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Pop Lit

The outsiders

By Diane White
Globe Correspondent / February 14, 2010

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Johanna Moran’s fine first novel is a fascinating story about a man and his two wives persecuted for what might be called accidental bigamy. Leslie Larson gives an 82-year-old assisted living resident an unforgettable voice: caustic, profane, searingly honest. Heather Terrell imagines the life of St. Brigid of Kildare.

Moran’s “The Wives of Henry Oades’’ is based on a story that may or may not be true, but was widely circulated in its day. It inspired Moran to produce a compelling novel about two wives, their husband, and the social upheaval of the late Victorian era. In 1890, English accountant Henry Oades accepts a temporary position in Wellington, New Zealand, taking with him his wife, Margaret, and their two young children. They move to an isolated cottage. Margaret gives birth to twin girls. One night when Henry is away, Maori tribesmen burn down the cottage and abduct Margaret and the children. Devastated, Henry searches for his family. At last, convinced that his beloved wife and children are dead, he resettles in Berkeley, Calif., becomes a dairy farmer, and marries a young widow with an infant, Nancy Foreland. Six years after they were abducted, Margaret and three surviving children manage to escape. They make their way to the Berkeley farm where Henry and Nancy take in the destitute survivors. Even years of enslavement by the Maori didn’t prepare Margaret for the moral savagery of the Berkeley Daughters of Decency, whose members are outraged that a man lives with two wives under the same roof. The entire community turns on the family.

The core of the story is the sympathy and genuine bond that develops between Margaret and Nancy, two very different women who find themselves in an impossible situation and make the best of it. Moran is a careful writer, a spare stylist who never wastes a word. She also has a well-tuned ear for the jargon of the period, colorful language that adds warmth, humor, and humanity to her story.

Cora Sledge is an unlikely heroine. She’s a widow, 82 years old, 300-plus pounds, unable to walk more than a few steps. She’s addicted to junk food, various prescription medicines, and cigarettes. She’s cantankerous, irreverent, and curses like a lumberjack. She’s irresistible. She’s definitely the heroine, not just the narrator, of Larson’s funny, touching novel “Breaking Out of Bedlam.’’

Cora’s children have consigned her to The Palisades, an assisted living facility. She misses her late husband, Abel. She misses her house and her dog, Lulu. She hates The Palisades. When her granddaughter gives her a fancy journal to “record her thoughts’’ (“That girl has always worked my last nerve.’’) Cora decides that the time has come to write down everything she ever wanted to say. “I’m going to tell the truth, once and for all,’’ she writes. And she does. She writes about what goes on at The Palisades, her fellow inmates, especially the hateful “Poison’’ Ivy Archer, and the charming, enigmatic Vitus Kovic. She also remembers her past, her childhood in rural Missouri, her first love, marrying Abel, who knew she was pregnant by another man, the death of a child.

Cora makes friends with Marcos, the gay technician who checks her blood pressure. Marcos brings her forbidden snacks and cigarettes, which she shares with Vitus. Cora is smitten by the smooth European. Soon she’s losing weight, walking longer distances, wearing makeup. She and Vitus plot to elope and reclaim her house, until Cora’s daughter Glenda gets wind of the plan. Meanwhile the residents of The Palisades are the victims of a series of thefts. Marcos is the chief suspect.

“Breaking Out of Bedlam’’ is the story of Cora’s remarkable transformation. When she examines her past, and her present, she is able to open herself to love and life. Larson has given her an audacious and memorable voice.

In “Brigid of Kildare’’ Heather Terrell creates related plots, centuries apart, moving between 5th century Ireland and contemporary Ireland. Terrell brings to life legendary Brigid, Ireland’s first and only female bishop, at the abbey she founded in Kildare, ministering to her many followers in an atmosphere of harmony and devotion. As the Roman Empire is besieged by barbarians, the Roman Christian Church is determined to strengthen its position by rooting out heresies. Rumors of Brigid’s growing power and unorthodox religious practices have reached Rome. A priest/scribe, Decius, is dispatched to infiltrate Brigid’s abbey. But Decius is enthralled by the charismatic Brigid. He agrees to create a special illuminated manuscript for her.

In modern Ireland Alexandra Patterson, an appraiser of antiquities, is called to Dublin by the Sisters of St. Brigid to assess three ancient objects they wish to sell. Alex tentatively dates two of the relics to the early 9th century. The third, a reliquary box, is more difficult to place. The mystery grows when Alex discovers a leather-bound illuminated manuscript in a secret compartment. Could it be the lost Book of Kildare?

“Brigid of Kildare’’ is an imaginative historical novel. The premise of the novel is interesting, but the execution is uneven. The ancient story of Brigid and her heroic effort to convert her island’s pagan tribes overwhelms the modern story. And Terrell’s overheated treatment of Brigid’s and Decius’s relationship wouldn’t be out of place in a romance novel. Alex’s story seems tepid by comparison.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

THE WIVES OF HENRY OADES
By Johanna Moran
Ballantine, 384 pp., $15

BREAKING OUT OF BEDLAM
By Leslie Larson
Shaye Areheart, 320 pp., $24

BRIGID OF KILDARE
By Heather Terrell
Ballantine, 256 pp., $15