Thursday, October 01, 2015

Book Review: THE WOOD'S EDGE

Title: The Wood's Edge
Author: Lori Benton
Publisher: Waterbrook Press
Pages: 400

The Wood’s Edge, set in the uncharted territory that was the America of the mid-18th century, beginning in the pre-Independence era, brings the history of that time alive. The story grows on you slowly, like an exquisite tea brewed to perfection.

The book traverses the life of the principal characters, beginning in 1757 in New York up to 1776 when they come of age. The call for surrender and the ensuing ceasefire bring relief to the besieged British colonials trapped within Fort William Henry. But for Reginald Aubrey, officer of His Majesty’s Royal Americans, there is no respite. With his baby boy dead just a half hour after being born, Aubrey takes a decision that will haunt him forever.

Espying a woman spent from hard labour, sleeping with two newborn infant boys, one white and one tawny, by her side, Aubrey picks up the white baby and leaves his own dead baby in its place. 

That woman is Good Voice of the Turtle Clan and the Oneida tribe and on waking up, she realizes that the dead baby by her side is not hers.

Aubrey has no time to rethink his decision, for the fall of the fort and the assault by the victorious French forces them to flee for their life. It is at this time, that they find a little girl, Anna, just months older than William, the son they call their own. But Heledd, Aubrey’s wife, has no room in her heart for Anna. 

Following the skirmish, the Aubreys receive succour at the home of apothecary, George McLaren, whose daughter, Lydia, proves to be the only woman friend that Anna has.

While no one suspects the truth about William’s parentage, Aubrey’s own guilt increases over time, alienating him from the boy he calls his son as well as from his wife.

Heledd, homesick for Wales, takes William with her. It is at this time, Anna, lonely and missing William, befriends Two-Hawks, a boy who looks a lot like William. It is a friendship that will alter both their lives.

Meanwhile, through their grief, Good Voice, her husband, Stone Thrower, and their son, Two-Hawks, never give up hoping that He-Is-Taken will be restored to them. We see this through the endless amount of waiting that they show themselves capable of, as their child and brother is lost to them more than once.

The omniscient voice of the author helps us sympathise equally with the predicaments of Good Voice, Stone Thrower, Two-Hawks, Anna, Lydia and Aubrey.

Through the story of Good Voice and her husband, Stone Thrower, Benton brings out the poignancy and pain of grief. This is a family forever defined by its loss.

The writing is poetically beautiful, eloquent and evocative. The similes are steeped in the local milieu.

The fort’s interior swarmed like an anthill kicked over.

Shaking off regret like a horse, shedding flies.

Dull as porridge.

Astonishment washed over Good Voice like a cold plunge in the creek.

Hanging Kettle, another one of the Indians, is a man who rarely smiled, even when he shook with silent laughter.

The women are all strong personalities. Even minor characters are drawn in positive strokes.

Good Voice is the strongest of the three leading women. With her heart cut open by pain, she struggles with grief and anger, and watches as her husband allows his grief to break him completely, allowing the family to disintegrate. In time, she accepts Christ and His message of forgiveness into her heart.

Lydia, the rebellious girl with an outlook that is centuries ahead of her time, is a great character, and we make her concerns our own as soon as we meet her. Living in a time when women do not have any identities apart from the domestic one, Lydia longs to be an apothecary. To heal life, and soothe pain.

In contrast, Aubrey’s wife, Heledd, for all her beauty, is petty and ungenerous.

Benton’s research is impeccable as she paints a beautiful portrait of early American history, painting the broad strokes immortalised in history, and the narrow strokes in the tiny details, that together help us to understand what life must have been like back then. Benton is truly a master of description, making the landscape come alive.

The chapters shift between the families, even as the years change and the children grow up. Each chapter is a year in the lives of the principal characters.

The inherent premise of the book throws up the debate between nature versus nurture as William, unaware that he is of the People, believes himself a white.

There are many dualities at work here.

There are two fathers, one burning for vengeance for his firstborn who was taken, the other with guilt for having stolen another’s child. 

There are two mothers here, one who never stops missing her son, and the other who, while expressing herself incapable of loving a stranger’s child, ends up making another woman’s child her own, unaware that he is not.

There are two brothers here, one who fiercely misses the twin he has never known, the other who is raised to believe himself white, never suspecting the truth.

There is the Christianity of Good Voice and Stone Thrower, which throbs with energy and transforms their lives, teaching them to forgive, and the Christianity of Reginald and Heledd, which exists only in name. Lydia’s own Christianity is seen in the faith with which she prays for others.

The book helps us realize how the missionaries made inroads into tribal areas and how the Indians embraced Christianity, in spite of how radical it seemed, reconciling it, where required, with their indigenous beliefs.

While the Indians are seen as uncivilised by the whites, their ways are in many instances far more empowering for women.

I had a catch in my throat when I read of Good Voice’s loss of her third child, minutes after he is born, the child that was meant to heal the brokenness of the family after their first-born was carried off. As also in the baptism sequence, when Good Voice, Stone Thrower and Two-Hawks publicly accept Christ as their Lord.

Benton brings out the nuances of various shades of love: the tender affection between Anna and William, the silently growing love between Anna and Two-Hawks, Lydia’s girlish love for Aubrey, which matures, as she grows, into a deeper love.

The romance between Two-Hawks and Anna is intimate and tender, and like the rest of this book, it is cooked on simmer. But then again, the best dishes are cooked that way.

The book ends on the cusp of another quest, as William, learning the truth of his own parentage, rejects it, and the two men, who call themselves his fathers, allow God to work in their lives and allow forgiveness and healing to take place.

This is truly an incredible book.

I can’t wait for Book 2.

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