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review 2020-01-05 11:14
The Little French Bistro by Nina George
The Little French Bistro - Nina George

Marianne is stuck in a loveless, unhappy marriage.  After forty-one years, she has reached her limit, and one evening in Paris she decides to take action. Following a dramatic moment on the banks of the Seine, Marianne leaves her life behind and sets out for the coast of Brittany, also known as “the end of the world.” Here she meets a cast of colorful and unforgettable locals who surprise her with their warm welcome, and the natural ease they all seem to have, taking pleasure in life’s small moments. And, as the parts of herself she had long forgotten return to her in this new world, Marianne learns it’s never too late to begin the search for what life should have been all along.

Amazon.com

 

 

**NOTE: This novel has also been published under the title The Little Breton Bistro

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: Themes of depression, suicidal thought, abusive relationships

 

Marianne has spent too long in a loveless marriage. At the end of her rope, she takes a walk one night to the banks of the Seine River, where she makes the decision to end her life. Though she goes so far as to throw herself into the river, she is unexpectedly rescued and taken to the hospital to recover from the suicide attempt. Once out of the hospital, she makes the choice to relocate and rebuild her life in a new town, eventually settling on the seaside town of Kerdruc, in the Brittany area of France. 

 

In Kerdruc, Marianne quickly comes to know a new definition of family among the staff of Ar Mor Restaurant, becoming especially close friends with the owner of Ar Mor, Genevieve, as well as Jean-Remy, the head chef nursing a bad case of unrequited love. Jean-Remy's pining away all the time has begun to affect his cooking for the worse. Lucky for him, Marianne's arrival means she can share her tips and tricks (from years of housewifery) for turning around any seemingly ruined meal. Immensely grateful for the help, Genevieve brings Marianne on as Jean-Remy's sous-chef. In return for helping him get his cooking back on track, he offers to help her improve her French. {Marianne, a German military wife who had transferred to France some time ago with her husband's job, had never gotten around to grasping much French, pretty much only learning enough to say "I am German."} Along with the crew at Ar Mor, Marianne also becomes acquainted with the sculptor Pascale and Pascale's longtime friend, the painter Yann.

 

 

"Get down from your cross, we need the timber." 

~ Pascale to Yann one day when he is moaning about his life

(one of my favorite lines in the book!)

 

 

It is in this seaside community that Marianne really works to restructure her life after years of being stifled in a neglectful marriage, largely devoid of affection, with selfish, philandering husband Lothar. Occasionally the reader is given glimpses into Lothar's tightwad ways: always making Marianne get her shoes re-soled rather than ever allowing her new ones; always making her go through the irregular / clearance bins for her clothes; never getting gifts for anniversaries; taking himself on holiday but not her, etc. Marianne even shares details of her hospital stay after the suicide attempt: her skipping out on meeting Lothar at a restaurant that night; him showing up at the hospital rocking a Rolex and yachting clothes, whining about the money he wasted on a meal at that restaurant and a cab to the hospital to come check on her. When she asks for a hug, he quickly denies her. Imagine being in a hospital bed, feeling emotionally eviscerated over so many things, and you can't even get a hug from your LIFE PARTNER, of all people! Gives you an idea of what a softie this guy is. She also hints at examples of emotional abuse throughout the years of marriage that she often forced herself to shrug off... until she just couldn't anymore. So you can understand the need (or at least temptation) to slough it all off and start anew somewhere far away from your usual. 

 

 

Shortly afterward, Lothar's lover Sybille had woken her from the wonderful illusion that a marriage, a house at the end of a turning bay and an indoor fountain were all a woman needed. Lothar had been determined to return to their normal daily routine as soon as possible after his affair with Sybille. "I've told you I'm sorry, What more am I supposed to do?" And with that the matter was closed. After a few years, her pain had subsided. Time had brought solace to Marianne, as had Lothar's secrecy about his other affairs, at least until it became too hard for him to keep lying. He started to leave a trail of clues in the hope that Marianne would make a scene and deliver him, but she had refused to do him that favor. 

