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All Historical Fiction Coverage

Thirteen-year-old Weldon Applegate (as remembered by 99-year-old Weldon Applegate) is the unlikely hero of Josh Ritter’s The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All (7 hours). Set in Cordelia, Idaho, a lumber town at the end of the lumberjack era, and populated by ghosts, witches and demons, this rollicking tall tale is as true and honest as the honed edge of a jack’s favorite ax.  

Ritter is a renowned singer-songwriter, and his language is exquisite, especially when describing the grandeur of a winter forest or the subtle evil of a greedy man. His nuanced narration gives an authentic voice to both young and ancient Weldon, endowing him with wisdom, humor and valor while never losing sight of the terrible beauty of his vanished world. Ritter’s talents as a ballad singer make this audiobook, which includes an original song, a special pleasure.

Josh Ritter’s talents as a ballad singer make this audiobook, which includes an original song, a special pleasure.

“I guess you haven’t had your adventure yet,” 18-year-old Emmett Watson tells his 8-year-old brother, Billy, who responds, “I think we’re on it now.” And indeed they are, having set out in Emmett’s powder-blue 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser, planning to head west on the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental roadway. In light of their father’s recent death, their unlikely goal is to track down their mother—who abandoned them years ago—at a July 4th celebration in San Francisco. 

After mesmerizing legions of readers with the story of Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced in 1922 to spend the rest of his life in an attic room of a grand hotel in A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), Amor Towles takes to the open road in his superb, sprawling, cross-country saga, The Lincoln Highway. Although this great American road trip is quite a change of pace and scenery, Towles continues to transport readers, immersing them just as completely in the adventures of the Watson brothers he did in the seemingly claustrophobic lives of Count Rostov and his young sidekick, Nina. 

Like Nina, young Billy is a creative, intelligent and essential companion to his older brother, and like Rostov, Emmett has had his own brush with the law. As the novel opens in June 1954, Emmett has just been released from an 18-month sentence in a juvenile work camp, having landed on “the ugly side of luck” in a manslaughter case involving a teenage bully. Soon after the Watson brothers start their quest, however, their grand plans are upended by two friends of Emmett’s from the work camp, Duchess and Woolly, who “borrow” the Studebaker and head to New York—forcing Emmett and Billy to stow away on a freight train and head east in hot pursuit.

Packed with drama, The Lincoln Highway takes place in just 10 days, with chapters narrated by a variety of characters. Towles’ fans will be rewarded with many of the same pleasures they’ve come to expect from him: a multitude of stories told at a leisurely pace (the novel clocks in at 592 pages); numerous endearing and sometimes maddening characters; and pitch-perfect plotting with surprises at every turn.

As if that weren’t enough, the novel is chock-full of literary references: a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation that sets the brothers off on their journey; allusions to The Three Musketeers (Emmett, Duchess and Woolly); a memorable Black World War II veteran named Ulysses; and scenes reminiscent of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, The Lincoln Highway is Towles’ unabashed love letter to books and storytelling. 

Late in the novel, a character tells Billy, “There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye . . . than a well-read copy of one of his books.” Towles has created another winning novel whose pages are destined to be turned—and occasionally tattered—by gratified readers.

The pages of Amor Towles’ novel are destined to be turned—and occasionally tattered—by numerous gratified readers.

Actor William DeMeritt’s deep, measured narration enhances the elegant, evocative prose of Nathan Harris’ debut novel, The Sweetness of Water (12 hours). 

In the waning blood-filled days of the Civil War, Georgia farmer George Walker hires formerly enslaved brothers Landry and Prentiss to work his peanut farm—and perhaps to ease his restless soul. When George’s Confederate soldier son, Caleb, unexpectedly returns home, and Caleb’s romantic relationship with another soldier comes to light, tensions between George’s family and the town’s disapproving residents boil over. Only the cool, determined leadership of George’s wife, Isabelle, offers a path to healing.

DeMeritt’s performance of this Southern cast of characters reveals an actor in full control of his range. Particularly for the male roles, DeMeritt narrates with such skill that the listener can envision some of the characters’ faces just by the way their voices sound. Amid this world of unbridled change, DeMeritt illuminates subtle yearnings, quiet dangers and a persistent sense of hope.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print edition of The Sweetness of Water.

William DeMeritt performs with such skill that the listener will be able to envision Nathan Harris’ character’s faces just by the way their voices sound.

As The Living and the Lost opens, Millie Mosbach has just returned to her hometown, Allied-occupied Berlin. Millie is German and Jewish, and she escaped Berlin as a teen before the war with her brother, David. She attended high school and college in the U.S. with the help of an American family friend, all the while not knowing whether her parents and younger sister survived.

