Another meticulously researched and vivid historical fiction / mystery in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. January is a free man of color in New Orleans, 1840. He is also a musician and a surgeon (certified in Paris). He wants to save everybody and is painfully aware of how few he can actually help.
In this episode, he heads to New York City to help find a young (white) woman who disappeared without a trace. In order to find her, he must slip into the Children of the Light — a religious community in upstate New York run by the charismatic abolitionist Reverend Broadaxe.
Bursting with historical detail, Hambly brings to life the social and political climate of the day — the various religious communities, the occult (and associated scams), the “blackbirders” who catch escaped slaves (or anyone they can) in the North for return to the South, the presence and use of opiates, etc. Real-life characters PT Barnum and David Ruggles play an integral and plausible role in the proceedings.
Plenty of action for those who enjoy action — personally I was far more interested in the history which was detailed and full of dialog, characters, and the rich inner world of January’s thoughts. The portrait of the time and place is full of comprehensive perceptions from a variety of perspectives — the sights, sounds, smells, and the ever present tumult of conflicting ideas.
No need to read previous books — I’ve probably read four out of the seventeen and had no problem understanding the context.
Thank you to Severn House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 5th, 2021.
A compelling story combining a fictionalized history of Sarah Grimke — one the first female abolition agents and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers — and a “thickly imagined” story about Hetty — the slave girl given to Sarah on her 11th birthday.
The interwoven stories are told in alternating chapters by the two first person narrators. The time period: 1804 – 1838. Sarah’s story takes us from the North Carolina plantation to Quaker country to public abolition speaking tours around the country. She and her sister, Nina, were the authors (along with Nina’s husband, the famous abolitionist Theodore Weld) of the pamphlet American Slavery as It Is which influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Hetty’s story — created from the barest of historical documents — tells a story full of the horrors of slavery, including a potential slave revolt (and harsh retribution) populated by figures drawn from historical rumor. Woven through the stories are the interactions between the two women. I loved this summary from Hetty when the two were around 18 and had a kind of friendship:
“People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I didn’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing. That day, our hearts were pure as they ever would get.”
In all honesty, I didn’t love this book. The writing is good and the story compelling, but I didn’t find any new insights. Hetty’s story smacked of modern sensibilities applied to a horrible situation that has already been described (and often better) many, many times. The Grimke story was more interesting as it was new to me — and the emotional tone was probably pretty accurate given the times and the lack of opportunity for women — but it took a long time and a lot of hand-wringing before anything could really happen.
I want to read books that have new insights or teach me about a period of history or new (to me) cultures. I’d like to move away from noxious concepts such as slavery and the idea that women are incapable of contributing outside the domestic sphere — these concepts are old (and well-documented) news.