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My guest today is Elaine Russell, whose book Across the Mekong River I read and reviewed a few years ago and highly recommend. Today, she is here to celebrate the release of her new novel, In the Company of Like-Minded Women, which focuses on the struggle for women’s rights in the early 20th century. Please give her a warm welcome:

The level of political discord and despicable behavior in 2018 has sadly reached new heights (or maybe lows), prompting large numbers of American women to speak out, run for office, and organize for social justice. I thoroughly enjoyed stepping back over a hundred years to write about another generation of brave women—those who fought for women’s suffrage, access to professional careers, and other basic rights for women and children. The so-called “New Woman” demanded an equal voice, but faced incredible opposition from the men in power and moneyed business interests.

In the Company of Like-Minded Women explores the bonds between family at the start of the 20th century. Three sisters are reunited in Denver, Colorado, after a rift many years before. Mildred and Eva travel from Lawrence, Kansas, to visit Lida and her two children in Denver in June 1901. Lida, widowed two years before, has just graduated from medical school and begun working as a doctor. Eva, only twenty-five, begs Lida to help her overcome the opposition of Mildred and their mother to a match with the handsome Mr. Dearman of Boston. The women’s rights movement and Lida’s progressive friends provide the backdrop as the story unfolds.

Colorado led the charge for women’s rights when Republican, Democrat, and Populist women banded together to win a stunning victory in 1893, which granted women the vote in Colorado—twenty-seven years before national suffrage was approved. In 1901, the rest of the country watched with intense interest to see how this played out, challenging Colorado women to defend their accomplishments since obtaining access to the ballot box.

The story is told in three voices in alternating chapters by Lida (the middle sister), her 16-year-old daughter Sara Jane, and Mildred (the oldest sister). The following is an excerpt from Sara Jane:

I could barely contain my excitement. Aunt Eva’s predicament called to mind the dime novels that my best friend, Rose O’Malley, and I had taken to secretly reading after she found a stash hidden in the armoire in her mother’s sewing room. The romantic novels told complicated sagas of hopeless liaisons filled with improbable plots and unbelievable coincidences. We had found several rather sensational and shocking. Only Aunt Eva’s story wasn’t cheap or unsavory like those books. Her tale was more like a Jane Austen novel of thwarted romance and secret rendezvous, certainly nothing illicit.

The thrill of being privy to Aunt Eva’s intrigue offered an escape from my sheltered world and the dull, monotonous routines and sorrows of the past few years. My aunt had taken me into her confidence, and I could not disappoint her. I thought of Saint John, the patron saint of discretion, whom I had read about the previous week. He had died at the hand of King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia rather than divulge the confession of the king’s wife, Queen Sophie. Such loyalty was to be admired. I would pray to Saint John to help me keep Aunt Eva’s secret.

Mama bit her lip before speaking. “I can talk with Mildred on your behalf.”

Aunt Eva grabbed Mama’s hands. “I don’t want to burden you, but you’re my last hope. You must meet Mr. Dearman first, so you can argue in earnest on his behalf. If we can only convince Mildred to give him a chance. She’s never even talked with him.”

Mama blinked several times. “But how will I meet him?”

“I’m expecting a letter…” Aunt Eva began, but she halted at the sound of heavy, uneven footsteps descending the stairs. She wiped away her tears and took a ragged breath.

Aunt Mildred loomed in the doorway. “What is going on? Eva, have you been crying?”

“It’s only a cinder from the train in my eye. I’ll run some water over it.” Eva bolted from her seat and brushed pass Mildred.

“What has she been telling you?” Aunt Mildred’s tone implied wrongdoing on Eva’s part and perhaps on my and Mama’s as well.

I gave Aunt Mildred my most serious look, frowning slightly. “She was talking about her illness.” This was mostly true. Eva had mentioned concerns over her health.

“Did you sleep?” Mama asked calmly. “Come have some coffee and a roll.”

Aunt Mildred blinked several times. “I didn’t sleep at all. That dreadful feline of yours is somewhere upstairs mewling like a hungry calf.”

I cringed. “I’m sorry, Aunt Mildred. She must have gotten locked in Cole’s room.”

Cole clattered from the kitchen across the dining room and front hall, sliding to a halt next to Aunt Mildred. He lifted his clasped hands toward her face. “Look, Aunt Mildred! I found a frog in the bucket by the water tap outside.”

Aunt Mildred gave a short yelp and clutched her chest with one hand. “Get it away from me. Right now.” She stumbled forward and collapsed onto the green velvet armchair, causing it to shudder with a worrying groan.

Mama jumped up. “Cole, take that back outside.”

“But, Mama, I want to keep him. Just look.” He scooted forward and tripped over the edge of the Persian carpet. His arms flew out as he hit the rug, and the frog sailed through the air. “Jesusmaryandjoseph!” The words slipped out as one from Cole’s lips.

The poor creature landed on the fireplace hearth and remained still as if stunned by its sudden freedom. It was only three inches long at most, a rubbery, gray-green blob with bulging black eyes. Harmless looking, really. I felt rather sorry for it. Cole lunged for the frog, but it hopped across the carpet and under Aunt Mildred’s chair.

Aunt Mildred leaped up, emitting staccato shrieks while shaking out her skirt and lifting her feet as if dancing one of Katherine’s Irish jigs. The frog proceeded to hop into the entry and down the hall toward the library. Cole sprang up and down in hot pursuit, always a moment too late.

There were murmurs and a scuffle. Eva appeared around the doorway with a bemused expression brightening her face. She gently held the frog in her hands. “We’ll be back soon. Cole is going to show me his yard.”

