Friday, August 12, 2022

Medicine, Herb Lore, Witchcraft, and Race

It’s a curious coincidence—but only a coincidence—that this summer I happen to be featuring two widowed novel heroines named Maddie who practice medicine. The first, Anne Louise Bannon’s Maddie Wilcox, earned a medical degree in Boston (possible but difficult for a woman in the 1860s) before accepting what turned out to be an unhappy marriage to a friend of her father’s and accompanying her husband west to Los Angeles, then little more than a cow town, where her unsatisfactory husband fortunately met his end in short order. Widowhood frees this Maddie to make a life for herself as a winemaker—a big industry in LA in the 1870s, before the vineyards moved north—although she uses her professional qualifications to help those around her and supplement her income. Her doctoring skills also bring her into contact with suspicious deaths, which she then solves, as described in my New Books Network interview with her creator.

Adele Holmes’s Maddie Fairbanks—the main character in Holmes’s debut novel, Winter’s Reckoning—has a somewhat different history but faces similar issues. Like Maddie Wilcox, Maddie Fairbanks grew up in Boston and left that city to be with her husband in Jamesville, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, but she married for love and regrets her husband’s death. Again like Maddie Wilcox, Mrs. Fairbanks faces prejudices against women and even more severe instances of racial discrimination, aimed not at herself but at people she is close to, because certain men of the town don’t approve of her belief in integration and equality. By 1917, when Holmes’s novel opens, the Ku Klux Klan is resurgent, making the costs of opposing segregation a matter, literally, of life and death.

Unlike Mrs. Wilcox, however, the medicine Maddie Fairbanks practices is herbal, the result of a long tradition of female healers in her family who sometimes suffered from persecution as witches because of their knowledge. As Adele Holmes and I discuss in our recent New Books Network interview, this family tradition, combined with the forty-year time gap and a different geographical location, intensifies the threat to Maddie Fairbanks when she chooses to confront Jamesville’s newest resident, a charismatic preacher of dubious qualifications who is determined to put Maddie in her place.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:

Madeline (Maddie) Fairbanks has created a satisfying life for herself in Jamesville since the death of her husband, Samuel, one of the town’s leading citizens. An herbalist from a long line of female healers, she provides medical care to local residents at all levels of society, traveling into the hills and from house to house with Renetta Morgan, her young assistant. Although Ren is black and Maddie white, the townsfolk accept their partnership, since the only alternative is a circuit-riding doctor who appears a few times a year. Race relations in Jamesville are tense, with restrictions on who can walk where and which door to the general store serves which type of customer, yet for the most part, Ren and Maddie manage to skirt the rules without drawing undue attention to themselves.

Then Carl Howard arrives in town. At first, he intends merely to pass through, but when he discovers that the town is waiting for a vicar who has not appeared on schedule, Carl sees an opening and announces that he is the reverend assigned to Jamesville’s Protestant church. On his first Sunday, he preaches a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon condemning outspoken, independent women and racial integration. Maddie opposes his point of view, and he fights back by declaring her interest in herbal medicine the equivalent of witchcraft. Before long, the two are at loggerheads, Ren is caught in the middle, and the Ku Klux Klan is riding the wave of Carl’s approval to threaten the people of Jamesville.

In Winter’s Reckoning, Adele Holmes has created an unflinching portrayal of how one narcissistic individual can wreak havoc on an entire community, fanning the flames of underlying conflicts until they explode into violence and hatred. But she also shows how the strength of family, friends, and a powerful, committed heroine can overcome such challenges—producing a novel as heart-warming as it is thought-provoking.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Interview with Jessica Ellicott

In a time when even e-mail has become old hat—replaced by texting, instant messaging, and ever-changing social media—the idea of mischief delivered several times a day through letters (or, for that matter, a postal service so functional that it can deliver several times a day) seems rather quaint.

