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review 2017-04-16 12:18
The Angels' Share by James Markert
The Angels' Share - James Markert

Now that Prohibition has ended, what the townspeople of Twisted Tree, Kentucky, need most is the revival of the Old Sam Bourbon distillery. But William McFee knows it’ll take a miracle to convince his father, Barley, to once more fill his family’s aging house with barrels full of bourbon. When a drifter recently buried near the distillery begins to draw crowds of pilgrims, the McFees are dubious. Yet miracles seem to come to those who once interacted with the deceased and to those now praying at his grave. As people descend on the town to visit the “Potter’s Field Christ,” William seeks to find the connection between the tragic death of his younger brother and the mysterious drifter. But as news spreads about the miracles at the potter’s field, the publicity threatens to bring the depth of Barley’s secret past to light and put the entire McFee family in jeopardy. The Angels’ Share is a story of fathers and sons, of young romance, of revenge and redemption, and of the mystery of miracles.

 

 

 

 

It's post-Prohibition in Twisted Tree, Kentucky. William McFee, an aspiring journalist, is feeling a little stagnant with his writing lately and is just itching to get to work rebooting the McFee family's distillery business. William's father, Barley, doesn't exactly share his eldest son's level of enthusiasm, but still allows William to go forward with the reboot to see what might come of it. All William is certain of is that the family desperately needs a new, healthier direction to move toward. 

 

Barley is tough on William, referring to him as "a daisy" (a sentiment echoed by William's brother, Johnny) -- weak-natured, prone to panic attacks, preferring to read in the woods rather than hunt. But William doesn't exactly see his father as a role model. Quite the opposite, though he still holds out hope for his father to come around. Already emotionally strained with the difficulties that come along with raising William's physically disabled younger sister, Annie, Barley was left a shell of a man after the death of his son, Henry, from a car crash. Barley was driving the car with Henry as a passenger. Since that day, Barley has largely formed himself into a severely emotionally damaged alcoholic, hesitant to pull himself away from the safe space of his living room recliner. William is forced to watch as over time his parents slowly grow apart and his bonds with his siblings suffer cracks. It's not the life he wants for his family. Before long, just one seemingly insignificant act brings proves to be the impetus that brings about the new life William so desperately craves. 

 

Behind the family's distillery lies what's known as a "potter's field", a place where poor or homeless deceased with little or no family to claim them can be laid to rest. One such soul is brought to the McFee place. Shortly after the burial is completed, a band of twelve indigent people show up and set up nightly vigils around the plot, even squatting in a portion of the McFee's bourbon rackhouse. These travellers claim that they were followers of the man buried in that grave, a man known as Asher Keating, whom they believed may have actually been the second coming of Christ. William is skeptical. That is, until he sees that his sister Annie's legs seem to naturally free themselves of their crippled state with no immediate explanation. He then starts to suspect that this Asher Keating might have had a connection to the death of William's brother, Henry. 

 

Soon word travels of the site, bringing more and more people wanting to pray over the grave, needing a miracle. Keating gets dubbed the "Potter's Field Christ". One priest who visits the location even later claims he experienced stigmata upon returning to his church. Once the newspapers start writing of the wonders going on out at the McFee place, patriarch Barley starts to fear the media coverage will begin to swing light on the less noble, long buried secrets of the family's past. When Barley and William decide to team up and travel around to discover what the real story behind Asher Keating was, they discover that even he might have had secrets of his own. They hear plenty tales of Asher using only the laying of his hands on someone to heal depression, consumption (tuberculosis), even blindness. But then there are also accounts of Asher himself battling drug addiction, or even possibly being mentally unhinged or delusional. The McFee men aren't sure what to think, but they can't deny that the lives of so many seem to be changing for the better. It leaves the reader to ponder on the idea that it's not one's past that has to define a soul, only what their heart's true, pure intent is in the here and now. Mistakes of youth or demons of the mind don't have to add up to a life sentence of misery. Every new day presents an opportunity for a clean slate! A realization that comes to Barley almost too late in life, but even he makes his final moments count. 

