Sunday, May 24, 2009

Reviews of obscure books: Jean Clark's Untie the Winds

Clark, Jean. Untie the Winds. NY: Kensington, 1978. 498pp. Prev. published in hardcover, 1976. Out of print, copies readily available via PaperbackSwap and cheaply via ABE.

After reading the comments on Christine Blevins's guest post, most of which dealt with American history, I've been thinking of historical fiction about my own home state -- and how very few examples there are. One of my favorite settings is colonial New England, but how many historical novels set in early Connecticut can you name?

Aside from the children's novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond, that is... this is the edition I read in elementary school.

Anya Seton's The Winthrop Woman, about a historical woman who was once an early resident of New Haven Colony, is another. But I wasn't able to think of many more. With this in mind, I picked up the 1976 paperback edition of Jean Clark's Untie the Winds with interest, despite the bodice-buster artwork and back cover blurb which promised a story about: "The ravishing rebel. The tender teacher. Passion and principle." Ugh.

What can I say, it was the 1970s, but this mainstream historical novel is horribly served by its packaging. The red square is not a weird variation of the scarlet "A," I should add, but a price sticker I didn't remove for fear it would damage the book!

The title, also, seemed to be one of those abstract romancey statements, something that sounds good on paper but has no real meaning. How wrong I was. The line was originally spoken by Macbeth to the three witches in Shakespeare's play: "Though you untie the winds and let them fight against the churches..."

Fittingly, Untie the Winds tells the story of one woman, Ann Eaton, and her fight against the Puritan church and the local justice system in New Haven Colony in the 1630s and 1640s. Ann Lloyd Yale Eaton was a real person, an Englishwoman who became the wife of the colony's first magistrate and governor, Theophilus Eaton. Through her son from her first marriage, Ann became the grandmother of Elihu Yale, the philanthropist after whom Yale College (now University) was named. It's nowhere near a historical romance, and in fact there's barely a single love scene in the book, despite what the back cover would have you think about her sensuous nature and her illicit romance with lusty schoolteacher Ezekial Cheever.

While focusing on Ann and the problems her philosophical rebellion caused within her marriage, Clark establishes the political and historical context by alternating between the viewpoints of five different characters. These are Ann herself; her husband Theophilus; Rev. John Davenport, spiritual leader of the colony; Ezekial Cheever, a teacher who expresses public support for Ann's unorthodox views; and Lurinda Collings, the Eatons' indentured servant (a fictional character).

Ann is a strong, principled woman who loves her husband but refuses to tolerate injustice, such as the Colony's execution of a Quinnipiac Indian for a crime committed out of its jurisdiction and without benefit of a trial by jury. She walks out of the meetinghouse during Rev. Davenport's service as a protest against infant baptisms, as babies are too young to decide for themselves about Church membership. Her refusal to confess her sins and repent of her actions leads to her excommunication in 1644, something her husband does nothing to prevent.

Already middle-aged with grown children when the novel begins in 1638, upon her ship's arrival in the land of the Quinnipiacs, she's not a typical historical novel heroine, but her story is a compelling one. Through her eyes and others, we see early New Haven take shape from a settlement in the wilderness along the Connecticut shoreline to a lively colony, based in Biblical principles, that steadily grew as it annexed nearby towns (called "plantations") and formed a united confederation with other British colonies in New England.

From what I've been able to discern, Ann's story as presented here is grounded in historical fact, with the probable exception of her unconsummated love affair with Cheever (a very minor part of the book). Even the appearance of a phantom ship off the coast in 1646, an event made famous by Longfellow's poem, is recorded as part of New Haven history and legend. Ann's life doesn't always follow a dramatic arc (most people's lives don't), which detracts from the narrative tension at times. After her excommunication, the focus moves from her to Lurinda's romantic escapades, which are completely fictional and not nearly as interesting to read about.

Overall, Untie the Winds is well worth picking up if you like this period of history. Despite being from Connecticut, I knew next to nothing about the New Haven colony beforehand but have been happily googling for information about it since I turned the final page. A clearly written, fascinating novel about the founding of one of the lesser-known English colonies in America, one woman's brave dissent against Puritan theocracy, and the price she paid for it.

11 comments:

  1. That looks interesting! I spent a couple of years living in New Haven--it would be interesting to read more about its history.

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  2. Elizabeth George Speare wrote an adult novel, THE PROSPERING, set in western MA I think:

    In The Prospering (1967), Speare fictionalizes the actual experiences of the settlers who participated in the experiment of the Stockbridge mission in western Massachusetts. This was the plan of the visionary and zealous young John Sergeant to prepare the Native Americans to live and work in English ways upon land he hoped would remain theirs forever. The story is related by Elizabeth, youngest daughter of the Williams family, which was among the earliest settlers there. She sees the village grow over a 50-year period into a beautiful town, observing how the experiment fails because the Native Americans are unable to change their ways and the colonists increasingly use the Native Americans and the land for their own purposes.

    http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/aww_04/aww_04_01142.html

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  3. Thanks, Sarah! I'd never heard of this novel before but will check it out.

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  4. Hi Sarah!

    Thanks for commenting, I look forward to meeting you at BEA! This is a great blog and I love this post about older titles!

    Carey

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  5. Hi Carey,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I added a link to your blog from here this morning. See you in NYC - I should probably be packing now instead of hanging out and blog-hopping!!

    Sarah

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  6. Sarah, I DID read this, though long, long ago! My guess is that the Bicentennial gave publishers an excuse for colonial/revolutionary war settings - remember what a hit the first John Jakes series was at the time?

    My all-time favorite historical novels set in 18th century New England were written even longer ago, by Kenneth Roberts. Though most of his books (Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Northwest Passage, Oliver Wiswell are only a few titles) are now about 80 years old, they're still in print, and still immensely readable. His grasp of history is unparalleled as is his "feel" for what made the northern colonies unique, and his characters seem genuine and true to their time.

    Have fun in NYC, all you BEA-goers!

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  7. Wow, I'm pleased to hear you've read the novel also, Susan! I hadn't heard of it before coming across it by chance at the Niantic Book Barn last summer. There are undoubtedly other novels about the period which date from the same time. Makes sense; how many Lewis & Clark novels have been published within the past few years?

    Kenneth Roberts is an author I always meant to read, especially Arundel (I got interested in Benedict Arnold's story after reading John Ensor Harr's take on him). The Amazon reviews are numerous and nearly all excellent. Impressive.

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  8. I'd forgotten the title of "Untie the Winds", but once you described the plot, I remembered the book.

    As I said, I read it a long, long time ago -- one of my first jobs was in an office filled with women who were avid readers with book-a-day habits, and there was a LOT of book-swapping back and forth. More quantity than quality (think Laurie McBain & Rosemary Rogers), but occasionally a good one slipped through. *g*

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  9. I just don't understand why those bodice covers get put on books that deserve a bit more respect. I really don't want to be carrying that Untie The Wind book to the office which is full of construcion guys, but I would love to read the story.

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  10. What a great review! I must get my hands on a copy of this - I'm descended from Theophilus and Ann Eaton. I knew that he was a governor of New Haven colony, but I had no idea about her story. I might have to make myself a brown paper cover, though! :)

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  11. Hi, ellenjane, fascinating to hear how your ancestry connects up with this book. My copy never went out in public while I was reading it! :)

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