Friday, June 9, 2023

Reimagining Tragedy

I encountered Katharine Beutner’s new novel, Killingly, through a NetGalley recommendation and was instantly hooked. I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, and although that was a long time ago now, I still have fond memories of South Hadley and its environs. But I had never heard of this case of a missing student, either when I lived on the campus or in the years since. Fortunately, the author agreed to speak with me for a New Books Network interview, which posted just this week, around the time of the book’s release.

To be clear, this novel draws on a historical event, and some of the characters and details are also historical. But the book itself is, as advertised, a psychological thriller that includes fictional characters and a lot of (fascinating) speculation about what happened to Bertha Mellish, the missing student, and what might have been going on in her family that precipitated the story events. Read on—and, of course, listen—to find out more

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

In 1897, a Mount Holyoke College junior named Bertha Mellish disappears from campus overnight, leaving no word for her family. It’s a time when female college students are still considered “queer” (in the old sense of peculiar as well as the modern understanding of the word), although the college administrators insist that their primary purpose is to produce excellent wives and mothers. But even this community of oddities considers Bertha strange, by which the other girls mean that she pays too little attention to parties and boys, too much to her schoolwork and social causes.
Bertha’s only true friend is Agnes Sullivan, a young woman from a poor Boston family who has been forced to conceal her Catholic upbringing to gain admission to the college. Agnes, a would-be doctor (an even greater anomaly in late 19th-century culture than a woman with a college education, although not inconceivable), grieves Bertha’s absence but insists she has no idea where Bertha might be. Dragging the rivers and lakes turns up nothing, supposed sightings of the missing girl lead nowhere, and the police would be willing to write the case off as closed if only her relatives and the family doctor would let it go.

Almost from the beginning, it’s clear that Agnes knows far more than she lets on, but finding out what really happened to Bertha and why is a long, winding trail of suspense. Through the overlapping stories of Agnes, Bertha’s sister Florence, Dr. Henry Hammond, and the inspector whom Hammond hires to find the missing girl, Katharine Beutner keeps us on the edge of our seats as she unravels their tangle of secrets and lies. Perhaps the most intriguing element is knowing that however fictional the plot and many of the characters, the story derives from the real-life disappearance of a Mount Holyoke student in 1897, the mystery of which has never been solved.

Image of Mount Holyoke College’s Seminary Hall in 1886 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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