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Fluff! was my initial reaction to the opening chapters of Helen Simonson’s comedy of manners, The Summer Before the War (2016). It is 1914, set in the coastal village of Rye, East Sussex, England.

Slowly unfolds a view of waning Edwardian society, with its opulent mores defining attitudes and behaviors of its residents. Comic touches abound, exposing their eccentricities and gossip and prejudices. Detailed descriptions of feathered hats and gowns, the annual Hops Festival, the Fete Parade, the society funeral for the only son of the Earl North, trench warfare, the grimy feel of railway stations, and so much more, afford texture of place. Like other comedies of errors, dialogue is precise, stilted, disguised, but at times compelling.

Only when the voices of matron Agatha Kent and the village’s new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lay bare the gamey shenanigans around them was I compelled to read on; and of the later voices of the servant Abigail and the gypsies, as well. And I’m glad I did. Also affording context to this novel is the suffragette movement, the changing role of women in society, and homosexuality. I grew to care for Agatha and Beatrice, both venturing into vital experiences that deepen their sense of woman and quicken the worlds of others.

What follows is the rude interruption of the village’s predictable world with the onset of the Great War—Their summer of balmy channel breezes was not supposed to be like this.

I pray that this is not the summer before the war. Given rains that freshen greening leaves and lawns, I hope such waterings will l dampen fires of global discord and enhance critical changes confronting us—with God’s help. No one needs another war…

 

 

Never has the genteel brutality of slavery been more assiduously depicted than in the historical novel, The Invention of Wings (2014), written by Sue Monk Kidd. Her meticulous research into John and Mary Grimke’s family and their aristocratic brick home in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1800s, helped fashion this riveting story of violence on multiple levels. Fourteen slaves, seen as commodities, were siphoned from the Grimke’s prosperous cotton plantation to serve their elegant city home. Their black shadows bear silent witness to multiple atrocities, some even ennobled by them.

The story opens with the mother’s birthday party for Sarah, her eleven-year old, upon whom she presses the gift of Hetty, the slave girl, to serve as her personal maid for the rest of her life. At first, Sarah refuses, until pressed to comply. Thereafter, she seeks ways to emancipate Hetty through secretly teaching her to read and write behind the lock door of her room. Their punishments were severe when found out.

The story follows both girls into womanhood, defying subtly and openly the strictures of the culture surrounding them. Adhering to their inner wisdom, they painstakingly developed new wings. Undaunted by multiple hardships and beatings, they finally emerge as lights for the oppressed: Sarah, becoming a Quaker, author, and spokesperson for the Abolition Movement and inadvertently, the first voice for women’s rights; and Hetty, using her cunning as a seamstress, fashioning grieving gowns for her escape and that of her sister Sky, in the company of Sarah.

 

 

 

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While flipping the pages of this historical novel, glimpses of my own violence, both conscious and unconscious, surfaced, begging for deliverance.

 

Available on Amazon

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