Sunday, January 14, 2007

Peace Like A River and Cold Sassy Tree

Ok, so these are two books I've read for my book club. I had read Cold Sassy before, several years ago. Set in 1906 Georgia, it's a quasi-coming of age story about a boy who lives in a comfortably middle class family living in small town Georgia. When his father decides to wed the milliner in his store a scant three weeks after the death of his first wife, scandal and gossip ensue. I didn't like Cold Sassy as well this time around, or at least as well as I remember liking it when I read it the first time. I found it rather disturbing really. Perhaps the first time I read it I hadn't read quite so many novels that dwelled on Southern "colorful characters." It's a genre I've grown a bit tired of in the past few years. I've told others in my book club that they have to suspend their modern sensibilities when they read, and try to read from the perspective of someone contemporary to the time being written about, and I've derided books that give too modern a sensibility to historical time periods or characters (ever noticed how the main characters in historical romances bathe?), but the cozy Jim Crow view of the south - with just a few sops to discomfort over the treatment of blacks and poor whites - made me feel vaguely sick. I'm not sure if that was the author's intent, or if she really was as nostalgic for those times as she seemed. I'll have to wait and see what others think on that question. All in all, however, for style and readability, you can't really do better than this book if you like the genre. I'd rather read it again than The Secret Life of Bees, for sure.

Peace Like A River I liked quite a lot. It's the story of a family that lives on the edge of economic and social viability in a Minnesota town, who find their lives torn apart when the oldest son commits a crime and goes on the run. For me this book wasn't great or high literature, but it reminded me of the sort of Norman McLean/Wallace Stegner genre that I like almost in spite of myself. In a funny way, it is much like Cold Sassy, with its almost rosy view of "simple-folk" living life in a small town. What I liked best about this book was its depiction of faith. It was nice to see a character who has a deep and abiding faith who isn't depicted as being hidebound, hypocritical, or even downright evil. I think we've fallen into a pattern in modern serious literature where religious faith has become shorthand for the hypocrite, or even active evil (see Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible for a prime example). It was good to see the father in this book portrayed as a deeply faithful man who tried to live his life through his faith, and who was a truly good man. What I didn't like about the book was the ending, which struck me as false. I can't believe Davy was stupid enough to think he could bring the girl to his family's home and not have his fellow fugitive follow. Overall, this is a worthwhile read, and the style and writing are really very beautiful.

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