 

Quiet Marianne is consumed by fear. She fears death, but also sometimes welcomes it. With the realization that she's maybe moved through a life largely un-lived, she fears that she might not know how to change, or that perhaps the opportunity for change (of any kind) has passed altogether. But with the help of her new friends, she hangs in there... and in time, comes to experience her first crush since meeting her husband. This new love she finds herself dipping her toe in... the two of them are just adorable together and I found myself so excited for her. Yes, technically she is still married to Lothar, and normally I'm not down with adultery --- not in novels, not in real life --- but it's hard to blame Ms. Marianne for craving some heart tingles after going so long trying to make it work in a relationship that very clearly flatlined ages ago. Though I gotta say, a funeral might be an odd way to go for a first date. 

 

I loved your grandfather, and after him, no one else. It is a rare form of happiness when a man makes your life so rich that you need no one else after him.

 

"Was he a magician?"

 

Any man who loves a woman as she deserves to be loved is a magician.

 

Just as Marianne is becoming reacquainted with the stronger, more fiery side of herself, a little something of her recent past makes a reappearance (as often happens in these kind of novels).  The quaint, light-hearted cover art of The Little French Bistro belies the darker themes of this story. In multiple scenes throughout the novel, Marianne continues to toy with the idea of making another suicide attempt. Though she always finds a way to talk herself away from it (or her friends do), Nina George writes a stark truth -- the underlying struggle that can go on in the mind of someone whose exterior seems to be doing well enough. 

 

She suddenly felt an incredible fear of dying prematurely and not having had her fill when her final day came --- her fill of life, up to the top and over the rim. She'd never felt such a lust for life: the pain of having missed out on so much was threatening to blow her heart asunder. Never had the act she had considered committing struck her as more egregious: she had tried to put herself to death long before her time....Yann put his hand on Marianne's back, and her heart was pumping and beating, as if to say: it's far from over. Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.

 

The writing here gets a little flowery in parts, but I ended up liking this one more than Little Paris Bookshop and it certainly left me curious to try out George's most recent novel, The Book of Dreams. 

 

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review 2019-12-14 17:25
Snow In Summer by Jane Yolen
Snow in Summer - Jane Yolen

 

With her black hair, red lips, and lily-white skin, Summer is as beautiful as her father's garden. And her life in the mountains of West Virginia seems like a fairy tale; her parents sing and dance with her, Cousin Nancy dotes on her, and she is about to get a new baby brother. But when the baby dies soon after he's born, taking Summer's mama with him, Summer's fairy-tale life turns grim. Things get even worse when her father marries a woman who brings poisons and magical mirrors into Summer's world. Stepmama puts up a pretty face, but Summer suspects she's up to no good - and is afraid she's powerless to stop her.
This Snow White tale filled with magic and intrigue during the early twentieth century in Appalachia will be hard to forget.

Goodreads.com

 

 

In this Appalachian re-imagining of the classic tale of Snow White, Jane Yolen introduces us to young West Virginia native Snow-in-Summer, named for the flowers that grow in front of her house. The story opens with Summer sharing the memory of attending her mother's funeral. Summer's biological mother, Ada-Mae died in childbirth, along with Summer's baby brother.

 

I'd been born on July 1, 1937, ten pounds of squalling baby, with a full head of black hair. It was a hard birth that nearly killed Mama. Though the next baby, being even bigger, actually did.

 

Cousin Nancy, who'd been there to help with my birthing, told me all about it later, after Mama died. "White caul, black hair, and all that blood," she said. I shuddered at the blood part, but Cousin Nancy explained it was good blood, not bad. "Not like later," I said, meaning when Mama died, and Cousin Nancy just nodded because nothing more needed to be added.

 

She put her arm around me, adding, "Poor man was so scared he might lose her. And when he came back inside, called by the midwife, he was so relieved that Mama hadn't died, he let her name you."

 

"Snow in Summer," I said.

 

Then she gave me a hug. "Your daddy laughed and said 'We gonna call her all that?' 'We gonna call her Summer,' your mama said. 'It's warm and pretty, just as warm and pretty as she is."

 

"I am," I said. "Warm."

 

"And pretty," Cousin Nancy said, drawing me closer. "Just like your mama." That made me smile, of course. Everyone needs someone to tell them they look pretty. Especially at nine.

