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).
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.
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.
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.