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book review: The Accidentals

The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin. William Morrow| August 2019| 381 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-247175-8

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

 

“That fall June and I had at long last begun to plumb the depth of our mother’s unhappiness.”

In 1957, Olivia McAlister chooses to have an abortion in Mississippi. Illegal at the time, the only options for abortion were often cheap, quick back-alley abortions. Olivia longed to return to New Orleans and feels like an “accidental”—a migratory bird flown off course. Olivia dies leaving her two daughters, Grace and June, and her husband Holly on their own, the effects far-reaching throughout their lives. Holly becomes obsessed with building a bomb shelter. The daughters struggle to find their place in the world.

As a teenager, Grace becomes involved in a love affair with two boys. When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to have the child. Originally the aunt had planned the raise the child as her own but the child’s born with a facial defect—a cleft palate—and the aunt gets scared away. At an orphanage, the baby has an accident and is presumed dead. Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker ends up taking the child home and raising her. Grace goes to college and later grad school. She travels the world studying ancient texts—“Here I am, fluent in Greek and Latin and Arabic. I can examine a piece of papyrus and give you its age within twenty years . . .” She works as a professor. She bird watches and feeds the wildlife in her backyard.

“One of the few things I’d come to pride myself on was having learned to take pleasure in things nobody else would think twice about. I had no expectations so I was constantly surprised by small pleasures. A thick peanut and butter and jelly sandwich, flocks of blackbirds flashing their red-tipped wings as they swooped down on the corn, Elsa’s celery smell at the end of a day in the kitchen. The first snow of winter, which had fallen just the past week and melted the next day.”

June finds religion as a teenager. She goes to church with a friend and gets baptized. She practices kissing with a female friend until that friend gets a boyfriend. She attends college and works as a journalist. She notes: “… I am the bona fide reporter, hardcore police beat and such, first woman in my paper’s history to work the news desk.” June unhappily marries and has a son. After undergoing cancer treatment, she starts fostering and adopting dogs—“These dogs of mine, they weren’t pretty to look at, and after Noel left, I made a point to choose the ones I know didn’t have a rat’s chance of getting taken.”

Everyone ends up in Nashville, Tennessee at the end. After many years with little communication or contact, June moves to help Grace after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Grace’s baby, now grown, lives in the city too. They may have already met. The Accidentals packs in plenty of details as chapters alternate points-of-view. It’s a lovely story about resilience, forgiveness and family bonds.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Claire Gibson

“When they finally reached the hill, Dani watched the rest of her female company mates zigzag across the valley, providing cover fire and dragging the rest of the guys in their platoon, with their various feigned injuries, up to the safe zone. Apparently the ambush had been swift and fierce. Bodies were strewn everywhere. The girls had all survived, while the boys in their platoon had all been taken out of the game. Apparently the boys had been a bit overly aggressive; the girls had the presence of mind to assess the threat before taking action.”

Beyond the Point is an intriguing and engrossing novel that focuses on three very different women—Dani, Avery and Hannah—who meet at West Point. Beyond the Point follows them through school and post-graduation. They’re such strong women and well-developed characters that it’s easy to invest in them. They attend the mostly male West Point in preparation for a male-dominated military career. As they navigate life, the women confide in, encourage and support each other. It’s fascinating, infuriating, inspiring and moving.

Dani is a competitive force, both intelligent and athletic. Dani’s happy to be at West Point and move beyond stereotypes –“Her small-minded suburban town of Columbus, Ohio, had tried to put her into a box.” She’s successful in many ways but struggles with romantic relationships–“Guys always loved to hang out with her, but they rarely saw her as ‘girlfriend material.’ It was her constant relationship kryptonite.”

