Review of Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald

Title: Zemindar
Author: Valerie Fitzgerald
Edition: Bantam Books (paperback), 1983
Setting: 1857 India
Genre: Historical Fiction

Valerie Fitzgerald wrote only one book. But what a book it is. Don’t be deceived by its romance novel cover: “Zemindar” is historical fiction at its finest.

Set in India at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny (also known as the Indian Rebellion or the First War of Indian Independence) in 1857, this is the story of an English spinster and poor relation, Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her newly-married cousin Emily and Emily’s husband, Charles, on a honeymoon trip to India. It seems that Charles is related to a zemindar, a wealthy landowner in India named Oliver Erskine and since Mr. Erskine is childless, hopes to be named his heir. The relationship between these four people is complicated: Laura believes herself to be in love with Charles, Charles’ and Emily’s marriage is unhappy, and Oliver Erskine? Well, he’s enigmatic. Slowly, Laura finds herself less and less enamored of Charles and more interested in Oliver.

It is during the honeymoon stay at Erskine’s estate that the Mutiny breaks out. They escape to the Residency at Lucknow and join the many who are beseiged there. The hardships, fear, brutality and death during the Mutiny change each of Fitzgerald’s characters. And they are superb characters: besides the four main characters who run the gamut from spoiled and shallow to strong and colorful, she gives us Toddy Bob, Oliver’s Cockney servant; Kate, a tough but kind wife of an army officer; Moti, Oliver’s loyal Indian mistress, and many other vivid characters.

The author’s grandmother lived through the Mutiny and that the author lived in Lucknow during WWII; her description of India (Erskine’s estate, Hassanganj, and the Residency at Lucknow in particular) is superb, filled with detail that is included not for the sake of showing us how much research she has done, but to illuminate her story.

This is a sweeping, vivid book that reaches a deeply satisfying conclusion. It’s long (almost 800 pages), so set aside some time to enjoy this superb novel.

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Review of Rumors of Peace by Ella Leffland

Title: Rumors of Peace
Author: Ella Leffland
Edition: Perennial Library, 1985 (first published in 1979 by Harper & Row)
Setting: WWII era small, industrial town east of San Francisco, CA
Genre: Coming of age story

Suse Hansen is a 10 year old tomboy, living a life of school, home, and family in her small, working class town east of San Francisco when WWII suddenly intrudes into her life in the form of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This powerful, beautifully written novel describes her moral growth from the 10 year old whose first prayer is that the sherrif shoot the Nisei citizens of her town to 14 year old who understands so much more about the nature of war and the nature of human beings by the time the US drops two atomic bombs on Japan. The bloodthirstiness (and fear) of her youth has grown into a deeper understanding of what drives people to fear and revenge, hate, war, and love.

Lest this all sound depressing or boring, be assured it is neither. Like many adolescents, Suse’s view of her world: her friends, her teachers, her parents is extremely funny at times. And the instinctual goodness of her nature makes her question and question again how she feels about the war. She is helped in that questioning by Helen Maria, the genius older sister of her friend Peggy, and the example set by her loving, hard-working parents.

The book is filled with wonderful, vivid characters: Helena Maria and Peggy, Suse’s sort-of friend Valerie, classmate Dumb Donny (who’s not so dumb at all), good-time girl Eudene, and assorted teachers and parents.

Don’t miss this neglected classic.

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If you love the smell of old leather book covers and dusty bookstores, this is the blog for you.  There are some wonderful blogs that cover new books, but this blog is about those exciting, lyrical, captivating, dramatic, soulful, epic, spell-binding books that are sitting forgotten on a shelf in a library, or used bookstore, or perhaps even your own bookshelf.

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