Review 1695: The Bridge of the Gods

A friend who knew I was writing a story set locally before the arrival of white men gave me The Bridge of the Gods, which was written in 1899 as a result of Balch’s years of collecting Native American folklore and customs in Oregon. The novel is based on a legend about a bridge of stone across the Columbia.

The novel begins in 17th century Massachusetts, where Reverend Cecil Grey feels the mission to preach Christianity to the indigenous people of the West and dreams of a huge stone bridge over a river. His wife having died, he sets off to do just that, accompanied by his Native American nurse.

Eight years later, Multnomah, chief of the Willamette tribe, decides to test his allies. His tribe is the leader of a confederation united against their enemies, the Spokanes and the Shoshoni. The ascendancy of the Willamettes is prophecied to last until the Bridge of the Gods, a massive stone arch over the Columbia River, is destroyed. However, Multnomah has been hearing that some tribes want to leave the confederation. He decides to summon all of the tribes for a great council on Wappatta Island (now Sauvie Island).

Multnomah has a beautiful daughter, Wallulah, whose mother was an Asiatic princess shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Multnomah wants to betroth her to Snohomish, chief of the Cayuses, to cement their alliance. Wallulah, having seen Snohomish once, is not averse—until Cecil Grey comes on the scene.

I didn’t expect much from the attitudes of this book, considering when it was written, and I didn’t get much. Despite the young Balch having been interested enough to travel around and interview indigenous people, they are referred to constantly as savages, their traditions are treated with abhorrence, their villages are described as degraded, they are shown as violent and cruel. Even Multnomah, who compared to Snohomish is a good guy, is depicted as obdurate and cruel. Grey’s faithful nurse doesn’t even have a name.

Only Wallulah escapes this treatment, but note that she is half “Asiatic” (and a confused half at that, for her mother is said to have taught the Willamettes something about Buddha but calls god Allah). Her mother is described as white. Wallulah is herself a typical late 19th century romantic heroine, fragile and weak and a completely unlikely indigenous woman.

Although this novel is billed as a romance, Grey’s struggle is between his mission and Wallulah (even though they do not seem mutually exclusive), and since Grey is a zealot, Wallulah doesn’t have much of a chance. This is actually a romance in the older sense of the word, an adventure novel.

Since Balch went to so much trouble to personally speak to indigenous peoples and collect stories, I was hoping this book would be a little more enlightened—say, perhaps, written by someone who actually liked the people. It wasn’t. If you’re interested in an older book based in the life of indigenous peoples, I recommend The Loon Feather.

Related Posts

The Loon Feather

Caleb’s Crossing

One Thousand White Women

Review 1674: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is a widow, and her brother Ferdinand does not want her to remarry, so that he will eventually inherit her estate. So, he sets a spy on her, Bosola.

Despite Bosola’s efforts, the Duchess marries her steward, Antonio. It’s not clear what would have happened if she had picked someone closer to her station, but this choice outrages her brothers. (Oddly enough, Bosola doesn’t report that she has a lover until she has three children by him.)

At first, the brothers think the Duchess has been whoring around, but the situation isn’t improved by their finding out she is actually married. Ferdinand has her imprisoned in rooms of her castle, and things get worse from there.

When I studied 17th century drama, these plays were called revenge tragedies, but the introduction to my very old Mermaid edition calls them Tragedies in Blood. Since pretty much all the main characters are dead by the end, this is a fitting name.

Webster’s play is a bit rough around the edges. Certainly, it doesn’t have the power of Shakespeare or even Marlowe, and most of it is in prose. Still, there are some effective moments. I think this play is probably much more moving when performed rather than read. I read this play for my Classics Club list.

Related Posts

Othello

Macbeth

Edward II

Review 1668: The Vicomte de Bragelonne

My edition of the Collected Works of Alexandre Dumas explains that The Vicomte de Bragelonne was originally published as a massive work but is traditionally published in English as either three or four separate novels: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask. I read the first book, which was quite long in itself.

I felt I was at a disadvantage in reading this book because it is one of the D’Artagnan novels and I haven’t read The Three Musketeers for many years or Twenty Years After ever. Although all four of the original characters appear, I felt that I didn’t understand their relationships to each other. As for the title character, who is the son of Athos, although he makes a couple of appearances, this first novel in the set is about D’Artagnan.

