Waves of Mercy

Waves of Mercy

Anna Nicholson is recovering from a broken engagement. Her ex-fiance William has put his foot down. It simply is not acceptable for Anna to continue seeking out her religious questions and attend the unpretentious church in Chicago that has seemed like such a place of safety for her. Anna retreats to a hotel on Lake Ottawa in Michigan to give herself some breathing space. While there, she meets a young seminary student, Derk, who also has his own choices to make.

Derk is also hoping to marry the love of his life; however Caroline, his fiance, doesn’t want to be a minister’s wife. She feels it would make too many demands on their family life. Who is right? Should Derk choose an alternate career path? Should Caroline adjust her expectations of Derk?

In order to find answers to these questions, Derk turns to Geesje, his neighbor, who practically raised him after he lost his own mother. Geesje came to America from the Netherlands with her parents as a young seventeen year old girl. Fleeing religious persecution, Geesje has faced her own dilemmas with life-choices. Now in her sixties, she is asked by the town of Holland, Michigan, to write her memories as one of the town’s first immigrants. As Geesje begins to write her memoirs, she finds parallels in her own story with that of her young friend, Derk.

“I stop writing and drop my pencil as if it’s on fire. I close the notebook and stuff it into my desk, remembering the mistakes I made, the tragic choices I faced, and the people I hurt in the process. The memories cause me immeasurable pain. Even now. Even after all these years.”

‘Waves of Mercy’ was so well done. The dual story, unlike others I have read, was never confusing. I had no trouble keeping these characters, their stories or time frames, straight.

When the possibility arises for her to become re-engaged, Anna, knowing that Derk has a close relationship with the Lord, goes to him with her questions. Should she still marry William, knowing that he expects her to obey his wishes and stop attending the church of her choice? How important is religious freedom and where does it fit into the parameters of marriage?

“I learned that my father’s business is in financial trouble. He needs the family connections with William and his bank in order to survive the crisis. I love my father. I would do anything for him and Mother. They wouldn’t know how to survive if they lost all their money.”

Do they know that’s why you’re making this sacrifice and marrying William?”

“No. But it’s hardly a sacrifice. William is a good man from a fine, churchgoing family. I’ll be a wealthy woman. I’m sure he’ll let me give generously to the poor. I can do a lot of good as his wife.”

Lynn Austin is not afraid to explore the hard questions of life within the lives of her characters. Some questions are never fully or completely answered to the satisfaction of the characters in this historical fiction novel, but within the struggles there are opportunities for growth and maturity and life-lessons of perseverance within hardship.

As we read through Geesje’s story we live through the Civil War with all of its anxieties for her sons and her friends’ sons when they go off to fight.

“As the war dragged on and on into another dreadful year, casualties among our area men began to mount. Every day brought news of Union setbacks and victories, with more and more deaths and appalling injuries. Every day we gathered with other worried families on a downtown street corner not far from the print shop to listen to the news as it was read aloud, holding our breaths as we waited to see if one of our Holland boys was listed among the wounded or dead.”

Along with Geesje and Maarten we hope their home and business survives the terrible fire that sweeps through the town, and admire their tenacity when they work to rebuild. We want to find out how Anna, who was adopted, became part of her family and why she has the memories that hold clues to her own story. We too ask all the “why?” questions when the characters suffer yet another setback, another disappointment, another terrible loss.

“Where are your parents, Geesje?” Hendrik was looking all around the cabin as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.

They died several months ago. Of malaria.”

The story of the settlement of Holland in Michigan by the Dutch was an unknown to me, and their struggles to carve out a new life in a new, unfamiliar land with very few comforts (if any), were mind-boggling. Could we today have done the same?

I found Geeseje’s writings fascinating. Although I predicted the tie-in that happens near the end, her story still held my interest enough that I wanted to keep reading. I admired her courage and determination to do the right thing, even though at first her heart was breaking.

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The Headmistress

The Headmistress

Mrs. Belton is worried. And she has a lot to worry about. With three children serving in England’s wartime forces, plus a move from their country estate to the village (due to financial strictures), Mrs. Belton has a lot of adjusting to do.

