Monday, April 9, 2012

Two 2011 best ofs revisited

I was hardly scientific about it, but like many reading people I kept a cursory tally of which books made the various "best of 2011" lists when such lists were everywhere last December: on the radio, in magazines, in newspapers, on the web. Two historical novels earned frequent mention: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak and Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. The latter won more notoriety than the former--and I'd been meaning to get to Brooks's novel for months when those "best of" lists gave me the push I needed. The Sojourn, meanwhile, I was less familiar with, but based on descriptions by those who hailed it, it sounded very much like a book I would like. Well, a few months and a million different activities later, I've finished both of these historical novels and am ready to deliver my, characteristically belated, reader's report. Both books are impeccably researched and carefullly considered, both demonstrate significant strengths to go along with glaring weaknesses, but finally this "best of" historical duo hit a disappointing one-for-two. To choose a different, non-baseball metaphor, if I were film critic Roger Ebert, thinking in terms of thumbs up and thumbs down, I would have to give Caleb's Crossing a measured thumbs up and The Sojourn a reluctant thumbs down.

It's not surprising to find out that The Sojourn is Andrew Krivak's first novel. Being the grandson of Slovak immigrants, there is a feeling of personal mission to the book. The Sojourn tells the story of Jozef Vinich. Born of immigrant parents in the United States, he must accompany his father back to Europe at age two after his mother dies and father subsequently fails to earn a living in America. Eventually, Jozef develops into a talented marksman and serves as a sniper in World War 1, fighting for the Austrio-Hungarian empire. The second half of the novel details Jozef's trying experiences in the war and the vacant, pointless life he is left with afterwards. At novel's end he manages his return to the United States. As Jozef says, his sojourn around the Old Country is finished. If this sounds like a winning formula for a literary war novel, it is. Or should be. And Krivak can be hailed for the amount of research he carried out about the Great War generally and the role of snipers specifically. The book exudes historical authenticity. Furthermore, when Krivak commits himself to a scene, his scenes can be riveting. But The Sojourn fails for two basic reasons. First, Krivak indulges in way too much talking about his character's life than showing that life. I am intensely relieved when he finally agrees to present a scene, but those scenes are invariably too short and too distant from the last one or the next. Second, a related failure, Krivak really loves to hear his own narrative voice, which results not just in overwriting but in sentences so ungainly I would run my pen through them if he were a fiction writing student. Krivak's operating premise seems to be, Never use three sentences if you can cram everything into one. Here's just one example from mid-way through the book: "And although we remained silent as we moved, over tea they (who seemed to know who and what we were) would remind us, in a tone strangely hieratic and as though they could see into our disappointment at having been ordered away from Soca, that this, too, was a front, these mountain borders that separated centuries of their own cultures, convictions, and quiet life from the new, false sense of nation that the Italians in their folly had already succumbed to, and of this we had no doubt as we fell back into formation and followed our guides along some path that remained invisible to us and yet to them had been carved in stone by great-great-grandfathers long ago." Try adding up how many different statements are embedded into that one sentence. Krivak is not without talent as a writer, but sentences like that one made whole sections of The Sojourn a chore to get through rather than a pleasure. And book reading should not be a chore.

Caleb's Crossing moves in odd fits and start but it is on the whole a valuable read. Based on a real historical fact that in 1665 a Wampanoag from Martha's Vineyard became the first native American to graduate from Harvard, the novel is narrated by one Bethia Mayfield and chronicles how she met and befriended Caleb on the Vineyard and then accompanied him--along with her brother Makepeace and a second christianized Wampanoag named Joel--to Cambridge when Caleb went off to study there in a preparatory school. (Bethia works as a servant at the school in exchange for her brother being allowed to attend.) As one might expect from any contemporary novel, the Wampanoag and their shaman culture are presented as beleaguered entities, mistrusted, underestimated, and misunderstood by a rather arrogant puritan, English culture ruthlessly set on hegemony. Bethia, meanwhile, who in several significant ways feels herself at odds with puritan culture as well, proves to be the intellectual superior of not only her brother but nearly every other person, Caleb and Joel being the exceptions. This is not to say that Caleb's Crossing feels cliched but that like many contemporary historical novels it truly says more about our own time and our own cultural perceptions than it does about the earlier period. It took a little while to fully immerse myself in, but Brook's novel finally grabs and holds your attention. Brooks certainly knows how to write a scene, and she also does a remarkable job of developing a voice for Bethia that is both perfectly clear to the modern ear and yet feels like a believably 17th century one. This is to say that there is a puritan tone to Bethia's speech; enough to convince but not enough to bore. I was a little surprised when, having presented Parts One and Two of the novel as long journal writings of the teenaged Bethia, Brooks gives us Part Three as the journal of the much older, near death Bethia. We are apparently to believe that a woman driven to write when a teenager--evocatively and at length, and despite exhausting chores she must carry out--would stop writing completely for almost 50 years and then suddenly pick it up again. Much happens in the private life of Bethia in those intervening years, but it's a tribute to Brooks's discipline that she does not allow Part Three to drift much off course (no pun intended). Part Three remains focused on Caleb and the plight of the Wampanoag, despite the fact that Bethia's own life during those intervening 50 years had little to do with the Wampanoag at all. I almost was ready to write the book off as a promising yet very eccentrically structured tale, but Brooks reins in her novel and brings it to a satisying if not terribly happy close.


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