“Thus looking at the Middle Ages means looking at our infancy, in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, asks us about our childhood”.
Umberto Eco has created what is perhaps the most unconquerable and daunting historical and meta-detective fiction of our time. As our protagonist, the intellectually prided Franciscan friar William of Baskerville – a nod to the great detective canon Sherlock Holmes, and his apprentice – the dedicated Adso of Melk, maneuver among real and pseudo-historical figures to unveil the hidden plot that propels a series of murder. One such discourse involved in the plot is the adaptationist view of knowledge. Filled with numerous phrases in untranslated Latin, old German, pidgin, and other languages lost to modern readers, as well as cultural references deeply rooted in the medieval religious and philosophical context, The Name of The Rose is almost unreadable for any contemporary eyes without the help of companion books or a well-informed schema of medieval theological history.
It is only until one comes to understand the connotation and horde of research and conflict attached to the tedious strings of book names, architecture, dreams, and archives, that doors of comprehension will open themselves to a deeper revelation. Words are but signs that could be everything and nothing.
If the attempt to preserve knowledge and history is merely a vain self-consolation on our part, as futile as Adso’s journey back to the Abbey at the end to salvage the fragments of the aedificium, why do we do it at all? The genius of The Name of the Rose lies in giving neither answers nor solutions, but an observation – in this world scorch in flame constantly awaiting the descend of the anti-Christ, our lives are but an adaptation of what has come before. We are our ancestors, a helpless Adso with nothing but the education passed down from his master at his disposal, forever chasing after a name of which that is already lost. Yet, unlike our protagonists, we are given this wisdom and insight by Umberto before it is too late. What is to be done with this knowledge, thus, rest entirely in the hands of the readers alone.
I wanted to read this book, researching for my writing project. It helped me to understand better not only how U-boats operated and why during the war they became the Allies’ worst nightmare, but also gave me great insights into the life of a crew onboard German U-boat.
Written by a survivor of the U-boat fleet, the book is a fictionalised memoir of Lieutenant Werner (Lothar-Günther Buchheim) who was assigned as a war correspondent to U-96 during her last patrol in the North Atlantic. The U-boat fleet experienced the heaviest human losses: of 40,000 men who served on submarines, 30,000 failed to return.
This book is more than just a historical drama. The author takes his reader through all circles of hell–from an endless storm in the Atlantic and pointless “frigging around” which almost destroyed the crew’s spirit to the two attacks and the crazily dangerous voyage through Gibraltar which almost smashed the U-boat.
Some readers can find the book a bit too long and monotonous, with the author’s endless descriptions of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean weather (the stormy sea, the calm sea, the sea at dawn, etc.) and wordy explanations on how the different compartments of the vessel operate, etc. However, it creates a certain atmosphere. A reader can actually feel the dripping of condensation from the ceiling of the boat, the smell of machine oil in the engine room, and hear explosions of depth charges during attacks.
The author doesn’t give names to most of the crew. We know the men only by their ranks or nicknames: The Old Man/Herr Kaleun (Herr Kapitänleutnant), the Chief, the First Watch Officer, Number One, etc. It doesn’t prevent a reader from connecting to all of them.
Although during the war we were on opposite sides of the barricade, the book made me feel compassionate towards these young men (the Old Man was actually in his mid 30s, the rest of the crew–in their late teens, early 20s) who went through all the horrors of the war, but didn’t lose their honour, bravery, kindness, and ability to help others. Clearly, these men were not evil, brainwashed Nazis. They were just men who were pushed to fight. All they wanted is just to survive and finish the war.
Despite the lack of female characters in the book, can a girl like me relate to the main characters? “Jawohl, Herr Kaleun!” Absolutely.
Valeriya Salt is a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. Born in Belarus, she lived for many years in the Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travelling, arts, history, and foreign languages. She’s the author of a few published thriller/science fiction novellas and novels. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as magazines, both online and in print. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travelling, arts, history, and foreign languages.
