Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Lost History of Stars

Title:  The Lost History of Stars
Author:  Dave Boling
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616204176 / 978-1616204174

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The first warning was so delicate:  Moeder's hanging cups lightly touched lips in the china cabinet."

Favorite Quote:  "The best thing was for me to deal with the fear on my own, and once I learned that I could do it, it was a strength that would never leave me. For me, in the worst days, when everything else had been pared away, that remained."

The Lost History of Stars is another story of horrific atrocities and war told through the eyes of a child. This story is of the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. Fought between 1899 and 1902, the war resulted in the death of not only soldiers but of children. The children died not just because of the guerrilla warfare but because of deprivation and disease as thousands of Boers were placed into internment camps by the British. The deplorable conditions of the camps led to infection and disease, which young children with weaker immune systems were particularly susceptible to.

This book is singularly focused on the victimization of the children in the camps. Those looking for a broader look at the history of the Boer War in terms of the actual fighting or its impact on South Africa will not find it in this book.

This story is narrated through the eyes of fourteen year old Lettie, who ends up in the internment camps with her mother, her brother, and her younger sister. The story is of war, but it is also a coming of age story for this young woman. It is a story of loss and atrocity, but there are moments of teenage joys and teenage angst. Given the age of the narrator, this book could almost have a young adult label although the content is so very adult and so very depressing.

For me, two things keep the book from being a more compelling and emotionally engaging narrative.

First, the first half of the book goes back and forth between two periods, both through Lettie's perspective. The first is memories of her childhood at home with her family. This is the legacy of her family and the peace and innocence of her life leading up to the war. The second is primarily of the life in camp, which ranges from occasional moments of teenage life to incredibly sad moments of death and violence. The back and forth approach works in many books, but for me, this story may have had more of an impact with a linear timeline. The difference between the "before" and the "after" would perhaps have been more stark if presented completely separately rather than intertwined in alternating chapters.

Second, the book starts with an incredibly intense, emotional, and jarring event. This moment marks the break between the "before" and "after." The rest of the book has equally emotionally, heart-wrenching moments but never quite recaptures the intensity of the powerful beginning. In other words, compared to the beginning, the rest of the books seems muted. Told in a linear fashion, this event would come part way through the book with the story building to it and beyond.

The back and forth does stop about midway through the book; the story shifts completely to life in the camps. It is at that moment that the emotion of the story picks up again.

This book speaks to the power of fiction to convey a history I know very little about. It teaches and sends me off to do more research on the non-fiction actual history of events. For that, I am thankful.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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