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Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

On a whim, I checked one of my public library’s eBook apps on the day Kelli Jo Ford‘s debut novel, Crooked Hallelujah, was released last week and lucked into checking it out the same day. Ford tells the stories of Granny, her daughter Lula, granddaughter Janice and great granddaughter Reney, four Cherokee women living in Oklahoma (Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation herself). The stories range from the 1970s to a time in the 2000s that isn’t specified but seems to be in the future.

Granny’s son, Janice’s Uncle Thorpe, is a preacher in a Holiness church, a Pentecostal denomination where people speak in tongues, and Lula, after her husband leaves her with three little girls, embraces church life wholeheartedly. She raises the girls to wear “modest” clothes for the Lord; Justine is the youngest, and she rebels against the long skirts, preferring bell bottoms that she hides from her mother. She’s just a kid, trying her best to live in the world and navigate her family’s world as well, and then suddenly she’s sixteen and a single mom, working in factories and trying to provide a better life for Reney than she had.

There is a sense of loss throughout the book, not least because all four women have broken marriages and violence is everywhere — between men and women, mothers and daughters, and in the harsh elements of the dry Oklahoma and Texas settings, where fires and tornados are regular threats. As the stories unfold, we learn more about the trauma that winds through the generations.

Beyond violence loss of culture, language, and tradition are part of the pattern as well. Like other books I’ve read recently, Crooked Hallelujah is also about the systemic racism in our country, and how people live through it. Granny grew up in boarding schools, sent away to unlearn her native culture, but she is the only one who speaks Cherokee well. Justine at one point is cleaning out the junk at Lula’s house and imagines the boxes of language tapes warping in the heat in her own house in Texas. Reney asks her mother, after she moves away to Oregon, about their family history, about being Cherokee. Readers don’t really learn what Justine tells her. Like Reney, we get snippets.

Speaking of snippets, this is described as a novel in stories, but mostly reads like a novel. But there is one story that didn’t seem to me to fit — Then Sings My Soul. It appears more or less in the middle of the book and although Justine is mentioned, it isn’t about any of the women who are the book’s main characters. In fact the characters who feature in this story don’t come up again. It’s also a brutal story, almost unbelievably so. I’m still not sure exactly why it is there.

Perhaps it belongs somehow because it’s a story about love and identity and belonging and the way family makes us who we are. The rest of the book is definitely about those things. In one chapter towards the end of the book, Justine is driving back to Texas after a visit home to Oklahoma where Lula, in her eighties, is ailing. As she drives, she thinks,

“For a long time I thought harmony was just people using air and vibrations at the same time. I thought that once the singing stopped it might as well have never even started. But when the heavy hospital doors close behind me, there is a ringing in my chest like a song. When I close the door to my truck and later when I cross the state line, I can still feel the voices. They carry me home.”

I don’t want to give away too much, but this scene — a daughter driving away, but feeling her family is still with her somehow — is repeated throughout the book. It’s a book about sorrow that is deep in the characters’ beings, even when they are happy. I’m glad I read it.

 

 

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I heard about The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, on Books on the Nightstand. It was the first library book I tried on the iPad’s Kindle app. I’m still not impressed with e-books, but I enjoyed this novel.

McCoy explores the trauma of war not only for soldiers but also for civilians. The cautionary tale? There’s no redemption in this story for soldiers who follow orders they know are wrong or make a bad situation worse. One main character, Elsie, has a fiancee, Josef, a Nazi officer wracked by psychosomatic migraines and insomnia; another, Reba, is the daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam vet suicide victim. Neither man deals adequately with the part he played in their respective wars. Both women live with their families’ war ghosts, both ultimately make their peace.

In fact, one of the nicest things about this book is Elsie’s ability to let her sorrows go. I don’t want to give too much away but she’s a very strong, interesting character who experiences real redemption and forgiveness and makes peace with all that happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Baker’s Daughter is set both in WWII Germany and present day Texas. Reba is a reporter in El Paso, with a troubled childhood and a fiancee, Riki, she isn’t sure she can commit to. Riki is the child of Mexican immigrants working for the U.S. Border Patrol, torn between his loyalty to America and its rule of law and his moral compass telling him that many of the people he deports are victims, not criminals. And that even those who try to enter illegally might be better served by compassion than scare tactics.

Reba meets Elsie and her grown daughter Jane at their bakery when she’s writing a magazine piece on Christmas traditions. Elsie doesn’t reveal all of her past in their interviews, but the book alternates between her life story — and that of her sister Hazel, who was a mother in the Lebensborn Program — and Reba’s, with brief forays into some of the other characters’ stories, especially Josef and Riki.

It was an interesting read, with characters facing many moral dilemmas and family secrets. The teenage Elsie begins to sense through her sister’s letters and her first Nazi social event with Josef that what Hitler’s Germany stands for is nothing like the ideal her father believes in. When an older SS officer assaults her, a Jewish boy who was made to sing at the party comes to her aid. He shows up outside her house hours later, begging for protection. Despite her extreme fear, she can’t turn him away. I loved this part of the story.

I also enjoyed the way the novel explores how people don’t know the whole story of an event as it’s happening. Riki and his fellow Border Patrol agents have to guess about the people they’re chasing. Elsie and her sister believe propaganda at first because it’s what they know, but the war begins to impact them in ways they never imagined and shades their understanding of the world. Josef is a young man who feels conflicted about carrying out his orders. When a younger Nazi gets carried away, Josef exacts his own justice, and is haunted by the event for the rest of his life. His story is echoed in that of Reba’s father who goes mad because of what he did in Vietnam.

Riki makes a different choice, following his conscience to find a different job.  All of these characters act within a community of family and friends; Reba and Elsie’s family represent those who love people living with hard choices. A book club could have fun hashing out the repercussions they all experience. There’s a particularly poignant scene between Reba and her sister when they discuss their parents.

McCoy presents several of Elsie’s secret Schmidt family bakery recipes in the back of the book. I copied down the recipe for “brotchen” which my son thinks are the rolls he ate when he went to Germany a few summers ago to play soccer. He called them “dope rolls,” which is teenager for “really good.” I hope I can do them justice!

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