Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Little Book

The Little Book, by Selden Edwards

I picked up Selden Edwards’ novel “The Little Book” as a respite from the bleak worlds I had entered in my last several reads. Wheeler Burden, our story’s center, is a rock star, an author, last in the line of a wealthy Boston family. Mysterious events transport him from San Francisco in 1988 to Vienna in the year 1897, where he finds himself in the midst of a cultural revolution every bit as big as the Woodstock generation he was a celebrated part of.

Once Wheeler arrives in Vienna, we learn more about his past, from his English-born mother who raises him on a California farm, to his upper-crust grandparents, his war-hero father, and the Austrian tutor who mentored him. And not only do we learn more about Wheeler’s past, we learn about these characters’ pasts—their stories center around Vienna in 1897, and intermingle with his own in complicated and emotional ways.

Learning the backstories of each character lends both suspense and depth to this novel. The interest of the plot and the characters is deepened by the detailed history of Europe at the turn of the century. The heady mix of cultural forces in fin de siècle Vienna is even weightier because of Wheeler’s knowledge of the coming events of the twentieth century. In 1897, Freud is starting his career and is only in process of formulating his seminal theories; Hitler is a child in a small German town; the seeds of World War I are being sown by Kasier Wilhelm; and the anti-Semitism that came to a head in World War II is starting to solidify.

I am big fan of books like these because they combine the best of two worlds—a compelling and enjoyable story set in a detailed historical setting. It lets me learn about things like European history without having to slog through an actual history book—I am doing this in my free time, after all.

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