Postwar Berlin is almost unrecognizable. It’s a mess of rubble and half-standing buildings, its inhabitants starving, the city divided into Allied and Soviet sections that are not yet completely sundered by the Berlin Wall. Millie has joined the U.S. Army, helping to sort out which Berliners can continue to work as editors, publishers and translators in this new denazified Germany. Meanwhile, David, who served with the Army in Europe during the war, is in Berlin, too, and he’s not telling Millie what he’s up to. 

As the novel moves between Millie’s and David’s points of view, we get vivid glimpses of life in this unsettled landscape, with uncanny scenes of American military officers enjoying beers in former Nazi halls, German Fräuleins by their sides, and the abundance in military black markets contrasting with the extreme lack faced by Berliners. Millie is haunted by the probable loss of her parents and sister and by the choices she made earlier in life. 

As Millie tries to tamp down her trauma, guilt and anger, the novel flashes back in time, filling in the siblings’ pasts. While she was a scholarship student at the tony Bryn Mawr College, Millie experienced both the joys of college life and a genteel but insidious antisemitism.

The Living and the Lost moves along quickly, and its descriptions and dialogue feel true to the era. While the novel would have benefited from more interiority from both Millie and David, it’s still an illuminating historical drama with plenty of action and even some romance, evoking a lesser-known historical period—the immediate postwar era and Berlin before the wall—and the complications and compromises that come with the end of war.

Ellen Feldman offers an illuminating historical drama with plenty of action and even some romance, evoking the rarely explored setting of postwar Europe.

Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, her highly anticipated follow-up to Fates and Furies (2015), takes place almost 800 years ago, yet it feels both current and timely. Set in a small convent in 12th-century England, Matrix looks back in time to comment astutely on the world as we now know it, exploring big ideas about faith, gender, community and individualism.

Abbess Marie is based in part on Marie de France, France’s earliest known female poet and one of the country’s most well-regarded literary stylists. As a teenager, Groff’s fictional Marie is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court and sent to molder in an impoverished abbey. Marie soon rises to the senior position of abbess, and she transforms the convent into a thriving estate.

Marie’s modifications to the abbey are guided by visions that draw imagery from the real Marie de France’s tales of courtly love. These visions are the motivation and impetus for many of Marie’s boldest innovations: the successful scriptorium where gorgeous new manuscripts are produced; the abbess house where Marie offers comfort and privacy; and the impenetrable labyrinth that girds the abbey, protecting the women who live inside.

Groff brings a bold originality to Matrix and a compassion for her characters, no matter how prickly some of them may be. This is a heartening story of one woman’s vision and creativity, unthwarted and flourishing, despite all odds.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Matrix author Lauren Groff shares how she found refuge in her latest novel’s community of nuns. “It’s a definition of family that is not often represented in the outside world.”

Lauren Groff says she aims to create a sense of wonder and awe in her novels. In Matrix, the awe-filled moments are too many to count.

In Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novel, A Play for the End of the World, a play by Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore is a magical and malleable symbol, used to help children accept a dark reality and as a tool for resistance.

When Holocaust survivor Jaryk Smith was a child living in a orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland, The Post Office represented the possibility of hope. In the children’s production of the play, Jaryk played Amal, a little boy with an incurable disease who’s confined indoors but makes the most of what he’s got: a window. Amal makes friends at a distance and gleans vicarious joy from watching others play.

Through the play, Jaryk and his fellow orphans experienced a kind of liberation by imagination. But while the other children’s relief was temporary, Jaryk had the life-altering fortune and burden of becoming the orphanage’s lone survivor. Unlike his fellow orphans, unlike almost everyone else he had known in his short life, Jaryk got a chance at a long life. 

A Play for the End of the World primarily focuses on what happens next, how new life takes root after extreme ruin. Chakrabarti frames recovery and renewal as a long and winding road, requiring more than a little grace and serendipity. For a long time, connections are difficult for Jaryk, relationships almost impossible. He experiences the world as though he’s wrapped in thick, protective insulation. He has big feelings but they’re subdued or self-censored. 

Then in 1972, Jaryk’s oldest friend, Misha, a man 10 years his senior who lived and worked at the orphanage when Jaryk was a child, dies unexpectedly while traveling alone in India for a production of The Post Office. Jaryk is tasked with taking Misha’s place as director, and the play provides him with another shot at redemption. “I finally have a chance to do something good,” he tells his weary girlfriend, Lucy Gardner. 

Whereas “in Warsaw, The Post Office helped to prepare the children for death,” this production has a radically different agenda. In Gopalpur in West Bengal, where the people are poor and the territory disputed, the production’s organizer, professor Rudra Bose, sees the famous play as a political tool: “It’s all about a new life. About resistance!” But while political unrest is the novel’s frequent backdrop, its most recurring theme is stubborn resilience: living fully in the face of sorrow, loving after immeasurable loss.

Chakrabarti’s novel is realistic and tentative and breathtakingly poignant, with a payoff that’s more than worth the trip if you have the heart to withstand it.

Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novel is breathtakingly poignant, with a payoff that’s more than worth the trip if you have the heart to withstand it.

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