The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Lisa See


Li-yan lives in Yunnan, China and is a member of the Akha tribe. The tribe is remote from the rest of China. It still follows the rituals and traditions that the Akha have followed for hundreds of year. She resides in Spring Well Village located on the tea mountain of Nannou. Her home is made of bamboo and thatch, built on stilts providing an area for any livestock they have. There is the main residence along with three newlywed huts for her brothers and their wives. Li-yan is the only girl. The entire family rise early and after their family breakfast, walk for two hours into the mountain to pick tea leaves from the tiers that they own. When they are finished picking, they take their leaves to the tea market for sale. On this particular day, they arrive too late to sell their leaves. A-ma is Li-yan’s mother and A-ba is her father. While there, Li-yan spots a boy behind a wall of tea. She finds him eating a pancake and offers her a bite. She takes one and they exchange names. His name is San-pa. A woman screams “Thieves “and yanks both of them out from behind the wall. She has had trouble with San-pa before. A-ba insists on paying for the pancake. He pays with the few coins that they made today. Li-yan’s and San-pa’s family both adhere to Akha Law. They both will have to have a cleansing ceremony. They cannot have it together as San-pa was born on the day of the tiger and Li-yan was born on the day of the pig. The two must never be friends or marry as tiger eats pig. The family makes it back to the village. A ruma comes to perform the ceremony that will take place outside and attended by the entire village. The ruma is an intermediary between the spirit worlds. At the end of the ceremony, Li-yan’s family has to sacrifice a chicken, another loss of the family caused by Li-yan.

Li-yan’s best friend is Ci-the. Her older brother Ci-do is married to Deh-ja. They are expecting their first child. A-ma, is the village midwife and healer. She uses her tea and herbs when treating the villagers.  When Deh-ha goes into labor, Ci-do fetches A-ma. A-ma is expecting Li-yan to help her and later become a midwife as well. After the baby is delivered, Deh-ha delivers another baby, twins. It is Ahab Law that twins are human rejects and must be taken into the woods to be killed by the father. The parents then must leave the village for bringing shame and bad spirits to the village. Ci-do and Deh-ha leave.

Li-yan sister-in-laws criticize her needlepoint telling her that she will not have much to offer for a dowry. A-ma tells L-yan to grab her cloak and to follow A-ma. They walk and climb high up into the mountain until they reach a boulder that is tricky to walk around. They come across a very secluded grove of camphor trees. As she steps inside, she sees about a dozen old tea trees. A-ma explains that the land; the trees have been in the women line of her family for thirty-three generations and the mother tree has been there for one hundred generations or three thousand years. It will be Li-yan’s dowry when she marries. The tree is covered with yellow threads that appear to be parasites and mold. A-ma explains to her that they are what make the tea so powerful against diseases and sickness. A-ma tells Li-yan never to tell or show anyone this sacred, secret place. The family continues to pick tea leaves from their tiers but no one, only A-ma and now Li-yan, know about these tea trees. They are for their own personal use, never be mentioned or sold to anyone else.

Li-yan and Ci-the attend school together. A-ba was against sending his daughter to school. Teacher Zhang convinced the village leaders: the headman, ruma, and nima, to allow her to go to school as it will bring honor to the village and inspire other children. Li-yan studies hard for two years while continuing to do her chores and pick tea. Now twelve, she enters the second-level school. Many different languages are spoken. There is only one other student that is Akha, San-pa. The two will go through the next few years in school together.

 When Li-yan and Ci-the turn sixteen, a ceremony is performed where they exchange one headdress for another more suitable to their age. Boys attend and the girls are encouraged to go into the forest with a boy. San-pa appears and slips off with Li-yan, ignoring that they are not to be together as it can only be bad for all concerned.

Mr. Huang and his son come to the village in search of Pu’er tea. He lives in Hong Kong and buys Pu’er tea to sell to others. It is a high monetary commodity around the world. He speaks mandarin and Li-yan translates. He wants to buy their Pu’er tea which come from the very old tea trees. The leaves are aged and processed a certain way. He offers to buy their tea leaves at a much higher price than Li-yan offers. He will teach them his process. For three months, the villagers pick and process the leaves under Mr. Huang’s supervision.  Mr. Huang hears about A-ma’s special grove or tea. Every day he asks Li-yan for just a few leaves. He will pay her for them. She sneaks off to the grove, picks a few leaves, and makes them into tea cakes. He pays her much more than she expected. Although she feels guilty about her deceit, she is only thinking of how the money will help her and San-pa in the future. Li-yan is to head off to University but decides not to go so that she can continue to earn money for her and San-pa’s future.

