Saturday, November 25, 2023

Experience a courageous woman's life in early Maine with Ariel Lawhon's The Frozen River

Spanning the winter of 1789–90 in Hallowell, Maine, from the freezing of the Kennebec River to its late thaw, Lawhon’s outstanding sixth novel is based on the actual life of frontier midwife Martha Ballard, who recorded daily diary entries about her household and career.

Called to examine the body of Joshua Burgess after it was retrieved from icy waters, Martha recognizes the telltale signs of hanging. Burgess and another man, a local judge, had been accused of raping a young pastor’s wife four months earlier, and Martha believes her account unquestioningly. She also guesses the two crimes are connected.

A sage, strong presence at 54, Martha is an extraordinary character. Devoted to her patients and her six surviving children, mostly young adults with complicated love lives, she battles subjugation by a Harvard-educated doctor who dares to think her incapable. 

Although this isn’t a traditional detective story, Martha’s narrative will capture historical mystery fans’ attention with its dramatic courtroom scenes and emphasis on justice, particularly for women. Flashbacks to Martha’s past add context and generate additional suspense.

Martha’s enduring romance with her supportive husband, Ephraim, is beautifully evoked, and details about the lives of the townspeople make the post-American Revolutionary atmosphere feel fully lived-in. Lawhon’s first-rate tale should entrance readers passionate about early America and women’s history.

The Frozen River will be published on December 5th by Doubleday in the US and Canada. I wrote this review originally for Booklist.

Some other notes:

- Martha Ballard is also the subject of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction history book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990). 

- The sexual assault of the young pastor's wife, Rebecca Foster, is based in history, and the real Martha recorded details about it in her diary.  I won't say more so as not to give spoilers about the novel's plot.

- Martha and I are about the same age, and it's nice to see an older heroine in historical fiction for a change!

- I've previously read and reviewed two of the author's previous novels, Code Name Hélène (2020) and I Was Anastasia (2018). I loved Code Name Hélène and think this latest book is even better.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Daniel Mason's epic North Woods reveals the interconnectedness of humanity and nature over centuries

From the moment two forbidden lovers – the prospective wife of an abusive minister and a reported troublemaker she ironically met at church – flee their repressive Puritan colony for the remote woods of western Massachusetts, the cabin they build in a mountain clearing becomes the setting for an astonishing collection of events across the centuries.

In twelve chapters that press forward in time and evoke the different seasons, Mason reveals the transformative magic inherent in an ordinary place. Humanity and nature intermix, spurring small and large changes, and the layers of the past remain with us, albeit occasionally taking surprising forms.

While the time periods aren’t formally signposted, each can be determined through the reading, and the chapters show impressive virtuosity in terms of period-suitable language, format, and characterization. In the anonymous “Nightmaids Letter,” a young wife who survives an Indian attack describes a scene of attempted vengeance and the shocking aftermath. An English veteran of the French and Indian War dedicates his life to his apple orchard; his twin daughters grow old while attempting to continue his legacy.

Deep human emotion winds through the pages: loneliness, jealousy, passion, family ties, concealed and thwarted desire, along with beautiful reflections on the natural world, from the echo of songbirds to death and decay. A painter’s ongoing letters to his writer friend are among the most poignant sections.

Over the novel’s course, it feels especially rewarding (with some great “aha” moments for the reader) to see earlier episodes reappear as historical artifacts or tales down the road. Just like in life, the process of historical discovery can be incredible or frustrating, since mysteries from the past sometimes stay that way.

The last two chapters, full of revelation, put the entire story-landscape into greater and more wondrous perspective. This wisely compassionate and refreshingly different literary epic is an excellent read.

North Woods was published by Random House in the US and Canada, and John Murray in the UK. I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. I'm already seeing this novel on many "best of" lists for 2023. The North American cover, top left, reflects one aspect of the story, but I'm not fond of it. The UK cover is somewhat better.  I look forward to seeing what the paperback edition will look like.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The 2023 Goodreads Choice Awards historical fiction nominees are up – but look in other categories, too

The initial round of the 2023 Goodreads Choice Awards is open for voting through Sunday, November 26th. Have you made your selections yet?

I always participate, even though I agree with the sentiment that it's primarily a popularity contest (which Goodreads itself says; they include in their guidelines that "our goal is to have the Goodreads Choice Awards reflect the books that are most popular with our members"). There's no longer an option to provide write-in votes, so what you see within the categories are the nominees.

It is nice that they always include a historical fiction category.  I've only read three of them and would like to read the others. This year, there seems less of an issue with novels that seemed a stretch too late for historical fiction (like, set primarily in the 1980s or 1990s) being included in this category.

Goodreads Choice historical fiction nominees

A note, though, that if you want to cast your votes for historical fiction, you should make sure to scan the other fiction categories to see what's there.  For the novels above which are debuts, you'll find most within the Debut Novel category as well.

