Eleanor’s Secret by Caroline Beecham

eleanor's secret.jpgTitle: Eleanor’s Secret

Author: Caroline Beecham

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 1st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 432

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: An engrossing wartime mystery of past deceptions, family secrets and long-lasting love…

London, 1942
When art school graduate, Eleanor Roy, is recruited by the War Artists Advisory Committee, she comes one step closer to realising her dream of becoming one of the few female war artists. But breaking into the art establishment proves difficult until Eleanor meets painter, Jack Valante, only to be separated by his sudden posting overseas.

Melbourne 2010
Although reluctant to leave her family at home, Kathryn can’t refuse her grandmother Eleanor’s request to travel to London to help her return a precious painting to its artist. But when the search uncovers a long-held family secret, Kathryn has to make a choice to return home or risk her family’s future, as Eleanor shows her that safeguarding the future is sometimes worth more than protecting the past.

Kathryn’s journey takes her back to Eleanor’s life as a young woman as she uncovers Jack’s missing war diaries and uses new technology to try and solve the puzzle of the missing artist, confronted by Jack’s record of war compared to the depiction of terrors of the present day.

But when it becomes evident that Jack’s nephew is trying to stop her finding him, and her concern for Christopher’s care of Oliver deepens, she has to decide whether to return home or risk the dangers to carry on.

Eleanor’s Secret is at once a surprising mystery and compelling love story.

~*~

Having just graduated art school Eleanor Roy is recruited to the WAAC – the War Artists Advisory Committee – to do her part for the war effort during the 1940s. To her, this is a stepping stone to becoming a female war artist, in a time when women were often relegated to domestic jobs or working at home. For Eleanor though, breaking through tradition into a world her parents and family didn’t want her to go into, this is her chance.  Seconded to a series of administrative meetings for the council, Eleanor encounters Jack Valante, a war artist, and SOE officer, whose friendship encourages her to paint her war, and to try and submit them to the WAAC, and other exhibitions. But she is a woman, and Jack comes up with a plan to get her art shown, and a relationship forms – and then falls away as he is sent overseas to serve. Almost seventy years later in 2010, Eleanor’s granddaughter, Kathryn, has returned to England to help her grandmother uncover the secret of a painting and where Jack is. She takes it as a welcome break from the family problems that plague her back home with her husband, Chris, though being apart from son Oliver, is testing. But what Kathryn will discover is more than a missing painting – she will discover a secret that Eleanor has been holding onto for many years.

AWW-2018-badge-roseLately, I have been reading a lot of World War Two based historical fiction, covering the Holocaust, the ghettos and the home front in England. Each story is a mere drop in the ocean of the experiences of these six years, on all sides, and for all those affected. There are still many stories to discover and be told. One of my favourite themes has been the role of women in the war on the home front, and their stories. So, I was quite delighted to receive Eleanor’s Secret by Caroline Beecham, having previously read Maggie’s Kitchen two years ago. Like in Maggie’s Kitchen, the protagonist inEleanor’s Secret is also seeking to do something for the war effort and break out of the confines of what is expected of her gender. Instead, she strives to become an artist in her own right, and tries to gain the attention of a colleague, Aubrey, whom she hopes will help her exhibit her paintings. Through Eleanor, the home front of destroyed buildings in London and the East End is shown, though nobody wishes to accept them as hers, though she tries to make them see she is just as capable. Caroline Beecham’s characters – especially the female ones – find a way to step out of the norm whilst maintaining a facade in public that allows them to find a way to go against what is expected of them.

The impacts of the war that Eleanor captured in the novel – destroyed homes, families with nothing, picking through the ruins for something to hold onto, to sell for food, and the orphans, with nobody but the people running the orphanage and Eleanor’s art lessons to lift their spirits – are not the images of war that the WAAC wanted. It was Eleanor’s determination to capture these scenes that I found the most powerful, because it was her world, the world she lived in and passed by every day, rather than the battle fields of Europe that felt so distant to many, and though those events still affected people back home, what those left behind experienced also needed to be captured in paints.

