12 tremendous ways to make a difference for a family with a child on the autism spectrum

Do you know a family living with autism? Have you thought about helping them, but you’re just not sure what they might need and how you could help? Here’s a quick list of 12 ways you can help a family with a child on the autism spectrum.

  1. Gather friends and organize a fix-it day to help with home repairs. Some children on the autism spectrum can be destructive. I know our children have scratched doors, put small holes in walls, and ripped window screens during a sensory meltdown. Personally, it’s hard to schedule home repairs because (depending on the day) we may need to have our full attention on the kids. A small crew of handy friends plowing through a family’s home repair list would be a wonderful way to make a huge difference.
  2. Offer to play with a child while parents take a break. Sometimes, a small break to get a haircut, get groceries, or go sit at a coffee shop alone is all parents may need. If it were my kids, you could color, craft, build with Legos, play outside, or watch a movie. You may even enjoy it!
  3. Give a gift card for copying expenses. If you’re not in the special needs community, you may not realize the shocking, staggering amount of paperwork that often accompanies an autism diagnosis. I’m always needing to make copies of lengthy documents to have on hand for doctor appointments, therapists, and school. The paper costs really add up so a gift card would be unexpected and welcome.
  4. If you’re the type that likes to bring over meals to help a family with an illness or a new baby, put a family with autism on your food rotation list. Once or twice a year ask for a convenient time to drop off a meal. Even if the child has a special diet, the parents may love a hot meal they don’t have to cook.
  1. Offer to take notes at an IEP meeting. IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. If the child is school-age, chances are there are regular IEP meetings at school. They can be confusing and emotional, so offering to attend an IEP as moral support or to take notes would be extremely helpful.
  2. Ask if they need an extra person for a dentist or doctor appointment. Dentist appointments can be especially anxiety-producing for a child on the spectrum—bright lights, sharp instruments, unpleasant sounds. You could go along to help communicate with the medical team while the parent comforts the child.
  1. Similarly, you can offer to watch other children during medical or therapy appointments. It can be very challenging to take a typical child along to every appointment for a child with autism. Watching a sibling could let the parent focus completely on the special needs child at the already stressful appointments.
  1. Invite a child with autism to your child’s birthday party, or accept an invitation to a birthday party for a child with autism. This is a big one. By it’s very nature, autism creates communication difficulties, making friendships difficult. Some children on the spectrum struggle with friendships and may not get invited to many birthday parties. If the child is young, they may not understand why they’re not invited or why friends don’t come to their birthday parties. Getting more birthday party invitations could make a big difference in a young life. Chances are, a parent will likely stay at the party with the child with autism to help smooth over confusing social interactions.
  1. Check-in often with a text, phone call, or email. And repeat. Please don’t take offense if the parent doesn’t reply or takes awhile to reply. Autism can be isolating for the child and the family. Sending a short message to ask how everyone is doing is a nice touch and appreciated more than you know.
  1. Building off of #9, keep inviting a family with autism to your gatherings. Even if they decline most of the time, inviting them could make them feel less isolated. And please don’t take it personally when they can’t attend—it could be for reasons out of their control.
  1. If you have a talent for organization, ask if you can help them sort through and file paperwork. Or perhaps they need help switching out closets during season changes or organizing the pantry. These stubborn chores take more concentration than they may have on a typical day, so any help you can provide will be deeply appreciated.
  1. If you have a cabin or vacation home, give the family a free or discounted stay at a time when you won’t be using it or can’t rent it out. Treatments for autism can be very expensive leaving less discretionary money available for fun vacations.

 

This is just a short list. Comment below with any additional ideas. One parent in my support group suggested following the “see a need, fill a need” adage. And think of ways you can use your talents and things you already like doing to lend a hand. More than anything, the family will be deeply grateful for you thinking of them and entering into their world even in a small way

Thank you for reading. Wishing you all peace and love,

Amy

 

 

 

 

 

Autism Awareness Month: 7 Insights from a Parent

This April marks a year since we received our younger daughter’s autism diagnosis. A few months later, the same team of specialists diagnosed our older daughter with autism. Several friends with children on the spectrum guided me through the first few months after the diagnoses. I was grateful for their help and advice. So as our nation celebrates Autism Awareness Month, I’ll share our family’s journey with autism as a way of paying it forward.