Historical fiction frequently overlaps with other genres, creating genre-blends.  I nearly missed that Kate Morton's Homecoming was in the Mystery category, for instance. Within Horror, you'll find Victor Lavalle's Lone Women, which is a great example of that genre as well as historical fiction (an excellent, original, very strange novel I may review later), as well as Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas and The Reformatory by Tananarive Due. I also noticed that Isabel Allende's The Wind Knows My Name, another dual-time novel but set mostly in the '80s and after, is placed with Historical Fiction rather than in the general Fiction category. 

If you're looking to find the ancient myth retellings so popular in historical fiction lately, you won't find them in that category; instead, you'll find them under Fantasy. This makes sense for Natalie Haynes' Stone Blind, about Medusa, but one could argue that Jennifer Saint's Atalanta and Costanza Casati's Clytemnestra fit better as historical fiction, if you had to choose one and only one category for them.  For me, the decision hinges on whether the author has made the effort to re-create a realistic historical atmosphere of ancient Greece, or whether the novel is primarily set in the realm of myth.

I always find it interesting to see how others choose to categorize novels.  Voting for the final round for the awards will begin on November 28th.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Jon Clinch's The General and Julia showcases the multifaceted nature of an American icon

The most celebrated general of the Union army, he negotiated the Confederacy’s surrender wearing an ordinary soldier’s garb. Born to an abolitionist father, he married a Missouri slaveowner’s daughter who kept an enslaved Black woman as her maid. Having relinquished his military pension to become America’s eighteenth president, he lost his vast savings to a conniving fraudster.

Epic in perspective and feeling without being biographically comprehensive, Clinch’s stellar character-portrait of Ulysses S. Grant invites readers to ponder this national icon and the seemingly paradoxical facets of his nature.

In 1885, afflicted with throat cancer likely caused by habitual cigar-smoking, Grant reconsiders important life moments while penning his memoirs, desperately hoping its proceeds will rescue his beloved wife, Julia, and family from destitution after his impending death.

Many chapters (or groups of them) could serve as exceptional short stories; taken together, they comprise a memorable picture. We see Grant from within and through others’ eyes, as scenes of sublime prose conjure Grant’s strategic brilliance at Chattanooga, the awe he inspires, and his devotion to Julia and their children and grandchildren.

We also witness instances of frustrating passivity and naivete plus his evolving views on slavery, which evoke regret over his past ambivalence. While the story shifts around in time, it never loses its arc. Superb historical fiction.

Jon Clinch's The General and Julia will be published by Simon & Schuster tomorrow, November 14; I contributed this starred review for Booklist's Oct. 1 issue. The novel also received starred reviews in Library Journal and Kirkus, and it's one of my favorite books this year.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Telling a Family Story, an essay by Teresa H. Janssen, author of The Ways of Water

Teresa H. Janssen is here today with a post about transforming family history into historical fiction. Her grandmother, Josie Belle Gore, inspired the main characters of her debut novel, The Ways of Water, which is published today. The photos below are from her family archive.


Telling a Family Story
Teresa H. Janssen

Many of us are astounded by the courage, tenacity, and optimism of our ancestors. Other times, after learning of their disappointments and misfortune, we cringe at their choices and misguided enthusiasm, sometimes due to a lack of information or resources. Like us, they made decisions based on the best of their knowledge. I experienced both wonder and despair while doing research for my debut historical novel, The Ways of Water, inspired by the early life of my grandmother, Josie Belle Gore.

It all began on a windy January day when I arrived at New Mexico's Jornada del Muerto (southeast of Truth or Consequences) in search of the graves of my great grandparents. All that I could find were a few wooden posts in the lonely desert, remnants of the cemetery of Cutter, now barely a ghost town, but once a thriving railroad and mining community of three thousand inhabitants. I was overcome by the tragedy of my great grandmother's death there in 1916 at the age of thirty-six. She left seven children behind, one an infant; her third child, my grandmother.

The Gore Siblings
The Gore Siblings

While standing in the blowing sand that day, I remembered a lecture by Maya Angelou that I attended when I was sixteen years old. She had spoken of the sacrifices of our ancestors, made in hopes of better lives for future generations. I didn’t want my forebears’ trials to go unappreciated or forgotten.

As I began to research and write their tale, I became aware that there was a larger story to be told. The Jornada del Muerto is now littered with ghost towns, with few trains passing through. Historic sections of Las Cruces and Tucson have been razed. Bisbee, Arizona is a fraction of its former size. One of our family ranches is now part of the White Sands missile base.

I began by researching the boom-and-bust opportunities that had lured many to that region—the acquisition of land by mining companies, railroads, ranch syndicates, and homesteaders—often made possible by unfair treaties, land seizures, and the displacement of indigenous peoples.

Gores and Grahams, Jornada del Muerto
Gores and Grahams, Jornada del Muerto

I was astounded by the social, political, and cultural changes my grandmother and her family lived through. My great grandfather was a steam locomotive engineer and my great grandmother, a seamstress. I researched the technological breakthroughs during the first two decades of the twentieth century—faster trains with better safety standards, the growing popularity of the Singer sewing machine, expansion of Western Union and its telegraph lines, advent of the automobile with mass production of the Model-T, increased electrification of towns and household appliances. These changes were as liberating and unsettling for many who lived during this time, as recent technological shifts are for some of us today.

