I read a reasonable amount of historical fiction, and I like the depiction of past eras to be gritty and even grim, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I...moreI read a reasonable amount of historical fiction, and I like the depiction of past eras to be gritty and even grim, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. If I'm reading about a housewife in Elizabethan England, I want to see her lifting up her skirts to step over the rivelets of ooze in the street if she is running an errand near the shambles, and I want to see any sailors, towards the end of a long period at sea, to be knocking the weevils out of their hardtack; heck, they should just ignore the wriggling creatures and go ahead and eat the biscuits; they are, after all, good protein. I also hope that my authors will strive to be as true as they can to the period they are writing about; I prefer the details to be correct. At the same time, however, I realize that authors of historical fiction can't be spending all of their time in research libraries; errors will creep in, or new discoveries will be made, no matter how conscientious the writer may be. The novel has to be written, in the end.
I understand, too, that there is disagreement on how much people have changed throughout the centuries. Are the mind-sets of people from other times so altered from the modern era? I happened to think that they were very different, so when I read a work from a author such as Robert McCammon, who states in his interview here http://www.robertmccammon.com/intervi... that he doesn't really believe people have changed very much, I am probably going to find his characters rather anachronistic; or at least, not accurate depictions of what I can only imagine long vanished people to be. Fair enough. I can't really criticize an author's decision to go in that direction. It is, after all, only a guess.
I can, however, call him to account for inexcusably sloppy research, and for a fascination for the foul and vile that borders on the lurid. I get it--past times were none too clean, epecially out on the frontier; people stank, clothing reeked, and houses crawled with insects and were choked with smoke. McCammon's seemingly new-found discovery of these not very interesting facts (history isn't stuffy! he exclaims over and over in the previously cited interview) is like a little boy who has skewered a pile of dog poop and goes waving his stick gleefully in front of the grown-ups. "Lookee here what I have found! Isn't it COOL!" (Actually, I should have written "skewered a rat" instead; so many rodents are pitch-forked, crushed, drowned, smashed, that at times I thought I had wandered into a William and Mary era whack-a-rat game show; McCammon seemed to have just tossed in another rodent death when he was at a loss for ideas, which was often.) All of this endless description, which slows down the pace to a crawl, serves no real purpose, especially as it is often not really accurate.
I almost stopped the book at page 75, when he made his first really big historical boo-boo. (I'll pass over the highly unlikely conversations the two main characters, the magistrate Woodward and his clerk Matthew, on their way to try a witch at the town of Fount Royal, have with the slimy innkeeper, but the manner in which sexual details are disclosed is beyond ridiculous.) McCammon describes the home of Bidwell, chief mover-and-shaker of the fledging town, as having a dining room that would serve as the centerpiece of an English castle. I'm sorry, but that is absurd. Here is Bacon's Castle, one of the most imposing homes of the time, located in Tidewater Virginia, one of the most highly developed regions of the early colonial era, constructed just before this period of this book:
(It was actually less grand at the end of the 17th century, since the service wing was rebuilt and the roof was raised a floor much later.) And here are two English houses of the same time period, which I also visited during my years living in England. (The first one, Wimpole Hall, once every season as it has an excellent home farm which kept my toddlers busy):
And Belton Hall, just up the road an hour or so from my home, which I include as it was constructed during the same decade as Bidwell's imagined mansion:
It's pretty clear that nothing constructed during the colonial era (or until the times of the robber barons) would be judged worthy of being the centerpiece of an English manor house. So McCammon's just taking a bit of artistic license, right? He just wants to contrast the opulent home, with the barely beaten back nature in the form of incessant insects buzzing around, with the wretched hovels. All right, but then he has Magistrate Woodward, who is portrayed as a decent, mild man, condemning young, pretty white Rachel to burn at the stake, for the crime of witchcraft, and for petty treason for supposedly killing her husband.
