You may know his name and the odd, mysterious things that happened to him there, but even if you have, you won’t have heard it all. There are multiple angles to every story, and this one belongs to the ladies. In her debut novel, Christine Wade leans toward the distaff side of this famous tale, revealing the wife’s perspective and shedding light on women’s endurance and achievements in late colonial times.
It begins in 1769, with a Dutch family living in a quiet part of New York’s Hudson River Valley. Although the natural world surrounding them is tranquil, their household is anything but. Already fed up with her husband’s drinking and refusal to do chores, the unnamed young wife must fend for herself after he abandons her. Although she loves her children dearly, she’s occasionally harsh – it’s hard not to wince at some of her actions – and becomes known as a scold amongst the gossiping villagers. She takes charge of their orchard and farm, attempting to teach her son and daughter the value of self-sufficiency. Fever, bad weather, near-starvation, wild beasts’ attacks on their animals… she courageously deals with each challenge as it comes. She has no other choice.
While providing a realistic feel for the incessant toil necessary for survival on the late 18th-century frontier, the earliest sections move slowly, with the action mostly internal. While she raises her children and adjusts to her new circumstances, the wife describes the beauty of the region’s mountains and waterways, which “curve like a colossal serpentine swath through the rolling valley.” This phrasing doesn’t quite feel authentic to a narrator who describes herself as “naïve and unschooled” at this point in time, though. It’s possible to lose oneself in the gorgeous language while being drawn out of the story.
Once she comes to terms with her solitary future, Seven Locks separates from the original legend and picks up greater speed. The daughter, Judith, has an appetite for learning, which is encouraged by the local schoolmaster, but resents her mother’s constant interference. Judith’s brother, called only “the boy,” grows distant and suspicious, heeding the dark rumors that have dogged his mother since his father left. Then war begins rumbling in the background, hurtling them towards separate futures that even readers who know the original tale will be hard pressed to predict completely.
Education lies at the heart of the novel, and not just that of Judith, who offers her views in sections interspersed with her mother’s. The women share a love for books, and it’s also fascinating to see how information spreads from Boston Common to distant towns and schools and all the way to their isolated stone farmhouse. New York’s Dutch colonists, who were never loyal to the English king anyway, occupy a unique position which the author describes in depth, along with their sayings, Old World history, and domestic traditions. (The title “Seven Locks” comes from a Dutch proverb.)
Frontier life was tough, so its women had to be tougher; this lesson is harder for some to learn than others. Although unevenly paced, Wade’s first novel offers much worth discovering, and you don’t need to know the underlying folk tale to appreciate it. In exploring issues central to her female characters’ lives, she opens a window onto a little-known but rich and memorable segment of early American history.
Seven Locks is published by Atria this month in trade paperback ($15.00/C$17.00, 329pp). If you're curious about the tale it's based on and don't know it, check it out here, but beware possible spoilers!