“But gentleman-farming is no inheritance and by the time the war settled down upon the world the Beltons were living on overdrafts to an extent that even they found alarming, and two years later were unhappily making up their minds to sell a house and estate for which there would probably be no demand, when Providence kindly intervened, in the shape of the Hosiers’ Girls’ Foundation School.”

“The Headmistress” centers upon life in the small village of Harefield. At times lighthearted, don’t let the author’s well-earned reputation for blithe, carefree prose deceive you. Taking us through the wartime years and giving us snippets of life in a small countryside village, we experience along with the Beltons, the changes brought about not only through food and clothing coupons and rationing, but within social mores and status.

Mrs. Belton, to all intents and purposes seemingly unflustered and stable, inwardly quakes at the fears and anxieties the war brings, not only for her children serving in the military but for her husband who must weather the straits his finances have brought him to and adjust to village life, leaving his estate to be rented out by a girls school.

“All three children ought to have married years ago, but they never seemed to want to. Nor did they want a jolly elder sister. All they wanted was a purveyor of beds, fires, food, such drink as there was, cigarettes; someone who could take all telephone messages accurately, never ask where they were going or had been tireless, self-effacing. All of which she had tried to be and she knew that her husband had too, but at the end of each leave, whether it was Freddy from his ship, Elsa from her hush-hush job, or Charles from the army, she felt she had not given satisfaction….

What she would really like, she thought, would be to throw every single thing in her wardrobe out of the window and have everything new and to stop feeling tired and looking her age and go somewhere warm, if there was any warm place left in this horrible world now...”

There are the ever-present cast of quirky characters. Mrs. Updike, who though lovable is constantly accident-prone, stabbing or burning herself while doing the most simple of household tasks. Mr. Carton who despises his christened name (Sydney after the Dickens’ character. Like Anne of Green Gables he distinguishes the spelling of his name), and who manages to keep it private from most of his acquaintances but unexpectedly finds himself revealing it to Miss Sparling. The headmistress, Miss Sparling herself, who always seems to know the right things to say or do. And Elsa, the spoiled daughter of the Beltons who cannot seem to see that her attempts to interfere in her father’s finances are unwelcome.

Then there is poor Heather Adams, the regrettably plain and undistinguished student who develops a schoolgirl crush, daydreaming constantly when rescued from her wallflower status at a dance. Heather surprises everyone when she demonstrates her skating prowess and brings notoriety and attention upon herself when she experiences a mishap. And as always, there is romance and the reader must discover whether Miss Sparling will find happiness with the vicar, Mr. Oriel, or with Mr. Carton.

I have read and enjoyed several of Thirkells’ novels now and enjoyed this one (although it was not one of my favorites). I look forward to reading many more.

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The Glass-Blowers

The Glass-Blowers

“The Glass-Blowers” tells the story of a middle-class family in France just before and during the French revolution.

Sophie Busson is the daughter of a master glassmaker and his wife, with three brothers and one sister. Her mother is formidable, respected and hard-working and in many ways becomes a ‘safety net’ for Sophie. Her father unfortunately dies while still in his fifties. Sophie was sixteen years old when she lost her father.

As the story progresses and a hard winter combined with high bread prices stokes the fires of resentment among the poorer classes, Sophie finds her family caught up in the vacillating tides of revolution.

“I’ve been saying this for years,” my brother Pierre would remark, when he came to visit us. “What we need is a written Constitution as they have in America, with equal rights for all, and no privileged classes. Our laws and legal system are out of date, along with our economy; and the King can do nothing about it. Feudalism has him in thrall as it has the whole country…”

“How, I asked, “would having a written Constitution make any of us the better off?”

“Because,” answered Pierre, “by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.”

When Robert flees to London to avoid prosecution for bankruptcy, he leaves his young son Jacques behind in the care of his mother.

I found Sophie’s self-serving and ambitious brother Robert to be a frustrating character! Saved more than once out of his financial schemes that were ultimately paid for by his own family, I could not understand the depths his own mother would go to to enable her son to escape paying off his own debts.

As conditions in France deteriorate and revolution looms, Sophie at first is horrified when her husband Francois and brother Michel join the National Guard and participate in the sacking of the homes of the aristocracy. However once she experiences the brutality of the counter-revolutionaries, arriving to loot and pillage her brother Pierre’s home and business, she finds herself able to overlook her family’s actions.

