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Browsing Novel opens up the stories of a family’s generations

  • Published Sunday, Sep. 1, 2013, at 12 a.m.

“Sanctuary Line” by Jane Urquhart (MacLehose Press, 226 pages, $24.95)

Families have their legends, the stories that each generation passes down, the ones that change with each telling, to become a little more illustrative or a little more instructive; the ones that explain how the family got where it is and why things are the way they are.

But sometimes they don’t help people make sense of things, and that’s where Liz Crane is in “Sanctuary Line.” An entomologist who studies butterfly migration, Liz grew up as part of a colorful family that raised fruit trees on the north shore of Lake Erie. Although Liz was part of the family, she was not entirely of it: an only child who lost her father at a young age, she spent summers at the family farm among cousins, aunts and uncles — and seasonal Mexican orchard workers — but lived the rest of the year with her mother in the city.

At the time of the book, Liz lives alone in the old family farmhouse, her mother in a retirement home, her uncle Stan long gone, her cousin Mandy killed in Afghanistan. She tells us the stories of the “great-greats,” describes the long summer days of childhood, tries to explain what drove mercurial Stan to leave and poetic Mandy to join the military. She speaks directly to the readers sometimes; other times the book feels as intimate as a diary.

Urquhart tells many smaller stories with quiet, understated writing, using the contemplative Liz as a narrator enough of an insider to know all the details, but enough of an outsider to see through to the truth, and now, grown up enough to give some perspective.

“All of my ancestors and their houses sleep in closed and unexamined albums,” Liz tells us. “Sanctuary Line” is her attempt to open and examine them, and what she shares is worth examining.

“Jane Austen’s England” by Roy & Lesley Adkins (Viking, 343 pages, $27.95)

Life in Regency England, so familiar to readers of Jane Austen, was indeed far more than letters, balls, money and weddings. The period was a time of great change as the Industrial Age dawned and revolutions shook Europe and its colonies, not just on a grand scale but in terms of how ordinary people lived their lives.

“Jane Austen’s England” focuses on the day-to-day details of life during this era, using letters, diaries, newspaper articles, cookbooks and other contemporary accounts as sources. The authors have also included several maps and pages of illustrations to illuminate the history of England at this time. The book is full of detail — including much that never made it into Austen’s novels, such as hygiene and medical practices — and it gives a thorough picture of a time that many of us know only a fraction of.

Lisa McLendon teaches journalism at the University of Kansas. Reach her at lisa.mclendon@gmail.com.

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