Andrea Reads America: Rhode Island

Map of 3 books set in Rhode Island: Spartina, The Lowland, The Book That Matters Most
Andrea Reads America: Rhode Island

Until I read Rhode Island, I had no idea it had a rich coast of marshland like my home state of Georgia, 900 miles to the south. I had seen the title Spartina on a list of National Book Award winners and was startled when I saw it was based in Rhode Island rather than the southeastern or mid-Atlantic coast, which I thought was Spartina grass’s northern limit. The Lowland also features the coastal beauty of Rhode Island’s marshes and estuaries, where fresh water meets the sea. Because of these marshes, the beaches, the ocean scenes, and the marine life that appear in these books, I loved reading Rhode Island. I’d like to visit and explore it more in real life now.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri book cover
Novel: The Lowland
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri, raised in South Kingstown, RI
Setting: Providence, Rhode Island and Calcutta (India)

In The Lowland, Subhash, a quiet, stable Indian boy moves from the estuarine areas of Calcutta to those of Rhode Island to study marine chemistry. His brother Udayan – the risky, idealistic revolutionary – stays behind and gets himself killed. Udayan’s early, violent death shapes the next 50 years of the lives of the people around him: his brother, wife, parents, and unborn child.

Filled with beautiful descriptions of both Rhode Island and Calcutta, and especially of the estuarine life within them, The Lowland was a comfort in many ways.

On cloudy days, at intervals, the sound of a foghorn pierced the air, as conch shells were blown in Calcutta to ward off evil.

In other ways, The Lowland was full of sorrow. It shows how a single moment can break people for the rest of their years: they can be alive in that they breathe and move physically through space, but dead to the beauty of the life they still have.

What struck me most about this book is how magnificently Lahiri illustrates the ways death can distort life. The Lowland is a masterpiece for that.

The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.

The Book That Matters Most book cover
Novel: The Book That Matters Most
Author: Ann Hood, born West Warwick, RI
Setting: Providence, Rhode Island

When Ava’s husband leaves her and she’s desperate to cope, she begs Cate for an invitation to the library’s hard-to-enter book club: there are only 10 spots in it. Ava lucks out and gets to join, and the assignment for the  year is for each member to pick the book that matters most to them. The book club will read and discuss it as a group.

As Ava navigates her divorce and a bad-girl daughter gone missing in Europe, memories of the summer both her sister and mother died keep coming back to her, along with memories of the book she read and re-read that entire summer to get through it. That book was the book that matters most to her. Finding copies of it for the club to read proved almost impossible, and led her on a quest that ultimately answered questions she’d been asking all her life.

Though sometimes unrealistic, like how easily one character recovers from a heroin addiction, this was a quick and fun read with a love of books at its heart.

Spartina by John Casey book coverNovel: Spartina
Author: John Casey
Setting: 1980s coast of Rhode Island

I have a soft spot in my heart for authors who capture the essence of the marshy world on the edge of the Atlantic ocean. Until I read Spartina, the only author who moved me and made me feel like, “Yes, they know the marsh, they get it,” is South Carolina’s Pat Conroy. Now I know John Casey gets it as well.

Unfortunately, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. After reading this book about a crotchety, Rhode Island waterman who chases a younger woman who gives him her full attention, and therefore cheats on his exhausted, neglected wife while she does all the work at home and raises their children, it is no surprise that the author himself, a professor at UVA, has been accused by his students of sexual harassment. I read the book, its style, and how easily the husband cheats without being held accountable by the people he hurt, and think, yep, I can see that. I can see this author being an asshole.

Spartina is filled with scenes of marshes and mud, sea birds and lobster pots, and a mariner’s life on the water. It is a story of a lost, working class white man in New England who is trying to find himself, and does so in the crucible of a storm at sea. This scene —  of a man saving his boat from a hurricane by boarding it and riding out the storm by meeting it head on, in all of its violence of howling wind, mountainous waves, slashing rain, and darkness — is one of those scenes from a book I will always remember.

Andrea Reads America: Ohio

Andrea Reads America map of Ohio books
Andrea Reads America: Ohio

Ohio was a mixed bag of books that surprised me. The first, Winesburgh, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, is a book of short stories that probably provided the best sense of place for early small town Ohio. The stories felt lacking to me in a way I can’t put my finger on, though, and I wasn’t a fan.

The next book was the most surprising because it was the first I’d read set in Ohio during the westward expansion of the United States. There were apple orchards, swamps, and what seemed like Southern dialect, and while the apple orchards fit into my image of Ohio, the swamp, land claim, and the dialect did not. They all make sense — Ohio’s northern border is a Great Lake, Ohio was once unsettled land west of the eastern cities of the time, and Ohio’s southern border is with Kentucky and West Virginia. I just never put it all together until I read Tracy Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard.

