Alden Mudge

Jonathan Franzen, one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life (The Corrections, Freedom), does not disappoint with his terrific new novel, Crossroads.

The story opens just before Christmas 1971 and centers on the Hildebrandt family, who live in the “Crappier Parsonage” in New Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. The head of the family, Reverend Russ Hildebrandt, a middle-aged associate pastor, is frustrated that his career has stalled, humiliated that a young, hip minister has snatched away control of the church’s youth group that he founded, tired of his wife and marriage, and enamored of a widowed parishioner.

The youth group is called Crossroads, and it’s just one of the many crossroads the family arrives at throughout this big, ambitious novel. The good reverend’s wife, Marion, is well aware of Russ’ infatuations and is filled with anger and self-loathing. Their daughter, Becky, the coolest girl in high school, becomes suddenly unmoored. Their middle son, Perry, is super smart and contemptuous of others; he’s also one of the biggest pot dealers in school. Eldest son Clem, the epitome of responsibility, is on his way home from college and seeking a reckoning with the father he has so long admired.

In some ways this family’s internal conflicts seem fairly typical. But as the novel progresses, we discover there are deeper histories at work. Some have to do with the basic assumptions of marriage and family life, while others reflect the tumult of the 1970s, when much of society was divided about America’s participation in the Vietnam War and young people especially struggled with issues of equality and justice for people of color and Native Americans. It is also no coincidence that the major sections of the novel are titled “Advent” and “Easter.” Each individual Hildebrandt grapples with matters of Christian faith and its place in their lives.

Franzen writes about all of this with penetrating insight delivered through incisive sentences. By turns funny and terrifying, Crossroads is promised to be the first novel in a planned trilogy. I can’t wait to read what happens next.

By turns funny and terrifying, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel of suburban family life does not disappoint.

At the center of Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, is Rich Gundersen and his family. At 51, Rich is an aging logger in Northern California’s redwood forest. As the novel opens, he seizes the opportunity to buy a stand of redwoods that includes the mythic 24-7 tree, the numbers signifying its monstrous width of 24 feet, 7 inches. Without telling his wife, Colleen, Rich uses all their savings for the down payment.

Colleen is 34, a midwife mourning the death of her newborn, disturbed by the number of infant deaths in their rural community and upset that Rich is unwilling to try for another baby. The couple’s only child, Chub, is about to enter kindergarten. Taught by his father, Chub is already knowledgeable about the creeks and roads in the forest that lead him home.

These are the first filaments of the magical web of story that Davidson weaves. The novel follows the family throughout 1977, a year of significant change. The National Park Service is slowly enlarging its holdings in the forest. The Gundersens’ house becomes part of the government takings for Redwood National Park, but the family will retain possession until Rich dies. Anti-logging activists have begun to harass loggers, and the local timber company is faltering, putting local livelihoods at risk.

There is so much that is right and particular about this novel. Rarely will a reader have such a tactile experience of life in a forest logging community as one receives here. Davidson also sensitively portrays the fraught relationship between the Indigenous tribe of Yuroks and the white members of the logging community. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Colleen that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corporate mover on Wall Street.

Davidson was born in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She's studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time.

In her exceptional debut novel, Ash Davidson expresses the heart and soul of Northern California’s redwood forest community.

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read about places where the story of American slavery lives on. This vital book originated in poetic meditations on the memorials of the Confederacy after Smith’s hometown of New Orleans removed many of those statues in 2017.

Smith began visiting some of the sites where enslaved people once lived and worked. He took the guided tour at Monticello that focuses on Jefferson’s relationship to slavery. He traveled to New York City to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. He toured Louisiana’s notorious state prison at Angola, where formerly enslaved people were often held on the flimsiest of charges and forced to labor in its vast agricultural fields as part of the post-Reconstruction effort “to funnel Black people into the convict leasing system.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: From a Louisiana native to a D.C. high school teacher to a Harvard Ph.D. candidate to a staff writer for The Atlantic—Clint Smith shares the journey that led to his brilliant nonfiction debut.


At each stop, Smith’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and his response to the site give readers a visceral sense of place. He also reports on his conversations with tour guides, employees and other visitors. At Monticello, one person shares her journey of learning and unlearning history. It’s quite moving.

But at other locations, the guides and visitors are less willing to acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on our country or the intentional romanticization of the Confederacy. At Angola, there’s almost no acknowledgment that the land was worked by enslaved people as a plantation before it was converted into a state prison for mostly Black prisoners. The reader feels “the prickled heat” Smith experiences as the only Black person attending a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. There, Smith is an open, polite, somewhat nervous listener. Even in print, he doesn’t call out the people he speaks with. But ever the educator and poet, he lets the Confederate states’ own avowals destroy the animating myth of the Lost Cause.

Smith has an appreciation of nuance. He wields few cudgels here. And yet, How the Word Is Passed succeeds in making the essential distinction between history and nostalgia.

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read.