 

Personally, I was so pumped to dive into this story. My fella and I travel around the South visiting distilleries as a mutual hobby of ours and I'm well acquainted with the area where this story takes place. Though the town of Twisted Tree itself is ficitonal, there is a brief shout-out given to the very real, very charming town of Bardstown, KY! A beautiful, quaint place to walk around, if you're ever in the area. So yes, right out the gate I would recommend this as a fun read for all the bourbon / whiskey connoisseurs out there.

 

If you do not consider yourself such, your enjoyment of this story may depend on your sensitivity level as a reader. Though some scenes of violence are depicted, I didn't find much in the way of overtly graphic material in the novel. However, it does touch upon some sensitive topics such as alcoholism, rum-running (bootlegging booze), racism and the KKK, and dealings with the Irish Mob. If this kind of material is of concern to you, you may want to tread carefully and see how you do. Otherwise, The Angels' Share is a quite enjoyable piece of historical fiction with a unique theme that doesn't come up in a ton of novels -- the inner workings of the business of distilling spirits, even the buildings themselves! {I can tell you from experience, standing inside a rackroom, taking in that dusty quiet while you look up at towers of barrels brewing is truly an experience of wonder!} Author James Markert infuses a healthy dose of slang from the era, which gives the whole work a fun, authentic feel that helps immerse the reader into that post-Prohibition time period. 

 

I also highly recommend reading the author's historical note provided after the close of the novel. Seeing as how the novel is entitled The Angels' Share, I was curious if Markert would likewise mention the flip side of that, what is known as the Devil's Cut. While "angel's share" is explained within the story of the McFees, "devil's cut" is not worked into the novel itself, at least not in the traditional sense. Markert explains that there is a scene within the story that is inspired by the idea of the "devil's cut", but he puts his own unique spin on it. For readers interested in the true history behind the terms, he does provide that in this historical note, along with some notes on "The Golden Age" when, as he says, "there were more bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky than people." :-)

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: In the case of this title, both TNZ Fiction Guild and BookLookBloggers kindly provided me with complimentary copies of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

-------------------

 

EXTRAS

 

"Angels' Share" : The amount of whiskey / bourbon that naturally evaporates from the barrels during the aging process. A portion of the brew evaporates & rises towards the heavens, hence, "angels' share".

 

"Devil's Cut": The portion of whiskey / bourbon that seeps into the wood of the barrels. Distilleries (namely, Jim Beam) now offer a "devil's cut" strain of their spirits, where they claim they are able to now extract the alcohol that was once considered just a small brewing loss. 

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-12-28 23:29
The Greatest Gift by Phillip Van Doren Stern
The Greatest Gift: The Original Story That Inspired the Christmas Classic It's a Wonderful Life - Philip Van Doren Stern

For almost seventy years, people the world over have fallen in love with Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But few of those fans know that Capra’s film was based on a short story by author Philip Van Doren Stern, which came to Stern in a dream one night.  Unable at first to find a publisher for his evocative tale about a man named George Pratt who ponders suicide until he receives an opportunity to see what the world would be like without him, Stern ultimately published the story in a small pamphlet and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas card. One of those 200 cards found its way into the hands of Frank Capra, who shared it with Jimmy Stewart, and the film that resulted became the holiday tradition we cherish today.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

It's likely that most of us by now have seen the Christmas classic film It's A Wonderful Life at least once by now... but honestly probably multiple times thanks to that copyright loophole that had television stations running it on an almost constant loop for years during the holiday season (that's since been fixed, which is why you don't really see it on tv much anymore). Being a big fan of classic film in general, I remember watching a documentary years ago where the director of the film, Frank Capra, mentioned that the idea came from a Christmas card. Well, I thought he meant someone sent him a Christmas card, and a regular one at that -- you know, the typical snowy scene with a nice 1-2 line sentiment inside. Wrong on both counts it turns, but more on that in a bit.

