Tag Archives: World War I

A Confusing Work

shattered-tree

The Shattered Tree: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 304 pages)

The time is 1918 and the place is France. Bess Crawford, AKA Sister Crawford, is working as a British nurse at a casualty center patching up British, Australian and French soldiers who have been wounded while bravely holding back the German army. Paris must not fall to the Germans! The war is nearly over but negotiations are taking way too long to suit most everyone.

The Shattered Tree is the eighth in the remarkable mystery series that gives modern readers a glimpse at the horrors of trench warfare. Bess provides the narrative as she moves quickly from patient to patient while staunching the bleeding from bullet wounds and caring for the dying. Always present is the fear of infection as this war was fought a good decade before the discovery of penicillin.

The first hint of mystery comes when a soldier wearing a tattered uniform is brought for treatment. As he writhes in pain, his cries come out in perfect German. Most of those present are too busy to note. Of course Bess, whose curiosity has landed her in many difficult situations in the past realizes the anomaly and files this information away. Soon thereafter Bess is caught in the fire of a sniper’s rifle and becomes a patient herself.

What ensues is a somewhat confusing series of efforts by Bess and several officers to identify an attacker who makes short work of several people using a knife. An 18-year-old unsolved quintuple homicide that took place outside Paris where Bess is convalescing is also interwoven with her sleuthing to find the German-speaking mystery patient’s identity.

This reviewer read an advance review copy of the book. Perhaps some editing was done to smooth out the segues between events for the final version. (It appears that this was not the case. Ed.) The discussions among the characters that are either helping or misleading Bess as she struggles to recuperate from her bullet and knife wounds can be as baffling as the jumbled plot!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on August 30, 2016.

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Life in the Slow Lane

All Men Fear Me

All Men Fear Me: An Alafair Tucker Mystery by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, $26.95, 302 pages)

Well, now, Charlie, just because I disapprove of this war doesn’t mean I’m a traitor. I think of myself as a patriot, and a patriot of the real kind. This is my big, messy country. I love it. I want for it to be the best country there is. If it suffer ills, I want to cure them. I want for every citizen to enjoy all its rights and privileges, and I believe it is my duty to try and help that happen.

One part history lesson, one part family drama and two parts man’s inhumanity to man is the recipe for Donis Casey’s eighth installment of life in rural Oklahoma in 1917. Alafair Tucker is the center of her large family – 10 children ranging in age from 25 to four years of age, husband Shaw, and her brother Robin. Robin, a labor organizer, is visiting after being away for ten years. The rabid fans of war and nationalism in the small town of Boynton view Robin’s organizing efforts as Socialist-leaning and contrary to the ways of true Americans.

The country has recently entered World War I and a draft has been set in place to raise an army. Alafair is trying mightily to balance her love of her brother with the fervent longings of her 16-year-old son, Charlie, who desperately wants to enlist in the military. The townspeople of Boynton are divided between being suspicious of anyone perceived as “foreign” and their loyalty to long-time friends and neighbors. Kurt Lukenbach, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Germany is married to one of Alafair’s daughters. The more rabid patriots in town regard Kurt with suspicion and hostility.

There is trouble all around in Oklahoma. It’s as though the wood for a fire has been laid and along comes a man with a can of gasoline and a match to hasten the process. The stranger in the bowler hat who arrives in town at the start of the story is literally the catalyst that brings latent hate and fear to a flash point.

Author Casey takes her sweet time setting up the action in this book. Although it is considered a mystery novel, it is more of a history lesson with a covert mystery imbedded within the text. Readers who enjoy a slowly paced and thoroughly detailed story will enjoy this installment of the Tucker family goings on.

As with many books that feature the daily diet of the characters, All Men Fear Me has at the back several recipes featured in the story. Additionally, a calendar of the war rules pertaining to food is listed for readers who curiously enjoy details with their murders.

Recommended to readers fond of life in the slow lane.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on November 3, 2015.

You can read a review of Hell With The Lid Blown Off: An Alafair Tucker Mystery here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/were-off-to-see-the-wizard/

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We’re Off to See the Wizard

Hell With (nook book)

Hell With The Lid Blown Off: An Alafair Tucker Mystery by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 228 pages)

If it hadn’t been for the creek on the Day side, Shaw expected they wouldn’t have been able to find their way at all. The path had been scoured out. The continual lightning threw demonic flashes of light on the collection of leafless, limbless sticks and poles that used to be a stretch of woods. Shaw wondered if hell was similar.

Picture a small Oklahoma town, Boynton, in the time just prior to the United States’ involvement in World War I. There’s trouble brewing overseas and unrest builds within the residents of the greater Boynton area. Among the convoluted casts of characters lurks a murderer. As if life weren’t difficult enough, a tornado whips through town to demolish property and trigger an evil deed.

Hell With The Lid Blown Off is the seventh book in the Alafair Tucker series and the first this reviewer has read. Thankfully, author Donis Casey has provided an extensive list of the characters that includes helpful hints about their personalities. The lists are by family. Alafair Tucker is the mother of ten children, both at home and grown with families of their own. Her husband, Shaw Tucker, is a cousin of the town sheriff, Scott Tucker. There’s a list of the named animals as well.