Avery is the wild-child who would rather not follow the rules, difficult at West Point and in the military. She comes from a strict family and won’t find much relief. Gibson writes: “The Army, at times, infuriated Avery. All of its rules. Its demands. Its ladders of authority. The Army was a lot like her dad, actually—constantly providing new bars to reach, moving each bar higher every time Avery to close. It wasn’t that she needed to be coddled, but to hear that she was doing a good job every once in a while wouldn’t have hurt. She could handle being read the riot act for leaving a job unfinished or for not meeting the standards. But was she really about to be counseled about who she dated on weekends?” Her bohemian spirit often frustrates her friends. I found her the most relatable–“Relationships didn’t work for her the way they did for everyone else. She was either too trusting and got burned, or too suspicious and exhausted the guy’s patience. She either acted too serious and scared the guy away, or acted too cool, leaving the guy confused about her commitment.”

The West Point legacy, Hannah seems to have it easy. West Point and the military are her destiny. She’s quite religious and a bit more conservative than her friends. She ends up meeting her future husband at West Point. She faces the same sexism as her peers–—“Hannah had been one of the highest-ranking cadets at West Point—guy or girl. Now her ovaries were a flashing neon sign to everyone in the room that she couldn’t keep up.”

Author Claire Gibson completed extensive research and interviews with West Point graduates before writing the novel.  I recently interviewed her via email.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write this novel about West Point?

Claire Gibson: Anyone that has ever been to visit West Point will tell you that it’s a magical, sacred place. I had the privilege of growing up at West Point right there alongside the Corps of Cadets, while my father was a professor.  I know it like the back of my hand. The only way I could have known it better was if I had attended myself — which continues to be something I wonder about all the time — how would I have handled the challenge? Should I have tried? But college choices aside, when I began writing full time, I couldn’t kick the gut feeling that I was supposed to write something about West Point or the Army. Then in 2013, a group of women West Point graduates asked if I’d be interested in interviewing them for a possible story. The more women I spoke to, the more confident I was that I was meant to write their experiences down as a novel — something that every person could engage with, whether they were familiar with West Point or not.

 

Amy Steele: What do you like about each woman—Dani, Hannah and Avery—and how did you decide to focus on these three characters?

Claire Gibson: All of the characters in Beyond the Point are composite characters — Dani, Hannah and Avery’s storylines are the product of more than 25 different interviews with women who graduated from West Point in the decade after 9/11. However, just because the characters are composite and the story is fiction, much of the content came directly from first person accounts. I love Dani’s grit, Hannah’s faith, and Avery’s boldness. They’re so different as women, and yet so complementary as friends.

 

Amy Steele: How is the Bennett’s house similar to your home growing up?

Claire Gibson: Wendy Bennett is loosely based on my mother, who is as kind and hospitable and wise as any woman I’ve ever met. Like our home, the Bennett’s house is full of antiques, and full of the smell of something fresh baked from the oven. There is always a pan of brownies on our counter and cadets coming through our front door. My family took pride in being a “home away from home” for those college kids in need of a break from the barracks.

 

Amy Steele: You packed a lot of events and details into this novel, how do you organize your writing?

Claire Gibson: I use a software called Scrivener which is so necessary for a long project like a novel.

 

Amy Steele: What was the biggest takeaway from the interviews you conducted in preparation for writing the novel? Particularly about striving in a male-dominated environment.

Claire Gibson: I don’t know if there was one great takeaway. However, I will say that these women learned how to hold their own amongst men starting at age 18. It’s no wonder many of them have gone on to excel in other male-dominated environments. By the time they graduated at age 24, the fact that they were a minority had faded in importance.

 

Amy Steele: What did you learn growing up at West Point?

Claire Gibson: At West Point, I learned the important of selfless service and kindness to others. I also learned to love America, which despite its many faults, is still a nation that strives for ideals that I deeply believe in.

 

Amy Steele: What challenges do women in the military currently face? Have there been any improvements in the military’s handling of sexual assault and sexual assault reporting?

Claire Gibson: Women in the military face the same challenges as women who are not in the military. They struggle to balance work with life. They want to find meaningful romantic relationships. They dream about the future and hope that they’re making wise choices in the present. I know the military is working to prosecute sexual assaults more stringently — and yet, we know now through things like the #MeToo movement that sexual harassment and assault are not limited only to the military. I hope that as a whole, our society will work to eliminate that stain from our culture. Rediscovering the sanctity of sex would help promote progress in that arena.

 

 

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