Between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 orphaned or abandoned children were transported from Eastern cities to the Midwest on what came to be known as “Orphan Trains.” The hope was that these children would find loving families to adopt them. Although this was the reality for some, for others it led to a life of mistreatment and servitude. In Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, Vivian Daly was one such child. Born into poverty, the majority of her family was killed in an apartment fire in the late 1920s, and she was put on a train bound for Minnesota. There, she passed through several unhappy homes before the kindness of a teacher led her to better prospects.
In present day, Molly Ayer is a foster child who has bounced from one family to another. She’s not happy with her current living situation but figures it has to be better than the juvenile detention center where she’s in danger of heading unless she finds a way to do 50 hours of community service. Her only option appears to be helping a now 91-year-old Vivian clean her attic. When their two worlds collide, Molly and Vivian find common threads in their pasts and subsequently help each other move forward into the next phase of their lives.
The inner strength and survival instincts of the two main characters, whose stories are both heartbreaking and hopeful, make for an engrossing story. Quietly suspenseful, readers especially will be hoping for a good outcome for all of the train riders who made the fateful journey with young Vivian. Kline explores both the seeming randomness of situations and circumstance, and the fateful ways lives can intersect to resolve past and present problems. Despite the weighty subject, this impressive work of historical fiction will make a good summer read. It’s also ready for adoption by a book club, containing discussion questions, an author interview and information about orphan train riders.
How does one continue after the death of a child? This is what two mothers contemplate when they are faced with the unimaginable. In The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp lays bare the utter devastation she and her husband experienced when their infant son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder which is always fatal. Rapp, herself a writer, describes in a heartbreakingly poetic style the dreams and plans she had for Ronan before he was even born, and the course their life together took after the diagnosis. Reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, Rapp draws on different religions, philosophies and myths as she delves deep into her grief and pain, assuming a role no parent wants to play. Rapp eschews the idea of measuring the worth of Ronan’s life by his developmental progress; instead, she learns to focus on the small ordinary moments with her son, determined to make his brief existence count.
In I’ll See You Again: A Memoir by Jackie Hance (with Janice Kaplan), Hance recounts the devastating day in July 2009 when a van being driven by her sister-in-law Diane crashed, killing Hance’s three daughters and five other passengers. Besides coping with the horrific reality of instantaneously losing all of their children, Hance and her husband Warren also had to deal with the family fallout and ensuing publicity. Diane’s body tested positive for alcohol and drugs, which was a complete shock to the family, and there were a number of bloggers and media outlets who blamed the parents for letting their three girls ride with Diane. The Hances’ quest to create meaning out of senseless tragedy led to the establishment of a foundation in honor of the girls, and in 2011, the birth of their fourth daughter. Like The Still Point of the Turning World, this is a painfully beautiful story of emotional frailty balanced with resilience, introspection in the face of loss, and boundless parental devotion. As Rapp muses, “children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.”
The veil has lifted on the young woman dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” by the media. In Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, Amanda Knox recounts how her promising start as an American exchange student in Italy quickly spiraled into a nightmare and kept her abroad much longer than anticipated. Barely two months into her study abroad program in the city of Perugia, Knox found herself at the center of an international media frenzy when her roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, was found murdered. Within days, she was ensnared in the Italian police and justice systems, having little understanding of the language, much less their laws and politics. She and two others were convicted of murder in 2009. Her conviction and that of her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was overturned on appeal in 2011. The Italian courts are currently reviewing the case.
Knox is studying creative writing, and did pen the entire book. Although it can be burdened at times with staged-sounding conversations and details that fall into the “TMI” category, it is an honest reflection of a young woman who grew up very quickly during the four years she was imprisoned. Knox has recently given several high- profile interviews in conjunction with the release of this book, including with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Other sources which provide insightful perspective about the case are Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox and John Follain’s A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, previously written about here. However, for anyone following the case, the perspective you don’t want to miss is from the person at the center of it all. Finally, Knox herself has her say.
Anne Perry is an award-winning, bestselling crime and mystery writer, but few know that nearly 60 years ago, she herself was a defendant in one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder cases. Peter Graham details this case in his book Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century. Born Juliet Hulme, an adolescent Perry and her best friend Pauline Parker shocked the country and the world when they brutally murdered Parker’s mother in 1954. The subsequent trial and conviction of the girls led to prison sentences, after which the two partners in crime went their separate ways. Hulme eventually reinvented herself as Anne Perry and launched a successful writing career, while Parker vanished into obscurity and lives a reclusive life on a Scottish island.
