Friday, April 19, 2013

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT – Sebastien Japrisot

Haunting, magical, scary, heart-wrenching, difficult at times... What else should I say in preface to telling you I loved this book? A nice hard copy for my personal library would be in order. That being said I am not sure I have a friend to recommend it to because it starts so difficultly. I myself may not have stuck with it if it had not been a book club choice - and I am very much against being in a club if you aren't prepared to make yourself read all of the selections. However, after re-starting at least twice, it was very much worth it.

How could you not fall in love with a book that begins thus:
“Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that's the way of the world.
The first soldier, who in his youth had been a cheerful, adventurous lad, wore around his neck an identification tag marked 2124, the number assigned to him at a recruiting office in the department of Seine. On his feet were boots taken from a dead German, boots that sank into the mud of trench after trench as he plodded through the godforsaken maze leading to the front lines.”
The engagement was long indeed. Ten years (1917-1927) spans the time wheel-chair bound beautiful Mathilde searches for her lost fiance, Manech. The book begins with five French soldiers of WW I being sent to the front in lieu of execution for shooting themselves in attempts to get out of the fighting. They are put out into the space between the French and German lines knowing it is unlikely that they will survive. Before they are sent out they are each allowed to dictate a letter home. The next day when the French advance they do indeed find five bodies. From there the reader is spun into multiple webs of stories surrounding the five men and their respective wives and lovers. The women receiving the letters were told by the military that their husbands and lovers were killed in the line of duty. Some of the letters contained coded messages. Some of the women try to find out exactly what happened, how their men died, and Mathilde is one of these. Over the ten years she investigates and puts many pieces together to try to find out what really happened.

The characters who cross Mathilde's path and those who's lives intertwine the other women are so colorful it was a joy to travel a bit with each of them. I think I love Mathilde because she is dedicated to truth, always, no matter what (as I tend to be) and it helps that she has many cats whom she loves. She also is an artist and dotes on her parents and care givers as they do her. Her quest begins in earnest when she reconnoiters with a dying Sergeant Esperanza who tells her what he knows and gives her copies of all the mens letters and a picture of the five men. It is after reading all the letters and making notes of what Esperanza told her that she begins to believe in earnest that Manech is not dead.

The quest with Mathilde is what keeps you reading, there is sadness and disappointment but there is beauty and fun also. There is an avenging prostitute, a colorful detective, and a supposedly dead motorcycle riding soldier who cannot stop riding for long, a grieving godmother, to name only a few of the great characters. I need to read this book again.

THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST – by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August is a very good book and I would read it again. It takes place in 1954 when Jubie's family leaves Charlotte, North Carolina to go on a vacation to see her uncle in Florida taking along the black maid, Mary. It is beautifully written with many dimensions. While it is a coming-of-age story for Jubie, it is also a commentary of the upper middle classes in conflict, and the dawning age of civil rights. Jubie's father fights alcoholism, her mother suffers under his oppression and her own unrest.

At some time in everyone's life there comes an awareness of wrinkles in the fabric of social life. It was 1957 for me. The second grade was exciting, fun, interesting, and kids were inviting each other to parties where we were beginning to learn that all families were a little different. At dinner one evening I announced to my family that I had a boyfriend, Curtis. He was so funny, and kind. He spoke softly and always picked up my pencil or book if I dropped it. He had a wonderful smile and all the other kids appeared to like him. Silence filled our warm kitchen. Finally my oldest brother said, “Curtis cannot be your boyfriend, he's a negro and you are not.” My family went on chatting and eating while I considered that a bit but not for too long. I do remember thinking, “Oh, ok, well then I guess I will like Mark.” Today I ponder why children accept those things so easily. That memory surfaced while reading The Dray Grass because I could relate to thirteen year old Jubie's innocence about matters of race and violence in the 50s, and her infatuation with the black boy, Leesum whom she meets in Florida.

Jubie had Mary all her life, she loves her unconditionally and Mary loves her. Jubie never entertains ideas of other people's lives being any different or others seeing things other than the way she does. So as the family traverses south and she sees more and more signs of segregation and racism she is bothered by it but doesn't take it as seriously as she should. When real tragedy happens she is ill equipped to handle it. The adults in the book seem to me to be real and accurate portraits of the 1950s. Jubie's mother, Paula, while loving her family she is detached from their everyday lives, she is dissatisfied and suspects her husband of infidelity. The town they live in is also changing and Jubie herself is growing up.

Mary has always been more than a maid to the family, she has been cook, nurse, and mother stand-in. Some say that the author by portraying her so subservient, dismissive, and not able to make eye contact with white people, makes her not a believable character when reader knows Mary is intelligent, loving, and principled. History tells us that is the way black maids operated at that time during the Jim Crow laws. To make her other than that, for us who remember would be the untruth.

When the family finally does fall apart, Jubie must face the flaws in her parents, the limitations of what she can and cannot do, and the injustice of her world, as we all do. She is a great protagonist to live with for a whole novel and she is full of love and courage. While you know that there may be hope for her flawed parents to learn and rebuild, you want to go with Jubie into her uncertain future so I am hoping for another novel from Mayhew taking Jubie into adulthood.