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Beneath the Apple Leaves

By Harmony Verna
Kensington, 2017

As in her previous historical novel, Daughter of Australia, the landscape becomes a character in Harmony Verna’s Beneath the Apple Leaves.

This time the landscape is as it was in the early twentieth century in the Eastern United States, and in most of the novel, in farmland around Pittsburgh.

Harmony Verna’s book tells a story of Andrew Houghton, a coal-miner’s son, who believed he was destined to be a veterinarian until his father died, his mother left the country, and he was badly injured in an accident. Andrew goes to live with his young aunt Eveline and her husband, Willhelm Kiser. Misfortune follows the family as anti-German sentiment intensifies when America enters World War I.

The author displays compassion for her characters, giving them all too-human faults and complicated emotions. One of her skills is to convey her characters’ negative traits and behaviors while showing us how these coexist with the good, keeping us invested in their fates.

As Harmony Verna tells it, life was hard for simple people in the early years of last century. Her research must have been prodigious as she tells a story of physical discomfort, cold, hard labor, dreadful medical practices, domestic abuse. Yet her descriptions of the landscape are lyrical. Her characters draw strength from it, trying to make things better. Her empathy for the people who lived before us is remarkable.

For warmth of characterization, some truly gorgeous prose and hard-to- put-down action, Harmony Verna’s writing excels. A lovely book.

The Two Family House

By Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016


This debut novel captures a time, a place and a culture – a Jewish community in New York in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Two brothers settle their families in one two-family house in Brooklyn. The brothers work together, and as their fortunes improve, one family after the other moves out of the house and to the suburbs of Long Island.

But this is not the plot. Without being a spoiler, I can say that this story revolves around the sisters-in- law, Rose, wife of Mort, and Helen, wife of Abe. Helen has four boys and wants a girl, and Rose has three girls and longs for a boy to satisfy her unhappy husband.

This novel is remarkable in that Loigman so deeply and honestly probes the emotions of the female characters. The story aroused all sorts of complicated feelings in me.

Many cultures have and do still value the birth of boys over girls. Yet parents of girls consistently say they feel closer to girls. This is true of both fathers and mothers.

For me, being the only girl in a big family of brothers, and growing up to have sons but not daughters, family life involved a certain rough and tumble, noise and mayhem. Dainty it was not. On the plus side, being an only girl carried with it a sense of specialness. And I’ve always felt I understood men and forgave them for their lapses. All men, to me, are at their core vulnerable little boys and I’ve never felt that they were the enemy.

Yet I always wanted a sister and a daughter and envied my mother’s own close relationship with her sisters. I also remember an acquaintance who had two sons and a daughter. She lost her daughter to cancer and said the loss was so enormous because with the boys “it was not the same.”

Loigman raises several questions: One is how far should a woman go to give her husband a son if that is the only thing that will please him? And are all sisters really good friends and confidantes? Do all mothers like their daughters? What if neither mother nor father cares for them deeply, since none satisfies the desperate need for a boy? Or conversely, will a mother who gets a girl be happier in the long term than the one who gets a boy?

This story is told in several viewpoints, those of the two brothers and their wives, and that of two of the girls. The four boys of Abe and Helen who are already born by the start of the book are distinguishable only by name. Whether Loigman is making a point about gender – that girls are more complicated and interesting – or simply letting the story tell itself from the point of view of those most affected by the plot’s premise is unspoken. This is a book that will linger for me, with its layers of questions and emotions.