Friday Book Whimsy: The Saints of Swallow Hill

It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and while the country is falling to pieces, the people who live in the forest areas of North Carolina have it better than many. The laborers work the trees to harvest the sap necessary to make turpentine, the resin that gave North Carolina the nickname the Tarheel State. Author Donna Everhart paints a clear picture of life in the 1930s’ turpentine camps in The Saints of Swallow Hill.

Rae Lynn Cobb hasn’t had the easiest of lives. She grew up in an orphanage and was never adopted. Still, she and her husband Warren have a small turpentine farm in North Carolina, and they make a living. That is, until Warren critically injures himself because of carelessness. Despite Rae Lynn’s desperate attempts to save him, Warren dies, leaving her not only homeless, but in danger of being arrested for murder.

In an effort to save herself, she cuts her hair and dons her husband’s overalls and flannel shirt. She drives Warren’s truck away from her home into Georgia, and keeps driving until she feels safe. Disguised as a man, she finds a job as a laborer at Swallow Hill, a turpentine farm in Georgia, herself Ray.

Though the camp is run by a decent enough fellow, her supervisor is mean and dangerously bitter about being forced to hire someone he considers a small weakling named Ray. Otis Riddle instills terror in all his employees, except for another new employee named Delwood Reese. Reese is escaping his own struggles, but is a strong and an independent thinker who can see through Otis’ evil behavior. He takes Ray under his wing.

Reese, Ray, and Otis’ abused wife Cornelia eventually learn that Ray is not a young boy, but is a woman. The three band together for support and friendship, and eventually make plans to get out of the camp and make it on their own.

I felt the story dragged a bit, but the characters were colorful and interesting. I learned a lot about turpentine, something I had never given a lot of thought. I like learning new things from novels.

I recommend the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Giver of Stars

Jojo Moyes has written a good number of books. A couple have been made into movies, I believe. I, however, have read nary a one nor seen any movie made inspired by the author. Maybe I live on a desert island without any kind of media.

At any rate, I am not ashamed to say that I read The Giver of Stars because it was a Reese Witherspoon book club choice (what can I say?) and because it takes place in the hills of Kentucky and has strong women characters. Boom.

Alice Wright — born and brought up in England — married Bennett Van Cleve for two reasons: to escape her boring life and because he was a hunk who happened to be visiting England with his father from the United States. Some of us have married for worse reasons.

Anyway, following the marriage, they move from England to the small town in the hills of Kentucky where Bennett’s father owns and runs a coal mine. Much to her surprise, Bennett has no interest in consummating the marriage and obeys whatever orders his father gives — and there are some doozies.

So when Alice learns that President and Mrs. Roosevelt have started a program where library books are delivered on horseback to rural, backwoods areas, she is immediately on board. Volunteering would provide some interest in her otherwise dull and sad life. There she meets a group of women who become her friends and give her the necessary backbone to withstand her miserable life. The book is all about friendship.

I enjoyed this novel so much. I loved the characters and the story, which is based on a real program that existed for a short time in the 30s following the Great Depression. I will admit that the controversy regarding whether or not the story was plagiarized gave me pause and impacted my opinions. I don’t know the truth of the matter. What I do know is that The Giver of Stars was a wonderful book from which I learned something new that took place in U.S. history.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: Sold on a Monday

Some time back, I read (and reviewed) a novel written by author Lisa Wingate entitled Before We Were Yours. Her novel took place in the late 1930s, and was the story of children who were kidnapped by an orphanage and then sold. The story was based on fact. It was one of the best books I read that year.

Because of my connection to that book, Sold on a Monday, by Kristina McMorris, caught my attention. It too, took place in the 30s, this time during the Great Depression. The story was based on a real photo taken during the Depression that the author came across while doing some research. The photo was of two small children sitting in front of a rundown farmhouse next to a sign that read 2 Children For Sale. Off she went with an idea for a historical novel.

Reporter Ellis Reed is lucky to have a job during the hard times of the early 30s. He is the society writer for a newspaper, a job he loathes. He yearns to be an important journalist. In the course of work, he comes across a sign advertising the sale of two children. He shoots a photo, but is unable to interview anyone.

When he returns to his office, he convinces his boss that the story is important, and the editor agrees to print it along with the photo. Unfortunately, the photo — and the negative — are destroyed. What are the chances? So he does that thing that reporters are not ever supposed to do. He sets up a fake photo and writes a fake story. Bad things ensue.

In the meantime, Lily is stuck in the dead-end job of being the newspaper’s secretary, while she really wants to be a writer. Since she is a single mother of a little girl, she knows she can’t be choosy. When Ellis’ dirty deed leads come to her attention, the two of them work together to try to make things right again.

Perhaps this book would have worked better, had the author based the story on these two children in the same manner that Wingate’s story was of the kidnapped children. Instead, the children become almost an afterthought with the attention focused on the two protagonists. Unfortunately, the author’s character development and ability to move a story along made this a book I slogged through. I finished the novel, but was left feeling that the story could have been so much more.

In her Afterword, we learn that surprisingly little is known about the real photograph. There apparently is some evidence, however, that the mother who was selling the children wasn’t doing it because she was poor, but instead, just because she wanted to be childless.

Here is a link to the book.