Many historical novels die on the page, the characters never having drawn breath. In Gunning's capable hands, a novel of history is allowed to be as vivid as the smell of a man: "Tobacco and sweat, but a different sweat, and something like sassafras but not sassafras."
Anita Shreve - Washington Post
Heartrending ... Gunning's vibrant portrayal of Lyddie's journey shows that the pursuit of happiness is not for the faint of heart.
Mystery author Gunning moves to literary historical with this provocative tale of a whaling widow determined to forge a new life in colonial Cape Cod. When Lyddie Berry's husband drowns in 1761, her grief is compounded by the discovery that he's willed her the traditional widow's share-one-third use, but not ownership, of his estate. Lyddie's care, and the bulk of the estate, have been entrusted to their closest male relative, son-in-law Nathan Clarke, husband to their daughter Mehitable and a man used to ordering a household around. Lyddie's struggle to maintain a place in her radically changed home soon brings her into open conflict with an increasingly short-tempered Nathan and his children from two previous marriages. Gunning infuses the story with suspense and intrigue, as Lyddie's plight brings her into the orbit of local Indian Sam Cowett; community censure then brings her an ally in sympathetic lawyer Ebeneezer Freeman. Gunning resists easy generalizations and stereotypes while the story pulls in 18th-century law and Anglo-Indian relations, but the dull period dialogue, of which there is a great deal, reads awkwardly. Yet she makes Lyddie's struggle to remake her life credible and the world she inhabits complex.
In 1761, Massachusetts-born attorney James Otis challenged the British government's right to impose legal writs on the American Colonies. He was also an outspoken abolitionist and supporter of women's suffrage. In her latest novel, Gunning (Fire Water) uses Otis as a catalyst for change in the life of Lyddia Berry. While most people find the lawyer's sentiments appalling, she is quietly thrilled-in fact, Otis's speeches inspire Lyddia to defy her son-in-law, a pompous businessman who assumed legal responsibility for her following the accidental death of her fisherman husband. Gunning exposes the sexism of the era-married women were denied the right to own property and were barred from signing contracts, while widows were under the thumb of male heirs and granted use of only one-third of their deceased husband's property-and juxtaposes it with the racism of the white Colonists against Native Americans. By merging historical fact with riveting fiction, she offers readers an intimate peak into the daily life of pre-Revolutionary War Satucket, MA. Along the way, they'll get a vivid sense of the race, gender, and class dynamics of America's foreparents while enjoying a wonderful story. This is historical fiction at its best; highly recommended. —Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY
The crisp prose is flavored with the stinging salty atmosphere of a New England community witnessing one individual's war for independence. Good choice for book clubs. —Kaite Mediatore
Gunning's quietly compelling historical novel places the limited rights of 18th-century New England married women, particularly widows, within the context of a pre-Revolutionary America in which rebellious attitudes toward English rule foment new ideas about freedom and individual rights. When her husband dies in a whaling accident, 39-year-old Cape Codder Lyddie Berry is entitled only to a widow's third of her husband's estate. She is expected to move in with her daughter Mehitable and avaricious son-in-law Nathan Clarke, who, as Lyddie's closest male relative, now controls her life. Her only ally is her husband's lawyer, widower Eben Freeman. While Nathan is a stingy, narrow-minded Puritan, Eben, whose friend James Otis's suit against Britain's Writs of Assistance is a precursor to the Revolution, is more open-minded. Unable to live with Clarke, Lyddie defies social norms and moves back into her home—or one-third of it. Clarke's plan to sell the cottage is thwarted because Lyddie's neighbor Sam Cowett, a local Indian semi-accepted by the townspeople, refuses to relinquish his timber rights to the Berry property. When Sam's wife Rebecca comes down with brain fever, a financially desperate Lyddie works as her paid nurse. Despite malicious gossip concerning her relationship with recently widowed Sam, Eben proposes marriage. A happy outcome seems possible until Lyddie finds herself unwilling to put herself at a man's mercy, even reasonable Eben's. Gunning (Dirty Water, 2004, etc.) paints the ethical, emotional and financial dilemmas of her refreshingly adult characters in surprisingly lively shades of gray.
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