“I looked at myself in the mirror on the wall. There was a great weal on my face where the man had laid his whip, and it was bleeding, too. I did not mind the pain, but the shock of what had happened made me feel faint. I put my handkerchief to my face and sat on the bed, trembling.

“Are you hurt?” asked Emile anxiously.

“No,” I said, “no, it’s not that.”

It was what one person could do to another. The man driving the cart, not knowing me, cracking my face with his whip. It was Edme, shooting wildly from the window. It was the crowd, in ‘89, before the Abbey of St. Vincent…”

When Robert finally does return to England, the reader finds that he has not changed his true colors. His choices have tragic consequences for his family relationships.

Although starting out strong, I was disappointed by the slow-moving pace of this historical novel. The author somehow failed to make her characters breathe and resonate for me. The chapters describing the arrival of civil war and fighting coming to Pierre’s village were more intriguing. I did enjoy how some of the characters mature throughout the story; most surprising was seeing Pierre, Sophie’s brother, in his admirable philanthropy to aid those too poor to find legal assistance.

Daphne du Maurier bases this story upon her own family ancestry and in her acknowledgments, thanks those who have helped her discover the facts relating to the Bussons, during the years from 1747-1845.

“But the name Busson,” he insisted. “I was brought up to understand that we were descended from an aristocratic Breton family going back to the fourteenth century…”

Madame Duval considered her nephew with a sceptical eye. “Your father Robert was first and foremost the most incorrigible farceur I have ever known,” she said drily, “and if he told these tales in England no doubt it suited his purpose at the time.”

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Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting

Linda Martin’s life changed dramatically when she lost her parents at a young age and landed in an orphanage in England. Her English father and mostly-French mother had taught her well; she spoke both languages fluently and supported herself taking a ‘general dogsbody’ position in a boy’s prep school. When she is offered the opportunity to go back to France (where she had spent her childhood), to take the position of governess she jumped at the chance. Did she jump too fast?

Mary Stewart leads the reader into a story of suspense, intrigue and romance in this fast-paced novel. As always, her descriptions of the countryside and food gives the reader the chance to experience it for themselves:

“Below me, in the valley depths where the river ran, I could see, quite distinctly now, the pale drift of mist. The owl cried again once, very sadly, from the wood. There was a strong wet smell of earth and growing things; the smell of spring… not softness, not balm-and-blossoms, but something of spring… not softness, not balm-and-blossoms, but something harsh and sharp that pierced the senses as the thrust of new life broke the ground… the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of dead land… yes, that was it. That was it. Not for the first time I was sharply grateful to daddy for making poetry a habit with me.”

Philippe is an engaging little boy, and Linda’s sympathy is immediately drawn to him as he too has lost his parents at a young age. The lonely little boy needs a friend and finds a ‘kindred spirit’ in Linda. It isn’t long before she is not only his governess but his protector, as one mysterious accident after another takes place. Only Linda’s quick thinking, courage and determination can prevent tragedy.

Mary Stewart has shown herself to be a master of suspense and intrigue, but her character development is also both creative and authentic. There is the English butler and housekeeper-wife, Mr. and Mrs. Seddons, who, though having lived in France for over thirty years, still speak a schoolroom French. There is Linda’s enemy, the dark unfriendly Albertine, and there is the handsome, enigmatic Raoul. Monsieur Florimond, a famous dress designer, still has time to play chess with a lonely little boy, and of course, there is the wheelchair-bound -but still- intimidating, formidable Leon de Valmy.

Will there be a happy ending for Philippe, and for Linda also? Will she lose her position as governess as she begins to fall for the master of the house’s son? Although a re-read, I still found so much in this gripping novel to enjoy and savor even though it moved so quickly for me, I read it in two days.

“Quite suddenly I ceased to be sorry I had come. It was as if the past, till then so longed after, so lived over, had slipped off my shoulders like a burden. The future was still hidden, somewhere in the lights that made a yellow blur in the sky beyond the end of the dark street. Here between the two I waited, and for the first time saw both clearly… I had waited for life to offer itself back to me on the old terms. Well, she wasn’t going to.”

