The Great Alone

Kristin Hannah takes you to hard places in her books which I experienced first in The Nightingale. Her new book, The Great Alone, is no exception. It begins in 1974, with thirteen-year-old Leni coping with a father who is a former POW home from Vietnam afflicted with PTSD in a time when little was said or done about it, and a mother who is drawn back to his volatile abusive behavior. The book pictures vividly the mindsets of the abuser and the victim who keeps returning for more. The setting moves from Seattle to the wilds of Alaska to add yet another difficulty to her life.

Early on, Leni seems to be the most adult member of this dysfunctional family as she questions “How was Mama’s unshakable belief in Dad any different than his fear of Armageddon? Did adults just look at the world and see what they wanted to see, think what they wanted to think? Did evidence and experience mean nothing?” The question looms often of how many ways are there are to die in Alaska. In a bit of balance, the unique Alaskans who have carved out a life in this unforgiving land add color and helpfulness to the newcomers.

Tempted to close the book as one difficulty piles on the next, I really couldn’t but needed to turn yet another page since I couldn’t leave Leni in that chapter’s trouble. Also, there was a love interest as she grew up. Surely, something good would come of that.

I’m glad I stayed for the resolution, though Kristin Hannah took her own good time in coming to it.  This thought-provoking book kept me turning pages, but I’ll need recovery. I think I’ll have time before she gets another one on the market.


Waiting for CBF 2018

Three months away and plans are underway for the fifty-first Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi on April 11 – 13. I got my invitation to volunteer this week with the promised pay of major fatigue at the end. I can’t wait. It’s the best tired I know.

On pretty good authority, the winner of this year’s Southern Miss Medallion for his body of work in children’s literature spent a good part of his school days in the hall outside the classroom. In fact, he is said to have created his Captain Underpants in his drawings out there. Sorry to say, that opportunity would have passed for Dave Pilkey if he had been my student. I would not have trusted a dyslexic hyperactive child in the hall even when he caused major disruptions in my class. He would have been in a desk in the back in the most unobtrusive place in the room – probably with my student who drew pictures back there and has become a professional graphic artist. I’m guessing Dave could have invented the popular captain even if the hall was not in my list of options.

Other special guests that are high in my anticipation include Carole Boston Weatherford who puts the past and forgotten stories into her writing. I’m really looking forward to the Ezra Jack Keats lecture and hearing the granddaughter of Madeleine L'Engle talk about her grandmother who wrote A Wrinkle in Time. I think that is especially appropriate since Madeleine won the Newbery Award for that book in the same year that Ezra won the Caldecott for The Snowy Day. The banquet picture for the occasion shows Keats with a smug look in his white jacket with L'Engle rising several inches above him in height.

There are also the awards for the new and rising stars in the children’s book world as the Ezra Jack Keats Awards for new writers and illustrators are presented and a big celebration held for them. So many of these from years past have gone on to be bright stars in the children’s book world, and it’s fun to meet them at the beginning of their careers.

Other guest writers, who might be your favorites, can be found on the website along with information about registering for the time of your life at You’re still in time for the early bird rate, but only if you hurry. That price ends today, February 9. It will still be a bargain at tomorrow’s rate.


Votes for Women

Acknowledging that many people know how the story ends with American women who have had the right to vote for nearly a hundred years and how it began in a women’s rights meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, Winifred Conkling sets out to fill out the in-between. Her book, Votes for Women, came out on February 2.

In a book that is much more entertaining than either its title or its subject matter would suggest, Winifred paints complicated portraits of the women who led the way in seeking equal rights. Though she focuses on the right to vote, much more is at stake in the world where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony begin, where women can’t own property, where children automatically belong to the father in the event of a divorce, where any wages they earn belong to their husbands or fathers, where they can’t enter into contracts or sign legal documents. They couldn’t serve on juries or testify in court, and their husbands or fathers could legally beat them if they used a whip no thicker than a thumb.  

Besides these names that we recognize from history, there’s Victoria Clafin Woodhull whose life story had more twists and turns than a mountain road. She ran for President forty years before women could vote on a platform of an eight-hour workday, graduated income tax, and reformed divorce laws.

After this first wave of activists, came a second wave. The two-part history has smart women finding loopholes and clever interpretations of the law and adding other social justice issues, such as temperance and abolition, to their agenda. Not qualifying any of these women for angel wings, Winifred reveals their abundant warts and their dissention among themselves. Hardships and terrifying episodes precede the ratification that finally occurred in 1920.

The fact that the book is published by Algonquin Books for Young Readers shouldn’t influence your decision to read it. If your heart is young, or even if it isn’t, as long as you love a well-told true story, get to a bookstore or talk your local librarian into ordering one since they really need it on the checkout shelf. The book could be described as timely history.



Every now and then, a new challenge appeals to me. As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, I have read writing helps and prompts by Beth Ann Fennelley. In a recent article in The Writer magazine she talked about writing what amounted to miniature memoirs. She used the word “wunderkammer,” taking the idea of a cabinet of curiosities and applying it to unique personal stories. She challenged her readers to write a memory that told a story in less than two hundred words. Here is my response to her challenge – all 183 words of it.

I glance at Mama’s shopping list and see the first item “show polish.” Why this sense of foreboding with a simple grocery list, other than the fact that military members are the only people I know who still consider shoe-polishing an art?

Mama’s past flashes through my mind as I take a longer look at her misspelled word. This teacher taught first-graders to read, to write, to spell – the more challenging the child from lack of opportunity or discipline, the greater her joy in their success. This mother couldn’t handle her oldest child’s illiteracy when she turned five years old. In the days when Mississippi had no kindergarten, she plotted to get me into school under the wire. When her continued efforts failed, she did what she had to do and taught me to read at home. My innate sense of how to spell came before I started to school.

I avert my eyes from her error, knowing that “show” for “shoe” presages all that is to come. We’ve heard another word from her doctor. Because of her, I can spell it. “A-L-Z-H-E-I-M-E-R-S.”


The Tilted World

Some of the mysteries are in the crime novel itself, The Tilted World, by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly. Set in the great Mississippi Delta flood of 1927, there are the questions of what happened to two revenuers and what to do with the abandoned baby at the crime scene. Federal agents Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson place the baby with Dixie Clay Holliver, unaware that she is the savviest bootlegger in the area. Other questions are whether Dixie Clay will be caught with the Tolliver still and what her husband Jesse is doing now that his interest in the whiskey has waned in favor of something going on in New Orleans.

The novel switches smoothly between backstory and the time of constant rain, between the federal agents and the Hollivers, and the rains keep coming. Any student of Mississippi Delta history knows the disaster’s imminent while the novel holds the impending flood at bay until the climax. These mysteries keep the reader tense with wonder at who will survive, but there was an extra mystery to me.

The novel is written by a husband and wife team. I had read and enjoyed both before – Tom in a good crime novel and Beth Ann in more literary pieces and writer advice. Both are part of the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. I enjoyed the book and thought I saw Tom’s crime novel construction pattern and then Beth Ann’s way with words in passages like: “He passed the hardware store where a sign warned, WE HAVE NO MORE UMBRELLAS, RAIN PONCHOS, OR GALOSHES. And underneath that, in a different hand: OR CARBIDE LAMPS, OR LANTERN FUEL.  And underneath that, in yet a different hand, OR HOPE.”

I can’t get my head around how to write with somebody else, especially a spouse. I could see major marriage problems arising. I spoke to Al about it, and he assured me it would never happen here. He makes a good first reader and is quite content with that role.