 

 

Summer's father, Lemuel Morton, falls into a deep depression following the death of his wife and son. After four years, he just seems to snap out of it, virtually overnight. Shortly after, he remarries a pretty and mysterious woman no one in town has ever met before, only seeing that Lemuel appears obsessively enamored with her. Sure, people have questions, but at the end of the day most are just glad to see Lemuel's spark back again.

 

Summer does her best to be a good stepdaughter --- even when this new wife insists on calling her Snow rather than Summer, and her father never bothers to correct or object --- but inwardly she begins to have suspicions that there is a great deal of darkness within this woman. She knows a secret about this enchantress who has captured her father's heart, but decides to keep the truth to herself for at least a little while, while she sees what else she can learn. The more time she spends around her new stepmother, the more Summer begins to feel herself becoming enchanted, though initially she confuses it for true happiness.

 

But then there's the shift. Suddenly Summer is only allowed limited visitation with her cousin Nancy -- who also suspects there's something shady about Lemuel's new wife --- until Summer's stepmother forbids them from communicating altogether. Nancy is the widow of Lemuel's favorite cousin, Jack, and has served as a sort of surrogate mother to Summer all these years. She's also secretly been in love with Lemuel this whole time.

(I loved the character of Nancy, btw.)

 

Note: The majority of this novel is told from Summer's perspective, but occasionally there are chapters switched to Nancy's view of events. From time to time, the stepmother is also given a brief platform, trying to sell the "I'm not evil, not wicked" line, but knowing the origin story as we do, readers know to be on their guard with her.

 

Lemuel's own behavior begins to turn odd: he grows his beard out all long and grizzly, stops virtually all forms of personal hygiene (he begins to emit a persistent odor of urine), and more and more frequently goes into nonsensical rambling. Shortly after Summer's 12th birthday, her stepmother's abuse begins to turn physical, breaking the child's spirit to the point of convincing Summer she deserves this treatment. Cousin Nancy teaches Summer some white magic to try to combat the stepmother's dark variety. For added protection, Nancy also gives Summer a small bag containing the preserved caul Summer was born with (there's an Appalachian belief that those born with a caul over the head, or "of the veil", will hold the ability to talk with the dead). While the suggestions help, the white magic still proves too weak to overturn the enchantment consuming Lemuel's soul. Summer's salvation --- and that of her family --- will come with Summer learning to have faith in her own strength and abilities, turning this story into the classic theme of a kind, strong heart prevailing over evil.

 

So how does this retelling stack up to its source material? The likenesses are there, but this is definitely a unique story in its own right. But where are the recognizable markers, you wonder?

 

* Summer is a lover of fairytales and is familiar with the story of Snow White, but doesn't make strong connections between that tale and her life, at least not until she stumbles upon the magic mirror.

* The magic mirror does make a few appearances, though not really one of the key powerful elements of the story.

* The "hunter" character here is actually a country boy who has intentions of committing statutory rape (and maybe also murder) under the guise of "courting" Summer... as a favor to the stepmother.

* Yolen also brings back the 7 Dwarves, sort of --- Summer, while trying to flee "the hunter" guy, meets 6 brothers with dwarfism, German immigrant gem miners, with 1 brother away at college.

* Bonus note: Summer's fictional town of Addison is actually inspired by Webster Springs, WV, the real-life hometown of Yolen's late husband.


Snow in Summer is an extended version of a short story (under the same name) Yolen originally had published in the anthology Black Hearts, Ivory Bones. Much like the original fairytale, this novel starts with establishing what a joyous home life Summer and her parents shared prior to her mother's death. With the appearance of the stepmother, Summer's story illustrates the "necessary evil" of evil itself. Sometimes the presence of evil --- or at least hardship --- is just the thing we need to push us out of a stagnant, complacent state, driving us to rise up to our best selves.

