Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Wilding – Returning Nature to our Farm

By Isabella Tree
The New York Review of Books, 2018

North America has lost a third of its bird population in the last half century, we learned in a recent news report.

So it is with other parts of the world, too. Isabella Tree has written a fascinating and beautifully written book about her corner of the world, a 3,500 acre estate in Sussex, England, a place which had been farmed for centuries until costs outran income and Isabella and her husband Charlie Burrell could no long afford that way of life. All the equipment, pesticides, and herbicides they needed to farm the difficult clay soil had them deeply in debt.

In a radical move, they let the place run wild.

And the birds came back. And the butterflies, the worms, numerous insects, and a riotous resurgence of plants, trees, and scrub.

It all began in 1999 when a tree expert diagnosed the reason their ancient oaks were dying. The soil had been compacted when underground earthworms and mychorrhizae were destroyed by the action of tractors and the elimination of wildlife. Twenty years later, their estate is teeming with life, visible and invisible, and the Burrells have reintroduced to the land red, roe and fallow deer, Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth pigs. The couple now run safari tours of their land, and sell the organically raised meat of their cattle, making more money than they ever did as farmers.

Making money is not entirely the point, Tree emphasizes. But the need to survive financially drove the decision to rewild their estate. The miraculous regeneration of the land through letting nature take its course has astonished them as it has others. While some of their neighbors complain about the untidiness of their once neatly hedged farm, the Burrells revel in its rampant sexuality. That’s a big theme when animals and insects are closely observed. Who knew a purple emperor mating display could be so riveting? Tree’s gorgeous writing keeps the reader glued to the page.

This is an important book, and a hopeful one. The degradation of the planet through monoculture, through the use of artificial fertilizers and heavy equipment has taken place over the last hundred years. But in only twenty years, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell have reversed the course in the land they own. It’s a lesson for everyone.

Sorcery in Alpara

Sorcery in Alpara

By Judith Starkston


Judith Starkston draws us once again into the ancient world of the Bronze Age as she cleverly combines the story of an actual Hittite queen with fantasy elements. But that’s not all. Ms. Starkston’s great gift is to show us a world we can hardly begin to imagine, and yet she peoples it with characters we can recognize. The book starts when the priestess Tesha, newly married to King Hattu, is on her way, for the first time, to his kingdom, which is under threat. This is a very fast-paced and dramatic story, full of original elements. As we read we’re drawn into a vanished civilization’s customs, art, political alliances and superstitious beliefs. Yet the story also encompasses modern concerns like step-parenting, father-son relationships, PTSD, and disability and how it can be triumphantly managed. The nuanced and intelligent portrait of a marriage is the centerpiece of Sorcery in Alpara, giving the book remarkable depth and maturity.

Sorcery in Alpara on Amazon

The Perfectly Good Lie

By Rose Gonsoulin

Available on Amazon, 2019


Rose Gonsoulin captures the world of pro golf in her story of Buck Buchanan, initially a selfish, shallow competitor in the lower rungs of the professional circuit, a player in every sense of the word. It says a lot about the quality of the writing of this delightful book that despite Buck’s hard-heartedness the reader is hooked by the story. Buck must return home when his mother dies, and finds himself saddled with the care of his not-very-bright, video-game playing younger half-brother Art. In desperation, he makes Art his caddie. Gonsoulin has created a charming character in Art, who becomes Buck’s road to redemption. There’s not a second of sappiness, however, in this book. Ms. Gonsoulin’s snappy dialogue, great scene setting, characterization, fast pacing, her insight into the sometimes seedy world of sponsorship and her lyrical descriptions of how it is to play in a championship game kept this reader turning pages.

At the Far End of Nowhere

By Christine Davis Merriman

Green Writers Press, 2018


Sometimes you start a book, can’t put it down, and then, after you’ve let it sit a while, the questions it raises keep you up at night.

Such a book is Christine Davis Merriman’s debut novel. It is a quiet book, a story of an American family in the middle of the twentieth century. It is an unusual  family, in that the father is 72 years old when his daughter Lissa, the first person protagonist, is born. What radiates from this book is the love between father and daughter, and the security provided by parents who work together as a team to bring up their two children. There is little drama in this book, and yet by the time she is twenty-two, when the book ends, Lissa has gone through experiences that don’t happen for many people until they are much older; that is, shouldering the responsibility for care of parents and household.

The question this book raised for me is, what is good parenting? Was Lissa’s elderly father selfish in insisting his daughter give up a chance for college to look after him? Is it a kind of selfishness to delay fatherhood until one is in the eighth decade of life? Was it a help or a hindrance to Lissa that her father kept her more or less sequestered – able to win a local beauty contest yet scarcely allowed to date?