Guess how many white women in America were burned at the stake through judicial process during the colonial period? None. That's right: zero, nada, zip. There are NO adequately documented cases of a white woman being executed by this method in the colonies. English Common Law of the time period sentenced a person judged guilty of witchcraft to the gallows, as anyone even casually familiar with the Salem Witch Trials knows. And petty treason, though technically punishable by death by fire, was NEVER enforced on a white woman.* Clearly, if you were a black slave, man or woman, who dared to be involved in a slave uprising, or a white man who had the audacity to help in a revolt, you might very well be condemned to the stake. But a woman and her white skin was safe from the flames.**
So is Rachel's sentence an anachronism? A sloppy bit of research by the author? So what if Woodward--and by proxy the author--condemns her to the most gruesome and dreaded of executions--death is death, right? But I do think it matters, particularly as this barbaric custom is part of the story of slavery, and not of colonial white America. You have to decide how important this distortion is to you. I can only view McCammon's plot twist as the sensationalistic misreading of the historical record by a third-rate writer who is willing--even eager--to put a tawdry spin on everything. Why do I think this? Well, after starting to skim through the salacious and vulgar depositions (thorny cocks! blood dripping from female parts!) and the tedious descriptions of the thought processes of every single character that serves only to bloat an all ready deadly slow narrative, I was no longer terribly interested in the fates of the cartoonishly nasty characters (all the inhabitants of Fount Royal except the beautiful--of course!--young witch) and the Scooby-Doo-ish eager young Matthew. (Rachel herself is as wooden as the stake the townspeople want to lash her to; only Woodward was a well-defined creation who held my attention.) I kept going, however, as it was a buddy read, despite my suspicions that the author was revelling in the gross details. I stopped even skimming when I came upon the utterly out of place (view spoiler)[ drawn out account of a blacksmith's sexual assault upon a mare--complete with the love words whispered to the unwilling beast and an elaborate description of the mechanism designed to carry out such a foul encounter AND WHICH IS COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT TO THE PLOT AS WE HAVE ALL READY BEEN HIT ON THE HEAD THAT THE BLACKSMITH IS A DISTURBED INDIVIDUAL. There is also a sniggering insinuation that the horse enjoyed it. (hide spoiler)]. What's more, McCammon defends this disgusting and extraneous episode by saying that such events are part of the historical record. Very convenient of him to be suddenly concerned about historical authenticity, wouldn't you say? http://www.robertmccammon.com/intervi...
No, I did not finish the book. But I don't have to finish a bowl of stew, either, to know that something putrid lurks within it. (I did peek to the end of the book just to confirm my guess as to who the villain was; it was obvious when s/he first stepped onto the stage, so it wasn't even a good mystery.) Suffice to say that I was no longer feeling charitable enough to overlook the author having his characters using matches, envelopes, eating stewed tomatoes, using pounds instead of stones to describe human weight, referring to "tricorn" hats when the correct usage for the time would have been "cocked" hats, the use of "Violet"--a Victorian invention--as a proper name, or the countless other errors that showed that the author didn't even care to do more than a modicum of research. Just throw in another dead rat seemed to be his philosophy.
Not surprisingly, there wasn't even the consolation of interesting language to pull the reader along. McCammon's flat, leaden prose-- without style or grace--is as uninventive as his facts are made up. His sentences are just words slapped one after another like bricks upon mortar. But at least, at the end of the day, a mason might build something useful, like a wall. This book, on the other hand, is a poorly-constructed, ersatz fake that reminds me of nothing so much as:
If you are an uninspired author, you can pretend to bring the past to life, much as the theme park Dickens World pretends to bring back the Victorian era by releasing a few chemical smells in the air from strategically placed "smell pots". By focusing on the nasty and the reeking, and by conveniently ignoring the truth, you can sketch a shadow of the past for an unwary audience. But in the end, the unlucky reader of this book is not transported to another time, but just trapped in a modern warehouse, just like the ticket-holders of Dickens World. An affront to the serious reader of historical fiction, a tiresome slog for the seeker of some escapist fun, and an insult to horses everywhere, this book is to be avoided at all costs. In the spirit of the author's own words: eschew this turgid turd.
* The author of Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies, whose work remain the cornerstone of women's studies for Colonial Williamsburg--where McCammon did his research--states categorically that she could find no case in the South in which a woman was burned at the stake for petit treason.
This is my review, and my complaints are my own. Any tisk-tisking over my request that historical fiction remain somewhat true to the times (as if a less demanding reader is somehow more worldly wise in the ways of fiction) will be, depending on the tone of the comment and my mood at the time, either not responded to--or deleted. (less)
Wow. I really was disappointed by this book, and was surprised by my own reaction, which was very different from most of my GR friends.
There were many...moreWow. I really was disappointed by this book, and was surprised by my own reaction, which was very different from most of my GR friends.
There were many reasons why I wasn't moved, either emotionally or intellectually, by Llewellyn's novel. To begin with, I knew, of course, that he wasn't really Welsh; that he committed a fraud (and I don't think I'm being too harsh here) by insisting all his life that he was born in Wales, and was raised in Wales and only educated in England. Other readers, of course, can--and do--view the children of immigrants as having a special insight into the culture of the parents which can be a satisfactory substitute for direct knowledge. I don't myself; perhaps it is because I am the child and grandchild of immigrants, and I am acutely aware of how much I really don't grasp. I don't know if I would have been so acutely conscious of how second- hand most of the information that Llewelyn was passing on; I would like to think so. As it was, only the music and the food (the bits of culture that the immigrant can most easily pass on to the child) felt authentic to me. (Yes, I would like to sample some brandy broth!) That--and the descriptions, towards the end, of the house being slowly suffocated in slag. That felt real, too. But no, I am sorry, so much of the book seemed self-conscious and rather false to me; a Mrs Miniver tinged "A Million Little Pieces".
