Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam

Gardam has been one of my favorite authors since I was introduced to her via “Old Filth”: , recommended by the ever-reliable folks at my local indie bookstore, The Ivy. Her stories remind me a bit of Barbara Pym's because they are about the charming and extraordinary lives of ordinary people. In the memoir workshops I lead, I always say that everyone has a story to share. The most humdrum life has trials and triumphs and moments of grace. Often, reading obituaries of people I never met, I think Wow! I wish I'd known that person.

Even more than Pym, though, Gardam's work reminds me of Ann Tyler's. Tyler is famous for her eccentric characters, portrayed with understanding and compassion. Having grown up in the neighborhood where Tyler often places her characters, I can attest to their accuracy. So perhaps we are all eccentrics and oddballs; some people just hide it better.

In this story, six-year-old Polly Flint is left by her father at a remote yellow house near the Irish sea. After he hands her over to her two aunts, her late mother's sisters, he takes himself off to his ship. Two months later he went down with his ship.

I expected a Jane Eyre sort of story, but Gardam is never predictable. Polly's aunts, pious spinsters, assume from the first that she will be with them always, not as a duty to be undertaken, but as a member of the family. “Never in all the years did they suggest that they had been good to me or that there was the least need for my gratitude, or that I had in any way disturbed their lives.”

For Polly, who has lived in foster homes since her mother's death when Polly was one, she might as well be stranded on a desert island, so isolated from the world does she feel, growing up in the old wooden house. When she stumbles upon Robinson Crusoe in the library, she recognises her soul-mate and life's guide.

And what a life it is! At every turn, when I think I know what is coming next, Gardam outwits me, spinning her tale in another direction. We follow Polly as she grows up, as the twentieth century's wars and evolutions change her enclosed world.

I loved the characters, so unusual and yet so real I felt I must know them. I loved the descriptions: “It was the light at first that was troublesome—the light and the space of the yellow hose. Light flowed in from all sides and down from the enormous sky . . . Here the wind knocked the clouds about over the hills and the marsh and the dunes and the sea, until the house seemed to toss like a ship. I remember that I clutched on to things a good deal.”

Gardam deals efficiently with the challenge of adjusting Polly's first-person voice as she ages. Polly's relationship to the book changes too as she grows, but she never ceases to turn to it for guidance. She never ceases to admire Crusoe as a man and what he accomplished. Some members of my book club felt the references to Crusoe were overdone, but I thought they came at just the right intervals.

This is a lovely read, funny at times and sad at others. I was enchanted by the people Polly meets and what she makes of them. Her life, however ordinary-seeming, is rocked by strong tides and shaken by a family's small rivalries and secrets. I highly recommend it. If you've read any of Gardam's books, what did you think of them?

War Requiem, by Benjamin Britten

Going to a performance of Britten's War Requiem by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra seemed an appropriate way to end a week that began with Remembrance Day. Britten wrote it to commemorate the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in 1940 in the devastating bombing raid that killed so many. Coventry and Dresden have always stood as bookends for me of the horrors of the then-new tactic of aerial bombardment.

I want to write about the War Requiem this week instead of a book because music, too, tells a story. That's why I publish my playlist each year. We have more than music here, though. The libretto alternates the words of the requiem mass with poems by Wilfred Owen, the WWI poet who, along with Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and others, dropped the heroic classical references in order to write poems that honestly and directly portrayed life in the trenches and under fire.

Owen's work is a personal favorite; reading his poems sent me on a two-decades-long tramp through the literature of the Great War: poetry, history, letters, memoirs, novels, even a magnificent book by Rose E. B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade, that gives directions for finding the old WWI battlefields under present-day towns and farms. The world, the western world anyway, changed forever in August, 1914.

I'm a writer not a musician, but in Britten's magnificent achievement I see the same elements of structure that we look for in novels and other stories: an initiating incident, scenes that vary in intensity but ultimately build to a climax, and a resolution in which the protagonist—and we, ourselves—are changed.