This is a novel about America at the dawning of the digital age, a place and time that could give a bright young man without a college degree an excellent job. It reminds us too, of the social turmoil of the nineteen sixties and seventies; the disaster of the Vietnam War affecting all aspects of life. When Lissa attends USO dances, the only social activity her father permits, the fading, dusty, nineteen-forties décor of the club symbolizes the fracture of a country going to war for reasons that no longer made sense.

Throughout this lyrically written novel I felt a sense of danger always kept at bay, just barely, by the love of the family members for one another. The love was all- encompassing, secure, yet isolating in the extreme. The story becomes heartbreaking when the mother, Jimmie, dies young. Lissa’s sense of disorientation, of not knowing how to become a young woman without a mother’s guidance, is poignantly told. In addition, with Jimmie’s death the family’s main source of income and outside relationships dries up. Again, I asked the question, what makes good parenting? Family live nearby. It is an era when neighbors and friends were supposed to pitch in, and this conservative family certainly took no government help. But the children’s father makes no effort to involve anyone else in helping bring up the children. None of this is stated as a loss. Yet this reader felt it keenly.

At first I thought this book was an autobiography, and indeed, the author’s website indicates that she, like her protagonist Lissa, was born in 1950 to a mother who was 37 and a father who was 72 and often mistaken for her grandfather. As in the novel, the author’s mother died young and she took care of her father till he died. Christine Davis Merriman has turned this rich material into a novel, and her gift for language has turned life into real art.

Without A Mother

The recent New York Times Op Ed by Hope Edelman hit a chord. Entitled “I Couldn’t Say ‘My Mother’ Without Crying” the article’s theme is that “There’s no quick fix for childhood grief.”

Hundreds of people commented and September 1’s letters column was full of responses.

I look forward to reading Edelman’s new book The Aftergrief. It’s not a happy subject. But it is one that has always been at the back of my mind. Why am I interested? I did not have the misfortune of losing my own dear mother when I was a child.

But she did.

My mother lost her own when she was twelve years old. Her mother, Stella, died of lymphoma at the age of thirty-six. On the cusp of adolescence, my mother and her younger sister had to go and live with their grandmother. While loving, “Gran” was old fashioned and weary after raising her own brood of ten.

Years later my mother told me, tears in her eyes, that she and her sister were not allowed to go to their mother’s funeral, and stayed home alone. When he returned from the burial, their father built a big bonfire in the back yard and burned all their mother’s clothes. And the next day at school, they entered a culture of silence. Neither teachers nor friends mentioned their loss.

This repression haunted my mother ever after. She lived her entire life hiding her never-ending grief, and her anxiety grew and grew.

People often ask what inspires an author. “Is your story autobiographical?” they want to know. Usually it is not. But I do know that in writing my new novel, now finished and awaiting a published home, I drew on what I knew about my mother’s grief. In my book, my protagonist, Maelle, lost her mother at the age of ten in mysterious circumstances. Sent to live with her grandparents, she, like my mother, entered a culture of silence. No one would talk about why and how her mother had died.

That’s where my imagination took off and I created a mystery and a totally fictional family.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of my book’s journey to publication.


“Coping” by Brian Leon of Ottawa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Summer of 69

 Elin HilderbrandBy Elin Hilderbrand

Little, Brown & Company, 2019


As the summer winds down and fifty years after 1969, I picked up this book. I had never read this best-selling author before. Realizing that the book was based in Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, I was immediately hooked. In fact, I read the book compulsively from cover to cover. The story features four point of view protagonists, challenging for an author, and I admire the way Hilderbrand kept all their stories in control.

The four are all members of the Foley-Levin family; Kate, forty-eight, the mother of Blair who is married and pregnant, Kirby, at college and rebellious, Tiger, who has been drafted and sent to Vietnam, and thirteen -year -old Jessica, who is the daughter of David Levin, Kate’s second husband. The family could not be more upper-crust and conventional. A military family, even. Kate’s first husband Wilder Foley, had served in Korea, and died on his return, possibly a victim of PTSD.

Conventional and comfortable they may be, but the entire family is against the Vietnam War, and when Tiger is called up, Kate goes to pieces. Hilderbrand paints a fine portrait of this immature, spoiled woman, who actually believes the handyman at her family’s summer residence on Nantucket can pull strings, through a distant, third hand acquaintance with General Abrams, to remove her son from danger. As the story moves through July, and the landing on the moon, which happens the same day Blair has twins, the author reminds us that even though war guts us, intimate events like birth and historic events like the moonshot keep us moving forward, all little swimmers in a great steam of history.