While San-pa is away, Li-yan discovers that she is pregnant. A-ma and Li-yan head to their tea grove where Li-yan gives birth to a daughter. It is Akha way that when a child is born to an unwed mother, the mother must kill and bury the baby. A-ma tells Li-yan that this is what she must do. Now that the baby is here though, A-ma tells Li-yan that she can take the baby to an orphanage. She gives Li-yan two tea cakes, wrapped in the groves special paper, to be left with the child.

The story continues with Li-yan and San-pa’s reuniting and travels, Li-yan’s return, her acceptance into trade school, and finally, into the Yunnan Agricultural University. They are opening a Pu’er Tea College. It will be the first one opened in the world. They are offering two tracks, one as a tea master, and the other as a tea evaluator. It is there that two men, unbeknownst to Li-yan, will have a direct influence in her future.

Li-yan’s daughter is adopted by a couple in Los Angeles, California. They name her Haley Davis. Haley goes to school with other Chinese children, some adopted, and others whose parents or generations before came to California. Haley wants to learn more about her birth mother and why she was left at the orphanage. She has her two tea cakes as the only link to her birth mother. As she gets older and becomes involved in her own studies, she sets off to find the answers.

This story has many storylines and themes. There is the Akha tribe with its rituals, customs, and beliefs.  The history of tea, where it grows, picked, dried, and processed. The different methods in preparing teas. The history of the Pu’er tea, its taste, and its place in the world market. Chinese adoptions in the United States, the effects of living in a country not originally their own, the need to find where they came from, and why they were left at the orphanage.

Lisa See’s book brings everything together in an amazing story.

Chances Are

Richard Russo


 Lincoln Moser grew up in Dunbar, Arizona. He is an only child.  His father, Wolfgang Amadeus Moser, is part owner of a mining company. His mother originally grew up in the East in town called Wellesly. Her parents were well off and owned a small house in Chilmark on the island of Martha Vineyard. When she a senior in college, her parents died in a car crash. She moved to Tucson, Arizona to live with her aunt. Her parents had left her money in a trust along with ownership of the cabin. The money would be available when she was 21. She married Wolfgang, aka Dubyay who convinced her to move to Dunbar. When it comes time for Lincoln to go to college, his father insists that he go to the University in Arizona. His mom refuses. She wants him to go to Minerva College where she went. This takes both Lincoln and Dubyay by surprise because his mom never stands up to Dubyay. She has always been meek and domineered by Dubyay. She tells Lincoln the truth about her family. She tells him that all of the trips and nice purchases they had was because she paid for them. She tells Lincoln about the cabin and that it will be his one day. She asks him to promise never to sell it. Dubyay had tried many times to convince her to sell, but she refused. Lincoln goes to Minerva.

Mickey Girardi is the youngest of eight children and the only boy. He is from Westhaven, Connecticut. He is of Irish/Italian decent and grew up in a working class, rough neighborhood. Mickey bought his first guitar and started a band. When it comes time to go to college, he tells his father he want to go to Minerva College to study music. His dad tells him to make his mother proud.

Teddy Novak is an only child and lives in the Midwest. His parents are both English teachers. The pay no attention to Teddy as they need to make plans for their students during all their spare time. They believe Teddy is fine since he is always off reading by himself. They are unaware of what Teddy faces in school. He is bullied and made fun of in gym class. Once in high school, Teddy realizes that he enjoys playing basketball and is very good. The coach notices that Teddy needs toughening up so he has another player jab at Teddy when he goes in for shots. One of those jabs knocks Teddy to the floor, causing a hairline fracture on his vertebrate. Teddy can no longer play. Teddy read a book written by Tom Merton, a Trappist Monk. He feels that many suitable for him. First, he needs to get his education. He chooses Minerva College.

Jacy Calloway is the daughter of Donald and Vivian Calloway. When Jacy is in eighth grade, she goes on a date. The boy asks her when she knew that she was adopted. The reason he asks is that she does not resemble her parents. Her father calls her “our little gypsy” because she has brown curly hair and olive complexion. She goes home and searches her house for evidence. She finds her birth certificate and everything looks normal. She confronts her mother who does not deny it. When Jacy asks who her father is, her mother tells her that it does not matter, he is dead. From then on, Jacy calls her parents by their first names, Don and Viv. Jacy is engaged to Vance, who she has known since childhood. Their parents have been friends for years and are members of the same country club. Jacy and Vance’s future marriage has been predestined for just as long. Jacy attends Minerva College. She is a member of the Theta Sorority and resides in the sorority house.

