Archive for the ‘poverty’ Tag

Unlearned Lessons from the Past   Leave a comment

Although I’ve only read a few of Kristen Hannah novels, it’s clear she does her homework. This is true whether the novel’s setting is France during World War II, Leningrad or the Pacific Northwest; her writing evokes a strong sense of time and place.  The Four Winds, set in the 1930s Dust Bowl era, is no exception. Hannah’s work also features strong, independent women; here Elsa Wolcott follows the pattern.

At 25 Elsa is considered past her prime as a marriage candidate. When she meets Rafe Martinelli, seven years her junior, her life changes.  With no intention of a marrying Elsa, Rafe has no choice when she becomes pregnant.

By the 1930s, Elsa has settled in on the Martinelli farm, which in Northern Texas  does not escape the devastation of the drought and dust storms that wreaked havoc across the Great Plains. Rafe abandons Elsa, their two children and his parents. Eventually, Elsa makes the trek to California, where word has it life is better.

Hannah’s vivid descriptions of the poverty, prejudice and injustices faced by the flood of migrants could easily, and unfortunately, be applied today. Elsa and her children aren’t immune to the incivilities, but the family’s relationships grow stronger in its struggle to find a better life.

The weakest element of the narrative is the insertion of efforts by union organizer Jack Valen. He comes across as the hero the family, and all farm workers, need. Yet, in some ways this negates Elsa’s intelligence and inner strength.

The Four Winds

Four Bookmarks

St. Martin’s Press, 2021

454 pages

Timeless Battles   Leave a comment

50358038

I believe most fiction is tied to facts. Yes, The Cold Millions by Jess Walter is a novel. Still, its back drop is a fictionalized account of the timeless struggle of poor against rich, power versus powerless. It’s also about brotherly love, sacrifice and a desire for a better life when efforts are repeatedly thwarted.

Early 20th century Spokane, Wash., is inhabited by mining magnates, prostitutes, corrupt police and vaudeville performers.  There’s also a small group of unionists and socialists struggling for better pay and free speech. Gig Dolan is part of the latter group and his 16-year-old brother, Rye, is less committed to the cause. Both are devoted to each other.

In addition to the lively descriptions, not only of Spokane, but Seattle and several squalid mining communities, Walter’s characters are vibrant. They include tramps, murderers and suffragists. The faces of many are covered with dust as if their existence is diminished by a lack of opportunities. Gig, an idealist, once dreamt of being on the stage; Rye wants only a place to call home. Partly due to age, he’s uncertain about the causes Gig champions. Nonetheless, he gets caught in the fray when riots instigated by the police break out.

Initially naïve, Rye’s transformation comes about not only because of his love for Gig, but through his own experience of being exploited, and his understanding of what it means when others put their lives at risk.

The era and location represent another time, but the struggle is ongoing.

The Cold Millions

Four Bookmarks

Harper, 2020

343 pages

Emerging from the Hills   Leave a comment

27161156

Hicks, rubes, country bumpkins and hillbillies all conjure the same image: poor and uneducated. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, subtitled: “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” examines the consequences of the often unbroken cycle of poverty. The poor have fewer choices and those available are not always the smartest or best options.

Vance, a self-identified hillbilly and Yale Law School alum, describes his damaged upbringing in Ohio and his family’s strong ties to the Appalachia region of Kentucky poignantly and, occasionally, humorously. There’s no sugar coating.

Vance is quick to note that his background is not unique. Single parents, drug addiction, low-paying wages, unemployment and teen pregnancy are among the detrimental factors faced by many, including the author’s mother. Vance credits his grandparents, with whom he lived for much of his childhood, for instilling a sense that life could offer more.

Although he didn’t initially embrace the idea, a stint in the Marines after graduating from high school and his grandparents’ efforts, eventually Vance recognizes the value of education as a means of changing his life’s direction. Being aware of not wanting to replicate his mother’s behavior also helped.

The fact that he’s a successful lawyer and is happily married does set him apart, though, from those he grew up around. A few family members provide exceptions, but not many. Interspersing statistics with his own experiences, Vance notes that the region and the cyclical existence of its inhabitants make it difficult to merge into a more positive lifestyle.

