Day 808: The Fatal Flame

Cover for The Fatal FlameI was sad to learn that The Fatal Flame would be the last book in Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde series. On the other hand, it is better to wrap up a series than let it go on until it becomes perfunctory. Still, I could have spent a lot more time with Timothy, his erratic brother Val, and his friends.

The novels are set in a gritty 1840’s New York City. This one deals with several issues that were controversial at the time: slavery—particularly whether Oregon would join the union as a free or slave state; the development of feminism; and the treatment of the mentally ill.

Timothy Wilde is one of New York’s newly formed Copper Stars, the police force, now two years on the job. At the beginning of the novel, he encounters a few of his colleagues at a wharf, where they are watching Ronan McGlynn. McGlynn is known to offer factory jobs to young, naive Irish women straight off the boats only to forcibly imprison them in brothels. When the men follow McGlynn and his latest victim to the Queen Mab, a brothel, they find there a Tammany Hall boss, Robert Symmes.

Timothy finds Symmes despicable, so he is not happy to be assigned to a case involving him later that day. Symmes is receiving threats from someone. He believes that person to be Sally Woods, a woman who used to work in his textile factory and led a strike against it for higher pay for the women. The threats Symmes is receiving are printed flyers promising to burn down the buildings that Symmes owns.

Although Timothy is disturbed by Sally Woods, he is still looking for evidence when one of Symmes’ buildings burns down, thankfully with no one in it. Why? Because the inhabitants were warned by another woman, Ellie Abell, who used to be Sally Woods’ best friend. A burning building is a great horror to Timothy, because two years earlier he was severely burned in the great New York fire of 1845.

Timothy soon becomes preoccupied by another matter. His great love Mercy Underhill has returned from London (much to my dismay). He is concerned to find that not everything she says makes sense.

The fire investigation gets more complicated, but that’s not confusing enough. Something Timothy tells his brother Val about Symmes causes Val to decide to run against Symmes in the upcoming election for alderman. Symmes is a dangerous man who enjoys inflicting pain. Timothy knows that there is danger for all Val’s intimates.

This novel is complex, exciting, and interesting. I am waiting to see what Faye will do next. But meanwhile, I’ll miss the Wildes, Bird, Jim, and other characters from this series.

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Day 790: Jade

Cover for JadeOf the Sally Watson books I rediscovered, Jade is one I haven’t read before. I’ve mentioned that Watson wrote several of her novels around a person from her own ancestry, but it is not clear to me if the outlines of each story are based on family legend or are just invented around the events of the time. This question becomes of special interest in regard to Jade, which is the least likely of Watson’s books to date, even if part of it is based on history.

Jade’s real name is Melanie Lennox, but she much prefers her old nickname. She is a rebellious girl completely taken up by her own ideas of right and wrong. She is especially incensed by slavery and women’s lack of rights, which makes early 18th century Williamburg an uncomfortable place for her and for her family, who doesn’t know what to do with her.

The last straw for Jade’s father is when he finds she has been sneaking off to meet Monsieur Maupin, an elderly Frenchman, for fencing lessons. Tired of beating her, her father ships her off to Jamaica to live with her aunt and uncle. With her goes her slave Joshua, whom she’s been trying to free since she was 10.

In Jamaica, she is disgusted by the slave market and the treatment of field slaves, so her aunt and uncle are surprised when she wants to buy a proud untamed African woman, whom she names Domino. But Jade sees something in Domino that reminds her of herself. In fact, Jade isn’t really getting along any better in Jamaica, but doesn’t stay there long.

Jade’s aunt and uncle hear of yellow fever on the island, so they dispatch Jade and her two slaves back to Virginia. They return on the same ship they came on, but this time it is loaded with slaves. Jade decides to try to free the slaves, in which effort she doesn’t realize she’s assisted by the sardonic second mate, Rory McDonald (whose grandmother was Kelpie from Witch of the Glen).

I wasn’t quite prepared for what happens next, but maybe I should have been. Their ship is attacked by pirates and she and Rory and some other crew members and the slaves decide to join the pirates. Well, Jade and Rory are taken on board unconscious, but like Elizabeth Swann of Pirates of the Caribbean, Jade at first decides it’s “a pirate’s life for me.” Only later does her view of the life become more nuanced.

The novel’s plot is unlikely, even though it is based on the life of the famous pirate, Anne Bonny (spelled Bonney in the novel), whose ship our characters end up on. And Jade is not strictly likable, her character being so full of self-righteousness and so unbending that she can’t tell a polite lie. Also, the novel tends much more to the preachy than those I’ve read so far of Watson’s.