The Autism Society describes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a “complex developmental disability, typically appearing during childhood and affecting a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.” This means an individual with autism may have language delays, repetitive behaviors like rocking or hand flapping, or difficulty making eye contact, among many other behaviors associated with the disability. The CDC estimates 1 in 68 children—1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls—are on the autism spectrum.

The good news is, early diagnosis and therapeutic services can improve the quality of life for children on the spectrum. The tough news is, there’s currently no cure for autism so the symptoms my daughters experience may last throughout their lives. During the ups and downs of the last year, here are seven  things I’ve learned about autism.

  1. “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” After our daughters’ diagnoses, I read this quote by Dr. Stephen Shore. The autism spectrum is just that—a range of symptoms and behaviors. Our daughters are verbal, make eye contact (generally), and play creatively. When it comes to symptoms, our daughters are fairly different. Our older daughter is sensitive to certain smells and textures, doesn’t like to be touched, often struggles with new social situations and friendships, and is rarely aggressive.  Her younger sister reacts strongly to loud noises and bright lights, can hit or bite when scared, has trouble adapting to changes in routine, and repeats phrases when she’s overwhelmed. Like our daughters, each individual with autism in unique. The CDC has good information on signs and symptoms across the spectrum.
  2. It’s considerate and respectful to use people-first language. Focusing on the person first and the diagnosis or disability second places more emphasis on the individual as a valued member of our society. Rather than refer to a child as autistic, many (though not all) in the autism community prefer to instead say child with autism.
  3. “I am different, not less.” This quote is from Dr. Temple Grandin, an adult with autism and a leading animal science expert. Nonverbal until she was three, she eventually found a successful career based on her ability to see patterns. Using her strengths, she develops unique designs for livestock equipment. While an autism diagnosis can bring helpful resources to set a child on a supportive path, it can also bring labels that might be limiting or damaging. For our daughters, we do our best to try to talk to them like we did before the diagnosis. We say “you can do anything you work toward.” Their futures may be uncertain, but we hope our daughters will be able to have strong relationships and fulfilling careers.
  4. Books can only take you so far. I lost count of the number of books I’ve read on autism. Some were helpful, a few were confusing, and others were downright maddening. At a certain point, I needed to talk to other parents. I joined a support group and discovered an incredibly kind and compassionate network of parents ready to offer advice or a listening ear. I now have close friends in that group. When we meet, it’s a relief to talk to parents who just get it—how much we care for our kids, the exhaustion from daily struggles, and the exhilaration of reaching milestones that seemed so distant.
  5. Caregiver fatigue is real. I can’t think of any parent who isn’t legitimately tired. But for caregivers of children on the autism spectrum, the level of exhaustion can be serious and chronic. The daily tension of anticipating or preventing sensory meltdowns, frequent calls to and from school or therapy providers, multiple weekly therapy appointments, extensive paperwork, and regular doctor visits for medication checks are just a few reasons for my fatigue.  Breaks are rare, but necessary. I’m incredibly appreciative of the talented professionals who help our daughters, my patient husband, and our supportive extended family who help us take a vacation to recharge.
  6. Autism may be invisible, but the associated behaviors aren’t. There are no physical characteristics that set individuals with autism apart from other people. My daughters look typical, but can act in atypical ways—like loud screeching at a mall, throwing shoes while waiting in line, or rocking back and forth with ears covered in a loud restaurant. In that moment when strangers may be silently or overtly judging my parenting, I struggle to ignore insensitive comments or looks. This is why autism awareness is important. Shining a light on invisible disabilities can help build empathy and understanding. Watch this video from Australia on the importance of accepting difference. Elaine Hall from The Miracle Project explains, “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a child with autism to raise the consciousness of the village.”
  1. Pink looks different than blue on the spectrum. A majority of autism research has centered on boys. That means many of the early signs of autism—not making eye contact, withdrawing from touch, no spoken words—may be more indicative of boys than girls on the spectrum. Diagnostic tools based on boys with the disorder can lead to late or misdiagnoses in girls. Recent research on girls with autism indicate higher levels of social interaction, fewer rigid interests, and less obvious behavior problems. I can personally share that these differences likely contributed to our daughters’ relatively late diagnoses at ages six and eight, rather than the average age of four. When we have more research on girls, we can develop better diagnostic tools. And when both boys and girls are diagnosed earlier, they can receive therapies that may reduce the severity or costs of the disorder over a lifetime.