 

Though this novel is published through Penguin's Young Readers Group division, parents may want to do a discretionary read prior to handing off to your children, depending on where your personal family guidelines are set. This retelling hits upon some darker themes: illegal moonshining; serpent-handling forms of religion / speaking in tongues; sexual assault / attempted rape, (at least touches upon or alludes to the subject); water sources laced with strychnine. Yolen works in some ecological discussions as well, in the topics of clear-cutting forests and the practice of strip-mining.

 

There are also spoilers for the novel Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

 

If you get your hands on a hardcover copy, take a minute to take in the cover art --- there's a lot of cool somewhat hidden details throughout the whole piece!

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review 2019-08-21 07:59
The Warrior Maiden (Hagenheim #9) by Melanie Dickerson
The Warrior Maiden - Melanie Dickerson

When Mulan takes her father’s place in battle against the besieging Teutonic Knights, she realizes she has been preparing for this journey her whole life—and that her life, and her mother’s, depends on her success. As the adopted daughter of poor parents, Mulan has little power in the world. If she can’t prove herself on the battlefield, she could face death—or, perhaps worse, marriage to the village butcher.Disguised as a young man, Mulan meets the German duke’s son, Wolfgang, who is determined to save his people even if it means fighting against his own brother. Wolfgang is exasperated by the new soldier who seems to be one step away from disaster at all times—or showing him up in embarrassing ways.

From rivals to reluctant friends, Mulan and Wolfgang begin to share secrets. But war is an uncertain time and dreams can die as quickly as they are born. When Mulan receives word of danger back home, she must make the ultimate choice. Can she be the son her bitter father never had? Or will she become the strong young woman she was created to be?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In Dickerson's take on the Chinese legend, Mulan has been adopted into a European family in 15th century Lithuania. When war comes to the area, teenage Mulan decides to disguise herself as a man to take the place of her father, who had passed away. Mulan has numerous reasons for taking on this dangerous mission of sorts --- not only does she herself crave the chance to find adventure and a sense of purpose, but she also doesn't want to see her mother have to face possible homelessness!

 

Her family's well-being now reliant on her success as a soldier, Mulan goes into battle against the Teutonic Knights. Should she fail to bring honor and victory to her family and community, the alternatives could be either death or being married off to the local butcher, Algirdas, a union likely to lead to a lifetime of soul-crushing hard labor for Mulan. Also along for the journey is Mulan's childhood friend, Andrei, who poses as her body servant. He's in on her secret, naturally, but does his part to keep the truth under wraps... in more ways than one.

 

Disguised as a man, going by her father's name, Mikolai, Mulan meets Wolfgang, the son of the duke of the German town of Hagenheim. Wolfgang was pushed to join the army after his brother, Steffan, went against their father's wishes and chose to join ranks with the enemy, the ruthless Teutonic Knights. Now odds are good that the two will have to face each other on the battlefield. (Note: If you read the earlier Aladdin installment in this series ---- The Orphan's Wish ---- Wolfgang and Steffan are the brothers of Kirstyn, the love interest of Aladdin from that book. Another of Wolfgang's sisters are also featured in Hagenheim #6: The Golden Braid, the Rapunzel retelling).

 

Wolfgang initially sees Mulan as just a fumbling embarrassment of a soldier, but over time a slow friendship develops. He also notices that while Mulan's sword skills could use some work, she's actually an impressive archer and solid equestrian. 

 

I've seen quite a few high reviews of this book from reviewers who admit they know nothing of the origins of the story of Mulan, either through the Disney version or the original story the movie is based on. Being pretty familiar with both myself, I felt like Dickerson's Mulan was only a tepid nod to the fierceness and bravery of the original figure. It only lightly touches on the elements of honor and strength within the original Mulan's character that made her such a force to be reckoned with in the stories.

 

 

I also struggled with a number of things within the plot itself:

 

* While the friendship between Mulan and Wolfgang is sweet and builds naturally, the romance is largely one dimensional. Not to mention how her decision to call him "Wolfie" brought out serious cringe in me. 

 

* The pace of the story ran pretty slow for what you might expect in this kind of story, but I give extra points for the bit of excitement brought in near the end when it's decided that the fate of Mulan's mother will hinge on the outcome of a jousting tournament.

