Thoughts on books, family, and life in one impressive package.

Book Cover Image: Stranger Here Below by Joyce HinnefeldTitle: Stranger Here Below

Author: Joyce Hinnefeld

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“In 1961, when Amazing Grace Jansen, a firecracker from Appalachia, meets Mary Elizabeth Cox, the daughter of a Black southern preacher, at Kentucky’s Berea College, they already carry the scars and traces of their mothers’ troubles. Poor and single, Maze’s mother has had to raise her daughter alone and fight to keep a roof over their heads. Mary Elizabeth’s mother has carried a shattering grief throughout her life, a loss so great that it has disabled her and isolated her stern husband and her brilliant, talented daughter.

The caution this has scored into Mary Elizabeth has made her defensive and too private and limited her ambitions, despite her gifts as a musician. But Maze’s earthy fearlessness might be enough to carry them both forward toward lives lived bravely in an angry world that changes by the day.

Both of them are drawn to the enigmatic Georginea Ward, an aging Shaker woman whose faith is rooted in fairness and the long reach of unconditional love.”

Thoughts: I enjoy literary fiction for the depth of its stories, the necessity of savoring each word and its ability to allow the reader to enter a new world without sacrificing the human foibles that connect the reader with the characters. Yet, I truly struggle to review literary fiction because my reaction to it is so subtle and so internal, it really is all but impossible to put that reaction into words. This is especially true of Stranger Here Below.

A beautifully told story about the friendship between two unlikely characters, Stranger Here Below is not just about friendship but rather delves into such weighty topics as racial tension, gender relations, politics, and religion. Maze and Mary Elizabeth explore their positions in the wider world, wanting to move forward while still tied to their family histories. It is a story of their journey towards independence as much as anything.

Ms. Hinnefeld chose to tell the story through the points-of-view of every female character mentioned – Sister Georgia with her refusal to follow the rules, Maze’s mother with her loneliness, Mary Elizabeth’s mother with her childhood trauma, Maze with her unique perspective on life, and Mary Elizabeth with her talent and limitations in a white world. As the characters intersect, their individual stories make sense and paint a picture of strong but damaged women who each manage to survive in her own way. The scars run deep but love helps them all overcome those scars, as does their individual strength.

Ms. Hinnefeld’s prose is simply stunning. Clear, concise but effective, the reader has no confusion about what is occurring, no matter how horrific it may be. Stranger Here Below is not one of those stories that leaves a reader satisfied or even at peace with the resolution. Life is messy, and Ms. Hinnefeld does not shy away from that truth. Mary Elizabeth gains her independence but the cost is severe. Maze blazes her own path but at a price. While the reader fervently wishes that each of the characters would find peace, the reader knows that if this were to have happened, the ending would have been less authentic. Stranger Here Below tests the adage that love and friendship are forever and does so with an honest look at the outside forces that impact all relationships. While it isn’t for everyone, this is one novel that challenges and rewards the right reader.

Thank you to NetGalley for my review copy!

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