“The Tubman Command” by Elizabeth Cobbs

Genre:         Historical FictionTubman
Publisher:    Skyhorse Publishing
Pub. Date:   May 21, 2019

Mini Review

The author of “The Hamilton Affair” has written another interesting historical novel, “The Tubman Command.”  In this flawlessly researched novel, one learns of the lesser known heroic deeds of the black icon Harriet Tubman AKA Moses.  Most people have heard of Tubman for engineering the Underground Railroad and smuggling fugitive slaves from the South to the North.  This novel veers away from that part of her life and instead concentrates on her lesser known missions as a spy for the Union army.  Her efforts helped turn the tide during the Civil War, which, as of May 1863, the North was losing.  Cobbs keeps the writing authentic in many ways, such as using the long-forgotten dialect of the Africans living in Hilton Head Island located in South Carolina.  This is where Tubman and her scouts locate Rebel underwater mines.   Adding to the appreciated realism, each chapter begins with an actual and often moving quote from a general, colonel, scout or slave regarding Moses’ extraordinary talents.  The author shines brightest when she brings focus to the human side of the famous woman.  The story fluctuates between Harriet’s determined dedication to freeing people from slavery and her sense of burden and loss in her personal life.  She left her first husband to pursue her own freedom and outlived her second husband.  The author allows her heroine a love affair, which she admits in the endnotes to be pure fiction. This sexual relationship may not have been needed other than as a means to reach an audience who simply want romance in their stories.  Still, Cobbs emphasizes that, although her real-life protagonist was a lonely woman, she knew she was equal, or more probably, superior to any man, black or white.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Genre:           Family Saga/Historical FictionUnsheltered
Publisher:    HarperCollins
Pub. Date:    October 16, 2018

Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse of a writer and one of my preferred authors.  “Poisonwood Bible” remains a favorite book of mine.  In her latest novel, she sticks with her familiar themes—environment, religion, and social issues.  The setting goes back and forth between America’s current troubles to America’s troubled past.  In the present, we meet a fictional college-educated, middle-class family who live in the real-life city of Vineland, NJ.  To their shock, a few career setbacks and an ailing parent’s medical bills have caused a downgrade in their economic status.  Kingsolver is at her best when asking “how could this have happened to us?…we did everything right.”  She makes it easy to realize that your life too could turn on a dime.  To add to the family’s woes, their centuries-old house is literally crumbling around them.  Willa, the family matriarch, has learned that their house may have once been the home to real-life Mary Treat. Treat was a self-taught naturalist and correspondent with Charles Darwin.  Willa begins to write a historical preservation grant in hopes that the grant will pay for the house renovations.

In the past, Kingsolver takes us back to when Mary Treat was a working naturalist, which was immediately post civil war.   Her reasons for this time period are clear and very clever.  The troubles for the family in current times begin when Trump announced he was running for president.  Donald Trump’s name never appears in the novel but it is clear that he is “the Bullhorn…who promises to restore the old order…the billionaire running for president who’s never lifted a finger in work…the candidate who brags that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.”   The past is my favorite part of the book since it is such a classroom experience without the homework assignments.  I was fascinated to learn that back then, Vineland was created to be a utopian community.  It was founded by nonfictional Charles Landis.   He was a Trumpian-like real estate developer who really did shoot someone in the middle of the street and get away with it.   Landis had a strong dislike for Darwin since the opinion of the times was that Darwin was threatening religious beliefs.  He did not want Darwin’s theories, or any already proven scientific facts to be taught in Vineland’s schools.  Sounds familiar right?  Trump’s (so-called) Christian anti-science moves are spelled out loud and clear.  In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Kingsolver states, “I chose the 1870s as my alternate world because I knew it was a really difficult, polarized moment in our history…..Racial divisions, urban/rural divisions, North/South divisions—those rifts were ripped open by the Civil War.”

I left out reviewing a few very good subplots for they would be spoilers.  Between the alternating timelines, I preferred the story in the past.  The present-day timeline borders on preachy.   How we long for careers that ultimately fail to bring happiness or sometimes not even financial stability.   How spoiled we can be.  How we want and waste.  All true, but no one likes a lecture in the middle of a story no matter how much you may like the plot and the characters.  Oddly, the past felt fresh.  I enjoyed reading about young America’s growing pains.  How hard the scientific minds had to fight to be heard.   I do have a rather petty criticism on the writing.  The words “sheltered” and “unsheltered” come up repeatedly.   It felt as if Kingsolver didn’t think her audience capable of making the connections.   I don’t believe that in her book ‘Poisonwood Bible,’ (which is about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo) the title words pop up at all.  She trusted that her readers would make the connection that, like a poisonwood tree, religion too can become dangerous when mishandled.   This does not mean that I didn’t enjoy “Unsheltered,” for I very much did.  And, will not think twice about recommending the book.  As usual, Kingsolver gives her readers plenty to wonder about.  In this novel, she does an amazing job of penning an engaging story about human existence combined with a well-researched tale on past and present American politics.

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“The Second Mrs. Hockaday: A Novel” by Susan Rivers

Publication Date:  Jan. 10, 2017

Publisher:  Algonquin Books

I simply fell in love with this historical fiction inspired by the true story of Elizabeth and Arthur Kennedy.  A seventeen year old Southern girl, of well means, marries a Major in the confederated army during the Civil War.  He is an older man, with a toddler boy.  He lost has his wife, the first Mrs. Hockaday, almost two years prior.  The new bride leaves her home to begin her life as a farm wife.  Unfortunately, the Major needs to return to his men in battle after just a week into his marriage.  In his defense he never (as most of the South) expected a long, crippling war to keep him away from his bride for so long.   Nor did he anticipate all the hardships that she would have to endure while he was gone. His young bride would have been ill prepared to run a farm even if her husband was by her side.  The fact that she is running this farm alone in the desperate times of losing the war to the Union Army and still manages to survive is unfathomable.

The lessons she had to ascertain from learning how to use a shotgun to protect herself and her land, to learning the cruel realities of slavery, as well as the many other hardships she went through on a daily basis were heart wrenching to read.   Her one and only night away from trying to hold together what is falling apart is to visit her stepsister who married a wealthy young man sill living at home with his wife.  It appears that even back then the sons of the rich never go to war unless they choose to.  Her stepsister is shocked to see how thin, worn out and nearly unrecognizable she has become.  Our brave protagonist hastily departs her stepsister’s home for she is disgusted with their lack of sacrifice and shallow ways.  She leaves before asking for a loan which she felt would not be given to her anyway.  For this is the first time she becomes aware of her stepsister’s jealousy.  The young wife’s courage never ceases.  She reminds me of a moral Scarlett O’Hara which makes her legal situation all the harder to forgive.  During her husband’s absence while he is fighting a losing battle and then as a prisoner of war, she gave birth to an illegitimate child, a crime by itself, and is accused of murdering the infant.

The novel is told in an unusual format that I enjoyed; entirely through letters, journal and other records.  It is not written as a linear tale.  It goes back and forth in time from during the war and thirty years following its conclusion. The story had everything that I love in a good read; a believable story, the author’s notes show well researched historical facts, unheard of bravery without being written overly sentimental, a love story that is not in the romantic genre which I do not care for, as well as mystery surrounding the dead baby’s father and cause of the infant’s death.  A real page turner that I simply could not put down. I finished the book in the span of one night.  The author showed such skill that it is hard to believe that this is a debut novel.