Graham does an amazing job bringing the story of the girls’ friendship and the sheer barbarity of the murder to life. He provides the back stories of Hulme, Parker and their family members without bogging down the writing. Hulme and Parker both suffered from illnesses as children, and as a result spent long stretches of time isolated from family and friends. Although professional opinions differ, it’s hypothesized that because of this isolation, both girls developed vivid imaginations and were drawn to each other when they met as young teenagers at school. The girls created their own complex fantasy world which overtook reality, and when threatened with separation from each other, they plotted to kill the person they saw as responsible.
Interest in the case was renewed in the 1990s, with newly published research and several dramatizations of the murder, most notably the critically acclaimed film Heavenly Creatures. For true crime aficionados, this book will leave questions about the true nature of Anne Perry. When asked in one interview if she ever thought of Parker’s mother, she replied, “No. She was somebody I barely knew”.
She’s back! Baltimore’s own Jill Smokler, also known as Scary Mommy, returns with a second book: Motherhood Comes Naturally (and other vicious lies). This irreverent and humorous journey through pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood will have mothers everywhere nodding in agreement - and in frequent fits of laughter. Each chapter is headed with common advice or words of wisdom (read: lies) often given to mothers and especially to first-time parents. Just a few examples of chapter titles: “You’ll Be Back to Your Old Self in No Time”, “You’ll Get More Sleep When They Are Older”, and “Going from Two to Three Kids Is a Breeze”. Smokler tackles each of these oft-quoted pieces by sharing her own experiences, which, as the book’s title suggests, provide strong evidence to the contrary.
Scary Mommy started as a blog, which Smokler began in order to keep herself sane as a stay-at-home mom with three kids (Lie #19: “Being Home With Your Kids Is the Most Fulfilling Job”). She developed an online following, and eventually published her first book, Confessions of a Scary Mommy. At turns wittily sarcastic and reflective, Motherhood Comes Naturally shows that one can feel driven to insanity by their kids, but of course still love them. Appreciating that motherhood is neither perfect nor precious, Smokler encourages mothers to build camaraderie and support each other, not tear each other down about different parenting styles. For those with a sense of humor and a willingness to embrace the mommy role with all its flaws, this book is for you. And to all the mommies out there: Happy Mother’s Day! (but know that “Mother’s Day Is All About You” is Lie #14.)
The disappearance of a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. Amity Gaige’s latest book, Schroder, is a kidnapping tale with a twist: it’s told from the perspective of the kidnapper, who is also the child’s father. Eric Kennedy is writing to his estranged wife from prison, explaining why he abducted their daughter Meadow and chronicling the time he spent on the run with her. His story becomes a broader reflection of his life and his misguided decisions and deceptions.
When Eric feels he’s being unfairly treated in divorce proceedings, he drives off with his daughter during one of his custody visits. Through the course of the story, the reader learns the history of Eric, who was born Erik Schroder in East Berlin. He and his father emigrated to the United States under murky circumstances, and Erik originally used the name Eric Kennedy to gain admission to a summer camp. The name sticks, staying with him into adulthood, although modern technology and identity tracking make it increasingly difficult for him to maintain a false persona. Gaige does an excellent job building two contrasting main characters: Meadow is an incredibly perceptive yet wholly innocent six-year-old, while Eric is a deeply flawed adult who puts his daughter’s safety at risk multiple times. There is a train wreck feel to the story as he makes one poor decision after another.
Gaige drew inspiration for this story from the famous case of Clark Rockefeller, whose multiple false identities were discovered after he kidnapped his daughter in 2008. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal is an account of that story. In Schroder, Gaige manages to show that Eric is not a terrible person, just a “bad choicer”, as she refers to him in an interview with NPR.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima have all made names for themselves in the history books, but lesser known is Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant in Colorado. In Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Kristen Iversen draws on her own experiences living in one of the neighborhoods close to the plant and later working there herself. The result is part family memoir and part historical account of Rocky Flats, which was quickly built after World War II. At first, Rocky Flats was seen as a boon to the community, bringing a myriad of jobs and stability to the region. Later, it became known as one of the most contaminated places in the U.S., with high rates of illnesses amongst workers and environmental threats to the surrounding neighborhoods. During its years of operation, several major accidents occurred, including a fire in 1969 that could have turned into a disaster on par with Chernobyl if not for a series of fortuitous actions on the part of plant workers. Activists and residents became increasingly vocal about problems, yet it wasn’t until the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Environmental Protection Agency conducted a joint raid of the plant in 1989 that truths finally came to light.