In the beginning of the novel, Louis XIV is a young king, but he has been under the control of Cardinal Mazarin for most of his life. D’Artagnan is the lieutenant of the musketeers, and he overhears when Charles II of England comes penniless to the king to ask for money and men to take back his kingdom. Louis’s finances are kept strictly in the Cardinal’s hands, so Louis goes to the Cardinal to ask for the money or men. The Cardinal, who has made himself wealthy at the kingdom’s expense, tells Louis there is no money and he can’t spare any men. When D’Artagnan sees Louis send Charles away with nothing despite wanting to help him, he resigns in disgust, determined to help Charles.

D’Artagnan’s friend Athos, now the Comte de la Ferre, also wants to help Charles. He was present at the beheading of Charles’s father and knows the Charles I buried a million livres at Newcastle. Athos determines to fetch the money.

This novel seems disjointed. More than half of it deals with the two missions on behalf of Charles, while the rest deals with Louis finally coming into power and sending D’Artagnan on a mission. Perhaps as a complete work, with all its parts, it would seem more coherent, but at this time I was not willing to put in the time to read the whole thing.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

Related Posts

The Black Tulip

La Reine Margot

Captain Paul

Review 1607: Classic Club Spin Result! Oroonoko

Oroonoko was the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

There are a few issues with Oroonoko, written in 1688, that might make it difficult for modern audiences. One is its acceptance of slavery (although the novel is viewed as an anti-slavery work), which in the 17th century was common. The other is its graphic violence, albeit off-stage, that has caused it to vary in popularity over time. (Apparently, even the publishers of the edition I read disagree about that, because the introduction says it was Behn’s most popular work, while the cover says it was not popular because of its violence.)

Oroonoko has been considered a novella rather than a biography, because there is no proof that such a man as Oroonoko existed. However, Behn writes the story in first person as herself, and she is known to have traveled to Suriname, where it is set, shortly before the country was ceded to the Dutch. So, you have to wonder.

Oroonoko is the prince of Coramantien, an area of present-day Ghana, the grandson of the king and a great warrior. He falls in love with a beautiful girl named Imoinda, and she becomes his betrothed. However, his grandfather sends her the veil, which means she is to join his harem, even though because of her betrothal that is a break in custom. Oroonoko must accept this or die, so he accepts it with the thought that the king cannot live long. However, the king regrets his actions and sees no way to recover the situation except if Imoinda was dead. He is unable to have her killed, though, so he sells her into slavery and tells Oroonoko she is dead.

Next, an English slave trader whom Oroonoko has sold slaves to invites him for a party. When he and his men have passed out from drink, the trader enslaves them and puts them on a ship for Suriname. It is when Oroonoko arrives there that he meets Behn and her traveling companions and they learn his tale and witness the rest of the action.

Oroonoko might be the first anti-slavery novel, although it is subtle about it, showing some of its abuses while not really commenting on the institution. Behn reveals the dastardly behavior of a series of Europeans, either slavers or owners, and contrasts it with the image she builds up of a handsome, brave, forthright black hero and his beautiful and virtuous lady. The novel was interesting, but I found what happened to Imoinda through Oroonoko’s hands distressing and the reflection of a type of thinking I did not find admirable—and the ending was just plain gruesome.

Related Posts

Merivel: A Man of His Time

Washington Black

Sugar Money

Review 1603: The Glass Woman

It’s November 1686 in Stykkishólmur, Iceland. After an earthquake, the ice splits open and disgorges a woman’s body.

Three months earlier, Rósa and her mother are near starvation after the death of her father Magnús, the Bishop of Skálholt. He could have been a powerful and wealthy man, but he preferred to give away all he owned. Despite his generosity, no one is willing to give a single thing to help the women except Páll, Rósa’s childhood friend.

Then Rósa’s mother hears that Jón Eiriksson, a powerful man from a village in the north, is looking for a wife. There are weird rumors about the death of his first wife, but with her mother coughing blood, Rósa decides to marry him.

