Reading the North

AnchorageAugust 17, 2013 

A Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora

Alaska resident Stephanie Thornton (New American Library, $15)

The blurb: In sixth-century Constantinople, one woman, Theodora, defied every convention and all the odds and rose from a common theater tart to empress of a great kingdom, the most powerful woman the Roman Empire would ever know.

Excerpt: Sometimes God did work miracles.

I swiped two loaves and ran as if the cobbles were on fire. My heart pounded in my ears as I clutched the precious bread. I had done it.

The fabric at my shoulder tore as someone whipped me around so fast the loaves tumbled from my hands.

"I don't suppose you forgot to pay for those?" The slave towered over me ... as his lips curled back in a sneer of perfectly straight teeth. His face was a map of pockmarked old scars and white flakes sprinkled his greasy hair.

"They're for my mother and sisters," I said, scrambling to pick up the bread. I wasn't fast enough -- one golden ring was trampled under the crowd's feet and the other was snatched by a boy with nimbler fingers than mine.

"My father died."

"I don't care if your whole family keeled over of the plague." He grabbed a handful of my hair and dragged me back toward his booth. I yelped and people stopped to stare, but they must have decided a tussle between a slave and a dirty pleb girl wasn't worth their time.

The man hauled me back to his stall and motioned to the vendor next to him. "Caught her," he said.

"Pretty little wench," the other man said. He gave a phlegmy cough as he stirred a giant pot of boiled cabbage. "Young though."

I tipped my chin, ready to argue that I'd seen 13 years, but the slave's eyes roved over me. I'd add lying to my list of sins. "I've had 11 summers."

"Old enough to learn the ways of the world," the bread vendor said. He looked around for something but then unfastened the belt on his tunic. I struggled to get away, but he used the belt to tie my wrists tight behind me and looped the leather through one of the wheels on his cart. "Can't have you running away before I figure out what your punishment will be, now can I?"

Pilgrim's Wilderness

Tom Kizzia (Crown Publishers, $25)

The blurb: From its opening account of the older children's daring secret attempt to escape the Pilgrim compound to the culminating state trooper manhunt for Papa Pilgrim, "Pilgrim's Wilderness" is an engrossing account of horrific hidden parental abuse, a heartrending story of children who must defy their godlike father if they hope to survive. In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and the high drama of Jon Krakauer's adventure narratives, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers, touched off by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and family captive.

Excerpt: Alaska's homeschooling laws are the most lax in the nation. In New Mexico, the family at least had to fake participation in an organized correspondence program. Alaska does not require children to be part of any approved program. Parents have complete authority.

When the Anchorage Daily News stories about the family appeared, the children could do no more than look at the pictures. Papa Pilgrim gathered them around and read the newspaper out loud. He paused from time to time to ask rhetorically why the newspaper would tell such lies about them.

Joseph chimed in that it sounded like the reporter had just written down whatever the family told him.

Alone among the children, Joseph would sometimes speak up in an earnest and naive way, as if his first few years as Nava Sunstar, before the Lord touched their family and changed his name, had left a mark of waywardness. Papa dealt with this by mocking and marginalizing his 26-year-old son, calling Joseph "the family 2-year-old." When the newspaper people came, he had sent the more reliable Elishaba and Joshua to serve as trail guides.

Papa ignored Joseph now and continued reading. He was incensed by a quote in the story from (Country) Rose's mother in Los Angeles, who had called the family a brainwashed cult. How ironic, he said, because it's the National Park Service that's the tree-worshipping cult. The reporter didn't have to pass along such a bitter comment, he said. It showed where his heart was.

Joseph tried to respond lightly: "Maybe we are brainwashed. How would we know?" Papa exploded. It was nothing to make light of, he said. He forced Joseph to apologize. The oldest Pilgrim son never forgot that moment, surprised at such an overreaction -- he thought it was a pretty good joke. How, indeed, would anyone know?


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