Still, this novel is probably a good one for insights into the abuses of the time, while still providing plenty of adventure. Little feminists in the making will be sympathetic to the restrictions Jade struggles with, such as her dislike of what she must wear, her lack of rights as a woman, and the limits to what she’s allowed to do. I personally think she’s too much of a 20th century girl, but young girls won’t even think of that.

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Day 741: Seven for a Secret

Cover for Seven for a SecretSeven for a Secret is the second fantastic Timothy Wilde historical mystery by Lyndsay Faye. The series is set in 1840’s New York City. Wilde is a member of the newly formed copper stars, the city’s first police force.

It is Valentine’s Day, and Timothy and his colleague Jakob Priest are celebrating having solved an art theft when a beautiful woman of color comes looking for him at the station house. She is Lucy Adams, and she has just returned home from her job at a flower shop to find her son and sister missing. She knows exactly what happened to them. “Blackbirders” have snatched them to sell down south as escaped slaves, even though they are free.

Timothy asks his brother Valentine to go with him to get them back. Although Valentine is a corrupt Democratic party boss and a drug addict, he’s a good man in a fight. Timothy, his African-American friend Julius, and Valentine retrieve the three from the slavers, Varker and Coles, but not without a fight. The two women and little boy need somewhere safe to stay until Lucy’s husband returns, so Valentine offers them the use of his apartment.

Something is going on that is more complex than he understands, for when Timothy goes searching for Lucy’s husband, he finds that Lucy isn’t married to Charles Adams, a white salesman, as she thinks she is. She may or may not be married, but her “husband” is a Democratic senator for New York state.

Coming to see Lucy and her family a couple of days later, Timothy finds Lucy strangled and the room disrupted. Timothy is an honest police officer but he knows a frame job when he sees one. He has just finished removing the body and cleaning up when an enemy, Sean Mulquean, another copper star, arrives to investigate a reported disturbance. Timothy also soon learns that Varker and Coles have kidnapped Julius, so he must hurry to court to try to free him before he can look for Lucy’s sister Delia and son Jonas.

Faye’s historical setting of gritty 1846 New York is absolutely convincing. We like Timothy more the more we see him, and Faye is beginning to build a solid cast of supporting characters. This is a well-written, swift-moving, suspenseful series. At almost 500 pages, the novel is long for a mystery, but it didn’t seem like it for a second. Unfortunately, I have just learned that there is only to be one more in the series, and that one is waiting in my pile to be read.

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Day 548: The Good Lord Bird

Cover for The Good Lord BirdBest Book of the Week!
Henry “Onion” Shackleford is a boy working with his father in a barber shop when John Brown and his followers ride into town. He relates his story many years later when he is more than 100 years old.

Henry and his father are African-American slaves living in the Kansas Territory near Laurence, a hotbed during the Border Wars, referred to as Bleeding Kansas. Brown has come to help the Free Staters, those who want Kansas to be free of slavery. But Brown’s ultimate goal is to rid the country of slavery, and he doesn’t care how he does it. In the resulting fight, Henry’s father is killed, and Brown “frees” Henry by kidnapping him.

Because, as Henry points out several times in his narrative, John Brown sees only what he wants to see, he mistakes Henry in his potato sack clothing for a girl. From then on, Henry is a girl as far as Brown’s followers are concerned, and Brown calls him Onion.

What follows is an an account of the deeds of John Brown, leading up to the assault on Harper’s Ferry. This tale is often cynical or ironic, boundlessly energetic, irreverent, and funny as well as touching. Brown is depicted as a sort of half-crazed, raggedy zealot, who is capable of stopping midway across a stream while being pursued by his enemies to pray for half an hour. Only his son Owen is brave enough to interrupt him and try to get him on his way.

Onion and other slaves they encounter are reluctant to be freed, afraid they’re going to end up in hotter water than they started. They have some cause. Onion, in fact, is almost always planning how he’ll escape the group and does so several times. But he always ends up back with Brown. His adventures lead him to residence in a whorehouse, a visit with Frederick Douglass (who gets drunk and tries to seduce “Henrietta”), and a more impressive meeting with Harriet Tubman in Canada. All the while, Brown attempts to “hive the Negroes” to revolt at the appropriate time.

The wonder is that with all this poking fun, McBride somehow manages to make us care deeply for John Brown and to honor his place as a trigger for the Civil War. This is an unusual novel—highly entertaining yet also deeply serious.

