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The Alice Network

The Alice Network
Kate Quinn
William Morrow
494 pages
Roberta Eisel, reviewer

Across time and wars, women have searched for the means to be productive and helpful to those they love and the larger world. In The Alice Network, two women strive to overcome perceptions of personal failure and come to redefine and reconstitute a sense of personal meaning and family.

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel operates on two timelines, 1947 – 1949 and 1915 – 1918, and gracefully weaves historical figures and events into the combined quests of two fictional women.  

In May 1947, the paths of 19-year-old Charlotte St. Clair and 54-year-old Evelyn Gardiner intersect in London, and after an antagonistic first meeting, the two depart on a road trip to France in a blue Lagonda. Accompanied by thirty-something Scottish Finn Kilgore, both Charlie and Eve yearn to overcome their crippling sense of failure and acts of betrayal. 

American Charlie, who narrates her part of the story, has slipped away from her affluent and proper mother who was to accompany Charlie to an “appointment” in Switzerland to remedy her daughter’s “little problem,” thereby restoring the family’s reputation. Charlie has a more pressing concern – the search for her French cousin who disappeared in German-occupied France in 1944. Finding Rose will help Charlie atone for her self-perceived failure to prevent the suicide of her war veteran brother.

In a parallel narrative, we learn that in 1915, British Eve is recruited from her job as a clerk into The Alice Network, a band of mostly female spies stationed in German-occupied France. This role empowers Eve to act in important ways that the traditional roles of women of her day and status would not allow. Despite fear and danger, Eve files reports on crucial military plans. Ultimately captured and imprisoned, Eve blames herself for the exposure death of Lili, the head of The Alice Network.

The name Rene and a restaurant called Le Lethe haunt both Charlie and Eve as they combine resources on their quests. This French profiteer and collaborator operated restaurants in both wars where he catered to the occupying Germans. He is at the center of brutality and betrayal in both women’s tales.

Figures and episodes from history lace the two narratives. Eve’s friend and network leader, Lili, is Quinn’s treatment of the historical heroine Louise de Bettignies. The WWII massacre of the villagers of Oradour-sur-Glane is a horrifyingly actual event.

Charlie and Eve learn painful truths – about their families and friends, about themselves and their capacities for revenge, self-acceptance, and love. This is a tale of honor’s restitution.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
368 pages
Roberta Eisel, reviewer
Young Oskar Schell notes the moment when “tragedies started to wobble,” and he found himself contributing to the great “Reservoir of Tears.” He seeks release.

This 2006 novel takes us on a quest with a young hero who, in possession of a key, searches the five boroughs of New York for the lock it will open. He yearns for answers and resolution to the pain he feels at the loss of his father in the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York. He just knows his father left that key as a clue for his gifted young son.  

The narrative voice shifts from nine-year-old Oskar Schell to letters written by his mute and mostly absent grandfather and his very present grandmother. There are painful links to the horrific bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima as the narrators struggle to find some sense of resolution and healing. Don’t despair, for Oskar, our young hero ultimately does not, and there are many charming and even humorous elements. For example, a tale-within-the-tale makes us wonder if there ever was a sixth borough of New York that simply floated away.  

The adults in Oskar’s world seem remote and even unaware of his struggles and adventures, but remember that our primary narrator is a grieving 9 year-old boy. Through his escapades, often accompanied by his 103 year-old neighbor, Abe, Oskar discovers his loving network made up of family and other fellows who keep watch over him during his quest.  

Note: This novel is best read in print form because of several interesting and effective visual and typographical elements. The book was made into a motion picture in 2011.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel
Kim Michele Richardson
Sourcebook Landmark
320 pages
Barbara R. Sayles, reviewer

Cussy May Carter or Bluet, helped transform the people of the hill country of Appalachian Kentucky during the Depression of the 1930s. Working for the United States government through the WPA and the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky, Carter and others, worked as librarians, mounted mules, donkeys and horses and delivered printed materials to hundreds if not thousands of women, children and men who did not have access to written materials.

A bitterness that hovered over the United States at that time is easily conveyed in this expansive novel. As a young woman experiencing, racism, sexism and class warfare, Carter, also known as a Blue Person pushed on to deliver the one thing she had committed her life to: The knowledge that reading had the ability to bring joy and mobility to those who have been trapped for years.

Life ebbed and flowed as Carter rode her mule through the four seasons of the Appalachian Mountains. Experiencing early marriage and widowhood, misunderstanding about her blood disease, methemoglobinemia and her father’s disagreements with the local coal mine owners only strengthened Carter’s resolve. She and her fellow librarians experienced severe hardships as they continued to deliver their books, newspapers, pamphlets and scrape books to their readers five days a week.  Deprivation was rampant. Hunger, death and old wives tales hindered the work Carter and her fellow workers attempted to overcome.

A bittersweet novel with lush verbiage, historical information and transformative knowledge on the power of the written word, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, is an empowering experience.

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