Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
How far would you be willing to push the line between right and wrong to ensure your own safety? What options would be on the table if it meant keeping your spouse and unborn child protected? At what point to the heinous choices of others become too much and you break off the relationship, even if it is providing you with the basic necessities for survival? Edan Lepucki’s new novel, California uses a post-apocalyptic outer Los Angeles setting to address these questions, creating a world where black and white are no longer distinguishable amongst the thick gray swath painted by the morals and ethics of personal survival.
Reminiscent of The Road, although less bleak and not as beautifully written, California takes place in the near future, when much of the United States has been destroyed through a series of natural disasters, followed by widespread crime and violence. As the infrastructure of cities begins to breakdown, those with the means to do so are willing to pay for protection in the form of Communities- self-contained areas that promise tranquility and peace through heavy vetting of residents and high costs for inclusion. Those without the money to buy their way into these new establishments are left to fend for themselves, some remaining in the decaying cities while others strike out on their own in the wilderness.
Cal and Frida are part of the latter. After Frida’s brother dies as a suicide bomber in the city, she and Cal realize there is no place left for them in “civilization,” so they embark on a journey into the woods where they hope to create a new life for themselves. Soon though, the desire to be with others is overwhelming and after hearing of a larger community of settlers just a few days hike away, they set out to find their neighbors. Having been warned away from this group, they are nervous, but especially Frida, who believes she is pregnant, can’t stop her curiosity of what might be just over the ridge.
What they find is a surprise on many levels. Now, they must decide if they want to be a part of this reclusive settlement (if the members will even have them) or if it would be best to go back to their small cabin and continue on their own. The longer they stay and the more they learn about this functioning outpost, the harder their decision becomes and the less in sync with one other the tight couple grows.
Lepucki forces the reader to confront a series of philosophical conundrums, both about what it means to be a family and at what point the price for security is too high. With no tightly tied up happy ending, the novel leaves the reader to put themselves in this near future setting and wonder what choices they would make and at what point it would all become too much. Although the basics of the post-apocalyptic plot aren’t’ new, the twists and turns and ethical challenges help Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, earn a solid:
Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield
World War II gets a lot of attention in high school history books and on TV documentaries, but oftentimes while the sacrifices of American soldiers are the center point of these discussions, a darker tale is swept under the rug- that of internment camps on our own soil, built to hold our own citizens. The Japanese camps of the early 1940s are too often skimmed over in the discussion of the US’ role in the war, not giving fair play time to those who suffered and lost while never leaving their home country. Sophie Littlefield’s latest book, Garden of Stones, shines a light on this difficult time in American history, weaving a tale that links the pain of several generations.
As Garden of Stones jumps between the Patty’s pending wedding in the late 1970s and the dissolution of that same family in the early 1940s, Littlefield tells Lucy’s story- the middle woman in a three-generation tale. Lucy was just a teenager when the US government decided it would be prudent to gather up all Americans of Japanese ancestry and send them to holding camps, fearful that these people would work with the Japanese military against the US. Lucy was still reeling from the sudden loss of her father when she and her mother were shipped to Mazanar in California. While Lucy found the transition easier than her mother, falling into a part-time job as a delivery girl and meeting Jessie, who would be her first true love, her mother, Miyako, finds no such solace. As a beautiful woman, she is instantly noticed by the officers who ran the camp and soon forced to provide favors for these men, in hopes of keeping her maturing, and beautiful, daughter away from their prying eyes and filthy hands.
Soon though, Patty sees the darker side of the camp, as she realizes that not only her mother, but also Jessie, are taken advantage of in ways that would be unheard of in her life before the war came to American soil. This sudden loss of naivety starts the ball rolling on a series of events that will transform not only her own life, but those of her mother and Jessie as well.
Garden of Stones doesn’t condone the choices and subsequent actions of its various struggling characters, but it does shine a light on their backgrounds, allowing the reader to see beyond the face value of what appears to be heartless maiming of a child or cold-blooded murder. There is more to each character than meets the eye and as readers, we are privy to those histories and stories.
My one complaint with this book is that the multi-generational ensemble cast creates such a huge tale to tell that individual’s stories often don’t go as deep as I would like. There were several characters introduced, who by the end of the novel, I still want to know more about. Stories that need to be told are left open-ended, in what seem to be unintentional cliffhangers.
Sophie Littlefield’s latest work isn’t always easy to read, on an emotional level, but it does tell the tale of a time too often forgotten, and does so in a way that made me really consider just how large a swath of gray area can exist when it comes to the choices people make, earning it: