Friday, January 25, 2019

Fitting In--or Not

Society tends to like people who play by the rules, whatever those rules happen to be at a particular moment. But if everyone played by the rules, the leavening necessary for change would be missing and the benefits of different approaches lost. So many societies also include what we might consider safety valves: roles that exist on the margins, where those who don’t quite fit the current pattern can exist.

Grusha, the heroine of my current work in progress, occupies one such role: as a shaman, she enjoys a higher status than that assigned to her at birth, and she provides a service both essential to those with whom she lives and deeply fulfilling in ways she can’t quite articulate. Her challenge, in the novel, is whether to embrace her new identity or return to a family and country she left behind long ago. 

I explored several other options for women in a blog series I wrote back in 2013, most obviously in “Taking the Veil.” (From there you can click links within the posts to move back in time through the series.) A convent is also the route to independence taken by Hildegard of Bingen, whom I discussed with P. K. Adams in my previous NBHF interview.

Olivia Givens, the protagonist of Terry Gamble’s just-released novel The Eulogist and the subject of my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, doesn’t have such a formal outlet, but she does face a similar problem. As Terry Gamble notes, Olivia “suffers from opinion”—a statement that in the nineteenth century, and perhaps even today, is not a compliment when applied to women. She is not well matched to the only acceptable social role available to her: that of conventional wife and mother.

Yet despite the considerable odds against her, Olivia does find ways to retain her independence. She marries a doctor whom she’s assisted in performing autopsies. She supports her volatile younger brother, who alternates between revivalist preaching and drunken womanizing. She becomes involved, without entirely meaning to, in helping fugitive slaves in Kentucky cross the Ohio River into freedom. Most of all, she survives to tell her story and that of her family, long after the younger generation has moved on and forgotten.

And what a story it is. Olivia, her brothers, and the rest of her social circle are wonderful characters with quirks and strengths galore. They remind us that even though society prefers those who color within the lines, those who don’t are much more fun to read about.

You can find excerpts from the interview on the Literary Hub. But do listen to the whole thing as well. We had to leave out vast chunks to fit into the 1,500-word limit of the transcript.

Kudos, too, to the designer, who produced that gorgeous and evocative cover of a Victorian woman reflected in the river that plays such a huge role in the story.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

When Olivia Givens and her family leave Ireland in 1819, they have no idea that they are distant victims of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia four years before. They know only that the crops are failing and the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars have led to the loss of their family property. Fifteen-year-old Olivia has a special reason to want to stay: her first crush on a local boy. But no one listens to a young girl in love, and soon Olivia is standing on the shores of the Ohio River with the rest of her Ulster Protestant family. The city of Cincinnati has just come into being, and that, combined with the illness of Erasmus, the family’s youngest child, convince the Givens to end their journey west in Ohio.

Before long, Olivia’s mother has died in childbirth and her father has abandoned his three surviving children to head south on a paddle boat. James, the eldest son, takes responsibility for his brother and sister. But it’s not the easiest job in the world: Olivia has too much independence of thought to fit neatly into the Victorian vision of “the angel in the house,” and Erasmus cares more for drinking, womanizing, and hanging around with revivalist preachers—even preaching himself—than he does about working in James’s growing candle factory.

Meanwhile, right across the river lies the slave state of Kentucky. As the years go by, the Givens family becomes ever more entangled in helping fugitives cross the water to freedom, whatever the cost to themselves, their lives, and even those they strive to protect.

The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019) opens a window onto a time when the frontier began at the Mississippi and North and South, although divided by no more than a waterway, occupied different mental and social universes. Terry Gamble’s ability to reveal the many sides of complex conflicts and gift for making even difficult characters appealingly human should not be missed.

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