Category Archives: Reviews

My Dear Hamilton

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Published by HarperCollins

Review by Irene Colthurst

So few accounts of the American Revolutionary era begin in the midst of the fighting after 1776 and then stretch through the fragile 1780s and tumultuous 1790s.   The life story of Alexander Hamilton, however, demands exactly that frame. So does that of his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler Hamilton. The runaway success of a certain Broadway musical re-introduced the American public to that period and sparked interest in its other major figures.  The appeal of My Dear Hamilton, therefore, is its promise to go “beyond the hype” of Hamilton the musical to examine Elizabeth Schuyler’s entire long life.  It’s one of several novels in the last few years, including another from authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie themselves, that look more deeply at the American revolutionary era through the eyes of women.  Here they give us Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler in her own voice, framed as her reminiscence in old age, as she grapples with and yet fights for Hamilton’s legacy. Dray and Kamoie succeed in giving us an intimate view of the era that inherently challenges many of the cherished images that the prominent members of the revolutionary generation hold in the American public’s imagination.  In doing so, they have written a novel considered among the best historical fiction of 2018.

The novel opens in the mid-1820s as James Monroe makes a visit to a Eliza in late middle age.  She then tries to explain to the reader why she received him so coldly, prompting her to relate her life story as if building one of her husband’s legal arguments.  She begins by noting, “I was a patriot in my own right before I ever met Alexander Hamilton”. Chronicling their courtship and early marriage, as well as Hamilton’s rise to power, Eliza reveals a life that alternated between private moments of family joy and the public contentions and social disruptions whose effects strained her marriage.  The cycle became almost predictable as the narrative spun on through the 1790s and the infamous Reynolds affair, and beyond. Hamilton’s appeals for forgiveness and declarations of love often seemed overwrought, and it could be hard to know how much of his pleading to “his angel” was due to his lawyerly character and guilty conscience, and what was narrative necessity.  

The authors are disciplined in their depiction of only Eliza’s direct experience of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. They also succeed in letting Eliza demonstrate how much more than a wronged wife she always was. Eventually, the narrative ends up back at the meeting of Eliza and Monroe.  To drive towards that conclusion, Dray and Kamoie let the frame of Eliza’s older perspective weigh perhaps too heavily upon the story as it unfolds. Readers are given her feelings in the moment, and then immediately her late reconsiderations of those feelings. The message of the frame story is that we are not supposed to lose ourselves too much in this novel, but it is impossible not to.  

Overall the novel is alive with intimate detail and fascinating historical echoes for our own time. Elizabeth Schuyler’s evolution into a political wife and a reluctant champion of her husband’s complicated legacy is rendered with a strong moral intensity.  Her perspective is the Federalist perspective, which goes unexplored in most depictions of the early American republic. Dray and Kamoie do not shy away from letting Elizabeth Schuyler show herself as a daughter of privilege whose political views are based on a love of martial heroism, terror and contempt for the mob, and a patronizing dismissiveness towards the common people outside of her charity work.   

Ironically, Dray and Kamoie can bring Eliza’s elite Federalist perspective to life because of the rise of social history, a discipline dedicated to broadening the narrative beyond the elite men of the US Founding generation to the Natives Eliza treated with as a young woman the enslaved in her father’s household, and the common whites she was disdainful of. Now insights from social history have come to historical fiction about the American Revolution.  My Dear Hamilton is a worthy entry alongside other recent Revolutionary War novels by and from the perspective of women, such as The Devil Take Tomorrow by Gretchen Jeannette.  Like them, it is romantic in a way that echoes but is more serious than the literature of the period itself. Unlike them, it lets the story continue into the less romantic days of post-revolutionary politics, grief, and imperfect union.  None of them claims to be “The Red Badge of Courage for the American Revolution”, an iconic literary rendering of the war.  That is unnecessary, for these novels are evocative works in their own particular way.

In giving us Eliza’s whole life, and her own case for that life in the face of consuming grief in a democratizing nation whose direction she only eventually reconciled herself to, we get a woman who is ultimately as tragically and valiantly human as her husband.

