The Woman in the Library

When you read this latest psychological thriller by Sulari Gentill, The Woman in the Library, you may need to stop every so often and think, where am I? Its clever plot is like a set of nesting boxes, and you have to check which box you’re in. You may be familiar with Gentill’s ten historical novels featuring gentleman detective Rowland Sinclair, and, though this is not part of that series, it displays the same storytelling chops.

In this story, Australian author Hannah is writing a contemporary novel set in the United States. Her main character, Winifred (‘Freddie’) Kinkaid is also an author, working on a new book in the inspiring setting of the Boston Public Library. One day she finds herself at a table with three more young people and idly muses about them. They’d make great characters in her novel, she thinks. So, what you are reading are the chapters in Hannah’s novel, concerning Freddie and her new friends.

They’ve all four quietly checked each other out, but the ice is broken when a piercing scream shatters the library’s stillness. Oddly, the scream pulls them together. They speculate, start to chat, introduce themselves, and soon wander off for coffee as a group. The other woman, Marigold, heavily tattooed, has a rather obvious crush on their tablemate, Whit Metters, and the fourth is a handsome fellow named Cain McLeod. After that unusual bonding experience, the four spend much time together, especially when their curiosity is raised by the discovery of a murdered woman, presumably the screamer, under a table in the library meeting room.

Hannah (fictional, remember) is a best-selling author back in Australia, and as she’s writing about daily life in another country, she accepts the offer from a Boston-based fan to review her chapters and look for anachronisms in vocabulary—‘jumper’ instead of ‘sweater,’ ‘crisps’ instead of ‘potato chips,’ and the like—and location details. This man, Leo Johnson, is also an author, very down in the dumps about the publishing industry’s lack of interest in his book. Chapters of Hannah’s book are followed by a ‘Dear Hannah’ reaction from Leo.

At first, Leo’s advice is confined to minor factual matters and minor adjustments in descriptions. The fact that the fictional Freddie encounters these cultural quirks makes sense, as she’s Australian, too. She’s able to work on her book and live in Boston’s upscale Back Bay, thanks to a fellowship. A neighboring flat is occupied by another fellowship recipient, a character whom Hannah names Leo Johnson. (A third Leo is buried in the name McLeod. Significant?) Her correspondent is delighted at being recognized in this way, which may contribute to his growing intrusiveness. He makes corrections, fights for his suggestions, and sends photos he thinks Hannah might (should?) use for inspiration. His long-distance efforts to encroach on her creative territory made me increasingly uneasy! Creepy!

Meanwhile, in Hannah’s novel, the four friends learn unsettling revelations about Cain McLeod’s past. (Real) author Gentill plays the gradual erosion of trust nicely. Nor is the killing finished. McLeod seems to be the police’s top suspect.

The relationships among the friends are well developed, and, as Freddie gradually falls in love with McLeod, you hope she’s not getting in over her head. Not only is there the risk that he’s not whom he pretends to be, as Marigold warns her, there’s also the inconvenient fact that the police are watching his every move. Her proximity may put her on their radar too. Not until she and McLeod visit an Aussie bar does she recognize how hard she’s been trying to fit in.

This is a very readable book, with a strong sense of menace generated by Leo’s correspondence. I enjoyed it!

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Igniting the American Revolution


Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

The David Library of the American Revolution is a history gem, just up the road from Washington Crossing (yes, THAT Washington Crossing) Historic Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a preamble to July 4, last Saturday historian Derek W. Beck gave a lively talk about “the war before the war”—the goings-on in Massachusetts before the Declaration of Independence, before the formation of the Continental Army, and in the earliest days of George Washington’s command.

Paul Revere

photo: Kathy, creative commons license

Beck tries to present both sides of the conflict and in his efforts exposes certain myths that arise when historians wear partisan blinders. Would Paul Revere have ridden through the countryside hollering, “The British are coming, the British are coming!”? Not likely, Beck says. If he did, he’d be greeted by puzzled looks and scratching heads, because practically everyone considered themselves to be British. They didn’t necessarily want independence from England (yet); they just wanted to be treated like any other British citizen. But in our mythologized history, with the clarity of hindsight, we know who the enemy was, and we name him.

Another example is “the shot heard round the world”—the first gunshot of the Revolution, traditionally fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. Who fired it? In the verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson,

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

It was to the Americans’ advantage to be the aggrieved parties, the victims, so preferred the view that the British fired first. However, Beck says, forensic evidence suggests that the very first shot wasn’t fired by either an American militia member or a British soldier, but a bystander outside a pub. (Figures.)

Beck considers it a plus that his two books (Igniting the American Revolution and The War Before Independence) are said to “read like action novels,” and he consigns the documentation that ordinarily fills history books to a thorough set of notes at the end. Such details are of vital interest to historians but make books much less interesting to those of us who merely want to gain a better understanding of our country’s past and establish a stronger connection to it.

Noble train, Henry Knox, Ft. Ticonderoga

The Noble Train of Artillery

Another myth he debunked was the one in which poor General Henry Knox struggled through heavy snows with the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga (“the noble train of artillery”). Histories (and many artworks) commemorating this episode depict them being pulled by oxen. Indeed, that was Knox’s plan. However, the farmer who owned the oxen so inflated their price, that at the last minute, he used horses instead, and he wrote about the change in his diary at the time.

Beck’s insights were informative, entertaining, and memorable, just as history ought to be!

JFK’s Birthplace

JFK, bassinet

The Kennedy family bassinet in the boys’ room (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

In the middle of the block in a dense Brookline neighborhood of sturdy clapboard houses from 130 years ago—big porches, leaded windows, occasional turrets—is the home where John F. Kennedy, 35th U.S. President, was born.

The house at 83 Beals Street was built in 1909, and Joseph and Rose Kennedy moved there in 1914. Three years later, John was born in the master bedroom, their third child. But the house had only three bedrooms, and in 1920 the growing family moved to a larger home nearby (still privately owned). The new house had a huge wraparound porch, which Rose wanted, because she firmly believed children should play outside every day.

After the President’s assassination, the Kennedy family repurchased the house, and Rose restored it to how she remembered it to be in 1917, the year of Jack’s birth. She then donated the house to the National Park Service. Rangers are on hand for tours, and there’s a small gift shop in the basement. The tour is enhanced by recordings of Rose describing the family’s life.

The house was close to many neighborhood features important to the family. There were good schools, Saint Aidan’s Catholic Church (now converted to condominiums), playgrounds, and the trolley line to Boston, where, at age 25, the elder Kennedy was president of the Columbia Trust Bank. The Park Service brochure offers a walking tour of the neighborhood that includes the Kennedy family church, school, and other sites. Click here for more information and event schedules.

You may recall that Jack was a sickly child, suffering numerous childhood illnesses, including scarlet fever. Rose read to him for hours as he recuperated, and among his favorite books was the story of King Arthur and Camelot.