Big Stone Gap – a quick read about an eccentric mountain town and a self-proclaimed spinster

If you are unfamiliar with “Big Stone Gap,” the book is about a real town in the Virginia mountains written by Adriana Trigiani. There was also a movie called “Big Stone Gap” made about the book starring Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, John Benjamin Hickey and Jenna Elfman. Plus, you may remember a true story included in the book, when Elizabeth Taylor, while visiting with her Senate candidate husband John Warner, choked on a chicken bone in the town at a welcome dinner in the late 1970s.

The book revolves around the main character, a thirty-five year old pharmacist named Ave Maria Mulligan. Her mother was born in Italy, so the name is not as unusual as it sounds, but is still not common. The pharmacy was owned by her stern father who had passed away years ago. Her mother has just passed away when the book picks up. Another key character is a mining friend named Jack MacChesney, who goes by Jack Mac. Judd and Wilson play the lead characters in the movie which was co-written and directed by the author.

Without giving too much of the plot away, Ave Maria is an avid book reader and her best friend is Iva Lou (played by Elfman), the woman who drives the bookmobile into the library-less town once a week. Iva Lou is unmarried as well, but she encourages Ave Maria to be more like she is with her healthy libido. Ave Maria also has a big heart and busy calendar as she is one of the two EMTs in the area, directs a regional theater performance about the town, and is best friends with the very creative high school band director named Theodore (played by Hickey).

Her mother taught her Italian as a shared hobby her husband did not know about. Ave Maria felt her relationship was always strained with her father and the book reveals how she discovers why this was the case. And, as an important context to the story, her mother was an expert seamstress and did pro bono work for band uniforms, prom dresses, and wedding dresses in this relatively poor mining town. This goodwill endeared her too many including Jack Mac.

If you love small towns, the book will hit home with its local flair. Goldberg plays Fleeta, a pro wrestling loving clerk at the pharmacy. You will learn who the gossips are and why very few stories are private. You will love the eccentricity and become frustrated with the stubbornness of some of the characters, including Ave Maria, who stiff-arms suitors.

You will treasure and be proud of Ave Maria standing up for the disenfranchised, like a young heavy-set teen named Pearl who gets picked on and others in need of work. She is also friends with her customers and delivers medicines to those who cannot get out. You will like Ave Maria, as do the town residents, but she will frustrate you as well, like a sibling or good friend sometimes do.

If you have not read it, give it look. It is a quick read. It won’t solve world hunger, but it is a nice distraction, which we all need. Let me know what you think.

The Buffalo Soldier – a good read about relationships in tough times

The recipe is simple, but tragic. Mix in a young couple living in Vermont who loses their twin daughters to a terrible flood. Season with a ten-year old African-American foster child that they take in two years later. Understand the couple grieves differently and the husband has a one night affair that produces a pregnancy. Finally, layer in a kind, retired couple across the street, one of whom is a retired history professor who introduces the boy to a book on an African-American regiment called the Buffalo Soldiers. What results is an excellent book by Chris Bohjalian called “The Buffalo Soldier.”

The book is told in first person, through the eyes of five sets of characters. Laura, the young wife, works at a pet shelter. Terry, the husband, is a Vermont state trooper. Alfred is the young boy who has moved from foster home to foster home. Phoebe is the woman who Terry becomes infatuated with and is the expectant mother of his child. And, the Heberts, Paul and Emily, are the retired couple whose view is told together. Bohjalian alternates the first person narrative by chapter which provides perspective.

Alfred becomes fascinated with the Buffalo Soldiers, especially after Paul tells him the Native Americans gave them that name as an honor. To them, the buffalo gave life – food, clothing, shelter – so they revered the animal. This becomes important when Paul and Emily get a horse and ask Alfred to help. Alfred is treated differently by others because there are not many African-Americans in this small town or his school, so the Buffalo Soldiers intrigue him and give him a connection.

The story has many relationships, but the foster family is at the heart of it. As noted therein, losing one child is trying to a family, but losing both of your only children can cause relationships to end. As noted above, people grieve differently and for long periods of time. So, while Alfred helps bring Laura out of her grief, Terry has still not stopped being mad at the world and misses how his relationship with his wife was before the death of the twins.

