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“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.” So begins Delia Owens’s novel, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), featured on the New York Times bestseller list for the past sixty weeks.

That sentence reveals the author’s poetic bent, her intimate experience with the flora and fauna of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and her working knowledge of multiple archetypes sprinkled throughout this novel.

Owens’s images clamor with sensuousness, plunge us within teeming interludes of sounds, tastes, and colors, even repulse us with the stink and humidity and sudden squalls of trackless swamps. This subtle interplay of violence and gentleness forms a pastiche of strange beauty that fascinates and invites even deeper engagement with the next image.

Within this setting, Owens unfolds the story of six-year-old Kya, abandoned by her alcoholic father, her battered mother, and her siblings. Alone in the family’s rough-hewn shack, Kya assuages her orphan heart by communing with Big Red and other herring gulls on the beach. From them and other creatures scuttling atop blistery sands and foraging the forest floor, she intuits the laws of nature: they become her life teachers. So keen is her learning that a certain fierceness tinges her character causing the townspeople of Barcley Cove to scapegoat her as the Marsh Girl. No one cares enough to learn her name. Colored Town also carries their judgment, several decades from the1965 Civil Rights legislation.

Such prejudices nudge our own, mired within swamp-psyches, and beg for release—undoubtedly the universal appeal of this novel.

 

 

Graced storytellers, from all times, seize imaginations of their readers and plunge them within new learning, not always pleasant.

Such a storyteller is the Indian-American author Sejal Badani. Because her maternal grandmother’s shocking experience in the1940s still smarted, she felt compelled to weave some of her story into the novel The Storyteller’s Secret (2018). It unfolds like a finely wrought tapestry with panels of shimmering and jarring colors.

Meticulous research into Central India’s Madhya Pradesh contextualizes Amisha’s impoverished village: the irritant of the British Raj’s occupation, Gandhi’s teachings firing imaginations with independence, the Brahmans’ domination of the natives, the despised untouchables, arranged marriages and dowries, wives subservient to their husbands and their families, temple festivals and dancing, and household shrines with favorite gods and goddesses. Within this milieu barefoot Amisha works out her destiny wearing plain saris.

On every page tactile images engage the reader’s senses: feeling oppressive monsoon rains and scorching heat, smelling garbage-strewn roads and the dung of oxen, cows, and dogs, seeing candles illuminating the Hindu temple’s pantheon and oil lamps in homes, tasting spicy foods, hearing temple bells, shrieks, children’s laughter, and worked up by “joinings” or sexual activity—and always, the incense.

Badani’s dialogue works extremely well in propelling the story forward. Yet silences are pregnant with meaning: hurt, disappointment, violence, ecstasy, dread, and romance.

The New York Times and Amazon bestseller, The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani features Amisha, a spirited woman admittedly ahead of her time—the stuff of storytellers’ artistry. Do let Amisha touch you with her buoyant selflessness.

 

 

Diaries, letters, and photos access times past and enable researchers to ferret out their dark secrets. Publication of such materials makes present and up-close experiences of the human family from which we benefit, if we have the courage.

Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945 (2016) is one such narrative. Its Polish American author Sophie Hodorowicz Knab undertook this challenge to honor her mother Jozefa, enslaved in 1943 within the munitions factory in Ulmstead, not far from Hanover, until the end of the war. She was thirty-two years old when taken from her Krakow home in her house slippers. Upon the right breast of her clothing was the hated purple P upon a yellow patch, stitched there following the 1939 occupation of Poland; its people were considered racially subhuman and expendable.

Her mother’s reticence to speak of her experiences later prodded Knab to comb the Archives in the United States, Poland, Germany, and England for evidence of the plight of forced civilian women in Nazi Germany: such only appeared in the 1980s. Her research uncovered records of their conscription, their divided families, filthy transit camps and cattle cars, abject poverty, extreme weather conditions, multiple diseases, malnutrition, starvation, forced abortions, crippling humiliations, 12-hour work days in agricultural and industrial settings, and newborns left to starve.

What fueled Knab’s research was the discovery of diaries, letters, and photos taken by these women. Interweaving them with the bitter facts of their enslavement added an indescribable poignancy to this scholarly work.

Indeed, the words and faces of these 105 women still tell their story.

 

 

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