The book is full of time markers, with music, food, and lifestyles accurately rendered. A few caveats, however. Jessica is invited to go to Woodstock; she anticipates sleeping in the back of “someone’s truck” after listening to the bands. There’s no way a thirteen-year-old could imagine this is how Woodstock would play out. I’d bet that she’d barely know where Woodstock is, let alone how a huge rock concert could get out of control. This is a girl who at thirteen has be
walked to tennis lessons by her grandmother. She’s exceptionally sheltered, in my view. However, Jessica is the best drawn character in the book.

“Sheltered” is how I would describe all the book’s characters, except of course, Tiger, who is in active combat. Whether Hilderbrand meant to make this point – that for Americans, no matter what their circumstances, life is protected and safe, while the rest of the world spins into terror – is unclear. Hilderbrand lives on the magical island of Nantucket and sets all her books there. Yet for many Americans, life is not easy at all and never was. Hilderbrand alludes to many of the issues that surrounded this era of social change, including civil rights and the lack of access to legal abortion. Yet she skims over the consequences. The African-American characters in the book are upper middle class, summering at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, hardly the people for whom civil rights activists were risking their lives. Anti-Semitism is called an issue, yet we never see evidence of such prejudice, except in the grandmother, and even then, Jessica, her half-Jewish granddaughter, is her favorite. And even Kirby, the “activist” who attends anti-war demonstrations, is never in danger. There’s always the country club for these characters.

Fifty years on, the summer of 1969 is worth talking about. I would argue that 1968 was the more transformative, with student rebellions happening all over the world, and political assassinations, (Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King) bringing in their wake more profound change. But truly, not much changed that year on Nantucket. And not much does, in this book. Of course, many a famed writer took a small domestic situation to make a point about human nature while war was
exploding off the scene (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf). But those writers never claimed to be writing about “the most tumultuous summer of xxx century”, to paraphrase this book’s cover. While The Summer of ‘69” was a truly enjoyable read, and I admire Hilderbrand’s professional skill, I’m still waiting for the definitive novel set in this amazing time in history.

My Dear Hamilton

My Dear Hamilton book reviewBy Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Kindle edition, 2018


Alexander Hamilton is having a moment. A very long one, if the success of the musical of the same name is anything to go by. And Hamilton gets by far the biggest billing as one of the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia’s new, magnificent Museum of the American Revolution.

But what of the woman who married him?

In this engrossing novel, Dray and Kamoie bring Elizabeth Schuyler to life as a first person narrator. I relished the wonderfully detailed descriptions of everyday life in the New Netherlandish home of General Schuyler and his family, and then, in the home that Eliza (also known as Betsy) and Alexander make for themselves after their 1780 marriage. Despite being raised in wealth and comfort Elizabeth is no brainless belle. She knows the war and its stakes intimately from her childhood and is fully committed to the cause.

The Revolutionary War drags on and on. It is almost lost, time and again. Even after the bloodshed is over, the union is fragile. The authors bring this point home vividly. The relationships between the Washingtons and the Hamiltons, and between them and other figures such as Lafayette, Jefferson, and Madison are complicated and convincingly told.

This is a long book, covering Elizabeth’s life from her coming of age until her eighties. She lived until she was ninety-seven. She was married to Alexander Hamilton for twenty-four years until his death in a duel with Aaron Burr. These tumultuous years included Hamilton’s involvement in factions and feuds between the Founding Fathers, with the new Republic threatening to break apart several times, and his passionate, even desperate, work to create the foundational
infrastructure to make it viable. Hamilton was involved in so much that the authors have to compress many details, as they tell us in the afterword. His brilliance is palpable, however, in the telling of the story. As is his egotism and occasional recklessness.

For Betsy, these twenty-four years included the birth of eight children and one miscarriage. The story of their marriage is the heart of the book. Elizabeth’s reaction as the humiliated wife of a politician whose extra-marital affair was made public is poignantly told. Yet for Hamilton, raised as an orphan, family was as important as it was to Elizabeth. In an age when childhood deaths were commonplace, the fact that the Hamilton kids all survived to adulthood is a testament to the capability of their mother. But she was also more than a wife and mother. We see Betsy reflecting uncomfortably on the fact that slavery was endemic in her society, and her horror at the conditions under which the Revolutionary War’s ordinary soldiers suffered and the brutal treatment of deserters and mutineers. Her charity work on behalf of widows and orphans was prodigious.

The evidence shows that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was her husband’s equal partner as much as it was possible to be, even helping him draft some of his writings. She knew from her earliest years the most famous men of the age, and evidence also shows they regarded her with respect. Hamilton’s complicated and ultimately unknowable emotional life as discovered by his wife after his death deals her a blow as great as the death itself. How she lived her long life after being widowed at forty -six demonstrates her strength of character.

The afterword of this book explains the depth of research undertaken by the authors, and their access to the trove of correspondence that survives, much of it due to the efforts of Elizabeth Hamilton herself, who searched for years to obtain it. The effort she put into this (much of the correspondence was hidden for political and personal reasons) shows, the authors surmise, not only that his widow wanted to make the world understand her husband’s greatness, but also that she herself wanted truly to know and understand him.

