Today's Top Picks

The Covenant of WaterClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Abraham Verghese


The Covenant of Water is the long-awaited new novel by Abraham Verghese, the author of the major word-of-mouth bestseller Cutting for Stone, which has sold over 1.5 million copies in the United States alone and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years.

Spanning the years 1900 to 1977, The Covenant of Water is set in Kerala, on South India's Malabar Coast, and follows three generations of a family that suffers a peculiar affliction: in every generation, at least one person dies by drowning—and in Kerala, water is everywhere. At the turn of the century, a twelve-year-old girl from Kerala's long-existing Christian community, grieving the death of her father, is sent by boat to her wedding, where she will meet her forty-year-old husband for the first time. From this unforgettable new beginning, the young girl—and future matriarch, known as Big Ammachi—will witness unthinkable changes over the span of her extraordinary life, full of joy and triumph as well as hardship and loss, her faith and love the only constants.

A shimmering evocation of a bygone India and of the passage of time itself, The Covenant of Water is a hymn to progress in medicine and to human understanding, and a humbling testament to the difficulties undergone by past generations for the sake of those alive today. It is one of the most masterful literary novels published in recent years.

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse Fiction Award 2023

Along the Malabar Coast of South India in 1900, a 12-year-old girl grieving her father's death sets off to a rambling estate called Parambil to marry a man almost 30 years her senior. Three generations later, her granddaughter and namesake begs her for a story about their ancestors and a genealogy "chock-full of secrets." So begins an unforgettable journey of faith, medicine and love in Abraham Verghese's magisterial novel The Covenant of Water.

Mariamma, the young bride, arrives at the 500-acre Parambil farm missing her mother and uncertain of her future. Finding strength in her faith as a Saint Thomas Christian (see Beyond the Book), she throws herself into her duties as a wife and homemaker. As the years go by and she bears a child, her stepson JoJo calls her Big Ammachi ("Big Little Mother"), and the name sticks. She becomes the matriarch and mainstay of a family with a peculiar affliction, one she refers to as the "Condition": every generation, one person dies from drowning. Early in her marriage, after an unimaginable tragedy occurs, her husband unrolls a fragile parchment revealing a family tree (what she will call "the Water Tree") going back seven generations:

"The tree on her lap lacks symmetry and is devastatingly accurate. She understands at once that it is a catalog of the malady that has shattered the Parambil family, but unlike Matthew's gospel, this is a secret document, hidden in the rafters, to be viewed only by family members, and only when they absolutely must see it."

Now knowing, Big Ammachi protects her children from situations that might portend tragedy. What she cannot protect them from, however, is a caste system that "is so ancient that it feels like a law of nature, like rivers going to the sea." When her son, Philipose, witnesses the humiliation of a friend in school, she must explain this system, "conscious of how absurd it must sound." Verghese explores themes of caste further through Digby Kilgour, a young man from Glasgow whose storyline eventually intersects with that of the Parambil family. Digby struggles to become a surgeon in British medical establishments biased against Catholic physicians (not to mention Irish, of which he is half). Circumscribed by this hierarchy that forms a caste system of its own and nursing the emotional scars of his mother's death, he peels "off his past like a soiled glove" and takes ship to Madras in 1933 to join the Indian Medical Service, where he develops his skills in a native surgical ward.

Here is where Verghese's wealth of experience as a practicing physician and professor at Stanford University's School of Medicine is on full display through the book's description of the esoteric ins and outs of surgery and pathologies found in tropic climes. One memorable and humorous episode is Digby's first surgery at his new clinic, when he realizes a "routine" hydrocele removal is anything but:

"Digby stares at the most astonishing sight framed by the surgical towels: a scrotum ballooned beyond the size of a watermelon, now reaching the kneecaps. The penis is buried in the swelling like a belly button in an obese abdomen."