Lincoln, Mickey, and Teddy are on scholarship at the college. They shared a freshmen dorm suite and now continue as roommates. All three work in the kitchen of the Theta Sorority House. Mickey is the dishwasher; Teddy helps the chef with salads, dessert, and plating, while Lincoln serves the meals to the dining room. The kitchen help are known as hashers. Jacy likes to go back into the kitchen to flirt and hang out with them. Lincoln is dating Anita, a sorority girl. On December 1, 1969, all the hashers, Jacy, and Anita, sit in the kitchen to listen to the radio. They are waiting to hear the first draft lottery. The birthdate determines your number in the draft. Mickey’s birthdate is ninth. This hits the group hard. He will be drafted. As more dates are announced, other people in the kitchen and house begin to leave. Lincoln’s date is one hundred eighty-nine. There will be a slight chance that he will have to go. Teddy’s birthdate is number three hundred twenty-two. He will not be going. Jacy told Mickey that he cannot go. He needs to go to Canada until the war is over. Mickey knew that he could not do that. His father would not like that. He had to make his mother proud.

After graduation, the four decide to spend for the last weekend at Lincoln’s cabin before heading to their individual futures. On the last day, Jacy leaves in the early morning. She leaves a note saying that she hates saying goodbye. No one hears from Jacy after that. It is if she has disappeared.

The book starts in the year 2015. It is now forty years later. Lincoln is back in Chilmark, hoping to sell the house in order to recoup losses he had during the recession. He is now a real estate investor and resides in Las Vegas with his wife Anita. He invites his friends Teddy and Mickey to join him. They have not seen each other in years and it will be the last chance they have to be together as they once were, all those years ago. Of course, the one topic of discussion is what happened to Jacy Calloway? Lincoln is determined to find the truth while he is there. The story begins.

The Dutch House

Ann Patchett


Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek built the Dutch House in 1922. A large painting of the couple hung in the main living room. The house was located in the country outside the city of Philadelphia. It is now known as Elkins Park.  After Mr. VanHoebeek passed away, his wife remained in the house with only their caretaker, Fiona, known to all as Fluffy. Fluffy resided in the garage apartment where she had grown up helping her parents, who worked for the couple. After the death of Mrs. VanHoebeek, Fluffy remained to check the main house from time to time. In 1946, Cyril Conroy bought the house for his family. The house included all of the VanHoebeek’s possessions. The day Cyril brought his wife Elna, ten year old daughter Maeve, and three year old son, Danny to the house, he announced to his wife that this was now their home. He bought it for them.

Elna was not comfortable being in the house. With so many poor people in the world without food and shelter, the house represented opulence. She had been living in a convent when Cyril had returned from being away and insisted that they marry. They had scraped by for years and now they have a house such as this? Elna tells Cyril that she is leaving him. She is moving to India where she can help the poor and needy.  It did not matter that she had two children who needed their mother. They had the staff. Fluffy was the children’s nanny, and sisters, Sandy, and Jocelyn, did the cooking and cleaning. Now that she is gone, Maeve misses her mother terribly. Danny being young, does not have many memories of her. After Elna leaves, Maeve becomes extremely sick and is diagnosed with diabetes.

Cyril makes his money in real estate. He has several rental buildings and once a month, he takes Danny with him to collect the rent. In the beginning, Elna would go with Cyril. She would notice that an apartment was in need of repair or that the renter was poor and did not have the money for the rent. Elna would tell them not to worry and that she would take care of that. After that, Cyril would not take Elna with him. Cyril begins taking Danny with him. Danny loves this time he is able to spend with his dad. He learns the business from his father and in the summer, he learns how to make repairs on the various buildings. He plans to join his father’s business someday.

When Cyril is forty-nine, he brings home a young woman, Andrea. Andrea, thirty-one, has two children of her own. Norma is three years younger than Danny and Bright is five years younger. Andrea loves the Dutch House. Cyril once said that Andrea married him because she loved the house, not him. They do not have a happy marriage. The two young girls love Maeve and Danny. Andrea does not. When Maeve leaves for college in New York City, Andrea has her two daughters move into Maeve’s room. When Maeve comes home for break, she finds that her belongings are now in the third floor attic/bedroom. Cyril injured one of his legs in the war and now walks with a limp. He has difficulty walking and it is painful. It is very difficult and painful to go up and down the stairs. When Maeve graduates from college, she returns to Elkins Park and rents her own apartment. She works for a frozen vegetable plant distributor as the accountant.

