Category Archives: Fiction — historical

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, by Janet Fitch

This sequel to The Revolution of Marina M. follows our heroine Marina, who was a middle-class teenager during the Russian revolution, through the years of the Russian civil war. The first book left Marina separated from the man she loved passionately who cheated on her, pregnant with his child, alone and friendless in a country that has in a few short years turned itself inside-out and upside-down. Marina has been a good Communist in her time, but the lines of allegiance are shifting so quickly that she’s no longer sure who can be trusted in this new landscape.

There’s plenty of landscape in this book, as Marina ends up travelling across Russia with her ex-husband (not the father of her child, although he’s going to make an appearance too, don’t worry) on a train that’s basically a travelling Communist propaganda show. Eventually she ends up back in her home city of St. Petersburg — sorry, Petrograd — a city transformed beyond recognition from the one she grew up in. Here she suffers shattering personal loss, tremendous risk, artistic growth, and more than one betrayal. Marina, as a fictional poet, interacts with several real-life characters from Russian literature, including Maxim Gorky and Anna Akhmatova. Through it all, she is driven by a ruthless determination to survive.

I’m no expert on Russian history; to this non-expert it felt like, as in the first book, Fitch was capturing the tenor and uncertainty of those turbulent times perfectly, showing us a Russian revolution and civil war that was so much more complex than the simplified pocket version we learned in school — an ever-shifting world of changing alliances, power-hungry rulers, and people like Marina just trying to survive.

And all this before Stalin ever arrives on the scene!

There are many more things that could happen to Marina, and that will happen to Russia, but we’ve already learned from the prologue to the first book that an older Marina will be making her life far from her beloved Russia, and the ending of Chimes gives us an idea of how that will happen, without promising another volume. If this is the end of Marina’s story, I think the author has done a good job of bringing reader and character through those difficult years.

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Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini

This was an interesting and informative story based on the lives of several real women (one main character is a composite character, but the rest are actual people) who were part of the resistance movement in Nazi Germany. One is an American woman married to a German man, another a German woman who has studied in the US and returned home, another a Jewish student. Each of them watches, as the story unfolds from the early 1930s into the war years, as the country slides into totalitarian dictatorship, and each woman must decide what role she is willing to play, and what price she is willing to pay.

While the author’s style kept me from feeling deeply invested in the characters — I always felt at a bit of an arm’s length from them — the depiction of pre-war and war-time Germany under Hitler was fascinating, and I loved learning more about the roles women played within the Resistance.

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Annelies, by David Gillham

The premise of Annelies is very simple: what if Anne Frank had survived? What might her life have been like after the camps? Would she have been able to adapt to postwar life in Amsterdam? How would the war have changed her? Would she have achieved her dream of being a writer?

In this novel, everything in Anne’s life unfolds exactly as it did in real life — up until the crucial moment when Anne’s sister Margot dies in Bergen-Belsen. Instead of dying herself a short time later, this fictional version of Anne survives, to eventually be liberated. As in reality, the only other survivor of the eight Jews hidden in the “Secret Annexe” is Anne’s father, Otto. Her diary has also survived, but now she is the one who must decide what to do with this record of the war years she spent in hiding.

In many ways, of course, what Gillham is writing here is just a fictionalized version of what did happen to many people — though six million European Jews died in the Nazi camps, many did not die, but survived to try to integrate back into society alongside the very people who had, in many cases, betrayed them to the Nazis. The added twist here in making Anne Frank the survivor is that she does have the diary, which makes her the bearer of a potentially powerful message to the postwar world. But does she want to share it.

When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night with my students, I often contrast one of his bleaker passages with the well-known passage from Anne Frank’s diary where she states that she believes that despite everything, people are still basically good at heart. Both Wiesel and Frank were intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful teenagers when they were sent to the camps: the difference in tone between the two passages obviously lies mostly in the fact that we never get to hear what Anne Frank’s reflections might have been like after going to Bergen-Belson. Her diary was written while she was in hiding, while Wiesel wrote Night after Auschwitz (and after having some years to reflect on the experience of the camps).