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Irene Colthurst is a reviewer with the Historical Novel Society. She lives in San Diego.

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Everything I Never Told You

Written by Celeste Ng

Published by Penguin Books

Review by Meredith Allard

 

Some readers may argue against my classifying Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng as historical fiction. The story takes place in the not-so-distant past of the 1970s, but as someone who lived through those years reading the story did bring on a sense of nostalgia. In some ways, life seemed more simple then. There were no cell phones, no social media. You had actually use a rotary phone to contact people, and there were these things called typewriters, kids, where you needed ribbons and messy liquid paper to fix those pesky typos. We can have a discussion about how far in the past something has to be in order to qualify as historical fiction. We can also discuss whether or not nostalgia in itself is enough to qualify something as historical fiction. My rationale for including Everything I Never Told You as historical fiction is that, while the story about a family mourning the death of its teenage daughter is timeless, the story itself may have looked different if it took place in the 21st century.

Teenager Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, but being the favorite child isn’t as wonderful for Lydia as you might think. She carries the weight of both of her parents unfulfilled dreams—her father’s insecurities being about Chinese and feeling as though he never fit in, and her mother’s unfulfillment at feeling destined to the life of a traditional housewife, thereby never meeting her true potential as a woman in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. When Lydia is found drowned, the carefully woven family fabric begins to unravel, and everyone in the family, including Lydia’s older brother and younger sister, is forced to confront what they knew, or what they thought they knew, about their family.

Everything I Never Told You is a family story about how often we don’t know the people we’re supposed to be closest to. Ng does a wonderful job sharing each character’s perspectives, and we understand James and Marilyn, or at least we understand why they acted as they did. Yes, it would have been nice if there were more self-reflection among the characters while Lydia was alive, but that’s not particularly realistic. Often, we don’t recognize where we could have done better until after the fact. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we may even see some of our own family dynamics reflected in the story. There’s that old saying from Maya Angelou—when people do, they do the best they know how to do. That’s what James and Marilyn do in Everything I Never Told You—they did the best they knew how to do. And that’s all anyone can do in any given moment.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill

Written by Mary Sharratt

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review by Meredith Allard

 

I was drawn to Daughters of the Witching Hill because of my interest in witch hunts and witch trials, and Mary Sharratt did not disappoint. The story is based on historical details and transcripts from the real-life 1612 Pendle witch hunt.

The novel starts with an interesting premise. What if some of the people accused of witchcraft in the 1612 Pendle witch hunt actually practiced magic? Daughters of the Witching Hill begins with Bess Southerns, known as Mother Demdike, a poor woman living with her children in Pendle Forest. She discovers a familiar, delves into magic, and develops a reputation as a cunning woman, which is considered different than a witch because cunning women use their powers to heal and not hurt people. The magic works both for and against Bess and those she cares for most. Bess’ granddaughter Alizon, is afraid of the magic her grandmother possesses, but Bess’ best friend since girlhood embraces the dark side of magic. Bess is betrayed by her own family—some who testify against her willingly, and some who don’t. Bess, Alizon, and others are accused of witchcraft and may suffer the ultimate consequence because of one man determined to make his name as a witch finder.

The novel caught me from the first page through Bess’ narrative voice. When Alizon takes over the narrative later in the story, her voice is just as powerful. Mary Sharratt does what the best historical novelists do so well—she weaves facts of the time period, details about food, clothing, work—seamlessly into the plot. Through Bess, we see what life was like for poor people in late 16th and early 17th century England. Work was hard to find, and poor people had to travel from place to place asking if there was any work. There were times when Bess and her family went hungry. There were famines when many people died. Magic provided Bess and her family with an income as well as some respect—at least until Bess begins to age and lose some of her potency as a healer. As someone from the poor end of the socioeconomic spectrum, Bess and her family are vulnerable to the whims of those with higher status. Sharratt does a fine job showing the precarious nature of life for poor people like Bess and Alizon.

If you’re interested in witch hunts or witch trials, you will love Daughters of the Witching Hill. This is also a great read for those interested in 16th and 17th-century English life.

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