_J1_7213-Edit.jpgThe love story between Jack and Eleanor is woven in nicely, and I enjoyed that they each grew as characters and developed in their own way, with their own secrets that were woven throughout and took time to come out, ensuring that the mysteries of art and Jack, and Eleanor’s own secrets were not so easily revealed. Going back and forth between 1942 and 2010 was effective – it allowed for the mystery to develop, and for the reader to discover what was happening at the same time as Kathryn. Family and friends were also important in this novel, and the effects of what Jack and Eleanor did and had to do came through. Eleanor’s sister Cecily, a nurse, was an important character – acting as Eleanor’s confidant and secret keeper. This was an important relationship too as it showed that sibling and familial love during times of war was just as important, if not more so, to get people through hard times and challenges that came their way, that they needed help to face.

Overall, a good novel, with a fascinating historical backdrop. Prior to reading this novel, I did not know much about the WAAC or war artists, and I found it really interesting, and the way that reporting and creation of art was done back then, sometimes months after a battle, compared to today when images appear instantly, or within hours or days of something happening in current conflicts. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, reading it in about three sittings. The mystery of the paintings, the art and Eleanor’s determination to become more than an assistant were what caught my attention the most, and the love story with Jack was a nice bonus.

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The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford

good doctor of warsaw.jpgTitle: The Good Doctor of Warsaw

Author: Elisabeth Gifford

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Corvus/Allen and Unwin

Published: 21st February 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Set in the ghettos of wartime Warsaw, this is a sweeping, poignant and heartbreaking tale, based on the true story of one of World War II’s quiet heroes – Dr Janusz Korczak.

‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’

Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.

As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day…

Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.

Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.

~*~

Based on a true story, and the recollections of Misha and Sophia, the protagonists and what they told their family, The Good Doctor of Warsaw retells the story of the Warsaw ghetto, and the orphanage run by Doctor Janusz Korczak. Told mostly from Misha and Sophia’s point of view as they navigate life within the ghetto with each other the orphans and Doctor Korczak, and each other, it is also the story of courage, and the lengths one man went to so he could protect the children of the ghetto in a time of turbulence in war-torn Europe, and a Warsaw that would soon become unrecognisable.  With the ghetto closed off due to claims of disease, starvation begins to set in as the Nazi’s tighten the noose on the ghetto and those within. With meagre supplies being smuggled in from outside the ghetto, Misha and Sophia find themselves separated as they watch everyone they love die, or get marched off to camps in the east, to Treblinka. This is where Doctor Korczak and the children would end up, and where, like many before them, they’d never come home from.

Doctor Korczak’s story is moving and chilling, and his decision to stay with the children, and refusal to abandon his post despite people begging him to save himself is admirable. In a time when he could have taken the easy way out and allowed his Polish and Aryan friends to protect him, he chose to starve and stay with the vulnerable Jewish orphans, and provide a home for them, and a safe place, where they could be loved and listened to.

Elisabeth Gifford’s careful research in Korczak’s life and ideologies on childhood, caring for children, and educating them comes through clearly in the novel, showing the power of love, and respect, where Korczak stood for all children being allowed the same rights and respect, regardless of race, religion, colour, nationality or any other reason someone might use to deny them the rights he believed they deserved. Drawing on Janusz’s journals, and his book, How to Love A Child, and the recollections of Misha and Sophia, Elisabeth Gifford has recreated the hope and horror of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the realisation by many that what was happening was not going to end soon, despite Janusz’s positivity and attempts to keep the children happy and fed, and safe. She has ensured that the gravitas of what happened in the ghetto and during the war is not forgotten, the dangers that Aryan-passing children from the ghetto faced as they found ways to smuggle food from one side to the other, and the hopeless sense of not know if, or when, you or those you cared about might be rounded up and sent off to the camps, a place where you were told you would work. But the fate that awaited them at Treblinka was unforeseen and tragic.