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Silver Darlings

Silver Darlings

Finn is so excited. He is on his first voyage out with a crew of older seasoned fishermen.

“The boat was open from stem to stern, without shelter or Berth, but when they had eaten, they did what they could with the help of the sails and the soft bulk of the nets to get into a comfortable position for rest. Finn snuggled down, packed his hip bone, lifted the edge of the sail for breath, and prepared for sleep. But though he felt very tired, he was not sleepy. He was now more than ever pleased at having said things which had made the others laugh. His old shy self had opened, and to his surprise up the words had come…”

I began this book when I saw it on the “Read Scotland” forum on Goodreads. The author is new to me but I found his writing to be so atmospheric! “Silver Darlings” is crammed with not only authentic descriptions of life at sea but also engaging chapters about village life, a country fair, a perilous voyage (and a brave climb for water), and anecdotes about the fishing trade and professions (who knew what a curer was? not me.)

Neil Gunn brings the atmosphere and perils of the sea into this novel along with the growth of Finn, his coming-of-age time, and the trials of a small fishing community in Scotland. Finn’s father had been lost at sea (not telling you how; you will want to read this novel for yourself!) before Finn was even born. His mother was reluctant to allow Finn to even think of going to sea… but the sea was always calling to him.

“Listen, Finn. You mustn’t be angry with me. The sea has not been kind to me. And then – we have been living here, though it is not our croft, our home. I cannot do a man’s work, taking in new land. You and me – we are wanderers, who found a home.”

Although wordy at times the author gives the reader a lot to think about and not just pictures of what life in Scotland used to be for so many that were living on the edge of poverty. The readers is able to ‘get inside’ the characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, not just through dialog but through the ups and downs of life itself.

Finn’s mother Catrine is threatened with the plague; will she succumb? The reader cannot help being moved at poor Catrine’s plight already; losing her husband at such a young age, she lives for her son throughout the book.

At times the book moved very quickly because I was right there with Finn, hoping someday to become a sailor himself and obtain his very own ship.

“In fact, when Finn lifted his mind, he saw the clean green seas running, and knew that freedom was there, and adventure, and the song of man’s strength. He would be all right when he looked at the lifting stem of his own boat. Then would come upon him a freedom that would have in it the gait of revenge over all the cluttering doubts and anxieties of the earth.”

Finn and his companions are dogged and spunky and spend their days on the sea fighting the odds. Hoping the day’s catch would be a good one, hoping the sun would come out or the wind would rise so that Roddie, their captain (and for much of the book, Finn’s personal hero), could find their way back again.

“Silver Darlings” is a book about man against the sea; man versus his environment; man versus nature; man versus man (cruel landlords, greed, compulsory naval recruitment). But it is also a book about tenacity; the beauty of the world around us, sheer ‘holding on’ in the face of adversity, and hope.

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The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

The Cartographer of No Man's Land

Angus MacGrath is an artist and coastal trader from Nova Scotia.

“…sailing the Lauralee fed something deep, made him feel part of the grand sweep’’ – not of history, but of the sun’s first rays breaking over the curve of the earth, the currents below, the wind above, propelling him forward, and letting him know just how small a part of the grand sweep he was, but still – a part of it. Suspended, sustained in the territory beyond the points of the compass. And it was that he wanted to capture on canvas – more than capture, he wanted to let it flow through him and out and back again. God had given him talent, or maybe just the longing, but either way, not enough courage to trust it.”

When his brother-in-law enlists in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in 1915, everyone hopes the war would be over by Christmas. When those hopes were lost and Ebbin’s letters have stopped coming, Angus, encouraged by the dean of his school (and in spite of the protests from his pacifist father), signs up, and the war begins in turn for Angus.

Interspersed with life back in Nova Scotia and life in France and on the front, this world-war 1 historical novel brings home the immense sacrifices made in order to take a few feet of ground. Angus faces death, destruction and loneliness as he struggles with his dilemma and the mystery of what has happened to Ebbin. He agonizes over his personal choices but sometimes he manages to comfort the dying with words from his theological seminary days.

The author cleverly opens up a picture for the reader of the war at the Front and at the same time, helps us get ‘inside’ a soldier’s innermost thoughts.

