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Alias Grace (Atwood)

Alias Grace
Margaret Atwood, 1996
Knopf Doubleday
460 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385490443


Summary
In this astonishing tour de force, Margaret Atwood takes the reader back in time and into the life and mind of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century. In 1843, at the age of sixteen, servant girl Grace Marks was convicted for her part in the vicious murders of her employer and his mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Grace herself claims to have no memory of the murders.

As Dr. Simon Jordan—an expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness—tries to unlock her memory, what will he find? Was Grace a femme fatale—or a weak and unwilling victim of circumstances?

Taut and compelling, penetrating and wise, Alias Grace is a beautifully crafted work of the imagination that vividly evokes time and place. The novel and its characters will continue to haunt the reader long after the final page. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—November 18, 1939
Where—Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.A., University of Toronto; M.A. Radcliffe; 
   Ph.D., Harvard University
Awards—Governor General's Award; Harvard University
  Centennial Medal; Booker Prize; Griller Award
Currently—lives in Toronto, Canada

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award several times, winning twice. She is also a founder of the Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community.

Early life
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Atwood is the second of three children of Margaret Dorothy (nee Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist, and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist. Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was in grade 8. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957.

Atwood began writing at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and a minor in philosophy and French.

In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for two years but did not finish her dissertation, “The English Metaphysical Romance." She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967–68), the University of Alberta (1969–70), York University in Toronto (1971–72), the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (1985), where she was visiting M.F.A. Chair, and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.

Personal life
In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk; they were divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto, where their daughter was born in 1976. The family returned to Toronto in 1980.

Other genres
While she is best known for her work as a novelist, she has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. Atwood has published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, and many other magazines. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood has also produced several children's books, including Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003)—delicious alliterative delights that introduce a wealth of new vocabulary to young readers

Speculative fiction vs. sci-fic
The Handmaid's Tale received the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. The award is given for the best science fiction novel that was first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.

Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to the UK's Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians."

She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... [S]peculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth." She said that science fiction narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.

Environmentalism
Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left-wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term. Atwood, along with her partner Graeme Gibson, is a member of the Green Party of Canada (GPC) and has strong views on environmental issues. She and Gibson are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. She has been chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and president of PEN Canada, and is currently a vice president of PEN International. In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.

During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood spoke out against the deal, and wrote an essay opposing the agreement.

Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope." (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/17/2013.)

Book Reviews
If Grace manages to keep several people in her life simultaneously at bay and attracted to her, the reader, too, is part of her fascinated audience. For her narrative powers are what draw one through the intricate maze of Ms. Atwood's story and lead to the heart of its complex vision of human motive and self-awareness.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt - New York Times


The murders were shocking, and the accused parties became the subjects of obsession in 19th-century Canada. Could an "uncommonly pretty" servant girl named Grace Marks really have participated in the murders of her wealthy employer and his paramour housekeeper in 1843? Or did the stable hand act alone? The true story of Grace Marks has been told and retold over the years, but never as powerfully as in Margaret Atwood's new novel, Alias Grace, recently shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. The prolific Canadian writer weaves poems, newspaper accounts, book excerpts and letters into a narrative so vivid and engrossing you can smell the English shaving soap, see clean sheets flapping in the breeze.

Convicted of murder at 16, Grace is imprisoned for life. The story begins as Dr. Simon Jordan of Massachusetts comes to interview her in an attempt to understand the criminally insane. "Gone mad is what they say," Grace says, "and sometimes run mad, as if mad is a direction, like west." The earnest doctor is dominated by a mother who urges him to give up on helping lunatics, invest in sewing machines and marry a well-born woman. Grace — working class girl, murderess — comes to fascinate him.

Simon visits her regularly at the governor's house, where she works as a trustee. The story revolves around these meetings: Grace tells her story in her coy, perfunctory manner, and he scribbles notes, occasionally pulling out objects — a fresh apple, a candlestick — that might trigger a memory and reveal the truth. "What he wants is certainty." But Grace claims partial memory loss. Her story runs in and out of shadows, but never smack into what satisfies the doctor as truth. "It's as if I never existed, because no trace of me remains, I have left no marks," Grace says. "And that way I cannot be followed. It is almost the same as being innocent."

