The Themes of Our Lives

Northern Oaks Book Club (from left: Caroline Parish, Peggy Bowler, Cindy Jennings, Missy Chason and Rebecca Reilly)
By Kimberly Brock
“People say books take us out of reality,
“People say books take us out of reality, but maybe they pull us deeper into reality in some cases. Either way, they give hope. They start a conversation.””
Missy Chason

Northern Oaks Book Club in Cumming, Georgia, began several years ago when Missy Chason, a mother and pediatric nurse, asked some women she knew if they’d like to start reading and meeting to discuss books. What started with the idea of sharing their thoughts on books, turned into years of sharing their lives.

“Originally, there were three of us. It started with Missy, Caroline and me,” explains Peggy Bowler. “We’ve done a little bit of everything when it comes to books. For a while, we were doing something like a Bible study and then we got back into fiction. It’s sort of evolved based on what suited us at the time.”

The founders sit on Peggy’s sofa together, a comfortable warmth between them as they laugh and catch up on news about jobs, health, children, husbands, and aging parents. They share inside jokes and giggle like little girls as they talk about what the book club has meant to them. Their eyes glow with something sweet like secrets. As the evening progresses, they visit with and embrace one another and the other women who have joined their ranks.

“Women have come and gone as they moved into the neighborhood or moved away,” Missy reflects. “Life takes us all in different directions. But it’s amazing how people seem to be here when they really need to be. It’s funny how it’s about so much more than books, how it takes on a purpose and a life of its own.”

And so it has been with their reading choices. The women each have their own reasons for loving or selecting certain books to share each month and they’re full of enthusiasm as they share them with others.
“Book club makes me read things I never would have picked up on my own,” Cindy Jennings shares. All the women nod in agreement.

Caroline Parish, who grew up in England, had a daughter studying in Spain when she suggested the group read an ambitious book, Emeralds of the Alhambra by Atlanta author, John D. Cressler. “I had a very different perspective on the Moors, having grown up in England. The research the author had done, the presentation, it made me think about things differently. I felt like I had been to the Alhambra. As a bonus, the wonderful details made me feel as if I’d been there with my daughter.”
Peggy Bowler recently spent a vacation in Charleston, South Carolina, where she visited Boone Plantation and her interest in the history of the area led her to select Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, The Invention of Wings, for the book club. “It’s about a strong woman, pre-Civil War.

She takes a stand against what isn’t right in her time, against her family, even. She didn’t want to live the way they lived or to take a slave as her own and she tried to refuse. She found ways to act, like secretly teaching the girl to read. And ultimately she freed her. She didn’t allow the way she was raised to dictate her actions. She thought for herself, and did the right thing at great risk.”

A novel called The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, spoke to book club member Cindy Jennings’ heart. “I really connected with the main character from the start. I was so intrigued by the history of the orphan train, and I loved how the novel introduced the reader to the life of an orphan, then a foster child. Reading about the life of a woman who started her life on train with no family and then found a way to live a happy life really encouraged me. I foster and have adopted. I’ve seen how people can find love and belonging and be healed. I loved the redemptive ending. I needed that encouragement.”

For Missy Chapon, the book club’s founder, the compelling and timely story, Natchez Burning by Greg Iles, stood out. “This book reminded me of the new Robert Duvall movie, The Judge. We wanted a more regional book and this novel sparked lots of conversation about issues that are so relevant today. This novel is a powerful story of a man, convicted of murder, and how that strains his relationship with his son. Natchez Burning also deals with terrible racial tension. The story is one of family secrets, and community secrets and injustices – how those secrets that can haunt us.”

On that note, the women agreed their last pick was special.
“My kids read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak,” Peggy shared, “and that brought it to my attention. We loved how it portrayed innocence and childhood friendship, but gave us a girl who could hold onto moral values even in the face of danger. This girl faced up to something so much larger than herself and chose to face that danger, to risk everything to protect another person.”

“As lovers of books,” Caroline added, “we also all agreed we were inspired by the message that a book has the power to give someone a purpose and an identity. A book, or our stories, can give life-changing courage.”

Themes of courage, tolerance, bravery and love make this group smile knowingly. They are the themes of their lives, as well.

“People say books take us out of reality, but maybe they pull us deeper into reality in some cases. Either way, they give hope. They start a conversation,” Missy says. The women lean in, clearly connected, supported. “They bring generations together, create relationships and friendships. They help us form bonds and remind us we aren’t alone in our experiences.”

Emeralds of the Alhambra by John D. Cressler
John D. Cressler is a historical novelist and professor at Georgia Tech. This first book in Cressler’s Anthems of the al-Andalus series reawakens the era in medieval Spain when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in peace for hundreds of years, spawning one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. William Chandon,a wounded Christian knight brought to the Sultan’s court in Granada develops a forbidden love for strong-willed Layla al-Khatib, who is on a quest to become the first female Sufi Muslim mystic in a male-dominated society. Chandon’s choice between love and honor, war and peace, life and death, will ultimately seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Muslim Spain.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Heddy “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. Heddy is handmaid to the Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, who knows she is meant to do something large in the world, but is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women. For thirty-five years, each woman strives for a life of her own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

Orphan Train  by Christina Baker Kline
This is the captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask. As a young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City in the 1920’s, Vivian Daly was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance. Years later, Daly receives help cleaning out her attic from Molly Ayer, a troubled teen who is months from “aging out” of the child welfare system. Theirs is a story of second chances, upheaval and resilience.

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
Southern mayor and former prosecutor Penn Cage’s father, beloved Natchez family doctor Tom Cage, is accused of murdering Violet Turner, the beautiful nurse with whom he worked in the dark days of the early 1960’s. The quest for answers sends Penn deep into the past—into the heart of a conspiracy of greed and murder involving a vicious KKK crew headed by one of the most powerful men in the state. With everything on the line, including his own life, Penn must decide how far he will go to protect those he loves.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
In 1939 Nazi Germany, Liesel begins a love affair with books and words, and is soon stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found. But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.


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