“… still, I loved him. Ebbin, that is. Never knew how much until he went missing.” Angus leaned forward and cupped his glass with both hands. “When someone’s gone, gone for good, a piece of yourself goes missing – who you were with that person and maybe who you thought you once might be.”

Focusing mainly on the battle for Vimy Ridge, the author makes the war come to life for the reader as we are caught up in the stories of the men in Angus’ platoon and hope he makes it through. It was interesting to me to read about the battles but what made it jump off the page were the personalities the author created; the brave, the sensitive, the fearful, the complacent.

The author has such a talent for making history real and at the same time, making her characters seem genuine and true-to-life. No trite or commonplace personalities here!

This was a fast read for me and a very impressive (and thought-provoking!) debut novel.

“The war was in him, part of him, but not all of him. Memory would always haunt him, as it haunted George. He knew that. But he knew, too, that the sacrifice could not be honored by memory alone, but in the purest part of self where it was understood it could not be fully known. Now we see through a glass darkly…now I know only in part.”

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Good Daughters

Good Daughters

“Stanley said to Judith how blessed they were in their daughters. Only Judith wondered whether this might be the last holiday they would have together as a family. The children had no thought of last things, confident that everything lay ahead of them.”

I had not read Mary Hocking before but saw reviews that were so compelling, that I picked up this first book in her trilogy, “Good Daughters”, with expectations of a treat before me.

I have to say that at first, I wasn’t too impressed. This coming-of-age-in-prewar England novel had its moments; chapters that describe vacations, school, growing up, family, and boy-girl relationships. It took me a few chapters to get into the lives of the characters. But as I read on, I discovered that this is no simple story of family life in England. In between the school-girl stories that include both triumphs and failures, there is also tragedy. There is a friend who travels to Germany and doesn’t come back. There are unforeseen and unprepared-for consequences from rash choices, and there are also bits of wonderful prose; bright sparkling paragraphs of deep, challenging explorations of the meaning of life and this sometimes crazy, upside-down world we live in.

As I read I continued to vacillate between really, really liking the stories of family life and alternately wishing the author had not included a few of the scenes. And there is quite a variety of characterization here; the elderly, crochety grandmother, the unassailable school headmistress, the pretentious Mrs. Immingham, the pleasant, refreshing country vacations and the Jubilee parade. All are depicted and written about as if the reader himself is present.

Now that I have finished reading, I am still somewhat hesitant and uncertain of how to view this surprising book, but I do know that I have to keep reading! I find myself looking forward to picking up the second book in the trilogy (“Indifferent Heroes”). Certainly the characters have stayed with me, and the story line also.

The Fairleys are a ‘fairly’ (excuse the pun!) typical family with three girls, a stern father and supportive mother, and a ‘middling’ comfortable life. Not rich or pretentious, this is life as it was for much of England before the war begins, although events are escalating and the war looms on the horizon, coloring the background.

“They grew up aware of an older, more stable way of life, though they were not to be its inheritors.”

Louise, the eldest, seems ready to throw off restraint in her response to the restrictions placed upon her by her well-meaning minister-father. I suppose there are many that did not appreciate the character of Stanley Fairley, but having children of my own, I could understand his concerns. Without revealing too much, Stanley’s well-meaning attempts to place stringent boundaries upon his children, unfortunately, result in the very consequence that he fears. Judith brings a balance to the family as she tries to pave a smooth path between father and daughters.

There are real-life situations, and some of the vignettes will not be appreciated as the author does not hesitate to portray all of the details that life involves, including the unattractive side of human nature. However the final chapter simply blew me away! The author takes Alice through her agonizing questions to examine the role of her own life and that of those around her. Alice is not afraid to ask questions and concludes that although some of life’s dilemmas will never be satisfactorily answered, an enduring faith, even in the midst of human suffering, lays the groundwork for it all.

“Her puritan upbringing had laid much emphasis on the need for endurance in the face of injustice, fortitude in suffering and, by their very nature, the virtues commended to her implied a certain grimness in the grain of life. What she had not been prepared for, because she did not merit it, was the laying of a jeweled robe across her shoulders. There was something shocking about grace, an inexplicable quirk in God’s behavior; the struggle to come to terms with it would be her life. But she did not see that now, was only dimly aware of a beginning.”

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