In reading books like this, it reveals the fragility of humanity, and shows what humans are capable of. Janusz sacrificed freedom and life for the children of the orphanage. Elisabeth Gifford has done a fine job recreating this world and story for readers – a story that needs to be told amidst every other fact and report we have from the Holocaust, because it is the human face to these tragedies that should never be forgotten. With novels inspired by true events, the reality of what happened can feel harsher, more eye opening perhaps, but the impact of any accounts and stories will always be significant and thought provoking. The bravery that Doctor Korczak presented, and his care and courage in caring for the children until the end should never be forgotten.

Rooted in one of the darkest moments of human history, it is fascinating, moving, and at times, hard to read and heartbreaking. However, it is also powerful, and a testament to what humans are capable of when they are filled with hatred, but also what they are capable of when they love and accept people as individuals.

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The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

war saved life.jpgTitle: The War that Saved My Life

Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s and YA

Publisher: Text Publishing

Published: 16th May 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: · Winner, Newbery Honor Book, United States, 2016 

  • Winner, Schneider Family Book Award, United States, 2016 
  • Shortlisted, West Australian Young Readers’ Book Award, 2017

An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds, set during World War II.

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room flat. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Miss Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take in the two children. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making.

~*~

For nine years, Ada has lived in a tiny, one room flat with her mother and younger brother, Jamie, in London. For years she has been confined in this dreary place because of a birth deformity – clubfoot. She receives little care and love from her mother, and all her affection comes from her younger brother, whom she has raised. When war is announced in 1939, all the children of London are evacuated to less populous areas to save them from being bombed by the Germans. For Ada, this is her chance to leave home for good, to escape the horrors of her young life and get out of the dim home she lives in. On her bad foot, she hobbles towards the school, receiving assistance from Stephen White, a neighbour also being evacuated. Unaware of what the outside world is like, both on the journey and arrival in Kent, where they are placed with Susan Smith, and their lives begin to change. Jamie gets to go to school, Ada learns to ride, and they learn what it is to be kept safe, though throughout, Ada feels that there will always be something that will take them away, that this cannot last. The war is present, though never at the forefront of the book, just a threat that lingers as Ada fights her own war against everything her mother has told her she is and breaking down her own barriers to let people in, to learn to read and to find her place in the world. But can Ada’s sanctuary last?

The War that Saved My Life is more than a story of survival in war, it is survival of who Ada is and who she can become, survival of spirit and the land. It is a unique experience of war told through the eyes of a disabled child, who has always been the carer, and never cared for, fearful of a mother who has never loved or wanted her and struggling with a disability that she has been told can never been helped. In this story, there is a harsh reality shown of disability and the way it is seen and treated – the unwillingness of Ada’s mother to help or care for her versus Susan’s desire to keep Ada safe, wanting to help her and wanting to care for her, and the repercussions of nine years of being treated poorly, of being abused, set against the backdrop of a war that killed millions and wounded many more.

Each character has layers that need to be peeled back slowly, and they are. Even though Ada’s PTSD isn’t explained explicitly, it is shown in a way that readers can understand, and that people can relate to, giving people a character that they can see themselves in and representation of what they might have gone through or be feeling. The War that Saved My Life is told in first person format, through Ada’s eyes. The reader can feel and experience what she goes through: feeling trapped, feeling unable to articulate what she is feeling or find the right words, and the way her mind gives her conflicting messages, that she feels she cannot unravel properly.

It is more than a story about World War Two, it a story about the war that Ada fights within herself every day, trying to trust someone who cares for her after all she has been through. It is touching and shows the reality of Ada’s life with her mother. It shows the strength of love between siblings and the love that another can have for someone they aren’t related to.

In a story where the protagonist feels at war with herself and those around her constantly, she copes in the only way she knows how – detaching from a situation and letting herself go into her own world. She learns that there are many ways to love and care for people, and that sometimes, a lie to protect someone is okay, but lying to hurt and humiliate is not. With Susan, Ada learns that there are no absolutes in life, and that she can be helped, that her club foot can be fixed so she can at walk. Ada’s constant disbelief is coloured by the way Mam treated her for so long. It is a war that Ada is determined to win.

A touching story that can be read by all ages, The War that Saved My Life is deserving of the awards it has won and been nominated for. It is a book that shows a different side to the war, and will hopefully become a much-loved classic in years to come.