 

If by chance you're not familiar with this story, it's a short little tale about a one Mr. George Pratt (changed to Bailey in Capra's film version). George is a good-hearted guy, very selfless nature, always doing everything he can for friends and family even if it means him going without... but during one particularly hard Christmas season where money is unbelievably tight and George feels like he's being crushed by the stress of it all, he in his darkest moment considers what the world would've been like without him altogether. From a place of momentary pain and hopelessness, he makes the wish for this to be so, a wish granted by the angel Clarence. Immediately, George is able to see all the things that would've never come to be had he not been in the world. Through these sights, George is taught the lesson that every soul is important, every soul has a purpose, even if we don't see it right off or if it seems too inconsequential an existence to matter... believe that it does.

 

That's the basic gist of the story. Now how this story came to be: Well, Van Doren Stern, an editor for a publishing house that printed travel-size books for armed service members, first wrote up the story in 1938 after being inspired by a particularly vivid dream. He tried to sell it for publication, but it seemed at the time no magazine or newspaper offices had any interest in buying it. Van Doren Stern already had some 40 or so books published to his name but they were primarily non-fiction topics. He suspected that maybe he wasn't fluid enough in fiction writing for the story to flow quite the way he intended. His agent theorized that the idea of the story -- an angel temporarily making someone non-existent -- was too fantastical for most markets at that time. Saturday Evening Post rejected it, heck -- Van Doren Stern said he couldn't even sell it to any of the farming magazines! So he stuck the piece away, taking it out every so often to make little revisions here and there. Finally, in 1943, Van Doren Stern decided to pay to have 200 copies of the 24 page printed up. He then sent these out to friends and family as a unique kind of Christmas card that year!

 

A studio exec at RKO Pictures got ahold of a copy. By March 1944 RKO bought the movie rights to the story. The studio soon ran into trouble though... they found that even with the most skilled writers they had, no one there could quite figure out how to successfully translate the story to screen. Legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra had just gotten back from serving in World War 2, got wind of the story and soon agreed to direct the picture, even taking on the rewriting of the script himself (much to the relief of those RKO execs!). Capra got in touch with old friend Jimmy Stewart (who had been in a few Capra films previously and also newly back from serving in WW2) and quickly got him signed on to play George Bailey. The film was released December 1946 and a classic was born! Eventually.... because the film wasn't a huge box office smash right out of the gate. It took years (and that copyright glitch mentioned above) to build up the audience of beloved fans the film now has today. People became so in love with the film, the original short story has since largely fallen into obscurity! In their later years, Stewart with 70+ movie credits to his name, Capra having written / directed over 50 films himself, both said It's A Wonderful Life was their very favorite film of their careers, Capra even went on to say it was the best film he ever made. 

 

So how to the film & book compare? Well, there might be a reason the film is more well remembered. I personally found that while the original short story is sweet, I think I am pulled in more by the nostalgia and yearning for simpler times it stirs up rather than the writing itself. It's tough to read that the story went through multiple revisions because even now it's good, but not epic. It's the type of story you might find in an anthology of holiday stories, enjoy in the moment, but then largely forget about. I'd say Capra's interpretation of Van Doren Stern's idea helped keep both versions circulating in the minds of generations of people since the film's release.

 

While you'll find much of Van Doren Stern's original dialogue worked into the film script and the opening sequence of George saving his drowning brother was kept in the film, there were some notable changes. For one thing, Clarence the angel was much more delightfully memorable in the film. In the book he poses as a random brush salesman, which I found a little odd but as some say, "It was a different time back then." :-P So instead of Zuzu's bell at the end of the film, book Clarence leaves the family one of his brushes... yaaaay. :-S Also changed: the idea of "spinster librarian Mary" from the film was actually "Mary marries one of George's oldest & dearest friends" in the book :-P Mean Old Man Potter, the nasty, manipulative banker that runs Bedford Falls? Not even mean in the book! Nope, he's just a simple photographer in town! Fun fact though: After the movie's release, there were whispers that the film could be interpreted as Communist propaganda because Old Man Potter made bankers look like such an evil sort! 

