Three novels to check out

Learning from history

Summer is coming, and for some that means setting aside more time to catch up on reading. And what better to read than fiction? Here are three novels I’ve read in the past few weeks that I recommend.

What is most effective is how Hannah helps readers experience what it must have been like to face hunger and cold and watch Jewish neighbors be hauled away.

The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah tells the story of two sisters in France just before and during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Hannah draws her characters well and explores the many ethical dilemmas people in wartime face.

Vianne is a schoolteacher who is married and has a child. Her husband is drafted into the army and is later captured by German troops and held prisoner. When the Germans take over the town, an officer moves into her house. Isabelle, Vianne’s younger sister, is impetuous, we’re reminded over and over, and joins the French Resistance.

There is plenty of suspense in the complex plot, but what is most effective is how Hannah helps readers experience what it must have been like to face hunger and cold and watch Jewish neighbors be hauled away. While the Holocaust is well known to us, it was inconceivable to those who were watching it unfold.

Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi is a powerful first novel by a woman who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. This panoramic novel also focuses around two women—half sisters—in 18th-century Ghana whose lives go in different directions. Effia is married off to an Englishman, and her descendants grow up in Ghana. Esi is captured and sold into slavery with thousands of others and shipped to America.

Gyasi covers nearly three hundred years as she follows individuals in multiple generations who come from these two half sisters. Her language is exquisite as she details the horrors of slavery and the dehumanizing consequence of racism in America. She also writes about the warfare between the Fante and Asante nations in Ghana and the effects of colonization. It’s amazing how she can cover so much territory in such an intimate way. This is not a pleasant read but one that shows clearly the evil of racism.

Every so often I come across a book written decades ago that is pertinent for our time. I learned about the 1962 novel A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley and bought a used copy through Amazon. Kelley was born in New York City and attended Harvard.

The narrative is set in a fictional state bordering Mississippi. Tucker Caliban, a quiet, determined descendant of an African chief brought to America in chains, obtains property near a small town. One day, he salts his fields, burns down his house, kills his livestock, then heads with wife and child to parts unknown. This leads to a mass exodus of the state’s entire black population. In his foreword to the 1989 edition of the novel, David Bradley calls the novel visionary and laments that it “was never really seen, was perhaps never really understood, and soon went out of print.” Look for it.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.