Lithuanian Roots in American Soil

Lithuanian Roots in American SoilBy Audrone Barunas Willke and Danute Barunas
Amazon CreateSpace
2nd edition, 2015

Refugees are again in the news. But the dislocations of World War II left millions homeless and stateless.

In this riveting memoir, Audrone Willke and her sister, Danute Barunas, describe their trans-Atlantic move to Boston as small children in a Lithuanian family. Interweaving her own memories with the memoirs of her father, we get a picture of what life was like for new immigrants to the United States in the middle part of the last century.

Lithuania, had been part of the Russian empire under the czars, but during World War I it was occupied by Germans, and the villages impoverished. At the end of the war, the country had a brief period of independent democracy from 1918 to 1926. In World War II Lithuania was taken over by the Soviets. Mass deportations to Siberia occurred, and members of the Barunas family were among the victims. In 1941 the Nazi’s occupied the country, and after they lost war, Lithuania was once again in the hands of the Russians. In this atmosphere of fear, poverty, and hunger, Audrone and Danute’s parents educated themselves and married. As the Germans started to retreat from Lithuania towards the end of 1944, and the Soviets pushed towards Lithuania, the population feared a new reign of terror under Stalin. So the family escaped by train to Germany where bombings and extreme hunger awaited them. Finally, the war ended and they went to a displaced persons’ camp. By now a family with four children, the Barunas’ were lucky to find a sponsor in Brockton, Massachusetts, and emigrated at the end of 1949.

The second half of the book describes how a non-English speaking family can find work, buy a house, educate their children, and assimilate in a country that accepts them willingly. Audrone met her husband, Dr. Klaus Willeke, a German immigrant, at Stanford University when both were studying for their doctorates. Now a retired professor, Dr Willike’s book shows what immigrants offer to a culture. Her story is a testament to an America that once was, and that could be, again.

Summertime and the Living is Easy

Hedgehog SliceIt is mid-July, the very height of summer in the US.

Vacation season, or in my case, party time! Sunday we made brunch for about fifteen friends and neighbors. Among the recipes I debuted was this “hedgehog slice”. A childhood treat in Australia, my home country, I had never made it before.

Channeling my creative caterer protagonist, Camilla, in Lipstick on the Strawberry, I managed to combine a couple of recipes, swapping grams for ounces, and a slight change of ingredients to come up with this winner! I hope you like it.

By the way, I have absolutely no idea how this dessert treat got its name. Like most wonderful recipes, the first hedgehog probably came about when guests were expected with short notice and the inventive cook had to source from whatever she had to hand. Made of crushed cookies, condensed milk, coconut, butter, nuts and chocolate, it looks nothing like a hedgehog. It is utterly scrumptious.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients
I package, or 2 ½ cups mild flavored cookies, roughly broken up
½ cup shredded coconut
2 tbs cocoa powder
½ cup chopped walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans
3 blocks 70% cocoa content bittersweet chocolate, 4 oz each, divided in two
½ cup butter, salted or unsalted, depending on taste, divided in two
1 cup sweetened condensed milk – i.e. one small can

Method
Prepare a brownie pan by lining bottom and sides with parchment paper, making sure there is
enough paper to hang over the side of the pan to make removal easy.

Crush the cookies in a food processor, or place in a zip-lock bag and crush with a rolling pin till
they are the texture of breadcrumbs

In a large bowl, stir the crushed cookies together with the cocoa powder, coconut and chopped
nuts.

In a microwave -safe bowl, break up half the chocolate, and mix with half the butter and the
condensed milk. Heat until melted and creamy, stopping the microwave to stir frequently.
This should take about two minutes. Or use the old-fashioned method of heating in a double
boiler over a pan of simmering water, and stirring until melted, 5-8 minutes.

Pour the melted mixture over the dry ingredients and mix with a spatula until it all comes
together. When everything is covered with the chocolate/butter cream, pour it all into the
prepared pan, and smooth with the side of the spatula.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until firm. When ready to proceed with making the
topping, remove the pan from the fridge.

Now make the chocolate topping: Place ¼ cup butter and the rest of the chocolate in a bowl
and microwave until melted and creamy. Or double boil it as above.

Pour the topping over the hedgehog, smoothing it completely. Cover with plastic wrap and put
back in the fridge for at least one hour or overnight.

To serve, lift up the parchment paper with the hedgehog mix inside and place on a chopping
block. Carefully score the surface into vertical and horizontal strips, as if you were cutting
brownies. Cut carefully into small squares. Take up from the parchment paper and arrange the
squares decoratively on a plate to serve.