 

* This series in general... though I've only read from #6 on and am working on backtracking to the earlier ones .... but man, in these latest installments, there is so much white savior complex written into these retellings, it kinda ruins the spirit of the original legends for me. 

 

* The Warrior Maiden, with the Christian undertones that are worked into the entire series, came out much more preachy than previous books. For me, it didn't flow all that naturally in this environment, but more awkward... the way it was pushed into the dialogue at times read clunky to me.

 

I'm curious to backtrack into the earlier installments of this series and see how some of these characters had originally started out and where they go from here; to date, my favorite has been The Silent Songbird, the Little Mermaid re-imagining, 

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2019-06-06 11:57
The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena
The Taste of Apple Seeds - Katharina Hagena

When Iris unexpectedly inherits her grandmother's house in the country, she also inherits the painful memories that live there. Iris gives herself a one-week stay at the old house, after which she'll make a decision: keep it, or sell it. The choice is not so simple, though, for her grandmother's cottage is an enchanting place where currant jam tastes of tears, sparks fly from fingertips, love's embrace makes apple trees blossom, and the darkest family secrets never stay buried, but instead pulsate in the house's nooks and shadows. As Iris moves in and out of the flicker between remembrance and forgetting, she chances upon a forgotten childhood friend who could become more.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

Iris is informed she's been left the family home in Bootshaven, Germany, after the death of her grandmother, Bertha. Iris decides to give herself one week to live in the house and decide whether to keep or sell the place. Not an easy decision for our Iris... while she remembers a certain enchantment about the place during her childhood years, she acknowledges that the land also holds plenty of painful memories for the family. 

 

What I particularly loved about my job was rooting out forgotten books, books that had been sitting in the same spot for hundreds of years, probably never read, covered with a thick layer of dust, and yet which had outlived the millions of people who hadn't read them.

 

Iris, now a librarian (there are a number of Shakespeare references woven into the story), thinks on how the house has been minimally maintained all these years as Bertha slowly wilted away in a nursing home under the weight of progressing dementia. During her stay this time around, Iris learns long-hidden stories about the family, one being that of Aunt Inga. Inga, almost from birth, seemed to have the ability to shoot currents of electricity from her fingertips... but it wasn't really much of a gift for her, as it ended up hurting anyone who touched her. She also couldn't ride bicycles because of the metal and couldn't listen to radios because they'd only produce static noise around her. 

 

 

Later, I moved on to collecting words and mining the crystalline realms of hermetic poetry. But behind all this collecting was the same craving for magical, animated worlds in sleeping things. When I was a child I had a vocabulary book where I kept special words... they were listed under the following categories: "beautiful words", "ugly words", "false words", "contorted words", and "secret words". Under "beautiful words" I had written: rosy, fragrant, pitter-patter, banana, mellifluous, foxglove, lullaby. The "ugly words" were: scrotum, gurnard, moist, crabby. "False words" angered me because they pretended to be harmless but in fact they were nasty or dangerous, like "aftershock" and "growth". Or they pretended to be magical, like "marigold" and "kingpin," but were disappointingly normal. Or they described something that wasn't clear to anybody: no two people would picture the same color if they heard the word "crimson."

 

The "contorted words" were a sort of hobby of mine --- or perhaps an illness. Maybe it amounted to the same thing. My favorite animals included the "hippotatomus", the "rhinosheros" and the "woodspeckler". I found it funny to "hoover over the abyss" and loved the line from Richard III that went "now is the discount of our winter tents." I knew what "antidisestablishmentarianism" was, but what was "pantyfishersentscaryrhythm"? I fancied it could be a menacing drumbeat to which one might retrieve one's knickers from the lake.

 

The "secret words" were the hardest to find, but that was not surprising. They were words that behaved as if they were entirely normal but in fact harbored something quite different, something wonderful. So the opposite of the "false words." I was comforted by the fact that the sports stadium at our school was home to a sweet-sounding holy man. His name was St. Adium and he was the patron saint of word games.

 

Iris also revisits various family legends and secrets and the stories of how her grandparents got together (the convoluted love story there... something of a ... what? quadrangle? lol), how her parents fell in love (the uniquely introverted way two shy people formed a bond), even her own love life. Iris has to work through some somewhat messy emotions of her own when she finds that a childhood friend, Max Ohmstedt, is now one of the lawyers involving in the estate settling process. Max has a certain boyish charm to his character, even in the way he professes horniness! 

