Monday, March 29, 2010

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky *****

Every once in a while, I will read a book that has a meaning of more than just the words that are written on its pages. This book in two parts, Suite Francaise, is a work of fiction. But the story behind its author has made it even more than the sum of its parts.

In the first part of the book, it's June of 1940, & the Nazis are invading France. The people of Paris are abandoning everything & racing in a frenzy to leave the city behind to what they assume will be its utter destruction. All classes of people are thrown together, much to their dismay, in this mass exodus. The rich, the famous, the struggling, the poor, all of them have the same kinds of experiences in the countryside surrounding Paris.

In the second part, Dolce, a small French village is subjected to the occupying forces. Nazi soldiers are housed in spare bedrooms, the community's horses are all bought for the war. The townspeople make money off the Germans, & the young people gradually find themselves in relationships with the enemy that they never thought they were capable of. As the new Eastern Front opens up with Russia, the book suddenly ends.

My above descriptions are of the book itself. What makes this more than it is, is the fate of the author.

Irene Nemirovsky was doubly damned, being not only Russian but Jewish. To the Nazis, Communists were almost as bad as Jews, & they pretty much assumed anyone from Russia was pro-Communist. Though Nemirovsky lived her adult life in France, she wasn't a citizen. When Paris fell she fled, like the characters from her book, into the countryside with her husband & daughters. There they thought they were safe, even as Irene started writing her new novel. Suite Francaise was going to be her masterpiece--her own War & Peace. She envisioned it in 5 distinct parts, like an orchestral symphony. She was destined to only get the first 2 parts done.

In July of 1942, she was arrested & sent to a concentration camp in France. From there she wrote 2 last letters to her family. Then she was put on a train east. To Auschwitz. She didn't last long there & died on August 17, without her family's knowledge. Desperate to find his wife, her husband, who was also a Russian Jew, frantically telegraphed & wrote to everyone he could think of who could help. It was to no avail, & 2 months later he was deported also. He was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival.

At this time, Nemirovsky's daughters were 5 & 10 years old. A family friend immediately removed the yellow stars off all their clothing & hid the children in several different places for the rest of the war. They were continually hunted by the French police, who apparently had nothing better to do, but luckily they were never caught.

Denise, the older daughter, kept her mother's leather bound notebook with her all through the war & after. She couldn't bring herself to read what was written within, but kept it simply as a memento. Then, in the early 1970's, she decided to donate it to a French collection of war writings. Looking at her mother's writing for the first time, she was surprised to find not just a journal as she always suspected, but also a book. It was finally published in 2004.

That is the story of Suite Francaise. I could go on & on about the book & the emotions it has stirred up in me. Anger, mostly. The waste, the terrible waste of human life & genius because of the Holocaust. I wanted so very much to read the end of this book--all 5 parts. I know it would have been the masterpiece she envisioned. Instead, her own life became the ending of her book.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Leanin' Dog by K.A. Nuzum ****

This book was recommended to me by the librarian at my son's school. I'd read another book by this author before & thought it was very good, but I didn't realize this was the same author until I'd finished Leanin' Dog.

12 year old Dessa Dean's mother has died--frozen to death while Dessa Dean helplessly tried to warm her. Now she can't even leave the porch of the cabin she lives in with her father without having what she calls a "daymare"--flashbacks to that horrible ordeal. But one day an old brown dog shows up at their door, & slowly Dessa Dean starts to come back to the world of the living again.

Leanin' Dog is another wonderful book by K.A. Nuzum. She's able to help us understand a girl's intense grief, & gives her a unique & special voice that you seem to be able to hear, as though she's talking out loud to you. For an author that's only written two books, she's had two winners already. I highly recommend this one to you.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gabriel's Horses by Alison Hart ****

First, I have to say that this book has something to do with horse racing. And I've really liked horse racing since I was about 13 years old & watched the Kentucky Derby for the first time on TV. So right there, it had me. But it's also a well written book, with some interesting characters & a great insight into what life was like in Kentucky during the Civil War.

The book starts with Gabriel, a 12 year old slave, being given the chance to go to Lexington with his father & also his master. His father has bought himself freedom, & hopes to earn more money to buy both his wife & son theirs also.

Gabriel has a true gift with horses, which he inherited from his horse-training father. With a fair-minded master, he has an easy life for a slave, & he knows it. Opportunities seem to be opening up for Gabriel as a jockey, but just when he thinks he knows what the future will bring, the War invades his work life & his family.

I'm honestly not sure if I'll read the other two books in this series, but I do like this book for the back-door education it gives young readers into the Civil War from a slave's point of view. I never knew myself that Kentucky was a neutral state--it was much more peaceable than my native Missouri, where there were many bloody conflicts. But no state came out unscathed by the war, & no family did either.

Another great Mark Twain Award nominee. The kids of Missouri are voting right now on the winner--I'll be anxious to see what they end up liking the most!