In each scene we want to see the same progression in miniature. In Britten's piece, too, we see each movement varying in emotion, reaching a climax and resolution. The first movement, Requiem Aeternam, starts with the sound of the bells, a motif that will return throughout. Starting gently, with the chorus singing the mournful words “Lord, grant them eternal rest”, the tension builds with drums. Then it quiets again for to a children's choir (backed by an organ) singing of praise and homage, before the chorus returns. Next the orchestra and chorus fall away and the tenor and chamber ensemble take up the racing, angry music and words of Owen's “Anthem for Doomed Youth”: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” The poem too follows the same story progression, moving from anger to reflection, and finally to a sad and tender ending “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.” The bells signal the return of the chorus with the gentle, haunting Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon them.”

From there we move into the Dies Irae movement, the day of wrath, with Britten's score bringing to life the bugles, the shattering rifle fire. Its sections move through majesty, vengeance, and supplication, ending with the stunning Lacrimosa section. The soprano singing “On this day full of tears” alternates with tenor's impassioned delivery of Owen's poem “Futility”, which starts: “Move him gently into the sun”, before ending with the chorus singing the Pie Jesu: “Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest.”

I won't go through the whole thing, but just say that each movement weaves together these elements: the chorus, orchestra and soprano delivering the traditional requiem mass in all its glory and mystery; the tenor and baritone backed by the chamber ensemble giving us Owen's words as though he and the other grey boys stood there telling us how it really was; and perhaps most heart-breaking of all, the children's choir with their open faces, reminding us that the soldiers once were beloved babies and, at the same time, that these children will in their turn become soldiers in future wars: “Was it for this,” Owen cries, “the clay grew tall?”

I'm sure there are subtleties to the music that I'm missing. I mentioned the motif of the bells. I love the use of motifs and symbols in stories. Paul Scott is a master at their use, not just in his masterpiece, The Jewel in the Crown, but in all his novels. Another motif that Britten uses here is the tritone that the bells sound, that recurs in various ways throughout the work. A tritone is an interval between two notes: three whole tones apart; the bells here are C and F#. It is a dissonant sound, not enough to set my teeth on edge but enough to make me uneasy. The tritone was known in the Renaissance as “the devil in music”—also the name of a terrific mystery by the late Kate Ross—adding symbolic resonance.

There is a progression in Britten's selection of poems from more general to more personal, ending with “Strange Meeting”, where Owen speaks of escaping battle down a tunnel, where he encounters a man who rises from the sleepers there, a man who talks of the “undone years” and “The pity of war”. He says, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” The poem ends with the haunting line “Let us sleep now.”

The tenor and baritone repeat this line over and over, in a canon with the children, the chorus, and the soprano singing the In Paradisum: “Into Paradise may the Angles lead thee” and a reprise of the Requiem Aeternam, immensely gentle and tender, powerful in its silences. Then finally the chorus's hushed Requiescant in Pace: “Let them rest in peace. Amen.”

Counter Currents, by Shaun J. McLaughlin

Dressed in buckskins, 19-year-old Ryan Long Pine sends his canoe into Canada's busy Kingston harbor. It is 1837 and he stands out: “Not yet an anachronism, he was a curiosity”. Alone in the world except for the raven who accompanies him, Ryan is not looking for adventure; he is looking for a job. Armed with good carpentry skills learned from his father and trapping skills learned from a stint with a family of Algonquins, he can fend for himself. His work ethic quickly endears him to the shipbuilder where he first applies.

Full of adventure, this story covers the period of the Patriot War, in which rebels attacked Canada eleven times, attempting to liberate it from British rule. The Patriots were a grass-roots organization of Canadians who had run afoul of the British and sympathetic Americans who wanted to extend their republican ideals to their neighbors.

Although he suffered injustice in his native Ireland and on arriving in Canada, Ryan has buried his resentment. His only goal is the quite ordinary one of wanting to find work and make a life for himself. As an Irishman, he refuses to fight for or take orders from the British who still run the colony, but he's not a fire-breathing revolutionary either. He just wants to be left alone. That's all he asks for.

McLaughlin's prose is smart and competent. Backstory is parceled out neatly, and there is a good mix of narrative and scenes. Dialect is used sparingly, with just enough to give the flavor of speech without being overdone.