A year into our family’s journey with autism, I can share that while I know more than I did,  I still have a lot more to learn. Together, we’ve accomplished a lot. We now have several physicians and therapists we know and trust, a small circle of friends in the autism community, and better tools to manage confusing social expectations. I want to emphasize that while autism challenges our family, our lives are far from bleak. We love our daughters unconditionally and they bring us joy in their own quirky ways. Thank you for reading about our family and learning more about autism. It’s certainly a complex disorder with rapidly evolving research findings. If you would like to learn more, consider these resources:

The Autism Society of America

Center for Disease Control evidence based information on autism

The Center for the Study of Autism

Feel free to reach out to me if you would like to know more about our family’s experience with autism. And if you know a family with autism, consider asking the parents if they need a break, help with home repairs, or even a listening ear–a little empathy can have an enormous difference.

 

 

Book Review: The Yanks Are Starving

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Veterans rights are front page news today. From a staggering and seemingly unsolvable disability claims backlog at the VA to recent veterans struggling to find employment back home, veterans issues look bleak. Naively, I assumed current events are an anomaly and that our nation has always treated veterans fairly.

Despite all the servicemen in my family, injustices to returning soldiers never came up in our dinner conversations. My father served in the Air Force, my uncle was an Army Ranger, and my grandpa served in the Navy in the Korean War. On my mom’s side, my grandfather served in the Army and survived over three years as a POW in the Cabanatuan prison camp. And, I’ve read a fair amount about war—Ghost Soldiers comes to mind—but I must have missed (or overlooked?) significant aspects of how we treat returning soldiers.

For example, can you imagine tanks rumbling down streets of our nation’s capital? And a military campaign led by Douglas MacArthur to fight our own veterans? It sounds flat out unbelievable, but that’s how events played out in 1932.

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” ~Pearl Buck

Glen Craney’s, The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army, shines a light on a not well-known chapter of our country’s history. Craney divides the novel in two parts—first chronicling a diverse group of eight characters in WWI, then telling their stories again in 1932 as they struggle in the aftermath of the war. While Herbert Hoover’s presidency grappled with the Great Depression, veterans suffered mightily.

After surviving bayonets, cannons, and mustard gas in the trenches of France, America’s veterans were promised a bonus payment for their service. But here’s the kicker—Congress scheduled the bonus payment to be paid in 1945. The distant payment date became unacceptable to many former soldiers. All too frequently homeless or unemployed, WWI veterans began to unite under a common cause to urge Congress to pay the bonus immediately. The author carefully narrates how tens of thousands of desperate men (and a few women) became involved in a risky, nationwide fight to receive payment for service. Craney details how the Bonus Army formed, grew, and then escalated to a prolonged march and deadly conflict in Washington, D.C.

I have a new perspective on our current veterans’ struggles after reading this book. Which is precisely why I genuinely love reading historical fiction. Skilled authors like Craney are able to make the past relevant again.

Will you like it?

