Saturday, May 31, 2014

Unsafe Travels: Losing St. Christopher by David-Michael Harding

Losing St. Christopher is the second novel in David-Michael Harding’s Cherokee Trilogy. Like the first book, Cherokee Talisman, there is exciting action, interesting historical background, very good character development, and great descriptions of Georgia and Carolina in the 1800s. The second novel continues the story of Totsuhwa a revered warrior/shaman of the Cherokee nation. The tribal leader has seen the “white” politicians and military officers offer treaties and solemn promises to his people only to watch them disregard their written words. Land is annexed illegally from the vast Cherokee homeland for U. S. federal and civilian use. Totsuhwa has resisted the decisions of his fellow tribal leaders to give in and cede their land to keep peace. Gradually, the Cherokee are pushed to the Western areas of their nation by the increasing U. S. economic interests in property, gold, and other abundant natural resources.

The displacement of Cherokee communities accelerates in Losing St. Christopher even though there has been a concerted effort by Cherokee men to assimilate into the white culture. The reasoning of tribal leaders has been that learning English in addition to their native tongue Tsalagi and adopting U. S. clothing and legal customs will somehow save their Cherokee homeland. Even the renowned warrior/shaman Totsuhwa and his wife Galegi send their son Chancellor to a missionary school to learn the white ways. Chancellor excels in his studies and cultural assimilation and sees opportunities for himself and the Cherokee people to protect their heritage. He also works independently to maintain the Cherokee warrior/shaman skills taught to him by his father. Chancellor keeps his fighting fitness and quick aggressive reactions when threatened.

The westward push of the Cherokee regulated by federal and state laws is enforced by U. S. Army and Georgia state troops. Totsuhwa and Chancellor are caught up in the Cherokee resistance movement that includes both legal and, when necessary, violent action. The independent stories of the two Cherokee warriors involve actions that are more on the violent side for the older man and more accepting of the legal side for the younger man. Father and son come together with deadly intent as a result of enforced “Removal” laws. They experience the destruction of their culture, personal and general, at an ever increasing rate and scope. Both Cherokee leaders are severely injured by the tragic “Trail of Tears” banishment of native people from their own land.

As with the first novel in the trilogy, Losing St. Christopher is an exciting, historically informative, and culturally balanced tale of a very volatile period in U. S. history. The writing is simple and direct and the dialogue is realistic and appropriate. The stories continued from the Cherokee Talisman and proceeded at a rapid pace in volume two. The “Talisman” from book one was an arrowhead symbolizing the early history of the Cherokee people. They were hunters who used arrows to provide food and warriors who were ready to defend their land from invaders with arrows. The St. Christopher’s Medal from book two symbolizes the safety implied in two cultures traveling together in mutual respect and dignity toward common goals. Losing St. Christopher was a sad time indeed. I give both of these novels my highest recommendation to readers of all genres of literature. (A review of book one follows this review.)

The Real People: Cherokee Talisman by Michael-David Harding

David-Michael Harding has written a very interesting historical novel of the Cherokee Nation spanning the time of the colonial era of the United States until the Native Americans were systematically removed from their homelands. Many times treaties were signed on colonial "leaves" promising peaceful coexistence with the Cherokee people (and other tribes) in exchange for sections of their homeland. The documents were like leaves in the wind as white settlers moved west from the colonies and the new "American" nation grew encroaching on Native American land. While colonists were engaged in battling British, French, and Spanish enemies, Cherokee and other nations were able to fight off the relatively weak westward push with merciless violence directed at settlers. As the colonies began to dominate and then form agreements with their European competitors, Native American support from these countries in the form of food, guns, and ammunition dwindled. The market for trading scalps and booty from slaughtered settlers and battles with tribal enemies all but disappeared. Everyone knew that treaties with the "Indians" were not worth the paper they were written on, but they did bring some short term peace in the native lands.

