it’s always a treat when a book that has clearly been thoroughly researched doesn’t read like something that has been thoroughly researched, and instead—as they say—Brings History Alive with alla the vibrancy of intrigue, adventure, action, and romance.
and this one’s a magnificent historical debut—an epic tale of survival in colonial new england, whose brutal wilderness and changing political tides inflict numerous dangers upon those eking out an existence on society’s fringes; individuals whose lives could be ruined—or ended—by baseless accusations of witchcraft, treason, or heresy.
ruth miner is a headstrong and independent female, and 1689 new england is not a great place to be a lady with ideas. or to be a lady who wears her hair down, head scandalously uncovered. an orphan living with her dementia-addled grandmother, ruth lost both her parents in a fire for which she, despite being only six at the time, was blamed. she was branded a witch by the colony’s women—quite literally, with two ‘Ws” scarring her inner thighs, and now, at sixteen, she’s become a relative outcast in the village. “feral and unbound,” she’s scorned, bullied, and denied the community’s succor, saved from outright persecution by their lingering respect for her grandmother, who had been married to the colony’s first selectmen and herself been one of its founding members.
however, grandmothers don’t live forever, and after a particularly bitter winter, ruth loses the small protection she had. more vulnerable than ever, she knows it’s only a matter of time before her god-fearing neighbors turn on her; an unmarried woman alone in the world being the perfect finger-pointy target for any hardship.
They’d come with torches and muskets and stones and appled faces. Would they hang her? Drown her? Tie her to a chair and lower her into the ocean? Lock her in the stocks or force her into the pillory? She feared her fate would likely be worse: they’d burn her alive in her own cabin.
witches get stitches.
fortunately she’s prepared for this eventuality and long ago hatched an escape plan with owen townsend: childhood friend and son of the captain of the Primrose, now twenty-one and grown into a flirtatious, adventure-seeking sailor who has promised to take her away from this small-minded community, given that he owes her a really big favor. for reasons.
but owen’s dragging his feet, making her wait one more season, one more run, until his half-french ancestry suddenly puts him in jeopardy as working-from-home king william wages war between french and english settlers. ruth’s association with owen drags her deeper into danger, forcing her to choose between self-interest and loyalty, risking the small safety she’s managed to claw for herself through strategic necessity.
i usually blah blah the romance parts of books, but i’m much more attentive to them when the dramatic complications are legitimate, and while “gallows” is a pretty legit relationship hurdle, it’s not the only one plonking itself down between this couple and their romantic happiness. it is an emotional roller coaster that even yr stonehearted girl over here became invested in.
when i was a tiny munchkin growing up in little rhody, i loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond, in which a sixteen-year-old orphan finds herself accused of witchcraft in 1687 new england because she doesn’t assimilate gracefully into the puritanical community; befriending quakers and other outsider-types, including a friend/love interest who is a sailor and captain’s son.
this is almost like a grown-up version of that story—it’s grittier and denser, occasionally a little stolid with historical detail, but still highly engaging. it also reads a bit like a western, with its guns and horsies, its themes of justice and retribution, ruth’s relationship with the pequot indians (which, refreshingly, is more transactional than disneyfied), ragtag bands of highwaymen congregating by campfires, and the escalating conflicts arising between the french and native forces against the british-american colonies.
unlike a western, there are plenty of high seas adventures and the cold is…intense. ruth’s wintry hard times—i felt those descriptions in my bones, friends.
all in all, a fantastic debut about perseverance and sacrifice in a tumultuous world, conscientiously researched and vividly realized.
more like this, please!