In 1963, Danny is fifteen. He and Maeve receive a call from the hospital. They were the contact on their father’s records. Cyril has had a heart attack, falling down a flight of stairs in one of his unfinished buildings. When they arrive at the hospital, they arrange for their father’s burial to be in the Catholic Cemetery. The Conroy family is Catholic but Andrea is Protestant. Andrea is furious at Maeve and Danny for not notifying her after they were at the hospital and that they made burial arrangements without her. Maeve and Danny offer to run the Conroy business since Maeve has experience in accounting and Danny has the experience from working with his father. Andrea refuses. Maeve and Danny find out from the family lawyer that Cyril has left everything to Andrea. When Andrea and Cyril married, she had Cyril put her name on everything he owned. Cyril did set up a trust for Danny and Maeve’s education. Andrea tells Danny that he has to leave the house and live with Maeve. Andrea sells the business and fires the entire staff; Fluffy, Jocelyn, and Sandy.

Danny leaves for boarding school, paid for by the trust. When Danny comes home on vacation, he lives with Maeve. Maeve and Danny begin a ritual of driving to the Dutch House, parking on the street in front of the house, and talking. This ritual will continue for several years. Maeve is determined to spend as much as her father’s money as she can. She convinces Danny to go to medical school. He does not want to be a doctor, but alas, he is. While in college, he meets a girl on the train. Her name is Celeste Norcross. He and Celeste will have an on and off again relationship ending in marriage. She wants him to be a doctor, he wants to buy and renovate buildings.

The story continues with Danny, the narrator of this story, caught in the middle of the relationship between him, Celeste, and Maeve. His heart and alliance is with his sister. Her health is fragile and Danny has felt responsible for her since he was just a small boy. A return from the past enters their lives and changes everything.

This Tender Land

William Kent Krueger


This story takes place during the Great Depression in the year 1932.

Odie O’Banion, 12, and his older brother, Albert, are orphans living at The Lincoln School. Their mother had passed away years before followed recently by their father. They had their Aunt Julia, their mother’s sister, who lived in St. Louis but she was unable to care for them. The Lincoln School had previously been a military outpost named Fort Sibley. It is located on the banks of the Gilead River in Minnesota. The students are Native American children; children forcibly removed from their homes to make them look and behave like White Americans.   Their hair is cut short and they are forbidden to speak in their native tongue. Odie and Arthur are the only whites there. Thelma Brinkman, aka The Black Witch, and her husband Clyde supervise the school. When a child disobeys, he is taken to the Quiet Room, formerly used for solitary confinement by the military. Vincent DiMarco is in charge of discipline. He will beat the child with a strap and leave him in the dark for the night. Odie is often in there. The next day he will join the others as they go to work at local farms to provide free labor. Odie and Arthur are friends with another boy there, Mose. Mose is Sioux Indian and mute. When he was four, his body was discovered in a ditch beside his dead mother. His tongue had been removed. A teacher at the school, Cora Frost, owns a farm and lives there with her daughter, Emmy, 6. One day she has the boys work at her farm. She tells them that she is going to see if she can adopt them so they can stay with her permanently. Shortly after, a tornado touches down, causing devastation and death, Cora Frost being one of them. The Brinkman’s move Emmy in to their house.  Odie refers to the tornado as the Tornado God.

Odie is once again in the quiet room. He hears someone coming for him in the night. It is DiMarco.  DiMarco had Odie follow him to the quarry. Odie realizes that DiMarco is going to kill him by throwing him over the cliff of the quarry. In a struggle, DiMarco goes over and falls over the rim. Odie believe he has killed DiMarco and he must flee. Odie tells Arthur and they decide to run. They do not want to leave Emmy with the Brinkman’s. They go to the Brinkman’s house who are not at home but Emmy is. They free Emmy and while there, break into the safe and steal two hundred dollars, a gun, and a large packet of letters. Mose joins them and the four head to the river. Herman Volz, a carpenter at the school, helps them into a canoe. Their journey begins.

After a stop to rest and buy supplies, they find out that they are wanted for murder and kidnapping. They know that they must now stay out of site and be careful. A man finds them sleeping on a bank. He has a patch over one eye. Odie calls him One Eyed Jack. The man makes them follow him to his farm. He keeps Emmy in his house, forces the three boys to work on his farm, and takes their bag of money, letters, and gun. He drinks at night while talking with the boys. He learns that Albert knows how to make moonshine. His father had made his living this way. One night, One Eye, gets very drunk. Odie’s action that night allows the four to escape. Odie runs back to the house and grabs the remaining items they had taken from the safe.

