Monday, April 15, 2013

A Southern Historical Haunt by Susan Meissner

A Sound Among the Trees
Author Susan Meissner
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As a young bride, Susannah Page was rumored to be a Civil War spy for the North, a traitor to her Virginian roots. Her great-granddaughter Adelaide, the current matriarch of Holly Oak, doesn’t believe that Susannah’s ghost haunts the antebellum mansion looking for a pardon, but rather the house itself bears a grudge toward its tragic past. When Marielle Bishop marries into the family and is transplanted from the arid west to her husband’s home, it isn’t long before she is led to believe that the house she just settled into brings misfortune to the women who live there. With Adelaide’s richly peppered superstitions and deep family roots at stake, Marielle must sort out the truth about Susannah Page and Holly Oak— and make peace with the sacrifices she has made for love.
Review: This is a mash-up of a contemporary generational story with historical fiction. A Sound Among the Trees is similar in tone to The Help by Kathryn Stockett, but the time span between past and present is greater (i.e. present and Civil War era). Keeping that in mind, it does fit in the historical fiction genre because a good portion focuses on what occurred over 20 years ago. However, it is not classical historical fiction because the historical portion is communicated through 'flashbacks, character story-telling, diaries and half the setting takes place in the present. This may or may not appeal to historical fiction genre lovers. I do think it makes for an interesting cross-over and widens the appeal.

What I liked: The contemporary mash-up works and by beginning the story in the present, Meissner establishes Holly Oak (the house) as a character. It reminds me of Rose Red by Stephen King in the sense that the house is almost breathing. It's misunderstood, even by those who are closest to it. By doing so, the 'haunted' suspicion is accomplished. Each character has ghosts or something that lingers, including the house. The twist is that what is perceived changes and the haunt morphs from one thing to another.  Are the characters haunted?  Absolutely!  By what, is to be determined. Does a cleansing occur? Yes. However, the epiphany is unique for each character, again, including the house. Also, the presentation of Southern culture is lovely, humorous, loyal and traditional. Each character is well-developed and the females display strength, intelligence, and real vulnerability that leads to flaws, all which are different, but relatable. I was able to connect and sympathize with each character without ever having to personally experience any of it.

The drawbacks: Beginning the book in the present gives the author only a few options to work in the historical fiction factor:  through flashbacks, remembrance stories or letters. Meissner does a fairly good job trying to break it up without compromising any particular character's personal traits. However, this creates less flexibility and a great chunk of the story has to be discovered through the reading of letters.  This is presented in text change and actual form that goes on for many, many pages. Since so much must be communicated, there is a large portion where the read is taken out of the present so the reader (along with the characters) can discover the truth.  The transition to the past was easy and I admit, I was captivated.  It was the hurling back to the present that I found jarring. It is similar to being yanked out of a dream. It made me a bit cranky because I didn't want to wake up.  I understand at some point it had to be done, but it wasn't my favorite approach. 
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*ARC provided by WaterBrook Multnomah courtesy of Amazon Vine

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