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About In the Company of Like-Minded Women

In the Company of Like-Minded Women explores the complexities of bonds between sisters and family at the start of the 20th century when women struggled to determine their future and the “New Woman” demanded an equal voice. Three sisters are reunited in 1901 Denver following a family rift many years before. Each sister faces critical decisions regarding love, work, and the strength of her convictions. The success of Colorado women in gaining the right to vote in 1893–twenty-seven years before the passage of national suffrage–and their continued fight for women’s rights, provides the background as the story unfolds.

Buy on Amazon: Paperback | Kindle

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About the Author

Elaine Russell

Elaine Russell is the award winning author of the novel Across the Mekong River and a number of children’s books, including the young adult novel Montana in A Minor, the Martin McMillan middle grade mystery series, and the middle grade picture book, All About Thailand. Elaine lives with her husband in Northern California and part time on the Island of Kauai.

Connect with Elaine: Website | Facebook | Twitter

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Giveaway

Elaine is generously offering two copies of In the Company of Like-Minded Women to my readers (U.S. and Canada). To enter, please leave a comment with your email address. This giveaway will be open through Sunday, October 21, 2018. The winners will be chosen randomly and announced in the comments section of this post. Good luck!

To double your chances of winning, check out Elaine’s guest post on Savvy Verse & Wit, where Serena is also offering a giveaway!

Thank you, Elaine, for being my guest today, and congratulations on your new book!

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Source: Review copy from Julia Drake PR
Rating: ★★★★★

This country was blessed with so much abundance, even in this bleak and barren city.  But I did not care about these things.  All I wanted was to be home, our true home, living in our quiet village.  Working in our fields.  It puzzled me that the American officials had flown simple farmers from the highlands of Laos across oceans and continents to live in a city like this.  It made no sense.  Nothing in this new life made any sense.

(from Across the Mekong River, page 99)

Across the Mekong River is a beautifully complex story of the immigrant experience, one that surprised me with its wonderfully flawed characters and intense emotion.  I know many readers shun self-published novels, but in this case, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice because Elaine Russell’s story of a family fleeing the communist government in Laos is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Russell begins the story in 1990, 12 years after Ly Nou, then age five, her parents, and two older brothers fled Laos, making a frenzied escape with several other family members across the Mekong River into Thailand.  Now known as Laura Lee, she is in a courtroom in California, pitted against the father she loves so much for reasons that will become clear to readers as her story unfolds.  She details the terror of those moments on the run from the communist Pathet Laos, which was allied with the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.  Nou’s family are Hmong, an ethnic tribe that lived and farmed on the hillsides of Laos and was treated brutally by the communist government for siding with the Americans during the Vietnam War.

Across the Mekong River is told in alternating viewpoints by Nou/Laura, her father, Pao, and her mother, Yer, beginning at the end of the civil war in Laos in 1973.  When the war ended, Pao leaves the military and returns to his village to farm and live peacefully with his family, only to become a prisoner when the communists take over the government in 1975.  Yer details the fear that permeated the village during the war and after, how the communists would arrive unannounced and the women would have to run for their lives.  As much as they love their land and despite its connections to the ancestors and spirits whom they worship, they have no choice but to run for their lives.

But the refugee camp in Thailand to which they flee in 1978 is no picnic.  The stench, the filth, and the hunger are unbearable, and Pao and his daughter can do nothing but watch Yer withdraw as grief overwhelms her.  Even after reuniting with relatives in another refugee camp, the family realizes it cannot sit in limbo in such horrid conditions forever, as returning to their homeland is not likely.  Russell follows the family as they relocate to the United States, first in Minneapolis and then in Sacramento.  In great detail, she describes the Hmong culture, how they adjusted or failed to adjust to life in America, the discrimination they faced due to plain ignorance as well as anger about the Vietnam War, and how they struggled to make ends meet in a city plagued by gang violence.  Being able to see the experience from the eyes of each character made the book more powerful than it would have been otherwise.

Readers see Pao transition from a smart, successful student and content farmer in Laos, a man whose culture gives him authority over his family, to a struggling immigrant trying to grasp the English language, take care of his expanding family, and grasp the fact that his authority goes only so far in America.  He understands that adjustments need to be made to succeed in America and supports Nou’s education, but like Yer — who longs for her homeland and resists the changes forced upon her — he expects Nou to honor the family, retain the Hmong customs, and marry a Hmong man when her parents say it’s time.  Nou is torn between two worlds, wanting to please her family by honoring her Hmong heritage but also wanting to fit in and become a normal American teenager, even though she knows the latter is impossible.

Russell brilliantly portrays this culture clash and the parent-child struggle common among immigrants.  She describes Laos so wonderfully I could almost picture the beautiful landscape in my mind, and I could appreciate how despite all the horrible things that happened there after the war, these people would long to return to their villages.  These characters and their experiences felt so real to me.  I ached when they were in pain, and because I could see exactly where each of them was coming from, the line between who was right and who was wrong blurred.

Across the Mekong River is a tale of war and escape, familial love and betrayal, and the difficulties immigrants face when the cultural of their new country is so drastically different from what they’ve known all their lives.  The characters are amazingly authentic, and they take what was already an interesting story and turn it into something great.  It’s not an easy novel to read because Russell’s writing really emphasizes the brutality, the misunderstandings, and the pain, but it’s an important one and honestly one of the best novels I’ve ever read about the immigrant experience.

Book 30 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received Across the Mekong River from Julia Drake PR for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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