If you enjoy historical fiction and military history, The Yanks Are Starving is intriguing. While I typically don’t choose to cozy up to bloody battle scenes, I do appreciate learning more about an important aspect of, frankly, a disgraceful period of our history. I liked the second half of the novel a little better than the first because the story is set in one of my favorite cities, D.C., and I much prefer reading about nasty politics over gruesome scenes in trenches. Craney’s novel satisfies a lot of my criteria for a good book—solid writing, richly developed characters, cultural relevance, and suspense.

From time to time, I struggled with dialects assigned to certain characters, like Walter Waters. He’s a pivotal character, and yet I found myself sometimes skimming his pages because I grew tired of the accent.

Speaking of characters, I had two favorites. I loved the selfless, outspoken Mennonite nurse, Anna Raber, a composite character. And, I was completely charmed by the motorcycle riding, landscape painting, WWI veteran and D.C. Chief of Police, Pelham Glassford.

Is this a good book club pick?

It depends. Technically, I’m in three book clubs (yes, I’m overcommitted and it’s a character flaw), and I think only one of the clubs would like to read The Yanks Are Starving. For ardent fans of stories on wartime heroics, there is plenty to value and discuss. Personally, I’m not recommending it to my friends who regularly gravitate more toward character-driven novels. To be specific, if your book club enjoyed Gone Girl, Everything I Never Told You, and Orphan Train, this book is probably not for you. That said, I am recommending it to my husband, several uncles, and a few other friends that devour military literature. The Yanks Are Starving just feels more like a guy’s book. Dude book clubs—I’ve heard they exist—would likely appreciate the novel.

Would it make a good gift?

Yes. Craney’s novel is on my gift list. I have a few individuals in mind, but I’m not revealing who will receive a copy for perhaps Father’s Day or an upcoming birthday. The Yanks Are Starving would make a great present for readers who aren’t daunted by a long book (over 500 pages) and who like to get a 360-degree view of a conflict.

Book review disclaimer

I received a digital reading copy of The Yanks Are Starving from the author. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy

Loving Eleanor: Book Review + Author Interview

Some stories need to be told at the right time. This is especially true for narratives about people breaking new ground or living outside of traditional societal norms.

LovingEleanorBookReviewToday, it’s not unusual for women to hold positions of power in the public sphere, or to be in leadership roles in the workforce. And, same-sex couples are now generally accepted—even celebrated—in modern America. But society was different in 1978 when Lorena Hickok’s correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt was unsealed at the FDR library. Over 3,000 letters documented the couple’s friendship and romance that spanned decades. A same-sex romance in the White House in the 1930s? Shocking.

But we live in a different era. Now, I think Susan Wittig Albert’s novel, Loving Eleanor, will be welcomed and cherished by readers. 2016 is the right time to tell this story. And it is, in fact, a story. The author makes it clear that Loving Eleanor is her own interpretation of the intimacy between Hick and Eleanor (ER, as she is nicknamed in the novel). [Scroll down to read my Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert. I mean, read the whole review—it’s great!—but don’t miss the Q&A at the end.]

Read all about it

Loving Eleanor charmed me on many levels. Susan Wittig Albert draws from history and an incredible letter collection to imagine how romance developed between Lorena Hickock and Eleanor Roosevelt in extraordinary circumstances. Lorena Hickock, or Hick, the first female AP reporter, first met Eleanor in 1928 during FDR’s bid for governor of New York. From their early interactions to their intimate affair in the 1930s to their friendship that lasted until ER’s death in 1962, the novel covers a lot of ground.

Before I opened the book, I knew the basic premise that Eleanor Roosevelt had a very close female friend that may or may not have been platonic. But this novel is much more than a history lesson or exposé. The writing is compelling and I was quickly wrapped up in the characters—how they found privacy in a political fishbowl, why they risked so much for each other, and the compromises they made to find a space for their unconventional relationship and ambitions.

Will you like it?

Do you like historical fiction? Do you like a fresh take on an old story? Do you like to learn about women succeeding and making a difference against the odds? If you like all those elements, then I believe you will adore this novel. I love historical fiction, and this book is certainly in my all-time favorites list.

