I received this book for free from Bloomsbury in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing USA on July 3rd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Coming of Age, Family Life
Format: Electronic ARC
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When the Heron landed on the Seven dock and the lines were down, he stepped carefully out of the boat. Majestic cliffs rose up behind him. Birds called. A flock of sheep tumbled down the hill, and the smell of cut grass and smoke ran alongside the ethereal salt. The sun was hot and the wind cool. He had never, in all his life, been anywhere so beautiful.
1964: Seven Island has been inhabited by the Hillsinger and Quick families for centuries. Each family sees themselves “as the embodiment of the true Seven spirit and the other family as more or less barbarians.” Despite the rivalry, both families have come together for the Migration, an annual event invented entirely out of thin air by the Hillsinger’s patriarch. It’s a cause for great celebration when the Seven Island sheep are sent to another island in the archipelago to graze for eight weeks. But as family friend John Wilkie observes, “these moments of perfection come more often toward the end of something rather than its beginning, that the light of every supernova comes from an explosion.” What appears to be an idyllic family retreat is actually “a fortress built on auguries of eternal war.”
The true wages of sin are to have no options, to be forced to smile while the punishment is given.
• Jim & Lila Hillisinger / Billy & Hannah Quick – The Quick and Hillsinger families are even further interlinked when the rivalrous men happen to marry a pair of sisters. In a time where an American’s life could be destroyed with the mere suggestion of wrongdoing, Hannah’s dalliance with the Communist party leads to disastrous consequences for the entire family. The adults are always playing games with the each other. They manage information, sometimes strategically divulging knowledge to the right person so it will get back to another person in just the right way. Their chapters occasionally flashback to the 1950s, revealing the tragic series of events that molded them.
“To learn when to lie, and to whom, and how to do it well—these are all parts of the world, or at least they are part of the unfortunate world that we have left you.”
• Catta Hillsinger, 12 years old – Catta’s grandfather thinks that if the family doesn’t do their part in toughening up the next generation, the fate of the entire country is in danger of falling to the Communists. The Hillsinger men decide that it’s time for Catta to grow up, so they devise a plan to abandon him on uninhabited Baffin Island for twenty-four hours. After they leave him to fend for himself, Catta is irritated with the adults for manipulating him into a situation that he would’ve agreed to if they had just asked. He’s concerned that the “adults in his family were corrupt beyond any possibility of hope.” Catta is an intense and determined child who loves exploring the outdoors. His seriousness in the face of adversity was endearing. If death ends up being the inevitable end of this grand experiment, he plans to “find a rock to sit on, open to the sea, somewhere the [ship] could easily spot his frozen corpse when they came looking for him. He would try to die upright like someone keeping watch, and with implacable scorn on his face.” Will Catta survive the inhospitable environment of Baffin Island? If he passes the challenge, what kind of man will emerge?
Their house was not a place of safety, as she had thought. It was a coliseum. And if that was true, if her marriage was only a proving ground, or a stall for breeding violent oxen, then what was the rest of it? … Had Lila in the end not been nurturing her children, as she had believed—had she instead been fattening them up for slaughter?
While the adult drama is playing out, the kids run wild on the island. Their little cottage set apart from the main houses is a microcosm of the adult world. With no adult supervision, it’s survival of the fittest! The children are perceptive and already learning how to maneuver within and around society’s rigid rules. As the oldest child, fifteen-year-old James Hillsinger has dominion over the kids. He relishes in his authoritarian status. He believes in rules and following orders—there’s no room for nuance in his mind.
The kids were absolutely precious, except for James who I’m 95% certain is destined become a serial killer. Many of them are already weary and untrusting of the adults. Some of my favorite moments were just the kids being kids. Billy Quick’s niece Penny befriends Catta early on. She’s a stubborn, curious child, determined to right the injustices of her small world. In one beautiful scene, she builds a bonfire with the Quick girls. The girls are intoxicated with summer, childhood, and, in Penny’s case, rage. I also loved sweet little Isa, the youngest Hillsinger. She’s the most innocent of the pack, but her even her sweet little fairy world is already being encroached on by the strict rules of the adults. The Old Man is very serious about the construction materials used to build the fairy houses. Her mother Lila marvels at “how even this flimsiest of pastimes, when repeated enough, could evolve such a tangled and specific set of rules.”
This was how the world crushes you, he thought. There was no announcement. There was no freakish blow or lightning or floods or even bears. There was no mystery, not even any struggle or surprise. It was infinitely simple. you were forced into a series of small bad decisions that slowly and irrevocably cut off your options. And then, once you were confused and desperate and worn down by hunger and cold and whatever else—when at last you could no longer move or think—then the crows came down from their trees.
There was a classic quality to the writing that suited the time and setting. The perspectives alternate frequently, switching from character to character with no notice. I enjoyed all the individual parts of this book, but I’m not sure how I feel about the story as a whole. While the details surrounding Communist witch hunts and Jim’s fall from grace at the CIA were fascinating, it was hard to beat the immediacy of the Seven Island chapters. Many of Jim’s sections were less engaging because they were conversations explaining things that had already happened and some of the financial maneuverings went over my head. When I finish reading a book, I like to feel like I have a basic grasp of the story. However, there are so many intricacies to the story and the relationships, that I’m not sure that I ever made complete sense of it all.
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51)
The island manager Cyrus warns against “the belief that any one person’s experience was more essential, more enlightened, or more direct than that of the congregation as a whole.” But for his employer, there is a right way and wrong way to do things. Even minor actions can have dire consequences in the grand scheme of things—any perceived weakness must be snuffed out for the good of society. Doing something extraordinary in the name of virtue is valued, whether or not what they are actually doing is virtuous. In this complex tale, the innocent suffer the consequences. They fall victim to an arbitrary, black-and-white society that batters people until they assimilate or destroys them when they resist. What will the next generation learn from growing up in the absolutist world of their parents? We Shall Not Sleep is an interesting story, but I had trouble putting all the pieces together.
• Overview: Anticommunism in the 1950s
• More on CIA Mole Hunters: The Life and Strange Career of a Mole Hunter / James Jesus Angleton (Wikipedia)
• When Suspicion of Teachers Ran Unchecked
• Insubordination and “Conduct Unbecoming” : Purging NYC’s Communist Teachers at the Start of the Cold War
• Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy – An interesting book I read earlier this year about the hunt for Communist spies in the government.