Published September 2010 by Unbridled Books
Maze Jansen and Mary Elizabeth Cox - two young women from very different backgrounds, both weighed down by the burdens of their mothers - first meet in 1961 in what passes for a liberal arts college in Kentucky. What makes them unlikely friends is that Maze (Amazing Grace) is white and Mary Elizabeth is black in the segregated South but at Berea this is less of a problem than it might have been elsewhere.
Maze's mother, Vista, is a single mother, having been left on her wedding night but not before she got pregnant. Life has been hard for Vista and Maze, from living many years with Mamaw Marthie (Vista's grandmother) in the hill country to living with Sister Georgia, the last surviving Shaker. It was while living with Sister Georgia that Maze learned to weave, a skill she flourished at in college and beyond.
Mary Elizabeth's mother, Sarah, has spent nearly her entire life getting over the shock and grief of finding her beloved brother's body burned and hanging from a tree. Mary Elizabeth's father married Sarah when she was still a young girl, sure that his belief in God would be enough to help him help her. But she is simply too broken and as he pulls away from her, he also pulls away from Mary Elizabeth who will spend years trying to make him happy, first with music then with her educational prowess.
Maze has loved Sister Georgia long before she and her mother moved in the older woman and as soon as Mary Elizabeth meets Sister Georgia it's a feeling she feels as well. Georgia, who grew up as wealthy Georginea, fell in love with a black man as a young girl. She was immediately sent off to Berea where her unconventional opinions soon got her in trouble. It was not until she found the Shaker community that she finally found a home.
Hinnefeld has created some very interested and unique characters in Strangers Here Below. Unfortunately, for me it just felt like there were too many of them for such a relatively short book. Maze, in particular, didn't feel as fully developed as she might have been even though we do learn a lot about what goes on in her life. Georgia, Vista and Sarah all had more interesting stories and it was hard to care about Maze. Perhaps if the story had been longer, this could have been fleshed out more.
As for the relationship between Maze and Mary Elizabeth, which it seems was supposed to be the basis for the book, it felt more like something Hinnefeld was telling me rather than showing me. I just never felt the bond between the girls which made it hard to understand why Maze continued to reach out to Mary Elizabeth years after they left Berea.
All of this sounds like I didn't like the book which is not the case; I did like it, I just didn't love it. Hinnefeld's writing style appealed to me; she created a marvelous sense of place and of a people. I would certainly be willing to read more of her work.
"Maze found Sarah Cox so beautiful it hurt her eyes. Unearthly, she'd have said if she'd had the word at hand. More spirit than matter, than lungs and heart, skin and blood. There were depths of sorrow there, but also something about to rise, about to flutter like a delicate wing and fly far away from them all. Like Sister Georgia, who was heavier, more bound to the grass and dusty gound there on Holy Sinai's Plain, but also about to spin off the surface of the earth. Free at last, maybe, but no thanks to God Almighty."
As always, Unbridled Books has given me a book that is beautifully written with a unique story line. Their authors always make me think and look at things in a new way.