The Best American Short Stories 2019 With an Introduction by Anthony Doerr
Published by Mariner Books/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review by Daniel Picker
The latest edition of the venerable series: The Best American Short Stories, 2019 edition, burns brightly with stories that use colloquial language to illuminate contemporary issues. Ten of these stories shine as the constellation that appears as The Best American Short Stories 2019.
Anthony Doerr’s essay steps off from his youthful searching through Rust Hill’s Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Doerr, with both humor and seriousness, notes that Hills, the former fiction editor at Esquire, presents rules worth breaking at least some of the time. Both Doerr and Pitlor also discuss their lives as writers and parents of growing children.
Both Pitlor and Doerr extol the virtues of reading, and Pitlor notes that today it seems increasingly difficult to find the time to read an actual short story or book, with the ubiquity of competition from “YouTube”, “streaming,” “TV shows and video games,” all of which draw the attention of her twin 12–year–old sons. Pitlor notes the important role short stories may play in forcing Americans to slow down. Doerr sees the short stories of today as mirrors of the political turmoil in society, and notes that he selected his 20 Best while enduring “the Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh” and “finished these stories as the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee.” Doerr peppers one paragraph with contemporary issues: “white privilege” and “xenophobia racism and the wealth gap.”
The 20 stories here include at least ten as the bright stars of the constellation that makes up The Best American Short Stories 2019. A handful of the stories capture youthful passion in vibrant contemporary language. Jamel Brinkley’s “No More Than a Bubble” describes a post-college party where two young men pursue two young women at a party in Brooklyn; the story’s passionate pursuit appears: “A neat ladylike Afro bloomed from her head, and she was a lighter shade of brown than her friend with the buzzcut, a thick snack of a girl whose shape made you work your jaws.” This matches the backstory of the narrator’s father, who referred to his wife as “cioccolata, agrodulce.” Other stories in this collection burn with the vibrant dialogue and colloquial language of American youths. Jenn Alandy Trahan’s “They Told Us Not to Say This” begins with “THE FEW WHITE BOYS in our town could ball.” Trahan’s story, among the shortest in the book, packs power and life. Ella Martinsen Gorham’s “Protozoa” describes the life of a teen girl who observes an “eyesore McMansion” and endures a classmate’s slam poetry and nicknames. The story reveals the power posted videos hold in the lives of teenagers.
Wendell Berry’s story, also among the briefest, has the longest title: “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased to be Told (1935–1978)” burns with the embers of another era. Berry’s story masterfully recreates an earlier period in 20th century America. Berry’s story within a story, ignores Rust Hills’ advice, while drawing attention to a youthful witness. Berry eloquence evokes not only a different time but also revives the importance of stories: “Port William was by then losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry, and so it was coming to know itself only as a ‘no place’ adrift with every place in a country dismemoried and without landmarks.” The story of Port William, with its tinge of scandal and fun, draws from another age, before “the coming of the machines.” The important larger story surrounds the lives of this country place and surrounds the lives of Americans: “That was the defining story then, of Port William and thousands of places like it. It was the story of the young people, changed by the change of the times, who by the war’s end or the midcentury had found their way to city jobs and salaries or high wages, and who returned after that only to visit a bedside in a nursing home, at a loss for something to say, or to bury the dead.”
Veteran science fiction master Ursula LeGuin contributed a period piece, “Pity and Shame” which also masterfully depicts 19th century America. Her story recalls the fire of a passion from long ago: “She’d loved making love with Petey, back when they ran off together, the wanting and the fulfilling. . . What she and Pete had had was like a bonfire that went up in a blaze.” She compares that with nursing a broken man: “This was like a lamp that let you see what was there.”