They continue down the river. There next stop is New Bremen. While sitting on the bank, they hear a woman singing. They follow the music until they arrive at a tent filled with people. It is a revival meeting. On the stage is Sister Eve. She has the appearance and voice of angel. The four stay with them for a few days. Emmy loves being with Sister Eve and the other boys enjoy having a place to stay, warm meals, and fellowship working beside the others. Sid is in the band but he is also the manager. He looks for the next city to travel to and advertises their arrival. Odie is suspicious of Sid and follows him into town. What he sees infuriates him. He tells the other four and Sister Eve what he has seen. She explains to Odie what he think he saw. Odie still does not trust Sid. He snoops through Sid’s belongings and is furious with what he finds. His reaction soon endangers his brother’s life. While in town, Sid learns the truth about the four and alerts the authorities. Later, Odie sees the Brinkman’s on the premises. The four once again flee.

Their next stop is in Menkato. They rest there. Odie leaves to search the area. He finds an encampment of homeless people. He befriends the Schofield family. He is smitten with their daughter, Marybeth. She explains to him that the family’s truck broke down on their way to Chicago and they do not have the money to repair it. Odie enlists Albert to help them fix the truck. Once the truck is fixed, the family is able to leave with more help from Odie. The four continue the journey down the river.

Hawk Flies, AKA Forest, is Sioux and guides Mose in his journey as a Native American. He suggests that the four go to West Side Flats and ask for Gertie. Gertie owns a restaurant and can help them. Forest brother, Cal, lives there. He and two other men have a business transporting goods on their boat. Albert helps them repair their boat and they offer him a job. They all want to stay except for Odie. He is determined to go to St. Louis. Odie had made friends with another boy while there named John Kelly. John teaches Odie how to hop a train. Odie leaves.

Odie has other experiences before he finally lands on his Aunt Julia’s doorstep. There he learns the truth about his family. In the end, he will know who is true family is. That is all he ever wanted.

We had the author be a part of our Zoom book club. It was interesting hearing about his writing process and his research for the book.

A Place For Us

Fatima Farheen Mirza


Hadia’s entire family has come together to celebrate her wedding to Tariq. Hadia is the eldest daughter of Layla and Rafiq, followed by her sister Huda, and then her brother Amar. The family has not seen Amar in three years and he has only returned because Hadia wants him there. Hadia wants to let Amar know that she has picked her own husband, that she did not follow their parent’s Indian tradition of an arranged marriage. She wanted to let Amar know that she too disappointed them, hoping that would make him feel better about himself. As the guests mingle, Amar sees his father across the room. Neither of them try to look at each other. Amar then sees his former girlfriend, Amira, who asks him to meet her privately later.

The story continues through flashbacks of various members of the family.

Rafiq, an Indian Muslim, had immigrated to the United States. He now has returned to India to meet and marry Layla, an arrangement made by her parents. Layla is to marry and return to the United States with him immediately following the ceremony. Layla is not only marrying someone she does not know or love, but she is leaving her country, her family, to live in a country where she knows no one nor speaks their language. She believes that God will look favorably on her by doing this. The two reside in a tight knit Indian community. After the birth of two daughters, Layla gives birth to a son.

Rafiq and Layla are a very strict, religious, and traditional family. They do not allow their children to have friends over inside their house and do not allow the children to socialize outside of their community. They attend social gatherings within their Indian community. Boys and girls do not interact with one another as they do in other cultures. The girls do not make eye contact with the boys, they appear shy, and touching is taboo. The Ali family is part of this community. The children have known each other since they were very young. Now in their teens, the Ali’s oldest son, Abbas, takes Amar who is younger, under his wing. He lets Amar hang out and play ball with his friends. He is also very handsome and Hadia is attracted to him. The feelings appear to be mutual. Abba has a younger sister, Amira. They too are attracted to each other.

Hadia is a hard working student, responsible, and tries very hard to please her father. She is very protective of her brother Amar. Amar is the opposite. He does not do well in school and is very close to his mother. Amar and his father do not get along. Huda follows the path Hadia has chosen, to be a dutiful daughter and to make her parents proud.

Secrets, jealousy, pride, tradition, religion, addiction, betrayal, the terrorist attack on 9/11, and death, all lead this family to where the book begins, at the wedding of Tariq and Hadia. In the end, Rafiq writes a letter to Amar in hopes that someday Amar will read it and understand.

America’s First Daughter

Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie


It is July 5, 1826, and President Thomas Jefferson had died the day before. President Jefferson’s oldest daughter Martha, “Patsy”, Jefferson is going through her father’s letters at his desk. She has promised her father that she will protect his legacy and is burning any letters that would tarnish him. Sally Hemings, a black slave, half-sister to Jefferson’s wife Martha, mistress to Jefferson for decades, and mother to their 6 children, walks through the room with three items that she tells Patsy that she is going to keep, and leaves. As Patsy reads the letters, she reminisces of their life together.

