Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stranger Here Below by Joyce Hinnefeld

Title: Stranger Here Below
Publisher: Unbridled Books
Pub Date: 09/28/2010
ISBN: 9781609530044
Author: Joyce Hinnefeld
Category: FICTION - ADULT: Literary

In 1961, when Amazing Grace Jansen, a firecracker from Appalachia, meets Mary Elizabeth Cox, the daughter of a Black southern preacher, at Kentucky's Berea College, they already carry the scars and traces of their mothers' troubles. Poor and single, Maze's mother has had to raise her daughter alone and fight to keep a roof over their heads. Mary Elizabeth's mother has carried a shattering grief throughout her life, a loss so great that it has disabled her and isolated her stern husband and her brilliant, talented daughter.

The caution this has scored into Mary Elizabeth has made her defensive and too private and limited her ambitions, despite her gifts as a musician. But Maze's earthy fearlessness might be enough to carry them both forward toward lives lived bravely in an angry world that changes by the day.

Both of them are drawn to the enigmatic Georginea Ward, an aging idealist who taught at Berea sixty years ago, fell in love with a black man, and suddenly found herself renamed as a sister in a tiny Shaker community. Sister Georgia believes in discipline and simplicity, yes. But, more important, her faith is rooted in fairness and the long reach of unconditional love.

This is a novel about three generations of women and the love that makes families where none can be expected.

I received a pre-publication galley of this book via netGalley. I am under no obligation to the publisher and my review is my honest opinion of the book.

Before I begin my review, I must admit that I'm facing a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to reading the galleys that I receive via netGalley. Because I don't own a portable eReader of any description (no iPads, Kindles or the like reside here), my only option is to read them on my computer, which is a fairly heavy HP laptop. It is portable, so I can take it to McCafe to read with coffee, to football or gymnastics to read while the children play (though they do ask why I didn't see that fabulous goal they kicked, or the fly spring they did off the end of the tumble track!), or even to bed if I sit propped up on pillows and angle the screen just right. But it's just not the same as reading a book! Trust me to say that if I'm lucky enough to get an iPhone or a Kobo or such, then I'll be the one who gets sand in it at the beach, or drops it in the bath. I like to read anywhere, anytime! Having to sit up straight at a desk or table of some sort to read a novel just doesn't make me feel like I'm reading for pleasure, and my laptop doesn't do so well on my lap! I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes it feels a bit too much like work to read galleys to review.

Anyway, on to what I think of Stranger Here Below.

The book opens in 1968, with a letter written by Maze to her best friend Mary Elizabeth. She speaks of her sadness, loneliness and regret, and of her fears for the future.

We then go back to the beginning, to the birth of Georginea Ward in 1872, and from there the story weaves back and forth between Maze and Mary Elizabeth, their mothers Vista and Sarah, and Georginea, who Vista and Maze live with for much of their lives.

Stranger Here Below leaves much unsaid. Fears and passions alike are buried or denied by women who face hardships and must show strength and stoicism to live day by day. Many questions are left unanswered, and much is implied rather than made explicit. For this reason, the book is an engrossing, though not easy, read.

An indication of how finely drawn Hinnefeld's character are, is the anger, frustration and tears provoked in the reader by the events that unfold. The fact that the reader feels so strongly for the characters, and empathizes with them in this way, shows just how successful the author has been.

The historical context of the novel is extremely interesting, covering as it does the Shakers (the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers, is a Protestant religious sect), the Day Law (Berea College is a coeducational and desegregated school founded in 1855, admitting both blacks and whites students and treating them without discrimination. In 1904, the "Day Law" was passed by the Kentucky legislature, prohibiting any person, group of people, or corporation from the teaching of black and white students in the same school, or from running separate branches of a school for the teaching of black and white students within twenty-five miles of each other. Since at the time Berea was the only such integrated school in Kentucky, it was clearly the target of this law.), and the Vietnam War (In 1965 America officially entered the Vietnam War to fight against the will of the Vietnamese people and to support minority Vietnamese interests which were tied to American interests. 58 169 Americans were killed. Vietnam was a display of American fallibility, lack of judgment, lack of understanding of root issues, and lack of support for people to determine their own destiny and govern themselves.).

Recommended reading.

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