 

I'd still recommend checking out the original story if you come across a copy. It's a short little thing so you could probably even read it online for free somewhere. I may not have liked it quite as much as the film but hey, I still gave it four stars for the warm fuzzy holiday factor, that element is definitely there! But this is another one where you're really just doubling up on enjoyment if you experience the story and the film together. 

 

We may go through some seriously tough times now and then, but as Capra himself said once in an interview shortly before his passing, "It really IS a wonderful life..."

 

Happy Holidays, everyone! 

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review 2016-12-13 20:42
Child of the River by Irma Joubert
Child of the River - Irma Joubert

A compelling coming of age story with an unlikely and utterly memorable heroine, Child of the River is a timeless tale of heartbreak and triumph set in South Africa at the dawn of apartheid. Persomi is young, white, and poor, born the middle child of illiterate sharecroppers on the prosperous Fourie farm in the South African Bushveld. Persomi’s world is extraordinarily small. She has never been to the local village and spends her days absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world around her, escaping the brutality and squalor of her family home through the newspapers and books passed down to her from the main house and through her walks in the nearby mountains. Persomi’s close relationship with her older brother Gerbrand and her fragile friendship with Boelie Fourie—heir to the Fourie farm and fortune—are her lifeline and her only connection to the outside world. When Gerbrand leaves the farm to fight on the side of the Anglos in WWII and Boelie joins an underground network of Boer nationalists, Persomi’s isolated world is blown wide open. But as her very small world falls apart, bigger dreams become open to her—dreams of an education, a profession, a native country that values justice and equality, and of love. As Persomi navigates the changing world around her—the tragedies of war and the devastating racial strife of her homeland—she finally discovers who she truly is, where she belongs, and why her life—and every life—matters.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

**** Heads Up! There May Be Potential Spoilers In The Review Below!! ****

 

 

Persomi is the middle child of poor, white, illiterate sharecroppers in South Africa. Finding a love for stories early on in life, Persomi learns to read, losing herself in the books and newspapers she finds in the main house of the farm where her parents work. Persomi also begins to learn something of the rest of the world during tutoring sessions she shares with Irene and Boelie Fourie, the children of the farm owners. While Irene and Persomi have a bit of a grudging acceptance of each other, Irene's brother, Boelie, and Persomi become fast friends in no time. Persomi also has a strong bond with her older brother, Gerbrand. Gerbrand is very protective of his younger sister, especially around the fierce, sometimes explosively violent tempers of their father, Lewies, and their brother, Piet.

 

That evening Gerbrand said, "Don't slink after me like a sly jackal. If you want to come along, come. If you want to stay, stay. You're a human being with a head on your shoulders, Persomi. It's not just there to keep your ears apart."

 

Years pass, the children grow up and World War 2 comes to everyone's doorstep. Gerbrand decides to enlist, while Boelie finds himself pulled in the other direction, throwing his hat in with an underground group of Boer nationalists (who were against Africa's involvement in the war). This underground nationalist group participates in some dangerous, extreme methods of protesting, whether it be cutting telephone lines, de-railing trains carrying supplies for soldiers, or blowing up anything that would aid the war effort. Persomi uncomfortably finds herself caught in the middle of the two men she loves most in the world.

 

As her mind and body mature into that of a young woman, so do her dreams of a proper education, a yearning for a gripping romance that leads to deep love, and a desire to fight for peace, justice and equality for all races / tribes in her little corner of the world. Dedicating herself to her vision, Persomi finds a way to put herself through law school. Thanks in large part to her friendship with Indian merchant (later medical student) Yusuf, Persomi becomes acutely interested in equal rights activism. One college assignment requires her to write a paper on a law either in the works or newly established, so Persomi decides to write something on the Asiatic Land Tenure & Indian Representation Act. She is shocked to discover her professor chooses to grade her lowly for her opinion (which he disagrees with). He even goes so far as to comment that the thoughts she expresses "border on Communism"! Persomi starts to get the impression that lawmakers might be crafting these laws for selfish means, her suspicions fueled by the realization that any argument she makes against these laws gets her the labels of "communist" or "revolutionary".

