Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf: Featuring Leslie Parry and Annie Barrows

 

By Lynn Willoughby

The Church of Marvels ~ Leslie Parry

This is a first novel for Parry and it is brimming with odd, quirky and eccentric characters. They are all survivors in a world where most of the us would despair.

Sylvan Threadgill is a night soiler who is cleaning privies one night and finds an abandoned baby. Although he is desperately poor, he himself was abandoned and cannot leave this child to die.

Odile and Isabelle live amid a carnival show, The Church of Marvels, run by their mother. Coney Island is the only home they have ever known until fire burns everything, killing their mother, some of the sideshow acts and the tigers. What will become of them?

Alphie is a young woman who wakes up to find herself trapped on the island that is Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum.

I found the story disjointed at first, until the personalities became clear and there is reason to believe their stories are somehow connected. What was most shocking to me was the unmitigated hardship and poverty, the loneliness, the despair that is the daily grind of most of the population in New York in the late 1800s.

The description of the Asylum, and what went on there, the markets, the tenements on the lower East Side of Manhattan, and the human circus, left me wondering how anyone could even get up in the morning, let alone have hope for a better tomorrow. This setting of 1895 is able to highlight the lives of “women, outcasts and society’s non-conforming souls” that will remain with me for a very long time.

As the misfit protagonists gradually come together, I was intrigued by their lives of adventure but mostly left with the heartbreak of their day to day grind to survive. It left me wondering what happens next.

If you enjoy this genre of book, this one is very good. There is no predictability at all and in fact as I did daily chores while reading it, I tried to figure out the ending. I wasn’t even close!!

The Truth According to Us ~ Annie Barrows

The depression in West Virginia is especially hard in Macedonia – a factory town that is quickly going broke. But money is short everywhere and as part of a government funded program for those “on relief”, the Federal Writer’s Project is formed as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Layla Beck came to town to write its history, to be published on the 150 anniversary of its founding. But Layla is the pampered daughter of a Senator, who is used to a world of dances, parties and hair salons. How did SHE get this job, and how will she make out boarding with the unconventional Romeyns in the summer heat of 1938?

The protagonist is 12 year old Willa Romeyn who is curious about everything, who moves around quietly observing, fading into the woodwork and over-hearing family conversations about a decades old family secret. Her viewpoint alternates with that of her 36 year old Aunt Jottie, and Layla Beck, the boarder.

While Willa is trying to uncover the family secrets and Layla is trying to uncover the town secrets, Jottie is trying to untangle herself from all the baggage and just get married and live her life.

There are lots of plot twists and lurking behind it all is the threat of Communism, the fear of a second world war and the crushing reality of the depression.

It is long, but I enjoyed this novel. It is a bittersweet coming of age story where family loyalties are tested, family eccentricities are accepted and the small town of Macedonia is almost a character in the story.

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Who Knew?

Bootlegging is defined as “The making, distribution or selling of illicit goods, especially liquor.” It comes from the late 19th century when smugglers concealed bottles in their boots.

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