Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke

In the racially tense times immediately preceding the Civil War, it is perhaps hard to imagine that there were in fact isolated communities that served as havens of tolerance, that not only accepted but embraced and protected the mix of people within its boundaries. One such place was Russell's Knob, a hidey hole of a place tucked onto a mounatin and home to a big mix of races. While this particular community in Breena Clarke's newest novel, Angels Make Their Hope Here, is fictional, it grew out of the possibility of such a place existing according to the historical record. But even such a place could not protect all of its inhabitants from the cruelty and racism of the outside world as Clarke's characters know.

Dossie Bird is just a young girl when her parents send her north through the Underground Railroad. But Dossie doesn't make it to freedom, landing instead on the farm of a brutal and cruel couple who use her badly. Saved by conductor Duncan Smoot and taken to his own home in Russell's Knob, Dossie passes many years keeping house and tending chickens for Duncan, becoming family of a sort, and finding comfort in the fiercely protective community. Through these years, she grows into adulthood, a beautiful young woman watching, waiting, and hoping to be worthy enough for Duncan to make her his wife. She settles into Russell's Knob and the Smoot family, closer in age to Duncan's nephews Pet Wilhelm and Jan Smoot than to Duncan himself. And one of them, Jan, has eyes for Dossie despite her marriage to his uncle. In his zeal to show off for Dossie, he exposes her to the extreme danger of the local town close to Russell's Knob, a town not entirely accepting of the mixed race, "jumbled" mountain folk who come there to trade at market. After a terrible act of violence, Dossie must flee Russell's Knob in order to protect the kind people who once took her in, landing in New York City just before the 1863 draft riots where she will finally come into her own as a woman, find unexpected love, and survive horrific brutality.

Early on, Dossie as a character is loyal and stubborn but she has trouble maintaining her position, being easily influenced by others. She's definitely young, not knowing what is right for her to do and what crosses a line. Handicapped by being both a woman and black, she is often uncertain, unlike the other female characters here who are strong and sure, even if they too must suffer the indignity of being female and powerlessness. The relationships between the characters are authentic and deep and their interactions build the bonds of family and community tightly within the narrative. For the first half of the novel, the plot is fairly domestic and although there's definitely some tension as Jan covets his uncle's wife, it is a leisurely meandering tale. In the second half of the novel, when Dossie leaves Russell's Knob with Jan, she must learn to trust and rely on herself in ways that she was never challenged to do in the safety of Duncan's home. And when her world is overtaken by terror and grief, she comes into the fully realized strength that she started building back then, understanding that she herself is her own and only refuge in the world. Russell's Knob is beautifully described in fascinating detail and the heart pounding terror of the draft riots is immediate. Although the beginning of the novel is slow to engage the reader, if she stays the course, the end has a fierceness and a dignity to it that it entirely fitting and true. Clarke has captured the strife of the times, the localized feelings that supported or disapproved of slavery and the coming war, and the ultimate power of a woman who finds her voice.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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