Elis is an Irish girl pushed by her more energetic sister to immigrate to Brooklyn (Scribner, $25), where the prospects for work and romance seem more promising. Elis herself is doubtful about leaving her beloved mother and small town, in spite of the constricted life there. The Brooklyn she finds in the early 1950s, the rooming house and her job in the small department store, are part of a world that I remember well, with the hominess and the conservatism of those years. In time Elis finds love and a second family with Tony, an Italian-American. When she is called back to Enniscorthy after a sudden death in the family, she finds herself a different person than the one she was. Colm Tóibín‘s considerable talent and finesse are well displayed in this charming story.
John Pipkin’s well constructed and beautifully articulated Woodsburner (Nan A. Talese, $24.95) builds on the historical incident of a distracted Henry Thoreau who accidentally set fire to the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Pipkin interweaves the lives of several fictional characters representing a changing America in the early 1850s. Oddmund Hus, who works on a nearby farm, has suffered great losses in his young life since immigrating from Norway. He pines for a sweet young Irish-American, Emma Woburn, who, alas, is married to a much older farmer for whom Oddmund works. Eliot Carter, a young bookseller and would-be playwright, happens to be visiting Concord that day from Boston to look for a new store and is enlisted to fight the fire, and a creepy religious zealot, Caleb Dowdy, sees the fire as vindicating his ministry.
In John Pipkin’s remarkable debut novel, Woodsburner (Nan A. Talese, $24.95), the words leap gorgeously from the pages. A fire is accidentally started in the Concord woods on a very dry spring day. The man who started the fire is a deeply depressed Henry Thoreau, who had wanted to cook his fresh-caught fish. Pipkin has created the rest of the memorable characters who were brought together by the fire: a bookseller, Eliot Calvert, who wants to become a playwright; Caleb Dowdy, a crazed fundamentalist preacher; Oddmund Hus, a Norwegian immigrant, stunted emotionally by another fire in which his parents and the others on the boat perished just before they docked in America; the Czech women Zaleka and Anezkia who had served long prison sentences for engaging in lewd practices; and Emma Manning, whose late father sent her to America to escape the famine. It’s as though the fire burns through to the essence of each person.
In her debut novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Holt, $26), Eugenia Kim focuses on the story of Korean resistance to the indignities of the Japanese occupation of their country from 1905 to 1945. Her characters navigate early 20th-century Korean history as the society changed from a static and highly structured culture to one of increasing modernity. Najin, based on Kim’s mother, is a young woman who wants to be recognized for her own contributions rather than merely facilitating the achievements of her father, husband, and brother. Najin’s story is unique, but it is also a common story of women who want to choose their own lives. Najin and the rest of her family, her mother, father, and brother, emerge from the pages of Kim’s book as people you might know. Kim joins the ranks of other excellent Korean-American authors, among them, Chang Rae Lee (Native Speaker) and Min Jin Lee (Free Food for Millionaires).