Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, lies dead.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBIby David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horsesby Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #10 Strangers In Their Own Land

lysander-yuen-288916It’s been a great year for reading.  I credit Sarah Willson Craig for inviting me into a real mid-life reading renaissance.  She’s the one who posted the Better World Reading Challenge on Facebook in 2016 and got a group of friends committed.  I’m grateful.

Since everyone else is doing their end-of-the-year list, I decided to join the fray with a Heartlands Best Reads of 2017.  Some caveats: These are books I read in 2017, but they weren’t all published this year.  2017 books did get some extra points in the ranking, however.

Also, I’m not making any allowance for genre.  Fiction, non-fiction–theology and journalism–cats and dogs living together–it’s one big, unruly house on my nightstand.

Of course there are some great books that didn’t make the final list.  Here are a few of the near-misses that I loved reading this year (with links to reviews where I’ve done them):

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is not Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Given the quality of those books, you can see why the Top Ten are extra special to me.  So today we start the countdown with #10.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild was not one of the best-written of the Top Ten, but it lingered with me and proved to be a very useful book during a year when I was trying to get my mind around the Great Divide.  Her “deep story” that emerged from many days of living as a California sociologist in rural Louisiana was a very useful framework that reminded me of a Flannery O’Conner story.  A bonus for me was the opportunity to interview Hochschild and she turns out to be a delightful, perceptive, authentic person.

Why Books Will Win


photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov via Unsplash

I’m making a wager that books will lead us to the future.

Heartlands came about as a desire to understand the present age, particularly from the perspective of rural America and rural church ministry.  In the beginning I was trying to figure out why the place where I live seemed suddenly so strange to me.  Things had shifted, and not just because of an unexpected outcome to the presidential election.  We had been shifting for some time and no politician could claim credit for creating the Great Divide.

What we lost was texture.  Red and blue became easy stand-ins for the complexities of our culture and we let the color labels define us.  We latched onto them as identity markers.  Who we are, in all our contradictions and quirks, was less interesting than a convenient narrative that prevented us from observing and thinking deeply.

As I wrote in a piece for Topology magazine, “Rural is Plural,” there was a tendency in some writers from the coastal cities that sounded like they were writing off the heartland.  The reason Heartlands is plural is because there is diversity here, too, that is unrecognized.  So I began to search for the lens and the language that would help me bring it to sight and voice.

The surprising thing is that literature has become one of the most useful tools in that search.  You know—books.  Stories have the capacity to carry so much more freight than other forms of communication.  Good stories don’t force the world into neat categories and simple morals.  Characters in a book should always be able to surprise us because, like real human beings, that have complex motivations that they don’t always understand.  That’s certainly the case for biblical characters.


photo by Lysander Yuen via Unsplash

So the jaunts this blog has taken into books and interviews with authors like Alix Hawley, Trudy Hale, and Arlie Russell Hochschild, and with the photographer Michael Mergen, have ended up not being diversions but central to the whole project.  Perhaps the best language for an age that has destroyed truth is the vernacular of art, which is groping, not desperately, but confidently in search of new truth.  It’s obvious that the old vehicles have broken down—science, politics, and the like.  But the arts still sparkle – underfunded as they are.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice” — T.S. Eliot

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice,” T.S. Eliot says in ‘Little Gidding.’  So I’ll keep reading and writing, awaiting another voice.  Literature may not be the fluff we have presumed it to be.  It may the gateway to what comes next.

Ghosts and Land – My interview with Alix Hawley continues – part 2 of 2

In the first part of my interview with author Alix Hawley, we talked Daniel Boone, pop culture, and the challenges of writing your way into the mind of a legend.  In this post, my interview with the author of All True Not a Lie in It concludes…
You handle the Shawnee culture with a great deal of respect, helping bring it alive so that we glimpse a culture that was still vital in this period.  In fact, the second half of the book takes place almost entirely among the Shawnee.  How did you come to this structure for the book?

An image of Boone’s adoption by the Shawnee

Writing this book took many drafts and a lot of muddling, but I always pictured it in two halves, with the murder of Daniel’s son James as the break between them. The Shawnee half was more difficult, partly because there are a lot of captivity narratives from that time and afterwards, there are virtually no first-person accounts from the Indigenous side. So I was coming at the culture as a white writer, through white settler accounts, a problem of which I was very aware. I had to invent personalities based on slight hints (Black Fish being seen as a commanding speaker, for instance). But it began to take its own shape. The sense of family really helped here; Daniel’s adoption gave me a mirror, a foil, for his white family in part one. It’s the foundation in both sections.

