The following reviews first appeared in the November 2015 online and print editions of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.
TWAIN AND STANLEY ENTER PARADISE, Oscar Hijuelos, Grand Central
In an interesting life-imitates-art twist, the widow of famed author Oscar Hijuelos was the force behind the posthumous publication of this, his final work, which in part describes the effort of the widow of famed author and explorer Henry Morton Stanley to posthumously publish his final work. The novel traces the long and unlikely friendship between Welshman Stanley and American Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, which started when they were young unknowns and continued as they became two of the most famous authors in the English language. We get a more detailed look at Stanley, from his unhappy and impoverished childhood through the fame that started with his successful rescue of missionary David Livingstone and later exploration—many charged it exploitation—of the Congo for Belgium’s King Leopold, and finally a hard-won, bittersweet happiness with his wife, socialite and famed portraitist Dorothy Tennant, and their adopted son, Denzil. Hijuelos presents a man scarred by rejection and desperate to prove himself, in sharp contrast to Samuel Clemens, who seems forever comfortable in his own skin, even as life and his own poor financial choices deal him some heavy blows.
Though the novel was more than ten years in the making, it’s tempting to wonder whether Hijuelos considered it finished. The author fails to make his characters flesh and blood, instead holding everyone at arm’s length. It reads so much like a biography for the first two-thirds that there is a temptation to cry foul when the author finally ascribes thoughts or feelings to his subjects. A biography must demure on details not in the historical record, but Hijuelos chose to make these historical figures characters in a novel without offering his readers the intimacy a novel should provide. It is that lack of intimacy that makes this interesting work ultimately unsatisfying.
A FREE STATE, Tom Piazza, Harper
Tom Piazza often writes about jazz and blues, and their various ethnic and cultural origins and influences. In his latest novel, A Free State, Piazza reaches even farther back in American music traditions to reflect on the odd phenomenon of the minstrel show, which was all the rage in the North ahead of the Civil War. The straightforward story brings together Joseph—who later takes the name Henry Sims—an escaped slave who is also a talented musician and performer; James, the performer/manager of a Philadelphia-based minstrel troupe that needs a big headliner to remain competitive; and Tull Burton, a brutal slave hunter sent to recapture Joseph/Henry dead or alive.
Henry is the son of a slave who was the current favorite of the master, which explains Henry’s light skin and green eyes. He and James have parallel stories: they are both self-made men from distinctly underprivileged circumstances who developed their natural talents to make a better life. The primary difference is that it was not against the law for James to run away from his home and change his name. When James sees Henry’s mesmerizing street performance, he knows that the Virginia Harmonists, “purveyors of Ethiopian airs, plantation jigs, and every variety of Negro jollity,” need him to join their show, though that’s against the law, too. Henry is a born showman in a time and place that demands he remain hidden. To be free, to escape being hunted, Henry must make it to Canada, but it’s not where he wants to be. If he has to go where he doesn’t want to go, how is that freedom? Piazza leaves the threads of the story open-ended, with that question left unanswered.
A PLACE WE KNEW WELL, Susan Carol McCarthy, Bantam
It turns out that Susan Carol McCarthy’s latest novel, A Place We Knew Well, is a far truer story than readers may at first imagine. McCarthy lived in Orlando, Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that white-knuckle showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that unfolded over little more than a week in October 1962. Florida residents found themselves engulfed in the staggering military build-up that occurred with unprecedented speed to aim America’s collective might at the island just 90 miles off the tip of the Keys. McCarthy sent out questionnaires to collect recollections of others who were in high school at the time, as she was; one response apparently served as the basis for the family story she relates against this dark slice of American history.
Wes Avery is an upstanding member of his community, a WWII Air Force veteran who owns a local gas and service station and is a devoted husband to Sarah and father to Charlotte, a junior in high school. He continues to be amazed at his own good luck at how his life has turned out so far. Unfortunately, matching the speed with which America’s confrontation with Cuba and Moscow escalates, Wes’s good luck begins to disintegrate under the weight of long-held family secrets. What’s most compelling about the story is its vivid reminder of the suddenness of the crisis, the shared knowledge that both sides were for the first time armed with weapons that could wipe out all of mankind, and the real sense that tomorrow might not arrive. McCarthy’s use of detail—the concern over a lack of fallout shelters since Florida’s high water table means there are no basements, the abrupt stranglehold on Florida’s economy as a result of the military build-up—adds to the novel’s authenticity.