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New Directions Publishing | In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

As the journey progresses, Oradell's character moves toward integration of long-standing issues that have dogged her throughout her adult life. The reader gradually learns Oradell's history as Willis skillfully intercuts chapters from Oradell's youth and middle age with episodes that are unfolding on board the ship. From this "back story" we come to understand that Oradell grew up in a poor section of West Fork, West Virginia, aptly named "Shacky Hill," that her mother died when when was small, and that her alcoholic father froze to death in an alley when she was still in her teens.

With little guidance about puberty and sex, Oradell falls prey to a womanizing employer and makes some bad choices about men, yet she manages to emerge from her struggles as a strong willed and engaging personality. Thanks to a fortunate marriage to a moneyed New Yorker late in life, Oradell can now afford to be a difficult and eccentric cruise ship passenger, relying on her dead husband's money and prodigious quantities of gin to smooth her way. Even with those accouterments, however, she cannot forget the great love of her life— her first husband, Mike Brown— a labor activist who dies mysteriously while on an organizing trip to Kentucky.

Widowed soon after their marriage and pregnant with Mike's child, Oradell is convinced her husband has been murdered by the mine bosses, but she is too young and traumatized to demand justice. In the scene where Oradell travels alone by train to Kentucky to pick up her husband's remains, Willis powerfully conveys Oradell's vulnerability as the company henchmen dare her to open the coffin to view her husband's disfigured corpse.

In some ways, the rest of Oradell's life becomes a quest to forgive Mike for his secretiveness, which possibly contributed to his death, and also to embody his ideals by championing the working class. Yet she later says "no" to the offer of a union job and never commits to becoming an activist. To resolve her character's inner conflict, Willis creates a situation on the ship in which the wait staff is being oppressed by management.

When one of the waiters, Jaime, snaps and takes a swing at the villainous manager Reese, Oradell joins in a conspiracy to smuggle him off the sip to avoid prosecution.

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Though her health worsens, Oradell forgoes a chance to leave the boat to seek medical attention as part of a ruse to spirit Jaime away. She has finally taken a stand that would have made Mike proud.


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However, this particular plot device seems at times contrived and does not achieve the life-and-death realism that the less contemporary parts of the novel do. On the ship, Oradell befriends Tracy, a bored teenager dragged onto the cruise by her rich, manicured parents. Oradell becomes Tracy's confidante, coaching her on matters of sex and independence in ways that Tracy's own mother cannot. Tracy is transformed by her time with Oradell, and in turn, Oradell can expiate her own reckless abandonment of the baby girl born soon after Mike's death. Oradell at Sea is an entertaining, fast-paced book that pulls the reader in.

In just the first few pages, Oradell is quickly established as a likable, if all too human, character "although she did not consider herself particularly good, she did consider herself lucky. Yet the book seems uneven in places, alternating between the well-crafted, riveting scenes in Appalachia and the less compelling climax aboard ship. Meredith Sue Willis moved away from West Virginia a long time ago, but like the protagonist of her newest novel Oradell at Sea , she never really left the mountains. Willis is a prolific writer.


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Her previous books include several novels, children's books, a collection of short stories, and three nonfiction books about the craft of writing. One of these, Personal Fiction Writing , is a wonderful resource for any writing coach, and I return to it again and again when I work with young writers.

Some of my favorite exercises in the book have to do with character development. According to Willis, the character of Oradell Greengold grew from a casual meeting with a drunk old lady, someone with whom she happened to share a dinner table years ago. In the novel, Willis has done what she recommends to beginning writers— allowed a brief encounter to blossom into a whole life history.

The old lady's life sings out in flashbacks and memories as her favorite cruise ship, The Golden Argonaut, makes its way through the Panama Canal toward Puerto Rico. For Oradell, old age is one long cruise, but neither gin nor travel can carry her away from her past. One of Willis's great gifts as a writer is to get out of the way when a character becomes unruly, and Oradell is one of the most unruly characters you'll ever meet.