The novel follows the lives of a host of interesting characters from 1775 to 1821. The reader gets an intimate look at the culture of a people forced to submit gradually and then quickly to colonial and "American" westward expansion. The portrayal of Colonel (and later General) Andrew Jackson and his role in the destruction of Native American culture in general is surprising. He was ruthless in his war on the Indians and his military occupation of their land. The Cherokee leaders were violently resistant at first to Jackson and other American military units, but realized they would have to increase their efforts at acculturation in order to survive. Often Native Americans were convinced by their progressive tribal leaders that by identifying with the aggressor they would be able to maintain some of their own land and traditions.

In this historical context, the story of well-developed characters unfolds. From a spiritual point of view, Cherokee shaman and warrior Totsuhwa (Redbird) sees the inevitable destruction of his culture. Learning spirituality from his grandmother, and warrior strength from his legendary Cherokee leader and adoptive father, Tsi'yu-gunsini (Dragon), Totsuhwa vows to stay in his tribe's homeland even if it is occupied by "Whites" and the original way of life is modified. He has years of happiness and tears as a respected Shaman living a traditional Cherokee family life and a separate warrior life of battling other tribes and the army of the new American nation. He attempts to to preserve the Cherokee homeland and culture while his tribe is forced to change through violence and submission.

This is an excellent historical novel. I was completely engrossed in the history, characters, and action of the ebook. The pace varies allowing the reader to get a good understanding of the long proud history of the Native American Nations and the relatively quick demise of the tribal cultures. The story of Totsuhwa brings joy, heart pounding excitement, and tears of sadness to the reader. The novel is reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (Bantam Classics), with a less formal but consistent writing style and voice. I highly recommend this novel to readers ranging in age from young adolescents to seniors.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Decisive Life Path: The Eternal Wonder by Pearl S. buck

A hand-written Pearl S. Buck Manuscript was discovered in January of 2013, forty years after the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature winner's death. Her son, Edgar Walsh, decided to have the novel edited and published even though his mother died before she was able to revise it. The novel can be enjoyed by young readers as well as adults.

In Buck's simple and direct style, the story is told of a brilliant young man with an insatiable desire to learn about all aspects of life. The novel follows the development from the womb to adulthood of Randolph Colfax, the son of upper middle class parents born in a small college town in the eastern US. His mother and professor father encourage Rann to learn as much as possible through books but also through direct experience with new environments and people.

Rann is accelerated through the US education system entering college after taking entrance exams at age 12. The college experience gives Rann an opportunity to gain some independence while still living at home, and he begins to learn rapidly not only from books but also from chance encounters with intelligent people, especially one of his professors. He is mentally prepared to benefit from these encounters but must learn some difficult life lessons rapidly and must deal with the enduring consequences.

Rann is able to broaden his learning because of dramatic changes in his immediate family that allow him to leave college and travel as he wishes without concern for financial limits. So, with a prepared mind and sufficient funds Rann is able to satisfy his wonder by visiting new locations and meeting and taking a true interest in people from various cultural backgrounds in England, Paris, Korea, and New York. The people he meets determine his life path to some extent, but Rann realizes he must decide on his own public expression of eternal wonder in a creative way. He realizes that his life choices affect him profoundly but also have major positive and negative influences on people he loves. He also discovers that he can learn languages quickly but that there are limits to enculturation between oriental societies, like China and Korea, and US society. Even love cannot overcome some cultural barriers. As a result of his wide-ranging adventures, can Rann retain his eternal wonder, his desire to learn as much as he can and use his knowledge for a creative life work?

Pearl S. Buck was a disciplined writer who probably would have re-written her last known novel extensively. Although the style of writing is consistently readable and realistic, the themes (e.g., the interaction of art and science, racial identity) and story (behavioral outcome of the interaction of fame and creativity) are not completely developed. I read The Good Earth, Buck's first very successful novel in the 1960's and remember her beautiful and subtle style of writing and her well-developed themes of life in China. I believe that almost all readers will enjoy the novel and certainly all readers will have thought provoking experiences reading it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ship of Fools: The Plover by Brian Doyle

The Plover is a small trawler twenty feet long by eight feet wide by seven feet deep. Captain Declan O'Donnell has plied the coast of Oregon in his trawler fishing and doing a bit of charter work. He has refitted the boat with a mast and red sails for flair and long travel on little fuel for the engine. The sight of the rig causes derisive shouts and laughter by fellow captains, but Declan is unfazed. He is determined to take an aimless amble west over the mountains at the bottom of the sea, free of the alcohol that has been a personal demon. Heading west and then west, the traditional direction of men who have sailed from their past, Declan has decided to abandon the edge of land and take on a life of solitude free from social constraints. The challenges of the sea and the necessary solitary maintenance of the Plover will structure his existence of exploration and survival on the Pacific.