But it’s supposed to be quaint. Jessica Ellicott’s Beryl and Edwina Mysteries follow the adventures of a pair of school friends, reunited years later in 1926. Beryl Helliwell needs housing in a hurry, and who better to provide it than her old school pal Edwina Davenport? Even though Beryl’s choice means abandoning world travel for life in a quiet English village, she soon discovers that more goes on under the surface of that village than anyone would suspect.

Six cases later, we get to Murder through the English Post, where a series of anonymous letters threatens to expose old tensions in the village and spark new ones. Jessica Ellicott was kind enough to answer my questions, so read on to find out more.

This is your sixth mystery featuring Beryl Helliwell and Edwina Davenport, as well as the adorable Crumpet. What inspired you to start this series?

I have always loved mysteries set in England, especially those set during the Golden Age of Detection. I also enjoy books about friendships between women. My best guess is that the series sprang into mind from those preferences in the magical way that such things do!

You have two leads. Tell us first about Beryl. Who is she, and what is she like as a personality?

Beryl is an American adventurer who has become a celebrity by her verve and panache. She hasn’t met a speed record she wouldn’t like to break, and she is up for most any sort of experience that does not involve tending children. She is an outgoing and exuberant soul who has little experience staying put.

Edwina’s background and personality are quite different. How would you describe her?

Edwina is the sort of person who helps make a community work. She is a genteel woman who knows just which words to say to soothe ruffled feathers or to inspire confidences. She is open to change so long as she can feel convinced of the merit of it.

And what brought these two together?   

Beryl and Edwina first met at Miss DuPont’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. They were reunited years later when Edwina faced financial difficulties and decided to advertise for a lodger. Fortunately for her, Beryl was looking for a room to let. They’ve been living and working together ever since.

No novel set in an English village would be complete without a dog. Tell us a bit about Crumpet and his role in the books.

Crumpet is Edwina’s faithful shadow. He loves to take her on long rambles throughout the countryside, which can offer her a convenient excuse for a bit of surveillance. While he is not central to the novels, he is a cheerful little fellow to include in the stories.

The current  mystery, as the title suggests (and it’s a great title, by the way), involves letter writing, which is almost a lost art these days. Set the situation up for us, please.

I am delighted that you like the title! I had not yet written a novel centering around a poison pen campaign and was eager to do so. This mystery involves a deluge of such letters, which expose secrets and point fingers at most of the residents of Walmsley Parva. Ultimately the ugly accusations and insinuations lead to murder.

Beryl and Edwina’s relationship with the local police officer, Constable Gibbs, seems to have improved quite a bit since Murder in an English Village. But the constable is an interesting character in her own right. Why cast a woman in this role, given that the series begins in the 1920s? And how does Constable Gibbs approach her job?

I was intrigued by the jobs women performed during World War I and how the end of that conflict impacted the trajectory of those careers. Women were generally forced out of positions as constables after the men came home, and I was interested in imagining the sort of woman who would not be set aside. Constable Gibbs dedicated herself to serving her tiny community with the same sort of professional rigor as an officer in a more populated locale. Her fellow villagers generally appreciate her performance, and besides that, given her forceful personality, no one thought it wise to ask her to vacate her position!

This novel just came out. Do you already have another in the works?

I am working on the seventh Beryl and Edwina mystery right now. In it the sleuths return to the finishing school where they first met. The school’s head, Miss DuPont, has asked for their help in discovering who is behind a series of incidents that appear intended to damage the school’s reputation and sabotage her business. Both of them are too well-mannered, thanks in part to Miss DuPont, to leave a lady in the lurch, so they cancel their plans and head directly for London.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Agatha award nominee Jessica Ellicott lives in northern New England, where she indulges her passion for all things British by writing the Beryl and Edwina Mysteries. She also writes mysteries under the names Jessica Estevao and Jessie Crockett. Her books have twice received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly as well as one from Library Journal. Her first novel won the Daphne du Maurier award for mystery. Find out more about her at