Both Grace and Simon are looking for their own truth, which, we ultimately discover, is ghostly, elusive — nothing the doctor can write neatly in his little ledger for himself or for her, or for posterity. Atwood makes their search a story for the ages.
Paige Willimas - Salon


Basing her new work on a sensational double murder that occurred in Canada in 1843, poet/novelist Atwood has crafted a forceful tale that probes deep into the psychology of accused murderess Grace Marks even as it exposes the social conditions that made such a murder possible. Less caustically feminist than in some previous works but still concerned with the forces that have subjugated women throughout history, Atwood follows Grace from Ireland, which her feckless father is finally forced to depart; through the family's ocean voyage, on which her mother dies; to Canada, where she starts working as a servant at age 12 and befriends Mary Whitney, whose subsequent death from a botched abortion comes, perhaps quite literally, to haunt her. Grace ends up at the Kinnear household, where the master and his housekeeper-mistress are murdered by the stableman McDermott—supposedly with Grace's help. Grace herself has no recollection of the events, and young American doctor Simon Jordan works ceaselessly to uncover her memories and solve the puzzle of her guilt or innocence. That solution, when it finally arrives, is not wholly satisfying, and attentive readers will have surmised it well beforehand, but Atwood's compelling prose, fine attention to historical detail, and firm guidance of her story make the long trip to the book's end entirely worth the trouble.
Library Journal


In 1843, at the age of 16, Grace Marks, a recent Irish immigrant to Canada, was sentenced to life in prison as an accomplice in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. The teen confessed to the crime early and later claimed no memory of the events. She was arrested in upstate New York, having run from her employer's house with the handyman, who was hanged for the crimes. Atwood became interested in the case, a true story, and added the involvement of Dr. Simon Jordan. This novel is set 16 years after the crime took place when Jordan, who is interested in the fledgling science of psychology, is recruited by a local Methodist minister intent on proving Grace's innocence to examine her and determine the "truth." Readers are made privy to innumerable details of daily life in that time and place. The concept is intriguing, and while YAs never actually learn the truth, they certainly become involved in Grace's history as well as Simon's bumbling attempts at independence from a domineering mother. Atwood may be playing a game with her readers, but it is one in which many will willingly participate for the fun and mystery while learning about life in colonial Canada. While long, this story reads quickly and all of the characters are compelling, different, and well developed.
School Library Journal


A fascinating elaboration—and somewhat of a departure for Atwood of the life of Grace Marks, one of Canada's more infamous killers.

As notorious as our own Lizzy Borden, Grace Marks was barely 16 when she and James McDermott were arrested in 1843 for the brutal murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant mistress/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The trial was a titillating sensation; McDermott was hanged, and Grace was given the dubious mercy of life imprisonment. Some felt her an innocent dupe, others thought her a cold-blooded murderer; the truth remains elusive. Atwood reimagines Grace's story, and with delicate skill all but replaces history with her chronicle of events.

Anchoring the narrative is the arrival of Dr. Simon Jordan, who has come to investigate the sanity of Grace after some 16 years of incarceration. A convert to the new field of psychiatry, Jordan is hoping to help Grace recover her memory of the murders, which she claims no recollection of. He begins by asking for her life story. Grace tells him of her first commission as a laundry maid in a grand house, and of her dear friend Mary, dead at 16 from a botched abortion. On she goes until she calmly relates the events that led up to the murders, and her attempted escape with McDermott afterward. Hypnotism finally "restores" her memory (or is Grace misleading Jordan?), with results that are both shocking and ambiguous.

Employing a variety of narratives—Grace's own, Dr. Jordan's, letters, newspaper accounts from the time, poems from the period, and the published confessions of the accused—a complex story is pieced together. The image of the patchwork quilt, used repeatedly in the novel, is a fitting metaphor for the multiplicity of truths that Grace exemplifies.

Through characteristically elegant prose and a mix of narrative techniques, Atwood not only crafts an eerie, unsettling tale of murder and obsession, but also a stunning portrait of the lives of women in another time.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. This novel is rooted in physical reality, on one hand, and floats free of it on the other, as Atwood describes physical things in either organic, raw terms (the "tongue-colored settee") or with otherworldly, more ephemeral images (the laundry like "angels rejoicing, although without any heads"). How do such descriptions deepen and reinforce the themes in the novel?

2. The daily and seasonal rhythm of household work is described in detail. What role does this play in the novel in regard to its pace?

3. Atwood employs two main points of view and voices in the novel. Do you trust one more than the other? As the story progresses, does Grace's voice (in dialogue) in Simon's part of the story change? If so, how and why?

4. Grace's and Simon's stories are linked and they have a kinship on surface and deeper levels. For instance, they both eavesdrop or spy as children, and later, each stays in a house that would have been better left sooner or not entered at all. Discuss other similarities or differences in the twinning of their stories and their psyches.

5. Atwood offers a vision of the dual nature of people, houses, appearances, and more. How does she make use of darkness and light, and to what purpose?

6. In a letter to his friend Dr. Edward Murchie, Simon Jordan writes, "Not to know—to snatch at hints and portents, at intimations, at tantalizing whispers—it is as bad as being haunted." How are the characters in this story affected by the things they don't know?

7. How and why does Atwood conceal Grace's innocence or guilt throughout the novel? At what points does one become clearer than the other and at what points does it become unclear?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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