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  • C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Sep. 2019

Dominicana cover

Angie Cruz, Dominicana (Flatiron Books, 2019)

Police raids on a factory to round up undocumented immigrants; a brown-skinned immigrant arrested after being the victim of a street assault; a young woman on her way to the grocery store keeping her eyes down and speaking to no one in case they know that she is not a legal resident; a fifteen-year-old farm girl married against her will to a much older and unappealing man as part of a land deal; that girl hiding her meager earnings in her kitchen as she is afraid to use a bank—this is New York City in 1965 and Ana has just arrived from the Dominican Republic.

Set against the backdrop of real-life events such as political turmoil in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, the draft, and the assassination of Malcolm X, this is Ana’s story, based on the real-life story of the author’s mother.

When Ana’s husband, Juan, has to spend time back in the Dominican Republic to help with his family’s economic free fall, she finds her chance to breathe. Secret English lessons, a thrilling visit to Radio City to see a movie, a beach day at Coney Island, dancing with Juan’s much younger, spirited and attractive brother, Cesar—Ana finds her voice, and she finds joy … until Juan returns.

Dominicana is a remarkable, heartbreaking, and hopeful story of a young woman’s assimilation and the tough choices, and lack of choices, available to her. I loved this book!—DS

Wayetu Moore, She Would be King (Greywolf Press, 2018)

A girl, Gbessa, is born into the Vai people who live in West Africa. Scapegoated from birth as a witch, Gbessa realizes she is “gifted” and cannot die. She and her gifted allies, June Dey, an escaped American slave, and Norman Aragon, a free Maroon, all search for family and a place to belong that was stolen and denied by slavery and isolation. Throughout the novel, they confront the conflicts of tribe and nation, and fight for liberty—Liberia. Gbessa evolves in knowledge, compassion and independent thought, the qualities of leadership. And, if she were not a woman “she would be king,” as the ever-present winds inform the reader.

The formation of Liberia in the nineteenth century and the horrors of slavery in North America inform this mythic tale of three individuals gifted with supernatural abilities. For the reader, perhaps a touch of magic best explains how anyone could surmount the social, political, and psychological complexity that surely was faced in the return to Africa after centuries of slavery and destruction. This is a luminous, beautifully written novel. I was deeply touched to consider the return to what is, and is no longer, home. I highly recommend it on so many levels.—AA

Karen Thompson Walker, The Dreamers (Random House, 2019)

Like Alice Hoffman, Karen Thompson Walker has that kind of even-paced storytelling style that soothes the reader even as the plot line is shifting from pleasantly engaging to outright horrifying. In The Dreamers, the horror ensues when some of the students in a small college town in the hills of southern California—a place already scarred by forest fires—fall asleep and don’t wake up. Before long, the “sleeping virus” spreads to the community at large, putting everyone at risk and attracting the scrutiny of the nation. The only consensus among the health-care professionals and researchers who stick around long enough to investigate is that the victims’ brains remain active; they are all dreaming.

As was the case in her previous novel, The Age of Miracles, Walker is fixated on what constitutes a catastrophe and how different people will react in one. The range of options turns out to be much greater than you might imagine. While her characters appear to be an unexceptional cross-section of those you’d expect to find in a small college town, as the story unfolds the reader comes to know and care about each of them and is keen to see how each will react to the threat of the larger catastrophe within the context of his or her own personal challenges. Once the process gets rolling, it’s impossible to look away. Karen Thompson Walker is a superbly imaginative writer. She may also be something of a seer.—JS

Lauren Willig, The Summer Country (William Morrow, 2019)

If you’re not ready yet to say goodbye to summer, you can’t do better than Lauren Willig’s new novel, The Summer Country, set on the island of Barbados, where people never have to think about snow or ice or even pumpkin pie. Emily Dawson, a young and rather impoverished vicar’s daughter living in mid-nineteenth-century England, inherits a plantation from her grandfather—a plantation no one in her family has ever mentioned. When she crosses the ocean to claim her inheritance, she discovers the house destroyed, the land untilled, and the neighbors at once reluctant to discuss what happened and inclined to take an overly personal interest in Emily’s plans. At the heart of the story lies slavery, abolished in Barbados in 1838 but still very much on the minds of everyone present.

Secrets are woven throughout this story, alongside themes of love, power, revenge, ownership, and conscience. And the countryside is suffused by sugar: the brutality of its cultivation; the rum distilled from it; the scent of it on the air; the heat that makes it grow; the diseases and injuries caused by that heat and that crop; and the poverty of those cut off from the rich, mostly white class of plantation owners who govern the island and its chief product. It’s a rich and heady brew, consumed on a virtual journey to a vanished world in which every detail is richly imagined and emotionally fraught.

You can hear an interview with the author at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

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