 

Translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch, this little story is STUFFED with characters! Just trying to keep track of the aunts is chore enough! If I have this right: We start with sisters Bertha and Anna. From there, a generation later, we meet Bertha's kids -- Harriet, Inga, and Christa. Christa is mother to main character Iris, Harriet becomes mother of Rosmarie, a cousin of Iris' who dies, leading Harriet to join a religious order, don beads and change her name to Mohani. 

 

A shared process of forgetting was just as strong a tie as a shared process of remembering. Perhaps even stronger... and I realized that not only was forgetting a form of remembering, but remembering was a form of forgetting too.

 

How true were the stories people told me, and how true were those that I stitched together myself from memories, guesswork, fantasies, and eavesdropping? Sometimes fabricated stories became true in hindsight, and some stories fabricated the truth. Truth is closely related to forgetting; I knew this because I still read dictionaries, encylopedias, catalogs, and other reference books. In the Greek word for truth, aletheia, the underworld river Lethe flows covertly. Whoever drank from this river discarded their memories as they already had their mortal coil, in preparation for the realm of shadows. And so the truth was what was not forgotten. But did it make sense to look for the truth where there was no forgetting? Didn't truth prefer to hide in the cracks and holes of memory? I couldn't get any further with words.

 

The Taste of Apple Seeds is a rich story with lots of slow-moving detail, giving the reader the sense of going through a memory chest. It's mostly enjoyable but at times can leave one feeling a bit tired out by it all. What mainly keeps the reader invested are all the questions the plot raises, namely the breadcrumbs of clues and details regarding the story of Rosmarie and her mysterious, traumatic death in the house. 

 

The wounds came with the house; they were part of my inheritance. And I had to take at least one look at them before I could stick the plaster of time back over them.

 

While a touch of magical realism is woven into the plot, the kind of magic discussed isn't so much that of witches, fairies and such... but more in the lyricism of Hagena's wordplay itself, the way she describes a kitchen scene or a night at the lake... the magic of nature itself, human or environmental. Ultimately, the story ends up being more about family bonds and secrets... how a house can be the vessel of generations of secrets and scandals, but does the strength of those secrets --- the consuming, sometimes detrimental need to keep them locked away --- come from the moment of perceived offense itself OR how much stock we ourselves invest in them over the years, maybe in connection to other unpleasant history within a family? Is that skeleton in the closet really as bad as we've made it out to be, all these generations later?

 

 

opening quote from The Taste of Apples

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review 2019-03-05 09:10
Exhiles by Ron Hansen
Exiles: A Novel - Ron Hansen

In December 1875 the steamship Deutschland left Bremen, Germany, bound for America. On board were five nuns, exiled by a ban on religious orders, bound to begin their lives anew in Missouri. Their journey would end when the Deutschland ran aground at the mouth of the Thames and all five drowned. Ron Hansen tells their harrowing story, but also that of the poet and seminarian Gerard Manly Hopkins, and how the shipwreck moved him to write a grand poem, a revelatory work read throughout the world today. Combining a thrilling tragedy at sea, with the seeming shipwreck of Hopkins's own life, "Hansen brilliantly, if soberly, weaves two interrelated story lines into a riveting novel" (Booklist on Exiles).

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Inspired by a true story, Exhiles novelizes the tragic story of the steamship Deutschland, which set out in December of 1875, leaving its German port for the shores of America. It never reaches its destination. Onboard, among the passengers: a group of five nuns, ages ranging between 23-32, exhiled by a government ban on religious orders, with the goal of traveling to Missouri in hopes of starting up an American branch of their order: Sister Henrica, Sister Brigitta, Sister Barbara, Sister Aurea, and Sister Norbeta. Though the novel itself is quite a quick read, we still get a bit of a history on each of these women:

 

* Sister Henrica (previously known as Catharina): The reader / writer of the group. At only 15 years old, suffers the loss of her mother (died in childbirth). Grief develops into piousness, but she doesn't have the goal of taking vows right away. First, she takes up the mother role in the family, gets a job in a dress shop (her boss sees her as an "old soul" type). By the time of the trip to the Americas, Henrica is chosen to be Mother Superior of the new North American convent.