The pace of the story is slow and folksy at first. The everyday activities and interactions are presented under headings that list the primary character’s point of view. Trenton Calder, the deputy sheriff, is the one exception because he narrates the sections listed under his name. A few of the names seem odd. Perhaps the era and locale account for the strangeness. The daily activities are classic early 1900s farm and family work. A mix of automobiles and horses remind the reader that transportation modes transitioned during the era.

Before, During and After are the titles of the three divisions of the book. Trouble is brewing from the very beginning although the reader may not sense it right away. The tornado is a key element of the second and third parts.

As with most mysteries and novels, food preparation and dining infuse the characters with life. Author Casey graciously concludes her book with a glossary of words likely unknown to the reader and a section devoted to several of Alafair’s recipes.

Well recommended to fans of life on the prairie and mysteries in general.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of 13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro, which will be released by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company tomorrow.

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Missing Persons

Continuing a Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew

6.   What is the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about your grandmother?

I discovered that she’d had a love affair of some sort with a French brigadier who was in charge of a German POW camp a couple miles down the road from the little village where she and her fellow relief workers were headquartered after the war.   That really was a surprise.   When I developed those photographs from the packet of negatives, almost the first thing I noticed were several photographs of a handsome man in a French uniform – he looked like Clark Gable – and I thought, “Who is this?”   But it wasn’t until I started doing research in the Wellesley archive that I found out his name, then later I found letters from a nurse in Lucile’s unit that corroborated what I’d already begun to suspect.   My father loved finding out that his mother had had a romance.   That was perhaps the single most important discovery for him – it humanized her more than anything else I found out.

7.   Your story is in essence two stories – the biography of your grandmother, and the story of a daughter trying to provide a mother for her elderly father.   How did you meld these two stories together?

Mostly by trying to remember that one didn’t have much relevance for the reader without the other.   Also by recognizing that these are not only two stories, they are two impossible stories:  My grandmother has been dead for over 75 years and almost everything that once belonged to her was thrown away, so to try to “find” her I had to look past what I didn’t know into what could be or might be true.   My father lost his mother over 75 years ago.   I couldn’t “give” her back to him; but I could give him my efforts to reconstruct her life, and that brought the two of us much closer after many years of estrangement.

Yet always, always I had to keep my eye on what I couldn’t do, couldn’t know.   Which, oddly enough, is what gives this book tension and coherence, or that’s what I hope.

8.   You discover that the function of family history is “to explain what is essentially inexplicable – how we came to be ourselves.”   Do you feel that you, and your father, now have a better sense of who you are and how you became that way?

History is made up of people and what they do and what they fail to do, just as people are made up of all the history that has gone before them.   What I helped my father reclaim, I believe, is the feeling of being connected to something larger than himself.   Lucile was an intellectual, an early feminist, a business executive, a relief worker, a wife and mother.   She was a person of history, who was a product of her times, and also more than that, as we are all more than just “products” of our time.   Through his mother, my father was connected to tremendous world events, to commercial innovation, political change, seismic social shifts, war.   And so, I discovered, was I.

Of course, we are also very much products of a family history, shaped by certain traits and tendencies, either genetically inherited or passed along, as well as influenced by family losses and achievements.   Putting some of my own tendencies within some sort of ancestral context was liberating for me at least.   Or maybe it simply made me feel less alone with them.

9.   You are the author of three acclaimed novels.   How was the writing process for this nonfiction book different?

Well, frankly, I first tried to write a novel about Lucile, especially after I started learning about her experiences in France after the war.   I thought I could make her come alive after I started learning for my father even more palpably through fiction.   And she seemed like such a promising heroine for a novel!   The grocer’s daughter in ruined France.   But the fact of her kept getting in the way of the fiction I was trying to create – and the fact kept being more interesting.

So to answer your question, the process was not entirely different from what usually happens for me, which is that I have an idea for a novel and then I work away at that idea for years, and the result is nothing like what I first imagined.   In this case, I had an idea for a novel and then abandoned the idea of a novel and wrote a biography instead.

10.  What do you want readers to take away from Missing Lucile?

I’ve come to think that every family has a “missing person,” someone who died young, or disappeared, or was exiled from the family for some real or perceived crime.   Missing relatives are ghosts – real ghosts – and they haunt us by making us wonder how life might have been had they not vanished.   Maybe we would be kinder, or braver, or have made better decisions.   Maybe we wouldn’t have felt so at odds with the world.   Who knows?   I suppose I’d like readers to finish the book and realize that no one is really missing if you start looking for her.

Missing Lucile has been released by Algonquin ($23.95; 296 pages).   “Takes us deep into the lore of history as well as family.”   Sven Birkerts

 

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Talk Talk

A Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (Algonquin)

1.   What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile?

My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it.   His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact.   As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing.   In my case, the feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.

2.   You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life.   What were they?

A few years ago I discoverd an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandmother’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve.   A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith.   Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing.   But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives.   When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.   That packet was what really got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.

3.   Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time.   How much research did you do into that time period to write this book?

A lot – much of it haphazard.   To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research.   The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother.   But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I.   And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B. H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century.   And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the first World War.

I paged through photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newpapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.

4.   In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades.   What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?

I didn’t give him his life back – he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had.   What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a  person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own loses and chances, her own fierce desires.

5.   How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like?   How did you weave those two pieces together?

I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on.   For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them – though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.  

Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family.   So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book.   I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.

To be continued…

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A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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