Choose a Book as Your Summer Companion
by C.K. Thomas
Nancy Horan’s most recent historical fiction novel explores the world of writers, poets, and well-known artists of the late 19th Century. It takes us to Antwerp and Paris and Grez in an era when bohemian characters flocked together to debate the merits and folly of the arts. They debated until the sun peaked over the mountains and then slept until noon. They cavorted, drank wine and whiskey, and splashed in the Loing River at Grez. An inn on the river served them well in the summer with cheap rooms that included simple but plentiful repasts. As I read, I experienced the most vivid longing to join them there, late into the night, arguing about life and love and art.
Through the pages of this book, we ultimately travel to the South Seas with Robert Louis Stevenson, where he and his wife Fanny settle on an island in Samoa. The story of these two intelligent and highly creative people is not without suffering and setbacks, but also chronicles the kind of true-to-life adventure stories that inspired Stevenson’s well-known Treasure Island.
As Horan expertly weaves the back-story of Stevenson’s life into her narrative, I could easily picture the young and sickly Louis, a-bed and playing with toy soldiers among the sheets, creating fantasies that would later inspire the familiar poem that begins:
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.
It ends with this stanza:
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.”
If imagining yourself among some of the great writers and artists of the past appeals to you, this novel will lead you there. Even its title lures you into its pages, Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel. Horan has captured the magic of the era, and one can hope also the personalities of its once real-life characters. She read and traveled extensively to bring this bit of history to life, and in my opinion she succeeded famously.
I’ll leave you with an epitaph of sorts, written by Stevenson:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
C.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.