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2017 Pultizer Prize Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

undergroud railroad.jpg

Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th April, 2017 (latest edition), Trade paperback 9th August 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 306

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and a NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER FOR FICTION 2016

2017 Pultizer Prize Winner

‘Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime’ Guardian
‘Luminous, furious, wildly inventive’ Observer
‘Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read this year’ Stylist
‘Dazzling’ New York Review of Books

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

~*~

In the antebellum South, Cora hasn’t seen much beyond the cotton plantation she is enslaved at in Georgia. An outcast as a slave and amongst slaves, Cora’s impending womanhood heralds an uncertain and painful future – one that she longs to escape but doesn’t know how. Until Caesar tells her about the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses set up during the nineteenth century to help slaves escape to free states. Assisted by abolitionists along the way to navigate the route and keep hidden from the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Running for her life and freedom after killing a white boy who tried to stop her, Cora must take on new identities and try to blend – working with a system that at each point, brings disadvantage and bondage of different kinds, and faced with the ignorance that breeds racism in the antebellum South.

Separated at one stage from Caesar, Cora must continue alone, and rely on fellow escaped slaves, freemen and abolitionists, all working to abolish slavery in America, in the decades leading up to the Civil War of 1861-1865. In a penultimate confrontation at a community of former slaves and abolitionists, tragedy strikes and Cora must use all the strength she has left to cross over into the free states, and begin to venture into a life she has control over, but that is still scarred by the shackles and chains of slavery.

Before reading this book, I knew a little bit about the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad, and slavery from a university history course on the American Civil War. It did not go into too much depth from memory, so Colson Whitehead’s novel helped to bring these stories to life more for me. As I read Cora’s story, I found it engaging, and at the same time horrifying: it was a story that gripped me on a human level, horrified at the way Cora had been treated, and as soon as she had some hope, it was ripped away too quickly. As the key character, all events and characters are seen through her eyes, and her judgement, but as she travels the Underground Railroad and encounters a variety of people in all walks of life, it felt that Colson Whitehead was showing the breadth and depth of how different people reacted to slavery, and how they felt about it. This made Cora’s story more powerful as she worked out who she could put her trust in and when, and in her dealings with Ridgeway when he caught up with her.

Using this historical backdrop, Whitehead has created a world of authenticity with a darkness to it that can’t be escaped or denied when discussing slavery and the antebellum South in the nineteenth century. Whitehead’s story mingles literary fiction and historical fiction, with a nice balance of character and plot throughout, interspersing Cora’s story with perspectives of her mother, Caesar and an abolitionist’s wife who nursed her back to health when she got sick. Cora travels through states that are determined to drive out the black population entirely, and states who seem to deal with black people but still treat them like second class citizens, or worse. The dehumanising language of slurs and “it” to refer to runaway slaves are shocking – but necessary. They set the tone for the characters and the setting of the novel as well.

Colson Whitehead has sewn the threads of this novel together eloquently, and by evoking a sense of place for each stop along the Underground Railroad, a sense of self in Cora and utilising speech patterns that fit the characters and places, has created a novel that must be read to understand the other side of the story to slavery and the Underground Railroad: the hopelessness felt by slaves, and the way they were mercilessly pursued and viewed as property in many places.

By shocking readers with the raw brutality of this period in time, Colson Whitehead’s novel will hopefully open up a dialogue and allow these issues to be explored further.

Sydney Writer’s Festival Appearances and links:

Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad (Conversation)

Saturday 27th May 8.30-9.30PM

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/colson-whitehead-the-underground-railroad/

Pulitzer Prize Winners Colson Whitehead and Hisham Matar

https://www.swf.org.au/stories/pulitzer-prize-winners-colson-whitehead-and-hisham-matar/

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Stars Across the Ocean by Kimberley Freeman

stars across the ocean

Title: Stars Across the Ocean

Author: Kimberley Freeman

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th April 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 450

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The powerful new novel from Kimberley Freeman.