She embodies a popular fantasy: a rich man has died and left her a windfall, and she also has the potential to be a nightmare. She's loud, she's unabashedly crude, and she has a lot of money. For those of us who are sensitive to Beverly Hillbillies stereotypes, Willis is definitely walking a tightrope with this character.

But despite her drawbacks, or maybe because of them, Oradell is an engaging, endearing protagonist. She may be in a permanent drunken haze, but she hasn't forgotten where she came from: the coal mining town in West Virginia where her grandfather died in a mine explosion and where she met her beloved Mike Brown, the first of her husbands, whose union organizer soul lives on in Oradell.

And if Oradell Greengold doesn't make you laugh out loud at least a few times— well, you should seek professional help. For this reader, however, both the plot and the setting of the book were a bit cramped, compared to the big, bold character of Oradell. More than once I found myself wishing the ship would run aground or stop in some port where the old lady would be obliged to spill her drink, abandon her memories, and get into some real trouble. There have been many acts in the life of Oradell Greengold, a boozy widow whose life has become one long vacation on luxury cruise liners.

Told in the forthright West Virginia cadence that marks Willis's literary fiction, the novel strips away the layers of experience that Oradell has accumulated as she teams up with a sullen teen and foments rebellon by the ship's staff.

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Her unpropitious beginnings as an abandoned child in an Apalachian coal mining town chug insider her like a ship's engine, informing her aging heart. This short, engagingly written novel is the story of a woman's journey of the self from a spunky but passive victim to a person capable of moral action on behalf of another. Willis' style is a clean, unpretentious realism with lyrical moments that bring depth and believability to her character.

The most extraordinary people are the seemingly ordinary ones. Simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, Oradell is one of the best, most fully drawn characters you'll every have the privilege of meeting. Oradell is a feisty, funny outspoken woman, engaging and indomitable. Bon voyage! South Orange novelist Meredith Sue Willis' most recent offering, Oradell at Sea Vandalia Press, , is the story of a West Virginia coal miner's daughter in her old age, wealthy through marriage, widowed, spending big bucks on herself as a gin-guzzling permanent residence of a cruise ship in tropical waters.

What a way to go! In spite of these limiting materials, it is a strong, solidly structured novel. The story line toys with the reader in giving almost no hint of the heights of the victories of the human spirit the old girl will achieved. Oradell at Sea , a powerful, deeply moving classic, deserves reprints, prizes and awards, and a stage or film adaptation by someone not Hollywood, someone British, French or Italian who would give the lead to Maggie Smith Breakfast with Mussolini if she can manage a coal town accent.

You meet Oradell aboard her favorite cruise ship, the Golden Argonaut, but you learn how her character was formed by flashbacks that punctuate the story.

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She doesn't claim to be refined, addicted as she is to bright red and splashy jewelry. Oradell is herself, forged from a life of poverty where happy times were too infrequent and a bold front carried her along. Now an e-book! Kindle Version and lots more.


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Sent by her estranged father on what she believes is a peace mission, the young desert-dweller Espera inadvertently starts a class war in the drug-torn City Built of Starships A gripping tale. I love the way the ethical imagination is torqued into a surprising, nightmarish narrative. Some of the characters are astounding— and there is the Death yaeger and his dive. It's a wonderful, dark, hope-giving book. The novel stands out because it's a story of a failed colonisation that ends with only a sliver of hope.

There are no magic fixes, no lost technologies As soon as I finished this book, I started looking for another science fiction book by Willis. She's one of my favorite writers of Appalachian fiction, but I didn't know she wrote science fiction, too. Along with Bradbury-esque science fiction, there's a little of the "jack tale" in this journey-quest, with characters like "Big Cook," "Tiny," and, best of all, "Brash," who changes sides so often that he could be a weather vane for gauging who's winning the battle.

I got a kick out of the "yeagers"--huge, flying creatures a salute to Willis' fellow West Virginian, Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.