Dragons and Agatha Christie. A poor boy in 14th century Venice and the latest news from Lake Wobegon. Who could ask for anything more from Minnesota writers on a spring Sunday?
“When Women Were Dragons’ by Kelly Barnhill (Doubleday, $28)
In those first chaotic weeks after the Mass Dragoning, Sister Margaret, my third-grade teacher, taught us the earlier accepted explanation, that dragons, either escaped from Hell or intentionally released from its Demon Gate by sinister forces in the hidden global war between good and evil (Russian, presumably), had devoured a certain subset of the nation’s mothers, for unknown reasons. And likely reasons unknown. After all, who can reason with a dragon? This was wildly incorrect, of course, but most people were still grappling with the events that day — burned buildings and devoured husbands and half-exploded homes and motherless children weeping in the streets.
Kelly Barnhill couldn’t have realized when she wrote “When Women Were Dragons” how prescient it would be when it went on sale this month.
Minnesotan Barnhill has specialized in young adult fiction, including her Newbery Medal award-winner “The Girl who Drank the Moon.”
In her first novel for adults she combines coming-of-age with fantasy to tell the story of the 1955 Mass Dragoning, in which 300,000 ordinary wives and mothers shed their skins and turned into dragons glorious in their colorful scales. Some went off to search for the stars, others created commons in mountains and some took to the oceans. All were free from the dictates of men in the decade before “The Feminine Mystique” and the second wave of feminism.
Among those who took flight was Alex Green’s Aunt Marla, a strong lesbian who wore boots and dungarees and fixed cars. Marla left behind her young daughter, Beatrice, who was taken into Alex’s family as her sister. Talk of Marla and the dragoning was considered inappropriate. it was so femalelike talking about menstruation.
Every branch of the government sought to repress information about thousands of women shedding their skins and taking flight, even though people saw them with their own eyes. Textbooks were rewritten regularly to give new instructions on what the children could and could not learn. (If this doesn’t sound familiar right now, you haven’t been paying attention.)
When Alex’s mother dies the girl’s cold father, who has a new family, sets Alex and Beatrice up in a cheap apartment and tells the teenager she is old enough to be a mother to Beatrice.
One of the most tender parts of this story is the fierce love between the girls. Alex, who has inherited her mother’s knack for math, also saves her mother’s knot-work, clothing and scarves with beautiful, intricate knots that symbolize Alex and Beatrice’s relationship.
Making a life for Beatrice and going to school is exhausting for Alex, who is sometimes furious with her mother for never speaking about her aunt’s dragoning, and her aunt for going away.
And then the dragons return.
The story is told in the first person by Alex, who is looking back on her childhood, interspersed with testimony from a scientist before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, which tries to keep the man from exploring dragoning. (Contempt for science. Does that sound familiar?)
Barnhill’s prose is gorgeous and powerful. Those of us who came of age in the 1950s understand this book in our hearts because, except for the dragons, we are again living the power of repression of women.
“The Agathas” by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson (Delacourt Press, $18.99)
” ‘And, Alice says, ‘if I’m going to find out what happened to Brooke Donovan, I’m going to need you to be my sidekick. You know people like Thompson don’t think we can do it. Just like no one thought Agatha Christie could write an unsolvable mystery. People underestimate women all the time. And I’m sick of it.’ “
Miss Marple would be proud of Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson for writing “The Agathas,” a mystery about two young women inspired by the sleuthing abilities of one of Agatha Christie’s most enduring characters.
Kathleen Glasgow, former coordinator of the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, lives in Arizona. She’s the bestselling author of “Girl in Pieces” and “You’d Be Home by Now.” Liz Lawson, who lives outside Washington, DC, wrote “The Lucky Ones,” which Kirkus Reviews picked as Best Book of 2020.
Now these prominent authors teamed up to write one of the most appealing young adult books of the spring season, a who-dun-it with a high school vibe of mean girls, Tik Tok and strictly separated social groups.
The question is—who killed high school student Brooke Donovan? The town of Castle Cove knows that basketball star Steve didn’t do it, although the police have him in custody. Alice Ogilvie is a suspect because she disappeared for five days earlier and the authorities think the dead girl might have been emulating Alice.
Alice, who comes from a rich family, is mum about where she was during her disappearance, but she can’t escape house arrest in her family’s mansion for upsetting everyone. To help her with homework she’s assigned Iris Adams as her tutor. Iris is poor and terrified of her father de ella, who’s so violent she thinks of him as “the Thing.” She is saving money to get her and her mother from her to safety in northern Minnesota.
Iris and Alice barely know one another, although they go to the same high school. Alice eats lunch at the Mains table, made up of the elite who run the school. Iris sits at a table with the Zoners, thrown together because they are all poor and on the edges of student life.
As the two girls warily become friends, Alice convinces Iris that Steve, her former boyfriend, couldn’t have killed anyone. Besides, even though Brooke took Steve away from Alice, she still cares about him. And Brooke was her best friend. Iris goes along with the plan because Brooke’s wealthy grandmother offers a $50,000 reward for information about the girl’s death. That would be enough money to get her and her mother from her out of town and away from the Thing.
