Andrea Reads America: Indiana

Andrea Reads America Indiana Book Map
Andrea Reads America: Indiana

The thing I think about when I think about Indiana is the Indy 500. The famous race did not make it into any of the books I read, though, except as a small mention at the end of The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Instead, I read about small town Indiana, which is a lot like small towns in much of America.

I’m not sure I have a better feel for what Indiana is all about after reading several books from the state, including two I didn’t feature because, though they were fine novels, setting didn’t play a significant role in them: The Fault In Our Stars and The Stone Diaries (which I wrote about here).

The Bright Forever and The Used World did include lovely descriptions of the Indiana landscape, though. They made me want to spend summers on the porch and winters curled up by a fire. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf probably gave the best feel for the culture of the state, mainly because of the stark contrast between the main character’s culture (Muslim, Arab-American) and the culture of Indiana (Christian, Caucasian).

The Bright Forever by Lee Martin

Novel: The Bright Forever
Author: Lee Martin, lived and taught in Evansville, Indiana
Setting: 1972 small town Indiana
Categories: Suspense, Pulitzer finalist

Set in fictitious Tower Hill, Indiana in the early 1970s, The Bright Forever is a page-turner. Refreshingly, I felt the scenery — I was in small town Indiana, with the subtle class structure of the glassworks owner who lived in one part of town, and the teachers and blue-collar workers who lived in another.

It’s a quiet town, surrounded by the corn and wheat and soybean fields of Indiana and the midwest, and it is filled with trusting and (seemingly) trustworthy citizens. It is the wholesome midwest, except that something malevolent happens: a little girl, Katie, goes missing after leaving barefoot on her bicycle to return her almost-overdue library books.

The book is exciting, told from the points of view of Katie’s brother, of her maybe-creepy tutor, and a junkie who is arrested for her kidnapping. Throughout the book, it’s difficult to tell if you can trust the main narrator, Henry Dees, who loved Katie and who was her math tutor. I couldn’t stop turning pages, both for the story and because I loved being in that small town, seeing the library, the working class neighborhood, the perfectly manicured home of Katie’s family, and the Indiana landscape and weather. This book reminded me of The Lovely Bones. If you liked that book, you might want to give this one a try.

The Used World by Haven Kimmel

Novel: The Used World
Author: Haven Kimmel, born New Castle, Indiana
Setting: Contemporary eastern Indiana
Categories: Literary fiction

The Used World begins in an antique emporium, in the company of three women who work there, all three of whom are loners — one elder and two younger women — and all of whom have stories to share.

At first the novel confused me. The stories seemed disparate and far apart. But as the narrative progresses, the threads come together, a pattern appears, and soon they are woven together. Hazel, the owner of The Used World Second Hand Emporium, is into astrology, is direct, and grew up taking care of her addict sister and helping her mother with secret goings-on in her father’s medical clinic. Rebekah is the disowned daughter of a religius cult member, and Claudia is a manish woman who still mourns the loss of her mother after many years.

The Used World is the story of these three women, their mothers, and the fate of children in their worlds, where men are either violent or indifferent, and where women understand each other and come together to do what needs to be done.

In terms of setting, Indiana as a place did play a role in this story, which I very much enjoyed. The weather and descriptions of winter storms, seasonal shifts, and Midwestern values reminded me of our family’s time in Minnesota and evoked a welcome nostalgia.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf
Novel: The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf
Author: Mohja Kahf, raised in Indiana
Setting: 1970s central Indiana
Categories: Arab-American fiction

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, set in central Indiana in the 1970s-1990s, is the coming-of-age story of a devout Muslim girl who grows up in a place that kills people who look like her. As she comes of age, she is also a feminist in a religion that denies her access to things as basic as a mosque — because she’s a woman. The novel is actually more than a coming-of-age, as it follows Khadra into adulthood, where she still struggles to find her place: she is “too religious for the secular world and too lax for the religious one.” On top of that, the immigrant Syrian families of her community, especially the mothers, lay the success of their culture and community in the new world on their daugher’s shoulders.

The book takes a deep dive into Muslim culture both in America and in the Arab world. It looks at the faith that drives Islam, the love and traditions that keep it going, the beauty in it, and the struggles of it, especially for women. As an intelligent woman who loves her faith, who loves prayer, who is passionate about the traditions, and who feels threatened at every turn in her community because of her Arab appearance, Khadra is shocked when she travels to what she expects to feel like her true home in the Arab world and is forced behind the closed doors of the home. She unintentionally shames her family when she attempts to pray in the mosque: shames them because she is a woman and should know better than to try to pray with men.

While the book inluded many tangents, and was not super well organized, I appreciated it for the new perspective it gave me. I can only imagine how an Arab American would feel threatened in central Indiana, where white men in KKK robes can terrorize people without condemning the entire white race to being terrorists, but where if you look Arab, regardless of how kind or good or peaceful you are, your faith and your appearance put your life at risk.