One thing that would enhance this story is a little more complexity to the characters. Ryan is all good. He doesn't drink or smoke. He's honest and hard-working, trustworthy, loyal, brave, clean and reverent, as the oath goes. On the other hand, the bully he encounters is all bad: dishonest, mean, and vengeful. And ugly to boot: “an unkempt and overweight hunter. . . his jowls shook as his teeth mangled a plug of tobacco. . . his narrow eyes pits of hatred”. Vivid writing, to be sure, but some character shading would make the story more interesting.

This is a good example of a plot-driven story, as opposed to a character-driven story. And it's a terrific plot. Ryan falls in with Bill Johnston, the famous smuggler and river pirate in the Thousand Islands and begins helping with his smuggling operations. Johnston, like many other characters, are actual historical persons; McLaughlin's research is impressive. Ryan also gets involved with the Patriots and participates in some of their daring operations.

It's an exciting tale, tempered by scenes of celebration and solitude. Ryan falls in love with Johnston's daughter, Kate, and is torn between the undertakings of war and the joys of domesticity. Unfortunately, the ending rather trickled away without the expected climax, historically accurate but a bit disappointing. Still, I liked the way it echoed the beginning.

I knew nothing of the Patriot War before reading this novel and am grateful for the opportunity to expand my understanding of U.S./Canada relations. What historical novels have you enjoyed?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Tide King, by Jen Michalski

Michalski's novel, winner of Best Fiction from Baltimore's City Paper, is the story of Stanley Polensky and Calvin Johnson, thrown together in the trenches of WWII, their forced intimacy creating an unlikely friendship between the shy Polish boy from Baltimore and the tough Midwestern farmboy. It is also the story of a girl named Ela Zdunk, who lives with her mother outside the small mountain village of Reszel in Poland in 1806. Ela helps her mother find flowers and roots to use in the tinctures and medicines that Barbara sells or trades to the villagers. They, of course, believe she is a witch; they fear her and propitiate her with gifts of food, enabling Barbara and Ela to scrape out a life of sorts. Until the Prussian soldiers come.

At first the stories of Ela, Stanley and Johnson seem to have nothing in common beyond the existence of an herb discovered by Barbara and given to Stanley by his mother as he departs for war. The herb conveys eternal life.

Not long ago, I read with great interest Julian Barnes's, Nothing to be Frightened of, an honest examination of his fear of death, lightened by his wit and learning. Similarly, Nabokov's Speak, Memory is concerned with trying to escape death. He says, almost like an incantation, like a prayer: “Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”

But what if we do not die? Michalski examines this idea through the interleaved stories of her three main characters: Ela, Stanley and Johnson. Eternal life is a mixed blessing when those around us, those we love, continue to age and pass on. This device, the only fantastical element in a thoroughly realistic novel, underlines the loneliness that is a part of the human condition. Our connections to each other are tenuous at best, but stretched to the breaking point when these characters whom we come to care about try to find the kind of loving relationship where they can feel at home.

Normally I dislike novels that jump around between characters and time periods, but I felt safe in Michalski's hands. She limits each section to one character and time period and provides enough detail to ground the reader instantly at the start of each section. Also, each character's story is told chronologically, which is a comfortingly familiar structure. The remaining slight unease from the dislocation of time and place between sections reinforces the ideas explored in the story.

One factor that usually suffers when moving between a number of separate stories is pacing. It is hard enough in a single narrative to maintain a pace that steadily builds while also having enough variation to hold the reader's interest. How much harder, then, to distribute the pace across three stories. However, Michalski succeeds brilliantly to the point where I had to put aside other responsibilities to race to the end.

Michalski, who has also published several collections of short stories, delivers her tale in prose that seems almost transparent. It is a good mix of natural dialogue, effective description, and brief narrative. Reading it seems as effortless as breathing. The occasional subtle references to other books and stories reward those who recognise them without tripping up those who don't.

The book defies categorization. It's not purely realistic but neither is it science fiction. Perhaps all you need to know is that it is a good read and will—if you allow it—provoke thoughtful and intense conversations with yourself and others about the use we make of our lives and how we touch and care for others. I hope that Julian Barnes reads it because I am sure he will find comfort here.