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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard keeps one foot planted on the ground and the other tapping away in the world of the early motion picture industry; Where the Lake Becomes the River is a treasure for lovers of psychological fiction and a story to savor; Branch in His Hand deeply moved our reviewer with its power, honesty and beauty, still wanting to read more; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a classic locked room mystery set on an island temporarily cut off from the Swedish mainland

THE SEAMSTRESS OF HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD

By Erin McGraw

Published by Houghton Mifflin, Hardcover; © 2008, 371 pp

This book is a fictionalized version of the life of the author’s grandmother, a challenge that might prove daunting for a lesser writer, but Ms. McGraw has accepted the dare and done herself (and her grandmother) proud.

Set in the boomtown that was Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century, Seamstress manages to keep one foot firmly planted on the ground and the other tap-tap-tapping away in the zany world of the early motion picture industry. The heroine, Nell, was born into a hard-scrabble farming family in Kansas. Early-on, she discovered that she had an amazing gift: she could sew, and not just sew fine stitches; she also had the ability to understand the possibilities inherent in a piece of fabric, and the way to create tucks, pleats, etc. that would allow her to create what she envisioned.

At 15, she was married off to another hard-scrabble farmer who lived with his parents. Juggling farm duties and babies (two little girls by the age of 17), Nell put her talents with a needle to work, creating dresses for the “town ladies” who could afford them. To do this, she worked at night, getting very little sleep. She squirreled away most of the cash her efforts brought her, and when the bleakness of her life became overwhelming, she fled, buying a ticket to Los Angeles. After a meager beginning as a “shop girl,” Nell began to build her clientele as a modiste, calling herself “Madam Annelle,” and throwing in self-taught (and often mispronounced) French phrases that impressed her clients. Through sheer moxie, she created a successful career for herself, and eventually found love with a young man named George. They married (without benefit of divorce from her husband back in Kansas), and in her forties, Nell had a daughter named Mary. The child became the light of her life.  Nell became involved in the movie industry as assistant to a costumer, a career that was going swimmingly until the day that she opened the door of her home and found the two daughters she had abandoned in Kansas, many years before. They came to California with stars in their eyes, hoping to “get into the movies.”

It would be impossible to detail the rest of the story, and in any event, this reviewer would rather not spoil its outcome for the reader. Suffice it to say that McGraw is a writer whose sensitivity and depth combine to create an unsentimental but satisfying resolution.

Julia Sneden

WHERE THE LAKE BECOMES THE RIVER

By Kate Betterton

Novello Festival Press, available at Publisher John F. Blair; © 2007, 370 pp

This is the Novello Literary Award prizewinner for 2008, and a worthy winner it is. It's a story that limns not only a world known by a relative few and one familiar to many who have traversed adolescence and emerged changed. That is to say, nearly everyone who reads the story.

Ms. Betterton moves smoothly from 1950's post-war rural Mississippi to World War II reconstruction in Japan and back to the Mississippi of the pre- and post- civil rights conflict. She conveys the inner worlds of a young woman named Parrish McCullough and her mother Grace. Most of the narrative is from Parrish, but it's also enlightened by insights from her teachers.

Parrish tells of the summer before she leaves for college through flashbacks. They include her parents and the companions of her growing years from Japan to Mississippi . Noteworthy characters outside her immediate family are Mr. Takashima, Harvey, and young men smitten with the maturing Parrish. Some of the young men provide a view of mature, yet often ruthless, youth in the sixties.

Implied social and moral commentary run prominently through the entire story. The Japanese gardener is presented as a figure of heartbreaking gentleness and perception. Long before the end of the story, the reader appreciates how much of her world view Parrish owes to her contact with him.

Much of Parrish's strange obsessions with death are owed to the premature loss of her father. Grace is equally affected to the point of what was called at the time, a nervous breakdown. When Grace remarries, Parrish is barely able to hold onto her own sanity. Harvey is a black man who was a friend of the dead father and who remains loyal to that friendship through terrible strains that would have defeated a lesser man. The second husband is an interesting take on the evangelical view of life and how it should be lived. He is far from likable, and is barely redeemed by a kind of desperate resistance to carnal urges that are too little and too late to save Parrish.

Betterton handles scenes almost like a playwright with dialog that resonates on the inner ear. The structure is ambitious, moving as it does not only from setting to setting, but through time in non-chronological sequence, and from one character to another in unexpected ways. The fact that Parrish is finally able to imagine at the end of her own story what her own mother's story was works despite the unconventional organization.

This is a treasure for lovers of psychological fiction and rightly so, as its author is a practicing psychologist.  Where the Lake Becomes the River is gripping drama, a story to savor, even to reread.   

Joan L. Cannon

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