The Anne Frank who emerges in this fictional re-creation is not unlike Elie Wiesel, in some ways: angry, scarred, disillusioned, but also determined (eventually) to make sure that the world knows what happened to the Jews of Europe, and never allows it to happen again. The novel focuses mainly on the first year after the war, while she is still struggling with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, trying to forge a new relationship with her father and figure out how to live in an Amsterdam that she can never truly consider home again.

For many people, the powerful piece of writing that is Anne Frank’s diary has been boiled down in memory (or report — for those who haven’t read it) to that one inspiring quote about believing people are good at heart. People often forget that the diary is a complex portrait of a brilliant, strong-willed, sometimes troubled teenager living in constant fear for her life. Battles of will with her mother, sister and housemates, the rise and fading of a romance with literally the only other young person in the house, and Anne’s own reflections on life, war, death, God, humanity and her own legacy, make the diary in its fullness a portrait of a very real and complicated young woman — which makes the tragedy of her death all the more poignant. Some readers may not like the fact that Gillham imagines a different ending for her in Annelies, but I found the book compelling. It reminded me of the depth and complexity of the diary itself, of the difficult experiences of those who did survive the Holocaust, and, once again, of the tragedy of the life that Anne Frank and millions of others never got to live.

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The Difference, by Marina Endicott

As  you can tell from this blog, I’ve read a lot of good books over the past several months. Some very, very good books. But it’s rare to read a book that rises up and engulfs me completely, that draws me so fully into its world that I fall in love with the characters, to the extent that I have to put it aside for a few hours at a time because I’m so terrified something terrible will happen to one of these characters I love, and I don’t think I can bear it. The Difference was such a book.

If The Difference had been much less well-written than it is, I would still have loved it, for its vivid and detailed depiction of a slice of history I knew nothing about, and had never even imagined before. The novel begins in 1911, aboard the Morning Light, a trading ship out of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, bearing the main character, twelve-year-old orphan Kay Ward. She is travelling with her sister and brother-in-law, her brother-in-law being the vessel’s captain and owner, on a voyage around the world. The ins and outs of life on a sailing ship making a round-the-world voyage in the early 20th century make for fascinating reading — as do the details of a second voyage round the same route, eleven years later, on a passenger steamship. I would have loved the world of this book and everything I learned from it even if that had been all it had to offer.

But it wasn’t. The book features the deft, insightful, beautiful wordcraft I’ve come to expect from Endicott, one of Canada’s best and most underrated writers. All her books are gorgeously written, but not since Good to a Fault has she created characters so vivid and real for me.  The stubborn, difficult Kay, her sometime tutor Mr. Brimner (a clergyman who travels to his mission post on the Morning Light), and Aren (the boy Kay’s sister impulsively buys from a group of impoverished South Sea Islanders), were all so dear to me by halfway through the book I wanted to hide the book in the freezer for awhile because I was so worried about what might happen to them. The other characters — Kay’s sister Thea and her husband Francis, the crew of the ship, other people Kay encounters on her travels — are every bit as vividly drawn, so much so that the death of a relatively minor character hits the reader with as much devastating force as it does the other characters.

The central plot point of the story springs, as Endicott tells the reader in an Afterword, from a real-life incident: a white woman aboard a vessel in the South Pacific buys a native child for four pounds of tobacco. The casual racism of that real-life incident becomes, in the novel, inextricably bound up with the colonial assumption that one is “bettering the lives” of native people by taking them out of their indigenous surroundings, is a thread throughout this novel. Before the novel starts, in scenes that haunt Kay’s nightmares, both Kay and Thea lived with their father at the residential school he ran for indigenous children in Western Canada. While Thea, a young adult at the time, buys completely into the “white man’s burden” image of the “good” they are doing there, young and impressionable Kay only knows that her best friend Annie has been taken far from her own home and parents. Kay is wracked with regret at the things that happened to the children at that school. Her fierce refusal to accept Thea’s view of colonialism becomes a defining feature in her relationship with Aren, once he becomes part of their shipboard family — and even more so, once the family finds itself back in stodgy, conservative Nova Scotia.

To say more would be to say too much — perhaps I already have said too much — but I loved this book so much that I wanted to live on board the Morning Light forever, sailing warm southern seas with Kay, Aren, Mr. Brimner and the rest. This is a wonderful story told by a master storyteller. One of my very favourite books of this year.