Nothing in this book went the way I expected it to, and I think it’s one of the great strengths of the book.  You could have used a more traditional heroic narrative, but you gave Boone an element of tragedy.  Is this more a story of disillusionment or perhaps reorientation of perspective?
Most of the accounts even since he was alive made him into a capital-H hero. I suppose you could look at him alternatively as the classical tragic hero, a powerful man whose flaws bring him down, but instead, I wanted to know what it felt like to be *seen* as that hero. What does that do to you as a human? That’s the perspective I’m always interested in.
The land plays an important role in this book, especially when Boone initially goes into Kentucky and thinks it is heaven.  How did you approach writing about the land?
jordan-whitt-53061With a little trepidation, given that I never made it to Kentucky! (I was too pregnant to get travel insurance when I was initially researching.) I loved looking at paintings and photographs, though. In a way, I think not seeing the real place helped. It couldn’t be the same as it was in the eighteenth century, of course. That let me have my own vision (and I apologize if I have a few tree varieties wrong . . . I did look them up!). And the fact that the historical record has so many gaps and differing versions gave me the freedom to do that.
I’m reminded that my copy-editor informed me there were no magpies in eastern North America at that time, but I fought to keep a reference to one, as it seemed an important image. It’s easy in fiction, historical fiction especially, to get pinned down in seeking extreme accuracy, but if your own drive and story-shaping aren’t present, the book has no engine.
Ghosts play a big role in this story.  Boone is haunted by his brother and his son.  The Shawnee culture struggles to overcome the loss of sons through the adoption of Boone and his men.  Are the ghosts empowering or debilitating or something else?
Daniel’s ghosts are a pull on him, sometimes physically, but they’re also reminders of his past and the fact that he exists at all. And though they bring enormous guilt, he doesn’t want to let go; they form his private story, apart from the tales his friends and others are always telling about him. The Shawnee adoption makes him into the ghost of a lost son, which is a kind of empowerment for both sides. I think I also just like ghost stories.
The relationship between Boone and Rebecca is both tender and distant.  How did you try to get inside a relationship that was marked by so much separation and loss?
I had to imagine myself into that situation, which was really hard. Daniel and Rebecca react differently to their loss, and I could see both sides–the desire to forget and carry on, and the opposite desire to never let the lost person go.
Of course we are seeing her through his eyes, given the first-person narration. I tried to portray her as a realistic person, with all the attendant frustrations and mixed feelings, when she’s present, and to make her into part of Daniel’s dreaming tendencies when he’s not with her. There’s more about their relationship in the sequel, which I’m working on now. Rebecca’s voice comes out there too.

Alix Hawley

I think of your book as adding a lot of texture back to an old, worn bit of Americana.  What is the virtue of complicating old stories or re-wilding old landscapes for contemporary people?

I hope it’s a reminder that life is complicated. Like landscape, stories aren’t static. There’s always another way in.

Alex talks to Alix – an interview with author Alix Hawley – part 1 of 2

51w4-h0whUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It (recently reviewed here), a creative re-visiting of the pioneer and American cultural touchstone Daniel Boone.  Hawley teaches at Okanagan College in Kelowna, British Columbia and this debut novel has won her the Amazon.ca First Novel Award along with a lot of acclaim.  Always interested in folks who are reimagining the American landscape and the people who are formed by it, I asked her for an interview and I didn’t even mention Fess Parker once.  (At least not directly…)
What sparked your interest in Daniel Boone as a subject for fiction?  Hasn’t he been picked over enough by pop culture?
I talk in the preface about suddenly remembering a 1985 National Geographic drawing of Daniel by Jack Unruh. It struck me so hard that I started looking into the history, knowing little. I saw then there hadn’t been many books about Daniel Boone for quite a while, aside from biographies.
If people know his name now, it’s often from the 1960s TV show, which I never saw (and haven’t had the heart to watch on YouTube). And many people don’t know the name at all. So I felt I had a clear field, in a way, to take a fresh look at a person whose life was totally outside my own experience and literary background. As wacky as it may sound, I feel the story chose me.
Portrait_of_Daniel_Boone_by_Chester_Harding_1820Your Boone is a dreamer who gets carried away with the idea of Kentucky as Heaven.  Did he become that way through the course of discovering the character or are there things you found in doing research that opened up that side of him?
That’s my version of Boone talking. His religious life became an important background to the novel, though, as I did the research. He grew up Quaker, which I hadn’t known, although his family weren’t particularly good Quakers (no spoilers!). Biographers suggest he retained some spiritual beliefs all his life, though he never joined another church. In my book, Kentucky represents a fresh world for him in many ways, a blank slate. But slates are never truly blank.
The Daniel Boone you conjure is a bit of a trickster, it seems to me.  Especially in the scenes in the second half, he is playful and needles Chief Black Fish in a way that seems daring.  This really opens the door to building something of a relationship between them.  How do you see their relationship working?

