Hollywood Book Reviews
With all the downhome charm and appeal reminiscent of beloved Americana classics like Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series, award-winning author Jan Surasky's novel, "The Lilac Bush is Blooming,” reveals a beautiful coming-of-age story set in the 1950s amidst the pastoral countryside of central New York.
Through the first person narrative of young freckle-faced Annie May, readers are easily drawn into the life and history of the Parker family. Wedged between her older sister Carrie, the boy-crazy, beauty fashionista, and brother Georgie, the adored youngest, Annie May shines as the smart, reliable, and responsible middle child. In this rural environment hard work prevails, but it is generously laced with hearty buckwheat pancake breakfasts, county fairs, blue-ribbon cherry pies, and twinkling star-studded nightfalls. At its heart we see family and community revered.
When a curious Annie May discovers a stack of old journals in the attic, Surasky creatively weaves the narrative back in time through the archives of the family's ancestry. Via letters and stylized language of the past, these volumes reveal events and emotional outpourings detailing the likes of an uncle serving as a soldier in the Civil War, a Native American descendant, a fortune-telling gypsy grandmother, and a kidnapper’s escape from indentured servitude. It is from these yellowed heirloom pages that the central character takes pride, in realizing the struggles and sacrifice her ancestors endured in an effort to seek a better life and procure greater opportunities for the generations to come.
In the present day, farming is a way of life for the Parker family. Clearly Surasky's emphasis is on a lifestyle that revolves around the seasons. Here she details a natural landscape that takes us through the years. Growing up in New York State, and returning there to write and teach, the author undoubtedly draws on her own familiarity with the area to integrate the environment as an integral part of this fictional story. In this country realm, spring's arrival is gauged by the vibrant bloom of the purple lilac bush rooted near the barn, while winter appears as a pristine wonderland of rolling, crystalline hills.
Beauty abounds in this pictorial vista, filled with wild roses and delicate buttercups, or colorful autumnal foliage that twirls in the frosty air. As seasonal changes help to move the story forward, in a twofold purpose they also showcase the growth and evolving nature of the Parker family. From school days and summer loves, to graduations, weddings, and bountiful family reunions, life in this agricultural community are strengthened with milestone celebrations. Surasky also provides a new dimension beyond the farm, as readers witness the Parker girls venturing off to college, and young Georgie's later draft into the Vietnam War. While unexpected casualties force detours in their chosen paths, familial bonds always remain at the heart of considerations.
There seems a quickened pacing to the latter part of this work, perhaps symbolic of the changing circumstances for these characters, as well as a reflection of the times. At its most basic level, this is a heartwarming novel with a storyline and dialogue that flows smoothly and easily. From a more complex point of view, it is a richly textured work filled with likeable characters that leave us with memories of joy, sorrow, and love. When young Georgie worries about losing family and friends to their individual pursuits, Annie May offers assurance in "No one ever leaves anyone when they love them."
Beyond the final pages of this feel good read, thoughts will remain of a solid, genuine family, connected not only to their land and historic heritage, but most importantly to each other.
Pacific Book Review
The Lilac Bush Is Blooming tells the story of an American family in flux and a girl who grows up to be its guide and mainstay. A family’s history revealed in dusty journals enlivens the dreams of a farm girl, endowing her with wisdom beyond her years.
Author Jan Surasky reveals an excellent example of character development in her writing style. Annie May is the middle child. Her older sister Carrie is pretty, popular, and artistic, and her little brother George is quiet but practical, expected to take over the family farm ever since the death of their father. They and their hardworking mother are assisted by Will, a young man hired to do the grown-up farm chores. Carrie, though older, is secretly insecure and often comes to her little sister for advice, and her mother relies heavily on her middle child for help with the flow of housework. Annie May always manages to find strong, comforting words for everyone, including Will.
The placid days of childhood are punctuated by her curiosity about the handwritten books she finds in the attic, tales of her forebears: a boy snatched from the streets of an English village and sold into indentured servitude in the new world; a half-Native American, half-white girl subsisting as best she can in two equally alien cultures; and a wild gypsy lass who has, or pretends to have, the second sight.
