Years ago in fiction workshop, this manuscript leaped out at me with the most memorable opening line I’d seen in forever:
I saw a woman hanged on my way to the Pittsburgh docks.
The rope snapped taut beneath the hooded head, and a hiss like the new steam engines rose from the watching crowd. The figure dangled, ankles lashed together, head canted at an impossible angle. The skirt loosened from its ties and flapped in the breeze.
Bludgeoned her husband while he slept was the rumor that flew up and down the wayside, and I heard it muttered that he well deserved it.
You might expect the novel to be about women’s liberation, the right to vote, feminism, or any number of related subjects, but it’s so much more than that. This is the story of one strong, intelligent woman who really lived, Agnes Canon. She waited a long, long time to get married. Only one of her children survived to adulthood. From that one child, generations of descendants followed. One of them, Debrah Lincoln, took the time and trouble to write a book about her.
Agnes Canon Robinson
Before I get busy extolling the virtues of this novel, let me go off on my favorite tangent. The DNA of Agnes Canon has multiplied, recombined and become the heritage of countless new human beings. Success, by biological rather than social or economic measures, means living to adulthood and leaving behind descendants. As one famous scientist put it:
We are the descendants of a tiny elite of successful ancestors. Our DNA has proved itself successful, because it is here. Geological time has carved and sculpted our DNA to survive down to the present. — Richard Dawkins, in “Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder“
And now, here is my condensed version of the publisher’s synopsis: Agnes Canon, spinster, small-town schoolmarm, invisible daughter among seven sisters, refuses to marry just for the sake of being married. “The rivers of her Pennsylvania countryside flow west, and she yearns to flow with them, explore new lands, know the independence that is the usual sphere of men. This is a story of a woman’s quest for freedom, both social and intellectual, and her education on the journey to freedom. She learns that freedom can be the scent and sound of unsettled prairies, the glimpse of a cougar, the call of a hawk. The struggle for freedom can test the chains of power, poverty, gender, or the legalized horror of slavery. And to her surprise, she discovers it can be found within a marriage, a relationship between a man and a woman who are equals in everything that matters.”
In a parallel story, the dark, handsome doctor Jabez Robinson “has traveled across the continent and seen the beauty of the country and the ghastliness of war” while his nation descends into economic chaos, crime and disaster. “Jabez’s story is an indictment of war in any century or country, and an admission that common sense and reasoned negotiation continue to fail us. As Agnes and Jabez struggle to keep their community and their lives from crumbling about them, they must face the stark reality that whether it’s the freedom of an African from servitude, of the South from the North, or of a woman from the demands of social convention, the cost is measured in chaos and blood. This eloquent work of historical fiction chronicles the building of a marriage against the background of a civilization growing – and dying – in the run-up to civil war.” –from Blank Slate Press in St. Louis
On revisiting this story several years after my first beta-read of the whole novel, I was struck by how many details and scenes I remember. Historical fiction is not for the lazy writer. The tremendous amount of research that skilled writers weave into the narrative simply amazes me (and intimidates me whenever I think of trying historical fiction).
I’m afraid I’ll be guilty of plot spoilers if I mention some of my favorite scenes or the tragic events that really happened. I will say Jabez has a first wife, and Agnes befriends her to her dying day. That first wife has a fascination for what today would sound like New Age mysticism. Any reader who hates reading about war should keep going, because all sorts of intriguing historical issues and beliefs come to light in Agnes Canon’s world.
I hope the book will include photos. Debrah has shared some at her Facebook page, including this bone-chilling (pun intended!) amputation kit, like the one Dr. Jabez Robinson used in a scene I will not mention here.
Anyone who thinks we live in dangerous times should consider how much safer we are than our pioneering forefathers/mothers. Scenes like this are chilling:
A moonless dark settled over Oregon, pierced by fires lit among the troops in the square and torches flaring along the streets. The townspeople dispersed as soldiers expanded their forays into homes lining the square and nearby side streets … We watched from the bank as the captain touched an oiled torch to the pyre of newsprint, and flames licked up the summer-dry boards of the ramshackle structure. Jabez leveraged himself against the door jamb and dragged himself to his feet, reaching down a hand to me.
