One for the Books: ‘Vanishing’ titles make good reading

Two recent books have “vanishing” in their titles. They are nothing alike!

The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Hamel begins in Germany in 1922 as the elderly Jerusza watches a wealthy neighboring family. The old Jewish woman “had always known things other people didn’t,” and she’s disturbed by the fact that the man next door is a Nazi. To her, the family’s baby glows, and she somehow knows that the special girl “must not be allowed to remain with” her parents. So she kidnaps the toddler, taking her far into the forests of Poland.

The old woman brings up the girl, renamed Yona, teaching her how to survive in the outdoors, teaching her healing ways, and even teaching her how to kill a man, but Yona “didn’t yet know that she had been born for the sake of repairing the world.” Instilling in the girl a distrust of other human beings, Jerusza teaches her how to stay hidden. She also shares Jewish wisdom and transcendental aphorisms: “Lives are circles spinning across the world, and when they’re meant to intersect again, they do. There’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

As a young adult, Yona is shocked to hear gunfire and explosions and to see planes flying overhead. It is the summer of 1941, and she’s hearing the bombs that signal the beginning of war. Soon Jerusza dies, leaving Yona alone, with almost no experience of interacting with other people.

Moving about the forest, Yona comes in contact with Jews hiding from the Nazis. One man tells her what Nazis are doing to Jews: “They are trying to kill us all,” simply because they’re Jewish. She realizes “The old woman was wrong. Humans had a responsibility to do more than just protect themselves. In the face of evil, they were compelled to save each other.” She determines to give these people as much support as she can. She helps heal the sick and wounded fugitives and teaches them how to live in the woods.

She falls in love. She deals with jealous women. She has to kill aggressors. She experiences betrayal. And then the book takes a left turn, leading her into civilization, where she encounters the war from a new and even more frightening and surprising aspect.

This engrossing book haunted me whenever I set it down. It’s a lovely read, well researched and realistic, with a great deal of detail. If you like it, you may also enjoy The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, which reads like Russian folklore.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is about a choice — a choice I never had to make, or even to contemplate; therefore, it’s a book that took me out of my comfort zone and made me think.

The story begins in 1950s Mallard, Louisiana, a town populated by “light-skinned Negroes.” The town’s light-skinned founder dreamed of “A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.” He knew that “Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. … He imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before.” The town is fairly closed off, because of “everyone’s obsession with lightness.”

In this town live the Vignes girls, identical twins. “On the last day of tenth grade, their mother came home from work and announced that the twins would not be returning to school in the fall. They’d had enough schooling … and she needed them to work.” Mom gets them a job cleaning the house for a white family, but the teenagers get tired of the drudgery and run away to New Orleans. There they progress toward different goals: “Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”

Desiree’s husband is abusive and controlling, and she eventually sneaks away, taking daughter Jude, who has dark skin like her father. But the husband won’t take this act of betrayal lying down and hires a man to search for her. The hired bounty hunter, named Early, is a remarkable character with a personal interest in the case. (Jude and Early are my favorite characters, but I was bothered by the stereotype of the dark-skinned man being a brute.)

Stella has chosen to live as a white woman. People don’t blame her, thinking “playing white to get ahead was just good sense” and asking “Why wouldn’t you be white if you could be?” Stella has pretended to be white many times: “At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.” But where does Stella disappear to? That makes an interesting story.

We get to know Desiree’s daughter Jude and Stella’s daughter Kennedy even more than we know their mothers. Kennedy wants to become an actress. Jude gets involved with the LGBT community. “The girls took Jude in until she felt, almost, like one of them. She’d never belonged to a group of friends before.”

The book features a couple of love stories, a few noteworthy characters, and situations that will definitely make you ponder. I think it would be good for a book club discussion.

Happy reading!

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.