Surasky spans decades while deepening the characters. For example, when both Will and Carrie leave for college, Annie May feels a bit lost, but soon she too will be in college, balancing a social life with study while trying to help her mother and siblings from a distance. Georgie is drafted to serve in Vietnam, Carrie marries her first sweetheart, and Annie May is still the dutiful sister, everyone’s anchor, until an unexpected letter and a blurred photo take her halfway around the world.
Charmingly composed in purposely-unembellished prose from a bygone, more civil, generation, novelist Jan Surasky’s book depicts the mores of a midcentury American farm family coping with change, forced to grow beyond the local landscape. With her lucid writer’s vision, Surasky paints a heroine both believable and likeable, a young woman who is stronger than she knows, making a new, modern life for herself based on qualities of determination and the spice of differentness derived from her family’s past. I have found myself entranced by the literary world encapsulated within the pages of The Lilac Bush Is Blooming as I believe others will also enjoy the sophisticated character development upon welcoming Annie May and her family into your home.
The US Review of Books
"Mama took a moment to admire its [vibrant, deep purple] beauty, burst from a seedling she had nurtured... and its reliability."
Sandwiched in between Carrie, the beautiful older sister, and Georgie, the youngest and only son, Annie May Parker must be the responsible child since an accident took Papa away too early. But nothing deters her normal exuberance about life on her family's New York farm, now run by her uncle and a handsome hired hand. This enables her to deliver insightful glimpses chock full of details sprinkled with the zest of youth.
Truly, love-smitten people populate this heartwarming novel. Among them were Mama and Papa, now Carrie and Jamie, and, surprisingly, Georgie and Anh Ly. Will love find Annie May, too, or must she be content with reading tattered diaries discovered in the dusty attic and held together by twine? Can she be brave like those early relatives–the Civil War soldier, the Indian princess, the gypsy girl, and the kidnapped, indentured servant? Can even true love protect the Parkers from more tragedy? The only certain elements seem to be the heritage of family and the stability of the land–fields of planted crops, hills covered with wild berries, and a purple lilac bush that blooms faithfully each spring time.
Set in New York in the 1950s and narrated by a teen, this novel preserves an era not long gone by when American youth clung to the past while reaching forward to college or the challenge of a changing world. Markets for this book include the Young Adult audience. To successfully use first-person narrative, the author expends great skill in setting scenes by chapter and changing viewpoints, especially giving the lead character a voice, highly recognizable. Readings from researched diaries and well-executed dialog further enhance this effort, permitting an impressive first person approach for Surasky's latest novel.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review
Portland Book Review
Jan Surasky’s latest novel, The Lilac Bush Is Blooming, tells the story of a family through multiple generations. Narrated by the teenage Annie May Parker, the middle child in a now-fatherless family (her father has passed on), the book takes place in the 1950s and describes the coming of age of not only its narrator, but also her siblings – the beautiful, slightly older Carrie, and younger brother Georgie. Living in a small town in rural New York State, Annie May and her siblings are far from the city kids that we so often associate with anything and everything New York, but are rather humble people with humble beginnings.
When Annie May finds some carefully preserved journals, notated and organized by her beloved grandmother, in the attic of the family’s home, she starts on a journey of discovery, learning more about the origins of her family than she ever would have expected. From a beautiful Native American chief’s daughter whose love of a white man and hard living cost her creature comforts to a European ancestor brought to America as an indentured servant against his will, through reading these journals, Annie May discovers the true grit that her family possesses, the internal fortitude to face their circumstances with strength and come out swinging – at least most of the time – and also revels in the fact that she comes from such hearty stock.
The tone of this novel is eternally optimistic, and Surasky has a penchant for detailed descriptions of everyday objects that may sometimes escape the eye. The journal entries are clearly well researched. It is readily apparent that Surasky put a lot of love, thought, and effort into the authenticity of the tales she weaves into the story, and the joy – and pride – that Annie May feels upon discovering her heritage is infectious. The Lilac Bush Is Blooming is a novel for those who appreciate wholesome, lovingly written books with an historical bent and endearing characters. It’s well worth reading.