“Agnes, go home,” he said. “I don’t trust these men to destroy only the paper.” He nodded across the square at our home. The children … Federal troops were rumored to “liberate” slaves, impressing them into the army, selling them for profit, setting them free to be preyed upon by slave-catchers.
With phones and mass transit today, we can hardly imagine the long periods of separation from loved ones, and worse, the not-knowing if they are alive and well. Agnes left behind family in Pennsylvania, got as far west as Missouri, suffered through the war, then got uprooted again to move all the way to the west coast. Jabez sets off without her to scout out a new home:
He left three days later, riding Jupiter and leading two good Missouri mules loaded with equipment and supplies. He took two woolen blankets, three changes of clothes, two pairs of sturdy boots and his weapons. He took his rubber coat and his heavy coat, the muffler, cap and gloves I made for him, camping equipment, oats for the animals and food for himself. And of course he took his medicine cases and a supply of medicines. He crossed the Missouri River at Forest City, heading for the Platte River road.
I heard nothing of him or from him for another two months.
Finally, Jabez returns and the family travel to their new home. Agnes has the patience of a saint, the fortitude of a Spartan warrior, but even she is momentarily overcome at the prospect of starting all over again:
“We’re here, love.”
I raised my head and stared with bleary eyes. We stood on a gentle slope a hundred yards above the river. Fading in and out of the mist on all sides spread grasslands, the vegetation shank-high on Jupiter. A shed of squared and chinked logs hunkered along the top of the slope, two rough-cut, empty openings piercing its wall, the roof bristling with sod. Beyond, the shadowy bulk of a larger structure loomed out of the murk, but half completed as far as I could tell, with no roof at all.
“Is that the house over there?” I asked, waving at the bigger building.
“That’s the barn.”
“Then where’s the house?”
“This is it.”
“This is it.”
He swung out of the saddle and lifted me down, his eyes anxious. I stumbled to the door. The fading light intensified the gloom of the interior. I looked down. The floor was hard-packed dirt, and puddles gathered where steady drips plunked into depressions. I looked up. Roots and dirt hung from the ceiling, formed from the uncovered underside of the sod roof. I looked to my left. A bedstead of rough cut logs with planed boards across rope, on which tumbled Jabez’s damp quilt, sagged against the wall. To my right. A small sheet metal camp stove, a wooden crate half-filled with wood and kindling, an array of battered cook pots hanging from hooks on the wall, a table tilted unevenly beneath them. A round of stump served as a stool.
I wandered inside. I hadn’t expected much, certainly not the clapboard home with parlor and washroom we’d owned in Oregon. It isn’t a tent, I said to myself, it isn’t a tent. This will do nicely. I sniffed, sneezed, blew my nose on a sodden hankie, sank onto the edge of the bed. Something scurried below me, tiny feet scrabbling against the hard earth below the bed, and I started. I would not cry, would not cry. I pressed my fingers into my eyes, swallowed hard, bent over to hide my face in my lap and sobbed.
The story spellbinding, the authenticity both inspiring and heartbreaking. Given the time frame of the novel, it’s no plot spoiler to say that the characters will die in the end–if not within the pages of this book, certainly at some later time. Agnes and Jabez live happily ever after, but one of them lives a lot longer than the other, and the manner of death for the one is just maddening and depressing, all the more so because it really happened. Of all places to find solace, I find it once again in Dawkins, this time from Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
One child survived the union of Agnes and Jabez, a marriage that was such a long time coming for an 19th Century spinster. And one of a multitude of descendants has immortalized them with a novel that is not to be missed. No boring pages of genealogy interrupt this narrative (remember that long, long book of the Bible that lists ancestors all the way to the birth of Jesus?). –No, I won’t go google that!
Little Harrie Lee (named after the Revolutionary War hero) is that child, pictured with Jabez himself. Harrie is the one and only human who lived to carry the DNA of Agnes and Jabez to future generations.
Wait. That looks like a girl. Did I misunderstand her Facebook page? No. Deborah messaged me: “It is Harrie….they dressed boys like that for some strange reason–maybe easier to get to the nappies. His curls disappeared shortly; here he is as a young man:
He looks as clean and polished as his great-(however many times over)-granddaughter’s prose.
Now I wonder about the rest of the clan. How much history can one descendant write … Deborah?