stephen King

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison
Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause
Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

So there you have it- I’m completely guilty of reading these books, and I’m thankful that I’ve had the freedom- AND HAVE BEEN ENCOURAGED- to read them all. I think that reading has helped me become the mature, well-rounded, educated woman that I am, and every book has allowed me to open my mind, experience life through someone else, and ingrained the moral of the stories into my body. I’ll always carry a bit of Scout, Scarlett, Ponyboy , The Golden Trio, Tom and Huck, and Gatsby and Daisy… all of them along within me. And, above all, I encourage others to do the same- to learn from these characters, to express their thoughts and ideas, and to keep their minds open.

Now, it’s your turn! Feel free to share what banned books you’ve read!

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

“Put the things you can put right today, and let the ones from back then go. Leave the rest to the angels, or the devil or whoever’s in charge of it.”

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What would you do if you had to choose between your moral compass and your heart’s desire? From the moment that Tom Sherbourne finds the tiny baby ashore on Janus Island, something felt wrong. Not just the circumstance- the lone floating dingy with a dead man and screaming baby inside it- but the decision made to delay reporting the incident on a plea from his wife, Isabel, who sweeps the poor child into her arms. Yet despite the unease, the childless couple that had tried and failed to expand their family accepted this little girl like gift from God.

It was, at first, easy enough to cover up the arrival of the baby they named Lucy. Being the lighthouse keeper and only residents on Janus Island, the couple were miles away from civilization, with no one but themselves to question the incident. Those in the know knew that Isabel had been expecting- and the couple felt no hurry to report the miscarriage that occurred two weeks prior to Lucy’s arrival. But after two years of heaven on Janus, the family was granted leave to the mainland, and their fantasy world collides with reality. Lucy’s real mother is still searching for her, desperately believing her daughter, Grace, is still alive. When the Sherbournes find this out, the couple have to choose- out the truth, or continue the lie for the sake of love? Isabel takes camp in continued secrecy, but Tom can’t help but feel conflicted for not telling the truth- and therefore pitting himself against his wife.

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It’s heart wrenching story, and only devastates the reader the further they read. Stedman does a beautiful job of describing everything, from the fictional setting that had me looking for it on Google Maps despite, to the emotional feelings from all the parties involved in Lucy-Grace’s life.

The only thing I could fault is the slow pace- it’s not a very long novel, but it took me quite a while to read it. However I see it fitting for this story anyways, because you DO have to read it slowly, and absorb the many facets of the setting, the characters, and the conflicts in between the two.

The book was published in 2012, became a bestseller, and then produced into a film last September (which I’m now going to have to watch!). I’d recommend giving The Light Between Oceans a chance to steal your heart too.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Another McLain novel, because I enjoyed the last one so much! “The Paris Wife” had me hooked within minutes as McLain describes the preface of the novel- the love story and downfall of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, from the point of view of his wife Hadley.

Elizabeth “Hadley” Richardson, age 28, flees to Chicago for a reprieve from grief over her mother’s death and sullen family life. Determined to shed her “spinster aunt” image and find something to live for, she attends a party and meets young Ernest Hemingway, age 21. Right away, his passion for life and writing deeply attracts Hadley, and they soon form a friendship, writing letters back and forth almost daily after she returns home to St. Louis. After some time, Ernest finally proposes, and though there were nerves on both accounts, they marry and follow Ernest’s dreams of becoming a famous writer, moving to Paris in 1921.

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However, Paris isn’t what they expected. The romanticized fantasy of fast success quickly gives way to reality of a struggling artist’s lifestyle. Hadley makes the best of the situation, trying to give Ernest the space he needs to write in the their tiny, overpriced apartments while still giving him the love, encouragement, and support he needs to push through his writing. As the couple meets new couples and artists alike, they begin to explore the modern Paris, and European, scenes. During a discussion on marriage, one friend pointed out to Hadley:

“You suffer for his career. What do you get in the end?”

and her reply:

“The satisfaction of knowing he couldn’t do it without me.”

Unfortunately, Hadley starts to notice changes in her relationship with Ernest that she can’t ignore. He’s easily frustrated with her, he spends hours and sometimes longer writing away from her, and when she finds out she’s pregnant, he thinks it a ploy to distract him from his work. Hadley weathers these storms, but when she finally notices that Ernest has his eye on another woman, she can’t deny that her marriage is in danger.

McLain yet again does an excellent job on relaying the story as if you were in the room, a part of the whole scene. The detail in her narration and the word choice is so pleasing (in my opinion), and it makes for a gripping but easy read. I actually flagged many lines to quote in example to how precise her character depth is, including one that made me look up Ernest Hemingway’s astrology sign (I’m really into astrology right now) to find that I was correct in guessing he was a Leo! But I decided to leave those right where they are, so that you may all find those delectable nuggets on your own. Simply a lovely, honest read.