Digby's panic is allayed by the appearance of the head matron, the no-nonsense Honorine, who reassures him the operation is no different than what he has already done back in Scotland, only the pathology is magnified. In Verghese's elegant prose, the moment moves from the absurd to the transcendent: "That word captures Digby's first impression of India. It is a term he'll use often when a familiar disease takes on grotesque proportions in the tropics: 'magnified.'"

Magnified is also an apt way to characterize a book weighing in at 736 pages. Verghese sustains this massive story with numerous enigmatic and vividly drawn characters like Big Ammachi, Digby, a Swedish physician named Rune who runs a colony for lepers, Philipose and his love Elsie, who is born to be an artist of staggering genius if only the world will let her. However, running like a riptide beneath the waters of the Malabar Coast, the Condition strikes the family in new, unbidden and heartbreaking ways. It will reach a crescendo with Mariamma, Big Ammachi's granddaughter, who becomes a neurosurgeon to unlock the secrets of this affliction, only to face the secrets "that can bind them together or bring them to their knees when revealed." She will come to understand how the Condition takes away but also gives gifts one may not have wanted.

Set against the backdrop of India's journey from the yoke of British colonialism to partition, independence and violent Naxalite revolutionary movements, Abraham Verghese's first novel since Cutting for Stone (2009) is a lush, literary masterpiece—written with a surgeon's skill and an artist's eye—that delivers a rich, emotional return on the reader's investment.

Book reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

Beyond the Book:
Saint Thomas Christians

Inside of a Saint Thomas Christian church with view of an altar and wall decorated with elaborate gold and multicolored designs One of the overarching themes in Abraham Verghese's The Covenant of Water is faith, in all its various guises. For the character Big Ammachi and her family, it is their proud history as Saint Thomas Christians that sustains them in their bleakest hours.

The novel refers to the legend of Saint Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ, landing in 52 CE along the Malabar Coast, in the modern-day state of Kerala. He is believed to have converted a few Brahmin (high-caste Hindu) families to Christianity, and Verghese writes that those first converts, Saint Thomas Christians, "stayed true to the faith and did not marry outside their community. Over time they grew, knitted together by their customs and their churches."

In 1498, Portuguese travelers led by the explorer Vasco da Gama were shocked to find Christian groups thriving along the southern part of the subcontinent, and equally surprised at their certainty that their church was established by none other than Saint Thomas himself. Today, Saint Thomas Christians, also called "Kerala Christians," number around six million in Kerala, and are dispersed in smaller numbers via diaspora around the world.

In India, Saint Thomas Christians are a vibrant part of communities that are majority Hindu and Muslim. A recent Smithsonian article claims that while Christians make up only 18.4% of Kerala's population, "The church spire is as much a part of the landscape as the temple tower and the mosque's minaret," and Christians "remain a prominent presence in all sectors of social, political and economic endeavor."

As historian William Dalrymple explains in a piece for the Guardian, although the legend of Saint Thomas in India is not provable as fact, Saint Thomas Christians "regard this tradition as more than a myth: it is an article of faith which underpins religious beliefs, identity and their place in Indian society." Even though Christianity has never been a major faith in India, it is one with very deep roots and has survived tenaciously, despite the odds. As Dalrymple concludes (and as the Christians in The Covenant of Water might agree):

"The church here has remained faithful to the tradition of St Thomas's journey from Palestine to India. It is a story long forgotten in a west which has come to regard itself as the true home of the faith, forgetting that in essence, Christianity is an eastern religion."

View from inside a Saint Thomas Christian church in the village of Malayattoor in Kerala, India
Photo by Mamichaelraj (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In MemoriamClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Alice Winn


It's 1914, and World War I is ceaselessly churning through thousands of young men on both sides of the fight. The violence of the front feels far away to Henry Gaunt, Sidney Ellwood and the rest of their classmates, safely ensconced in their idyllic boarding school in the English countryside. News of the heroic deaths of their friends only makes the war more exciting.