I would be surprised if readers don’t find themselves rooting for Hick. While the author takes care to develop both women—what they feel, how they dress, their faults—it’s Hick that stuck with me. Growing up in poverty, Hick became a respected reporter on the national scene with a byline picked up around the country. Flawed, yes, but her combination of grit and warmth hooked me.

Is this a good book club pick?

I give a qualified yes. The author is skilled at bringing the women and the time period to life. From the nuanced writing to the fresh insights on the incredible poverty in the 1930s, there’s much to love and discuss. I believe the novel will spark rich conversations about historical opportunities for women, how attitudes toward same-sex relationships have changed over time, and ways women still encounter challenges in the workforce and in their private lives. That said, conservative readers may not enjoy reading about a lesbian romance, in particular, an affair involving the well-loved (but perhaps not well-understood) historical figure of Eleanor Roosevelt. To each their own, but to me love is love is love.

Would it make a good gift?

This is funny, because I already have plans to purchase this novel for several friends. So, yes, I think Loving Eleanor is a great gift for lovers of history and well-behaved women that definitely made an impact. You only have a short wait. It’s scheduled for a February, 2016 publish date.

More to the story—Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert

Q. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Hick have complex, interesting personalities. If you were able to spend a day with either Eleanor or Hick, which lady would you choose, and why?

A. Oh, dear. I don’t want to choose! I’ll have both, please. But if I had to pick one, I think I’d choose Hick. I’d love to ask her what it was like to work in that AP office back in the late 20s, and I would very much like to know more about her later life, which isn’t well documented. She wasn’t perfect, but she was a very brave woman who rolled up her sleeves and made her way in a challenging world without a lot of help from others.

Q. Do you think Hick made the right decision to seal the letters, only to be opened several years after her death?

A. I do indeed—although I wish she’d left them sealed for 30 or 40 years, instead of just ten. I think the social climate would have been different. People would have been more understanding than they were in 1978. And it was really unfortunate that they had to be opened when Doris Faber was there. People shouldn’t write biographies about people whom they dislike—and Doris Faber disliked Hick from the moment she opened the letters.

Q. What access did you have to their letters? Were you able to handle the letters and read them at your leisure? If so, what was that like?

A. The letters are available to researchers at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, where I read many of them. (There are over 3,300!) Reading was like listening in on a long, intimate conversation, with fascinating references to people and places of the times. I read the letters with respect, remembering how profoundly ER has influenced so many of us and how Hick influenced, mentored, and supported her. As I mention in the reading list at the back of the book, some of the letters are also available in a published collection called Empty Without You, edited by Rodger Streitmatter.

Q. How did you decide to end your book? Why did you decide to not write about the women and their careers post-FDR?

A. I wrote about those post-FDR years, but not as part of the fiction; instead, I chose to tell the rest of the story in a non-fiction afterword. The focus of the fictional story was the years in which the two women were the centers of each other’s lives; after FDR’s death, when ER became “First Lady of the World” (in President Truman’s phrase), they moved in different orbits, around different centers. I wanted to emphasize that difference by telling that part of the story in a different voice—mine, not Hick’s.

Q. We live in a time now where same-sex marriage is legal and widely accepted. If ER and Hick had the luxury of today’s legal and social constructs, do you think they would have married after FDR’s death?

A. I don’t think they would have married at that point. If it had been possible to marry (FDR and the legal system notwithstanding), I think it would have occurred in 1933 or even 1934, when they were most intimately involved, and before ER began to find so many different ways to put her energies to work. If they had married then, I believe that they would have lived together for the rest of their lives, making accommodations for the needs and desires of each.

Q. Both ER and Hick were high-achievers. What accomplishments are most inspiring to you?

A. Both of them were extraordinarily brave. Hick was a ground-breaking journalist who came from a poor, unprivileged background and used her skills to write about strong women achievers, even as she was suffering from severe diabetes, at a time when the disease was so difficult to control. ER was a strong, ground-breaking woman who used her position to help others, while she fought her dragons—her deep doubts and fears.

