“Before the one percent, there was the four hundred…”

Brown Baggers met in person on Thursday, April 21 to discuss The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. The book is a work of nonfiction about the Biltmore mansion located in Asheville, North Carolina – “the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.” Having recently read The Yellow House and The Dutch House, our group was ready to dive into more house-centric reading.

Similar to our other house stories, the palace takes on its own character. Our members’ initial reaction was a bit of shock, even disdain or disgust, at the opulence of the Biltmore and its people. Kiernan was critiqued within our group for writing extensively on the details about gowns and meals, but less substantially on most of the actual people living in the house. Others noted that the genealogy writing was tedious and there were far too many peripheral characters. The “name dropping” didn’t add to the story, similar to how including every single little bit of researched information didn’t contribute much, aside from legitimizing the subtitle: “the epic story…” Yes, this is an epic tale all right, and told in epic proportions. 

What we did enjoy was learning about the extensive planning needed to transform 125,000 acres of wilderness into a proper European-style estate, complete with its own chateau: the forestry, the landscape architecture. There is also the general intrigue that comes with reading a work of nonfiction. No matter how much you already know about a topic, there always seems to be more to learn. So while sometimes the facts and figures dragged, some stories were more captivating! One favorite example was the story of storing art at the Biltmore during WWII to ensure its safety during wartime. 

This was also a redemption story, with Edith at its center. We loved Edith, as she was the strong, forward-thinking woman, the one with all the brains, and the intelligent maneuvering to boot. In the end, Biltmore had a positive impact on Asheville, although it’s probably fairer and more accurate to say that Edith had a positive impact on Asheville. From promoting Asheville while traveling, to being a part of the wider community, and finding ways to stay true to her roots (she didn’t come from money). It was a happy ending to read about the good that came from the Biltmore, in the end.  

A few readers mentioned that the real treasure was reading this book before visiting the Biltmore. Perhaps a book club field trip is in order? Krista would be an amazing guide! 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez on Thursday, May 19. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Other books mentioned: 

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe 

American Duchess: a novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper 

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Fowler 

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl

Brown Baggers Fiction/Nonfiction Pairings

The Brown Baggers book club is preparing for a new “season” of reading, which will begin in June! Each December we host a potluck party to celebrate a year of reading and to recommend and choose new titles for our next batch of books (June-May). We enjoy reading a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, but in our most recent round of voting, the nonfiction titles were hedged out in favor of historical fiction. 

So we’re giving our members a bit of flexibility this upcoming year – if you find yourself at any point uninspired or uninterested in the fiction selection for the month, we encourage you to try a nonfiction companion title from the curated list we have below (or read fiction and nonfiction both, when you have extra time!). Come to book club prepared to share about the book you read; we believe we’ll have some really interesting dialogues as our fiction readers converse with our nonfiction readers. 

June: Passing by Nella Larsen

nonfiction options:  

A Chosen Exile: a history of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs

White Like Her: my family’s story of race and racial passing by Gail Lukasik

Black Lotus: a woman’s search for racial identity by Sil Lai Abrams

July: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

nonfiction options: 

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday 

Earth Keeper: reflections on the American Land by N. Scott Momaday

The Three-Cornered War: the Union, the Confederacy, and native peoples in the fight for the West by Megan Kate Nelson

Born of Lakes and Plains: mixed-descent peoples and the making of the American West by Anne Hyde

The Captured by Scott Zesch (we don’t own this book, but “Jiles wrote that much of her account of Johanna’s alienation is based on The Captured”)

August: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

nonfiction options: 

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: an intimate history of domestic life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light 

Upstairs & Downstairs: the illustrated guide to the real world of Downton Abbey by Sarah Warwick 

September: The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey 

nonfiction option: 

The Sibling Effect by Jeffrey Kluger 

October: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain 

nonfiction option: 

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: sex, murder, and madness at the dawn of the twentieth century by Simon Baatz 

November: The Paris Library by Janet Charles

nonfiction options: 

The Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history by Robert Edsel 

Americans in Paris: a literary anthology edited by Adam Gopnik 

Part of Our Lives: a people’s history of the American public library by Wayne Wiegand 

December: no book

January: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

nonfiction options: 

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: traveling through the land of my ancestors by Louise Erdrich 

Rez Life: an Indian’s journey through reservation life by David Treuer 

Unworthy Republic: the dispossession of Native Americans and the road to Indian territory by Claudio Saunt 

