In the 8 October 2010 edition of Salon.com, Laura Miller writes about book blurbing, the process wherein writers beg other, possibly better-known writers, to compose a short paean to their novel, which is then printed on the book jacket in an effort to lure you, gentle reader, into purchasing said book. (“Beware of Blurbs”). The idea being if author X liked it, and you like author X, you’ll like this book, too.
Miller exposes blurbing as a farce, a duty all writers despise and something that may not, in fact, sell books.
I mention this as it dovetails with my recent reading of Joyce Hinnefeld’s Stranger Here Below. When reading a book for review, I try to avoid all other commentary on the book. I don’t read any other reviewers, the promotional materials tucked into my advance reader’s copy or, if I can avoid them, the blurbs. Sometimes, if the book is little more than a bound galley, I’m lucky—there are no dedications, acknowledgements, or blurbs to color my view (She was accepted at Yaddo? Had a Bunting Fellowship? Was lauded by Alice Munro?). Most of the time, though, I receive a book further along in production, cover art and all, including the blurbs, which are pretty much impossible to ignore.
If you are like me, you read everything: the backs of peanut butter jars, graffiti, the instructions for your range hood. If you are like me, this compulsive reading is unavoidable, a reader’s version of Tourette’s. So naturally, when Stranger Here Below arrived in hardcover, nicely finished, printed, dedicated, acknowledged, and blurbed, my critical blank slate was immediately marred by Patricia Henley’s blurb, partially quoted here:
“...It’s a novel I hope mothers and daughters will read together.” This fragment sits amidst of a lot of flowery writing about the book feeling like an “heirloom” and “treasured”.
In my curmudgeon’s mind, words like these evoke images of scrapbooking parties and houses filled with dried-flower wreaths. As I read the novel, one adjective that kept coming to mind was “girly”. Indeed, this is a very girly book. Only one male character has any real backbone—that is, the nerve to hang around. Otherwise, Stranger Here Below is comprised of Strong Southern Women, hailing from Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia.
Amazing Grace Jansen, “Maze” to one and all, and her college roommate, Mary Elizabeth Cox, meet at Kentucky’s Berea College. The year is 1961, and racism is widespread. Maze is unfazed (how often can a reviewer write a sentence like that?) by Mary Elizabeth, who is black. Their classmates, however, the Southern belles of Berea, many grandchildren of former slave-owners, view Mary Elizabeth with barely masked horror. Undeterred, Maze sets out to befriend her self-contained roommate, whom she nicknames M.E., but only partially succeeds.
The novel is uneven. The characters, especially Maze and her family, mother Vista (shortened from Visitor), and her great-grandmother, Mamaw Marthie, are the women of Southern Strong Female casting. (In fairness, Vista is an avid reader.) Maze’s father, a strapping Swedish fellow who cut out after one night in the marital bed, bequeathed upon his daughter blond curls, freckles, and a strapping build.
Maze could be pretty, but she can’t be bothered. She’s too busy tramping through the woods—and through other people’s business. She peppers her quiet roommate with probingly personal questions, well-meaning yet oblivious to any pain she might cause. She won’t change.
Fiction, by its very nature, demands suspension of disbelief. However, when that suspension fails to hold the reader, as it does here, the plot revolts, becoming, to quote Lemony Snicket out of context, a series of unfortunate events. Thus Sister Georgia, the sole surviving Shaker living out her final days in Pleasant Hill’s Shaker Village. The Shakers were—are—a religious community known for their music, art, exquisite crafts, including furniture, and celibacy vows, which led to the movement’s diminishment. Their heyday was the mid-1800s, and while there remains one Shaker community today, in Maine, comprised of three members, the religion has largely died out.
Yet Sister Georgia is brought into the book, as is her community in Pleasant Hill, now a real Shaker museum. Sister Georgia is given to visions of Mother Ann, the religion’s founder, and passes some of this to Maze. As the ‘60s progress and Viet Nam looms, Maze decides Pleasant Hill would make the perfect farming retreat/commune for anti-war sympathizers; thus an archaic religious practice is brought together with the beginnings of the back-to-the-land movement. I can’t say it worked for me.
Maze and M.E.’s friendship—if one could call it that—is never the close thing Maze wants it to be. Initially, M.E. is willing to spend Saturdays hiking around Berea with Maze, listening to Maze’s endless questions, but as she grows more engrossed with her music studies, the hikes cease. M.E. withdraws into piano and books, brushing Maze off. The pattern recurs throughout the novel.
M.E.’s story is far more compelling than Maze’s. Hers is a family of secrets. The only child of a mentally ill mother and preacher father, M.E. grows up quickly, stepping in to cover when her mother Sarah retreats to a distant world and invented, babyish language. Sarah, we are told, was always “strange”, an undersized child with a limp who adored her elder brother, a fine jazz musician. However, this fine musician lived in an era when black men were still strung up in trees, and his death sends Sarah, then aged 12, into a permanent abyss. Hinnefeld’s rendering of Sarah’s inner state and the family’s suffering is wrenching reading, as are M.E.’s efforts to become successful in a white world:
“Her daddy told her, the night before she left, never to slip… Live where they live, eat where they eat, learn what they learn—but keep your eyes down. Do it all well, but not so well they think you’re uppity. Let them know you aren’t a threat.”
Maze is as oblivious to M.E.’s repression as everything else, showing up at M.E.’s home uninvited and attempting to engage in some innocently Sapphic behaviors—events that don’t hold up. Nor does M.E.’s sudden decision to abandon music, her consequent flight, and her final return to piano: serious musical study is not like a half-knitted scarf, abandoned and easily resumed at a far later date.
Hinnefeld writes lovingly of the South, of nature and the seasons, but it isn’t enough to save the book. The events pile upon themselves, culminating in Maze’s marriage to handsome Harris Whitman and the birth of three children: Marthie and twins Stranger and Pilgrim.
Once I finished throwing my hands up over the character names, I put the book down and wondered what it was that so irritated me. The writing is fine, but the story has holes in it. The Shakers may have held peaceful views, but tangling them up with nascent war resisters is difficult to swallow. Maze, with her freckles and endless pursuit of the largely silent M.E., can be grating. M.E. herself is understandable and sympathetic until her travels culminate in a series of unrealistic events, like the gift of a Steinway piano. A Yamaha portable, sure, but a Steinway? Who in hell gives away a Steinway?
Having finished the book, I read about Joyce Hinnefeld. Her first novel, In Hovering Flight, won the Bakeless Fiction Prize and was a “#1 Indie Next Pick”. All to say that while I wasn’t charmed by this book, a lot of you may feel differently. Books are like people: sometimes you meet one and don’t quite hit it off. This doesn’t make the book, or the person, bad. It means, in the case of Stranger Here Below,, you state your difficulties carefully, and move on to the next book.