The year is 1781 and William Short, Jefferson’s secretary, has come to Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation, to warn him that the British are on their way to capture him as a traitor. The family flees to their cabin miles away. They are able to return once William alerts them that the British have turned back and it is safe to return home.

In 1782, Jefferson’s wife Martha dies during childbirth. On her deathbed, she has Patsy promise to watch over her father and to protect the family. She has Jefferson promise her that he will never remarry, as she does not want a stepmother raising her children, based on her own experience growing up with one. Jefferson, devastated by her death, becomes so depressed that Patsy and William have to keep a close eye on him to keep him from harming himself.

Jefferson goes to Philadelphia taking Patsy with him. Two years later Jefferson goes to France as an emissary and a U.S. ambassador. He takes Patsy with him and sends her to live in a convent for school. William is there also and becomes good friends with Patsy. Daughters, Mary, “Polly”, and Lucy have been living with their Aunt and Uncle since the death of their mother. At the age of two, Lucy dies from whooping cough.  Jefferson sends for Polly, accompanied by their family slave, Sally. France was in the early stages of the French Revolution when Jefferson first arrived but now it has become more intense and dangerous.  In July of 1789, the Bastille falls and Jefferson flees back to the States with his family. Patsy wants to stay with William as they are now in love. Jefferson refuses their relationship, as William does not have the monetary means and status to provide for Patsy and the family. Patsy threatens to join the convent and become a nun, but her promise and duty to her father causes her to relent and return with the family to Monticello.

Once back, Jefferson encourages Patsy to marry her third cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. As he is the oldest son of Colonel Randolph, a close friend of Jefferson, he will be the heir of the Colonel acquiring his estate and multiple properties. Jefferson needs this to happen for himself as he is in need of money and is hoping that young Thomas will be able to help them financially. Upon the Colonel’s deathbed, he disinherits Thomas, leaving Thomas only with his debts and siblings to take care of.  The Colonel’s new young wife and son inherits everything. This is the beginning of a long downhill fall for Thomas and Patsy, now known as Martha. Martha, now a mother, struggles between her duties as a mother, wife, and dutiful daughter of Jefferson. When Jefferson becomes President, Martha and her children move to Washington. It is there where Martha takes on the duties of what the First Lady would be doing. She hosts dinners for politicians and foreign dignitaries. She is the First Daughter.

There are many more stories throughout the book of Jefferson, William Short, the Randolph’s 11 children, Sally Hemings and her children, and slavery. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet, he himself owned slaves and refused to fight for their freedom and to grant freedom to his own slaves, as promised.

This novel is historical fiction based on his letters and other documents that the authors researched. Liberties were taken when mixing fact into fiction. It is an enjoyable read.

She Come By It Natural

Sarah Smarsh


The author wrote this book after she had written a four part series for “No Depression, the Journal of Roots Music.” She was also writing her own book, “Heartland” at the time, a memoir of growing up with a single mother and grandmother in rural Kansas. She combined her four part series with reflections and parallels she felt between Dolly Parton and her Grandma Betty. They were both the same age and both grew up in a rural community and poor.

Dolly grew up in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee.  She is one of twelve children. There was a period of several years where they lived in a cabin with only one bedroom. It was located on a subsistence farm on Locust Ridge. Dolly began singing in church when she was six years old. She credits her mother with her musical talent. At the age of seven she played a homemade guitar, and when she was eight, her uncle Bill bought her a real one. At age ten, she appeared on Cos Walker’s radio and televised show. Dolly graduated from high school in 1964 and left for Nashville the next day. Uncle Bill and Dolly co-wrote several songs and recorded them. Dolly soon met Carl Thomas Dean. He was a cement worker and they married in 1966. On May 16, 2016, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

In 1967, Music and country singer Porter Wagoner invited Dolly to join his organization. It included appearing on his weekly television show, his road tours, and recording songs together. She left his organization in mid-1974. Dolly went solo and had multiple hits through the years. Dolly appeared in her own variety television shows and specials. In 1980, Dolly appeared in her first feature film 9-5. She had nominations for several awards for her performance and the song she wrote and sang. She went on to other film and television roles.

When she was young, she noticed a woman, a trash lady on the street, dressed in a way that eventually Dolly took as her own stage look. She wore the high wig, tight clothing, and a top with a low neckline. Dolly was faced with sexism her entire career. When she was a guest on talk shows, the hosts would ask her to spin around to show off her hourglass figure. Even Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters asked this of her.

