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.

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Review 1671: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

In 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars , Captain John Lacroix returns from Spain ill and wounded. As he recovers, something is troubling him, but we don’t know what. Before he has fully recovered, he is summoned back to his regiment, but instead of returning, he sets out on a journey to the Scottish islands.

Back in Spain, a tribunal is being held about the sacking of a Spanish village by British troops. On the word of one man, Corporal Calley, the tribunal finds Captain Lecroix guilty of being the officer in charge of those troops and the man who cut off the hair of an innocent woman. The Colonel then sends Calley to find and kill Lecroix accompanied by a Spanish officer, Lieutenant Medina, to make sure he does it.

As Lacroix unwittingly travels to a small island and becomes involved with the people living there, Calley pursues him, behaving like a deranged animal to the innocent people he thinks may know where Lacroix is. Lacroix certainly has a shameful secret about war, but is it what he is being pursued for?

This novel is atmospheric and deeply engaging. As it nears its conclusion, it is also truly exciting. Although I did wonder how likely it was that the army would have sent an execution squad against one of their officers, the novel is a wonderfully written adventure story that reflects on the nature of war and redemption. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1670: Classics Club Spin Result! The Brothers Karamazov

I selected The Brothers Karamazov for my Classics club list because I read it many years ago for Russian Literature and found it fascinating. I was curious how I would regard it now.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, but it is complicated by the characters’ relationships and several subplots, some of which are only tangentially related. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons whom as children he left to be raised by the servants. The oldest, Dmitri (or Mitya), is an ex-soldier whom Fyodor has cheated of part of his inheritance from his mother. Now, although Dmitri is engaged to Katarina, a girl of high moral values, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, a girl with an unsavory past, and Fyodor is trying to compete for her. The second oldest, Ivan, is a cold intellectual atheist. The third son, Alexei or Alyosha, is studying to be a monk.

In my old Penguin Classics edition, the novel is split into two volumes. It is not until the second volume that the action takes place that is the centerpiece of the novel. Fyodor is murdered. Mitya has been working himself into a frenzy and making threats so is immediately the prime suspect. Did Mitya kill his father or was it someone else? If so, who?

We readers know what Mitya did that night, so we can answer the first part of that question but not the second part, at least not right away. Dostoevsky (I’m going to use the spelling of his name that I’m accustomed to, and that indeed is on my old Penguin copy rather than the one shown on the title page above) isn’t interested so much in that but in what happens next. And ultimately he is engaged in pitting atheism against belief in God.

In my student days, I found the long philosophical passages in this novel fascinating. These days, I don’t have as much patience with them and I actually skipped a couple of chapters once I got their drift. The amount of time spent on Father Zossima, for example, a relatively minor character who dies in Book One, is a little inexplicable to me now. I can’t help feeling he might have been based on a real person whom Dostoevsky revered, but his presence in the novel doesn’t seem important enough to warrant several chapters being devoted to his life and sayings.

This is not to say that I didn’t find the novel compelling. Although it is long and sometimes difficult, there was something about it that made me want to keep reading it.

The novel is written with an unusual approach to point of view. The narrator is an unidentified person from “our town.” But the narrator is privy to scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. Yet, the point of view is not omniscient. For example, we see what Mitya does on the night of the murder even though there is no actual witness to that, but we don’t see the murder.

As usual with Dostoevsky, most of his characters are in a frenzy. Were 19th century Russians really this excited? Well, they’re not in Tolstoy, but most of Tolstoy’s characters are upper class, while Dostoevsky’s are not. So, I don’t know whether this is a class difference or a difference in the author’s perceptions or what. And speaking of class, the attitude toward peasants here is not great, and there are also other politically incorrect comments on occasion. Just a warning.

The Brothers Karamazov is considered Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, so if you are interested in Russian literature, you should definitely read it. Dostoevsky’s preoccupations are not mine, however, and I think even less so as I get older. I couldn’t help parsing some of the arguments and thinking about an implicit slant to them. The best example is an assumption—a sort of cognitive leap—that is very important to the plot and is stated several times by different characters. The cognitive leap is that if God doesn’t exist, “everything is permitted.” Only one character questions this assumption—that there is nothing within humans besides religion to stop them from doing horrendous things. But his suggestion is brushed aside because Dostoevsky wants you to conclude that there is a God and his arguments don’t work as well if you believe in inner goodness or inherently moral or ethical behavior. I guess.