That sounds tough, I know, and I think another reason I'm being so critical is that I'm judging this book, naturally enough, by the books I've read just before this one. I've been doing an around the world book challenge, and I've been trying to read my books in geographic order. Well, most authors would suffer in comparison with Dylan Thomas (a true poet who makes Llewelyn's sing-songy efforts look rather flat); or Flaubert, whose cool and precise description of exactly what effects arsenic has on the body horrified me, (whereas Llewelyn's descriptions of the starving miners seem blurred and cliched, and left me completely unmoved.) Maybe it's unfair to compare this author to two of the masters of world literature, but I also read The Book of Ebenezer le Page and Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show: A Novel of Ireland during the same time period. When Edwards told me the type of tomatoes that would grow best on Guernsey, I knew I could trust him; when Frank Delaney would stop his tale and explain the mores of 1930's rural Ireland, I had faith that he was telling me the truth, as much as anyone can be trusted to resurrect the thought patterns of a vanished time.
Historical fiction, which I love, is a tricky thing. There's always a filter of the writer's time period, always, always, no matter how much the author tries to rid themselves of their own mind-set. With "How Green is My Valley", I was always conscious that there were two filters; my own, and Llewellyn's 1930 sensibilities. Again, if I thought this book really excellent, I could accept that, and I would find Llewellyn's world outlook, influenced by the imminent outbreak of WWII, interesting in its own right. But the figures are so trite, all stiff-yet-trembling-upper lip. The Mary-Sue sister-in- law that Huw, the protagonist, is in love with, with laughter always in her eyes. The fiery brother. The stalwart father. The mother who is so proud of her cooking. They are all figures out of a John Ford movie--which indeed he did film, as soon as possible--and which, weirdly, I could NOT get out of my head, even though I've never seen that particular Ford picture. Up and down the mountain the mountain they were going, singing always. I felt constantly manipulated; and yes, it is the author's job to manipulate the reader, but you've got to trust the author, you've got to feel that you are in good hands. And I didn't. Not for a moment.
One of the things that really bothered me was the emphasis on fighting. Yes, it was a tough time, and there was very little law, apparently, in that era and place; that wasn't the problem for me. It was quite obvious, too, that LLewellyn got a real thrill out of writing those scenes; there is a nasty boxing match is particular that is described in great detail, though it is completely extraneous to the course of the novel. What bugged me was that Huw's not-taking-anything-from-anybody's stance was never explored, but glorified. OK; that's fine, too, but let's be honest here: Huw's pugnacious attitude, which caused him to (view spoiler)[ be thrown out of school right before he was to take entrance exams (hide spoiler)] and (view spoiler)[ had him arrested when he beat up someone who was making "remarks" about his sister (hide spoiler)] and (view spoiler)[ had him fired from every job he ever held (hide spoiler)] circumscribed, if not actually blighted his life. You're kidding yourself if you think that (view spoiler)[ ending up as a collier or a woodworker--and what was that BS about not accepting that bread-and-butter-work of making coffins? Please. (hide spoiler)] was the best outcome for Huw, especially since in reality the effects of having a bone-shattering accident would have lingered throughout his life. It's easy to put the proudly self-sufficient working-by-the-sweat-of-his-brow honest laboring man on a pedestal, if you don't actually have to DO the work. Like Llewellyn.
I can't say that I was particularly thrilled by the audio book format. It wasn't bad, but I've listened to two audio books set in Wales this year; neither of the first-person narration was done by someone from the country. This would never be seen as acceptable for a book set in Scotland or Ireland nowadays. Why is it OK to fake a Welsh accent? It seems more than a bit of a slight to the culture.
I was wavering between two and three stars, until I came across the passage, describing Huw's first kiss:
"The softness of her mouth was a glory of surprise, and cool, not even warm, with an easiness of moisture, and the tip of her tongue making play in idle strolling, lazily, and yet full of life, and her weight lying heavily upon me, her hair falling about our faces, shutting out the light, and all other smells save that of her, that was the perfume of the broad, sweet lands of the living flesh, that rose from her, and covered her about and followed her as she walked."
Fraudulent author; all right. Cardboard characters; OK. A macho glorification of violence; go right ahead. But bad sex writing--well, there are some things that I just can't accept.