Gaunt, half German, is busy fighting his own private battle—an all-consuming infatuation with his best friend, the glamorous, charming Ellwood—without a clue that Ellwood is pining for him in return. When Gaunt's family asks him to enlist to forestall the anti-German sentiment they face, Gaunt does so immediately, relieved to escape his overwhelming feelings for Ellwood. To Gaunt's horror, Ellwood rushes to join him at the front, and the rest of their classmates soon follow. Now death surrounds them in all its grim reality, often inches away, and no one knows who will be next.

An epic tale of both the devastating tragedies of war and the forbidden romance that blooms in its grip, In Memoriam is a breathtaking debut.

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse Debut Book Award 2023

Alice Winn's remarkable debut, In Memoriam, opens in 1914 at Preshute College, a fictional British boarding school for wealthy young men. World War I has just begun, and each student longs to enlist; in their youthful ignorance they romanticize battle and dream of committing acts of daring-do in the name of God and country. Two such innocents are close friends Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood. The 18-year-olds are attracted to each other but can't express their feelings, each believing the other doesn't reciprocate the sentiment. Gaunt, whose family has strong German ties, enlists at his mother's urging to prove his family's loyalty to England, and Ellwood follows him soon thereafter, even as casualties mount among their classmates already fighting on the other side of the Channel. The boys are soon disillusioned as they're exposed to the horrors of trench warfare and their own deaths seem imminent.

The author's descriptions of the WWI battlefront leave an indelible image. As Gaunt arrives in the trenches for the first time, he finds, "The smell was overwhelming, but worse than that were the bits of corpses sticking out of the walls. The men had evidently tried to bury them, but in the rain the earth did not hold together. Feet and hands and faces poked at him as he walked by." Ellwood observes that the sandbags "were a sickening mixture of sand and gut-smeared earth. They reeked of decomposing flesh, and sometimes would burst open, showering passers-by with gore and maggots." The story is filled with men ordered to their deaths out of petty revenge or simple ignorance, with officers often displaying a callous disregard for the young lives wasted for no good reason. The author realistically conveys the various ways conflicts like this can leave someone permanently scarred, both physically and emotionally. As an anti-war book it can't be beat, comparing favorably to classics like All Quiet on the Western Front.

As well-written as the novel's battle scenes are, its highlight is the love story between Ellwood and Gaunt, and the dynamic between the two sets up the primary tension in the narrative. Winn completely captures Ellwood and Gaunt's terrible longing for each other and the ache of their unexpressed love. The novel is heartbreaking at times, peppered with misunderstandings and missed opportunities: "Ellwood did not come to him, and Gaunt didn't know how to ask him to." As death rains down around the pair, readers yearn for them to tell each other how they feel before it's too late, and we're constantly reminded how painfully young these men are.

A few aspects of the book don't quite meet the high bar set by most of the narrative. Winn goes out of her way to illustrate how WWI was experienced from many viewpoints, such as how some women supported the war effort, the pride and pain parents felt in seeing their sons enlist, how different classes experienced war, and the ordeal that those wounded in battle underwent. While most of these perspectives are exceptionally well-written and seem dead-on accurate, a long section about a POW camp for officers comes across as a bit cartoonish -- a little reminiscent of a sitcom – and seems out of step with the intensity of other chapters. In addition, those around Ellwood and Gaunt seem to know they're gay but are completely accepting – even encouraging – of their love for other men. This seems anachronistic, particularly when other scenes depict men committing suicide rather than enduring the "disgrace" of being outed (until the late 1960s, sexual relations between men were illegal in Great Britain and could lead to imprisonment). Finally, the author employs heavy foreshadowing in the first half of the novel that seems manipulative and largely unnecessary. But although I was aware of these flaws, they did not impact my very high opinion of the novel, and I expect most readers will be more than happy to overlook them.

In Memoriam is one of the most poignant novels I've come across in quite some time, and it made a lasting impression on me. Winn's elegant writing and emotionally intense tableaux make this one a winner. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for top-notch historical fiction or a truly affecting love story.

