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Brush Strokes of History



Call them "the little Colorado publishing house that could." Founded in 1991, Denver's MacMurray & Beck published their first fiction title in 1994. Since then, with assured, small steps, the company has grown its catalog, and last year found critical success with Horace Afoot, a novel lavishly praised in The New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World.

This year, MacMurray & Beck's premier release is Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a book that could catapult its author and the publisher to a much wider level of recognition.

Structured as a backward journey through history, the novel delves into the history of a painting believed by its final owner to be a Vermeer. A shy, private-school math teacher, Cornelius Engelbrecht, inherits the canvas from his father, whose dying words are: "An eye like a blue pearl." He refers to the female figure in the painting, a young woman in a blue smock and a rust-colored skirt, standing in profile against an open window, sewing in hand.

Cornelius is simultaneously captivated and trapped by the painting because of the shady details of how it was obtained by his father. It's not giving away too much of the book's plot to say that the elder Mr. Engelbrecht was a German SS officer during World War II, and the painting was obtained in a raid on the apartment of an Amsterdam family on Black Thursday, Aug. 6, 1942.

From that revelation, the narrative of Girl in Hyacinth Blue passes backward through time from the point of view of one owner to a previous owner, all the way back to the painting's origin.

Embued in each episode are the details of domestic life and the history of the particular period. At each juncture, the painting changes hands in a moment of high hope, until it falls into Cornelius' possession, tainted by its dark history in the second half of the 20th century.

Each chapter in this finely wrought little book (it weighs in at 242 pages in a compact, hand-sized hardback edition) represents a moment frozen in time, much like a painting. Author Susan Vreeland is both formal and concise with language, offering precision of detail and some lovely human insights.

The central section of the book, "Morningshine," focuses on a Dutch family, isolated in a farmhouse surrounded by floodwaters:

"Saskia opened the back shutters and looked out the upstairs south window early the second morning after the flood. Their farmhouse was an island apart from the world. Vapors of varying gray made the neighboring four farmhouses indistinct, yet there was a shine on the water like the polished pewter of her mother's kitchen back home. Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear, and it was so, she thought. But it wasn't so. And the cow would have to stay upstairs with them until it was so, however long that was, stay upstairs messing the floor and taking up half the room."

The painting finds its way to Saskia's family by boat, floating quietly along the wide floodwaters, wrapped in a blanket, sitting alongside another wrapped bundle -- an abandoned, newborn baby. A note inside the baby's blanket reads: "Sell the painting, feed the baby."

Such moments of serendipity are scattered throughout Girl in Hyacinth Blue, tempered by more harsh realities of the times -- hangings, hunger, poverty. Saskia is harshly scolded at one point by her husband for feeding her children the seed potatoes he intended to plant in the spring. Another owner sells the painting when she escapes a bloodless marriage to an aristocrat -- the night each of them catches the other in an illicit sexual tryst during a formal dinner party.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue should hold wide appeal to literary and popular readers alike, and certainly to art lovers. By example rather than pontification, Vreeland poses a thesis on the meaning and purpose of art in life. Beauty, in this author's eyes, is as essential as breathing, as fundamental as mother's milk, as functional as next season's seed potatoes.

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