 

* Sister Brigitta: Born to tenant farmers, grew up shy and sensitive, often ill as a child. She grows into a pretty blonde-haired, blue eyed young woman. She's encouraged to find a suitor, which she tries to do but often gets bored with the process, often finding ways to slink off with a book somewhere. *I feel you, girl*

 

Image result for vintage reader art

"Girl with a Golden Wreath" by Leon Francois Comerre

 

 

Sister Barbara: ("Barbara" comes from the Latin "wild, rough, and savage", Saint Barbara was executed by her own father!); Sister Barbara grew up the tomboy daughter of a shoemaker. She was plain of face, didn't like dolls, and was known for having wide open energy and zero filter of the mouth LOL. She also grew up a mostly friendless, lonely girl who loved the woods, was good as sports, but couldn't muster enough focus for reading. Once she was at the marrying age, her mother tried to match her with single farmers in the area (because of the life of poverty common for most at that time, Barbara's man-like strength was appreciated in the farming community), the matches never really panned out. But she parlayed her toughness into work in midwifery and as a triage nurse during the Franco Prussian War. Barbara was famous for her stoic, no-nonsense approach to life. Her tough-as-nails demeanor often got her labeled as a "harridan" among adults, but around children she often became a complete marshmallow.

 

Sister Aurea (previously Josepha): We don't get to know too much about her other than she's the rebel and jokester in the group. She sends the others gasping at the announcement that she wants to check out the men's bathroom on the ship: "Wide enough to swing a goose in, but small enough the goose would object" LOL Prior to becoming Sister Aurea, little Josepha is a happy soul who loves to laugh and sees beauty in the church life, but feels guilty "having committed sins against chasity" with her first crush, Werner. The nuns saw her as "just a wild puppy that needed to be house-trained... and impossible to dislike."

 

Sister Norberta (previously Johanna): Norbetta, like sister Brigitta, was also born to tenant farmers but at birth she was so small she was not expected to live long. But because she did indeed survive, her parents vowed to dedicate her life to the Catholic Church. Her mother treated her as a literal gift from God, which caused Johanna to act a bit haughty and spoiled. By the age of 21, she was 5'10, heavy-set and plain-faced. Friendless and without any suitors, her father declares, "she's become impossible." When he dies a few weeks later, Johanna blames herself.

 

The sisters travel without a male escort, and insist on paying extra so they may travel in 2nd class rather than steerage. They are all in wonder of the lavishness of the accommodations, even if small. The ship hits an underwater sand dune and when the crew checks the weather situation, they realize they are sailing into a developing hurricane; 130 pages in, the reader is thrust into a scene of crashing items, glass bursting, people being knocked about. The reader is then made to witness the nuns die off, one by one. Makes for a bit of tough reading, once you come to know and like the personalities of these women, more so when you remember this all was based on a true story!

 

Image result for german nuns 1800s

 

There's also a bit of a secondary story incorporated into this brief novel: that of poet & Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was inspired to write an ode to the steamship Deutschland running aground at the mouth of the Thames River. Gerard, based in Wales, reads the newspaper reports of the downed ship and how the recovered bodies of the nuns have been laid out for viewing in Statford. Hopkins had previously been a published poet who destroyed his work as a religious act of stepping away from vanity. But when a fellow priest suggests the story might be poem-worthy, Gerard finds himself inspired to get to work crafting his ode.

 

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

 

The first chapter is a little slow but once we get into the life stories of each of the nuns, and the way Hansen eases into the night of the tragedy, his classic way with words ultimately has the reader breezing through the pages of an incredible story. I admit, I didn't become fully invested until the closing chapters, but I enjoyed the journey just the same (as much as you can with this kind of story!).

 

Hansen includes Hopkins' ode in full at the back of this book. Personally, the rhythm / where Hopkins chooses to put the line breaks had an odd flow for me... but it's there for anyone curious.

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