Stranger Here Below by Joyce Hinnefeld

Two years ago In Hovering Flight was my first introduction to Joyce Hinnefeld and Unbridled Books. Getting to know each was a wonderful treat. Hinnefeld is a rich and observant writer and Unbridled seems to take great care in choosing its authors. I have found that their books, even if they don’t go on to become favorites of mine, are almost without exception thought-provoking and well written. I have been waiting for the follow-up to Hinnefeld’s debut novel and once I got my hands on a copy, I didn’t read it. There is something about saving a book to read that you suspect you will love. It’s like squirreling away a treat for the time you need it most. It’s cold outside now, and I am breaking out all of my most savory reads.

Stranger Here Below starts off with a letter from Maze to her college friend Mary Elizabeth, from whom she is estranged. Maze seems to have settled into life with her husband and three children, but still longs for the friendship with Mary Elizabeth that she fears she has damaged through mysterious events and actions which she leaves unexplained. Maze writes that she named her twins for nicknames they once had, Stranger and Pilgrim. (One can only hop these are not literal, but i think they might be.)  The letter is an intriguing one and it sets up the tension of the novel. Right away you want to know what happened.   I was very curious to see what brought this friendship to such a precarious position. The story then unfolds with alternating visits into the past and present ordinary and every day lives of Sister Georgia, Vista, and Sarah- amazing women because they have built the best possible lives for themselves in spite of painful, conflict filled  pasts, and poor circumstances.

The diversity and the richness of these women’s strengths and wall building vulnerabilities have informed their daughters’ lives and the way that they interact in the small worlds they inhabit, deal with men, each other, and other issues they face  as they attain adulthood – experimenting to find the women they will become. One of the amazing things about this book for me, was how fully immersed and invested I was in each story. I forgot that I was reading to find out the answer to a question. I stopped trying to figure out the precipitating event and just savored the details, lost in each woman’s story, entranced by each turn of the narrative.

In a fleeting, yet profound way – much like life- this novel touches upon a lot. Much to my delight, the history of Kentucky with its intense history of race relations, and its surprising yet conflicted approach to education of the races plays a vital role in the story. Race is also a facet of what defines the relationship between Maze and Mary Elizabeth in the 1960′s and it was interesting to see the different ways that they could relate and give to each other based on not only their experiences, but the ones that have shaped the lives of their parents. The ripple effect in the small pond of mothers and daughters is thoughtfully examined and portrayed.  Hinnefeld’s writing is as gorgeous as it ever was and I found this novel to be very accessible without losing its subtlety, complexity or beauty.  Stranger Here Below has easily earned a place among the handful of books I have read this year that I immediately wanted to start reading again.

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