Saturday, June 21, 2014

A gentle romance, a deadly desert in The Lemon Orchard

Luanne Rice is well known to readers of women's fiction. She has written 31 novels, most of them best-sellers, and five novels became movies or miniseries.
"The Lemon Orchard," her newest work, may include romance, but that is only the beginning. 
The relationship kindled between Julia, a grieving mother who is house-sitting at a lemon orchard in Malibu, and Roberto, the orchard manager, is based on their mutual experience of tragic loss. 
Roberto is the guilt-ridden father of a child he was forced to abandon while crossing through the desert enroute to the U.S. Julia has lost her daughter in a horrific car accident. Their shared pain crosses the societal barrier between a quiet, cautious American woman and an illegal immigrant making his way in this country. Julia's sympathy for Roberto's loss, and her skills as a cultural anthropologist, lead her to a search for the long-missing child, even though it has been five years since the incident.
Don't mistake this for a simple, uncomplicated romance; it is not. Rice portrays the tragic circumstances endured by impoverished Mexicans crossing into the U.S. in dangerous conditions and deadly heat, taken advantage of by unscrupulous "guides" and the occasionally cruel border patrol officer. 
This picture is not a pretty one, but it well details the conditions leading to illegal migration and continued residence in our country. The risks these people take are harrowing and very affecting to those unfamiliar with the realities of U.S. border enforcement.
Julia and Roberto ignore the mild disapproval of society about their relationship, and focus on recovering love, amid the crippling world of pain inherited by parents who have lost children—a devastating grief and self-blame that overrides anything else that follows.
Rice has written "The Lemon Orchard" with simple truth, careful research and a voice that speaks for common decency amid the indifference of law. She has related the arguments for and against illegal immigration to the experiences of characters in her book. The outcome may move you to the other side of the "moral" fence on this matter.
 "There has always been migration. That goes without saying when you have a rich country like ours sharing a border with a country as poor as Mexico," says a fictional member of the Reunion Project, a real organization which attempts to link those lost in the process of migration to those who seek them. "... The U.S. wants to protect the border." Where the two sides intersect, there is death.
Penguin Books published this novel in paperback and released it May 27. To learn more about Luanne Rice, see her website at

Monday, June 16, 2014

A review:
"For the Kingdom and the Power: The Big Money Swindle That Spread Hate Across America," by Dale W. Laackman.

A detailed history of the Ku Klux Klan's financial dealings and public image, Dale W. Laackman's book gathers in one place the truth behind the extensively dirty financial underskirts of the Klan's first coordinated leaders: a pair of marketing experts who built the Klan up for personal profit.
Laackman portrays the rise of Edward Young Clarke Jr. and Elizabeth "Bessie" Tyler—fellow Klan leaders, marketers extraordinaire and sometime-lovers—who used the organization first defined by William Joseph Simmons (a minister dedicated to the concept of white superiority) for fun and profit. From the start of their involvement with the sleepy, 5,000-member Klan in Georgia, they conceptualized a large, nationwide Klan, selling hate and bringing in easy money. And so it went—for some years.
Laackman skillfully fills in the broad patchwork of information surrounding the Klan's astounding growth to nearly a half-million white men dedicated to the exclusion of blacks, Catholics, Jews, immigrants and any other non-white, non-native species of mankind. The Klan did, however, include women as members at one point, both to convey a reputation as a social organization and to publicly exploit its progressiveness in having a female leader (Tyler, who ran things in the shadows for years).
The Klan's roots extend from post-Civil War decades to the present, though the numbers are back down to around 5,000 in estimates from the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2012. In the course of its growth as an ostensibly benign fraternal organization, the Klan has executed murders, beatings, political control and terror. Laackman doesn't focus on the individual crimes and misdoings, already well documented in other books. Instead, he details the careful shaping of a financial empire built on the profit from hatred—money used for the personal benefit of its founders.
Relying strongly on material gleaned from histories, legal hearings and extensive newspaper coverage, Laackman portrays a brilliant marketing campaign, boosted by the blockbuster 1915 movie, "The Birth of a Nation," and nurtured by American suspicion of immigrants and Papists. "Bessie" Tyler herself came from an innocent-sounding movement titled "Better Babies," in the early 1900s, which embraced standards for valuing human worth—linked to the now-infamous but once popular Eugenics movement later linked to Nazi practices. (Plant breeder Luther Burbank even opposed immigration, claiming it diluted the human race with inferior stock.)
Clarke had a mixed record, including fraudulent financial operations within church organizations.
They were a match for the ages, and their impact together certainly proved that true. Laackman's story of the public relations firm they founded, the Southern Publicity Association, and its growth into the financial foundation of the Klan, is carefully framed and meticulously documented. They modeled pure hatred on the popular fraternal organizations of the time, using that to mask its purposes and dedicating the Klan to the preservation of societal goals like the protection of womanhood (from non-whites, we assume) and continued segregation (elevated to near slavery in practice).
At various points, disenchanted Klansmen (and, some say, undercover reporters from the North), spilled the beans on the Klan's money-making scheme and exposed it, but Congressional hearings on the accusations, following detailed newspaper coverage, led nowhere—officially. This may have been because a Georgia congressman introduced legislation to force Congress to investigate all fraternal oranizations at the same pitch and level as the Klan had just experienced.
It's not a pretty story, but it's a fascinating recounting of the many anti-Black realities that led to the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, which finally broke the back of segregation laws and the Klan. Along the way, the reader glimpses lives involved in the battle between pro- and anti-Klan forces: reporters and publishers, whistleblowers, legislators. The best of early newspapering is on stage as well.
Also revealed is the infighting and various machinations the Klan leaders took to hide their misdeeds and keep the Klan viable, even while they were exposed for earlier frauds and grievous social misbehavior involving brothels, alcohol, and arrests. Laackman describes it well as a family "dog fight." The Klan was a broken organization, though hate was not eradicated and some membership exists today.
Anyone interested in the inner workings of the Klan, the impacts of greed and fraud on an organization, the power of public persuasion that is tapped by expert public relations and the best of early newspapering will find it in "For the Kingdom and the Power." The book was released in May by S. Woodhouse Books, a new imprint of Everything Goes Media, a Chicago-based non-fiction publisher. It's available as a book and e-book.
Laackman received a bachelor's degree in history and a bachelor's in advertising with a master's in television and film. He worked in television, writing, directing and producing, before turning to historical research and writing. He lives in Chicago and this is his first book.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Summer reads, from Anne Leary and Hank Phillippi Ryan to Henning Mankell