Book reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Beyond the Book:
In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson In Alice Winn's brilliant World War I novel, In Memoriam, the main characters often quote poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Among others cited is one of his best-known works: In Memoriam A.H.H.

The subject of the poem is Arthur Henry Hallam, whom Tennyson met at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1829. The two young men were members of The Apostles, a secret society that met to debate philosophical, political and literary topics, and it was there that they formed a close friendship. Hallam was frequently invited to stay with the Tennyson family at their house in Somersby, Lincolnshire, and during Easter vacation in 1930 Hallam proposed marriage to Tennyson's sister, Emilia (familiarly known as Emily), which she accepted.

Already a well-known poet and literary critic, Hallam was instrumental in launching Tennyson's career. He sent one of Tennyson's works (without permission) to Edward Moxon, publisher of The Englishman's Magazine. It was subsequently printed in 1831, with an essay by Hallam published in the same issue which reviewed the poem favorably. There is no record of Tennyson's reaction to this, but his friendship with Hallam remained strong and the pair went so far as to propose collaborating on a book of poetry in 1833.

Before their plans could come to fruition, Hallam tragically died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation with his father in Vienna; he was just 22 years old. The unexpected death of his companion threw Tennyson into a deep depression that lasted years. According to the British Library, however, "Scholars agree that this was the most important event in Tennyson's life and the one that most shaped his work."

In Memoriam A.H.H. was composed in response to Hallam's demise. The poem was written over a 17-year period and originally published anonymously in 1850, though by the end of that year Tennyson's identity had been revealed. It is comprised of 131 separate lyrics (in poetry, a poem or section of a poem expressing personal feelings) of varying length plus a prologue and epilogue. As one might expect, it's an elegy for his lost companion, and explores Tennyson's deeply personal feelings and intense sorrow over Hallam's untimely death. The British Library summarizes the journey the poet takes in overcoming his grief: "The initial response to bereavement is a stunned sense of loss and grief, with lamentation for the dead person. This is followed by recollection of their fine qualities. Gradually a sense of acquiescence emerges, leading eventually to a more serene state and to solace for the loss."

The intense devotion and tenderness Tennyson expresses for Hallam has led to speculation that the two were lovers. According to a British Library article, "Contemporary reviewers responded anxiously to the poem's homoeroticism; an early review in The Times complained about the tone of 'amatory tenderness.'" The debate continues today; many scholars feel that to view the poem as an expression of romantic love is to read it in a modern context, and point to the lack of evidence that either had intimate relationships with other men (Tennyson married and had two sons after Hallam's death). Others argue that it is important to acknowledge how the poem subverts Victorian norms of heterosexuality and masculinity with verses that express the poet's longing for his friend's touch, as well as lines that compare the author's feelings to those of a young girl awaiting her lover.

The poem was well-received upon its publication and became one of Tennyson's best-known works. Queen Victoria took solace in it after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, writing in her diary that she was "much soothed" by it. It was also highly influential; Tennyson's strict adherence to an A-B-B-A format has led many to refer to this poetic structure as "IM style." A number of phrases from the poem are still well-known today, perhaps none more so than the last two lines from this verse:

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, detail of an oil painting by Samuel Laurence, c. 1840; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The WagerClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by David Grann


On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty's Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as "the prize of all the oceans," it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.

But then ... six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death—for whomever the court found guilty could hang.

The Wager is a grand tale of human behavior at the extremes told by one of our greatest nonfiction writers. Grann's recreation of the hidden world on a British warship rivals the work of Patrick O'Brian, his portrayal of the castaways' desperate straits stands up to the classics of survival writing such as The Endurance, and his account of the court martial has the savvy of a Scott Turow thriller. As always with Grann's work, the incredible twists of the narrative hold the reader spellbound.

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse Nonfiction Award 2023

David Grann is a journalist, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several nonfiction books, including the bestsellers Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z. The Wager was popular with our First Impressions reviewers, with 17 out of 20 rating it 4 or 5 stars.