Hillbilly Elegy
Four Bookmarks
Harper/Collins, 2016
261 pages

Pervasive Superstition   Leave a comment

Hannah Kent has a gift for describing squalor and the role of superstition among the most vulnerable. This talented writer, whose debut novel, Burial Rites, was set in Iceland, now transports readers to rural Ireland in The Good People. The ambiguous title refers to the name given to evil faeries and those with virtuous, albeit misdirected, intentions.

Set in nineteenth century rural Ireland, Kent’s engaging narrative follows three women: Nora, a recent widow, with a sickly grandson; Nance, known for her curative powers; and Mary, the young maid Nora hires to help care for the boy who can neither speak nor walk, although he once did.

Nora’s shame for her grandson is so extreme she keeps him hidden and is surprised to learn from Mary that the villagers know of his presence. In fact, they have already deemed him a changeling, a creature from another world, that of the Good People. How else can the locals explain the ill fortunes that have recently befallen their community: death, cows no longer milking, illness and more.

Nora unsuccessfully seeks medical help, then solace from the new priest who both believe the lad will soon die.

Imagining that her grandson has been abducted and the withered but breathing body is left in his place, Nora turns to Nance who is certain she has a cure. Young Mary empathizes with the helpless child and is caught in the middle. She’s skeptical of the older women and their motives. Yet, the question regarding Nance’s powers lingers.

The Good People
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
380 pages

Maternal Ties   Leave a comment

25893709

 

 

My Name is Lucy Barton is a statement and not only the title of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. It’s an affirmation as Lucy reflects on the relationship with her mother, which is like a faulty wire: occasionally there’s no connection.

Lucy is from a rural Illinois town where growing up her family lived so far below the poverty line as to make it seem something to attain. Lucy’s life is revealed as she lies in a hospital bed with a view of the Chrysler Building in New York City talking with her mother whom she hasn’t seen or spoken with in years. Strout is methodical as she merges Lucy’s past with the present.

The rich, stark pacing and imagery serve to expose family dynamics in the narrative. That is, Strout’s writing provides enough detail to shape a situation or character, but not so much that there is little left to the imagination. In fact, this is what makes some aspects harrowing: imagining what life was like for young Lucy. She lived with her older siblings and parents in a garage until age 11.

Her mother’s brief presence provides the vehicle to see Lucy’s past; the extended hospitalization gives Lucy time to consider her adult life as a mother, wife and writer.

Lucy should despise her parents and her past, yet she doesn’t. Her family was shunned and her parents were apparently abusive in their neglect. Lucy is grateful for her mother’s presence. The mother-daughter bond, at least from Lucy’s perspective, overrides past sins.

My Name is Lucy Barton
Four and a half Bookmarks
Random House, 2016
191 pages

Hope and Despair Meet Again   2 comments

Although I read a fair amount of nonfiction, my preference has always leaned toward fiction. As
I read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I had to remind myself this is a true
story – in  in fact, many true stories; it’s simply written with the smooth, eloquent narrative that
makes it read like a really good novel. But, it’s sad and it’s true.

Boo writes of the Annawadi slum in Mubai, India. For three years she follows the lives of several
families and child-scavengers all trying to survive in an overcrowded, rat-infested community of
makeshift structures that serve as homes. Mubai has numerous slums that fit this decription, but
Annawadi is the one located in the shadow of the international airport with its cosmopolitan hotels.

What makes Boo’s chronicle so intriguing are the people and their efforts to make more of their lives.
As if poverty alone were not enough to keep them down, they face government corruption, lapses of
moral judgment, and fear generated by religious differences. Boo’s account includes the experience
of Abdul who, with his father and older sister, is charged with murder when a vindictive neighbor
lights fire to herself. The family’s efforts to move out of Annawadi are thwarted as income is lost and
bribes must be paid.

This description of trying to exist in Mubai’s slums is much, much more than what most think of as a
hard-knock life. Yet, for their individual and collective foibles, these people continue to dream that
someday they will have more.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2012
256 pages

Posted April 19, 2012 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , , , ,