Historical Novels

Agony and endurance

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Mundow
April 20, 2008

By Ellen Feldman
Norton, 384 pp., $24.95

Fall of Frost
By Brian Hall
Viking, 340 pp., $25.95

The Dark Lantern
By Gerri Brightwell
Crown, 321 pp., $24.95

At this time of year, it is natural to feel a little optimistic. Lumps of defeated snow have retreated to the deep woods, green shoots appear, and pale human limbs get their first airing in months. For sensitive souls, however, this can all be too sudden - the light, the birdsong, the sneaky sunburn - and we retreat to the literary equivalent of the darkened room: sobering novels that muffle seasonal exuberance.

"Scottsboro," by Ellen Feldman, is a perfect example, and a timely one. Seventy-five years ago this month, the state of Alabama convicted Haywood Patterson of the rape of a young white woman. He and eight other black men were sentenced to death - affirmed not once but several times as Patterson's case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. The final verdict changed how US juries are selected and enshrined the name Scottsboro in civil rights history.

Feldman re-animates that drama in a novel that is based on archival records, court records, and first-person accounts but that succeeds overwhelmingly as a work of imagination. "A white foot came down on a black hand," Ruby Bates recalls of that April day when a fight between white and black drifters broke out on a freight train in Alabama. Ruby and her friend Victoria were also riding the rails that day, and when an Alabama posse rounded up the black men, the women, fearing arrest for prostitution or vagrancy, accused the nine of rape. Outside the county jail, a lynch mob formed, then dispersed, but the threat did not warrant national attention. "In 1931, a lynching or two in Alabama did not make headlines," narrator Alice Whittier, a budding reporter, explains, "not when sixteen million American men could not find work; and more than a quarter of the population was trying to survive without any income at all."

Through the eyes of Ruby and Alice, her two narrators, Feldman depicts not only the case itself but also the world of the rural poor and of the urban sophisticate in 1930s America, realities that intersect when Alice travels from New York to interview Ruby and her co-accuser, Victoria. "You want to know about me?" Victoria challenges Alice. "Well, I'll tell you. All my life I been trash, but I ain't been so low that colored folks could treat me like trash."

The Scottsboro case is the novel's core, but there are also the political and emotional education of ambitious Alice, the rise to brief celebrity of cunning Ruby, Depression-era politics, all distilled, with great subtlety and wit, into a story worth retelling and remembering.

Adversity and endurance are equally - if very differently - present in Brian Hall's flawless, intensely moving, and supremely intelligent novel encompassing the life of Robert Frost. "Fall of Frost" opens in 1962 with the elderly poet waiting to meet Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. As an eminent artist, Frost hopes to persuade the Soviet leader to retreat from a nuclear standoff with the United States. Within a page or two, however, the anxious present is swamped by the troubled past. Hall takes us to 1900 Methuen, where Frost and his wife suffer the death of 3-year-old Elliott, their first child. "Doctors: they fill the doorframe, impatience in their faces, their black bags swinging at the ends of their arms with a heavy creak."

Forty years later, Frost's other son commits suicide, but Hall again collapses time, delivering the blow just one page after that of baby Elliott's death. "My son, Carol, died last night," Frost tells a young acolyte he encounters on the train. "He killed himself. . . . Please don't talk to me any more." The novel's mesmerizing rhythm is set, and we are drawn gradually into the mind of a man who observes that "there are more sadnesses than mine" but whose losses included the death of three of his five children, his wife, and his close friend Edward Thomas in World War I, and the committal of a daughter to a mental hospital.

These agonies, along with Frost's own horrible childhood, are dramatized to great effect in short, forceful chapters that also wonderfully compress episodes from the poet's years in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York City, England. In his author's note, Hall explains that he approached this novel "in the spirit of a biographer" and stresses that the events and quotes therein are verifiable. This might be expected from the author of the fine Lewis and Clark novel "I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company." But "Fall of Frost" is far more than a fictionalized biography; it is a novel as wily, elusive, and deceptively plain as the life it so deftly evokes.

Gerri Brightwell's "The Dark Lantern," by contrast, is a straightforward belowstairs thriller set in the dirty old London of 1893, where steps were scrubbed, coal hauled, and chamber pots emptied by maids who, in this case, have gloomy secrets of their own. "She has sold herself for fourteen pounds a year to clean up other people's dirt," young Jane Wilbred quickly realizes when she is employed by the Bentleys. "Ladies are ladies because they don't get their hands dirty." Perhaps, but the exotic Mrs. Bentley has a soiled past, and soon Jane, an unsuspecting lady's pawn as well as lady's maid, has to contend with intrigue, blackmail, false identities, and many other reliable 19th-century frighteners. All that and coal dust too.

Anna Mundow is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

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