What the book is about:

Set in the 1740s, this is the story of the treacherous journey of six English warships, the Wager among them, with the secret mission of capturing Spanish silver and gold near the tip of South America. While rounding Cape Horn, and battling an outbreak of scurvy, the weather conditions turned atrocious, and the Wager became separated from the rest of the squadron. Shipwrecked on a desolate island, the surviving crew struggled against the elements, splitting into two groups: one that mutinied against their captain, David Cheap, and a smaller group that remained loyal to him. Based on personal and detailed diaries of the captains and seamen, this book has elements of true crime and history (Anke V). The book is broken into four sections: pre-mission preparation, the disastrous voyage, the desperate struggle for survival after the shipwreck and the improbable return of the few survivors to England. The conflicting accounts of the voyage and shipwreck by these survivors add to the drama (Mary G).

Readers found themselves drawn into the book by the power of its descriptions and "characters"…

Coincidentally, I had just returned from a trip through the Strait of Magellan and the Drake Passage to Cape Horn so I have personally experienced the wind, sleet, fog, clouds, rocky cliffs and raging seas that he so vividly describes. Reading this book swept me right back to this wild place (Linda M). An interesting cast of characters from all ages and strata of society: David Cheap, captain of the flagship Centurion; gunner and log keeper John Bulkeley; 16-year-old John Byron of poet Lord Byron's family; carpenter Cummins, who cobbled together a fragile boat (Gail B).

…and were intrigued by the deep intellectual and moral questions the story raised, as well as the historical details.

What makes this story so fascinating is it covers so many facets; it is not just a shipwreck story. The focus changes to a mutiny (or is it even a mutiny if the ship is no longer at sea?), to a survival story, to a moral conflict story (who should be sacrificed and based on what?), to a legal story...and finally a good refresher of this fascinating time in history (Suzanne B). An unbelievable but true story of hardship, fortitude, betrayal, human folly and survival. It's also a look at the pervasiveness of England's 18th-century societal class structure, its government and its imperialistic ambitions (Brenda D).

A few readers warned that the book may not be best for those looking for something light…

There are so many characters, so many positions/ranks among the crew, diseases, scurvy, burials overboard, storms and eventually mayhem, murder, mutiny and cannibalism (Sherry K). This is a book for someone who enjoys digging into the backstories in history. This would be a fitting discussion for a book club that discusses personalities, events and motivation for actions. I would not recommend to a book club that prefers lighter subjects (Jan B).

…but many found it to be thrilling, entertaining and an overall great read.

I found this book to be well-researched, well-written and extremely easy to read. It was actually quite a thrilling read to be honest. It felt more like I was reading an adventure book than a nonfiction book (Tara T). Although the subject matter was not of great interest to me when I started reading the book, my opinion quickly changed when more of the narrative was developed. The author takes a maritime scandal and engulfs the reader in a suspenseful historical thriller! (Dan W). It's a riveting, page-turning adventure, complete with shipwreck, mutiny and murder (Lois K).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
Cape Horn

Black-and-white photographic image taken from a ship sailing near Cape Horn during a storm, tilted and partially submerged in waves David Grann's The Wager is a nonfiction book about events surrounding the 1741 wreck of the British ship the HMS Wager, which met its doom while rounding Cape Horn, a rocky headland at the southernmost tip of the Chilean archipelago Tierra del Fuego, where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet. With this book, Grann sheds light on one relatively little-known historical incident, but Cape Horn is infamous for shipwrecks. Its treacherous waters are estimated to have claimed more than 800 ships and 10,000 lives.

So why exactly is rounding Cape Horn so dangerous? One reason for this is a sharp rise in the ocean floor that occurs southwest of the cape. This rise, combined with strong winds caused by the area's southerly latitude (where air is pushed towards the pole by the Earth's rotation), results in particularly high waves occurring on a regular basis, the danger of which can be exacerbated by volatile weather. Rocky outcroppings and icebergs are additional hazards.

