Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Review: Stranger Here Below

Summary: In 1961, when Amazing Grace Jansen, a firecracker from Appalachia, meets Mary Elizabeth Cox, the daughter of a Black southern preacher, at Kentucky’s Berea College, they already carry the scars and traces of their mothers’ troubles.  Poor and single, Maze’s mother has had to raise her daughter alone and fight to keep a roof over their heads. Mary Elizabeth’s mother has carried a shattering grief throughout her life, a loss so great that it has disabled her and isolated her stern husband and her brilliant, talented daughter.  

The caution this has scored into Mary Elizabeth has made her defensive and too private and limited her ambitions, despite her gifts as a musician. But Maze’s earthy fearlessness might be enough to carry them both forward toward lives lived bravely in an angry world that changes by the day.  

Both of them are drawn to the enigmatic Georginea Ward, an aging idealist who taught at Berea sixty years ago, fell in love with a black man, and suddenly found herself renamed as a sister in a tiny Shaker community. Sister Georgia believes in discipline and simplicity, yes. But, more important, her faith is rooted in fairness and the long reach of unconditional love.

This is a novel about three generations of women and the love that makes families where none can be expected. -- Unbridled

There are a few things that I've come to expect from Unbridled Books -- books with striking covers, gorgeous writing, and best of all wonderful stories. Needless to say, my expectations are pretty high now that I've read quite a few of their books. So it came as no surprise to me when I thoroughly enjoyed STRANGER HERE BELOW by Joyce Hinnefeld.

A few years ago, I reviewed another one of Ms. Hinnefeld's novels called IN HOVERING FLIGHT. I was really impressed with Ms. Hinnefeld's writing and I even got blurbed on the paperback edition of the book! I have anxiously been awaiting her new novel for quite awhile now. And when I heard that I just might like it even more than IN HOVERING FLIGHT, I was pretty excited -- and at the same time a little hesitant because I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment.

No need to worry because I thought STRANGER HERE BELOW was excellent... and I actually did enjoy it even more than IN HOVERING FLIGHT. I loved so many things about this book, and I am now certain that Ms. Hinnefeld has major writing skills (not that I wasn't pretty sure of this already.) I thought the story was terrific, the characters were incredibly well developed, and Ms. Hinnefeld's prose was absolutely beautiful. This book encompassed so much of what I love about women's fiction. It focused on the family, friendship, relationships, and love.

STRANGER HERE BELOW tells the story of multiple generations of women from 1868 to 1968. The book covers a wide range of social issues including race relations and politics; however, it also touches on the complexity of relationships between women. The story begins with a letter from Maze to Mary Elizabeth, and the reader learns that these two women are no longer as close as they once were. I was immediately drawn into the story, and I just had to know what occurred that led to this estrangement.

I admit that I was a little confused with how Ms. Hinnefeld decided to present the story. The book goes back and forth between the present and the past while also telling the stories of some very interesting women like Sister Georgia, Vista, and Sarah. In addition, the story is told in both third person narratives as well as letters. It was a bit confusing for me at first, but then I began to really appreciate how the story unfolded. I ended up loving the way she wove all of these women's stories together, and the recurring themes of strength, perseverance, and love appeared in each and every section. I also couldn't help but be reminded of how much our actions impact not only those of us that we see every day, but also those that come after us.

Another thing I really enjoyed about STRANGER HERE BELOW was how much history was included in the story. I'm thinking that the author did a great deal of research prior to writing this novel. The book covered a rather large time span, and many big (and not-so-big) events in the history of the United States were included. I thought the author did a wonderful job of bringing the 1960s South to life as well as showing the on-going issues with race in our country. In addition, I found that I really enjoyed learning about the Shaker community.

STRANGER HERE BELOW would make for a fascinating book club discussion. There is a reading guide available with thirteen questions which touches on many intriguing issues. Some of topics you might want to explore include the differences between men and women, society's expectations of women, friendships, mother/daughter relationships, faith, and racial relations. Your group might also want to explore the way the story was presented to see what worked (and maybe what didn't work) for them.

This book delved into many sad and serious topics; however, I didn't find that I was depressed when I finished reading it. In fact, I was left with a reminder of the strength of women throughout the generations and the beauty of female relationships. STRANGER HERE BELOW is a book to be treasured for many reasons, and I definitely recommend it.

I received an advanced reader copy of STRANGER HERE BELOW at BEA 2010.


bermudaonion said...

I expect excellence from Unbridled Books too, so I'm glad to see this book exceeded your expectations. It sounds wonderful!

Beth Hoffman said...

I've not heard of this author before today, but your terrific review convinced me to put this book on my list immediately!

marthalama said...

I haven't heard of this book or author before but now I must read this book It sounds fantastic.

Alison's Book Marks said...

What a glowing review! I am currently between books, and have Stranger Here Below on my unread shelf. It may be just the thing.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

I'm thinking I need to pay much closer attention to Unbridled Books...I am excited to know about this author! xox

Beth Kephart said...

YAY!!!!! This makes me VERY happy. And adds a book to my to-buy list.

Veens said...

I have been meaning to read more from Unbridled books myself.

I will be on the look out for this one.

Beth F said...

Skimming this one because i really want to read it. I love UBB -- two of their books were on my top reads for 2010 list.

Michelle said...

Ooo, I have this one from NetGalley and mean to read it this month. Now I really can't wait to get to it. I agree that Unbridled has amazing books!