The last book my book group read was Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. I had suggested it based on my own fascination with India. I started reading fiction about India when I was in high school, with Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve, a revelatory novel for me, a Brooklyn teenager living in a fairly sheltered world. I was hooked and have been reading about India ever since, especially the great novels that deal with the British colonial period and its aftermath. I’ve created a reading list of some of my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles.
So I was especially pleased to re-read Indian Summer for the book group and have a chance to discuss it with friends. Von Tunzelman tells the story of how the British government extricated itself from India after World War II, when the expense of maintaining the Raj was too great. Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, appointed as Viceroy in 1947, was charged with supervising the handover. Mountbatten may not have been the ideal politician for the job, which needed a statesman of Solomonic proportions. India was not a unified country where a transfer of power could occur with the lowering of one flag and the hoisting of another. Partition–the creation of East Pakistan and West Pakistan as Muslim states–which occurred simultaneously with Indian independence, was the signal for an onslaught of horrendous violence between Hindus and Muslims that still poisons relations between the two countries. Did the British haste to settle such a volatile situation create this permanent state of tension between India and Pakistan or was there no way to avoid a fiasco?
Von Tunzelman concentrates on the major characters in this political drama. On the English side, the social climbing, often clueless Mountbatten and his indefatigable wife Edwina, on the other, three very different charismatic Indian statesmen: Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. So much of what happened is due to the confluence of these five people, who were caught up in a firestorm of political and religious fervor. Von Tunzelman, by blending the factual with the personal, enlivens the historical record and provides insight into the power of individuals to shape history. Indian Summer also reveals the seeds of current problems in this area, Afghanistan included. There’s plenty of food for thought here and a good story, too.
Jeannette Walls, author of the very popular memoir The Glass Castle has a new book coming out next month titled Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. I held off reading The Glass Castle for a long time–my philosophy of reading is that if everyone else is reading a book, then I don’t have to. I’m a reader who feels most comfortable with midlist books; I look for the little gems that get the good reviews but not the marketing dollars, the books that are often staples of the backlist. I eventually did read The Glass Castle and enjoyed it, even though it’s hard to feel happy or even comfortable while reading about such a miserable childhood.
I picked up an advance reader’s edition of her new book at Book Expo last spring and just finished it, with mixed feelings. Walls originally wanted to write about her mother, but her grandmother’s story proved too compelling and it’s her story that Walls tells instead. Lily Casey Smith was quite a feisty, determined woman, someone who took on whatever came her way and fought it at least to a draw. She lived on ranches in Texas and Arizona, working alongside her father to break horses, trekked 500 miles alone at age 15 to her first teaching job, and when she saw an airplane, she jumped in for a flying lesson. She and her husband suffered the violent ups and downs that go with ranching which meant she was always looking for a way to make money, even if it wasn’t strictly legal.
Half-Broke Horses is a rousing story, well told, but it’s not quite a novel, not quite a biography. With Walls’s subtitle, “a true-life novel,” she’s trying to shoehorn it into both categories, fiction and nonfiction. She’s scrupulous about saying that she’s dramatized her grandmother’s life based on her own childhood memories and the family stories she heard from her mother and other relatives. The book is written in the first person and I imagine that when Walls sat down to write, Lily Casey Smith just appeared on the page in her own voice. Maybe Walls felt that this was the only way to tell the story.
So, although you’ll remember Lily for a long time and enjoy reading about southwestern ranch life in the early 20th century, Half Broke Horses has very little narrative arc. It ends abruptly with the marriage of Walls’s mother Rosemary rather than with the resolution of a plot. Not every life has a novel-worthy plot, although we all do have stories. If you read Half Broke Horses and feel cheated because you haven’t read either a novel or a biography, well, I told you so.
I just finished reading the memoir Building a Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love by Rachel Simon. Don’t be put off by the title, which doesn’t even hint at the emotional richness of Simon’s story about renovating an old row house in Wilmington, Delaware. I had read her earlier memoir, Riding the Bus With My Sister: A True Life Journey and knew that she’s someone for whom personal relationships hold the key to life’s joys and heartbreak. Simon can’t walk down the street without making a friend. She’s genuinely interested in everyone’s life but most particularly in scrutinizing her own and telling us the universal truths that she unearths. Her husband Hal calls her “The Girl From Epiphanema” and no nickname could be more apt.
As she and Hal renovate their house, every phase recalls a part of her life. When she feels a sense of emptiness as the house is stripped and rooms gutted, she searches through her fractured childhood and difficult relationship with her mother and siblings to make a coherent narrative of their present relationships. When she and Hal move out during the renovations, Simon remembers the dislocating moves of her childhood after her parents’ divorce and her move out of Hal’s apartment years ago. As the rooms of their house are stripped, gutted, and put back together, she examines her connections with parents, siblings, and friends. Simon learns lessons–and has epiphanies–at every step of the way. Her insights will have you thinking instantly about your own relationships and how forgiveness, love, patience, tolerance, and commitment will make them better.
If it seems strange to you that the renovation process is a catalyst for such a profound trip into Simon’s psyche, you only need to recall that in dreams, a house represents our inner selves, our thoughts about how we feel about where we are in our lives. Dismantling and repairing a house has the same effect on Simon–it’s a waking dream that we share with her. There’s more about Simon on her website.