The incident that gives You People its title occurs on a bus in London. Shan, a line cook at an unassuming neighborhood restaurant called Pizzeria Vesuvio, sees a woman and her young son on the bus. Shan has seen them before, and with each sighting, the boy has looked sicker. Shan fled torture in Sri Lanka and entered England without documents, and the boy reminds him of the son he left behind. Shan looks at the pair with deep feeling, but the mother screeches at him, blaming him and “you people” for crowding out her son’s medical treatment.

By this point in the novel, we know quite a bit about the interior lives of Shan and his restaurant co-workers. Many of them are also without documents, and all are misfits. Nia is the daughter of a spirited Welsh woman and a Bengali father whom she’s never met, though Shan considers her a white Brit. Tuli, the restaurant owner, is a mysterious figure who lends his employees money, meets furtively with drug dealers and petty thieves, and travels the city at night on unknown errands. We wonder what price his employees will pay for his generosity.

Born in India and raised in Wales, author Nikita Lalwani moves us through the first parts of her third novel with ravishing, insightful prose. Of Shan’s regretful memories of arguments with the wife he decided to leave behind, Lalwani writes, “He would leave the soiled furnace of their words when it was too overwhelming—and walk around outside for hours.” Or about Nia’s need to rid herself of her lower-class Welsh accent, Lalwani writes, “That was one of the first things she did at Oxford, along with getting rid of her home-bleached locks. She remembered wearing those new vowels like furs, feeling that showy and ridiculous.” This is just a tiny sample of Lalwani’s great skill and empathic heart.

Lalwani’s novel takes the reader under the skin and inside the souls of these characters. Its early pages are a magical read, as we are invited to ponder generosity and human kindness.  But when the story bends toward plot—danger, rescue, relief—a bit of the magic is lost. It remains a very good novel, just not the very great novel we’d hoped for.

Nikita Lalwani's magical novel invites us to ponder generosity and human kindness.

Clint Smith, whose spellbinding How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America is a must-read, grew up in New Orleans. He remembers frequently passing the city’s Robert E. Lee monument, riding along Jefferson Davis Parkway and attending a middle school named for Robert Mills Lusher, another leader of the Confederacy. 

Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., Smith tells me that when his hometown removed Confederate statues and memorials in 2017, he began wondering, “What does it mean that I grew up in a city, a majority Black city, in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were to enslaved people? How does that happen, and what does the process of reckoning with that look like?”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of How the Word Is Passed.


By that moment in 2017, Smith had given up his lifelong quest to become a professional soccer player (he was good but not quite good enough) and turned to literature, writing and performing slam poetry “just as obsessively as 15-year-old me stayed up until 3 a.m. watching second division [soccer] teams from the Netherlands on cable TV.” He had also published an award-winning book of poetry and taught high school English, and he assumed he would teach for the next 30 years. “I loved talking about literature with teenagers,” he says.

But Smith’s teaching experiences had raised larger questions about the role of education in our society. He began reading widely about the philosophy and practice of education by writers who were “thinking about using the classroom to help students understand that the world is a social construction,” he says. “It can be deconstructed and reconstructed into something new. The essence of that is that you don’t have to accept the world as an inevitability. It can be transformed.”

Pursuing this interest further, Smith entered a multidisciplinary Ph.D. program at Harvard. During graduate school, he freelanced for The New Yorker, the New Republic and the Atlantic (where he’s now a staff writer) as a way to distill the history and theory he was learning in the classroom into a more approachable format.

“You don’t have to accept the world as an inevitability. It can be transformed.”

After New Orleans removed its Confederate statues in 2017, Smith began writing a series of daily poems to explore issues around “growing up surrounded by Confederate iconography,” he says. He eventually decided the subject needed something lengthier and wrote two prose chapters, but he was unsatisfied with the results. Then a visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, which Smith details in the brilliantly prismatic first chapter of his book, presented him with the format for How the Word Is Passed: Talk to people. Respectfully, interestedly. And do enough research to contextualize their stories and delineate the difference between history and nostalgia.

“When I went to Monticello in the summer of 2018, I had never done a lot of reporting,” Smith says. “I’m not someone who walks up to strangers and asks them questions. That’s not a part of my natural ethos. But I did that at Monticello, and it transformed what I hoped the book could do. My own ideas about what these people and places meant had to be in conversation with what these people and places meant to other people.”

Some visitors he talked to were astonished, sometimes disheartened, to learn of the moral inconsistencies of Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who, like so many of the Founding Fathers, owned enslaved people. Recent scholarship has revealed that Jefferson fathered children with enslaved women, most notably Sally Hemings, and kept his children enslaved. In fact, Smith found his book’s title in the oral history of Hemings’ descendants. 

“Slavery existed for a hundred years longer in this country than it has not existed. We forget that sometimes.”

