Choices

Mary Lee Settle, Author
Mary Lee Settle, Author Nan A. Talese $24.95 (376p) ISBN 978-0-385-47699-7
Paperback - 448 pages - 978-0-15-600388-9
Hardcover - 589 pages - 978-1-56895-266-6
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Written with urgency, conviction and grace, this keenly observed story of one woman's passage through the storms of the 20th century is Settle's best book since the novels in the Beulah Quintet. Her protagonist, born Melinda Mason Kregg in the early 1900s into a genteel, wealthy Richmond family, is a frivolous society deb until her father's death shocks her into social activism. Now the widowed Lady Dunston, at 83 she lies dying at her villa on an island off Italy, reflecting on her life. The first time Melinda makes a choice about the direction of her life is in 1931, when she joins the Red Cross and is sent to Harlan, Ky., where striking coal miners are being starved and brutalized by greedy mine owners. In Spain, she drives an ambulance through the carnage of the Civil War and experiences the futility of idealism when the major nations of the world cynically support Franco. In England, she endures the privation and danger of WWII, while her physician husband, also a veteran of the International Brigade, literally works himself to death. Back in America, she is drawn into the racial unrest of her native South through the heroism of the youthful freedom riders. Melinda's commitment to humanitarian principles and social justice is a gradual process; it's decency of character and a sensitive conscience that force her to eschew the safe, conventional path and take the harder road. Settle textures her narrative with a remarkable knowledge of period detail and an artist's eye for scenes that become emblazoned on the mind: desperate miners' families meeting in a church; a mass of Spanish refugees being strafed by Franco's airplanes; a London neighborhood destroyed by a V-2 bomb; a trio of polite Southerners preparing to lynch a white youth who has ``betrayed'' their side. Distilling the essence of some of our century's most pressing political and social issues, she humanizes them through complex, appealing characters. The theme is larger than one woman's life, but it's animated and made memorable by that very conjunction of the personal with the tides of historical events. This is a solid literary novel with sure sales potential. Author tour.
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