Manuel Munoz, with his story “Anyone Can Do It” burns with a different sort of passion, one for survival. The lives of migrant workers on the roadside of society in the Central Valley of California contemporize the realm of John Steinbeck. Munoz’s tale of the 1980’s sheds light on the immigration issue and seems contemporary in revealing the lives of itinerant workers of Mexican heritage as it quietly moves toward its conclusion without letting on their impending losses.
Jim Shepard’s “Our Day of Grace” recreates 19th – century lives of those who struggle to survive a precarious existence amid loss. Shepard, recreated the letters of those suffering through America’s Civil War, brings to life those who fought and lived during the conflagration of America’s devastating Civil War, which redefined American values. Shepard has brought to life the lives of those soldiers and their families involved in America’s Civil War, which concluded in 1865. The issues of that war continue to plague America.
Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Audition” describes two young men who after working construction, watch NBA basketball on TV, and slide into cocaine abuse. This story, among the four which originally appeared in TheNew Yorker, where Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Bronze” also first appeared. “Bronze” contains a panache for remarkable rhetoric. Much of the story takes place on an Amtrak train in the late 1970’s. As the story travels from New York City to Providence, Rhode Island, the conflicted protagonist attempts to comprehend his college life. Eugenides, in comments near the back of the book, discusses his difficulties in revising his story. All the contributors lend insight in the Contributors’ Notes. The compilation also includes the list of “Other Distinguished Stories” and notes publications publishing short stories in 2019.
The two finest stories in the collection touch on Berry’s themes within his “story of Port William.” Doerr, in his introduction, notes that Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters” deals with the lack of “authenticity” so prevalent in American society. Within the penultimate section of Schaitkin’s story she includes the important details leading to the story’s conclusion. In the face of an impending natural disaster from a tornado, the main characters find a shelter for survival, yet post near obliteration, news of a brother’s backstory adds the story’s last devasting blow.
The bright star or Venus of this collection, “Hellion” burns with sassy sarcasm; it appears as a Southern, rhetorical masterpiece akin to the work of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. With its brilliant evocation of a swamp in the Southeast, the story brings to life a beloved, yet snappy pet alligator, a drunken father, and a hard – working, and mostly absent mother. Julia Elliot’s narrator, a vibrant12–year–old girl describes the scene: “When I cut my motor cicadas blared like summer’s engine. We scrambled from the cart, hunkered down by Dragon’s hole, dug deep by my daddy back in April when I’d found the baby gator moping motherless in the swamp.” This story shines, as it describes the dangerous gator, and it presents the girl’s new friend, a young “city” boy who endures the taunts of local, rural redneck boys. Julia Elliot’s “Hellion” captures, with humor and pathos, all that makes reading American short stories still important and worthwhile in this 21st century.
Daniel Picker studied at Harvard and Oxford and completed an MA in English from Middlebury College in Vermont. His book reviews and personal essays have appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Middlebury Magazine, The Oxonian Review, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The Irish Journal of American Studies. Daniel Picker was awarded The Dudley Review Poetry Prize at Harvard and he received a fellowship from The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He is the author of a book of poems, Steep Stony Road (Viral Cat Press of San Francisco 2012). Fiction by Daniel Picker appears in The Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Kelsey Review, The 67th Street Scribe, and The Abington Review. Daniel Picker studied fiction writing with Southern author and native Virginian, David Huddle, and studied poetry writing with Irish poet and Nobel winner, Seamus Heaney. Daniel Picker has reviewed books by John Banville, David Updike, William Corbett, Jim Lynch, Adam Begley on John Updike, W.S. Di Piero, John Berryman, Doug Holder, John Elder, Rick Hillis, and several others.
Written by Rachel Holmes Published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks; Reprint edition (November 15, 2016)
Review by Bonnie Stanard
I stayed up until after 2:00 AM finishing Rachel Holmes’ well-documented biography of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. I couldn’t go to sleep once I got into the dirty dealings of the nefarious Edward Aveling. The last two chapters lay the groundwork for another book that addresses the dichotomy of Eleanor’s way of life versus her way of death.
