Thursday, April 7, 2011

Solomon's Oak Reads Like Southern Literature, But on California's Central Coast

I had the good fortune to visit California a couple of years ago. I flew into Los Angeles, drove to San Francisco, then drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Monica. I loved San Francisco (it tops my list of places I would love to return to for a lengthier vacation), and L.A. was uber-cool. Santa Monica was amazing; we stayed on the beach and walked on the Pier made famous in so many movies and television shows. But some of my favorite memories were made driving down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Fran to L.A., through the California countryside. I spent one night in San Luis Obispo, and the scenery there was drastically different from the rest of the state, but every bit as beautiful.

Jo-Ann Mapson's novel Solomon's Oak is set in this rustic part of California, but something about it is reminiscent of the southern literature I love so. The novel begins with a ghost story about the drowning of Alice Halloran, one which is part of the real-life fabric of the California town. Solomon's Oak is far from a ghost story, although it is a somewhat haunting tale -- not of the supernatural, but of the everyday occurrences that can beat us humans down.

Glory is a recent widow, having lost her husband less than a year before the novel begins. She is determined to hang onto her family's farm, site of the only white oak tree in California, and so begins a wavering path to economic stability. This begins with a wedding at the chapel on her property. A wedding for two pirates. She and her husband never had children, but fostered many boys throughout the years. Social worker Caroline brings Glory a girl on the night of the pirate wedding, a foster who she believes would be a perfect fit for Glory. Although Glory is hesitant, she agrees to let Juniper stay overnight.

Juniper comes from a situation of abandonment. Long ago, her sister Casey disappeared, leaving behind a family broken by the loss. Her mother never recovered, and eventually stopped caring about life itself. Her father went down a similarly destructive path, often leaving young Juniper alone and eventually not coming home at all. Juniper has developed a tough exterior to mask her pain. When she comes to Solomon's Oak and Glory's home, she lets very little emotion show; her interactions with Glory's dogs are the only hint that she still cares about anything.

A man is also thrown into the mix on the night of the pirates' wedding. Joseph Vigil has issues of his own, and is attempting to escape them as he visits his grandmother's old homestead. He has taken up amateur photography as a method of recovery, and Glory's oak tree is at the top of his list. He happens upon the wedding in the middle of a sword fight, and inserts himself into Glory and Juniper's lives.

Mapson creates a cast of characters worthy of any southern novel; they have both good and bad characteristics, and fairly jump off the page in their multi-dimensions. The three main characters are vivid in the honesty Mapson brings to telling their stories. Glory's grief is fluid and realistic; Juniper's anger shimmers; and Joseph's strength lies just beneath the surface, unseen by only him. Additionally, Mapson creates a tapestry of secondary characters who enrich the lives of her main characters. Social worker Caroline and store owner Lorna round out the novel with humor and a down-to-earth steadiness.

Although some of the themes running through the book are heavy, Mapson writes about human interaction with hope and even with joy. The novel ends happily, which will thrill my mother (who never reads books that end badly).

Mapson, reading from Solomon's Oak at a book store appearance:

I was surprised to learn that Mapson is the author of several other books; I don't think I had heard her name before I picked up a copy of Solomon's Oak at the library a few weeks ago. I love finding new-to-me authors who have a whole bevy of previous novels. That way, my to-read list never shrinks, but grows full of lovely books to read some rainy day (or summer day, as the case may be -- especially since it will be an actual vacation for me this year, as a teacher with the blessing that is summer break).

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