Review: “Cockeyed Happy,” “Daughter of the Morning Star,” and “Soles of a Survivor”

“Soles of a Survivor,” by Nhi Aronheim (Skyhorse Publishing)

At the end of her gripping memoir of escaping Vietnam for life in America, Colorado author Nhi Aronheim writes, “It doesn’t matter what religion we belong to or what we had to overcome in life so long as we radiate kindness, generosity, and are willing to help out the people we meet along the way.”

Aronheim’s story is indeed one of overcoming obstacles.  Born into a wealthy Vietnamese family in 1973, Aronheim enjoyed a carefree life. Then in 1975, her father, a prominent doctor with two wives, was sent to a re-education camp. He returned malnourished and angry. After Communists claimed the family compound, Aronheim’s mother took her children to Saigon. They lived in a makeshift dwelling with a large hole in the floor for a toilet. When thugs came to rob them, Aronheim and a sister grabbed their belongings and jumped into the sewage to hide.

At 10, Aronheim began selling cigarettes to help support her family. In 1987, Aronheim’s mother paid a guide to sneak the girl out of Vietnam. The trip was harrowing. Aronheim was molested, abandoned and chased through a jungle by soldiers who would have raped and killed her. She lost her shoes, and scarred her feet so badly that her husband later dubbed them the “soles of a survivor.”

Although reunited with a sister in the U.S., Aronheim’s life was still difficult, and she embraced education as a way to gain independence. (Her struggles to become educated are reminiscent of Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated.”)

Even after graduating from college and finding a lucrative job, Aronheim faced challenges, including racial and sexual discrimination. She fell in love with a Jewish man and moved from Kentucky to Colorado to be with him. She eventually converted to Judaism and raised her children to be multilingual and multicultural.

Through the book, Aronheim shows pride and determination but also love and compassion.  “Soles of a Survivor” resonates with the lessons of staying positive and never, ever giving up.

“Daughter of the Morning Star,” by Craig Johnson (Viking)

Sheriff Walt Longmire has solved plenty of crimes in Absaroka County, Wyo. Now he’s headed to Montana to help a tribal police chief track down whoever’s been sending threatening notes to local Indian basketball star Jaya One Moon.

The threats could be deadly, because Jaya’s sister, Jeanie, disappeared the year before. She had been returning home from a party when the van in which she was riding had engine trouble. By the time the vehicle was running again, Jeanie was nowhere to be found.

The number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, writes author Craig Johnson in a preface, is staggering. The murder rate of Indian women is 10 times the national average, and murder is the third leading cause of Native women’s deaths. Half of them have experienced sexual violence.

Against this background, Longmire, with the help of his friend Henry Standing Bear, vows to find out who is stalking Jaya.

There is something disturbing about the whole venture. Jaya is not a sympathetic character and refuses to help with the investigation. As a basketball star, she’s not a team player, grabbing all the glory for herself. Her father is a white supremacist and her mother a drunk whose weapon of choice is a folding chair.

Moreover, Jeanie is almost a ghost. More than one person claims to have been encased in a fog near the spot where she disappeared. The Indians connect it to an old legend.

Johnson is at his witty best in “Daughter of the Morning Star.” The play between Longmire and Standing Bear keeps the book from becoming too dark. The two-pronged story — a murder investigation and a moving tale of a talented young woman caught up in the misery of her life — make the book hard to put down.

“Cockeyed Happy,” by Darla Worden (Chicago Review Press)

Is there anything more to be written about Ernest Hemingway? Well, yes. Denver author Darla Worden has put together an enticing story of Hemingway’s summers in Wyoming with his second wife, Pauline. Through a series of vignettes, Worden recounts the arc of their marriage, from the birth of their first son through divorce, when Hemingway fell in love with another woman.

Hemingway, of course, loved hunting and fishing. He discovered Wyoming in 1928, when he went west — three days from Kansas City — to fish and work on a book. Pauline was recovering from a difficult childbirth and couldn’t accompany him, but he was anxious to have her with him.

Pauline was anxious to be there, too, because she knew just how attractive her husband was to women. While Hemingway was not really a philanderer — in fact, he loved being married — Pauline was all too aware that the two of them had a blatant affair while he was married to his first wife, Hadley.

So she accompanied her husband as often as she could, often leaving their son Patrick and later a second son for weeks and even months at a time. She fished and hunted and typed up his manuscripts in the log cabins they rented.

Hemingway was a “man’s man” who kept lists of the number of trout he caught or animals he killed. When he blamed his horse Goofy for a fall that caused a cut on his face, he approached its owner and asked to buy the animal, not to ride but to be shot and used for bear bait. Then he yanked two hairs from Goofy’s tail and told the doctor to use them to sew up the wound.

“Cockeyed Happy” is not only a look into a famous marriage, but it’s also a lot of fun to read.

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