- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

FOLLOW ME
By Joanna Scott
Little, Brown, $24.99, 419 pages

BORDER SONGS
By Jim Lynch
Knopf, $24.95, 304 pages

PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION
By Sara Houghteling
Knopf, $24.95, 243 pages
REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR

Joanna Scott’s new novel, Follow Me (Little, Brown , $24.99, 419 pages), brings to mind the proverb that for want of a nail, then a shoe, a horse, a rider and so on, ultimately a kingdom was lost. Sally Werner, the plucky, resilient central character of “Follow Me,” whose initial act of leaving her newborn baby “like a loaf of bread on the kitchen table,” sets in motion a series of events, each of which turns on a prior misstep.

Sixteen-year-old Sally’s odyssey began when she accepted a motorcycle ride with her cousin, resulting in her pregnancy, refusal to marry and flight from the Pennsylvania farm on which she was born. Like the Tuskee River that she followed, the narrative meanders gracefully through a tale told with consummate skill.

Sally found refuge in a village where she worked for two years as a housekeeper. Soon bored, she “wanted something unexpected to happen.” It did. She fled. As Sally Angel, she fell in love with a boy named Mole and lost him. Sally Angel moved on and became Sally Mole. Seduced by a bully, she gave birth to a daughter and lived happily working in a hardware store until the bully came to claim his child. Sally sallied forth once more as Sally Bliss.

Sally never gave up hope of a reunion with her abandoned son. Ultimately, her passion to find her past sets the scene for an ironic and tragic twist.

The story develops partly through a third-person account of Sally’s attempts to reinvent herself — with constant delicious interjections of her picturesque thoughts and feelings — and partly by a first-person version told by Sally’s granddaughter and namesake, who “recognize* the potential for disarray [in Sally], as though I could tug the end of a frayed thread sticking out from her cuff, and the tidy package she’d squeezed herself into would unravel.”

“Follow Me” is touching and highly original. It is a story of courage, deceit, regret, kindness and treachery, and filled throughout with humor and literary magic.

•••


The sparsely populated “nonchalant border” between British Columbia and Washington state with its raspberry fields and dairy farms is “a geographical handshake heralded by nothing more than a drainage ditch that turned raucous with horny frogs in the spring and overflowed into both countries every fall. … [T]hin as a rumor, the line cut through lakes and swamps and forests and fields.”

Jim Lynch’s engaging new novel, Border Songs (Knopf, $24.95, 304 pages), takes place along this border, where the U.S. Border Patrol works at catching infiltrating terrorists, although terrified illegals and marijuana smugglers are the ones intercepted. It’s a beautifully written novel, hilarious and tender, with rich descriptive passages.

“Border Songs” is peopled with eccentrics: Norm, struggling with his arthritic knee and dying milk cows; Jeanette, slowly losing her imaginative mind to Alzheimer’s; Sophie Winslow, “the masseuse who seemingly everyone visited but nobody knew”; Professor Wayne Rousseau, “the scrawny elf” and “irreverent quote master” who hurls anti-American invectives from the Canadian side; and Wayne’s pretty daughter, Madeline, who tends marijuana fields and smuggles “buds” across the border.

Chief among this group is endearing 23-year-old Brandon Vanderkool, Norm and Jeanette’s son, “a quarter inch over six-eight — and not a spindly six-eight either, but 232 pounds of meat and bone stacked vertically beneath a lopsided smile and a defiant wedge of hair that gave him the appearance of an unfinished sculpture.” Brandon’s dyslexia “was so severe that one giddy pediatrician called it a gift; … he’d always see things the rest of us couldn’t.”

Brandon loved birds, the outdoors, painting and his new job on the Patrol. He also loved Madeline. He was awkward and couldn’t express himself well in words, sometimes speaking backward when he was excited. But he was good at his job because he noticed what was out of place.

“Border Songs” reflects the real life enhanced national security that followed Sept. 11 with an increase in patrol cars, cameras and other sensors put in place, all hated by the locals. The tone is sometimes humorous, at other times satirical, but always with a sense of secret bemusement. It’s not so much the plot that delights in “Border Songs”but the antics of the characters. Underlying is a theme of a disappearing way of life and a joyful song to the survival of nature and the young at heart.

•••


Rose Valland was working in the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris when the Germans invaded France in 1940. Because of her quiet, unprepossessing demeanor, she was not considered a threat to the Germans who kept her on to supervise maintenance at the museum. Miss Valland secretly kept track of some 20,000 works of art stolen by Hitler and informed the French Resistance on which trains the artwork was being shipped so those trains would not be bombed.

Miss Valland’s exploits in protecting priceless art and in making sure that the paintings were returned to their rightful owners, are part of a book and documentary film, “The Rape of Europe,” on which Sara Houghteling bases her first novel, Pictures at an Exhibition (Knopf, $24.95,243 pages). Rose Valland becomes Rose Clement, transformed into a beautiful young woman who works for a Jewish art dealer, Daniel Berenzon, and then moves on to work at the Louvre. When France falls, Daniel hides his paintings and takes his wife and son to the south of France where they survive the war.

The story is told by Daniel’s son, Max, who falls in love with Rose and returns to Paris to recoup his father’s stolen paintings. Max’s attempts to find a childhood friend in the places where Parisians in fact searched for news of deported friends and relatives after the war, and his dealings with galleries and scoundrels in his search for the paintings makes engrossing reading. Miss Houghteling has done her research well, and her descriptions of real paintings and places have depth and beauty.

Unfortunately, she is less successful with her characters. Rose in particular, with her inexplicable on and off intimacy with Max, lacks depth. Miss Houghteling’s favorite character is Paris itself, which she lovingly describes.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington, D.C.

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