The third of articles I wrote for My Itchy Travel Feet appeared last week. The three all portrayed parts of our June road trip in Southern states, including three I had not visited before–Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.
On our southern road trip, we wanted to cut through the northeastern corner of Alabama on our way from the Atlanta Georgia airport to Chattanooga TN. Not the direct route, but new territory to cover. I found some little-known byways and a couple of terrific parks (one in Alabama and one in Georgia) on this road trip. You can read about it at Exploring the South’s Little Known 3-State Byway.
To review other articles on our June Southern Road Trip:
Book: A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany by Sigrid MacRae (First published in 2014. NEW in paperback, August 2015.)
The year is not over, but I am already betting this will be near the top of my Best Ten Books at A Traveler’s Library for 2015. Pardon me if I gush, but Sigrid MacRae won me over beginning with her prologue, which describes the challenges of writing family history. As you may have noticed, I do a bit of that myself, and putting together oral history, documentation and letters into a real story can be quite a challenge. MacRae has written a family history that reads like a novel. Well done!
After explaining her sources, the questions she had about her young parents, and how different the woman in the love letters is from the mother she knew, she says this:
“What had brought such an unlikely pair together? And where did their eventual alliance leave me? Accidents of history had joined them, and the entangled mysteries of love, sex, and money. How they had shaped me was yet to be determined, but where should the story of two lives whose strands ran separately far longer than they had been knitted together begin?…Tangents , vagaries, shifts, and turns are uncomfortable in the tyranny of chronology, yet history is tyranny too, and the convulsive history of the century that shaped my parents’ lives refused to obey any other imperative.”
These thoughts are familiar to anyone who is dealing with his or her own family history. But I had more questions about her family. Was love so blind that her mother did not understand what a dangerous place Germany was becoming in the 1930’s? How does one continue to love a father who is a Nazi? What prepared her privileged, upper class mother for the incredible struggles she would have trying to leave Germany after the war–particularly with six children? Why did she not leave earlier?
I won’t try to outline how MacRae answers my questions, but she does answer them as well as her own, at least to her own satisfaction. Some may think she is a little too easy on her father, but I admire the non-judgmental way she presents history. Since “history is written by the victors”, we rarely get to read about the life of the dispossessed aristocracy of Germany who had settled in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg. Those people suffered the same destruction of their lives as the Russian nobility. (Read about the Russian emigres in this book review.)
MacRae’s father, Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene, came from that line of German aristocracy. Some reader’s reviews at Amazon complain about too much time in the book being spent on the von Hoyningen-Huene family–I think of it as the begats–but I was fascinated by the enormous family with its conservative traditions and enthusiasm for learning and culture. They certainly shaped the handsome Heinrich into an intelligent man with a restless, searching mind and a sometimes overly optimistic view of the world. After all, their family had survived upheavals of history before, so surely they could survive the Russian Revolution and the rise of Nazism.
Aimée seemingly has more concerns about the Nazis than her optimistic husband, and mentions their treatment of Jews, but MacRae drops the subject of the persecution of Jews after the original mention. Of course, she would have no way of knowing what her father thought, how much he knew, whether he was guilty of at least complicity by silence. He was, after all, an intelligence officer–and that means propaganda. Perhaps she is wise to stick to describing the places she knew her father was, the battles she knew he took part in, than speculating about his part in the more publicized result of Hitler’s regime.
Her mother’s life, which started out so ideally–American with wealth travels as she wishes, meets a handsome–well, not a prince, but close– and falls madly in love. They marry and repair to an idyllic farm in the German countryside where they have five children. Then Hitler, World War, Heinrich a soldier, and economic disaster. On a leave, a sixth child, the author of the book, is conceived.
The rest of the story I leave to you to read. The writing is intelligent and lovely. As you read passages from the letters of Heinrich and to a lesser extent from Aimée, MacRae’s father and mother, you can see where the writing genes came from. Heinrich is poetic (in several languages) and as a student of history, his letters are packed with references to important people and events of the past. Aimée writes with a lively, enthusiasm that makes you love her from the start.
Maps and family pictures complete the book’s ability to bring to life this unlikely family in a very unusual time and place. And I found those maps to be calling me to visit some places in Germany that I did not previously know about.
