**** 4 out of 5 stars
Review by: Mark Palm
I thought that it was an odd little moment of serendipity that I read and reviewed two books last week that were released at essentially the same time and both different takes on the lives and works of the Bronte sisters. Well, if I ever wanted more proof that the great wild wonderful “Universe of Literature” can still be an intimate world after all, it came in a small but crucial moment in Sawbones, an exceptional historical novel by Melissa Lenhardt. There is a moment in the book when our heroine, in need of some escapism, picks up a novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte’s final novel. Not surprisingly it reminds our heroine of her own life.
I use the word heroine on purpose. Sawbones is the story of Dr. Katherine Bennett, who is trying to make her way through post Civil War America as a physician who happens to be an attractive young woman. If you think the attractive part is trivial you probably didn’t know that Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army tried to use only plain girls, hoping it would lessen the chance that they would be exploited by male doctors and patients.
Dr. Bennett has a practice in New York City made up of society women and (secretly), prostitutes, until she is falsely accused of murder. Unable to provide an alibi because she was illegally procuring a corpse for dissection, and forced to make a choice between professional ruin and the noose she decides to change her name and make a run. Taking only her faithful maid, Maureen, she flees to the frontier, hoping to lose herself in West. The problem is that a working female physician is likely to draw unwarranted attention, but Dr. Bennett, now calling herself Laura Elliston, refuses to give up her life’s work.
The reason it is easy to get lost on the frontier is because it is lawless, and on the way to Colorado Laura’s wagon train is attacked by Indians, and Laura is the only person not captured or killed. A troop of cavalry arrives and drive the marauders off, but their Captain is grievously wounded, and Laura pulls off some bravura surgery in the back of a wagon in a thunderstorm to save the man’s life. Laura is afraid that her performance will draw attention to herself, but it also brings the gratitude of General Sherman, and the offer of a job at Fort Richardson, in Texas, at least until she is ready to move on. She takes the job and continues to care for the injured Captain, William Kindle, and the two begin to form a deeper relationship.
Now there is romance in the book, and it plays a crucial part, but as the title suggests Sawbones is not a novel for the timid. Laura and William’s relationship is so poignant because it is not stiff and formal, but realistic, often amusing, and even as each character is a part of their times, they are also trying to transcend the limits of their times. Ms. Lenhardt is unflinching in her portrayals of the attitudes of the time, and Laura’s attempts to deal with the sexism she faces on a daily basis is heroic in and of itself. Ms. Lenhardt. also shows us the grit and the violence, without sparing the blood and pain, and none of her characters are exempt.
The plot is tight, though a few of the coincidences seemed a bit strained at times, and the tension is relentless. There are a few slow spots in the middle, but most of the story moves at a quick pace. Now and then Laura, in her first-person narration gives us a description of the vistas of the the West, or the squalor of the fort, that while brief, are spot-on. The history and research is solid and un-obtrusive, and the characters are fully-fleshed, but this story lives and dies with Laura. And it lives. She is such an admirable and strong character, but what makes her really work is that she is true to life as well. She is not a superhero, but a woman who gives her all in the most desperate situations, and never ever loses her compassion. I am waiting for the sequel.
*****5 out of 5 Stars
Review by: Mark Palm
Reader, I murdered him…
When I first read Jane Eyre I have to admit that I was sceptical. It has a vast and dedicated base of fans who claim that it is one of the greatest romantic novels ever written (my wife is one of those people.) I have to admit that I had a chip on my shoulder when I started it. I was expecting to get a high-brow Harlequin romance with secret assignations and wind-swept vistas, but instead I found a subtly subversive critique of gender relations and social class that was also a moving and emotional work that kept me flipping the pages. So when I discovered that Lyndsay Faye, an absolute stone-cold killer author of some of the best period thrillers I have ever read, was going to take a shot at re-imagining Jane Eyre, I was champing at the bit. Ms. Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson was the best Holmes pastiche that I have ever read, and her next three novels, The Timothy Wilde Mysteries, were even better. I cannot urge you enough to read these novels; if someone is writing better thrillers than Ms. Faye I don’t know who it is.
