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Book reviews: Child narrators bring unique voice to adult fiction

Michelle Dover/For Steamboat Today
Book review
Courtesy Photo

‘Last Night at the Blue Angel,’ by Rebecca Rotert

Chicago, 1965, a jazz club, a mother and a daughter — Rebecca Rotert’s, “Last Night at the Blue Angel” gives life to a haunting narrative about a struggling artist, living for her craft while trying to achieve the fame she desires above all else. Caught in the destructive storm is Sophie, her daughter.

Limited opportunities, restrictions and prejudice drive Naomi to run from rural Kansas to the big city, where she transforms herself into a singer at the Blue Angel. Chicago strains with the tensions of segregation, sexual experimentation and the Cold War. She is waiting for her big break, while her daughter, Sophie, sits just beyond sight of her mother’s view and attention.

A child’s perspective informs the narrative. Sophie mostly navigates the world alone, interpreting her unconventional life through the adults she watches as they struggle to manage their own lives. Naomi has no skills or ability to deal with her own torments, thus Sophie construes her own, sometimes disturbing, worldview.

Sophie fears nuclear war, and with the logic of a 10-year old, precociously updates a notebook with things she will inevitably have to reinvent post apocalypse. Fortunately, Sophie has Jim as a surrogate father to add some stability to her days.

She follows Jim on photo shoots as he documents the architecture being destroyed in Chicago. Jim’s character is inspired by the American photographer and historian, Richard Nickel, who believed buildings had a soul. He protested and documented with photos the demolition of fine architecture, thus bearing witness to and recording the vanishing backdrop.

This is a rich novel in voice and setting, with unexpected plot twists.

Meet Rebecca Rotert at 6:30 p.m. March 8 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library, where she will speak. For more information, visit steamboatlibrary.org.

‘Girl At War,’ by Sara Novic

Zagreb, summer 1991: 10-year old Ana and her best friend spend their days playing outside in the Croatian capital. Sara Novic’s, “Girl at War” opens from a child’s perspective, “The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes.”

The story unfolds in multiple parts. A growing tension fills the first section as the war escalates. Within a few months, refugees show up in town, kids are missing from school and Serbian soldiers are advancing on the city.

The structure of this novel allows the reader to not only know Ana as a 10-year-old girl caught in a war, but also as a young woman post-war.

Before Ana reaches adulthood, we find a child transformed from carefree bike riding to repeating the mantra used to reassemble an AK: “Forward grip, gas chamber, cleaning rod, bolt, frame, magazine, function, check.”

Ana is a survivor, and she makes it to the United States with the help of UN peacekeepers. She attends college, and by all outward appearances, is successful and fortunate. But her childhood still reverberates strongly in her life.

Ana returns to Croatia and seeks out her childhood friend and others, while experiencing the heart-wrenching dichotomy of the nostalgia she feels and the suffering that surrounds her childhood memories.

The author’s strong message tells readers that, the fact a war has ended does not mean it is over. The novel is ultimately hopeful for Ana’s future, as she connects with her friend from childhood and her country.

Bud Werner Memorial Library Book Club will discus this novel at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 5. Stop by the library or Off the Beaten Path Bookstore to obtain a copy of the title. Sign up to participate in the book discussion at steamboatlibrary.org.

These books are available at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path.

Michelle Dover is circulation services supervisor at Bud Werner Memorial Library.


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