Coyote Warrior: one man, three tribes, and the trial that forged a nation by Paul VanDevelder

February: My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson 

nonfiction options: 

Documenting Hate: Charlottesville & New American Nazis (PBS documentary)

Beyond Charlottesville: taking a stand against white nationalism by Terry McAuliffe 

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Thomas Jefferson Foundation 

Black is the Body: stories from my grandmother’s time, my mother’s time, and mine by Emily Bernard 

The Fire This Time: a new generation speaks about race edited by Jesmyn Ward 

March: Same Page Community Read

April: Matrix by Lauren Groff

nonfiction options: 

Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales: the building church, 600-1540 by Richard Morris 

Devon’s Torre Abbey: Faith, Politics, and Grand Designs by Michael Rhodes 

May: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead 

nonfiction options: 

Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller drug laws and the politics of punishment by Michael Fortner 

You might also enjoy a book about the Harlem Riot of 1964. Here are two options (unfortunately we don’t own either, but ILL is an option!): The Harlem Uprising by Christopher Hayes or In The Heat of Summer by Michael Flamm 

What great nonfiction books that would pair well with our fiction titles this year did we miss? Comment below to add your recommendations!

“We are not free. But we are not alone.”

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Same Page Community Read is a reading initiative that “provides opportunities for book groups, classrooms, and individuals to explore the themes of a single book by an author appearing at the Virginia Festival of the Book.” This year our title was We Are Not Free by Traci Chee, a historical fiction young adult (YA) novel written as a collected series of sixteen chapters, told from fourteen teenage points of view, as young Japanese-Americans’ lives are changed by the mass incarcerations of World War II. 

Book clubs all around our service area read and discussed the book. As always, some members enjoyed the book, while others did not. It should be safe to say that everyone learned something, either from the book or from the conversation. Far from simply a hodgepodge collection of vignettes, and far from a dry chronology of events, this novel takes readers into the themes of community and belonging, especially as interpersonal tensions reach their tightest, sharpest points – many readers identified the intracommunity fighting and severance associated with the loyalty questionnaire as the rawest, deepest exploration within the book. 

Chee’s choice to include so many character points of view worked for most readers, as even in cases of collective trauma, there is no one universal experience. Instead, reading this novel was like revolving through a kaleidoscope. With so many personalities, quirks of character, and family dynamics at play, this choice to fictionalize Chee’s actual family history and use a multitude of perspectives also surely helps the book appeal to teens – each chapter is a manageable, bite-size narrative, and teens (and adults!) have many opportunities to see themselves reflected on the page. Many found Chee’s characters to be realistic and we all had different characters that we loved, connected with, and pitied. 

Readers also shared thought-provoking facts that helped us deepen our understanding of the book. One reader shared that the rules of the detention centers actually contributed to juvenile delinquency, because the degradation that parents experienced as they were usurped in power by the centers’ hierarchies stripped them of the authority their children had once seen as absolute; families also lacked the privacy necessary for teaching, correcting, and disciplining their children. 

We were all especially interested in the afterword. It was significant and filled with depth. For many readers, the Japanese Incarceration during World War II was not adequately covered in school. Some had never heard of it at all, and others remembered it being sanitized and whitewashed to appear like a picnic in the park. The afterword described Chee’s family’s experience in detention centers, and included a poignant explanation of language usage. One reader had never thought of “internment,” which is the term most commonly heard, as a euphemism, and Chee’s afterword gave him appreciation for how others not only experience the world, but experience words. We all know words have power! But sometimes we forget that words strike each of us differently. 

While the harshest criticism we heard was that the book was “definitely YA,” we noted that could also be a compliment – Chee, after all, set out to write a book for young adults. But while the writing sometimes felt juvenile, the book is a timely and relevant read for people of all ages. One reader told us this book is now counted as one of her favorite books of all time. 

If you’re interested in joining a book club at your local library, go to https://www.jmrl.org/calendar.html and use the features on the left side of the screen to limit the program offerings to book clubs. If you’d like to hear Traci Chee be interviewed by a JMRL staff member, listen to our “we are not free” podcast episode: http://onthesamepage.blubrry.net/2022/03/03/s-5-ep-7-we-are-not-free/.

Other titles mentioned: 

Facing the Mountain by Daniel Brown 

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson 

No-no Boy by John Okada 

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende 

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne and James Houston  

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban 

We also have compiled this reading list of other titles related to We Are Not Free