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Book Review Power and Tender by Margret Russell

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Margret Russell chronicles the lives of Arthur, Ben, and Hannah Alton during the years immediately following World War I throughout the years leading up to and through World War II in Power and Tender. This work of historical fiction is more than a nostalgic stroll down memory lane. Russell writes of a significant era in American history. Through the Altons she follows the impact and hardship experienced by rural families at a time when our country shifted from its agricultural roots to a culture of international trade, commerce, and industry.

Ben develops a love for the sea as a child, the result of hearing his uncle’s heroic stories. He dreams of becoming a coastal pilot in Chesapeake Bay. Ben is devastated as after years of perseverance in combining working the land with his love for the water, boating, and fishing, he has attained the theory and experience necessary to qualify for an appointment as a government Pilot only to discover that the years of hard labor have left him physically disqualified.

Russell introduces a plethora of topics relative to the era in dialog depicting casual gossipy conversational dialog through informal settings at the town post office, the barber shop, in the home, or during routine chores and errands. Although often these seem irrelevant, they provide background and insight into the culture of the era, family life, and individual struggles of the protagonist.

The journal entries of Evan Griffith, a professor, employed during the summer by Ben Alton, afford additional points of interest and offer a noteworthy depth. They take shape as chapter summaries adding insight into the interaction, and core values of the Alton family. Lessons on parenting, family and social relationships, and insights into plant life and animal behavior are carefully woven into the warp and woof of the story line.

I have a new appreciation for the difficulties of the farming communities, crop failures, and food surpluses in the great depression era experienced throughout the country in the 1930s, as well as a better understanding of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” philosophy and policies.

Russell keeps the reader engaged thorough a fast-paced series of conflict and resolution. She skillfully incorporates expressive descriptions that involve all five senses. I could almost hear the howl and feel the force of the gale force winds, smell the charred scent of the smokehouse, and feel “the burning in the wood stove … it sizzled and lapped the logs down to knot heating to a bursting point – poupft.”

Frequent instances of mixed tenses became confusing and often left me unclear as to voice of narrator. Margret Russell displays an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge, coupled with careful research and amazing insights into human nature, gained through personal experience. She often shows a gift for poetic prose in her writing. At other times her work is fragmented and scripted.

The novel is made up of three books divided into six parts. Russell may have attracted a larger readership with tighter writing and by publishing the book as a trilogy series. The voluminous size and sheer weight of this edition makes it awkward, difficult, and intimidating for casual reading.

Power and Tender is engaging historical fiction. The writing is authentic and compelling. I became totally immersed in the characters. This is a memorable read with a lingering afterglow.

Power and Tender
Margret Russell
Outskirts Press (2011)
ISBN 9781432763756

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