 

The days and the weeks and the minutes dropped into a black hole. If she worked hard enough, ran far enough, showered quickly enough, and washed her clothes daily, she didn’t hear the desperate cries of the minutes and the seconds.

 

But the night became a menace. 

 

At the bottom of the darkness lay a pain that gripped her, a loneliness that kept her chained to the bottom. Because at night the memories came unbidden. And with the memories came the longing, harsher every time, and more painful.

She had never hurt so much, or been so alone....

 

She walked slowly to her mountain, to her cave. She knew the way, knew every stone and every tuft of grass and every crevice. 

 

She had known the cold would come. The cold night was more bearable than the cold fire burning her up from the inside, freezing her. 

 

She rolled into a ball. Nothing eased the black pain that was everywhere. The broken moon limped through the dark sky. 

 

Not only that, she also soon finds that the Land Tenure Act, along with the Group Areas Act will prove to be one of the biggest fights of her life. All this right before the idea of apartheid is gearing up to take off. But Persomi won't be silenced. She stands up for what she believes in. She continues to speak out against the utter wrongness of the Acts, which put restrictions on where South African's Asian citizens would be allowed to live or run businesses, regardless of whether they owned the land outright or not. In one instance, when one family protests the Acts (as they are being affected directly) Persomi is the only one willing to argue their case in court, all the while having to dodge Boelie's urgings that she drop the fight (as he's in favor of the segregation; in fact, even Persomi's very best friend, Renier, makes statements that even he would be in favor of black and Indian mine workers being placed in reservation camps!)... the one major hurtle to their friendship they constantly struggle to build a bridge across. This becomes even more the tug-o-war once Boelie is named leader of the National Party.

 

I do sometimes regret things I've said or done. But more often I've regretted things I didn't say or do."

 

 

Author Irma Joubert was a history teacher for 35 years before becoming a novelist and that clearly plays well into her historical fiction books (this being only the second to be released in English, though she is widely published in South Africa and the Netherlands). That said, the war element was more of a background feature in this particular story... at least when compared to The Girl From The Train (her first book released in English, also with a WW2 theme). Though maybe more of a background feature, the war still makes its presence known to these characters. Inspired by true events, the tale Joubert crafts here is one of grit, perseverance, resiliency, and an unshakeable belief in the power of faith and love in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Joubert's way of building her environments creates a lush reading experience, infused with the most tactile sights & sounds -- you can practically smell the grass and mud, feel the wind on your own skin! In this world we meet realistic characters doing their best to push through the most heartbreaking hardships.

When compared to Joubert's earlier release, The Girl From The Train, I noticed not only a similar time frame and a connection to South Africa as the one found in Child of the River, but I also saw some distinct similarities between the relationship seen in Train's two main characters, Gretl & Jacob and that felt between River's Persomi & Boelie. Hard to decide which story I preferred, they were both so good! While I think I savored the physical environment of Child of the River a bit more, I think I favored the relationship of Train's Gretl & Jacob over Persomi & Boelie.

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: Persomi's father, Lewies, is an alcoholic who beats his wife and older children; it's also hinted that he may have sexually assaulted one of his daughters.

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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review 2016-10-18 10:30
The Witnesses by Robert Whitlow
The Witnesses - Robert Whitlow

Young lawyer Parker House is on the rise—until his grandfather’s mysterious past puts both of their lives in danger. Parker House’s secret inheritance is either his greatest blessing . . . or his deadliest curse. The fresh-faced North Carolina attorney shares his German grandfather’s uncanny ability to see future events in his mind’s eye—a gift that has haunted 82-year-old Frank House through decades of trying to erase a murderous wartime past. While Parker navigates the intrigue and politics of small-town courtroom law, Frank is forced to face his darkest regrets. Then, a big career break for Parker collides with a new love he longs to nurture and the nightmares his grandfather can no longer escape. Sudden peril threatens to shatter not only Parker’s legal prospects but also his life and the lives of those dearest to him. Two witnesses, two paths, an uncertain future.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

