Fall is the perfect time to curl up with a great work of historical fiction. This month we look at Maggie O'Farrell's rich new novel -
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet Shakespeare’s sliver of a life ended at age eleven, probably due to bubonic plague. While his name appears on the cover of Maggie O’Farrell’s (I Am I Am I Am) latest novel, the book is really about his mother, Agnes.
Agnes Hathwey, also known as Anne Hathaway, married, at the age of 26, a man of 18. In O’Farrell’s imagining, he was the Latin tutor in the town of Stratford. The two have a lusty relationship which results in Agnes’ premarital pregnancy. The husband is never named in the book, always referred to in generic terms such as father, glove-maker’s son, theatre director. This places him in the role of serving Agnes’ story.
The fact that so little is know of Agnes’ actual life gives O’Farrell a blank canvas to work with. She paints her as a healer with close ties to the earth, somewhat of a shaman who can read people’s motivations by touching them. She’s a wild entity, a falconer and herbalist who prefers to give birth alone in the forest rather than rely on the town midwives. While her healing skills are valued among the villagers, she can do little to save her son against the ravages of the plague.
The book seesaws through time, beginning with the young Hamnet encountering the plague for the first time in his twin sister Judith, backward to Agnes and the tutor’s courtship, and forward to the couple’s vastly differing ways of coping with the loss of their son. Through it all, we watch Agnes grow from flower child to harried matron to bereaved mother whose grief is largely borne alone. The chapter that depicts Agnes preparing Hamnet’s body for burial is devastating. Her grief is palpable, her unwillingness to let go of her young son heart-wrenching. Her husband, in contrast, deals with his grief by being absent.
O’Farrell paints the era with a fine brush, etching out details of life in 16th century England creating a vivid portrait of the time and place. About half-way through, she breaks into the narrative to trace the transport of the plague to England, starting with a flea on a monkey in Alexandria to a box of beads arriving in Stratford that Judith opens with eager anticipation. The author’s arch wit is at its peak in this chapter. Her off-handed account of the traveling fleas tugs against the what the reader knows is a looming pandemic.
Reading about a plague while a plague is raging may seem contraindicated, but O’Farrell is a deft writer who pulls taut the line between escape and relevance.
I'm re-reading Tommy Orange's brilliant There There in preparation for our book club discussion on the 21st (see the calendar for details) and it made me think of the trove of great literature by Native American writers. Here’s a sampling of fiction and poetry that you might want to check out -
New Poets of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdrich -
This stunning collection features the work of twenty-one poets from Washington, DC to Hawaii. The work is as diverse as the landscapes of its writers. (See “For the Sake of Beauty” below.)
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich -
Erdrich’s latest novel is based on the life of her grandfather, who worked as as night watchman at a jewel bearing plant and fought against the dispossession of Native Americans in the 1950’s
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford -
Ford’s acclaimed debut novel traces the lives of four generations of Cherokee women in Oklahoma and Texas.
An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo -
The U.S. Poet Laureate’s latest collection is full of joy, heartbreak, and resilience.
When the Light of the World Was Subdued edited by Joy Harjo -
This massive collection features the work of more than 160 poets of almost 100 nations, stretching back for centuries and up to the current day. (See “Mind Over Matter” below.)
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones -
This shocking horror story, which takes place on the Blackfeet Reservation, is not for the faint of heart. You’ve been warned.
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday -
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, this classic tells the story of a young man caught between the worlds of the past and the present.
Nature Poem by Tommy Pico -
Nature, racial stereotypes, and queer Native culture are all fodder for Pico’s epic poem.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko -
Originally published in 1977, this story of a young Native American man returning home after his grueling experiences in Japan in World War II has become a modern classic.
Poems of the Month -
For the Sake of Beauty
On the phone I asked her to wear a full buckskin outfit and she could
be the beauty that would make me steal horses.
She said she didn’t have a buckskin outfit.
I said I would make her one, but use pages from books.
A week later when she came over to my place, she asked if I had made
I said no. I couldn’t bring myself to hunt the books on my shelf, even if
it were for food or clothing. I couldn’t bring myself to kill, even for the
sake of beauty.
~ Trevino l. Brings Plenty (Lakota)
Mind Over Matter
My old grandmother, Tekapay’cha
stuck an ax into a stump
and diverted a tornado.
In minutes we would have been destroyed.
It struck the little town of Porter
ripping up the railroad tracks,
twisted the rails and stood them up.
There was power in that twister.
There was power in my grandmother.
Those who doubt, let them doubt.
~ Louis Little Coon Oliver (Mvskoke)
Coming October 27th - Memorial by Bryan Washington
Washington established himself as a writer with a sharp eye and a dark wit in his 2018 short story collection Lot. His second book is a novel that lightens the mood somewhat, yet still doesn’t shy away from heavy topics such as death, divorce, HIV, alcoholism, and family estrangement. Benson and Mike have been together for four years, and the relationship is not going well. Mike goes to Japan to be with his dying father just as his mother comes to Houston to visit him. She and Benson develop an uneasy friendship, much of which is built on cooking. Meanwhile, Mike is trying to salvage what he can of his connection to his father. Benson’s narrative bookends the novel, with Mike’s story filling the middle. Both men have fraught relationships with their alcoholic fathers, which the novel examines with heart and a deep sense of wry resignation.
Looking for some great spooky books to fill the long October nights? Click below to discover some overlooked works -
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