Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Book #80: Kidnapped

Long, long ago (okay, about a month ago), I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

It wasn’t really what I was expecting, but at the same time, it was almost exactly what I was expecting. I guess it was the title that threw me off the most. I figured, given the title, that Kidnapped would be about someone being kidnapped and his adventures of eventually escaping and getting home. Of course, I just described the plot perfectly.

However, I thought the kidnapping would be more dramatic and the plot would focus more on this event. It didn’t, so much, though. Instead, it was about how David Balfour was sold away by his greedy uncle, was befriended by Alan Breck, falls in with interesting characters, and ultimately finds his way back. I guess I would have been expecting this if I’d known the book’s full title: Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751, How he was Kidnapped and Cast Away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; his Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he Suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I’m not sure why they shortened the title. It really tells you everything you need to know.

Overall, I enjoyed Kidnapped. It was the adventure style I expect from Stevenson, and, being an anglophile and a history buff, I really liked how Stevenson worked in a lot of Jacobin/loyalist plot elements. It’s a great mix of the adventure stories I loved growing up (complete with orphans and kidnappings and shipwrecks!) and historical fiction that works in and acknowledges actual events from the time period its set in.

To be honest, I’m not sure how I didn’t read Kidnapped as a child. I found out that it’s kind of part of a series, and I’m looking forward to reading other books about David Balfour.

Rating: ****

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Meaningless(ness): The Question of Trauma

Gosh. It’s so hard to write about Holocaust literature sometimes. (Says the girl who wrote a 30-page paper on Holocaust literature) It’s just that even though they are all different and they’re all unique, Holocaust memories/stories are generally all the same (like I said before). What I’ve noticed is that (hopefully without this turning into the start of some thesis/analysis of common themes in Holocaust literature) many Holocaust writers deal with the question of trauma: how to deal with its aftermath, how to describe it to outsiders, and what to do with the traumatic experience.

What sets Fatelessness apart, I think, is how Imre Kertész has his narrator deal with trauma. The whole time he is a prisoner, the boy muses on what has put in him the concentration camp and what is happening to him. I think the most powerful part of the book is when he returns home. He begins to encounter people who have only heard of the “horrors” of the concentration camps. They can’t understand him.

A rhetoric-driven reporter wants him to tell all about the “hell” he lived through. Basically, what the boy winds up saying is, “What hell?” Further, the family and friends he returns to also can’t make sense of what has happened to him. They want to know if he is going to move, or how he will start a new life and move on from the Holocaust.

In Which I Go On A Senior Paper-Related Tangent

This seems to be a common thing in the Holocaust books I’ve read. The writers are always struggling with how to tell their stories, to whom to tell their stories, and which stories are best left untold and, eventually, forgotten. Further, there is the trouble that no one can truly know what the Holocaust was like unless they lived through it. No story, narrative, picture, or visit to a concentration camp can give someone who wasn’t there any inkling of what it is like.

Primo Levi wrote that the words we have are not adequate to describe the Holocaust. He argues that if the camps had lasted longer, “a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing near” (If This Is A Man). So, really, nothing Kertész’s narrator could have told the reporter would have given the man the glimpse into “hell” that he wanted.

Further, the narrator’s family, who wants to help him move on and find a new life, does not understand that he can’t just leave his experience behind. Just like Levi, Elie Wiesel, and many other Holocaust memoirists, writers, and survivors, Kertész’s boy knows that he will have to live with the concentration camp inside him forever. Like the other writers who talk about this and doubt their ever understanding or making sense of it, Kertész has his narrator reflect on understanding. However, he comes out at an interesting place in which he realizes that he must gradually reflect on what happened to him, but without trying to make sense of it:

“As we pass one step, and as we recognize it as being behind us, the next one already rises up before us. By the time we learn everything, we slowly come to understand it. And while you come to understand everything gradually, you don’t remain idle at any moment. . . you act, you move, you fulfill the new requirements of every step of development. If, on the other hand, there were no schedule, no gradual enlightenment, if all the knowledge descended on you at once right there in one spot, then it’s possible neither your brains nor your heart could bear it.”

With this passage, right at the end of the book, I think Imre Kertész very, very eloquently sums up the aftermath of trauma. Understanding must come gradually. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, I don’t think. But maybe it does help us to understand things a little bit more.

Rating: ****
Up Next: A Tale of Two Cities (which I’ve already finished. Yay being behind on blogging!)

Book #32: Fatelessness

I’ve just started Fatelessness by Imre Kertész.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertész book cover

It’s a Holocaust book, which means I’ll be pretty absorbed by it. I’ve mentioned this on here before, I think, but I’m really interested in the Holocaust.

Basically, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew who winds up in Auschwitz. He’s really only a Jew by heritage. He doesn’t exactly believe in God and he doesn’t speak Yiddish. This leads other Jews in the concentration camp to shun him and claim that he isn’t really a Jew.

I’m wondering if this will be a big part of the book. It sounds like it could wind up being a great commentary on the randomness and senselessness of the persecution of the Jews. The boy is, for some reason, identified as a Jew by outsiders, but actual Jews don’t completely consider him one. What, then, is identity and what makes a person who they are?

Hopefully this book will reflect on that a little. But otherwise, I’m just going to enjoy (in the way that one usually “enjoys” Holocaust literature) reading about the Holocaust again. I haven’t really done that since my senior project in college.

Super-Speedy Alias Grace

I’m coming at you from the free wifi in the airport as I wait for my flight.

I don’t have a ton of time, so this is going to be quick. I just want to get something out because I don’t know how much time I’ll have to write updates in the next few days.

I’m officially a Margaret Atwood fan. I read and liked The Handmaid’s Tale, but I’m always hesitant to make blanket statements about authors if I’ve only read one of their books. But now that I’ve read Alias Grace, I feel more comfortable saying that I like Margaret Atwood.

What struck me most about Alias Grace was how little I cared about the central “mystery” of the novel. The driving force behind the plot is probably supposed to be figuring out what actually happened when Nancy and Mr. Kinnear were killed. Doctor Jordan is unraveling some of the enigma that is Grace Marks. Usually when I read books where there’s some major question or mystery like that, I read frantically because I want to know the answer. That wasn’t the case here.

I found myself not caring that Grace hadn’t yet told us what she remembered of the day of the murders. I was just interested in her story. I could have read even more about her life as a servant and her changes between employers and not cared a bit. At one point I even forgot that there was a murder “mystery” (in quotes because the book isn’t really a murder mystery) that the plot was working towards resolving.

Oh man, flight boards really soon. Let’s see. Specifics.

Grace Marks was a real person. And she really was in prison for allegedly killing (or helping to kill) her employer and the housekeeper (who was her employer’s mistress). In real life she was an enigma. No one was sure of her sanity or guilt. Atwood does a great job of moving the book toward resolution while still keeping Grace enigmatic. The wrap-up is really, really cool, I think.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so all I’m going to say is that I read the “Spiritualist/hypnosis” chapter at 1 a.m. before bed. It was SO FREAKY. Wow.

What else?

I was struck by how well Atwood wrote the dream scenes in the book. A lot of times when characters in books dream, there’s really obvious symbolism that seems sort of forced or convoluted. Obviously in a book where a psychiatrist is talking to a murderess about her dreams the dreams mean something. But I don’t think Atwood made them overly obvious. At least, at no point during those parts did I sarcastically say, Gee, I wonder what THAT could mean…, which is a thing I do when there’s really obviously symbolism or foreshadowing in a book.

Overall, I’m a huge fan of Alias Grace.

Rating: *****
Up Next: A Home at the End of the World

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