When she arrives in Stykkishólmur, however, Jón seems to have become unexpectedly stern. He hardly spends any time with her and wants her to stay away from the village. The loft in the house is locked, and he tells her to stay out of it. The villagers seem to be afraid of him and his apprentice, Pétur. Rósa, alone night after night, thinks she hears something moving in the loft and imagines someone moving through her rooms at night.

This Icelandic version of the Bluebeard story is highly atmospheric, and I was very interested in it. However, in some ways I found it unsatisfying. I didn’t like the ending and thought that the situation could have been cleared up easily with the truth. Also, the character of Páll is undefined. At first, it seems he will be a minor character, but he ends up being more important, and as such, should have a personality. Overall, though, I found the customs and beliefs of the time and place interesting, and I liked Rósa.

Related Posts

The Bloody Chamber

The Greenlanders

Iceland’s Bell

Review 1532: Tidelands

For years, I read Philippa Gregory’s books faithfully, but at some point I decided that she was just cranking them out, so I stopped. I felt that less attention was going to such things as fully realized setting and well-rounded characters.

Recently, however, I noticed that she was doing something different with Tidelands, so I thought I’d give her another try. This book is set in the 17th century and features a heroine living in poverty.

Alinor is a wise woman—a healer and a midwife who does not deal in magic and charms and is very concerned, as she has to be, about her reputation. It is in jeopardy, because her husband has disappeared, and if he has deserted her, she will be considered a loose woman. So, on Midsummer’s Eve at midnight, she goes to the church believing she will see the ghost of her husband if he is dead.

She does not see her husband but a total stranger. He is a young man, a gentleman in difficulty, who introduces himself as James Summer but is a Catholic priest in a time when Catholicism has been banned in England. He is traveling and was supposed to find refuge with Sir William Peachey, but Sir William is not home. Although she is Protestant, Alinor is not much concerned with religion, so she gives him refuge overnight in her shed and leads him through the marshes in the morning to consult with Sir William’s steward.

As a result of her actions, Sir William gives her son a place as his son’s companion. This is a step up for him, and she is grateful. James Summer masquerades as a tutor for Sir William’s son, but he is really there to help free King Charles, in prison on the Isle of Wight.

Unlikely enough, I thought, James and Alinor fall in love. James begins to lose faith in his religion and his king as events progress. But he is a priest, and Alinor is married, and on the Isle of Wight, he encounter’s Alinor’s husband, who does not intend to return.

For a long time I found the situation unconvincing and considered dropping the book. The ending, however, was surprising and affecting, so I’ve changed my mind. I’m willing to try the second book of this series.

Related Posts

Merivel: A Man of His Time

Lark

Corrag

 

Review 1484: The Sealwoman’s Gift

With one foot in the world of myth and saga and the other based in a true historic event, The Sealwoman’s Gift should have been a great book. Sadly, it is not quite so good as I expected. It has an interesting beginning and a touching end but tends to drag sometimes in the middle.

One morning in 1627, Oddrún comes to Ásta, saying she’s had a vision of men crossing their island to attack them. However, Oddrún thinks she’s a sealwoman and only one of her visions has been known to come true, so no one pays attention. Shortly thereafter, their small Westman Island, part of Iceland, is attacked by Barbary pirates. Almost everyone is killed or enslaved.

This is Sally Magnusson’s imagining of a true event the remains one of the most significant in Icelandic history. Out of a population of about 40,000, many were killed and 400 taken. Among those taken are Ásta and her husband, the minister Ólafur, and all but one of their children. Ásta, hugely pregnant, begins giving birth on the ship, and one of my complaints is that, with all the flashbacks and background information, it takes from chapter one until the end of chapter five before she actually has the baby. I have to say that this seemed interminable, and Magnusson could have figured out a better way to handle the background information. Finally, they arrive in Algiers.

Ásta and Ólafur and two of their children are bought by a powerful trader named Cilleby, while their oldest son Egill, is purchased by the Pasha and never heard from again. Ólafur is surprised to be given no duties, but after a few months Cilleby dispatches him with a safe passage back to Denmark to try to obtain ransom for Denmark’s Icelandic citizens.

Ásta, who has been a dreamy woman with a love of Icelandic sagas, remains as a seamstress, trying to bring up her remaining two children and listening to the stories told in the evening by members of the harem.

