Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: Stranger Here Below by Joyce Hinnefeld

Earlier this summer I chose Hinnefeld's first novel In Hovering Flight for my summer book club. I was looking forward to another smooth, meditative novel from her with Stranger Here Below and it delivered even if it didn't capture me quite the way that In Hovering Flight did.

Amazing Grace (Maze), the white daughter of a single mom from Appalachia, and Mary Elizabeth (M.E.), the musically gifted only child of a black preacher and his wife, find themselves as roommates at tiny Berea College in Kentucky in 1961. As mismatched as they seem to be, they come to be close friends, burrowing into each others' lives and hearts, becoming family despite their differences. Their individual stories and who they develop into as adults grow not only out of their own experiences but also out of their mothers' pasts and the past of the last Shaker sister in a tiny Shaker community, the quietly contemplative Sister Georgia. Maze's mother Vista has had to struggle mightily to support herself and her daughter in the wake of her husband's abandonment and M.E.'s mother Sarah was forever damaged by terrible, senseless violence and loss in her girlhood leaving her a husk of a person.

The novel bounces back and forth in time, telling the past and present stories of all of these women, each connected through hardship and blood. Their lives are played out against the larger screen of the times, the intolerance and racial tensions and hatreds, the stigma of difference, oppression, and the impulse toward a more natural world. So much of their lives, for all three generations of women, is out of their own control; decisions are made for them to conform to social norms regardless of their own wishes and desires. And yet manage to forge their own connections, nurture the good in each other, and find love and acceptance within themselves and in the greater society.

Each of the chapters are short and the women all have distinct voices so there's never a question of whose story the reader is engaged with at any time. But the jumps in time present a bit more of a problem, especially keeping Maze's and M.E.'s timelines straight. So many different storylines would be fine if they all seemed to be working toward the same end but they were often so disparate it was hard to keep all the threads as the story progressed and then the end just sort of happened. The writing here was lovely and well done though and overall I found this a quiet, reflective read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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