Dolly created the Dollywood Foundation to support several of charities, many in literacy. She donated money to the families who lost their homes in the Smokey Mountains wild fires in 2016. She raised millions for them thru telethons. She created Dollywood Amusement Park in her hometown area so that her neighbors will have employment. A list of her philanthropy is available on any search engine.

This was an interesting book to read about Dolly Parton. The author’s interjections of her own life and family at times became confusing and was a distraction.

Ordinary Grace

William Kent Krueger


The year is 2001, and Frank Drum, 53, reflects on the summer of 1961 when he lived in New Breman, Minnesota.

Frank, 13, is the middle child of Nathan and Ruth Drum. His sister Ariel is 18. She is dating Karl Brandt; son of a wealthy local beer magnate family. He lives in the Heights; a wealthy area in New Breman. Ariel is to attend the prestigious Juilliard School of Art in the fall. She is an accomplished pianist and vocalist. She has been studying under Emil Brandt, a famous pianist and composer. When Emil was a young man, he was engaged to Ruth. That ended when he chose to go to New York City to pursue his career. He later moved to Hollywood and became a successful music composer for films. After he left, Ruth met Nathan and they married. Nathan was studying to become a lawyer. At this time, the United States entered WWII. Both Nathan and Emil went overseas to fight in the war. Both men came home changed. Emil returned home blind and half of his face disfigured. Nathan returned deciding he no longer wanted to be a lawyer, but a minister of a church. He was now the minister of three churches in the area, and lived across the street from the one in New Bremen. Ruth was not happy with this decision. Jake, 10, is Frank’s younger brother. He has a stutter, which is the reason he is quiet and does not speak up when he hears Frank’s lies. When Frank sets off to investigate something he really should not be doing, Jake will tell him so yet follow him anyway.

The beginning of the summer starts out with the death of Bobby Cole. Bobby had been sitting on the train trestle, unaware of the train that was heading his direction, and dies instantly. Frank wants to go see where it happened. His parents tell him not to go the scene, but Frank does not listen. As Frank and Jake stand on the trestle, they look below to the riverbank. There are two men there. One is lying still and the other, Warren Redstone, is going through the man’s pockets. The boys head down there. Redstone tells them that he found the man dead. The boys head back to town. Their father is at the jail bailing out his longtime war friend, Gus, and Frank tells him and Officer Doyle about the body. Gus lives in the basement of the church. Nathan felt responsible for him after the war and gave Gus a place to live and work. Gus has his own demons from the war and drinking is his way of dealing with them.

During the day, Ariel is at Emil’s farmhouse. Emil has been dictating his autobiography into a recorder and Ariel is transcribing. Emil’s sister, Lise, who is deaf, also lives there. She takes care of the house, garden, and Emil. They live a quiet life, just the two of them. Lise does not like to be around other people and has a strong, at times violent, reaction to being touched.  That summer, Ariel tells her parents that she has decided not to go to Julliard. She will stay close by and continue to study under Emil. The parents believe this is about Karl Brandt. Jake and Frank have seen Ariel sneaking out of the house after their parents have gone to bed and coming up early in the morning before they wake up.

The Fourth of July has arrived and New Bremen is celebrating. Tomorrow and the following days of summer will bring two more deaths, heartache, secrets uncovered, lies, and guilt. In the end, Frank will be back in the year 2001 to conclude the summer of 1961 and the Drum family.

Ordinary Grace won the Edgar Award for best novel in 2014 and won the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award in 2013.

The Great Believers

Rebecca Makkai


It is 1985 in Chicago. The story begins with the funeral of Nico Marcus who passed away from AIDS. His parents turned their backs on him when he came out.  Nico’s group of friends and his partner, Terrance, have been restricted from attending the funeral. In protest, his younger sister, Fiona, does not attend either. After Nico left the family home, Fiona would sneak food and supplies to Nico’s place and became very close to his friends. One of those friends was Yale Tishman. Nico was the first friend Yale made when he moved to Chicago. The two of them shared their passion of Art.The group of friends and Fiona hold a celebration of life for Nico at the home of their friend Richard Campo, a photographer. The group consists of: Terrance, who now has the virus, Teddy Naples, Aster Haas,  a lawyer and AIDS activist, Julian Ames, a young actor, and Charlie Keene, who runs the publication ‘Outloud Chicago’ which advocates safe sex, condoms, and other gay issues. He is Yale’s partner and feels insecure with their relationship. He is possessive and worries that Yale may cheat on him. Yale works as a financial developer for the Brigg Gallery at Northwestern University, which allows him to be involved with his true passion. As Richard begins a slide show of pictures that he has taken of Nico and the group, Yale decides to go upstairs to lay down. Fiona watches him as he goes. When Yale decides to rejoin the group, he finds the house empty. He has no idea where everyone has gone and how long he was upstairs. Fiona, drunk, tells Charlie a lie about Yale, which will now cause serious repercussion in the coming days.