Book review disclaimer

I received an advance reading copy of Loving Eleanor. I was not compensated in any other way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy

No Drama Guide to Choosing Books for Book Club

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Picture this: you’re at book club, the book discussion is winding down, you and your friends are on a second (or third) glass of wine, and your belly is full of bruschetta and mini key lime tarts. Then someone notices the time. Now you need to wrap up the evening and pick the next book. Depending on your group, this could go down smoothly (like the wine bottles you just drained) or cause trouble. As a veteran book-clubber I can suggest a few ways to pick books without wrecking the vibe.

Pick a pleasing process

Book club isn’t just about the books, ambience, and conversation. A well-run book club is organized with easy to understand rules. One cornerstone is how you pick the books. You have several options:

  1. The host or organizer of each meeting chooses the book. Some book clubs like to link the book with the host. On a positive note, this cuts down on debate because what the host decides wins. However, not everyone likes the pressure of suggesting the next book. Often this method involves scheduling the hosts for the next six to 12 months. Each host is responsible for sending their pick to the group in advance.
  1. Like a fantasy draft, pick a year’s worth of books all at once. This is my favorite method. Everyone comes to the meeting with two to three book suggestions with summaries. The group gets to weigh in on all the selections and choose the next eight to 12 books. Often, this means everyone gets at least one of their picks in the lineup. Plus, when you select a batch of books in one sitting it’s easier to mix up the genres. Do you really want to read three slavery novels in a row? Could you stomach more than two dystopias a year? You don’t have to be too methodical, but it’s nice to balance the choices. And picking books in advance can be cost effective because you’ll have plenty of time to reserve books through the library. Or you’ll have time to swap books. On the negative side, it’s hard to integrate new members. And, if a great book comes along you’ll have to wait several months to add it to the list. Still, I prefer the all-at-once approach because the book selection discussion is concentrated in one meeting and the rest of the year just flows.
  1. Select the next host and book at the end of meeting. If you prefer to go with the flow and be open to new releases, you might like selecting books one or two at a time. When you wrap up the current book you can move right into discussing what you want to read next. You get a lively open discussion and any member can suggest the next book with consensus or a loose vote deciding the next books. This works well if you all have similar tastes or don’t mind a little back-and-forth debate. If you choose this method, the leader may want to interject every now and then to make sure some of the quieter members get heard. And be prepared with a quick summary and rating to back up your suggestions.

Other rules—frequency, spoilers, hosts, and meeting spots

You’ll need to decide how often you meet—usually every four to six weeks works well for most groups. I’ll say that my first group of single ladies enjoyed meeting once a month and rarely had problems finishing books. Once babies entered the picture, we met less often so that we had more time to read the last chapter. So, consider your group dynamics when setting up the meetings.

On a related note, it’s a good idea to set up a ground rule on spoilers. I personally like a general guideline of not requiring everyone to finish the book as long as they don’t mind when the discussion turns to plot spoilers and the ending.

Now, who will host and when? If you don’t link the hosts to the books (see above) then the easiest way is to set the host schedule six months to a year in advance.

Where will you meet? It’s up to your group to decide if you want to meet in homes, at restaurants or bars, coffee shops, or public spaces like libraries or community centers. Hosting at homes is often more convenient as long as roommates, kids, and partners can find safe places to hide from raucous voices and hooting laughs. It’s also a good idea to be clear about the hosting expectations. In my first book club everyone (including the hostess) brought either a beverage or a dish to share. Often, most brought a bottle of wine and an appetizer. Another approach that also works well is for the host to provide the beverages and guests bring an appetizer or dessert.

Bars, restaurants, and coffee shops are decent alternatives to meeting in homes. It’s good to get out of the house, and even better to avoid cleaning your house. But this depends on your group’s budget. Not everyone can afford to go out on a regular basis. If budgets are a concern, consider coffee shops. Check the seating options and noise level. Of the three, I think coffee shops with meeting rooms are the best. Restaurants and bars can get noisy and may not have a good space for discussion—it’s hard to engage everyone in a discussion at a long table.

