Novels that incorporate real people in their stories are fascinating. The author takes a familiar person and the kernel of a story and, using his or her imagination, creates an interesting and vivid portrait.
There are three recent books that fit this category: Homer Hickam’s funny and poignant “Carrying Albert Home,” Adriana Trigiani’s glamorous “All the Stars in the Heavens” and Paula McLain’s engrossing “Circling the Sun.”
McLain wrote the hugely popular “The Paris Wife,” about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. She follows that with the story of Beryl Markham, who wrote her own life story in “West With The Night."
Markham was raised in Kenya by her father after her mother took her brother and left to return to London. Markham was a tomboy, and like her father, she trained horses and rode them in races, where she became successful.
She fought the prejudice of men who didn’t believe a woman should be doing a man’s work, and had a disastrous marriage that she tried for years to extricate herself from. Markham also became entangled in an affair with Denys Hatten, who was also involved with Karen Blixen (also known as Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”).
McLain makes you feel the dust and heat of Kenya, and she paints a riveting portrait of Markham, a complex woman ahead of her time. Markham thirsted for adventure, and although she became best known for being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, “Circling the Sun” mostly deals with her interesting life before that achievement.
Homer Hickam’s “Carrying Albert Home” tells the story of his parents, who, during the Depression, had an adventure of their own. According to his mother, she used to date actor Buddy Ebsen before he was famous. He was the love of her life, and she was crushed when he left her to make it big in New York.
So Elsie marries Homer’s dad (also named Homer), and becomes the thing she dreads most: a coal miner’s wife. Buddy Ebsen sent a gift to Elsie for her marriage: an alligator she named Albert.
After a few years, Albert became too big to live in their home, so Elsie wanted to take him home to Florida to set him free. Homer goes along with this crazy idea because he loves his wife dearly, even though he fears she still loves Buddy.
Along the way from West Virginia to Florida, they have a series of adventures and meet many people, including the author John Steinbeck, who hitches a ride with them while he does research for a story he wants to write about coal miners.
When they get to Florida, they end up having dinner with Ernest Hemingway, just as a hurricane is bearing down on the Keys. The Hickams reminded me of Forrest Gump with the way they ended up in the middle of some crazy adventures, including foiling a bank robbery and acting as stand-ins in a Tarzan movie.
Young Homer is not sure exactly what is true about his parents’ stories and what is exaggeration, so “Carrying Albert Home” is a novel, but it is rollicking, fun and yet poignant at the same time as the Hickams try to find a way to make their marriage work, even when they seemed ill-suited at times for each other.
Adriana Trigiani takes her writing in a different direction in “All The Stars In The Heavens." She takes the old Hollywood story about Loretta Young giving birth in secret to Clark Gable’s child and claiming that she adopted the baby, and adds in an Italian woman named Alda, who was asked to leave the convent where she planned to be a nun, as Loretta’s assistant, and weaves a story that will hook you from the get-go.
You’ll feel like you are watching a behind-the-scenes documentary on Turner Classic Movies as you read about the glory days of old Hollywood, when studios controlled their stars and scandals ruined careers instead of creating them, like in today’s atmosphere. (Kardashian, anyone?)
Trigiani gives us another side to such stars as Young, Gable, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy and David Niven, and you’ll be Googling Loretta Young the minute you finish this amazing, gorgeous story.
If you like your fiction with a little (or a lot) of reality, each of these novels should be on your to-read list. They are all enlightening and enjoyable.