Fiona has a great aunt, Norna Lerner. Norna has an art collection worth over two million dollars. Fiona tells Yale to contact her as Norna wants to bequeath her collection in its entirety. The only caveat is that it has to include all paintings in the gallery, including those by artist Ranko Novak. Norna was an art student living in Paris in 1912.  She met fellow artists who would one day be famous. It was there that she met Ranko. The two fell in love almost instantly. She returned to the States before the war began because it was not safe for her to stay and her father had suddenly died. She later returned but the war had changed Ranko. Their relationship was no more. She continued modeling in exchange for lessons and autographed artwork. That is how she has acquired her collection and still feels very protective of Ranko and his work.  Norna now lives in Wisconsin and is quite ill. In order to acquire the collection and authenticate the individual pieces, Yale has to drive back and forth from Chicago to Wisconsin to listen and take notes of Norna’s stories. He takes with him an intern, Roman, to help with the process. This is another story that will affect Yale in the future.

It is 2015 and Fiona is in Paris looking for her estranged daughter Claire. The only proof that she has is from a photograph of a woman and child on a bridge. The woman looks just like Claire. Richard is now living in Paris and Claire stays with him and his partner, Serge. Richard is getting ready for a show that will include all of his photographs from the time he spent in Chicago with his friends during the AIDS epidemic. Many of his and Fiona’s friends passed from the disease. Fiona was caretaker of many.

The book has many storylines. One is of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago at the time and the effects it has on the gay community, the friends and relationships within the group, and how each individual with the disease has to cope. There is the story of Yale and his work to acquire an art collection for his gallery while dealing with Norna’s family. Cecily Pierce, who works for Northwestern in charge of donations. She has another donor that she is working with that is in conflict with Yale.  Then, there is the story of Fiona. Her life intertwines with Yale and the others that she met through her brother Nico. Through Yale, she meets Cecily. This acquaintance affects her future and that of her daughter. The book jumps back and forth between timelines. In the end, the culmination of all storylines takes place in Paris, 2015.

The Island of Sea Women

Lisa See


The Island of Sea Women describes the lives of the Haenyeo. The Haenyeo are women divers who reside in Jeju, a small island off the coast of South Korea. The women are the breadwinners of the family. They are able to hold their breath while diving deep for few minutes at a time. They search for albacore and octopus, which is more profitable. They also collect smaller fish. When the divers become elderly and are no longer able to dive, they will collect seaweed as a form of income. While the women are diving during the day, the men are caring for the children, generally outside with other men as all the children play. Diving can be very dangerous and some have lost their lives.

This story takes place between the years of 1938-2008 in the village of Hado. Young-sook and Mi-ja are best friends. Mi-ja lost her mother when she was young. Her father, a Japanese collaborator, sends Mi-ja to live with her aunt and uncle on the island who treat her terribly. Many in the village shun Mi-ja, including Young-sook’s grandmother. When both girls are fifteen, they begin their training as baby divers.  Young-sook’s mother, Sun-sil, is chief of the divers. She tells the divers where they will dive, assigns the baby divers to older divers for training, and begins each day with prayers to their God. In the off seasons, the women and daughters will garden at their homes to feed their family. As the years went on, Young-sook’s grandmother arranged marriages for both girls. Young-sook was fortunate, as she had grown up with her suitor and knew him to be a good man. However, she was very upset with her grandmother as she arranged Mi-ja to marry a very handsome and well off man that the two girls had met once at the port dock. Mi-ja was not happy. She had reason to be.

In the year 1938, the Japanese had control of the Island. After WWII and then the Korean War, the island was now under the jurisdiction of South Korea with the assistance of military from the United States. In the period known as the uprising of April 3, over 30,000 natives lost their lives. The book describes this era of time and how the lives of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s lives were affected.

The story begins and ends in 2008. It is a story of friendship, betrayal, secrets, lies, loss, and the possibility of forgiveness.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This young Nigerian writer is firing on all cylinders: interesting characters, great writing, spot-on insights into modern life, and a combination of themes that are so compelling and timely. Although the obvious one is race, she also deals with class, immigration, the American dream, self-invention, relationships of both men and women, and the glorification of wealth that seems to be a human and not only a national trait. In the midst of all this, she makes some interesting observations about the characteristics of Americans, as well as her native Nigerians. It is a great book for discussion.