December, 2009: Historical Novels Review-Wisteria Leigh
W. Mae Kent, BookSurge Publishing, 2008, $17.99, 414pp, 978-141969573
It is 1896, and Nathan Badeau, a black ten-year-old boy, just committed a violent, unforgivable act in New Orleans. In order to save his life, his mother arranges for him to live with his biological father Marcel Legarde, an older, wealthy, white businessperson in France. With tears in his eyes, torn from the mother he loves, he vows to return to her when he grows up.
In Paris, 1912, Nathan Badeau Legarde is now married to a beautiful white woman named Nicolette. He is twenty-six, driven to succeed, eager to debate issues and engage in enthusiastic conversations. He has the arrogance and cockiness of his father, but with a gentle refinement and a suave, romantic, and sophisticated demeanor.
When it is time to claim his American inheritance, Nathan naturally chooses the Titanic, being the epitome of elegance and premium travel. He agrees to take Nicolette along, but it isn’t too long before bigotry, racism, and social class differences interrupt their idyllic adventure. Everything begins going wrong for Nathan when the captain mistakenly blames him for numerous disturbances, and as the ill-fated Titanic hits the iceberg, he must make important decisions, including trying to save his wife and children.
Ms. Kent based this story on the little-known fact that there was a black passenger aboard the Titanic. The most interesting part of this book is the middle storyline and the social and racial issues. The beginning is weak, with limited details, and the end, as predictable as it is, isn’t dramatic or surprising enough to captivate the reader. In defense of the author, the Titanic story is so ubiquitous it is difficult to engage empathetically with the characters. Overall, a descriptive light read. --Wisteria Leigh
March 17, 2009: By M. L Lamendola (Merriam, KS USA)
3.0 out of 5 stars! Original and fresh; near the end, couldn’t put it down.
Kent can weave a good story. This one takes place in the form of an historical novel, with most of the action occurring in 1912. The characters are real and the dialogue is good. I enjoyed reading it.
The book has a few rough edges and could use a good copyediting for typos, misspellings, and incorrect word usage. But, let’s keep that in perspective; Mae is way ahead of, say, John Grisham on this score. A few plot items could also be improved, but generally the author rewards the reader’s trust.
The book was interesting from the start. But it became compelling at one point. Even with a major element of the story already known (the Titanic sinks), I found myself unable to put the novel down from the moment Mrs. Legarde hears a sound “like a large chair being scraped against the floor.” Ah, we know what that is! When will each character find out what that means, what will they do, and what will happen to them? The tension mounts as the main characters face one challenge and then another, with no clear way out.
This novel is just over 400 pages long. It consists of 37 chapters of varying length, plus a prologue and a denouement. The central character of the story is Nathan Legarde. Young Nathan fled his native Louisiana as a pre-teen, due to a seminal event that occurred there (and which is not resolved until the end of the novel).
He fled to France as a youngster, which is an important fact in this story.
At the time this story took place, a lot of crazy thinking was considered normal. In the controlling society of the time, people with a higher melanin concentration and some other secondary characteristics were supposedly inferior to people with a lower melanin concentration and different secondary characteristics--a situation we call “racial prejudice.” This problem isn’t nearly as bad today, although in some parts of the USA a person can still be pulled over for Driving While Black!
In this story, the lead character has a “black” mother and a “white” father. He’s also married to a “white” woman who is a native of France and together they have young children.
In France, the prejudice wasn’t nearly the problem it was in the USA at that time. This situation provided Nathan opportunities that would have been denied him in America around the beginning of the 20th Century. And he seized those opportunities. He earned an engineering degree and distinguished himself as an athlete (in fencing,for example). He also distinguished himself in his career and had a solid reputation.
Then Nathan’s father, as he is dying, leaves Nathan with a mission. That mission is the plot vehicle for the story, as it requires him to travel from France to America. His father gives Nathan tickets to go there with his wife and children, aboard the brand new Titanic. Inside a satchel are some other items he will need for this mission, and those come into play at different times in the story.
As the plot moves forward, Nathan is confronted by prejudice but also befriends people who respect him for who he is and what he does. The book isn’t about prejudice and doesn’t get preachy or (on the other hand) apologetic. It just tells the story, using the mentality of the time to make it interesting and believable as the various characters interact.
Nathan has some flaws that manifest themselves into subplots within the story. Several other characters act out their insecurities and this kind of characterization makes them real, rather than cardboard. The main villains have their own twisted logic, but it’s logic nonetheless and these people are also believable
Try this book for something original and fresh. I think you’ll enjoy it.
December 8 , 2008: Kirkus Discoveries Review
First-time author’s ambitious debut plots a course similar to that of its source material.
If nothing else, Kent’s book demonstrates that she has a good feel for the tropes of the historicalnovel: Four main fictional characters arrive at the scene of the infamous event, interact with some of the actual famous persons present and find their lives intertwining in sometimes-interesting ways. There’s the
black expatriate engineer, traveling back to the United States to protect his inheritance; the man’s restless wife, who dreams of a career in fashion; the misguided spinster, whose chance to reunite with an old flame is fraught with familial entanglements; and the racist American thug, hell-bent on exacting some pettyrevenge.
Kent definitely knows her way around the boat. Her descriptions of the layout, crew and passengers suggest meticulous research and a love for the Titanic’s mystique that approaches obsession. Indeed, the characters behave—even before boarding—as though the ship’s present-day legendary status precedes it. Once aboard, readers get to meet virtually all of the Titanic’s celebrities in cameo roles, and, of course, one protagonist forms a bond with the ubiquitous Molly Brown, who in the course of one brief sea voyage somehow found the time to star in countless fictionalized subplots.
Of course, reading about the author’s characters mingling with the historical figures is part of what makes this genre fun, but Kent may have gone a bit overboard. When free of distractions, the story is promising, albeit melodramatic.
December 8, 2008
Kirkus Discoveries, Nielsen Business Media, 770 Broadway, New York, NY 10003