Note: The publisher provided me with the paperback of this book for review. That is standard practice, and has no influence on what I recommend to you.
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One more summer read before you put away your summer whites and get back to the work-a-day-world. What could be more appropriate than a book about a woman who famously decided to wear white every day? In Miss Emily, Nuala O’Connor a writer well-known in her native Ireland as Nuala ní Chonchúir, makes her American debut with a book about the quintessential New Englander, Emily Dickinson. And a stunning debut it is.
As I started reading, I realized what an enormous challenge O’Connor had taken on. First, she’s Irish, creating the Amherst of late 19th century New England–a very different place than her native land and time. Second, inevitably people will compare her style to the poetry of a renowned poet. Third, Emily had a notoriously reclusive life, making her life a difficult subject for story telling.
Where’s the drama in the life of a woman who sits in her room, peers out the cupola window on the roof, and occasionally ventures into the kitchen to bake? (I have written about the Emily Dickinson Black Cakethat I make every year.) A zillion or so biographies of Emily have familiarized us with her uneventful life. Some spiced it up with speculative love affairs–with men or with women, and indeed Miss Emily leaves us wondering about the nature of the relationship of Emily and her beloved sister-in-law, Sue.
O’Connor, I quickly learned, is up to the task of juggling a challenge. First, she creates a fascinating character as a foil for Emily’s sedate life. The young Irish maid, Ada, not only breathes life into the Dickinson manse, but her quick mind and poetic expressions make her a worthy companion for the odd buy kindly Emily. In fact, Ada quite upstages Emily throughout the book.
The writing is delicious. O’Connor steeped herself in Dickinson’s poetry, so that we here the poet’s thoughts expressed in scraps that sound familiar. Fully formed they will become the poems we already know.
Matching Emily’s rather airy philosophies, we have the down-to-earth poetry of Irish sayings passed on by Ada from her grandmother or mother.
One that was very meaningful to me, because I express similar sentiments in my other website, Ancestors in Aprons, is the way that everything Ada does reminds her of her “Mammy” and “Granny.” As she greases her boots with butter, she thinks,
Even the smell of the butter brings her near to me; it was she who taught me to churn and it was Granny Dunn who taught her before that. The butter I make is the daughter of Mammy’s butter just as I am hers.
In another place, Ada is sitting with her boyfriend.
We sat on, and the sky grew black, as if all the crows of the world flew wing on wing together, a dark gathering to blot out the moon and stars. The wavery whistle of a gosling carried up from the farm below….The young goose went on to speak as all geese do, in gabbles and blasts and strings of sentences, and we listened to its chatter for a long time before it fell silent and the night was ours alone.
It is passages like these that make you begin to wonder just who is the poet and who is the unschooled Irish maid.
O’Connor, writing under her Irish name Nuala ní Chonchúir has written poetry as well as fiction, so she seems to have a visceral understanding of the way that Emily thinks and how to squeeze the most out of every word and sentence.
Because the focus here is more on words and thoughts than action, the book goes slowly. The middle section bogs down a bit and I wondered if anything was ever going to happen to either woman. But excitement breaks out in the final third of the book.
Emily describes her usual life compared to an uncharacteristic morning run through town with Ada in an emergency situation.
I remain sequestered at home by my own choice or by some reason that is mine but lives outside me. But oh, the morning air fills the lungs with such vigor when you move through it at a pace. The street air holds Ada and me, and it passes us along with a high energy, handing us from one step to the next.
It makes one wonder if Emily ever had the opportunity to do something similar, and question her reclusiveness.
Ada’s character also serves to inject the dramatic (and romantic) moments into the story that a novel about Emily alone would fail to provide. Ada falls in love with one man and is injured by another. Emily is drawn out of her retreat from the world in an attempt to help the maid who has become indispensable, not just for housework, but also for companionship.
Although this is a novel, and not a biography, the reader gains a lot of insight into what makes Emily Dickinson tick as we meet her family and see her town through both her eyes and Ada’s. I began the book thinking what a large task O’Connor had undertaken, and finished with gratefulness that she manged it so beautifully.