Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien

The year is 1887 and Henry Ward Beecher lies dying. The popular and eloquent preacher, who espoused a loving and merciful deity rather than a vengeful one, has been felled by a massive stroke. But peace is not one of the stripes on the canopy of sorrow that hangs over the Beecher household. When the flamboyant suffragette Victoria Woodhull accused Henry of committing adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of his best friend, it created a rift that tore the Beecher family apart.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the classic antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, sided with her brother, convinced of his innocence, but her younger sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragette, sided with her friend, Mrs. Woodhull, and insisted Henry publicly admit his guilt.

Now as Henry lies dying, Isabella, ostracized from the family for fifteen years for her lack of loyalty, frantically tires to gain entry to her brother's sickroom, to say farewell and make peace with him.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It told me a story I was previously unfamiliar with, and the author did a marvelous job of depicting the public fascination with the scandal, the sideshow atmosphere, controversy, and media coverage of the trial, and the umbrella of uncertainty that hovered over it all, and how it tore a formerly solid and united family apart. It was never made 100% clear whether Henry was guilty or not, that was something everyone had to decide for themselves, both strangers on the street and those who knew him personally, and so too, over a hundred years later, is it for the readers of this novel. The author wisely saves her own personal opinion for the Author's Note at the end of the book.

A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Ms. O'Brien's historical novel The Glory Cloak about Louisa May Alcott and her days as a Civil War nurse, I hope she will continue to bring interesting characters and events from American history to life in the pages of her future novels.

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