Parker House is a North Carolina lawyer whose career seems to be on a steady climb to the top. Living nearby is Parker's German grandfather, 82 year old Frank House, previously Franz Haus.  Frank served as an officer with the German Army during World War 2. During those years, Frank's superiors discover he has quite the talent for having accurate visions of the future. So accurate that he earns the nickname "The Aryan Eagle".  The general Frank answers to keeps him nearby, adjusting the army's battle strategies accordingly. When Frank gets word that his parents and sibling have all been killed in a random bombing in Dresden, he makes the choice to desert his position and flee to Switzerland, spending some months there before making his way to the United States to settle in North Carolina's Outer Banks area. 

 

Decades pass, Frank is married and widowed, watches his children and grandchildren grow up, thinking all these years that maybe just maybe he's managed to live a life of relative peace. But as life sometimes goes, just as he lets a little bit of that guard down, in walks in that blast from the past. A man by the name of Mr. Mueller appears at the office of Parker, looking for a "Hauptmann Haus". Reluctantly, Frank agrees to a meeting with Mueller who comes to tell Frank a story about how "Hauptmann Haus" gave him some advice that ended up saving his life. Pretty early on, it's made clear that Frank struggles with a mountain of guilt regarding his involvement in war crimes. After hearing Mueller's story, Frank gives a terse kind of "well, you're welcome" to try to wrap up the topic and send the guy on his way but the reader will soon see the business between Mueller and Haus / House is far from done.  

 

Along with Frank's struggle with guilt, the reader also gets the sense that he may cling to some sense of comfort or familiarity in that pain, for years choosing to nurse the guilt rather than pursue any sort of forgiveness. Given time though, and with a little helpful nudge from his best friend Lenny, Frank does gradually find his way to a path of emotional peace & salvation. Meanwhile, grandson Parker also has his own experiences with the past revisiting him. As a child, Parker lost both his parents in a car crash when their car was struck by a drunk driver. Now, adult Parker finds himself brought in on two DUI / wrongful death cases that lead him to revisit those buried emotions. To complicate matters, in one case he is asked to defend a woman, a friend of one of the firm's partners, who was charged with a DUI with her 8 year old daughter in the backseat; in another case, Parker finds himself drawn to an attractive blonde woman who turns out to be none other than the daughter of a local bigwig trial lawyer that happens to be super protective of his girl.

 

Frank's portion of the novel is largely made up of pretty grim historical fiction (we're talking about WW2 after all). In his elderly years, when he begins to look into the idea of allowing self-forgiveness, his story turns much more heavily biblically influenced. Parker's portion does have some religious themes as well but to a much lesser degree. 

 

I felt myself most drawn to Frank's parts of the story. While Parker and his lady friend Layla were entertaining enough, Frank's tale kept me the most engaged throughout the novel. Though his part gets a bit heavy, I couldn't help but be pulled into that World War 2 timeframe. As for being a courtroom drama though, I didn't find this novel terribly exciting. If you're hoping to go into this story for high intensity courtroom brawls, I found this one lacking on that front. Most of the "action" is made up of pre-trial interviews and discussions about filing paperwork. I don't work in law but I suspect that in reality much of a day's work is made up of the mundane, but when it comes to fictionalizing it, a reader tends to want the nitty gritty heated courtroom battles.  

 

Also, those two storylines -- the present mixed with the WW2 flashbacks -- for me, until I got to the closing chapters of the novel I felt like the ties between Parker's past and struggles and Frank's were pretty tenuous. I was also a bit confused with the premonition "gift", as it was often referred to... I didn't see it in Parker as much. The back cover synopsis says that Parker seems to have gotten his gift passed down from Frank but with both of them I felt like Whitlow didn't quite go far enough with the idea. Rather than something mystical, magical, etc. ... to me, it really just felt like people working off of a basic gut instinct. Umm, pretty much everyone has that "gift" if they're just even remotely in tune with their mind / body connection. No big mystery, really. So I thought that aspect could've been played up a lot more. 