Alix Hawley

I think he enjoys being tricksy and playful, and the record shows a fondness and even love between the two of them, as unlikely as it was in that place and time. Their similarities interested me–they were close in age, both “big men” among their communities, trying to keep peace and make things work. The father-son connection also pulled me in. What’s it like to create that kind of bond to replace ones you’ve lost?

Re-wilding the Land – a Review of Alix Hawley’s All True Not a Lie in It


jordan-whitt-53061All True Not a Lie in It.  Ha!  Daniel Boone is one of the most picked-over commodities in pioneer pop culture, (though admittedly he hasn’t had a major spike in interest since Fess Parker’s TV Boone had ‘60s kids sporting coon-skin caps).  If there’s a truth left below the varnish of 250 years of mythologizing, I’m not sure we’d be able to tell.  Nevertheless, Alix Hawley, in her award-winning debut book, gives us a Boone that feels like a fully human figure, full of dreams and regrets and certainly someone who carries a spark of a larger truth.

51w4-h0whUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_The pieces of the historical Boone are here.  There’s young Daniel and his family chafing against the strictures of a Quaker community in Pennsylvania.  There’s an older Daniel moving to North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley and reluctantly taking up farming.  Boone the soldier in the French and Indian War.  Boone the family man.  But this Boone blossoms when he takes off for Kentucky with a small group of companions and calls it  heaven – despite being captured by Shawnee, twice robbed of the pelts he collects during long seasons of hunting, and spending more than a year wandering.  “I want to believe that this is Heaven now just here,” Boone the narrator says.  “Is there any great wrong in wanting Heaven now?” (118)

When he finally does return home he discovers a new child in the cradle, something that only adds to the complications of reestablishing a relationship with his wife, Rebecca.  Eventually they work their way back to tenderness, but Boone is no more of a farmer than he ever was, and soon the whole family is heading back to the Cumberland Gap to blaze the trail for an expansion of settled Virginia.  The high hopes of the first part of the book come crashing down when the party is trapped in a valley and some, including Boone’s son, come to a bloody and tortured end at the hands of Cherokee.

If Hawley’s book were a standard pioneer tale, the second half would relate Boone’s success in overcoming, conquering the wilderness, and settling the land.  There’s plenty of that to tell in the historical record, but nothing in All True goes the way one would expect.  The intoxicated dreamer with a musket, smitten with the happy hunting grounds of Kentucky, is replaced by a much softer Boone in the second half – one who is haunted by the ghosts of a lost son and brother and who is mocked and scorned by the men he has led when they are taken into a long captivity by the Shawnee.

There’s plenty of that to tell in the historical record, but nothing in All True goes the way one would expect.

Boone_CumberlandHawley does a deep dive into the Shawnee culture and opens the possibility for some real relationships between the colonial and indigenous characters, particularly between Boone and Chief Black Fish, who adopts Daniel as the replacement for a lost son.  Hawley’s Boone has a light spirit that is alternately puckish and pugnacious.  He earns a level of respect within the tribe and the book ends only as change is coming again as the power dynamics shift on the frontier.

Meanwhile, Boone’s legend is growing.  There is a sense that another figure is living in the stories now being told about him back East and in London.  “Everyone knows my story,” Boone reflects at one point.  “Everyone but me, as I think.”  Boone has been undone in the second half, his Kentucky Heaven now a place of ghosts and broken dreams.  “I feel myself a vacant house.  I have nothing.” (303).

Hawley has done a miraculous thing in this well-written book.  She has re-wilded the early colonial frontier and populated it with visionaries, mercenaries, and troubled souls.  She has also, through the extended scenes in the Shawnee camps, taken stock of the native culture that was receding yet still vital.  In that, the book resembles Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel The Son, which worked the same magic for the Texas frontier by including an extended section featuring a Comanche capture.

Hawley has done a miraculous thing in this well-written book.  She has re-wilded the early colonial frontier and populated it with visionaries, mercenaries, and troubled souls.

This is not an easy romanticism that Hawley gives us, but it is a romanticism.  There is something pulsing and singing through this land that inhabits these characters.  Larger forces and deadly vices are conspiring to disenchant the land, though, and it’s not clear if Boone and the others will be heroes or villains in the end.  The Boone that Hawley creates is certainly not sure.  Part One of his story is called “When I am Good” and Part Two is “When I am Not.”  Is his narrative that easy?  I’d be tempted to say ‘no’ but then again, this is all true.  Not a lie in it.

All True Not a Lie in It: A Novel

By Alix Hawley

Harper Collins, 2016

372 pages