Sailing and motoring on the Pacific Ocean is much more difficult than skirting the CONUS northwest coast. Declan learns much about navigating the huge expanse via charts and by enduring storms with high winds and churning waves. At the same time, he becomes more closed and withdrawn in his mental state rather than becoming open and free as he expected. A seagull has chosen to accompany Declan, and he finds himself talking to the bird covertly and overtly though more in jest than actual communication. He tells the gull there will be no thinking on this trip, no recriminations and ruminations. Instead, Declan will immerse himself in learning the true nature of the oceanic territory and its inhabitants. Everything will be ship shape with no complications related to Stateside games with other people, known and unknown.

Solitude builds character, but loneliness is insidious with intruding thoughts and memories that restrict freedom of experience. Declan's spontaneous life review is reluctant and piecemeal, and the reader slowly gains insight into the captain's early life and circumstances on land. But, like the bird plover that is small yet heroic in its migratory feats from one end of the Pacific to the other, Declan carries on to the South Pacific Islands. He hopes to make hit and run visits on land to restock provisions.

The stage is set for chance encounters with people who will intrude on Declan's flight from himself. The cast of characters include: Enrique a Russian pirate who draws a bead on the Plover, Piko a widower friend of Declan who escaped to an island after a tragic family accident, Pipa the paralyzed and mute daughter of Piko, Taromauri an island widower who lost her daughter to the sea and her husband to grief, Danilo a survivor of the harsh Russian wasteland who escaped to became an ocean pilot, and "the minister" an idealistic island minister for fisheries and foreign affairs with no wife or children. The seagull, a variety of visiting birds, and a couple of rats comprise the list of fellow voyagers. All of these characters join Declan on the Plover intruding on his living space and his solitude and making him feel a bit like a fool.

The reader joins Declan and his passengers on the journey and has access to the thoughts, actions backgrounds, and experiences of man and beast. Each living thing on this ship of fools learns to deal with and care for the others. The personal philosophies of the crew strengthen and triumph as life stories (real and imagined) are shared. It's always about the story telling, isn't it?

The sea and eventually the land offer solace, opportunity, hope, redemption, catharsis, resolution, and profound love and self-acceptance. I joined the boat early, went through my own vicarious sea changes, and reluctantly pulled into port as I finished the novel. I highly recommend The Plover, a magical mystery tour with as many layers of understanding as the Pacific Ocean's seamount environments.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Time of War and Peace: Between Two Deserts by Germaine Shames

Between Two Deserts is the first of four novels Germaine Shames has written since 2002. A former foreign correspondent, Germaine took a scissors to her press pass when she realized reporting about international news in an imposed limited format made it impossible to describe for readers the complicated interaction of people caught up in daily existence, politics, and war. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jerusalem during the Palestinian Intifada (1987 to 1993) where describing events as news misses the mark in showing the world the importance of religion, land, tradition, money, family, and information to Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. Ms. Shames’ first novel shows the reader that at individual and social levels, there are many strongly-held points of view that involve more questions than answers. As a writer of fiction, Ms. Shames also understands what E. M. Forster indicated in India during the British Raj, that writing novels about foreign locations is always given the most color when love relationships develop in unfamiliar and stressful circumstances.

