Monthly Archives: March 2016

New Tricks for an ‘Old Heart’

CBR_Logo2Old Heart
A Novel
by Peter Ferry

Peter Ferry’s Old Heart tells the story of an elderly man who escapes from his overly solicitous family and embarks on a journey across the globe. The intensity of his hope, desire, curiosity, and wanderlust appears undiminished as he reflects on loves lost and found. Even at the age of 85, it seems, all is not written in stone for this World War II veteran.

old heart ferryThe first part of the novel covers what Tom has lived for up to the moment of his escape, which on the surface is nothing much to cheer about: a bad marriage, a lifelong commitment to a son with Down Syndrome, another son with serious financial troubles. He has been comfortable in his lakeside home in the far northern Chicago suburbs with his family and friends and pink Adirondack chairs, but now even this peace and quiet is under threat.

Tom’s failed marriage and other trying relationships are explored with both delicacy and bracing honesty. Ferry shows how those who seem harsh and unyielding, unlovable even, are nonetheless perfectly human. Known for his work in McSweeneys, the Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Chicago Tribune travel pages, Peter Ferry’s skillfulness as a writer shines forth in numerous small moments, each finely articulated, slowly revealing the truth of Tom’s life. When his wife is dying, Tom notes,

The battle had started long ago, when Julia had died. Julia turning her face to the wall, closing her eyes … It had been the act of turning away … as if to say in the plainest terms what they both knew: We have wasted our lives on each other. In that sense it was dismissive, impersonal, perhaps even cruel. In another it was intimate, an acknowledgment of the secret only the two of them shared completely, and for just a moment hope had formed and burst again in his heart like a soap bubble: ephemeral, glistening, and doomed.

Tom’s story is not only about this painful past. It turns out, for instance, that his sweet, funny afflicted son was one of the greatest joys in his life, and it is only after his death that Tom feels he has nothing to lose and begins his escape. His story is also about finding something never expected, in this case something buried in the lesser-known annals of World War II history. After Tom triumphantly regains control of his life and readers learn more about the part he and others played in underground operations in the Netherlands during the war, the sense of excitement and discovery mounts.

This momentum wanes, however, as the latter part of the novel details Tom’s resignation to an entirely new set of constraints. Yet it should surprise no one that seeking out an old flame in a foreign country entails a few stinging surprises and frustrations. While the narrative pace is stymied by various emotional and legal roadblocks, Ferry’s psychological portraits are always on point.

Old Heart mingles a bit of suspense with precise, unsparing reflection on personal histories against a backdrop of difficult events. In this the novel might be compared to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety or Colm Tóibín’s The Master, and it is nearly as well written. It should appeal to readers of any age and might make a good gift for a friend in doubt about the possibilities for renewal late in life.

Four-Star Review

Unbridled Books, June 2015
$16, paperback, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-1609531171

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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Getting to the Bottom of Things

A Novel

by Michelle Hoover

Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland explores the life of a German farm family in Iowa after World War I, struggling to fit in with a society recently taught to despise Germans. The Hess family—four girls, two boys, a recently deceased mother, and a depressed father—try to get by on the land with few friends and many enemies. It becomes hard for the family members even to trust each other, as the Hess children grow up surrounded by deception, love, shame, and jealousy, while they are constantly reminded of their heritage. Most of the children don’t speak any German, yet they feel like foreigners in the fields of the Midwest.Bottomland

The story begins with Nan as the narrator, the eldest sister who takes on the role of mother after their own, Margrit, dies of influenza. It’s a role that is at once natural and disappointing for Nan, as she is recently engaged and has to break it off to stay home. Though her siblings are grateful, the two youngest sisters, Esther and Myrle, seem anything but as they go wherever they please and say whatever they feel. When the two go missing, it’s perhaps hardest on the artistic middle sister, Agnes, and the youngest brother, Lee, who had returned from the war disoriented and missing his mother. He didn’t get to see her before her sudden death. The father is as unpredictable as the two younger girls, though in his mood more so than his actions—after the girls disappear he stays in his bedroom or in his dugout, ostensibly brooding or dwelling in self-pity.

The story unfolds as the narration shifts from the different characters’ points of view—a device Hoover uses well—and keeps the reader engaged and eagerly turning each page. The writing is clear, and Hoover does an excellent job portraying the dialect of the early twentieth century.

Part mystery, part tragedy, part coming-of-age narrative, Bottomland is a heartbreaking story, and it only lets up when individual characters are alone in thought, which is when some of Hoover’s best writing comes through. Though it can be difficult to distinguish between the different narrators’ voices at times, each character reveals his or her secret revelations that aren’t immediately apparent in the eyes of their family members. These subtleties bring the greatest depth to the characters and leave the reader thinking about them long after the story is over.

As Bottomland demonstrates, story itself is something that never really ends, but is continuous; the past can alter depending on perspective and circumstance. Each character battles denial, accepting only the things they want to accept and burying all else, just as they’ve buried their mother in the soil of the farm. From barren Iowa to industrial Chicago, vivid descriptions to plot twists, the depth of Bottomland makes for a beautiful second novel by Hoover.

Four-Star Review

March 2016, Grove/Atlantic
$16, paperback, 336 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2471-5

—Reviewed by Meredith Boe

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