Luckily, Alice has the complete works of Agatha Christie, and the girls set out to find the killer with the help of some of Iris’ Zoner friends.
Each chapter begins with a quote from a Christie novel, as Iris and Alice pursue leads that begin with the Halloween party from which Brooke disappeared.
This seems to be the beginning of a series that is an easy and fun read for readers of any age. As Iris says to Alice in the last line of the book: “We might as well make some trouble together.”
In a joint interview with the authors, sent to the media by their publisher, the women say they both started their careers writing what Lawson calls Very Sad Books. In 2020, writing that sort of book “felt even heavier than it did before.” So they started talking about writing a FUN book. Thanks to Lawson’s collection of Christie novels they found their inspiration.
“BoomTown” by Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Productions, $26.99)
Norm had told me about the start-up companies that had taken over the town, like Universal Fire, which made artisanal twenty-year-old white oak and ash firewood, non-GMC, upper-altitude, seasoned with sea salt. It was getting into artisanal ice as well, made from Lake Superior water, and was bottling virgin oxygen from the northern wilderness. The founder, Rob McCarter, had an MFA in creative writing and the artisanal firewood business was right up his alley.
The Little town that Time Forgot is changing, and 79-year-old former radio host Garrison Keillor admires the millennials who are changing the town, while recalling his youth with his childhood friends during a visit to his hometown.
In “Boom Town” Keillor once again confuses us as to the line between the fictional Keillor and the “real” man. He talks about the demise of his radio show and his books about him, which several Lake Wobegonians do n’t like because Keillor made them sound like rubes.
While young entrepreneurs create things like Woke alarm clocks, dance videos that teach math and a detoxifying spread made from honey and locusts, he sees that Bunsen Motors and Krebsbach Chev are gone, Halvorson Hardware has been replaced by a grocery store called The Common Good, and Dorothy at the Chatterbox Cafe has healthier food on the menu.
“Boom Town” is plotless. We follow Keillor as he roams the town, meets people he likes and does not, and spends a lot of time talking to his first love, Arlene Bunsen, who is in a wheelchair and dying of cancer. Keillor is scheduled to give the eulogy at the funeral of her brother, Norm Gunderson.
Because there is no separation between the two Keillors, a reader could become uncomfortable reading a little too much about his summer of love with Arlene, as well as his passion for his wife in New York, who flies to Minnesota to have sex in the cabin Norm left to Keillor and where young Keillor spent the summer he became a man (with the enthusiastic help of Arlene). That cabin is so much a part of his life that he decides to renovate the old structure.
This book is vintage Keillor — funny, poignant, an homage to old friendships. His “A Prairie Home Companion” audience will welcome these familiar citizens of Lake Wobegone. Younger people, who may not know anything about the radio show, should read it as a warning to live in the moment because life passes swiftly.
“The Ballot Boy” by Larry Mellman (NineStar Press, no price listed)
Astolfo strips off my tunic and shirt; the duke’s men pull off my leggings and breeches. They spread-eagle me on a seven-foot wheel. Every tender spot is exposed. I am about to suffer for what I did. Maybe it must end this way because I have become a monster. I open my mouth to shout that I am telling the truth, but Leopold stuffs it with his handkerchief.
Nico is 14 years old, a street urchin living in the Republic of Venice in 1368. The old doge has died and when Nico is the first boy to lock eyes with the the youngest member of the Doge’s Great Council, Nico becomes by tradition The Ballot boy, a lifetime position during which he counts ballots for the upcoming election of a new leader and tries to keep the governing nobles honest..
The vote goes to Andrea Contarini, who becomes 60th doge of Venice and Nico’s boss. Contarini doesn’t want the job, which is mostly ceremonial because he has to take orders from the council, made up for generations of men from rich families.
Nico is gay, but he must keep his sexuality a secret. He saw a man burned at the stake for that offense, and he never forgot it.
There’s a lot of politics in this book, as well as warfare. The hostile duke of Austria pushes Trieste to rebel against Venetian domination and the Venetian nobles are split between hawks who want war and merchants desperate for peace. Trusting only Nico, the doge sends the boy to Trieste to be his eyes and ears from him. That’s where he falls in love with Astolfo, ambitious and charismatic Lord of Castle Mocco.
Things do not go well for Nico, who finds himself in the clutches of the church and his foes, who are bent on torturing him to death on the rack.
Besides the excitement of political machinations, readers will learn a lot in “The Ballot Boy” about life in Venice seven centuries ago.
Mellman, a 75-year-old gay man who lives in St. Paul, lived in Venice for five years where “The Ballot Boy” was born (and completed in St. Paul). Mellman worked with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of multimedia events organized by Warhol in 1966-’67 in New York and California. Mellman was mentored by bestselling author Dean Koontz, and shared a palazzo in Venice with international opera singer Erika Sunnegardh.