For further reading in Indiana

Books I’ve read and recommend:
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
Mums the Word by Kate Collins
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkinton

Andrea Reads America: Illinois

Andrea Reads America Illinois book map
Andrea Reads America: Illinois

Illinois is home to Chicago — the biggest city in the midwest. When researching Illinois, it was tricky deciding among the many novels set in The Windy City: The Jungle, The Adventures of Augie March, Maud Martha. Unlike my usual trouble of trying to find one non-caucasion author, I was excited to see the diversty inherent in Chicago-based literature — African American men and women authors; Hispanic men and women authors — and I ultimately settled on Native Son and The House on Mango Street from Chicago.

But Chicago is not the only place in Illinois. Like every state, Illinois is also home to  small towns, and to agriculture: to endless rows of corn. In addition to the books set in Chicago, I chose a couple of small town novels to get a feel for other parts of the state: Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Book of Ruth. The write-up below is for The Book of Ruth, but if you enjoy Ray Bradbury, and want another glimpse of small town Illinois, I recommend Something Wicked This Way Comes as well.

Native Son book cover by Richard WrightNovel: Native Son
Author: Richard Wright, moved to Chicago at 19
Setting: 1930s southside Chicago, IL
Categories: Literary fiction, African American Literature

Set in Chicago, Illinois in the 1930s, Native Son is not a sugar-coated tale. It is a tale of a black man trapped by rules that pin him down, pen him in, force him to live in a certain (rat-infested) part of the city, make him only have certain kinds of (subservient) jobs, instill fear in him in every interaction in the wold of whites, and kill his ambitions (to be a pilot) because in the world he lives in, he will never realize those dreams.

Native Son is the story of crime and criminals, and specifically, the crimes of Bigger Thomas, who, because he is a black man, is deemed a criminal before he commits his first crime.

In Native Son, Bigger Thomas is not a hero. He is not likable. He commits atrocious acts, knowingly, and without remorse. But what’s fascinating about Native Son is the psychology of those crimes. As Wright writes in the powerful courtroom scene, when Bigger is on trial for the murder and rape of a white woman,

Do men regret when they kill in war? Does the personality of a soldier coming at you over the top of a trench matter? No! You kill to keep from being killed!

The genius in Native Son is Wright’s ability to get us inside the mind and emotions of a poor black man who turns to crime because it is the only way he can truly be liberated — it is the only way he has control over his own life. Bigger is not admirable. The reader is not on his side. But he represents something bigger (ha!): what happens to humans when they are not free.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros book cover Novel: The House on Mango Street
Author: Sandra Cisneros, born Chicago, IL
Setting: Chicago, IL
Categories: Vignettes, Hispanic Literature

The House on Mango Street is a small book where every word has impact. Set in the Latino district in Chicago in the 1950s, Mango is a series of vignettes from the life of Esperanza, who comes of age in the book. Cisneros is a poet, and her artistry with words is a gift to anyone who reads this novella. Her language is colorful, moving, and engages all the sense, as in the half-page chapter called “Hairs”:

But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.

Cisnero’s prose jumps off the page, and the plot happens underneath them. The novel begins when Esperanza is a young girl, pedaling bicycles with her friends or piling in a neighbor’s cousin’s shiny yellow Cadillac with 12 other kids, riding around the block several times. It progresses through watching a friend, Sally, mature, and the ugliness that happens to Sally with boys, with Sally’s father, and with Sally’s 8th grade marriage to an abusive man who keeps her locked inside.

The House on Mango Street progresses through ugliness in Esperanza’s own life, to her deep desire to escape, and ultimately to her writing to remember the friends and neighbors she left behind. The result is beautiful.

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton book cover Novel: The Book of Ruth
Author: Jane Hamilton, raised Oak Park, IL
Setting: Northern Illinois
Categories: Literary Fiction

In The Book of Ruth, we move away from Chicago and into small town northern Illinois. The setting seems to be the 1970s, but really, the story is timeless. Hamilton depicts the life of a down and out, common, poor girl, Ruth: a girl with a mean mother and without a role model to help her rise up from her poverty-stricken situation.

Despite self-talk of stupidy, Ruth, who is our narrator, writes eloquently. She devours audio-books, especially Dicknes, when she keeps her blind neighbor company, yet she fails all her subjects in school. She is low and without guidance, and as a result lives the only life she feels she is capable of living: working at the town dry cleaner, finding her glory on the bowling team, and marrying a toothless man she fell in love with when she found him drinking beer, lounging in an inner tube in the middle of the lake.

Ruth is an innocent, and a bad life happens to her. This book could be set anywhere — the corn and the winters put it in Illinois — and it is a story of how difficult it is to break out of what we are born into. Ruth manages to maintain a raw hope, and innocent love, in the face of a life that would break most of us.