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Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

This is an odd book that took quite awhile to lure me in, but in the end I found very compelling and moving. It starts in modern-day Prague, where an English translator, Helen Franklin, is living a life of quiet austerity that goes beyond mere introversion — it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt and trying to atone for something in her past. Into Helen’s tidy and ordered world collides an ancient tale of a restless spirit called Melmoth the Witness, the Wanderer, who might be real (what is real?) or an embodiment of guilt, or a symbol of those who bear witness to atrocities.

The story shifts around — from Helen’s present, to several different characters and locations in the past, including the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, and eventually back into the hidden secret in Helen’s own past. Along the way, these gothic-horror-tinged narratives all play with the idea of “bearing witness.” It can be deadly: standing by and doing nothing when your words or actions might save someone. But sometimes, when tragedy is inevitable, bearing witness is the only thing you can do. The idea of the shadowy Melmoth as a witness becomes a metaphor for all the tragedies we bear witness to.

I’ve read several novels this summer that play on the idea of a character having a terrible, guilty secret in their past, and the problem with this trope is that often, when the secret is finally revealed, it’s anticlimactic — the reader has either already guessed it, or it wasn’t that big a deal. Not so here (or, in fact, in the other books I read this summer — the “dark secret” was uniformly dark in all of them). When we find out what (other than Melmoth) has been haunting Helen, her guilt and her need to punish herself make perfect sense. The only question is, when she finally meets both her past and the ghost that haunts her — what is she going to do now?

Weird, mystical, creepy, and thought-provoking.

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The Grand Duchess of Nowhere, by Laurie Graham

So this is kind of fun, to the extent that anything dealing with the Russian Revolution can be described as “fun.” Actually the revolution is sort of an afterthought in the life story of Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, aka “Ducky,” one of the gazillion grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

Ducky, born in 1866 and coming of age in a rapidly-changing world, was mildly notorious at the time for being divorced from her first husband, mostly because he was gay and not discreet enough about it, and then marrying her second husband for love. Mind you, both husbands were well within the extended-family-circle that these folks tended to marry within — it’s not like she married someone who wasn’t both royal and a distant cousin, or anything shocking like that. But she was seen as being just a teensy bit rebellious, and a bit of a handful, within the context of the rather stifling expectations of a woman of her rank and time.

She is also, as presented in this first-person novel, a complete and utter airhead, and very hard to sympathize with. I mean, it’s obviously not nice for her when she catches Husband #1 in bed with a stableboy — nobody likes that — but she comes across, in this book, as a woman so completely wrapped up in the insular world of privilege and rank that when she finds herself in the middle of the actual Russian Revolution (Husband #2 is a Russian Grand Duke), she simply has no idea what’s going on. How could anybody possibly want dear Cousin Nicky to abdicate, even if he is an ass and his wife Sunny is insufferable? And all right, if he does abdicate, surely someone else in the family will step up — how can there be no Czar at all?

The degree to which Ducky and her circle are out of touch with the real world is almost hilarious, and I’m not sure if that was the author’s intent or not, but it made it hard to take any of Ducky’s trials and tribulations seriously when she floats above reality on a cloud of wealth and status that makes it impossible for her to grasp … well, anything, actually. If you didn’t sympathize with the Bolsheviks before reading this novel, you might start to think they had a point by the time you’ve finished.

It’s light and entertaining, it’s well-researched, it’s well-written, but don’t ask me to shed any tears for poor Ducky (who, with her husband, was one of the few highly-placed members of the Romanov clan to actually survive the Bolshevik purge and die in exile).

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Somewhere in France, by Jennifer Robson

Somewhere in France is a simple but well-researched World War One romance about Lilly, an upper-class young girl who chafes against her family’s expectations and restrictions. She breaks with her family and trains as an ambulance driver, eventually getting sent to an army hospital in France where she encounters Robbie, a young Scottish doctor who was a university friend of her brother. While the necessary plot contrivances to keep the couple apart even while they’re physically together feel a little strained at times, the characters are appealing and the wartime atmosphere feels well-drawn and believable.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical