history

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This 2013 novel of displacement and tested principles set in 1850s Ohio sees Tracy Chevalier back on top form. The unobtrusive detail translated into a supremely believable setting, and the naturalistic characters were of the right muddy quality to illustrate the compromises and contradictions inherent in the situation.

Honor is a Quaker from a town in Dorset. She’s grown up in a happy family within a close community, but for reasons not always clear even to herself she decides to accompany her older sister as she emigrates to semi-rural Ohio in 1850. The rest of the novel is, in part, about the overthrowing of everything Honor has known, the feeling of dislocation, of not belonging, and her attempts to make a new place for herself among people she doesn’t understand.

Quakers believe everyone is equal before God, and in Dorset where there are no black slaves, it’s always been easy to stick to that principle. Honor is shocked to find segregated pews in a Quaker meeting house on her way across America, and when she reaches Ohio -sandwiched between slave states and the Canadian border, and therefore regularly crossed by fugitive slaves – she finds that principles sometimes bend under the weight of reality, even among her religious community. The new Fugitive Slave Law imposing fines on those who refuse when asked to help recapture fugitives only makes things worse.

I thought the little differences were picked up on brilliantly, the constant subtle reminders that Honor is not at home. There are different words for common items, the same words for different flowers or trees. The birds and animals so common to the locals are exotic to Honor, and for a town girl the self-sufficiency and isolation are disturbing. Even the quilts Honor spends so much time sewing use different techniques and patterns on the other side of the Atlantic.

This could so easily have been a depressing novel, but although it has its dark moments there is a thread of hope, and the characters laugh and love like normal people. The Last Runaway makes you examine slavery and abolition, equality and altruism via people – not abstract concepts or amorphous groups (slaves, slave-hunters, Quakers, women) but individual characters with different motivations. In particular circumstances how many of us would stick firmly to what we believe in and stand up for weaker neighbours? Would we at least waver a bit, even if we acted for the greater good in the end?

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Tracy Chevalier novel before, you’ll probably love this one. Or if you like a hint of romance and adventure with your political history, give it a try.

Blog tour guest from the Short Story Club

Welcome, Jo Tiddy, next stop on the My Writing Process blog tour. Take it away, Jo…

It was great to hear from Thousand Monkeys, a stalwart of the Telegraph Short Story Club, and be asked to submit my thoughts on what I write and why. Thank you also for hosting me. Alas for the blog world out there, the tour is likely to come to a crashing stop with me. I am a luddite, I operate on a steam powered laptop, I can’t get my head round twitter and I don’t have a blog, Neither do I know many writing people who do, except those who have already been on the tour. So, sorry chaps, in advance. With hope, and a fair wind behind me, I will grasp this whole blogging thing and get set up….

What am I working on?

I am working on a number of things. Or should be. However I have changed jobs, moved house and waved No 1 child off to university in the course of the past few weeks, so not much writing has been done. I mostly write short stories, on all sorts of topics, though I like to visit my own past as a child growing up in Africa.

I have also been working on a novel for teens, with a medieval bent, though it’s set in a dystopian future, just like 5 million other YA novels currently out there. I am losing interest in it fast it must be said. I am thinking of revisiting a novel I started on some time ago, set in 16th century East Africa during the Portuguese occupation of the Swahili coast. What I really need to do is get back into some sort of routine(see below), and get on with it.

Although I don’t specifically write for younger children I have contributed to the upcoming Mumsnet/Walker Book of Animal Stories, published October 2. Maybe this is a direction I could focus on more in the future.

How does my work differ from other in its genre?

I don’t have a genre as such. I’m not a romance writer, or even slightly funny – I can’t do comedy. Obviously my YA novel is identical to every other one in the field. I trained as a historian, so I like to incorporate historical elements into my stories; the ones set in the past tend to have been more successful than any modern stuff I write. I would like my writing to be different to anyone else’s – I suspect that it’s not.

My new job is in an independent bookshop, http://thebookhousethame.co.uk/ which is a fantastic place to work. The main problem is that I am now aware of how many books are out there in so many genres, and I will never get a chance to read them all.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m quite new to writing. I used to tinker, but was busy carving out a career in local government (boo), raising a family, having a life. Three years ago I developed ME and life changed overnight. I spent 6 months on the sofa weeping with self-pity and despair. Eventually I turned to writing as a way of dealing with it. I found that raging at the page was a great way of offloading, and saving my family from having to listen to me whine. I began to get some semblance of a life back, albeit at a much slower level. Much of what I write tends to have dark undertones, layers of the anxiety that I often have to fight. But I am a believer in redemption, and the thought that even during dark times there is always hope. I think this comes across in the things I write. I’m also drawn to childhood memories, growing up in Africa and changing that lifestyle for a completely different continent when I was eighteen has left its mark on me, left me feeling, at times, rootless.

My writing process

I find my best ideas come from prompts. The Short Story Club has always been brilliant for this, throwing out an idea, or a phrase, and letting us all just run with it. The members have been so supportive, and friendly, and open hearted, and many of my stories have had their genesis there. It’s useful to have the feedback. Otherwise I delve into memories, or listen to music, pick up a refrain and build a story from that. I read a lot – too much sometimes; it’s a great displacement activity. Any of this can spark a story off.

When I was working lunchtimes in a school my day had a bit of routine. Get up, offload kids, walk dog, do morning pages (a la Julia Cameron). Half an hour or so of just scribbling anything that came into my head onto a blank page, always black fountain pen, always longhand, mostly whingeing. Go to work, come home, do it in reverse. Solitary dog walking is great, not only for observing changes in a familiar place during the course of the seasons, but for tramping out ideas. If I got stuck I’d disappear off to my shed and sew – another fairly mindless activity that allowed my brain to unravel knots. Now though, I work three full days a week and am often too tired to think by the end of them. I’ve moved, from suburbia to the wilds of the countryside, a low lying village surrounded by floodplain and wet for half the year. The land around has never been cultivated, is a palimpsest of older times – strip lynchets, old drovers routes, these all remain. It’s quiet, so quiet, and my “home” days are longer. I will need to construct a new routine, and find new paths to walk in this undiscovered countryside.

I do belong to a writers group – we are a small and haphazard bunch, who really need to get organised. We meet up once a month, to discuss our writing, but like many book clubs we descend into gossip and chat quite quickly. It’s useful to have the feedback, but we are all working on different things. There is talk of a blog (hah) – maybe that will happen once I’ve got to grips with sorting my own out.

Apologies for having no one to pass this on to as yet. I have asked around, and as soon as I do I will link it up on twitter. I have been asked to talk to a group of A2 students at the local college about short story writing, so I think that I will direct them to this blog tour so they can explore the huge variety of writers and their different approaches to the craft. Being young and tech savvy they will have no problems……

In the meantime you can find me on Twitter: @jo_tiddy, @the_book_house. (I think)

 

Anniversaries and remembrance of things past

WordPress sent me a cheery anniversary message today, 6 years of blissful blogging. Apart from making me shudder (as anniversaries tend to do) at the speed with which life seems to slither past, it made me think about anniversaries and reading.

The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war burst upon us this week in a cloud of poppies and subdued pride (yes, some people did some brave and amazing things but wouldn’t it have been marvellous if they’d never been in that situation in the first place) and it’s been nudging me towards re-reading Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, or more likely digging out my battered old hardback Wilfred Owen. Aside from poetry, which doesn’t seem to count in the re-reading stakes, I’d rather turn up books from or about the war that I haven’t already read (what with life slithering past at an alarming rate and there being only so many books a person can fit in) so if anyone has any recommendations, let me know. In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard was a good one I read and reviewed recently.

Undoubtedly there are many people reading around world war one this year, but what about other anniversaries or major events? Do you have a book you re-read every birthday, or on the anniversary of some treaty or battle, or the day you left school? I’ve said before that Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every December, but I don’t have anything similar (except a couple of cartoon books) since I rarely re-read books (though I have been revisiting Psmith these last couple of weeks, via the pages of PG Wodehouse, and most glad I am about it. First borrowed in paperback from BB over 20 years ago and now freely available for e-readers, hurrah).

So the question is, I suppose – should I? Are there any books I should build into my year, leave a free weekend for or dip into to revive memories (my own or other people’s)? Even as I typed that I got a sudden flash of a book I read a few times as a child and haven’t seen or probably thought about for nearly 20 years, An Inch of Candle by Alison Leonard. It’s set in world war one but beyond the possibility that the girl scandalously rides a bike, I can’t remember a thing (and a quick google makes me none the wiser). I wouldn’t want to remind myself any further by actually reading bits of it, it might not be as good as the memory. Which I think answers my question: remember the old, but use the occasion to find something new. There’s a whole world of books waiting.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.

At Home by Bill Bryson

As a rule I like Bill Bryson books, they’re cosy while not being afraid to point out some uncomfortable truths, and they’re usually quite funny while they’re about it. At Home definitely had its funny moments, and a plethora of interesting facts, but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

At Home is subtitled ‘A Short History of Private Life’, and promises to give us insights into history via a tour of Bryson’s Norfolk rectory; the chapters are named after each of the rooms in his house. I enjoyed (via the iplayer) Lucy Worsley’s TV series If Walls Could Talk, in which she explored the changing nature of household life and the notion of privacy by looking at the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room over the centuries, and I anticipated something similar in this book. Though probably with a  lot more asides and entertaining anecdotes.

In the end I think I found there were so many asides I lost track of the point, if there ever was one. In some chapters I was left with the feeling that he’d dug up some fascinating stories and couldn’t think of an obvious way to tie them to a room, so he’d sort of shoe-horned them in using a link so tenuous it had become invisible. The book is brimming with enthusiasm, as is usually the case with Bill Bryson, and I did enjoy (and read to the long-suffering OneMonkey) most of it, plus I learnt a few things (always a good thing when reading). However, it did feel a bit like a jumble at times, more like one of those books they put out at Christmas and people keep by the toilet for occasional browsing, than a history of anything in particular.

One (minor) niggle was that while he’s using an English house as a starting point, and mainly talking about English history, occasionally he’ll drop something American in. Logical, you might say – he is American, after all – but there was the odd startling fact that made me sit up and say ‘Really? I never knew that’ then it would become clear that I never knew that because it’s not true over here. That would have been fine, but there were places where I wasn’t sure if he meant in England, America or both, and I was left wondering.

All that said, I would imagine if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bill Bryson book you will find much to please you in At Home, particularly if you go into it without expecting much of a thread.