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Thoughts on “Stranger Here Below” by Joyce Hinnefeld

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 by Joyce Hinnefeld (cover)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.

My Thoughts:

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.

Your Turn!

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!

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  • http://theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com The Literary Omnivore

    For me, that was Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle; I hated the narrator at first, but I was engaged in the story by the end of it.

    • http://www.readinasinglesitting.com Stephanie

      I agree with The Gargoyle! I’d been waiting for ages to read it, but when I did it took me a while to get into it. I did fall in love with it in the end, though.

      Another one that took me a while to crack was Lovesong by Alex Miller. It took me a while to get past the author’s prose style.

      • Erin

        Hmm, I’m intrigued now and want to read this book! I’ll remember what you and Claire advised and keep going, even if I want to quit. I’ve not heard of Lovesong by Miller…I’ll look into it.

    • Erin

      Hmm, I’ve heard some good things about The Gargoyle. I’ll keep your experience in mind if I end up reading it.

  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    I’ve not read this book, but I *have* had the experience of my opinion changing over a book. I honestly don’t give that much chance to modern books, only to classics. If a modern book doesn’t click with me right away, I tend to skip it. But with classics, I give them a long time. One example is this past summer I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I HATED the book for the first half to two thirds. In fact, if I’d been reading it for my own pleasure, I would have given it up. I feel half of a classic is plenty to make a judgement on! But it was for a book club, so I kept going, and in the second half, things started to fall in place. While I never really enjoyed the narration of the book, the ideas it brought out were fantastic. By the end, it turned into one of my favorite books of the year.

    • Erin

      I have a feeling I’ll be the same way when I start reading more classics! I have Things Fall Apart on my classics project list, so I will bear in mind your experience as I read it. It’s always so hard to know it’s worth sticking with a book!

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I have heard varying things about this book, but from your review, it sounds like something I might like. I am always reluctant to put down a book I am not enjoying, because what if it’s brilliant towards the end, and I miss it?? This has lead me to read many stinkers all the way to the end, but a few gems have popped out as well.

    • Erin

      I’m the opposite — I often put a book down if I don’t love it, because life is too short to read bad books and all! Stranger Here Below was definitely worth continuing, though.

  • http://www.thebooknerdclub.blogspot.com mummazappa

    For me Mr Rosenblum’s List was a stinker in the beginning, but I kept pushing through because it was for my book club, and by the end of it I loved it. Most of the time I keep reading even though I’m not really enjoying it, I’ve got a bit of a problem with needing to finish things :-)

    • Erin

      I’ve heard good things about Mr. Rosenblum’s List! I love it when I end up finishing a book because I’ve committed to do so, and I end up really liking it. Those are the books I’ll usually give up on if I’m reading them on my own!

  • http://www.joycehinnefeld.com Joyce Hinnefeld

    Thanks, Erin, for this lovely review of STRANGER HERE BELOW. I’m glad you stuck with the book!

    • Erin

      My pleasure. I’m glad too!

  • http://lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    I’ve always found that books that jump around a bit and shift characters can take some getting used to but once you settle in, they are often very rewarding.

    This sounds interesting. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

    • Erin

      I agree, though I find some authors do it better than others. Books that jump and are well done can certainly turn out to be rich and complicated in a way their more straightforward counterparts may not be!

      I hope you enjoy Stranger Here Below, if/when you get to it :-)

  • http://bibliophilebythesea.blogspot.com/ Bibliophile By the Sea

    I loved this authors first book so I hope to get a copy of this one sometime as well.

    • Erin

      I added her first book to my list! I’m glad to hear it’s good.