In recent years, Monticello has made an effort to tell the stories of the people Jefferson owned alongside the story of Jefferson himself. But not all the historical sites of enslavement that Smith visited for his book—Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, Blandford Cemetery for Confederate veterans in Virginia, the African Burial Ground in New York City, the House of Slaves on Gorée Island in Senegal and others—probe their complicated histories as much as Monticello does. Smith’s fascinating, nuanced book illuminates this struggle to acknowledge and reckon with these histories on both individual and societal levels.

“My grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved,” Smith says. “My grandmother’s grandfather was born right after emancipation. The history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn’t in fact that long ago. Slavery existed for a hundred years longer in this country than it has not existed. We forget that sometimes. We forget how much it shaped this country. We forget the extent to which that past is still with us.”

 

Author photo credit © Carletta Girma

Clint Smith, whose spellbinding debut nonfiction book is a must-read, shares his thoughts on reckoning with Confederate landmarks and locations where Black people were enslaved.

While hunkered down in her apartment with two young daughters, a 9-month-old son and her husband during the COVID-19 pandemic, Judy Batalion has heard rumors from neighbors and friends of marriages on the rocks because of close quarters and unrelieved familial contact. It’s not nearly the same, Batalion declares, but it reminds her of the Jewish families trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

“Families were under high pressure, squeezed together, and studies show that in the [Warsaw] Ghetto, there was a very high rate of divorce,” Batalion says during a call to her apartment in Manhattan. She quips that her own home is “now also a preschool, an elementary school, a daycare, a corporate boardroom and a gym.”

Uncomfortable? Sure. But nothing like the disruption and terror of Jewish life in Poland under the Nazis, which Batalion describes in The Light of Days, her groundbreaking narrative history of the young Polish women at the forefront of the Jewish resistance. “The norms of family life were turned upside down,” Batalion says. “Many of the men were afraid to leave the house. It was easier for women and children to leave or escape, to go out to hunt for food, to smuggle, even to physically squeeze out through the ghetto walls. So there was a cascade of role reversals.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Light of Days.


Those reversals were part of a confluence of events that led a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women—some of them barely teenagers—to volunteer as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland. Batalion first discovered fragments of their stories in a slender, musty book written in Yiddish that she found in the British Library.

Batalion grew up in Montreal, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. After graduating from Harvard, she spent a decade in London earning a Ph.D. in art history and developing a career as a comedian. “In England I was dealing with issues of my own Jewish identity, because being Jewish there seems so rare,” she says. “I wanted to write a performance piece about strong Jewish women, and I wanted a few historical figures to frame the piece.” So she went to the library.

Batalion was stunned by her discovery of the book, whose title translates as Women in the Ghettos. “I knew right away there was something to it,” she says. She was eventually awarded a grant to translate the book into English, but the translation work required significant contextual research. As her research grew, the translation project morphed into a parallel history project that became The Light of Days.

"I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers."

“Very little has been written in English, even academically, about these figures,” Batalion says. “And the bits that have been written read like encyclopedia entries—a snippet here, a snippet there. But those snippets don’t end up meaning anything. It’s hard to remember them. I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers.”

At the center of Batalion’s book is Renia Kukielka, whose commitment to resistance began when she was 15 years old. “She was a woman of action,” Batalion says. “As her children told me, she wasn’t someone who looked right and left and right and left. She just went! She had gut instincts. . . . She was savvy, smart and daring.”

The Light of Days follows the arc of Kukielka’s life through the early 1940s. Along the way, her story interweaves with those of about a dozen other female activists—such as Bela Hazan, who went undercover in a remarkable way. “At the height of the Holocaust, she worked as a translator and served tea to the Gestapo,” Batalion says. There’s even a photograph of Hazan with two other Jewish activists at a Gestapo Christmas party. “She lied to them that her brother had died so she could get a pass to travel to Vilna. The office sent her a condolence card! Later she masqueraded as a Catholic woman to help Jewish people in the infirmary at Auschwitz.”

“This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would?"

Then there was Frumka Plotnicki, who was “an introverted, serious person, a person the whole movement looked to and who refused to [escape the ghetto],” says Batalion. “Time and again she was told to leave, but she couldn’t. She had to be there to fight. She was one of the few who went down shooting.”

When Batalion began working on The Light of Days, she discovered that not even a general narrative history of the Jewish resistance in Poland existed. Working from sometimes contradictory memoirs and recorded testimonies, Batalion’s first task was to create a chronology of the resistance—a laborious but necessary effort that adds context and depth to the story she tells. The book has more than 900 endnotes, down from the original 3,000, and two dozen illuminating photographs.

Batalion acknowledges that the valiant women she portrays in The Light of Days were not the only female Jewish resistors in Poland or Europe. They’re just the first ones we’ll be able to read about in such depth. “It felt so important for me that these stories are told,” Batalion says. “This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would? In the most difficult, tortuous circumstances, they stood up. The bravery of these very young women inspired me.”

Judy Batalion tells the long-hidden stories of a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women who volunteered as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland.

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