Not necessarily by the book

Here’s the deal. There are so many ways to run your book club. In the end, you’ll know what works well for the group. If your meetings start to thin out or it feels stale, try mixing up how you pick the books or find a new place to meet. And, consider following authors on social media channels—some are willing to Skype with book clubs.

In the end, it’s all about the books and friendship—and the snacks. We just finished People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and the Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Next on my reading list are Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert (scheduled for publication February 2016) and Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.

What’s next on your reading list?

New book review: Sisters of Shiloh

I’m an only child and I married an only child. So here we are—two only children parenting our daughters, puzzled at the simultaneous sibling bond and rivalry. We’re lost when they bicker, but we swoon when we witness their massive love for each other. Sisters are special, without a doubt. When I see the girls holding hands, writing love notes to each other, and cuddling on the couch I know I’m witnessing something big. These two girls love each other like toast loves butter. If they were ever separated I know they would suffer.

Sisters of Shiloh

The complexity of sisterhood and suffering are dominant themes in Sisters of Shiloh. Written by two sisters, Kathy Hepinstall and Becky Hepinstall Hilliker, Sisters of Shiloh is a gripping and bloody, but romantic novel set in the Civil War. Fans of historical fiction and Southern lore will be drawn in to the story of Libby and Josephine, disguised as men, who join the Stonewall Brigade to avenge a husband’s death and protect an unforgiveable secret. Central to the story—bigger than the gristly war over secession—is the limit of sisterly love. The book asks: how far would you go to protect your sister?

The story

Josephine, a quiet and chip-toothed girl coming of age in Virginia, loves and depends on her younger sister Libby. Libby, sweetly feminine and pretty, is courted by many, but prefers Josephine’s company. That is, until Arden, a brash neighbor’s son, changes their dynamic. Josephine is on the outside of their young love and grows increasingly frustrated at Arden’s ability to draw Libby into his world so completely that Libby is no longer herself.

Years pass. Arden and Libby’s friendship grows into an all-consuming love. They marry and set up house in a small home. Josephine assists in her father’s dentist practice and withdraws from her sister. Arden, vehemently against the Union, joins the Confederate ranks as a soldier in the famous Stonewall Brigade. And it’s here amid heinous bloodshed and hardship that the story turns. It’s not a spoiler to say that Arden dies—just read the opening lines of Libby defending herself against Arden’s ghost.

What happens next reverses the “wife grieves husband’s death” story arc into a vengeful and almost unbelievable tale of Libby joining the Confederate army to kill 21 Yankees—a death for every year of Arden’s gone-too-soon life. Josephine, unwilling to stay home while Libby likely dies in battle, binds her breasts, dresses like a man, and enlists with her sister.

The sisters struggle to fulfill promises through horrid camp conditions, fear of being discovered as women (not young Thomas and Joseph willing to die for the South), and barbaric fighting. Libby’s eye-for-an-eye obsession is flanked by Josephine’s growing love for a fellow soldier, Wesley.

Will you like it?

I’ll admit incredulity at two Southern belles from an anti-slavery family fighting in the Confederate Army as men. But women fought in the Civil War. While their exact numbers are uncertain, history does make the story plausible. With the crisp prose and soap opera plot, I suspended disbelief and became invested in the sisters’ survival. The writing is lyrical without excessive, flowery descriptions.

She loved him that much, in a way that made no space for herself, as though he were a full glass of tea and she was the piece of ice that would cause an overspill onto the tablecloth.

What Arden had done to Libby’s God made her resent him most. That deity, shaped and formed under the tutelage of her gentle father, was a fair, benevolent God whose strict expectations regarding the Ten Commandments were tempered by an all-consuming adoration of all His children. Arden had darkened and narrowed the eyes of this God, added rage to His purpose and gave Him a taste for Yankee blood. His God—now her God—was unloving and out for revenge.