Cape Horn is named for the birthplace of the Dutch explorer Willem Schouten (Kaap Höorn), who is credited with the first navigation around the cape in 1616. The route Schouten took is known as the Drake Passage because it was previously encountered by the English explorer Sir Francis Drake — who did not actually pass through it, contrary to what the name might seem to suggest — in 1578. Once the Drake Passage was found to be navigable, it became a popular international route despite its danger, as it offered a convenient, freely passable alternative to the Strait of Magellan to the north. Schouten had been driven to find a different route in the first place because his company was in conflict with the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the Strait of Magellan at the time. The Drake Passage was soon the main way for ships to travel between Europe and East Asia, as well as from one side of the United States to the other.

The route's popularity continued through the 18th and 19th centuries but ended with the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, which offered a safer, more direct passage through the Americas for ships traveling between these destinations. Today, Cape Horn is mostly a destination for tourists and nautical enthusiasts looking for a challenge — it is sometimes referred to as the sailor's equivalent of Mount Everest.

The Cape Horn of days past still looms large in the cultural imagination, thanks to numerous accounts of navigating it as well as its influence on writers, artists and others. Moby-Dick author Herman Melville was inspired by his experiences aboard whaling ships, including the Acushnet, which disembarked from Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1840, bound for Cape Horn and the Pacific. The naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his diary about how the ship that took him on an expedition around the world, the HMS Beagle, encountered bad weather near Cape Horn before Christmas in 1832: "Cape Horn, however, demanded his tribute, and before night sent us a gale of wind directly in our teeth. We stood out to sea, and on the second day again made the land, when we saw on our weather-bow this notorious promontory in its proper form—veiled in a mist, and its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water."

Glass plate negative of view from a sailing ship during a storm at Cape Horn (between 1885 and 1954), via National Library of Australia

Remember UsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jacqueline Woodson


It seems like Sage's whole world is on fire the summer before she starts seventh grade. As house after house burns down, her Bushwick neighborhood gets referred to as "The Matchbox" in the local newspaper. And while Sage prefers to spend her time shooting hoops with the guys, she's also still trying to figure out her place inside the circle of girls she's known since childhood. A group that each day, feels further and further away from her.

But it's also the summer of Freddy, a new kid who truly gets Sage. Together, they reckon with the pain of missing the things that get left behind as time moves on, savor what's good in the present, and buoy each other up in the face of destruction. And when the future comes, it is Sage's memories of the past that show her the way forward. Remember Us speaks to the power of both letting go ... and holding on.

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse YA Book Award 2023

Remember Us is set largely across a single hazy summer of the 1970s in Bushwick, New York. With the neighborhood nicknamed "The Matchbox" by the press due to an ongoing spate of deadly housefires, 12-year-old Sage has grown up against a backdrop of sirens, ash, and dread over whose home will be next to burn. Basketball is her escape from the anxiety, and despite being the only girl on the local courts, she dreams of pursuing a future in professional sports. That is, until an encounter with a bully and the echo of his words — "What kind of girl are you, anyway?" — leaves her shaken.

Scared away from the courts for the first time in her life, Sage feels her entire identity is unmoored. Should she continue to strive for success as a girl in the male-dominated world of basketball, or should she conform and attempt to fit in with the popular girls at school, from whom she feels adrift? As Sage wrestles with who she is and what she wants for her future, her mother saves to try to move them to a safer neighborhood, despite the potential wrench of leaving loved ones behind.

Though never heavy-handed, there is definite commentary on class divide and the correlation between wealth and safety. As the cheaper, older, wood-built properties of Sage's working-class community continue to go up in flames, the neighboring middle-class streets lined with modern brick houses remain untouched. Bushwick is easy for outsiders to write off as condemned, but author Jacqueline Woodson shows that many moments of beauty and joy can make up childhoods even in troubled areas. Sage spends hours playing with friends, singing and dancing with loved ones, and sharing food with neighbors. These seemingly small moments stay with her as much as the fear of the fires, showing that moving on is rarely a straightforward decision.

