Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ballad of the Vanishing West

sobrave The novel “So Brave, Young, and Handsome” by Leif Enger (author of “Peace Like a River”), is best described as a ballad of the vanishing Old West.  The novel is told from the eyes of an author who has penned a successful, but trite Western drama and is struggling to write a sequel.  To his horror, he discovers that he not only cannot write anything worth while, he feels as though he is a minor player in his own life: –“a man fading, a disappointer of persons.”  The author, Monte Becket, hooks up with an old boat builder, Glendon Hale, who has decided to make his way back to Mexico to apologize to the wife he abandoned two decades ago.  During the course of this “on the road” adventure, Monte Becket is tested in ways he never imagined, faced with the truth about Glendon Hale’s dark past, enduring the abusive treatment of a sadistic Pinkerton agent who’s after Hale, and the gritty reality of the American West.  In fact, the land itself is a major player in the tale, as Enger takes the reader through the dying Amercian West of 1915 — a time when the Wild West show known as the Hundred and One is also host to a silent movie set, a time when the main characters are just as likely to be traveling in a used Packard as they are by horseback, and when the measure of a man can be decided in the blink of a moment.  Enger treats us to a ballad that is as evocative as “The Cowboy’s Lament,” creating characters both sad and silly, and all together memorable.  In the end Monte Becket, described as having “lost his medicine,” is made whole again.  The novel has all the elements of the great cowboy stories: young desperadoes,  gun slingers, Pinkertons, sharp shooters,  horse traders, and train robbers, all set against a pure American of the verge of losing its innocence.

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How Much History, How Much Fiction?

poisonHistorical Fiction.  A genre that probably needs some defining.  What exactly constitutes a historical fiction novel?  Is it enough to set it in a real place and time, with the occasional walk-on character from real world events?  Where is the balance between the history and the fiction?  The historical fiction work is a novel after all, it is meant to entertain, sweep the reader away, elicit emotions, well, you know–otherwise it would be a history book.  What brings me to pose these questions is a work I just finished by Sara Poole called “Poison.”  It is a book in her series about the renaissance, which focuses a great deal on the Borgia family.  The gist of the story is this: the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia’s “poisoner,” –a man employed to do his bidding by poisoning enemies or taking measures to see that Borgia is not poisoned– is killed, but his daughter, Francesca, assumes his role.  As such, she vows to avenge her father and gets embroiled in a plot to kill the reigning pope, Innocent, and replace him with Borgia.  All this must be accomplished before Innocent can sign a writ, backed by Torquemada, expelling the Jews from Rome and all the lands under Christian rule.  Granted, the historical characters were real, Borgia was portrayed particularly well, and there may have been a precedent for such a situation involving the Jewish ghetto, but that is where the history ends.  This particular novel devotes much time to the romances of the main character.  Astoundingly, every young male from Borgia’s son, to the evil monk villain, to the Jewish resistance fighter are preternaturally handsome and manly, and this is not lost on Francesca.  She herself is no slouch, just check out her comely image on the cover.  Hmm, did renaissance women wear their hair down like that?  I think she appeals more to our modern sense of a heroine.  And I believe that is the fiction end of the bargain.  In order for books to sell, the publishers (and authors) want them to appeal to a wide audience– maybe scoop in some of the romance readers, maybe appeal to a women’s fiction crowd.  I find that although Poole has done her homework on the Borgia family, the facts seem ham-fisted into the story, more like a book report than a plot point, and some of the language is too modern.  On more than one occasion, our heroine repeats the phrase, “Make no mistake, ….” so that I could not but help imagining George Bush speaking.  There was also a case of using an expression from a later era, such as “take him down a peg.”  But all that aside, it seems to me on balance the fiction and exciting plot and romances of the story take a decided more important role than the history.  Poole could be described as a Philippa Gregory mixed with Janet Evanovich.  Oh, and if you like a nice, tidy ending…forget it.  This work was clearly left hanging in order to such the readers into a series.

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