Day 535: The Known World

Cover for The Known WorldBest Book of the Week!
I found The Known World disorienting for some time. I think this was because the standard blurb describes it as being about Henry Townsend, an African-American owner of slaves who is mentored by his white owner. The novel starts with Henry Townsend’s death, and I kept waiting for it to circle back around and cover his history. But it’s not so much about him as about the world around him. Once I settled in to the world Jones creates, I began to appreciate the novel.

Henry Townsend’s act of becoming a slave owner is so shocking to his parents that they refuse to stay in the house he built with his slave, Moses. His parents, Augustus and Mildred Townsend, worked hard to buy themselves and their son free. Augustus at one point muses that he may have made a mistake in buying Mildred first, leaving Henry too long under the influence of William Robbins, his white master and the richest man in the county. We actually don’t see much mentoring going on between Robbins and Henry, except when Robbins chides Henry for rough-housing with his new slave Moses.

Jones’ focus is on a larger story than that of one man. His story is about the life on Henry Townsend’s plantation and in the county and how it is affected by slavery—particularly by the decision of African-Americans to own slaves.

At first, I found it difficult to keep all the characters straight—or even the timeframe—for Jones has a habit of fixing on a character for a brief moment and telling about that character’s entire life. He also interjects facts and census details about Manchester County. These details are so convincing that he had me believing it was a real place. It is not.

This nonlinear narrative means we don’t fully know any one character. Henry himself is one of the biggest enigmas, and we see more of his slave Moses than we do of Henry himself. Certainly, a handful of characters are more important than others, but that handful keeps changing. Still, some threads of the people’s stories are captivating, and even surprising. Does Augustus, kidnapped by unscrupulous slave dealers when he is returning from a job, ever see his home again? Did Moses actually murder his wife Priscilla in hopes of marrying Henry’s widow?

If I had to state briefly the theme of this unusual novel, I would say that slavery corrupts. Characters who start out with good intentions do despicable things because they have absolute power over other people. When we see the effect of the “institution” of slavery on people, especially upon Henry’s blameless parents, it is sometimes shocking.

There are true villains in this novel but no heroes. Some of the characters are doing the best they can; others are not.

Day 468: The Invention of Wings

Cover for The Invention of WingsBest Book of the Week!

When I began reading The Invention of Wings, I thought it was purely historical fiction. It wasn’t until later in the novel, when some names rang a few bells, that I realized I was reading biographical fiction about two women whose accomplishments have been forgotten—Sarah and Angelina Grimké. A third important character, the slave Hetty, is fictional, except that Sarah was given a slave by that name when she was 11 and they both got into trouble when Sarah taught her to read.

The novel tells a remarkable story, narrated alternately by Sarah and Hetty (known as Handful), beginning in 1803. Sarah was born into privilege in Charleston, South Carolina. When she is given Handful as an 11th birthday present, slavery is already so abhorrent to her that she tries to free her slave. But legally doing so has been made more difficult, and her parents won’t allow it. Sarah is her father’s pet, and he takes pride in and encourages her intelligence, but when he finds out she thinks she can become a lawyer, he firmly rebukes her and bars her from his library.

Handful’s mother Charlotte is a strong and rebellious figure and a wonderful artist. She is the best seamstress in town and keeps the history of her life in a quilt she is sewing. By earning money hiring herself out behind Mrs. Grimké’s back, she is trying to save enough to buy the freedom of herself and her daughter. After Sarah’s mother has her brutally punished, she takes whatever liberties she can get away with, including sneaking away to have an affair with a freedman named Denmark Vesey.

As Sarah gets older, her sense of injustice deepens to the point where feels she must leave Charleston to move north to Philadelphia and become a Quaker. She is eventually followed by her much younger sister Angelina (Nina), where they become infamous for their lectures and articles on abolition, racial equality, and feminism.

http://www.netgalley.comFor the first half of the book, I was fascinated most by Handful, a character with a distinctive voice and personality. She becomes as gifted with her needle as her mother and loves to hear Charlotte’s stories of her African homeland. More subtly subversive then her mother, after Charlotte disappears, Handful visits Denmark Vesey’s household and assists with his attempted slave revolt. Later when Sarah and Nina find their purpose in life, I found both stories equally interesting.

This novel is remarkable. The Grimkés’ story is amazing, especially for their time, which was years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Handful’s story is evocative, compelling, and touching.