ALTAFF’s “Historical Fiction @ your library”: ALA Annual 2012

Jeri Westeron. Photo by Dave Feiling Photography

Leveen, Lois. The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Morrow. 2012. 496p. ISBN 0062107909. pap. $15.99.
This novel’s premise is intriguing: it’s about a slave named Mary Bowser who works as a house slave for the wealthy Van Lew family, seeing her father, a blacksmith and also a slave, only on weekends. The radical, abolitionist daughter of the Van Lew family educates Mary and offers her freedom, and Mary must wrench herself from her parents and travel North. She joins the abolitionist movement, and when war comes leaves for the dreaded South to work as a spy for the Union.

Now if that isn’t an eye-catching story, what’s more remarkable is that it’s based in truth. Mary Bowser was a real person that Lois Leveen discovered while researching her doctoral dissertation on African American literature. Just a few sentences were the seed for this engaging novel which of course shows what fiction can do that nonfiction can’t. Of course, as a scholar with degrees in history and literature from Harvard, USC, UCLA, our author beautifully renders the historical detail. But the real pleasure here is the lively character of Mary and the sense of escalating tension as she undertakes her remarkable mission.

O’Melveny, Regina. The Book of Madness and Cures. Little, Brown. 2012. 336p. ISBN 978 0316195836. $25.95.
Gabriella Mondini is a woman ahead of her time. Acting under the sponsorship of her father, an esteemed physician, she is the only woman practicing medicine in 16th-century Venice. Then her father vanishes, and as time passes she determines that she must find him, bring him home, and help him complete his magisterial The Book of Diseases. She sets out with two servants, despite her mother’s protests, and they travel through Switzerland, German France, Scotland, and finally Morocco, following the ever-thinning trail left by Gabriella’s father. Along the way, Gabriella hears increasingly disturbing reports of her father’s behavior.

That’s the madness of the title, but what about the cures? In fact, Gabriella’s journey takes her not simply through turbulent Europe but through her heart, freeing her from the past and giving her a whole new life. Drawing on her Italian artist mother’s memories of Venice and her own father’s disappearance when she was young, poet O’Melveny has given us a heartfelt book of longing and of hope.

Tsukiyama, Gail. One Hundred Flowers. St. Martin’s Aug. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9780312274818. $24.99.
Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom. Let a hundred schools of thought contend. Those words, uttered by Mao Tse-Tung in 1956, are absolutely chilling to us now, for we know that though Mao launched a campaign to encourage intellectuals to step forth and suggest how the party might be improved, he quickly pulled back, and thousands were sent to labor camps. Best-selling author Gail Tsukiyama, recipient of PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, takes us back to those times not by painting a panorama but in her thoughtful and forthright way by showing the consequences for one family.

Kai Yeng’s husband, Sheng, has taken Mao at his word and seems to have written a letter to the Premier’s office; soon he is hustled off by two policemen, even as his elderly father tries to tell them to take him instead. Meanwhile, Sheng’s young son, Tao, is convinced that if he climbs to the top of the kapok tree in the family courtyard, he will catch a glimpse of his father, a rash act that leads to a dangerous fall. As Kai says, it’s as if they were all falling. Yet Kai reaches out to Suyin, a pregnant girl she saw in the hospital after Tao’s fall, showing that in the worst of times people can still sometimes act their best.

Westerson, Jeri. Blood Lance. St. Martin’s. Oct. 2012. 336p. ISBN 978 1250000187. $25.99.
The medieval era is a turbulent time, full of passionate belief, and it’s spawned many popular mystery series. A new discovery for me, Westerson’s medieval noir series features Crispin Guest, once in the service of John of Gaunt and young master of his own manor, who rashly threw in his lot with those plotting to elevate Gaunt to the throne, displacing the young king Richard II. Convicted of treason, he is stripped of his rank and his possessions and survives, barely, as the Tracker, living in a single room in a dodgy part of town called the Shambles.

Whether Crispin is agreeing to work for a secretive merchant who suspects his wife of infidelity, a case that leads to murder and a missing relic (Veil of Lies); trying to ferret out who killed a French courtier (Serpent in the Thorns), which ends with a much higher target; helping a Jewish physician invited from abroad to find stolen documents, leading to case involving murdered boys (The Demon’s Parchment); finding himself in the midst of The Canterbury Tales with murder (Troubled Bones); or, in the newest work, dealing with the putative suicide of an armourer who had promised an unbeatable weapon, possibly the Spear of Longinus itself, to a friend from Crispin’s former life (Blood Lance), these mysteries are always well crafted and complex, leading us into the culture of the era. Most interesting: Crispin himself, a traitor who’s also a man of honor, an honorable and decent man whose bitterness and regret and longing for the accoutrements of his old life color his outlook, making him seem less the inviolably perfect hero than someone perfectly human.

Zimmerman, Jean. The Orphanmaster. Viking. Jun. 2012. 432p. ISBN 9780670023646. $27.95.
Among Jean Zimmerman’s nonfiction books is The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty. In fact, her first novel, The Orphanmaster, features a she-merchant in 1663 New Amsterdam, 22-year-old trader Blandine von Couvering, whose formidable trading powers as seen in the book’s opening pages would put any Wall Streeter to shame. These are unsettled in New Amsterdam, not simply because the English are hovering hungrily. Orphan children are disappearing, some are turning up mutilated, and some folks think that a witika‚ a flesh-eating demon feared by Native Americans‚ is responsible. Blandine soon finds herself joining forces (in more ways than one) with Englishman Edward Drummond, reputedly a merchant but in fact a spy for the crown, in an attempt to find out what’s really happening. So, detailed and authentic history of a time and place we don’t think much about; the suggestion of horror; the edgy thrill of tracking down the bad guys, and the romance of‚Ķromance. This book is fun!


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.