The Scapegoat – Mary Lee Settle
This is the fourth book in the Beaulah Quinet, Mary Lee Settle’s history of West Virginia through the lens of conflicts ranging from the ousting of a Puritan partisan in the English Civil War (leading to immigration to America) to the settling and drawing of land parcels in the 18th century to a novel I haven’t read yet in the 1840s to this coal mining dispute in 1912 and finally to more or less contemporary times. Following one family, in the loosest terms, but one parcel of land, the novels in various orders tell the history of the land in mostly contemporary and authentic language.
So this is the fourth one and I haven’t read the one prior to it, but that’s because I owned this one, and it was shorter, so I start back int he quintet here. Having read the first two book already, I think I am in a mood to finish all five this year. This was the best one to read thus far and the most enjoyable of them as well. I have a real fascination with labor disputes in the early 20th century because as fraught as they were, they make me feel like there’s still a kind of hope to win back rights slowly drizzled away from the last decades. I have that more modern sense of really supporting labor rights but being really scared of losing what little I have by taking those risks.
This novel focuses on a family squabble that bleeds into the labor dispute between the Lacey and Catlett families and a group of Italian immigrant coal. Drawing on the fears of the Other, the firebranding of Mother Jones, and familiar stories like these, the novel retells a violent but not deadly clash over the course of a weekend in 1912. Told in short first person bursts in a few section by the Catlett’s youngest daughter watching the events unfold and then in third person omniscient sections for the rest, the effect is a kind of back and forth in language and theme. If you haven’t already, you should check out the movie Matewan, which tells a similar set of events.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Amy Tan
I mostly think of Amy Tan as Amy Tan in that one episode of the Simpsons, but of course, also from The Joy Luck Club. This is the first of her novels I have read. Like Joy Luck Club it deals with mothers and daughters across multiple generation in a hybrid California/Chinese cultural space. Specifically, Ruth begins the novel, 46, mother of two, unmarried to their girls’ father but still with, already splitting her heritage between his bland American whiteness and her pseduo-rejected Chinese identity. She finds a set of papers seemingly written by her mother as has started looking for evidence that her mother might have Alzheimer’s. LuLing, her mother, grew up in China and left during the Japanese occupation and doesn’t speak particularly strong English and has a pronounced set of idiosyncrasies that make it hard for Ruth to determine mark Alzheimer’s or merely eclecticism. The novel deals with Ruth’s own sense of personal scatteredness along with trying to figure out what is going on with her mother. The novel is split almost evenly in large sections between Ruth’s story and LuLing’s documents from China.
In addition, as this is an audiobook version, the Ruth sections are narrated by Ming Na Wen with the LuLing sections narrated by Amy Tan herself. This is a more or less straightforward novel, strongly told, nicely realized, and one that was just completely competent. I did find myself wanting more of the China sections early and more of the America sections later, so maybe it’s a little imbalanced, or maybe I just need to read more of her novels.