Living in a Star’s Light: A novel based on the life of Miss Lotta Crabtree, by Steve Lindahl

Author Steve Lindahl says in the afterward of this lovingly written book that he wanted to tell a story true to the life of the key character, actress Lotta Crabtree, while creating fictional characters who orbited around her. His mission was to write a reasonably accurate historical narrative about the era of the story, which runs from the 1860s through the end of the 1880s. In this mission he succeeds. He has created a well-written narrative tracing the history of Ms. Crabtree’s life. The descriptions of the time period are carefully constructed. If you enjoy a historical travelogue and a description of the people and “feel” of the time, you will likely enjoy this book.

If you have read the book description and the other reviews, you know exactly what you are getting. If this book is your topical bulls-eye, Mr. Lindahl’s prose will wrap you in a comfortable wool blanket and carry you along on a tranquil riverboat cruise from Lotta’s six-year-old clog-dancing performances in the gold-mining camps of central California to her acclaimed national tour of major cities and theaters, to her retirement and retreat to her lakeside mansion.

The problem here is that the fictional characters the author has created, who are really the focus of the story, drift through the story with the same tranquil pace and the same lack of adventure, peril, romance, or intrigue as Lotta. To have a really good novel, the fictional characters need to have interesting experiences. They need to have personal crises. They need to go through transformations or growth or revelation that make their stories meaningful and worth reading. That rather important element is entirely missing from this book. The pace is very leisurely, with extensive description of details that are beautiful but not relevant to any plot or character development. That would be fine if there were occasional meaningful incidents. Unfortunately, those are mostly lacking. (It doesn’t help that, for a large chunk of the last third of the book, the author presents the narrative through a series of letters written back and forth between Walter and Tabby, the two main characters, which slows the pace of the read down to even more of a crawl.)

One example will help here. This is not a spoiler of any kind. At one point mid-way, Walter, the most prominent character, who met Lotta when he was just five years old in a mining camp, and Tabby, Lotta’s good friend and Walter’s love interest, are on tour with Lotta. Also along are Lotta’s mother and her mostly estranged alcoholic father, John. The mother, who is Lotta’s manager and protector, wakes Walter around midnight and tells him that John has stolen the proceeds from that week’s performances and has disappeared. Walter (sixteen years old at the time), heads out into the streets of Cincinnati to hunt for Walter. He presumes that John would be at the nearest saloon. Walter wanders the streets, down dark alleys and next to an eerie black park area. He’s worried about what would happen if he met some marauders. He finds a saloon, in which he sees some young prostitutes, who might tempt him to be unfaithful to Tabby. He leaves the saloon. He doesn’t find Walter. He returns to the hotel without incident. End of scene. Mr. Lindahl describes all of this in generally well-written prose – but nothing really happens. Rather than spinning a story about Walter getting into trouble, having to escape from robbers (or getting beaten by robbers, creating sympathy since he would be injured because of the treachery of Lotta’s father), or being significantly tempted to be unfaithful to Tabby, the scene has no suspense (aside from our anticipation that something might actually happen) and no action. It also has no point. If Walter didn’t find John, and nothing of any significance happens during his search – why narrate it in such detail? Much of the book falls into this pattern; beautifully written vignettes that lack tension or significance.

The characters here enjoy relative success, safety, health, and reasonable happiness. Walter and Tabby at times struggle with their jealousy of Lotta’s money, but they are her friends and they always come around to supporting her. They lament at Lotta’s lack of a husband (over and over), and they try to find her a husband, but that’s not enough tension to support the story.

In the end, the author’s fealty to the historical accuracy of Lotta’s life story causes him to be too conservative about how much fiction he’s willing to add to the narrative.  This is not a biography, and provides no particular insight into Lotta Crabtree’s life. It also provides no insight into the lives of the fictional characters or important lessons or morals that we can take away from their stories. It’s a nice, comfortable read, but ultimately goes nowhere particularly interesting.

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