A rich and satisfying story of two women with indomitable spirits and the high costs they have to pay for being strong-minded, from the author of the bestselling LIGHTHOUSE BAY and EMBER ISLAND.

1874: Only days before she is to leave the foundling home where she grew up, Agnes Resolute discovers that, as a baby, she had been abandoned with a small token of her mother: a unicorn button.

Agnes always believed her mother had been too poor to keep her, but after working as a laundress in the home she recognises the button as belonging to Genevieve Breckby, the beautiful and headstrong daughter of a local noble family. Agnes had seen Genevieve once, in the local village, and had never forgotten her.

Despite having no money, Agnes will risk everything in a quest that will take her from the bleak moors of northern England to the harsh streets of London, then on to Paris and Ceylon. As Agnes follows her mother’s trail, she makes choices that could cost her dearly. Finally, in Australia, she tracks Genevieve down. But is Genevieve capable of being the mother Agnes hopes she will be?

~*~

aww2017-badgeStars Across the Ocean opens in the present, in first person. Victoria, or Tori as she prefers, has travelled from Australia to England to assist her ailing mother, who following an accident at work, is recovering in a rehabilitation centre. Tori is sent by her mother to her office to recover some work she has, and in the process, Tori finds a letter from about 1855: To My Child, Whom I Could Not Keep. And so begins Tori’s adventure into the past, via this letter, which abruptly ends and transitions from the first person perspective of Tori in the present and the letter, to 1874, third person, and Agnes.

Agnes Resolute is a foundling child of Perdita Hall in Hatby, Yorkshire. She has lived there for nineteen years, since her abandonment as a baby, with only a unicorn button the only clue to her past. Putting together her memories of a young woman named Genevieve from Breckby Hall, and a connection to the button, Agnes sets off on a journey to London, where she becomes the companion to Marianna Breckby, Genevieve’s sister and someone whom Agnes hopes, can help her find Genevieve.

Her time in London is cut short as she travels to Paris, where Genevieve’s son, Marianna’s nephew, Julius, finds her and listens to her story, and decides to help her find out about her family, telling her a few secrets of his own that make her question their relationship and what they might mean to each other. From Paris, Agnes travels alone to Ceylon to find Genevieve, and instead, finds a former lover, whose stories about Genevieve lead Agnes to Melbourne, Australia and the theatres. It is here that Agnes hopes to find Genevieve and have her questions answered,

Throughout the novel, it flicks back to the present as Tori struggles to put the letter together, with several sections missing, and whilst she is trying to solve the mystery of the letter, she is also struggling with her own demons back home in Australia, the lack of contact with her husband, and her ailing mother, who seems to need constant care.

It is a story about a young woman finding her place in the world, and reuniting with a mother who wanted her despite her family, and finding an unexpected love in the process. The romance was done exceptionally well, because the characters were given a chance to be their own people first and foremost; Agnes was allowed to be her own woman for a time, and find answers to questions she had had for years. It was a small part of the novel, but at the same time, a nice addition to a story that became about knowing who you are and not accepting what other people expected of you. There are two endings to this – the ending to Agnes’ story and the ending to Tori’s story. One was satisfying in many ways, and the other was a little abrupt, though realistic in relation to the plot. However, this second ending still left me wanting to know more, and wanting to know what else Tori and her mother would find out.

A delightful historical fiction story set in Victorian London, with a heroine who in some ways, fits into the gender expectations of the time but is still her own person and refuses to be tied down – the kind of character who can spread her wings when she wants to, and come home when she needs to. It is a lovely tale, and I hope to read it again soon.

A great read for lovers of historical fiction, and anyone who has read and enjoyed authors such as Kate Forsyth.

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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

see what i have done.jpg

Title: See What I Have Done

Author: Sarah Schmidt

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 28th March, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 328

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A deeply atmospheric novel by a startling new Aussie talent; an incredibly unique look inside the mind of Lizzie Borden, famously accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892.