Some people like to lie under a beach umbrella and read the latest best-selling thriller, chiller or tear-spiller. Sounds like a nice plan; summer should be a time to relax, and that includes letting down our hair a little and enjoying lighter fare.
For some, summer is a time to play catch-up, not catch. They'll grab that pile of a dozen books, more or less, they've set aside for less-active times and go to town on them. Go for it, I say.
I can't easily digest the light stuff anymore, though I enjoy wit mixed with well-developed characters and themes—in other words, "light" literature. Sappy, insipid, action-packed or trashy ("savagely, he tore at her garments") themes are too predictable for me, but hey: there are book clubs for those as well! It's all about what you find fun.
Here are a few excellent summertime reads that I've already enjoyed:
"A Walk in the Woods," Bill Bryson, non-fiction. Brilliantly funny and human, Bryson's hike along the Apalachian Trail is a vicarious challenge, in which an arduous hike is punctuated by witty insights.
"The Good House," Ann Leary, fiction. A sharp-eyed portrait of alcoholism, wrapped in the memorable character of Hildy Good. She's a real estate agent, mother and friend. This book is full of insights and witty snarks—it resonates.
"The Wrong Girl," Hank Phillippi Ryan, mystery. Hank hit it out of the ball park with this one, winning the Edgar Award for her story of an adoption agency that pays far too little attention to details when it reunites birth parents with their children.
"Rainwater," Sandra Brown, fiction. This was my first Sandra Brown novel, and I was hesitant. But she makes the cut with this one, exploring pride, love and kindness in the story of a mother trying to survive desperate economic times and unwilling to trust others. As she builds a life for herself and her son, a man comes along, whose softness and strong convictions unpeel that wall. It's not a romance; there's a lot happening here, all of it interesting.
I'm also going to list several I think will be on my summer reading list, hoping you may enjoy them as well:
"Canada," Richard Ford, fiction. After his parents rob a bank—and are caught—a teenager has to find a new life in Montana, where he'll struggle to find happiness and goodness despite a violent man he encounters.
"Work Song," Ivan Doig, fiction. Doig portrays the West with such grace and deft ability that his books stand out from the pack through their language and humanity. Simply, I trust this writer.
"Still Life with Bread Crumbs," Anna Quindlen, fiction. I've always loved her writing style, and Quindlen creates characters who are moving. This is her latest, the story of a photographer past her prime who discovers there's more to life than a camera lens.
 "Oh My Stars," Lorna Landvik, fiction. Hey—maybe I won't like it, but Landvik's "Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons" was such a trip that I'm willing to risk another. She has a lively, original voice and can absorb the reader in her settings. Witness Violet Mathers, her protagonist: "I am convinced that at birth the cake is already baked. Nurture is the nuts or frosting, but if you're a spice cake, you're a spice cake, and nothing is going to change you into an angel food."
"The Orchardist," Amanda Coplin, fiction. I bought this last year and still haven't read it. Come Hell or grandkids, I'll get to it this summer! Set in the rural Pacific Northwest, it's the story of a reclusive orchard grower who befriends two risky teenagers, pregnant, scared, and set for tragedy. The praise for Coplin's writing has been profuse; I'll see for myself.
"The Pyramid: The First Wallander Cases," Henning Mankell. Because the character of Kurt Wallander is flawed, dark and absorbing. I must know his beginnings!

Ann Connery Frantz is a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster. Her reading blog is at (two e's is correct). Send club info or comments to