Here’s my take on the book:
It provides a sweeping picture of socialist movements of latter 19th Century England, touching on France and Germany. This is a character study of Eleanor Marx only in so much as it relates to her career. She was an indefatigable person of enviable intellect in promoting her father’s principles. Her life was given to travel, organizing labor, writing and promoting the rights of workers.
In advocating an eight-hour day, age limits for employing children, and more humane treatment of women, she met a swell of opposition and wasn’t one to falter. With youthful boldness she faced ridicule and rejection from colleagues and powerful businessmen.
For many years she lived hand to mouth, moved from one shabby place to another, and persisted with enthusiasm to promote a socialist agenda. This won her many friends and admirers, especially among people working in sweatshops.
Holmes has given Eleanor the character of a person who faced obstacles with determination, energy, and sagacity. That she was the unlikeliest of persons to commit suicide is not the focus of this book. Eleanor’s devotion was first and foremost to her father’s social philosophy. That she gave up this cause and took her life when faced with her lover’s betrayal is covered in one short chapter at the end of the book. Worse yet, the lover-cum-conman who betrayed her inherited her estate.
The book’s concluding scenario is reason enough for another biography. This is not meant as a criticism of Holmes’ book, which is a fine introduction to the socialist scene at the time Eleanor Marx lived.
Bonnie Stanard draws on her rural upbringing and an interest in history to write novels, short stories, and poems with credits in publications such as The American Journal of Poetry, Wisconsin Review, Harpur Palate, The South Carolina Review, and The Museum of Americana. She has published six historical fiction novels and a children’s book. She lives in South Carolina.
‘We order our lives with barely held stories,’ says the narrator of Warlight. This astonishing new book from Michael Ondaatje is made up of snapshots from a number of connected lives that come in and out of focus, intermittently shadowy and full of bright light.
The English Patient (1992), the novel which shot Ondaatje to fame, dealt with the aftershocks of war, its damaged characters struggling to find their way once the heat of battle is over. In Warlight he returns to this theme; London in 1945 is starting to recover from the war, but for the narrator Nathaniel, then a curious teenager, and his older sister Rachel, the losses have only just begun.
In those days it was not unusual for parents to leave their children for extended periods, but Nathaniel’s parents, who announce that they are going to Singapore for a year, seem peculiarly blasé about the safety of their offspring, leaving them in the nominal care of a man known to the children as The Moth.
The Moth introduces them to a world of small-time criminality, filling their sitting room with dubious but likable characters including The Darter, who smuggles racing greyhounds into London on a canal barge. There is a great deal of fascinating background detail in the book, not least the intimate portrayal of post-war London, grimy and dimly lit but bustling with energy. The characters who swirl in and out of Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives are similarly carefully drawn, including the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence who ‘steps out’ with The Darter for a time before disappearing East.
Their parents gone, the two teenagers begin to discover the wide world that awaits them. Nathaniel, with the self-interest of all teenagers, is too busy losing his virginity to a girl known as Agnes and helping The Darter with his illegal schemes to worry very much about where his parents are. He also fails to notice Rachel drifting away from him, and her life becomes another of the book’s mysteries.
The discovery of their mother Rose’s steamer trunk, so carefully packed with clothes suitable for Singapore, hidden in the cellar, is a shock. Has she gone abroad at all? Where is she, if not in Singapore? And where is their father? Does it matter?
The scenes from their youth are interspersed with chapters that take place fifteen or so years later. Nathaniel, now working in the Foreign Office archives department, is tentatively beginning to unravel some of the mysteries that marked his teenage years, including the abrupt reappearance of his mother and a violent clash that led to Rachel’s permanent estrangement.
Shadowy figures weave in and out of the action – a market gardener, a Balkan assassin, and man called Marsh Felon, who knew Rose before and during the war, and who may hold the key to what she was doing in those years.
