Maureen Corrigan

Take Meg Wolitzer's novel (now also a film) called The Wife, about a brazen case of literary ghostwriting, and cross it with Patricia Highsmith's classic Ripley stories, about a suave psychopath, and you've got something of the crooked charisma of John Boyne's new novel, A Ladder to the Sky.

"Let the people see what they did to my boy." Those were the words spoken by Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, after viewing the brutalized body of her son.

During his night of torture near the Delta town of Money, Miss., 14-year-old Till's right eye had been dislodged from its socket, his tongue choked out of his mouth, the back of his skull crushed and his head penetrated by a bullet. At the insistence of his family, Till's body was shipped back home for burial in Chicago, and Till-Mobley specifically called for an open casket.

"Advice columnist" is not a role that is usually listed under Eleanor Roosevelt's long list of achievements, but for over 20 years she wrote a popular write-in column, first for Ladies Home Journal and then McCall's magazine.

Roosevelt wasn't especially witty or psychologically acute in the role; unlike many of today's inspirational "life coaches," Roosevelt didn't invite her readers to accompany her on extended journeys of introspection.

Esi Edugyan's new novel, Washington Black, opens on wretched terrain: The year is 1830; the location is a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our narrator, an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black — "Wash" for short — tells us that the old master has recently died.

Wash is now standing to attention as a carriage carrying his new master arrives; he's a pale sinister-looking man named Erasmus Wilde. Looking at him, Wash comments, "He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much."

Sarah Smarsh is a daughter of the white working class. Born in rural Kansas, Smarsh traces her lineage back through five generations of family farmers. She also traces herself back through generations of teenage pregnancies; Smarsh's mother was just 17 when she had her.

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