One-Minute Book Reviews

June 16, 2009

Ann B. Ross’s ‘Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind’ – The First ‘Miss Julia’ Novel

Kidnapping and cheese straws commingle in the first book in a popular series

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind: A Novel. By Ann B. Ross. Harper 288 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Back in the 1990s, mainstream publishers crawled out from under a oleander bush and made an overdue discovery: A lot of people who live in small towns, go to church, and treat their neighbors kindly also like to read. And they want to see themselves reflected in novels instead of — or at least in addition to — characters who rent city apartments, go to nightclubs, and plot revenge against their bosses.

Perhaps no one did more to move publishers toward daylight than Jan Karon, who became a supernova for her series about a kindly rector in the fictional hamlet of Mitford, North Carolina, after finding only a small Christian firm willing to publish her first novel. Karon’s success helped to clear a path for writers like Ann B. Ross, who has emerged as a star in her own right for her ten books about a rich Southern Presbyterian widow who comes into her own after the death of her philandering banker husband, Wesley Lloyd.

Like Karon’s At Home in Mitford, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind takes place in a North Carolina town shielded from the harsher effects of time. But Ross’s book has more attitude – specifically, more irreverence. Karon’s Father Tim is the gentle minister a lot of us wish we had. Ross’s Pastor Ledbetter is the unctuous hypocrite we sometimes get instead.

In Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, Miss Julia gets a surprise visit from Hazel Marie Puckett, who claims to have been  Wesley Lloyd’s longtime mistress and to have brought along his 9-year-old bastard son. When Hazel Marie disappears, Miss Julia believes she must take in Little Lloyd. But certain Abbotsville busybodies don’t like having in their midst a reminder of the moral flaws of the man who owned the town bank. And when Little Lloyd is kidnapped, any number of people might have had a hand in it.

If the novel moves swiftly toward a solution to the apparent crime, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind isn’t really a mystery. It’s a comedy of Southern manners, as light as a basket of cheese straws, that turns on the acerbic wit of its protagonist and her interactions with more broadly drawn characters. Miss Julia sees right through Pastor Ledbetter’s pious ooze, her late husband’s cheating, and other two-faced behavior in Abbotsville. She doesn’t waste time worrying about whether she might have kept Wesley Lloyd from straying by trading her Red Cross shoes for Ferragamos.  And for all her church-going, she avoids looking too closely at what her husband’s afterlife might hold. “He was a Presbyterian and therefore one of the elect,” she says dryly, “which makes me wonder about the election process.”

Best line: Ross writes of a Presbyterian minister who wants a piece of Miss Julia’s inheritance: “ … if he brought up Wesley Lloyd’s estate again, I decided I’d transfer my membership. Maybe to the Episcopal church, where grown men get down on their knees. Which a lot of men, including the Presbyterian kind, ought to try.”

Worst line: Miss Julia’s black maid Lillian has lines like, “You need some liquids in yo’ stomick. Jes’ lay right still while I go get you something to drink.” I didn’t mind these because Ross tries to also capture the flavor of the regional speech of her white Southern characters, so the exchange seemed fair. But some readers may disagree.

About the author: Ross has written ten “Miss Julia” novels, including  Miss Julia Delivers the Goods, just published by Viking. She lives in Henderson, NC.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 13, 2009

The True Story of a Girl Captured by Mohawks in 1704 During the Slaughter of Colonists in Deerfield in 1704 – John Demos’s ‘The Unredeemed Captive’

Why did young Eunice Williams stay with Indians who had murdered her mother?

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. By John Demos. Vintage 336 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1704 a French and Indian war party slaughtered dozens of men, women, and children in a predawn attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Recent histories have sanitized the incident known as the Deerfield Massacre, calling it “the Raid on Deerfield.”

The term “raid” hardly fits the events described in this memorable true story of Eunice Williams, who lived through the terror that was masterminded by the French but largely carried out by Mohawks and other Indians. Eunice was a 7-year-old Puritan minister’s daughter when she was kidnapped in the attack – oops, sorry, “raid”! – on Deerfield at about 4 a.m. on February 29. Her mother died on a subsequent forced march to Canada, killed by an Indian who “slew her with his hatchet at one stroke,” a son wrote. Her father and siblings were eventually released.

But Eunice stayed with the Indians, one of whom she married, for puzzling reasons: Was she a prisoner or a willing expatriate? The Yale University historian John Demos explores the question in this fascinating finalist for 1994 National Book Award (inexplicably described on the cover as the winner of the prize).

Enough gaps remain in the record that Demos has to tease out answers, partly by exploring relations between the English, French, and Indians in 18th-century America. (“Some things we have to imagine.”) So The Unredeemed Captive isn’t a Jon Krakauer tale with muskets. But its story matters for more than its complex portrayal of colonial life. Demos doesn’t take the fashionable path of romanticizing American Indians, but he doesn’t spare the Puritans, either. He notes that in our era, “fundamentalism” has become a shorthand term for “radical Islamists, evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, militant Hindus” and others. “By the same token,” he writes, “it’s not a long stretch to characterize the early Puritans, surrounding and including the Williams family, as ‘fundamentalists’ themselves; witness their sense of utter certainty in what they were about, their intolerance of difference and dissent, their zeal for conversion of infidel natives, and their readiness to fight, die, and kill in the cause of advancing their faith.”

Best line: “Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?,” a rhetorical question asked by
Rev. John Williams after the massacre.

Worst line: Demos tells much of Eunice’s story in the present tense, which works less well than the past tense he uses to give it context.

Recommendation? An excellent choice for history books clubs and others that like serious nonfiction.

Editor: Ashbel Green

Published: 1994 (Knopf hardcover), 1995 (Vintage paperback).

Read John Demos’s summary of the Deerfield Massacre in American Heritage. Several Deerfield museums have an excellent interactive Web site that shows a representation of the attack and tells more about the people mentioned in this review.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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