Along with Nathaniel we begin to realise how much he has lost, almost without noticing. The lusty teenage boy has become a quiet, watchful man who spends his days going through dusty papers and creaking recordings, finding his mother at last hidden in the archives, closer and more real than she ever was in person. But where is his father? His sister? The girl known as Agnes, The Moth and The Darter? They are all lost.
Memory is always fallible, and the gaps in Nathaniel’s memories are sometimes filled in with guesses, possibilities, wild ideas – it is sometimes impossible to know which are real. He admits to reconstructing stories ‘from a grain of sand’.
There is very little dialogue in the novel; brief exchanges are sandwiched between lengthy descriptions and reminiscences, and even scenes of dramatic action are skilfully presented as though we are at a distance from them, looking, perhaps, through a pane of misty glass. His prose is spare, careful, his descriptions as sharp as we have come to expect (loud music is described as ‘violent and chaotic, without courtesy’).
Ondaatje excels at leaving his readers with more questions than answers, portraying a few snapshots of a life and no more. Warlight has a powerful elegiac feel, suffused with regret and missed opportunities. As in The English Patient, we are left wondering what will become of the remaining characters when their war has ended, and what it truly means to survive.
Do you write reviews of historical novels? The Copperfield Review is actively seeking submissions of historical novel reviews, including subgenres such as historical mysteries, romance, even historical fantasy. We also accept submissions of reviews of nonfiction history books and biographies of historical figures, as well as nonfiction books about writing and creativity.
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We’re looking forward to reading your submissions. Please repost if you know of other fans of historical fiction who write book reviews!
The Sins of Jubal Cooper is a 2018 historical novella by Mary Lingerfelt, a Christian author. Sitting at around 40,000 words, the novella is set in rural Georgia, during the height of the Great Depression. It follows the misadventures of eight-year-old Will Henry as he commits a crime and is then forced to work off his debt to society by working for the infamous Judge Jubal Cooper, a man Will considers to be like the devil.
Speaking historically, The Sins of Jubal Cooper accurately captures the feelings and themes of Depression-era America. The text deals with families doing it tough, the division of class between the rich and the poor, the treatment of African-Americans, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
The story is told from the perspective of Will and, as such, it uses literary techniques that immerse the reader in the mind of an eight-year-old. Words like scared as purposefully misspelled as skeered or killed as kilt. These types of misspellings aren’t overbearing, and they do a fantastic job of adding to the immersion. As a poor eight-year-old in Depression-era Georgia, Will certainly doesn’t speak as ‘proper’ as Jubal Cooper, for instance, and the divide between Will’s language and Jubal’s language definitely helps to reinforce the theme of class division.
As Mary Lingerfelt is a Christian author, The Sins of Jubal Cooper also discusses the concept of faith, particularly Will’s as he tries to repent for his crime and his belief that Jubal Cooper isn’t a very moral man. Personally, I am not a religious person, but I still found this novella thoroughly captivating. The religious themes are visible enough to tie the story together; but, if you’re non-religious like myself, the themes definitely aren’t overbearing.
For me, the line that best represents The Sins of Jubal Cooper (and its themes of religion, repentance, and Depression-era loss) is found about halfway through the text. Will says, “I was ‘sposed to repent right away, and I knew that; but it was a Depression on, and everybody had to dicker with their conscience the best they could.” All in all, this is a book about Will trying to repent for his crime and navigate the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous life that Jubal Cooper leads.
I genuinely liked this novella. At 40,000 words it isn’t that daunting to pick up, for those of you who like reading shorter stories. I look forward to reading more from Mary Lingerfelt in the future, as I am definitely interested in her writing style, and the way she uses historical fiction to paint a picture of different historical eras.
Harry Andrew Miller is a freelance history writer from Australia. He specializes in writing about the First World War, but his interests encapsulate all eras. Visit Harry online at www.harryandrewmiller.com.
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.
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.
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.