Each chapter begins with a little paragraph on the Buffalo Soldiers, so we see what Paul and Alfred find so compelling about them. I will stop there so as not to reveal any more of the plot. Give it a read and let me know what you think. Please avoid the comments in case others have already read it.

Caleb’s Crossing – a good book with a dose of history

Take a surprising true story – the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in the 17th century. Season it with a historically appropriate context. And, mix in a story told through the eyes of a growing young daughter of a minister and you arrive at “Caleb’s Crossing” by Gretchen Brooks, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2006 book “March.”

Bethia Mayfield is the girl growing up in the settlement of Great Harbor on what is now called Martha’s Vineyard. Her father has an earnest effort to convert and educate members of the Wampanoag tribe on the island. While Bethia is not allowed advanced schooling given her gender, she listens to her father’s lessons to her older brother, Makepeace. Since her brother is not the best of students, unlike his younger sister, she gets the benefit of hearing the lessons repeated.

As she lost her twin brother in a terrible accident, she wanders the coast, woods and meadows. She befriends a a Wampanoag boy about her age. She eventually gives him an English name of Caleb. He is as curious to learn as she is and he teaches her about where good berries can be found and how to fish. He also teaches her his language and vice-versa. Yet, other than taking her berries home, she must keep her learnings to herself.

I will stop there as not to reveal too much plot. If you are a woman, this book will exasperate you at times. You will pull for Bethia throughout and wince when she does headstrong things that her mother cautioned her about. She will acknowledge that she may have said too much on occasion in the book.

While Bethia and her story is fiction, there are many parts of the story that are true. Brooks points these out at the end of the book, as she does not want her book to replace history. Yet, so much is unknown about Caleb and another Native American Harvard student, that the story is a good teaching aid.

“Caleb’s Crossing” is a good book. It is not a can’t-put-down-read, at least to me, but it is entertaining. Men will find it of interest, but women will likely be more invested with how it portrays the subservient nature of girls and women in the mid-to-late 17th century and how Bethia overcomes obstacles.

Where the crawdads sing – a terrific page turner

A few weeks ago, I asked my wife if I would enjoy Delia Owens novel “Where the crawdads sing.” I had given it to her for Christmas a few years ago and was looking for a good fiction read. I had bought it for her as it was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and recommended by Reese’s Book Club (that is Reese Witherspoon). She said I would and she was correct.

For those who have read the book, I look forward to your comments below. If you have not, please avoid the comments, as my wife did a great job of not telling me things I did not know yet as I read. Plus, it won’t take you long to read, as the story, main character, and setting are very intriguing. I will not give anything away here.

Owens does a great job of toggling between two time periods, one that ages with Kya, the main character, and the other one set in 1969, when a body is discovered beneath an abandoned Fire Tower on a coastal region of North Carolina. We meet Kya in 1952 when she is only six and her mother leaves her family to get away from an abusive, drinking husband. As this occurs very early in the book, her older siblings also leave as they experienced verbal and physical abuse.

They lived in the marsh of this coastal area and we begin to learn about the differences between marshes, swamps and inlets, through this girl’s eyes. This “Marsh Girl,” as she will become known as to the small town of Barkley Cove, cannot read or count above 29, but she is very resourceful, knows the area, and briefly learns a few useful things from her father during his nicer periods. She also befriends a boy older than she, named Tate (who had been friends with her closest sibling Jodie) and a Black man named Jumper (who has a coastal filling station for boats) who are helpful to her journey.

The book is told largely in first person through Kya’s eyes, but we do get the occasional thoughts of other key characters, that help shape the story. They also offer a glimpse of the bias toward Kya as evidenced by the nickname, plus why those who help her, do so.

I highly recommend this book. The story and characters will intrigue you. You will also learn things that Kya learns or be amazed at what she had gleaned by age six, about the marsh, animals, birds, and fireflies. The title will also reveal its origins along the way. And, you will also learn through Kya’s eyes how people in different classes are treated or made to feel inferior.

Let me know your thoughts. Do your best not to give too much away for those who have not read the book, but they have been forewarned.