Overall, I think the weight of the sweeping wartime plot overcomes a few flaws. Why didn’t the family look harder for Libby and Josephine? And how could a passive young wife like Libby channel grief into an unwavering fortitude to battle in a merciless war? Still, I enjoyed the novel. I’m a sucker for an unlikely romance, so it’s no surprise that the Josephine and Wesley saga grabbed my attention far more than Libby and Arden’s devotion beyond the grave. I believe book clubs will get miles of discussion on revenge at all costs and the lengths sisters will go to protect each other.

Book review disclaimer

I received an advance reading copy of Sisters of Shiloh. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy

 

How to pick the next book for your book club

Narrowing down book choices in the age of information overload is daunting. How do you wade through the raft of existing books plus the new releases? It’s tough to know how to pick the elusive “good read”. You know what I’m talking about, the book that makes everyone smile or glow when it’s mentioned. The book you recommend to friends and family whenever you can. The gem! You don’t want to pick the book that doesn’t spark discussion or the novel that readers struggle to finish.

How to pick the next book club book

You may not think you know what your book club likes to read, but you do. You really do. Whether you like pot boilers or classic literature, just know your audience. If you don’t like murder mysteries and the majority does, you may want to search out a new book club. But say you’re in a group of like-minded readers and you all usually agree with the choices in Oprah’s book club—and then the worst happens—she closes her club. Or then she starts up her club again, but you moved on to a different book club and this group of readers likes historical fiction. How do you find new books tailored to your group? Really, the question is, how do you find books that are worth the read?

Look back over the books that were nearly universally beloved. Did they have a common thread? Does your book club seem to gravitate toward particular genres like true crime or young adult books turned into movies?

Now, think back to the books that bombed. The Lincoln biography seemed like a good idea, because who doesn’t want to know more about the man behind The Emancipation Proclamation? But that book resulted in the lowest book club attendance on record. Was it the 720 pages? The deep subject matter? Or simply that it wasn’t The Lovely Bones or Bel Canto? And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates—an important book that everyone should have liked—but there wasn’t a single redeeming character in the book. That novel left every member intensely scrutinizing subsequent book picks (i.e. how can we avoid reading an incredibly depressing book where we hate the characters as much as they hate themselves).

Vet good candidates by relying on curators. There are several excellent resources:

  • Goodreads is a very popular starting point. You can see ratings and reviews easily. And if you follow your book club members you can check out their recommendations and comments. The site also has a nice feature of suggesting your next read based on your likes.
  • Pinterest isn’t just for recipes and (let’s be honest) finding a list of DIY projects you may never start. Search “book lists” and pin for later. For some reason, I don’t go back to look at my book pins when I’m looking for a new recommendation. Maybe it’s because I pin the “50 books you need to read right now” and I get overwhelmed because it’s next to the “73 ways to get a better bod” and “42 ways to organize your pantry” pins.
  • Book award lists are another rich resource. Consider both nominees and winners. And, if you’re wary of choosing an untested book, choose an author on the list with previous award winners under their belt. You can read reviews about their earlier work. I like these lists:
  • Crowd source. Go to your favorite social media source and ask, “What are you reading and what should I read?” You’ll be amazed at the suggestions. Write them all down and then look up a review online.
  • Read the reviews. Peruse Huffington Post Books or the New York Times Sunday Book Review for recommendations.
  • Don’t underestimate staff reading lists at libraries and local book stores. Not only are the suggestions usually stellar, especially if you want a regional flavor, but you can typically chat up the recommender on the spot.
  • And then there’s Amazon. I put Amazon last on the list because it’s such a go-to source and we should branch out. You know I’m right. But if you’re short on time, everything is all in one place, the Editor Picks are worth consulting, and (trust me) it’s easy to buy.

 

What do you think? Did I miss a good source? Let me know your suggestions for finding good book club reads. You can also follow me on Pinterest. I have a book board called Bookish.

These books are next on my list—Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. How about you? What are you reading and what should my book club read next?