‘Eerie and compelling, Sarah Schmidt breathes such life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family, she makes it impossible to look away.’ – Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

‘He was still bleeding. I yelled, “Someone’s killed Father.” I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. I looked at Father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. “Daddy,” I had said. “I’m giving this to you because I love you.” He had smiled and kissed my forehead.

A long time ago now.’

On 4 August 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. During the inquest into the deaths, Lizzie Borden was arrested and charged with the murder of her father and her stepmother.

Through the eyes of Lizzie’s sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, the enigmatic stranger Benjamin and the beguiling Lizzie herself, we return to what happened that day in Fall River.

Lizzie Borden took an axe. Or did she?

~*~

aww2017-badgeSee What I Have Done brings the mystery of Fall River, and the deaths of Andrew and Abby Borden to life. Living together in the Second Street house with Lizzie, the youngest daughter, and the maid Bridget. Emma has since moved out, and a fourth narrator to this tale, Benjamin, who has links to Uncle John, the first Mrs Borden’s brother (Emma and Lizzie’s biological mother), arrives the day before the murders, on the 3rd of August 1892. The next day, Andrew and Abby were dead. And this is where See What I Have Done begins, going between the perspectives of Lizzie, Emma, Benjamin and Bridget on the day of the murder and the day before, and then the days and weeks following, where one character recounts the trial as they recall it, and the events that lead to the conclusion of the case, and leaving a murderer to go free, and live out their lives.

What Sarah Schmidt does in See What I Have Done through the other three perspectives is to present alternative suspects to Lizzie. Throughout the book, each character’s motives are shown through memories and flashbacks as they navigate the day before, the day of and the days after the murders, hinting that it really could have been anybody who had been in the house, and interrogates the life that Lizzie may have lived with her father and stepmother. The loss of her pigeons is what I felt finally made Lizzie lose herself, and may have led to why she murdered her parents.

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A mixture of historical fiction, literary fiction and crime fiction, See What I Have Done evokes an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue and transports the reader to the late nineteenth century in America, and into a family where secrets are kept, and tensions felt deeply by all. Because the novel is told in first person, the reader gains insight into the minds of Lizzie, Emma, Benjamin and Bridget, and we see in Lizzie and through Bridget and Emma’s perceptions of her a woman who is childlike, who perhaps has not let herself mature, or who hasn’t been allowed to be mature – this is part of the mystery, why Lizzie became who she was. Perhaps losing her mother at a young age contributed, perhaps her sister’s protection became a factor. Whatever the reason, Lizzie is shown as someone who needs protection and understanding, to whom some things might not make sense.

Out of all the narrators, Emma was the only one who was not a suspect, whereas the others had motives and could be seen as unreliable narrators – in presenting them as so – where we only see their perspective and understanding, and these narrators hide things from everyone – Sarah Schmidt has crafted a novel that presents a puzzle to the reader. It is successful in that it made me question what is known about the case, what is known from popular culture and other stories. In suggesting there may have been other suspects, another killer, Schmidt paints Lizzie the killer as an ambiguous one at times, but at others, having people question her innocence.

A novel of mystery, intrigue and literary quality, See What I Have Done sets up a story inspired by events that are yet to be solved, and gives Lizzie, Emma, their maid, Bridget and the stranger, Benjamin, a voice, and motives to kill, apart from Emma. It is a story that can stay with you long after finishing it. It is engrossing, and authentic. Reading it, I could clearly see the nineteenth century setting, hear the way they may have spoken and felt immersed in their daily life. And not only see and hear, but smell, taste and feel. It is an astounding debut novel and one that I do want to revisit, but maybe I’ll let Lizzie rest for now.

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Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet by Jennifer Gall

looking for rose paterson.jpg

Title: Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet.