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Review 1662: The Poison Thread

Dorothea Trueblood is a youngish Victorian heiress who prefers to spend her days pursuing charitable causes rather than in socializing. Her conservative father wants her to marry as highly as possible, but she has secretly engaged herself to a police constable. Something keeps her from breaking the news to her father, even though she is of age.

She is fascinated by phrenology, so one of her charities is Oakgate Prison, where she visits prisoners in hopes of measuring their heads. Therefore, she is excited when Ruth Butterham, a young maid who murdered her employer, comes to the prison.

Ruth begins to tell Dottie her story, and it’s not long before Dottie realizes that Ruth is telling her she killed people by putting bad thoughts into the sewing she was doing for them. Dottie doesn’t find an enlarged organ of deceit in Ruth, but she can only assume she is lying.

This gothic novel has quite a lot going for it. It pins you to the page while you wonder where it is going. I was suspicious of Dottie at first, thinking her interest in Ruth a bit salacious. But I liked Ruth more. This is quite a nice dark book.

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Review 1642: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Gilbert Markham is a young man running a family farm when a new, mysterious person moves into the neighborhood, taking up residence in an old, half-derelict house named Wildfell Hall. She is Mrs. Graham, a beautiful young widow with a five-year-old son, Arthur. She tends to be reclusive, which makes the neighborhood more interested in her. Finally, Gilbert goes with his sister to call and finds that Helen Graham is supporting herself working as an artist.

Gilbert falls in love with Helen, but she will not allow him to express any of his feelings. Then, he hears an ugly rumor about Helen and his friend Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord. Helen has secrets, but they’re not the ones being repeated about her. She finally decides to confide in Gilbert by giving him her diary.

I hadn’t read this novel for many years, so I put it on my Classics Club list. I found the structure of the novel—epistological first because Gilbert is writing a very long letter to a friend, and then the diary—to be cumbersome. It seems as though a straightforward first-person narration would be less artificial for the first part, which must be the longest letter ever written. For the middle, diary portion, I understand why Brontë chose that method of telling her story, which makes up the bulk of the novel, but it seemed a little clumsy and too long.

Finally, there were times when I tired of the self-righteous Helen. It seemed to me that her attitude might have driven a better husband than the one she chose away from her. Of course, he is a scoundrel, so there was probably no attitude she could adopt that would reform him, which makes the ending kind of absurd. I don’t know how to explain it without spoilers, but I thought it might be a sop to the critics of Brontë’s time who would have thought Helen should not have deserted her husband. Either that or she is destined for sainthood.

I am probably being overcritical of this book, which would have been quite shocking for its time because of making a woman who has fled her home with her child its heroine. Although I’ve read a gothic novel or two with the same premise, I’m sure this one was more groundbreaking through the husband’s faults being those of cruelty and dissipation rather than, say, robbery and murder. Here, we see Brontë taking up a feminist viewpoint, and I guess I’m just saying that I found Helen a little too rigidly moral. She spends an awful lot of time being outraged. Jane Eyre is also moral, but somehow from her it doesn’t seem as irritating.

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Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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Review 1606: Things in Jars

Best of Ten!
Imagine a combination of Victorian London, eccentric Dickensian characters, a ghost, a supernatural being of myth, hints of Jane Eyre, a lady detective, and a fascination with grotesqueries. If you can imagine that, you might go a little way toward a hint of this unusual novel.

Bridie Devine, the lady detective, has been summoned to a graveyard to examine a dead body found shackled in a crypt. On her way there, she meets a scantily clad ghost, a prizefighter named Ruby Doyle who claims to know her and follows her on her investigation.

But her real case comes when a baronet, Edward Berwick, hires her through a Doctor Harbin to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped. As she investigates, though, she learns the girl was kept alone in the west wing of the house, and there are rumors that she is some kind of unusual creature. Bridie begins to believe that the kidnappers, who probably include the girl’s nurse, mean to sell her to some freak show.