During this period, Magnusson might have tried to more fully imagine life in Algiers, but this world is not fully realized. Or, she could have stuck with Ólafur on his journey back to Denmark and in his years of fund raising to free the captives. But she is more interested in Ásta and has her develop a relationship with Cilleby. I found this the least likely and least interesting part of the book.

Still, I was glad I finished the book, because the story eventually ends in Iceland, which Magnusson depicts more convincingly. The ending was touching and redeemed the novel quite a bit.

Related Posts

Iceland’s Bell

Burial Rites

The Greenlanders

Review 1415: The Poison Bed

In 1615 London, a glittering couple was imprisoned in the Tower for murder. They were Robert Carr, long a favorite of King James, and his wife Frances of the powerful Howard family. The victim was Thomas Overbury, a friend of Robert’s who was poisoned while imprisoned in the Tower.

The narration of this novel is split between Frances in the third person and Robert in the first person. It tells the story of their meeting, when Frances was married to the Earl of Essex, and their subsequent struggles to be married, which resulted, almost as collateral damage, in Overbury’s death. One of these narrators is undoubtedly unreliable, however.

This novel was based on a scandal in Jacobean England, and Freemantle proposes a theory of its solution, although the truth is still not understood. A few reviewers have criticized it as being historically inaccurate. Based on my very little research, I can’t speak to that, but I can say that, considering the subject was interesting to me, the novel dragged curiously at times. Perhaps this was a result of the he said, she said format. It got a little more interesting when the truth about one narrator came out, but then it dragged again.

Related Posts

Viper Wine

Merivel: A Man of His Time

The Journal of Mrs. Pepys

Review 1385: The Miniaturist

Best of Ten!
I so enjoyed The Miniaturist that I was only disappointed at knowing all its secrets, since I had first seen it televised on Masterpiece. Jessie Burton’s novel is set in the 17th century, and what a difference from the previous novel I read (Widdershins) also set in the 17th century. Burton’s novel evokes the bustling city of Amsterdam, ruled by commerce but also by a harsh Calvinism, a city where people are constantly watched for misbehavior.

Nella arrives from the country to take up residence with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Although she brings a good family name to the marriage, she brings nothing else, for her father was a poor businessman.

Nella isn’t warmly received. Johannes’s sister Marin is cold, and Johannes hasn’t bothered to be home. When, after a few days, Johannes hasn’t consummated the marriage and Marin continues with the housekeeping, Nella fears that she has no role in her new life.

Johannes’s marriage gift to her is a miniature copy of their house that she can furnish. Although Nella thinks he is treating her like a child, she eventually sends a note to a miniaturist asking for three items: a lute, because Marin will not allow her to play the ones in the house; a block of marzipan, because Marin disapproves of sugar; and a marriage cup, which Nella should have received from Johannes but did not. When the items arrive, they are exquisite, but she also receives things she did not order. And more arrive. They so closely match what is going on in the house that Nella first thinks the family is being spied upon, later that the items foretell the future.

This novel is really good. The story and characters are compelling. Life both within the claustrophobic household and the city is evocatively evoked. It has a delicate touch that reminds me very much of Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And there is that tantalizing touch of the supernatural.

Related Posts

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Corrag

The Weight of Ink

 

Review 1378: Widdershins

Widdershins presumably takes place in the 17th century, when Puritan elements began to go after the local wise women and midwives and accuse them of witchcraft. The novel follows two characters, John, who was raised by his mother’s midwife after her death, and Jane, whose mother is a midwife.

When John is a boy, he is sent to live with his uncle, a woman-hating Puritan. He casts off his affection for his foster mother and begins to imbibe his uncle’s beliefs. As Jane approaches womanhood, she is being taught midwifery and the use of herbs by her midwife mother and Mag, a wandering wise woman. She also falls in love with her best friend, Tom.

It’s clear from the beginning that these two characters are on a collision course. However, for me, it was taking too long to get there. I’m not a reader who requires a lot of action from a novel, but I do require something. I didn’t find these characters particularly compelling, and when I reached the halfway point, I decided to stop.

Related Posts

The Daylight Gate

Religion and the Decline of Magic

The Witches: Salem, 1692