The cast of characters in Between Two Deserts cluster around the lodestone, Eve Cavell, a young American Jew who travels to Jerusalem after the death of her grandfather. Two generations away from the holocaust, Eve is not a wide-eyed ingĂ©nue but rather a person with superficial attachments to Jewish tradition and feelings of the sanctity of the homeland. Showing an apparent weak identity with her heritage, Eve seems free of strong political views and social prejudice. She is vital in her open sexuality and general freedom of spirit, qualities that are suppressed in Jerusalem residents. Characters illustrating constricted views and behaviors on the unsettled stage of Jerusalem during the period of Palestinian uprising include: Mozes Koenig a professor of Middle East Studies from Budapest survivor of the Holocaust and author of a novel popular ten years ago in Jerusalem A Time for War, Salim Mahmoud a restless young Arab man whose family’s wealth was greatly decreased when the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem, engineer Jacob Halevi an orphan placed by the Jewish Agency on Kibbutz Sde Boker after surviving World War II, Jacob’s wife Leah a degreed psychologist in private practice, Sana Mahmoud director of an orphanage for Arab children whose goal was to raise the next generation of Palestinian nationalists.

The story involves Mozes’ controversial new novel, A Time for Peace, inspired by his wife Gizella who was shot dead in route to Dachau for singing a lullaby to a frightened child. Eve reminds him of his wife, his muse, giving him new insight into the Israeli/Palestinian problem making him think that peace is possible. Salim, Jacob, and Sana do not see eye to eye with Mozes or each other.

This is an excellent novel that I enjoyed reading as much as I did Ms. Shames’ other three novels: Hotel Noir and Echo Year (written as Casper Silk) and You, Fascinating You. I so admire her writing style. It captures the essence of the settings and the characters with poetic impact. In Between Two Deserts, Germaine reminds me of Lawrence Durrell and his novel, Justine. Jerusalem and Eve are the focus for Shames, and Alexandria and Justine are the focus for Durrell. As with Durrell, Germaine Shames writes with a great sense of time and timing. I highly recommend all four of Germaine Shames' novels.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Block Time: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is the second novel by Tom Rachman. His first novel, The Imperfectionists: A Novel, was a New York Times bestseller and I enjoyed reading it very much. This book is organized in self-contained blocks of time that have an intricate but seamless structure. The time periods are related to three decades in the life of Tooly Zyberberg: childhood, young adulthood, and full personhood. The calendar anchors are 1988, 2000, and 2011, and the reader falls in love with the developing Tooly in the context of economic hardship, the Millennium, and social evolution.

Tooly's first two decades of life are periods of unique experience and learning that are guided by Paul, Sarah, Venn, and Humphrey. Paul is a globe-trotting computer consultant, an introvert who anxiously obeys rules and consistently anticipates social problems, largely avoiding people. Sarah travels the continents with money from an undisclosed source disregarding customs of behavior and engaging in eccentric self-indulgent behavior. Venn is a tough character always looking for an angle to use people to enhance his personal power and financial independence. Humphrey is an old impoverished curmudgeon who also travels, reveres books, plays chess, talks about his friends in books with a Russian accent, and relies on himself for freedom of thought and behavior. All four of these characters interact with Tooly on an intermittent and apparently random basis making it difficult for her to understand her place in the world. They seem to possess her for a time, then abandon her. Tooly's self-esteem is weak, her personal attractiveness is average, and her origins are mysterious leaving her puzzled by her own existence. She often feels like a window: she looks out and others look through her finding nothing of lasting interest. Even when she is presented with exciting opportunities, like Ryabovitch in Chekhov's The Kiss, Tooly feels she has no substance and is unworthy of loving attention.

Readers learn along with Tooly about her personality through the three time blocks in scenes that frequently jump from one period to the other. The novel's structure is puzzling at first, but the vignettes are well-written and complete in and of themselves. Gradually, Tooly's character takes shape and the scenes of her life become connected. We get a full picture of the girl, thankfully without the utterly boring causal descriptions of psychological influences inserted into many contemporary novels. Rachman has written a novel about a fully alive person that readers can enjoy and learn from as she makes her decisions in true, not pre-planned or predictable, existential freedom. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel and recommend it highly to anyone willing to go beyond the behavioral determinism that is the structure of many coming of age novels.