Truth and Reconciliation. Pandemic. Black Lives Matter. Immigration. As I prepared this annual column of reading recommendations I realized current news stories had certainly influenced my choice of books this past year.
Five Little Indians uses rich language to relate deeply personal stories about five survivors of the same residential school. They each describe their own incredibly sad childhood. We follow them into challenging adulthood where their lives braid together and their strength of character, astounding resilience, and innate goodness are revealed. Author Michelle Good is a Cree lawyer who has represented residential school survivors in court hearings. Five Little Indians has won a host of awards.
David Robertson’s memoir Blackwater was another favorite this past year. It describes how David developed a relationship with his father after they had grown apart, and how that new relationship helped David learn to understand and appreciate his Cree heritage.
In The Pull of the Stars Emma Donoghue takes us into a cramped Dublin Hospital maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. Julia is the courageous duty nurse, and the story revolves around her as well as a plucky volunteer named Bridget and Kathleen, a doctor and political activist. The depth of the author’s research gives readers a graphic and disturbing picture of a past pandemic. It makes you appreciate all the medical advances that are helping us navigate our current health crisis.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was fascinating. The novel’s hero Count Alexander Rostov makes the most of his life despite being sentenced to a decades-long house arrest in a hotel in the Russian capital. The endearing Alexander provides a road map for how to live through a time of isolation with humor and hope.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet was certainly a page-turner! The novel follows two light-skinned African American sisters from 1968-1988. As young girls, they witness their father’s lynching. One sister decides to pass for white and ends up living in the lap of luxury in Los Angeles. The other sister maintains her black identity and becomes an FBI employee in Washington DC. Although the two women break off contact, a generation later their daughters meet, and the sisters’ lives intersect once again. The book definitely makes readers examine their own racial biases.
The Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is about both racism and immigration. It tells the story of a family from Ghana who moves to America. Gifty, the protagonist, is a brilliant neuroscientist trying to make sense of a past that includes her brother’s struggle with addictions, her mother’s battle with depression, and the systemic racism her family faced. Just as science and religion are often at odds these days, so is Gifty’s heart as she tries to balance her emotional attachment to her religious beliefs with her scientific sensibilities. This is a beautifully written book that raises important questions.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins tells the compelling story of Lydia and her young son. They are fleeing to the United States to escape the Mexican cartel that killed Lydia’s journalist husband. Along the way they meet other migrants who have remarkable tales to tell. I was totally invested in the characters and the book kept me in nerve-wracking suspense. It helped me understand in a visceral way what it might be like to be an undocumented immigrant.
My recommendations this year certainly aren’t for light summer reading but at a time when our world seems to be at an important turning point, these books definitely widened my world view and gave me new ways of looking at things.