And finally, Celeste Ng brings us into the 1970s, where the prejudice and slurs against Chinese Americans in the small town her book is set shocked me and made me sad (that’s not what Everything I Never Told You is about, it is just the part that surprised me). The book is amazing. It is smart, compelling, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It was one of those treats of my reading project.

Winesburgh, Ohio book coverBook: Winesburg, Ohio
Author: Sherwood Anderson, born Camden Ohio
Setting: Late 1800s small town Ohio

This book gets wild acclaim, but it was a total snoozefest for me. A compilation of short stories of odd and lonely characters in a small town in northern Ohio, it reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (though it predates her), but not nearly as good. It lacked something. I kept wanting it to be better, to go a little bit further with the characters, but it never did, and therefore was a disappointment. It ended up being a bunch of sad, lonely characters who all end up raving in the woods, running down Main Street shouting, or ripping off their clothes and running around outside (or if they haven’t done any of these things, they really want to).

It sounds like it would make for good reading, but it just didn’t for me. Even though they each got their own short story, the characters were sad and lonely in the same way, and they all tried to free themselves by running out of their skin or shouting out of their minds.

Though I didn’t enjoy spending my time on this book, I do understand why it is remarkable. There are some gems that sparked me out of my boredom, like this hopeless moment of self-realization:

I am a lover and have not found my thing to love. That is a big point if you know enough to realize what I mean. It makes my destruction inevitable, you see.

Or this advice to the town’s aspiring writer:

You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.

It is a relatable and very human book. Throughout the stories the characters feel trapped by the dullness of their small town life and their dislike or lack of connectedness with the people around them. They want to go on adventures. They have deep desires and feelings that they cannot articulate. And they drive themselves mad with their inability to be bigger, to achieve their desires, to express themselves, and to be understood.

At the Edge of the Orchard book coverNovel: At the Edge of the Orchard
Author: Tracy Chevalier, attended Oberlin College in Ohio
Setting: 1838 Black Swamp in northern Ohio

During the land rush of the westward expansion of the US, the Goodenough family went west from Connecticut with a pocket full of apple seeds to claim a plot of land. The stopped moving west when they got stuck in the mire of the Black Swamp in northern Ohio. Wresting a living from the muck was a hard life: they lost six of eleven children to swamp fever during their time there.

With each grave he’d had to clear maples and ash to make space to dig. He’d learned to do this in July, before anyone died, so that the body did not have to wait for him to wrestle with the trees’ extensive roots. Best to get the wrestling out of the way when he had the time.

This is no Little House on the Prairie. There’s an ugliness to the harshness of the Goodenoughs’ lives. But there’s also a beauty, especially in the mens’ love for the trees — their apple orchard in Ohio, and later the redwoods and Sequoia of California.

The Goodenough orchard was not spectacular, but it was proof to James that he could tame one small patch of land, make the trees do what he wanted. Beyond them, wilderness waited in the tangled undergrowth and sudden bogs.

The reverence for the trees, and the descriptions of them, were what I enjoyed most about this book. I could see their blushing fruit, smell their blossoms, and hear their leaves rustle in the wind, and the author made me want to touch the bark and taste the apples.

Everything I never told you book coverNovel: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng, grew up in Shaker Heights, OH
Setting: 1970s Ohio

Shocking in its descriptions of prejudice, Everything I Never Told You is about a mixed race family in 1977 in a small Ohio town. The husband and children are the only Asian people in town (“Oriental” in the book), and everyone else makes a point of showing them they will never fit in.

But the book isn’t just about that. When the book opens with the death of their daughter, Lydia, the mixed race part of their story is more of a backdrop — believable, layered, and chewable context —  for what I think was the author’s real interest in crafting this novel. This book is about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that frame our experience of the people and the world around us. When Lydia is found dead at the bottom of the lake, whether murder, suicide, or accident, nobody knows, everyone goes deeper into their own stories as they try to make sense of what happened.

These are the stories the characters see as their truth, and therefore believe as the only truth, like that James is sure his white wife can no longer cope with their differences, that she regrets marrying him because he’s Chinese and that’s made life harder for all of them. The fact that he is Chinese doesn’t enter the story she tells herself at all; her story is about giving up her dreams to become a doctor, and that sacrifice is what she can’t cope with.

The characters don’t tell these stories because they’re their deepest pains, and it is hard to voice them. They don’t tell these stories because they don’t experience them as words they can articulate, or that need to be told: they just experience them as their truth. These stories are so obvious to them, the take it for granted that everyone else sees the situation the same way.

The stories they told themselves, and that they didn’t tell each other, were often wrong. And telling themselves the wrong stories without sharing with anyone had devastating consequences.

Andrea Reads America: North Dakota

Andrea Reads America map of books set in North Dakota
Andrea Reads America: North Dakota

As I thought I would, I loved North Dakota reading. The people are quiet, solid, and deep. The winters are harsh, and the light is golden on the prairie. I love prairies, and I love reading about winter, and North Dakota has both in spades.

The Round House book coverNovel: The Round House
Author: Louise Erdrich, raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota
Setting: 1988 on an unnamed North Dakota reservation

Part coming-of-age, part rape mystery, and most interestingly, part study of tribal jurisdiction, The Round House is a masterful blending of the devastation and destruction sexual assault has on the victim and her family, the intricacies of law that prohibit justice from being done, and the innocence of a 13-year-old boy who cannot stand by as his mother’s attacker goes free.

Erdrich has written a beautiful novel that is about all of these things. It is a rich, full story that is multi-layered to pull the reader in and keep you engaged. At its core it radiates two important messages: the rape of Native women by non-Native men continues to be a massive problem and “the tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations still exists.”

They’d built [the Round House] to keep their people together and to ask for mercy from the Creator, since justice was so sketchily applied on earth.

In The Round House, Joe learns from his dad the details of the case. His father is a tribal judge. The intricacies of the law, of where the crime occurred, and therefore whose jurisdiction it would be, ultimately sets the perpetrator free. And as so often happens with men in fiction, the young son takes matters into his own hands when he sees the law and justice system will fail to bring the attacker to account for his crime.

Prairie Silence book coverBook: Prairie Silence: A Memoir
Author: Melanie Hoffert, raised on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota
Setting: Wyndmere and the Hofferts’ farm, North Dakota

Growing up gay in a land where nobody talks about feelings, nobody was (publicly) gay, and where everyone is Christian is… hard. Prairie Silence is Melanie Hoffert’s memoir of being pulled to the land of North Dakota, back to her childhood farm, the golden prairie, and the solid people of her home to finally break her own silence. She describes the landscape in the exact ways I love to read.

The flat land is not dry, not dark, not lifeless. Instead, North Dakota is a painter’s palette where all of the earthly colors settle. The light changes minute by minute, following unassuming subjects: a wheat field, a gravel road, a gray grain elevator.

Hoffert’s book is a tender account of her struggle to reconcile her love for women with her love for God, who her Bible camp co-counselers assure her hates homosexuals.

The God I talked to as a child, the God my mom relied on to soothe my pains, the God Jessica and I had championed as teenagers was not my God, but the God of the people I met at camp. And those people introduced me to judgments about the world I couldn’t accept. The most painful judgment was about the way I could love another person.

I really loved this book, and especially Melanie’s descriptions of her gayness: it’s not about sex but about the pure connection with, understanding of, and love for another person. This whole book radiates love. It is a love letter to her home of North Dakota. Through her writing it is clear how warm her heart is for the land, the people, and the God of her childhood.

Peace Like a River book coverNovel: Peace Like a River
Author: Leif Enger, lives in Minnesota near the ND border
Setting: Minnesota and the badlands of North Dakota

Set in 1962-1963 Minnesota and the badlands of North Dakota, Peace Like a River is a beautifully told tale of a family — our narrator Reuben, his sister Swede, and their father Jeremiah Land — who take to the badlands of North Dakota in an Airstream camper in winter to find their outlaw brother and son, Davy. Like Joe in The Round House, the teenaged Davy takes matters into his own hands when he sees attackers going unpunished.

And then he is on the run on horseback, just like the heroes of the Western novels young Swede is constantly devouring.

The title is perfect for this narrative, for despite the harsh conditions of the characters, I felt a peace reading it. There is light in this book, a wholesome goodness, especially through the humble and remarkable father, Jeremiah Land, who has a deep relationship with God, and who sometimes very quietly performs miracles. I also adore Reuben’s sister, 8 year-old Swede, who is a young writer who sits her saddle on a sawhorse in the Airstream and types rhyming verse of her hero Sunny Sundown as they hurtle down the highways of North Dakota searching for Davy.

And finally, I loved the scenery. Enger, a native of the Minnesota/North Dakota border area, writes the land, the grain, the sky, the wind, and of course, the snow, beautifully. The setting is another character in the book, and a strong one.