I received a copy of Stranger Here Below by Joyce Hinnefeld from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. It’s the first of Hinnefeld’s novels I’ve read.
About the Book:
Stranger Here Below begins with a letter, written in 1968 from Maze to her friend and college roommate Mary Elizabeth. The letter’s tone is nostalgic and sad. From it, we know that Mary Elizabeth hasn’t been responding to Maze’s letters, that many of the people in Maze’s life in Kentucky are gone, that Maze is married and has three young children. We know that something has occurred to push the two friends apart, though neither we nor Maze know what it was.
What follows is the story of Maze and Mary Elizabeth, from when they meet at Berea College in 1961 to the point when the letter was written. Woven into the girls’ story, and just as important as it, are the stories of the women around them. We hear about Mary Elizabeth’s mother, Sarah, and Maze’s mother, Vista. We meet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, their aunts and even the old Shaker woman cared for by Vista. The result is a storyline with the full weight of personal history behind it.
When I first started reading Stranger Here Below, I didn’t think I’d like it all that much. I found the time jumps jarring, the multiple characters and storylines confusing. I felt that not enough time was spent on Mary Elizabeth and Maze for me to get to know them.
My opinion changed, however, as I read on. As the women whose stories were told began to show up in the main storyline, I began to understand where they fit in. I realized each woman’s story was told more or less chronologically, so the dates weren’t that important and the time jumps were less jarring once I knew who was who. I began to see more of Mary Elizabeth and Maze in their own storyline, but they also began to turn up in the other women’s tales. By the novel’s end, I felt I knew their whole lives and the lives of the women who had raised them.
I also realized that Stranger Here Below is as much about the other women as it is about the two main characters. The novel explores how we are shaped by our pasts and by the people in them. Because each woman’s story was explored, each became an intimately known character so that when she did appear in the Mary Elizabeth/Maze narrative as a supporting character, she was much deeper and richer than such supporting characters usually are. This structure gave Stranger Here Below a very rich, full feeling that I came to appreciate.
The one aspect of the novel I couldn’t fully grasp, though, was why Maze considered herself and Mary Elizabeth to be such great friends in the first place. Mary Elizabeth is shy and private, reluctant to share anything about her personal or family life. Maze, in contrast, is an open book and expects other people to be the same way. I never felt like Mary Elizabeth considered them friends the way Maze did. In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I began to see a two-sided friendship. I’m not sure this is a flaw; I think perhaps it’s deliberate. I think it takes Mary Elizabeth a long time to realize what a friend really is and why she might like to have one. In the end, it was Mary Elizabeth who had the furthest to go.
By the time I read the last page, I was fully absorbed in Stranger Here Below. Its characters were real and complete, and even though the novel only covers a few years of the main characters’ lives, the other women’s stories made it feel like a lot had happened. I enjoyed knowing not only Maze and Mary Elizabeth, but Vista and Sarah and Sister Georgia and the others as well. Overall, Stranger Here Below was a warm and multi-layered novel I would not hesitate to recommend.
What books have you started out not really liking, only to discover by the end that you really enjoyed them? I’m also curious, if you’ve read this book: what’s your interpretation of the title? Please warn if your comment contains spoilers!