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Imagining and then composing sequels to award-winning books is a stiff challenge for any writer, but Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (2019) pulled it off. Her readers first met the disconcertingly honest Olive Kitteridge (2008) that created a firestorm of interest: Here‘s a woman creeping over the edge of middle age whose honesty dances atop the knife-edges of sarcasm and humor. She’s either loved or hated in her coastal town of Maine, and thrives on the resulting tension. The first Olive Kitteridge (2008) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and numerous accolades; in 2014 HBO put out a four-part miniseries.

Strout’s format for each novel merits comment: thirteen stand-alone segments, each containing short story components of setting, characters, plot and structure, conflict, climax, and resolution. Within each segment, the author weaves a significant piece of the plot from another character and thus carries the whole novel forward. Because this format necessitates the readers’ attending for these pieces, the emotional wallop is deep. 

Olive, Again picks up our protagonist in her seventies and eighties, still carrying her “big black handbag.” She has much to learn as she rear-ends the sensibilities of others, her barnacle-encrusted perceptions spewing anger, her shrinking world no longer working for her. Yet, she skates through on old age’s thin ice that sustains her and lands her ashore, with one true friend.

My experience with loss speaks of the authenticity of Olive’s: if accepted with grace, new life emerges from the old. We do change.

Greed has horrific expressions but none so despicable as found in the novel Before We Were Yours (2017) written by Lisa Wingate, based upon an actual child trafficking case that continued, undetected, for three decades, until its exposé in 1950.  

The abuse took place at one of the boarding homes of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, Tennessee; its director, Georgia Tann. Widely touted as the Mother of orphans and unwanted children—even drawing the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt—she was far from that—cunning, manipulative, and money-hungry. Her accomplices were ever on the lookout for stray, unwanted children; lovely ones were ripe for adoption with lucrative fees.

The story stood by itself until the author fleshed it out with Depression-era river-rats snatched from a houseboat moored at Mud Island near the Mississippi River. Only after having been subdued and driven to Memphis were the Foss kids locked inside the sprawling white-columned home, in great disrepair, and forced to comply with the mean-spirited staff, including the sexually abusive janitor, and stinking accommodations. 

Suspense glistens on every page of this novel, Before We Were Yours. Seasonal changes, so integral to the plot, waft authentic colors, smells, and sounds into the southern panorama. Silence has never been more silent, nor sinister. Only an intrepid heart can follow the abrupt emotional and physical changes as the Fosses work out their destiny; their cat-and mouse stratagems with their jailers left me breathless.

Never having been involved with a child-victim of trafficking, I was deeply moved by Lisa Wingate’s brilliant handling of this material. Before We Were Yours is a must read.

When philanthropy goes bad, it goes really bad: crass suffering and irredeemable psychic damage occur, especially when children are involved. Such a travesty unfolds upon the pages of the historical novel Remember Me (2020) written by Mario Escobar who gives voice to the “Children of Morelia.”

One year into the Spanish Civil War, 1937, the Mexican government offered asylum to Spanish children, in harm’s way from Generalissimo Franco’s aggression. One was a relative of the author. She and over four hundred other children were shipped to Morelia and jammed inside the Spain-Mexico Industrial School barracks to live in sub-human conditions for the duration of the war. Designated funds for their care found other pockets.

To enflesh these events, Escobar develops three siblings: Marco, thirteen years old, and his sisters Isabel and Ana, ages ten and six, respectively. Their resiliency, courage, and spirit moved them in and out of shocks from bullies, from their cruel director and teachers, from abductions, and from hunger and worn clothing. Memories of their parents in Madrid fuel their determination to be reunited, at any cost.

Escobar’s skillful editing screens out unseemly details that could have interrupted the urgent flow of the narrative. At stake here is the survival of the siblings.

Because twentieth-century Spanish history eludes me, I found the author’s end chapters on the “Clarification of History” and “The Timeline” helpful in understanding the novel.

Thanks to the artistry of Mario Escobar, the “Children of Morelia” have found a permanent home in Remember Me. Their innocent suffering and even death will not be relegated to the backwards of Spanish or Mexican history.

Available on Amazon

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