Book Review for “Salt the Snow” by Carrie Callaghan.
With America in the midst of the depression, and in the wake of a failed marriage, Milly Bennett, a journalist, is running away from her San Francisco home. After having reported on murders from her hometown, fires in Hawaii, and war in China, her next stop is Moscow. There, Milly wants to be witness to the reality of the Bolsheviks, Communists and both local and international idealists in the reality of post-revolution Soviet Russia. But when her Russian husband is arrested for homosexuality and sent to Siberia for five years, Milly isn’t sure what her next move should be. Should she stay in Russia, where she can’t really report the truth to the world, or follow her reporter’s instinct to cover another war in Spain?
Yes, there really was a woman called Milly Bennett (nee Mildred Jacqueline Bremler), and yes, she really did all these things, and many consider her to be the first female war correspondent. When I asked for this book, I had no idea that this was the case, and only discovered this when I was almost finished reading this novel. Well, my regular readers know that a good biographical, historical, women’s fiction book is totally ME, especially if it is about an unknown or little-known woman who fought the gender barrier and succeeded – much like the character in her debut novel, “A Light of Her Own” about the Dutch painter Judith Leyster.
By the way, when I went searching for more information about Bennett I found someone published Bennett’s memoir “On Her Own: Journalistic Adventures from San Francisco to the Chinese Revolution, 1917-27” (hence the title of this review), just over 30 years after her death in 1960. Callaghan, however, decided to devote her biographical novel about Milly to the years 1931 through 1938 – when she worked at an English newspaper in Soviet Russia and then for the AP and international press during the Spanish Civil War. Since Milly had already chronicled her earlier life, telling a bit more of the story was a brilliant idea.
Essentially, I think that Callaghan really did her justice. From Callaghan’s portrayal we discover a woman who was very much ahead of her time (sorry for the cliché – but in this case, it works), who was tough, and sexually aware, and could probably drink many people under the table – even when imbibing the most typical Russian tipple, Vodka. However, Callaghan also draws her as a vulnerable woman, one who knows her weaknesses, but strives to overcome them, or at the very least, repress them when she believes the greater good is at stake for her to do so. Mind you, this highly principled woman isn’t the most likeable of characters, but I don’t think that she was meant to be as such. However, despite this, we grow to sympathize and yes, even empathize with Milly, as she steers through bureaucracy and dodges bullets and bombs. What you’ll learn most of all about Milly is that even in the face of harsh reality, she was still optimistic that her ideals – given the chance – could change the world for the better.
If there’s one thing that I might criticize about this novel is Callaghan’s decision to include the part of Milly’s life where she goes to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War against Fascism. It isn’t that these parts of the book weren’t fascinating, because they were. This section also gave us even more insight into who this woman really was on a more personal level. Despite this, I have to admit that the Spanish parts felt very different from the Russian ones – as if we had a novel plus a short story here. The two parts just didn’t feel smoothly connected. On the other hand, this does go to show how talented Callaghan is in creating an atmosphere with her prose. The parts in Russia felt dire and cold, while the Spanish scenes (even during the winter) felt brighter, if not harshly heated, and glaring. Which works for a war-torn country, to be honest.
All of this is why I’m so glad that the publishers gave me the ARC for this novel (although it would have been nice if they had sent their approval with more lead time than just a week before the release date. It is right there in my profile that I’m a slow reader because of my mild dyslexia), because overall, it was beautifully written, with such grace and emotion. I’m certain that Callaghan loved Milly and with that level of admiration, I her portrayal of this female pioneer in journalism was simply splendid. For all this, I believe the most appropriate rating for this novel is four and a half stars out of five, and I’m certain that lovers of historical, biographical, women’s fiction will truly enjoy this book as much as I did.
Amberjack Publishing, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, released “Salt the Snow” by Carrie Callaghan on February 4, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.
This review qualifies as a “Badass Females II” book – the February theme for the Of Wonderland Book Club.