Now a lot of writers have lately decided to re-tell classics of the past by throwing vampires or zombies into the mix, and the results have been amusing, but Ms. Faye is playing a different game here. Jane Steele is an original story, loosely based on the plot and themes of Jane Eyre, featuring a new heroine, with a new and different perspective. For one, our Jane is a fan of the Bronte novel, and often comments on the similarities and differences between the two Jane’s stories, going so far as to use quotes from the novel to open each chapter.
From the very beginning of Jane’s story we can tell that things are not quite right. Even though her mother tells her that she is the heir to Highgate House, the two live in a small cabin on the property while Jane’s Aunt Patience and her son Edwin claim the manor. After Jane’s mother dies, things only get worse. Cousin Edwin attempts to rape Jane, and Jane promptly sends her attacker to a well-earned death. Then Jane decides to attend the Lowan Bridge school for girls, so she can receive an education, even though she senses that something is very wrong with the headmaster Vesalius Munt. She’s right of course. Munt is a sadist who keeps the girls in line by encouraging them to betray each other, and even the slightest infraction is punished by withholding food. Lowan Bridge gives Jane a good education, and also turns her into a wolf in girl’s clothings who is willing to steal, cheat and lie in order to protect herself and a younger girl, Becky Clarke, whom Jane takes under her wing. After Becky tries to innocently hold Munt to the same standard as the girls, he decides to starve her to death. And once again Jane has to take matters into her own hands to save an innocent.
The two girls flee Lowan Bridge in the middle of the night, and end up in London, where they scrape out a meager living. Years pass by and Jane finds herself forced to defend those less fortunate until finally she finds an advertisement that the heir to Highgate House, Charles Thornfield, is seeking a governess to care for his nine-year old female ward. Of course Jane is compelled to go back and see if she can reclaim her childhood home. This is where the true story of Jane Steele begins. As captivating as the beginning of the book is, Jane’s meeting Thornfield and her quest to find her home is the heart of this book. And what a heart!
***** 5 out of 5 Stars
Review by: Mark Palm
There are a lot of writers whose children have followed in their literary footsteps: Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, John Cheever, Stephen King, to name a few. When you start thinking of what the Bronte family accomplished however, you are in a very different league. It’s hard to believe that three young women, living in a cold, cramped house on the Yorkshire Moors managed to write novels and poems that still have the power and originality to startle us. When you realize that Anne died at age 28, Emily at 30, and Charlotte at 38, their collective achievements are hard to fathom. Their works, as well as their lives have taken on mythical proportions.
The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel, by Catherine Lowell, starts with a basic premise; what would it be like to be the last living relative of the Bronte family? That question is the only thing that is basic about this book however, as Ms. Lowell gives us a smart and original novel that delivers on many levels.
Samantha Whipple stands out in her freshman year as a literature student at Oxford for several reasons; not least because she is an American, the last living relative of the Brontes, and her father Tristan was a famous writer who died a tragic death. Scholars and fans of the Brontes presume that she is the heir of an estate that includes diaries, paintings and novel-drafts that have never been seen outside of the family. As for Sam, she has never seen a bit of it, and just wants to get on with her life. All of that changes when long-lost objects from her life begin mysteriously appearing, including a copy of Jane Eyre with her father’s hand-written notes. With the reluctant help of her professor, the handsome, enigmatic James Orville, she begins a literary scavenger-hunt that is aided by studying the Bronte’s works. Whether the treasure is literal or figurative gives the search extra depth, until we realize that the journey is as important if not more so, then what lies at the end.
In lesser hands this could have been dry, but Ms. Lowell brings such intelligence and wit that the pace never dragged. The plot is subtle, and begs close reading. The prose is sharp and full of startling imagery. All of the characters are solid, but Samantha is a real delight. Prickly, funny and sarcastic, with hidden depths of feeling and intelligence that unfolds with the story. Ms. Lowell has a particularly fine ear with dialogue. The rhythm takes a while to get used to, but after a few pages I found myself speaking it aloud to myself to better enjoy how rich it was. Sam’s conversations with James, in particular, are a joy. Witty, funny, and often poignant, these episodes are among the most affecting in the entire story.
Sam’s recollections of her life with her father are also top-notch. The love and affection in the relationship is clear, but rarely if ever does Sam romanticize Tristan, a deeply flawed man, but a caring parent. We only see him in flashback, but he is as vibrant and any living character.