Andrea Reads America: Idaho

Andrea Reads America Idaho book map
Andrea Reads America: Idaho

Idaho is my first venture to the American Northwest, in real life and in fiction. Before reading the state, I knew little about Idaho except that Boise is there and Idaho is known for potatoes. None of the books I read made reference to Boise or potatoes. Instead I experienced the railroads, forests, and small frontier towns of northern Idaho, and I learned about life on a reservation there — and the future ramifications of a one woman’s reservation upbringing.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Novel: Housekeeping
Author: Marilynne Robinson, born Sandpoint, Idaho
Setting: 1940s or ’50s glacial lake in northern Idaho
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer nominee

Housekeeping, a book that captures both the wild and the tame, is a book about keeping a house in all of the senses of the word: the way we clean and organize our homes; whether we have a physical structure for a home or are transients; how we keep the members of a household in our minds; and the way others judge us based on any aspect of our housekeeping. If we keep our homes tidy, we are respected; if there are cobwebs, broken windows, or hoarded newspapers and tin cans, we are not. If we have a physical house, we are trusted; if we are transient, we are not. If we mourn (and recover from) the deaths of members of our household in the expected manner, we are accepted; if we mourn (and recover from) them incorrectly, we are not.

In Housekeeping, Lucille and Ruth, the two young girls of this novel whose lives are marked by death and abandonment, diverge on the “correct” and “incorrect” means of keeping house. When their aunt Slyvie arrives to take care of them, looking like a hobo who has arrived by jumping a train (which she did), the girls learn a new way to live. Ruth takes to Sylvie’s ways; Lucille does not.

Sylvie is a non-traditional house keeper: she is a drifter. The town does not know what to make of her, arriving in a boxcar to care for her orphaned nieces, sleeping on benches with a newspaper over her face. At home — home being a somewhat foreign concept to her — she stores tin cans, bottles, and magazines:

Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping.

Sylvie is a wanderer, and Ruth follows her in her wanderings. This book speaks in dream-like scenes, vivid with wildness when outside of the structure of a house: scenes of crumbling houses in the forest, of stealing a boat on the wild lake that claimed the lives of the girls’ grandfather and mother, of crossing a railroad bridge, on foot, unprotected in the dark of night, and of burning a house full of sentimental objects. Housekeeping explores the stock we put into houses, and in keeping them.

Robinson’s writing is gorgeous, and engages all the senses:

There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hair on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.

Robinson’s was my favorite Idaho read. I cannot wait to get to Iowa so I can read more of her work.

The Jailing of Cecelia Capture by Janet Campbell HaleNovel: The Jailing of Cecelia Capture
Author: Janet Campbell Hale, lives on the Coeur d’Alene Reservationin De Smet, Idaho
Setting: 1960s-1980s California & Idaho
Categories: Native American Fiction

Set in the 1980s, mainly in a jail cell in California with flashbacks to 1960s and 70s Idaho and Washington, The Jailing of Cecelia Capture tells the story of a poor, Native American welfare mother who grows up on a reservation in Idaho and escapes that land — and her family — as soon as she is able. She sees better things for herself than a drunken father and a spiteful mother, something better than poverty, something better than a traditional squaw role.

Like the author, who is of an Idaho tribe but grew up in Washington state and California, this book is more about how a tribal upbringing on a reservation shapes Capture more than it is about Idaho. Cecelia’s is a hard life, full of disappointments, bad choices, and a constant trying-and-failing to find her place, and her people, in the world.

She had been the daughter of a half-insane, mean old woman and an ineffective alcoholic father, and she had grown up poor and unwanted. She had been an unmarried welfare mother and finally become a drunk herself.

It is when she is jailed for drunk driving, and is incarcerated for days instead of hours, not knowing why she isn’t being released, that Ceceliais forced to stop running, stop drinking, and take a hard look at her life. She fought all her life to get somewhere, but despite her trying, she had had gotten nowhere but a jail cell.

What is refreshing about this book is that it is not a predictable rags to riches story. It is, however, a story that needs to be told, and is one that will stick with me for a while. Cecelia isn’t a particularly likable character, or even admirable, and those flaws make her story  realistic: she is lost and has no role models. I don’t like her, but I believe her story, and sadly, I believe it is a story of many, not just of Cecelia Capture.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Novel: Train Dreams
Author: Denis Johnson
Setting: 1920s panhandle of Idaho
Categories: Literary Fiction, Pulitzer nominee

Train Dreams shows northern Idaho in its pioneer days: the early 1900s, when forests were being felled for timber, and train trestles were being built for the Spokane International. Johnson shows a northwestern state in its original form, rugged and wild, even as man attempted to wrestle the land to submission:

Swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

When I first finished the book, it felt simple. Straightforward. I didn’t understand that there might be something more to understand about it. Despite its small size — only 69 pages — Train Dreams is filled with vivid scenes of what life was like in Idaho during this time.

As the novella sank in, I realized these scenes are bigger than a small story set in small-town frontier Idaho: the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants and of natives who were there before the white man; the big woods and their felling; forest fires that consume entire landscapes; wild animals and solitary men; the building of tracks; the whistles of trains; and how all of these scenes show the blending of wild and tame — and the morphing of one to the other. More importantly, these potent scenes demonstrate the role man plays in the balance between the civilized world and the wilderness:

God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit.

Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer
Borrowed Horses by Sian Griffiths
Girl Imagined by Chance by Lance Olsen