Iversen does an excellent job weaving together the stories of Rocky Flats and her own family with the common thread of secrecy: much like government and plant officials downplayed gross negligence and destructive environmental practices, her parents hid problems in their own home, including alcoholism and financial hardships. She also skillfully charts both her family’s history and Rocky Flat’s legacy to bittersweet conclusions, posing a question still being contemplated today: Are we living under the protection of the bomb, or under its shadow? Readers who enjoy narrative science books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, disfunctional family memoirs like The Glass Castle, or environmental justice accounts like A Civil Action will all find reason to be intrigued with this book.
Unrelated secrets simultaneously surface, threatening to destroy a family, a neighborhood and a country in Susan Richards Shreve’s latest novel, You Are the Love of My Life. A community on the outskirts of Washington, DC is the perfect backdrop for this story set in 1973, just as Watergate is ready to engulf the capital and the nation. In this seemingly tranquil neighborhood, Lucy Painter grew up in a family drowning in secrecy. Her father, an advisor to Harry Truman, committed suicide due to “the information he kept”. Her mother changed their last name and moved them across the country for a fresh start, but these actions only served to catapult Lucy towards an adult life equally full of secrecy and lies. When Lucy moves with her two children back to her childhood home, she hopes for a life of anonymity. But intrusive neighbors, especially fellow mother Zelda who has been hiding a dysfunctional marriage, threaten the protective shell she’s built around her life. When Lucy’s daughter Maggie becomes entranced with Zelda and further isolates herself, Lucy realizes she must lay bare her past in order to move forward in her own life and rescue her daughter.
Shreve does an excellent job creating nuanced characters who don’t reveal all their cards. In addition to Lucy and Zelda there is August, a former professor who’s widowed and struggling with professional shortcomings, Lane, who is coping with the then-shame of breast cancer treatment, and Adam, Zelda’s husband and Vietnam veteran who is silently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Shreve’s novel highlights a time in American history when normalcy and conformity battled with larger social issues and political blunders too big to ignore, a time when underlying tensions came to a roiling boil.
Change can happen in an instant. This is the central message in Lee Woodruff’s debut fiction book, Those We Love Most. On the surface, this is a story of old themes. Members of an upper-middle income, multi-generational family are devastated by a tragedy, and existing small cracks and relationship fissures are suddenly split wide open. Roger and Margaret Munson are an older couple with three grown children. They have a seemingly stable marriage, yet pursue separate interests much of the time. Their eldest child, Maura, is a product of her parents. Married with three young children, she and her husband live a comfortable if staid existence until one spring day when their eldest son is struck by a car and killed. The four adults all cope with the loss differently and must face past transgressions and secrets as part of their path to healing.
Lee Woodruff writes from personal experience about unexpected tragedy. Her husband, Bob Woodruff, was an ABC News Anchor who was injured in an explosion in Iraq in 2006 and suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result. She has written two non-fiction books about her experiences, one co-authored with him. Despite the somewhat predictable plot, Woodruff creates characters with depth and believability, and this is what keeps the reader engaged in this heartbreaking yet redemptive story. Although there are no real surprises in Those We Love Most, it is a thoughtful study about how people cope with grief as individuals and as a family unit. Is there one prescribed path individuals should follow when processing loss? Are beliefs in an afterlife or higher power necessary to come to terms with the death of a child? Far from sentimental, this book raises difficult questions about death, redemption and putting lives back together in a less-than-perfect fashion.
There is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Bianca Zander’s debut novel, The Girl Below, a tale of family secrets and self-discovery set in modern-day London. When Suki Piper was a little girl, she lived with her parents in a basement flat in Notting Hill. One night, her parents threw a party in their building’s courtyard. During the revelry, Suki and a few others became trapped underground in a World War II-era air raid shelter on the property. Suki has no memory of how she escaped, and this incident haunts her repeatedly, in dreams and also in waking moments when she is suddenly transported back to the party. She has other strange memories, including a hand which would reach out to her from a wardrobe and an unnerving statue of a girl in her neighbor’s flat. In the present day, Suki is in her late twenties and having a tough time. After a decades-long lonely existence in New Zealand trying to reconnect with her father, she has returned to London. Having little success with a job search or friendships, she becomes reacquainted with her former neighbors, a nice but dysfunctional family. Suki is once again launched into her past and must make sense once and for all of her fractured family and the missing pieces.
Suki can be a frustrating narrator, coming across as fairly lazy, impulsive and immature. Yet as she embarks on her search and more is revealed about her unstable family and upbringing, she becomes a more sympathetic character. Childhood events are relayed as Suki remembers them, giving a large portion of the story a fantastical, magical bend. Among her influences, Zander cites authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sarah Waters. From these inspirations, a unique story is spun.