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Monday, March 23, 2009

Many Points of View

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The use of multiple narratives has a history reaching back to the European epistolary works of the mid-1600s. Within the last century the device was memorably explored by authors like Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner to not only examine more fully the motives behind their characters' thoughts and actions in complex streams of consciousness but also, in Faulkner's case, to create an indelible impression of the environment that shaped them. In her debut novel, Mudbound, Hillary Jordan ventures into Faulkner's native territory, Mississippi, and calls on a similarly wide-ranging chorus to depict the toils and troubles of two families, one black and one white, living during the Jim Crow era.

Of the six narrators, one is a beleaguered farm wife who renounces her city life and teaching profession to work on a mud-clogged cotton farm at the whim of her husband. Another is the African-American wife of a sharecropper who befriends her. The latter's son, a veteran returned from the front lines of World War II, lends his voice to the narrative, bristling with indignation at the continuing racism he encounters on his return. Pervading the novel is the bilious presence of Pappy, the belligerent patriarch spouting racist invective and casting a pall over the household that he so bitterly dominates. The novel is one of a number of works of historical fiction set in the American South that have been gaining recognition of late for their exploration of African-American segregation and emancipation-one of the most notable being Kathryn Stockett's The Help set in 1960s Mississippi. Jordan, winner of the Bellwether Prize for her book's message of social change, will be coming to the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Brookfield on March 26 at 7 p.m.

Also coming to Milwaukee this week is best-selling Swedish author Linda Olsson. She follows the debut success of her first novel, Astrid & Veronika, with another tale where long-buried memories offer deliverance from the character's painful sense of hiatus. Sonata for Miriam tells of a music professor whose life seems bracketed by deep, impenetrable silences. Just before the death of his daughter he chances upon a picture bearing his name in the Holocaust gallery of a local museum. Accompanying it is an impassioned inscription by a sister who's spent the greater part of her life looking for him. The thread of his investigation leads him from his home in New Zealand to his birthplace in Europe, from a present he's finally coming to terms with to a past in World War II Europe that's been dormant for years. Olsson will be reading from her new book at the Milwaukee Central Library's Centennial Hall on March 27 at 7 p.m.