Woodson strikes an excellent balance of accessibility and poignancy with her writing, lending the novel genuine appeal to a broad readership. While Remember Us is aimed at younger audiences and her adolescent protagonist feels authentic, its themes of place, memory, identity, and belonging will ring true for readers of any age. It never seems as though Woodson is patronizing younger readers by simplifying the complex themes and emotions at play, and she never resorts to clichés or saccharine prose. Take this moment of clarity for Sage, which considers the mindsets of adolescents and adults alike:

"I had finally come to understand the hollowness in my chest. All year, I had already been missing all of this, even though it was right in front of me. Right in front of me but, building by building, burning away. When I finally asked my mother about it, she said That's what growing up feels like."

Though relatively slight and easy to devour in a single sitting, Woodson's novel rarely feels rushed. It captures the mood of a very specific time and place by maintaining a focus on character over action. Understated and ruminative, Remember Us is the kind of book that leaves its mark on you subtly, over time. The relatively scant narrative follows a linear and predictable path, arguably lacking a stand-out gut-punch moment, but a heady feeling of melancholy hangs over the story, reflecting the sad reality of saying goodbye to the people and places that shaped us as children so that we may become the adults we want to be.

Book reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

Beyond the Book:
The Fires of 1970s New York City

In her novel Remember Us, author Jacqueline Woodson draws from her own experiences growing up in 1970s New York. Her protagonist's hometown of Bushwick is plagued by housefires, landing it the callous nickname "The Matchbox."

Bushwick wasn't the only community affected by numerous fires at the time. Records show that by mid-1974, the number of serious blazes across the city of New York had risen by 40% over the past three years. Worse still, the civilian death rate from fires had risen by 35% over just the past year. Brooklyn, where Bushwick is located, and the Bronx were hit particularly hard. In seven Bronx census tracts, fires destroyed more than 97% of buildings throughout the '70s, while a further 44 tracts in the borough lost more than 50% of their buildings.

The reasons behind New York's fires are complex, varied, and continue to be debated to this day. One of the more controversial theories claimed that landlords and disillusioned residents deliberately started fires in order to make insurance claims. In more recent years, efforts have been made to debunk this idea, at least where residents are concerned. Many believe the idea rose from racial and class bias against the area's population, which included high numbers of immigrants and people of color. Filmmaker and educator Vivian Vázquez, who grew up in the South Bronx at the time and whose documentary Decade of Fire (trailer below) addresses this issue, explains:

"What people learn on the outside is that the people in the Bronx burnt it; that it was us who destroyed our community […] My family didn't get here from Puerto Rico to burn buildings; my grandparents came here to try to get ahead in life. How did this narrative become that the people in the Bronx wanted to destroy our new chance of success, our new chance of opportunity?"

Possible contributing factors associated with the racism and systemic factors Vázquez confronts include the rapid spread of poverty, which left many buildings in a dilapidated condition that made them vulnerable to fire, as well as fire department cutbacks and a significant reduction in "preventive inspection efforts," which are crucial in identifying and resolving structural issues that can lead to fire and fatalities. These cutbacks also meant there were fewer fire officers operating on the ground, leading to an increase in response times, which in turn allowed blazes that may previously have been confined to a single property additional time to spread throughout the tightly packed buildings.

Edwin F. Jennings, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, explained at the time: "We have fewer units to respond, so it takes longer to arrive at the scene. [...] When they get there, there are fewer men to stretch lines and get into buildings, so a fire that might have been confined to an apartment spreads."

The fires that ripped through New York did so much more than destroy property; they devastated lives. With Remember Us, Woodson portrays the perspective of those who lived in constant fear that their homes would be next to go up in flames, while reminding us that every person affected was an individual with their own life and hopes for the future.

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