Friday, November 27, 2009

Breaking Away, Hiding Away, Running Away: Three Good Reads

I spent much of the week house and pet-sitting for my sister-in-law in the Montgomery County "horse country" north of Houston. Although feeding and playing doorperson to three dogs, two cats and two miniature horses took a fair amount of energy, being away from my own home and ongoing art projects meant I had more time to read. Here are three titles I am glad to recommend.

The Calligrapher's Daughter (Henry Holt, 2009), is an impressive first novel by Eugenia Kim, set in Korea during the time of Japanese occupation through World War II, 1915 - 1945. Readers settle in for the long haul with one Confucian family whose lives greatly change shape during those thirty years, most especially for Najin Han, the eponymous calligrapher's daughter. Her father sees her only as a marriageable female, choosing her future husband when she is only 14. But Najin fights for her chances to get a good education and thus breaks away from her father's subjugation, serving as a tutor and companion to a princess, then principal at a rural school and also a midwife. She falls in love and marries a future minister, but when he travels to America, she is denied a passport. How she and her family survive decades of hardship makes for engrossing, tour de force reading. There is not a whole lot of fiction out there about Korea, so this novel fills a void. Eugenia's style and substance reminded me of the writing of Pearl S. Buck, whose books I read over and over as a teen.

Here is a plot premise that always grabs me: when children are left alone to cope, and try to hide their predicament from the world at large. Remember The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Warner? That's where it all started for me. Now Kathleen George has written The Odds; A Mystery (St. Martins, 2009) featuring four children ages seven to thirteen, whose only parent, their stepmother, Alison Philips, has packed up and left them unprovided for. School is almost over for the year and they don't want to alert their teachers or Social Services as to their plight. Luckily, they are all good, smart kids with plenty of pluck. They look for odd jobs and hunt for thrown-away food and goods. They manage to hide themselves from the authorities for a short time, but when they take in gunshot-wounded man who was once kind to them, they unknowingly involve themselves with drugs, murder and the Pittsburgh mob. In steps Narcotics police officer Colleen Greer and her partner Patocki, trying to solve several crimes. Will the kids be caught out? Will they be separated and sent to foster care? Or worse, will they be accused of a crime themselves? Such was the suspense that kept me reading and caring.

I met an unforgettable character in Follow Me (Little, Brown, 2009) by Joanna Scott. Her name is Sally Werner. In 1946, when she is only 16, she was seduced by a cousin, then shamed by her fundamentalist family when she turns up pregnant. She runs away from both her newborn son and her parents, following the Tuskee River north to a series of Pennsylvania towns. What an escape artist Sally becomes. When she continues to make rash decisions, she learns that the problems left behind have a way of reappearing. Eventually she finds happiness as a mother, a singer and legal secretary. Narrated in part by her granddaughter, Follow Me beautifully tails Sally's stumbling path towards the future. I invested some care and anguish in the impetuous Sally Werner, but I was well-rewarded by this melancholy yet redemptive read.

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