Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wolf at the door

Two years ago, I needed to read Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter for one of our new book trainings for teachers, and when I was browsing the outreach shelves for audiobooks to take on our road trip, I spotted her latest title: The Wolves of Andover. I was looking for a mix of genres from which to choose, but I think the reason we selected this title to listen to was because it was one of the relatively short ones on our auto bookshelf. Nevertheless, we both enjoyed it. Kent writes about her 17th century New England ancestors with compelling suspense and an eye for detail.

In 1673, Martha Allen is sent from Andover by her father to help a cousin, Patience Taylor, in Billerica, Massachusetts. Patience is pregnant and her husband's carting work takes him from the family farm for weeks at a time. Martha -- who is 23, blunt and outspoken, and considered nearly unmarriageable -- is to help manage the household and look after Patience's two children. Also working at the farm are two hired men, Thomas Carrier and John Levistone. They will work the Taylor's land for two years, at the end of which each will be rewarded with a parcel of his own. Martha's keeps a journal in which she writes her most private thoughts -- she is harboring a terrible secret there. And Thomas has a secret of his own.

The novel's setting switches to England. King Charles II, recently restored to the throne following the Interregnum of Oliver Cromwell, hires an assassin. This man, Tiernan Blood (changed from Thomas for the novel), gathers a team of five who will sail to the American Colonies in search of the man who wielded the axe at the beheading of Charles' father, King Charles I, 24 years earlier.

It's not difficult to figure out who the axeman is here; what does make for a good read is how Kent follows the assassins on their journey from London -- alternating with the story of Martha and Thomas as they tentatively explore a relationship, cautious of exposing the horrors of their pasts. She brings the 17th century vividly to life -- full of gore (war, dog fights, childbirth), ceremony (waiting for an audience with the king, a visit from a Puritan preacher), and snippets of daily life (the community grain harvest, the death of a child, the making of a bright red cloak). Wolves do make an appearance -- as they seek the Taylor's lambs and chickens -- but it's the human wolves one should be most wary of in this novel.

Ellen Archer is the narrator. I've only heard her read once before, and this performance is much, much better. The novel is relatively short, and she reads it with an appropriate energy that keeps it moving along. There are a wide range of characterization opportunities -- English of a variety of social classes, the Welsh Carrier and the Scot Levistone, a few Dutchmen, and the American colonists. She seems comfortable voicing them all, and can portray both men and women in a realistic way.

There is a long passage, recorded by Martha in her journal, where Thomas is telling the story of the King's death that gets a little tedious. Archer has chosen to voice Thomas as the large man he is described to be -- by making his speech patterns slow and deliberate. This works fine in dialogue, but becomes ponderous at length. Oddly, the story itself is riveting. We were dead quiet in the car, hanging on every word.

Kent is a descendent of Martha Allen Carrier (evidently there are a large number of them), proud of Martha's refusal to admit to witchery in order to save her life 18 years later in Salem, Massachusetts. Cotton Mather called her a "rampant hag" (you go girl!). She wrote about this last part of Martha's life in her first novel. As someone whose knowledge of these trials didn't extend far beyond Arthur Miller's The Crucible, I liked learning that Martha died with John Proctor.

For some reason known only to the publisher's marketing staff, The Wolves of Andover is being renamed The Traitor's Wife in paperback. I guess they seek symmetry with The Heretic's Daughter, but she spends very little time as a wife in the story. Have you ever heard of metaphor, people?

[The photograph of Daniel Mijtens the Elder's portrait of Charles I, hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was uploaded by PKM. Wikimedia Commons considers that "faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain."

Alas, the photograph of Martha Carrier's memorial stone in Salem, Massachusetts was retrieved from a website of which I am too ashamed to mention by name, although I admit to a vast curiosity about why the image is located there.]

The Wolves of Andover by Kathleen Kent
Narrated by Ellen Archer
Hachette Audio, 2010. 8:42

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