The first column I wrote for The News-Gazette was in August of 2009 and featured "Loving Frank," a new book by debut author Nancy Horan. The book was a great success, and I was fascinated by the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and his relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
Already a fan of the arts and crafts movement and prairie style, I was completely absorbed in the life and creative genius of Wright and went on to read several other nonfiction works about him.
Almost five years later, Horan has released her next biographical fiction title. "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" tells the story of Fanny Osbourne, a woman from Indiana who divorces her philandering first husband.
Fanny takes her three children and the nanny and sets off for Antwerp, Belgium, to enroll in art school. When her yearning for painting is dissuaded because she is a woman, she moves to Paris to enroll in an accepting school. Eventually, she meets Robert Louis Stevenson during a dinner with friends and he is immediately enamored of her earthy good looks, her casual nature and her love of travel and adventure.
Their love affair was tumultuous, but they each complemented the other so greatly and with such strength and conviction that the reader is swept away by Stevenson's greatest adventure story: his own marriage.
We follow the couple from Europe to the United States to Samoa, ever searching for the right combination of cerebral leanings, artistic endeavors and healthy climates. The story is written with careful brush strokes of passion and a determination for self-fulfillment. It might have been a lot of years for Horan's new book, but it was well worth the wait.
I read another work of biographical fiction this week that was similar to something else I'd read. A few months ago, I mentioned "The Wedding Gift" by Marlen Suyapa Bodden. A story about a slave girl's friendship with her master's daughter, it was a powerful story about the threads that tie each of us to one another. So this past week, I picked up "The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd, who is best known for her bestseller "The Secret Life of Bees." This new title has already been chosen as a book club pick by Oprah Winfrey and bears similar characteristics to the Bodden title.
Hetty Grimke is the daughter of a seamstress and slave in in South Carolina in the early to mid-1800s. At age 10, she is given to an 11-year-old daughter of the slave master as a birthday present.
Sarah, the daughter, possesses a great intellect and a yearning to do more with her life than embroidery and socializing. Her father is a wealthy lawyer, and her older brothers are meant to follow in his footsteps. When Sarah suggests that she has a strong interest and would excel at an education in the law, she is laughed at by her family and is forbidden to enter her father's library.
Hetty is also consumed with bigger plans for herself, and the two of them reach an understanding in their relationship. The next 35 years are filled with both tragedy and little victories for the young women as they fight to find their place in the world and strive for equality and compassion.
Sarah leaves her family to work for the abolitionist movement and becomes a well-known figure. Hetty is still forced to stay with the Grimkes, although she constantly plots her escape.
The writing is sensitive and descriptive and explores many small nuances of life in the South during this era. The reader learns not only the broader cultural issues that dominate the times but also an incredible amount of small details such as common foods, songs and chores that weave in and out of the girls' stories.
Both books are exemplary works of historical biographical fiction and should prove to be popular and critically acclaimed.
Come on in and get them now while you can.
Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.