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July 15, 2024

Review in Haiku: The Night Journal

By Katrina Stonoff

Pioneer journals
haunt descendant's life from birth.
She won't read--will she?

Once again, I was fully prepared to love this book by Elizabeth Crook. I'm fascinated by family history and its effects on an individual, and I was raised in the desert Southwest, so I expected to be gushing about this study of a fictional New Mexico pioneer and her descendants.

BUT.

OK, back up. Let me start with what I like. I love the concept (a woman raised in the shadow of a pioneer ancestor who became a regional legend when her journals were published finally reads the journals when she is middle-aged). Crook has done a fabulous job capturing the desert in its many moods: I especially appreciate the thunderstorm.

Some of the characters are impeccable: interesting, deeply flawed but still honorable, etc. The plot (once it gets going) moves like a steam train. I thought I knew the ending early on (and I was mostly right), but the way it played out was completely unexpected, and an excellent ride.

And I am enthralled by the idea of a "night journal" rather than just a diary; I wondered throughout the book what the title meant exactly, and the answer just astounded me with its rightness.

BUT.

Sigh. I hate writing bad reviews. I love books, and I like authors just as much. I respect how much effort they put into just writing the durn thing, much less dealing with the derogatory opinions of schmucks like me.

But. When I put this book on my nightstand, I said I'd tell you what I thought of it. So I'll just take a deep breath, plunge on and pray for forgiveness.

First, there's a lot of sloppy writing: telling versus showing, passive sentences and verbs, etc. Stuff a good writers group would have caught early on.

Then there's specific detail with no purpose. Every little detail should advance the plot, set the tone or provide characterization. But Crook has included countless minutiae that do not justify their inclusion: details like the exact route the protagonist (Meg) drives, and the specific (unrelated) content of the NPR interview on the radio.

Some of the logic doesn't follow either. In one scene, for instance, Meg is an hour's drive away from an abandoned resort she wants to visit. Since there's no electricity, she must arrive before dark, and it's 5 p.m. Oh, and it's cold outside, so it has to be autumn at least, so dark comes fairly early.

But when they arrive, there's enough "faded daylight" coming in for her to describe the lobby (pillars, ornate paneling, roped off elevator shaft, etc.), even though the light is "darkened by overcast" and "further screened" by dirty windowpanes. Oops.

The protagonist isn't even a character I like. She's an unmotivated whiner who picks fights constantly with the woman who gave her a home when her mother abandoned her. I'm the queen of Issues With My Mother, but even I think there's a time when my problems are mine, regardless who gave them to me, and as an adult, I choose to allow them to continue crippling me or to move on. And 37 (I believe that is her age) is past the point where I'm willing to excuse childish whining.

Then there's the obsession with grammar (which smells suspiciously like an author using a novel to air her pet peeves). For example, in one scene, a character says, "It's such a pleasure finally to meet you," and another character replies, "Thank you for not splitting your infinitive."

Still, those are minor issues. But I also have some serious reservations about character motivation, and that's not small at all. Take the primary action, for instance, the single choice on which the story pivots: Meg finally choosing to read the journals.

She has studiously avoided it, even though she shared a room with the originals from the time she was 9 years old. And despite the fact that they are required reading for high school and college students across the Southwest, and a ubiquitous conversational topic and shared experience in her culture.

Then one night she can't sleep. Grandmother is trying to get her to go to New Mexico, so she's thinking about the journals. She has a migraine hangover, and she's already seen the episode of Bonanza that is playing (Bonanza?). So "her gaze (is) drawn to the bookshelves" (this--in her own apartment). She walks over, pulls out the first journal and begins to read.

Huh? She's shared a room with these journals for twenty-nine years, during which she has made a point of NOT reading them, and suddenly she picks one up idly? I don't think so. At the very least, I need to see a more compelling reason than "can't sleep."

But the real offense is pacing. This book didn't grab me until Page 204. That's when the first significant action occurred. From there until the end, it was a fascinating book. One, in fact, that I continue to think about days later.

But 200 pages in? Much, much too late. I only kept reading because of sheer cussedness (and because I was on vacation with only two books to read). Many books today are only 200-250 pages total, and an author only has a few seconds to capture a reader who cut his book teeth on USA Today's 30-second sight-bites.

If only Crook had edited out the extraneous details and verbiage, and began the story where it actually started. Then, The Night Journal would have been a remarkable, 250-page thrill ride rather than a 454-page slog.

-- Katrina Stonoff

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-09-25
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