Author: Jennifer Gall

Genre: Non-fiction. History, Biography

Publisher: NLA Publishing

Published: 1st March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 208

Price: $44.99

Synopsis: ROSE ISABELLA PATERSON gave birth to a boy, Barty, in 1864. That child became the famous balladeer, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson. Barty was the first of seven children who lived on Illalong station, a property near the New South Wales township of Binalong, where Rose spent most of her married life.
In this book, we enter into the rustic world of late nineteenth-century pioneers, where women endured continuous cycles of pregnancy, childbirth and recovery, and the constraints of strict social codes. Rose faced the isolation of Illalong – ‘this poor old prison of a habitation’ – with resolute determination and an incisive wit. Her candid letters, written throughout the 1870s and 1880s, to her younger sister, Nora Murray-Prior, reveal a woman who found comfort in the shared confidences of correspondence and who did not lack for opinions on women’s rights, health and education. Here we see a devoted sister, a loyal wife battling domestic drudgery with scarce resources, and an affectionate mother whose parenting approach embraced ‘a little judicious neglect & occasional scrubbing’.

‘Looking for Rose’ recreates the world of Rose Paterson and, within the rhythm of her life, the bush childhood of ‘Banjo’ Paterson, which ultimately found a place in some of Australia’s best-known verses.

DR JENNIFER GALL is Assistant Curator, Documents and Artefacts, at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University School of Music. Her publications include ‘In Bligh’s Hand: Surviving the Mutiny on the Bounty’, published by the National Library of Australia, for which she won the 2011 Barbara Ramsden Award.

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aww2017-badgeLooking For Rose Paterson brings the domestic world of women on the land in the mid to late nineteenth century, colonial era Australia, and in particular, the life of the mother of one of Australia’s much-loved poets. Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson’s (or Barty as his mother called him) mother Rose raised the generation of children that would go on to see the Federation of Australia, suffrage, and the early stages of the women’s rights movement, and the First World War. As Rose was a part of the generation that preceded this, Jennifer Gall’s book focuses on the trials she faced living the pastoral life, having a large brood of children, and the importance that society at the time placed on the role of women in the household, bringing up children and at times, seeing to the education of boys and girls, with a little more importance placed on the birth and education of sons who could provide for the family and take care of female relatives and younger sisters who were still children themselves if both parents were dead.

Rose was not however, the meek and mild stereotype that some accounts and stories make women of this time out to be. She fulfilled the roles of mother, caregiver and wife as was expected, yet she also maintained a close relationship with her sister, strived to teach her children to be humble as well as self-sufficient and accomplished at various things – which usually meant music, housework, and maybe some language skills, reading and writing for the girls, so they could run a household of their own, and instilled a desire to write in her son, Barty – known to us these days as Banjo Paterson.

Each chapter begins with the reproduction of a painting depicting nineteenth century pastoral life, and a quote from Banjo Paterson’s poetry. Throughout, Jennifer Gall has reproduced some letters that Rose wrote to her sister Nora, as well as other images and artefacts from the time period to illustrate to the reader what Rose’s life would have been like, and the advice that would have been available to mothers and women.

The story of Rose Paterson is one that until now was unknown to me. I suppose, like the stories of many women of her generation, it was one that may not have been seen as important to the history of Australia. Indeed, we celebrate many male stories from colonial times and the first part of the twentieth century, but apart from the suffrage movement and women’s involvement in the First World War, some stories are still hidden and we need to continue mining away to find the gems, such as this story of Rose Paterson. In a time when women’s voices were often not listened to, Rose played an integral role in bringing up her son, Barty to become the poet we know today.

Reading Rose’s story brought me back to thinking about Jackie French’s Matilda Saga, and the way she has brought the lives of these women to life, white, Indigenous, rich, poor and sometimes, of various nationalities throughout the books. Rose Paterson is a figure whose story is worthy of being told, allowing insight into a world predominantly seen through the written word of men and their world views. A world where boys and girls were faced with different expectations and futures, and a world that only a generation later, would see the beginnings of Federation, and suffrage for women, moving into the twentieth century where women became more vocal, and fought for their rights. It makes me wonder: with Rose as strong as she was – what would she have made of that world, and would she have been for or against suffrage? If she had met a girl like Jackie French’s Matilda O’Halloran, what would she have thought?

An intriguing book, and one to be treasured, so we never forget these hidden voices of which there are so many. It is both informative and entertaining, and gives deeper insight into the world of women of this era and the ways so many found to step outside of the confines of a gendered world, even if only in a small way.

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