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'The Convert' by Deborah Baker; 'The Sojourn' by Andrew Krivak; 'This Life Is in Your Hands' by Melissa Coleman

May 29, 2011|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Deborah Baker.
Author Deborah Baker. (Julienne Schaer / Associated…)

The Convert

A Tale of Exile and Extremism

Deborah Baker

Graywolf Press: 246 pp., $23

Deborah Baker, researcher, biographer, author of books on the poet Laura Riding and on the Beats, briefly describes how she chooses her subjects and how she writes about their lives: "Anonymity is my vocation. I inhabit the lives of my subjects until I think like them.… Haunting archives, reading letters composed in agony and journals thick with unspeakable thoughts, I sound the innermost chambers of unquiet souls."

One day in her local library, Baker stumbled upon 24 letters written between 1962 and 1996 from Margaret Marcus to her parents. In 1962, Margaret, then a devoted student of Islam and of the influential Islamic thinker and political leader, Mawlana Mawdudi, accepted Mawdudi's invitation to come to Pakistan and join his household. What she left behind, at her home in Larchmont, N.Y., was a trail of papers, articles, letters and memoirs.

Baker, who discovered the letters in 1991, started asking big and small questions: Why did Margaret convert? Why did she feel so compelled to leave the West? What were her thoughts on marriage? How did she fit in that strange new household? And finally, what was the state of her mental health? It is this last question that leads Baker down a truly fascinating path, through Margaret's diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1957, her incarceration in a mental hospital outside Lahore, her arranged marriage to a friend of Mawdudi's and on into a thicket of lies and cultural miscommunications that helps the author understand the relationship between Islam and the West. There are many conversions in this complicated story; questions raised that illuminate a subtle relationship between the two cultures rarely revealed anywhere else.

The Sojourn

A Novel

Andrew Krivak

Bellevue Literary Press: 192 pp., $14.95

Novels set during World War I (think of "The English Patient" or "A Long Long Way") possess a desolation, violence and a desperate longing to go back, to return to life as it was lived before the war. "The Sojourn" was inspired by the life of Andrew Krivak's grandfather, Josef Vinich. Vinich was born in a Colorado mining town in the late 1800s. After his mother was killed by a train and his father wrongfully accused of murder (a series of events that confirmed the suspicions of his Austro-Hungarian relatives about America's Wild West), father and son returned to the Magyar village and Carpathian Mountains where Josef's father was born to start anew.

Fifteen years later, Josef became a sharpshooter in the Austrian Army and was taken prisoner by the Italians. After his release in 1918, he began the long walk home. He saved a young, pregnant gypsy girl who had been brutally raped by soldiers, and together they tried to start a peaceful life. The novel is an ever-hopeful series of fresh starts and dashed hopes, a beautiful tale of persistence and dogged survival, set in the mountains, villages and battlefields of a Europe that exists only in memories and stories.

This Life Is in Your Hands

One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone

Melissa Coleman

HarperCollins: 352 pp., $25.99

Eliot Coleman is the Pied Piper of the organic, local food movement. In 1968, he and his young wife went to visit Helen and Scott Nearing on their farm in Maine. The Nearings had left New York City in 1932, themselves pioneers in an alternative, rural lifestyle that drew thousands of visitors and became the subject of many articles and books about trading Western materialism for self-sufficiency. The Colemans settled on 60 acres next door to the Nearings, built a house (without electricity or running water and heated by wood) and had three children. Melissa, the author of this memoir and the oldest, remembers the Nearings, the long winters, the delicious food her parents raised and her mother's battle with depression. But the event that draws all other memories down into the well is the drowning of her 3-year-old sister when Melissa was 6. This memory puts all others in question — were the Colemans and the Nearings and others like them focused on the wrong things? Distracted by their ideology?

Was the act of pulling away from mainstream American culture too hard on the traditional family unit? Melissa, who loved her childhood and her parents, doesn't have the answers. But her memoir is an important piece of the puzzle. Today we both admire and ridicule such attempts at countercultures. The Colemans and the Nearings were not hippies or druggies or even, for the most part, political protesters. They worked hard to create an alternative economy that still exists and is growing in rural America. This memoir is evidence of their great sacrifices.

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.

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