Stranger Here Below, by Joyce Hinnefeld – Book Review

Two years ago, In Hovering Flight was my first introduction to Joyce Hinnefeld and Unbridled Books. Getting to know each was a wonderful treat.  Hinnefeld is a rich and observant writer and Unbridled seems to take great care in choosing its authors.  I have found that their books, even if they don’t go on to become favorites of mine, are almost without exception thought provoking and well written.  I have been waiting for the follow up to Hinnefeld’s debut novel and once I got my hands on a copy, I didn’t read it.  There is something about saving a book to read that you suspect you will love.  It’s like squirrelling away a treat for the time you need it most.  It’s cold outside now, and  I am breaking out all of my most savory reads.

Stranger Here Below starts off with a letter from Maze to her college friend Mary Elizabeth, from whom she is estranged.  Maze seems to have settled into life with her husband and three children, but still longs for the friendship with Mary Elizabeth that she fears she has damaged through mysterious events and actions which she leaves unexplained.  Maze writes that she named her twins for nicknames they once had, Stranger and Pilgrim.  (One can only hop these are not literal, but i think they might be.)  The letter is an intriguing one and it sets up the tension of the novel.  Right away you want to know what happened.   I was very curious to see what brought this friendship to such a precarious position.  The story then unfolds with alternating visits into the past and present ordinary and every day lives of Sister Georgia, Vista, and Sarah- amazing women because they have built the best possible lives for themselves in spite of painful, conflict filled  pasts, and poor circumstances.

The diversity and the richness of these women’s strengths and wall building vulnerabilities have informed their daughters’ lives and the way that they interact in the small worlds they inhabit, deal with men, each other, and other issues they face  as they attain adulthood – experimenting to find the women they will become.  One of the amazing things about this book for me, was how fully immersed and invested I was in each story.  I forgot that I was reading to find out the answer to a question.  I stopped trying to figure out the precipitating event and just savored the details, lost in each woman’s story, entranced by each turn of the narrative.

In a fleeting, yet profound way – much like life- this novel touches upon a lot. Much to my delight, the history of Kentucky with its intense history of race relations, and its surprising yet conflicted approach to education of the races plays a vital role in the story. Race is also a facet of what defines the relationship between Maze and Mary Elizabeth in the 1960’s and it was interesting to see the different ways that they could relate and give to each other based on not only their experiences, but the ones that have shaped the lives of their parents.  The ripple effect in the small pond of mothers and daughters is thoughtfully examined and portrayed.  Hinnefeld’s writing is as gorgeous as it ever was and I found this novel to be very accessible without losing its subtlety, complexity or beauty.  Stranger Here Below has easily earned a place among the handful of books I have read this year that I immediately wanted to start reading again.

Read more Reviews At: Lit and LifeCaribousmomAmy ReadsFizzy Thoughts

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And it had food too…did you see my Literary Feasts on Spoon Bread?

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  1. I’ve never heard of this author before but, I’m sure glad I have now. I going to have to add her to my list right away. Thanks for the introduction to a new (to me) author.

  2. This looks really good! I think I was with you at the Unbridled stand at BEA this year – but I don’t remember this one. Great review, as always!

    Also – have taken your comment about my commenting to heart and have really stepped it up! I cleaned out my Reader and reorganized it, and have mostly caught up on book blogs, which makes the whole reading/commenting process much less daunting. I am leaving all sorts of comments all over the place!

  3. I’m not familiar with Joyce Hinnefeld but hope to be very soon! I love books with good female characters. I’m interested in this story that starts with a bit of a mystery requiring the author to explore the past and show us these women when they were younger. And it makes me wonder if they become friends again as well as why is one woman trying to rekindle the friendship and did she cause it to fizzle in the first place? I’m getting excited just thinking about reading this book! I’m going to look up In Hovering Flight as well and may read that one first since it’s in paperback.

    Thank you for introducing me to an excitingauthor with terrific talent. I cannot wait to read her books!
    ~ Amy

  4. I’ve just started reading this one. So far, I absolutely love the stories about all the different women. I almost find their histories more interesting than the Maze/ME storyline! I’ll admit I’d already pretty much forgotten about the letter that starts the book. I’m too caught up on all the absorbing life stories.

  5. I have been waiting to read this for much the same reason you held off. I want to read it when I have time to savor it, not just grab a moment here and there. So glad it will be worth the wait.

  6. I know exactly what you mean about putting off books you are pretty sure you’ll love. I do this quite often, wanting to wait for the perfect moment to read the book. It’s a strange, savoring sort of feeling, expectation, anticipation, and the such not. 🙂

  7. What a gorgeously written review – beautifully captures the essence of Hinnefeld’s latest work and her writing in general. Like you, I am a Hinnefeld (and Unbridled) fan! So glad you loved this one…and thank you for the link love too 🙂

  8. I have not read Joyce Hinnefeld and I hope someday soon I will get to know this author’s books.
    I think you are right about Unbridled books 🙂

    Lovely review.

  9. Thanks so much for this wonderful review, Nicole (and sorry it’s taken me so long to respond here). I’m so glad you liked STRANGER HERE BELOW–and I’m wondering if you now have a favorite spoon bread recipe? JH