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I’ve been on a historical fiction kick lately. I recently read Fever by Mary Beth Keane and Mary Coin by Marisa Silver, both new books (released in March of this year). Both books were highly enjoyable – fairly quick reads, but interesting looks at the times in which they are set.

Fever by Mary Beth Keane

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Typhoid Mary was a cook, and passes the sickness along in her cooking. When she’s confronted by doctors who tell her she must stop cooking for people, she just can’t stay away. Cooking for others is what she does best; it’s who she is. What do you do when the one thing that makes you complete can potentially kill someone else? Who are you if you can’t do what you are seemingly born to do?  

Fever is the story of Typhoid Mary. I read about it in the New York Times book review, and it sounded interesting. I’d heard of Typhoid Mary, but didn’t know much else, other than she was someone who got a lot of people sick. The book relies on the facts we know about her life, then imagines the rest, filling in details and conversations and motivations, in a pretty convincing story. The book is not just a portrait of a woman who can’t understand why she’s being picked on by doctors, it’s about self-delusion, denial and taking responsibility for your own actions.

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Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

Recognize the picture on the book cover? It’s an iconic image of depression-era America, taken by Dorothea Lange, of a migrant worker and her children in the mid-1930s.

Marisa Silver has created a wonderfully powerful story surrounding this image – from the present day descendant of the owner of the farm this woman worked, to the woman who took the photograph, to the migrant worker, Mary Coin.

Silver has imagined their lives, both separately – each character fully drawn in its own right – and intertwined – she connects the stories cleverly.

I also read about this book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I have a B&W postcard with this picture printed on it, from a collection of iconic images of America. I put them all up on a wall in an apartment I used to have – it was a cool wall o’ images; it made me happy whenever I looked it at. So, when I saw this picture was used on a book jacket, despite its being in color, I felt that I just HAD to read it. I didn’t necessarily like the cover image, or the font the title was in…

Actually, for both of these books, I wouldn’t have picked them up because of the cover art – it just doesn’t appeal to me. If it weren’t for reading about them in the Book Review, I wouldn’t have been interested in them. Luckily for me, I did read the reviews and was intrigued enough to give them each a chance. I’m glad I did – I really enjoyed both of these novels, for their characters and the stories woven around them.

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I recently wrote about a book I read called The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan, which was a war story set in Alaska, featuring some possible otherworldliness. Years ago, I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, about a young man who vanished into the wilds of Alaska. During my weekend reading, I came up on this article about a brutal race in an Alaska town, where one man, way behind everyone else, just disappeared from the race track in the mountain.

This same weekend, I had started reading The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. It’s set in Alaska in the 1920s. The thing all these stories have in common is this underlying idea that Alaska itself is not just a wild place of nature – it is beautiful but hostile, almost alive, almost supernatural.

Each of these tales reminds the reader that there is this very large area of land out there that we have not yet tamed. And though almost cautionary, they are a bit of a love story to that wildness. There is a celebration of how precious life and living is, despite, or in spite of, this land around that is constantly trying to trip you up, to take you back into itself.

The Snow Child is a Ivey’s first novel (here is a more in-depth review from the Washington Post), and it’s beautifully written. It’s a fairy tale for grownups, based on a Russian folk tale about a couple who builds a snowchild , who then comes to life. The Russian tale ends various sad ways, and Ivey’s Snow Child is no different.

It’s sad and haunting, but like life, the sadnesses are tempered by the joys – of discovering and rediscovering love, hugging children, listening to laughter, cooking for friends, realizing you can survive so much sadness… Though infused with a touch of magic, the story is about very real, very human, feelings and experiences. And the way Ivey writes about those experiences, the way she strings words together to form these descriptive, beautiful sentences, she draws you in and makes you glad to enter her world a while, even if you’re a little (or a lot) teary when you leave it.