Bridie has had a difficult path in life that includes encounters when she was a girl with Gideon Eames, the sociopathic son of a man who rescued her from poverty. She thought he was dead but finds he is very much alive.

With an entourage that includes a seven-foot-tall bearded maid, Bridie braves dead bodies, attacks, and visits to a freak show as she pursues the child. We know from the beginning that the girl was taken by her nurse and Dr. Harbin, but more people who want to possess or sell this valuable child get involved.

Not quite at first but very soon I got so involved with this quirky novel that I dropped everything until I finished it. Bridie is an interesting, likable character, Ruby Doyle is endearing even though he is constantly hitching up his drawers, the novel was exciting at times. What’s not to love?

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Review 1599: The Mayor of Casterbridge

At a small county fair in the early 1800’s, a drunken Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor. Twenty years later, his wife and her daughter come seeking him, the sailor having disappeared at sea and the two being nearly destitute. When they arrive at Casterbridge, they find he is wealthy and the town’s mayor.

To his credit, Henchard looked for his wife and child twenty years ago, but they had emigrated to Canada. Wanting to make amends, he suggests that Susan Newson, as his wife calls herself, and Elizabeth Jane stay in Casterbridge. He will appear to court Susan and will marry her.

At the same time, he meets a young Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, and likes him so much that he offers him a job. But Henchard has a hasty temper and a jealous, unforgiving nature, and as Donald becomes successful, Henchard takes a dislike to him that grows into enmity. A final issue is caused by another incident from Henchard’s past.

Henchard is not a likable character. Although he is often repentent of his actions, his temper creates situations, like the sale of his wife, that lead to his downfall. This is an interesting novel for Hardy, whose main characters, although flawed, are usually more sympathetic. Still, it is an absorbing and dramatic story about a man who is his own worst enemy.

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Review 1595: Mansfield Park

I was having difficulty reading another book, so I decided to take a break by rereading Mansfield Park, which is on my Classics Club list. In these days, Austen’s heroine, Fanny Price, is not admired, but she is a true and admirable product of her environment and circumstances.

At nine, Fanny is brought to live at Mansfield Park as an act of charity, for she is a poor relation. She is taught to be grateful for this charity and to have no expectations for herself. Sir Thomas Bertram is an upright, stern man whom she and her cousins fear. Lady Bertram is languid. Fanny’s Aunt Norris, who suggested they give her a home in the first place, actively dislikes her and favors her female cousins, particularly Maria.

Fanny is very shy and miserable at first, but the younger son of the house, Edmund, takes her under his wing, is her friend and educator.

As a young lady, Fanny is happy to be of service and not used to her needs or inclinations being attended to. Then two things happen at about the same time. Sir Thomas goes away on a lengthy business trip, and Mary and Henry Crawford arrive to stay with the Grants at the parsonage. Edmund, whom Fanny loves, is immediately attracted to Mary, but Fanny is dismayed by the sister and brother’s lack of principles. Maria Bertram is engaged by then to a rich but stupid young man, but Henry Crawford flirts with both Bertram sisters, playing one off the other. Mary’s behavior is more or less impeccable, but she expresses unprincipled ideas. Edmund seems blind to her faults.

Fanny is one of Austen’s more thoughtful heroines. Will she ever be appreciated for her qualities of affection, duty, and principle? Will Edmund marry Mary or recognize Fanny’s superior qualities? Well, we can all probably answer that, but the journey there is wonderful, as Austen’s novels tend to be.

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Review 1590: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

In 1895, a rural Irish woman, a milliner, was burnt to death by her husband and relatives. Their explanation was that the ailing woman had been taken away by the fairies and that they had burnt a changeling trying to get it to say it was not Bridget Cleary.

Historian Angela Bourke examines this crime in detail, not only the events as reported by the witnesses and the trial but the meaning of it. She interprets fairy legends and their place in rural Irish society, and she also explains the meaning of comments and actions the night of the crime and the night preceding it in terms of these legends. She looks at the crime from a feminist point of view as well.

I found this book interesting, although at times I felt Bourke got carried away with her interpretations. Most of the time the writing style and her analysis are interesting, but the book is occasionally a little dry.

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