 

Final verdict -- courtroom / legal drama just so-so for me. What kept me reading was Frank's history as well as the friendship and banter between him and his fishing buddy, Lenny. I thought Lenny seemed like a pretty cool guy. The front cover of this book claims this is great for fans of John Grisham novels. Fair enough. I can back that, but I still find this one secondary to any Grisham I've delved into ... so maybe check it out when you've gone through all of Grisham's catalogue and need something more of the genre. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2016-06-20 08:05
Guardian by Julius Lester
Guardian - Julius Lester

In a time and place without moral conscience, fourteen-year-old Ansel knows what is right and what is true. But it is dangerous to choose honesty, and so he chooses silence.

Now an innocent man is dead, and Ansel feels the burden of his decision. He must also bear the pain of losing a friend, his family, and the love of a lifetime. Coretta Scott King Award winner and Newbery Honoree Julius Lester delivers a haunting and poignant novel about what happens when one group of people takes away the humanity of another.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Fourteen year old Ansel is growing up in the small town of Davis, Georgia in 1946. He spends most days working in his family's general mercantile store. When he is given some free time, he prefers to roam in the woods around town with his best friend, Willie. Willie works as a stockroom employee for Ansel's father Bert. This friendship has a pivotal role in the story, as Bert is a bit of a white supremacist, and Willie is black. Ansel's mother Maureen is the complete opposite, actually growing quite disgusted at her husband's opinions but he shrugs off his beliefs as "hey, it's the way the world is.." Maureen gets to the point where she fears Ansel possibly one day being influenced by his father's racism, so she does her best to come up with a way to get her son out of town.

 

Before that happens though, Ansel sees multiple sexual attacks brought upon Mary Anne, a neighborhood girl he cares deeply for; attached to those assaults, Ansel later witnesses a hate crime that leaves an innocent man dead. For the rest of his life Ansel is wracked with guilt over not being more vocal about bringing actual criminals to justice, rather than allowing innocent bystanders to take the fall. 

 

Even being just under 130 pages, this story is quite the historical fiction gut punch! One of those ones that never promises to be a cheerful or even fun read, but most definitely an important one. The town of Davis in this story is one chock full of racists, with just a few residents -- among them Ansel, and Esther Davis, a member of the richest and one of the most racist families in town, having earned much of their wealth from running a cotton plantation primarily staffed by black employees. Esther is one of the few white people in town who offer medical help to assaulted black employees (usually females who have been raped by her nephew Zeph) or bring food to much older employees who struggle to maintain the strength for cotton picking. Any push toward change in the general thinking of a society is a start, but as you can imagine, with the winds of change largely being carried by just two or three people at a time, it can be an uphill battle for some time. 

 

Author Julius Lester doesn't hold back in his desire to educate his readers on this grim period of history. In fact, there are pages at the back of the book just of charts showing the lynching percentages for all the lower 48 states between 1882-1968. The inclusion of this historical data shows the reader that hate doesn't see color, whites and blacks alike being victimized (though the higher percentage is with the African American community). While lynching may not be as common an occurrence in today's world, racism and hate crimes most definitely are still going strong. The take away from this novella is that the hate just needs to end. Full stop. A tall order, I know, one that may not happen in this lifetime, but stories like this one inspire me to keep doing my part to push for more love, everywhere to everyone. It makes me hopeful for a time that sees the end of the killing of innocents, the end of putting everyone in a category, the end of racial blanket statements altogether -- "white people be like" / "black people be like", etc. Stories like Guardian make me hopeful for a time when people can just embrace the awesomeness of cultural variety!

 

Though Lester's writing style made this as much of an enjoyable reading experience for me as this sort of topic can be, this book is truly a tough read. But as I said earlier, an important one. Sometimes reality and truth stings but you still gotta feel and hear it to make you a better, more empathetic person. 

 

POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING: There are a number of scenes that prove tough to stomach in this short story. Among them, a teen girl getting violently sexually assaulted and a frog slowly being dismembered by a sociopath while still alive.

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