My grandmother lived in Chihuahua during the onset of the Mexican Revolution and survived two epidemics—tuberculosis and influenza. She was a teen during WWI and then chopped off her hair and the hem of her skirt in the heady post-war Twenties. She witnessed the advent of women’s suffrage, as well as cultural shifts during prohibition. As I learned more about her experiences, my admiration for her grew. A history geek, it was at times hard for me to take a pause in the research to get back to writing the story.
Josie Gore hiking near geyser on honeymoon, 1924
Josie Gore hiking near geyser on honeymoon, 1924

The Ways of Water originated as fragments of family oral history, yet to bring it to life, I decided to tell the story in first person, from the perspective of my grandmother. I had interviewed her while she was still living and had a collection of notes to get me started. I soon became aware that I had not asked enough questions. There were gaps in the timeline, too little detail, vagaries I had to guess at, and sometimes different versions of an event. I realized that to create an account with voice and emotion, I would need to write my grandmother’s early life as historical fiction. At that point, I had the liberty to create scenes and imagine conversations, and alter names, locations, and time, when necessary, to develop an engaging and cohesive narrative.

The Ways of Water tells the story of Josie Belle Gore, who, after her family was separated by circumstances beyond her control, was forced to make her way alone through the desert West to eventually arrive in San Francisco in the early 1920s. This is a story of loss and redemption, hope and forgiveness, set in the rugged beauty of the Southwest during a turbulent period of American history.

Excerpts, The Ways of Water

"My story is twined, like rope, with that of my kin. The first strand began to fray when Mama, a city girl from Austin, fell in love with a Louisiana railroad man. As Papa ran the steam locomotives across the great desert of the West, Mama followed him. Steam engines always follow water, and we did, too."

“Life, like a river, can take some sharp twists and turns. People can shift as much as a water’s course. There are reasons I broke my promises. I want them to be known,"
says Josie Belle Gore as she begins her tale.


author Teresa H. Janssen
(David Conklin Photography)
Teresa H. Janssen studied history and French at Gonzaga University and has an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Washington. She taught for over twenty years in refugee programs, higher ed, and public high school. Her fiction and essays have appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Zyzzyva, Chautauqua, Eastern Iowa Review, and Under the Sun, and in the anthologies, Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis and Offerings: A Spiritual Poetry Anthology. She was a finalist for Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Prize and won the Norman Mailer/NCTE Award in nonfiction. She lives with her husband in Washington state where she writes, hikes, and tends a small orchard. She can be found online at

Book details:

The Ways of Water: A Novel by Teresa H. Janssen
Published by She Writes Press, Nov. 7, 2023
ISBN: 978-1-64742-583-8

Saturday, November 04, 2023

Review of Gail Lukasik's gothic mystery The Darkness Surrounds Us, set in early 20th-century northern Michigan

Overly curious. Inquisitive. Too assertive for her own good. These are unwelcome qualities for a woman in late 1918. But Nellie Lester is on a mission, determined to live bravely and uncover her family’s secrets. She narrates this moody gothic novel, the author’s fifth mystery, explaining why she left her post at a contagion ward in Chicago, caring for victims of the Spanish flu, to become the nurse-companion to an expectant wife on a tiny, isolated island in Lake Michigan.

Recently, Nellie had found a photograph of herself as a child alongside her late mother and an unknown man, all dressed plainly, labeled “Harmony, Michigan, 1894: Mary, John, and Anna.” Having no memory of the place or the names, Nellie grabs the opportunity to go there herself and search for clues to her past.

But Harmony, as Nellie discovers, was “named for what it wanted to be, not what it was.” Her employer, William Thiery of Ravenwood Manor, is a timber magnate who doesn’t tolerate opposition, and the other residents aren’t much friendlier. For mystery fans who soak up creepy atmosphere, this has it in spades, between Nellie’s spartan turret bedroom, the formidable housekeeper (and her terrible food), and questions about the disappearance of her predecessor, Irene, pointedly described to Nellie as “nosy like you.” Desperate for a friend, Nellie confides in Theo Proctor, a local journalist turned healer, despite not fully trusting him.

In this skillfully plotted novel, Nellie unpicks two mysteries, that of Irene and her mother, which leads her to research a severe religious sect, the Harmonites. The conclusion is hard to guess. Nellie has an incautious streak, and there are few mentions of northern Michigan’s wintry beauty to relieve the grim atmosphere. But this is a solid tale with appeal for fans of Midwestern gothics, like those by Wendy Webb and Jaime Jo Wright.

Gail Lukasik's The Darkness Surrounds Us was published by CamCat Books in September; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review from a pdf copy.  I knew the author had written mysteries before, but her work first came to my attention through my interest in genealogy. Her memoir, White Like Her, is an engrossing account of how she discovered that her mother was a Black woman who had secretly passed as white her entire life; I recommend it.