Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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MURIEL’S WAR: An American
Heiress in the Nazi Resistance

By Sheila Isenberg
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp., $28

Terrible times can elicit extraordinary deeds even from ordinary people, and Muriel Gardner was anything but ordinary. Raised in luxury in turn-of-the-century Chicago, heiress to a meatpacking fortune, she left for Europe in her 20s, where she declared her social and political independence.

Devoted to the new science of psychoanalysis, Gardner, a beautiful, headstrong divorcée and single mother, was studying medicine in Vienna when Hitler seized Austria. Inspired by her lover and future husband, Joseph Buttinger, a leader of the Austrian resistance, Gardner repeatedly put her safety at risk, smuggling documents into Vienna and Jews and antifascists out in defiance of the Gestapo. Returning to America as the war widened, she continued her rescue and relief efforts, generous with her time, her courage, and her money.

If some portion of Gardner’s story sounds familiar, it’s because Lillian Hellman, who learned about Gardner through mutual friends, hijacked it for her allegedly autobiographical account of the woman she called “Julia,” though Hellman ungallantly denied any connection. “Muriel’s War” never rises above workmanlike, but it does set the story straight about this intrepid American heroine.

QUEEN HEREAFTER: A Novel of Margaret of Scotland
By Susan Fraser King
Crown, 352 pp., $25.99

History, we’re told, is written by the victors, and according to Susan Fraser King’s revisionist historical fiction, Shakespeare’s bloodthirsty power couple, the Macbeths, are unfortunate victims of that truism. Set in the period after the Norman Conquest, when Saxon, French, and Scottish nobles schemed and skirmished for control of Britain, “Queen Hereafter” asks us to imagine Lady Macbeth (here called Gruadh) not dead of an excess of post-regicidal remorse, but biding her time in her Highlands redoubt while her enemy Malcolm, son of Duncan and slayer of King Macbeth, commands the Scottish south.

At Malcolm’s demand, Gruadh sends her granddaughter Eva to Malcolm’s court as a hostage and as her spy. There Eva befriends Malcolm’s young queen, Margaret, a devout yet cosmopolitan Saxon princess who is at first little better than Malcolm’s hostage herself. Eva charms the rough-hewn courtiers with her music. When Malcolm charges her with treachery, the two rival queens — Margaret, the incipient saint, and Gruadh, the deposed Celtic lioness — unite to defend her.

The detailed 11th-century setting, mixing real and fictitious characters, is largely convincing, as is the nuanced portrait of Margaret. As for the author’s alternate version of “Macbeth,” how true do we want it to be? Rulers come and rulers go, but a reality without “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow . . .” would be incalculably poorer.

MOTHER COUNTRY: Memoir of an Adopted Boy
By Jeremy Harding
Verso, 208 pp., paperback, $17.95

When he was about 5, Jeremy Harding’s mother informed him that he was adopted. The incident was not traumatic. Life in and around London with his glamorous parents, Maureen and Colin, often resembled an amateur production of a Noel Coward play. For Jeremy, the unconventional was normal.

Nearly 50 years passed before a critical mass of unease sent him in search of his biological parents. By then Colin had died and Maureen, dotty at the best of times, was incapacitated by dementia. The author initiated the arduous process of gaining access to his meager adoption records, then a painstaking search for anyone still living who might have known his birth mother. If the secrecy surrounding adoption in America has to do with sex, in England, just as revealing of national character, it has to do with class. Harding’s quest soon led him to the stunning realization that his own origins were not the only ones his parents had deliberately obscured.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at