Prehn’s debut historical novel drops readers into the commingling world of artists, abolitionists, and free spirits in the Greenwich Village of the late 1850s and early 1860s.
The opening pages of this sprawling work introduce 24-year-old Wendell Harte Parry, a rising American painter for whom “financial success seems more elusive even than fame.” Soon after his return to New York City from a grand tour of Europe, just before the Civil War, Wendell meets Lillian Flax, a pretty young woman who “gave him a smile that made him feel, foolishly, that he was falling.” Within a few pages, Walt Whitman—in the flesh—serenades them with his poem “To a Stranger,” which Prehn—in a gesture that might have horrified the real-life Whitman—center justifies on the page. To Wendell’s displeasure, Lillian turns out to be married to cruel shipping mogul Henry Ferguson, who happens to be Wendell’s patron. Before long, Lillian’s abolitionist activity, and particularly her support for the radical John Brown, puts her in danger. Although he promised Lillian that he wouldn’t pick up a gun, Wendell joins the Union Army and later struggles for his life at Bull Run, where “death and gun-powder hung in the air like the devil’s laundry.” Prehn has quite obviously done extensive research, and she’s effectively fluent in the cultural currents of the era. She convincingly presents a whirlwind of real-life famous figures: actress and writer Ada Clare teaches Wendell what a bohemian is, and he, in turn, becomes one himself; painter Frederick Church and Wendell critique and celebrate one another’s work; author Louisa May Alcott welcomes Wendell and Lillian to her home and joins them to visit Henry David Thoreau in Massachusetts. The characters’ conversations—about the latest New York Tribune column by Karl Marx, say, or the dangers of harboring fugitives—often seem as if Prehn had only just overheard them. As a result, her novel is not just a rousing story of two lovers—it also offers readers a welcome historical education.
A learned, absorbing tale of bondage, freedom, war, and peace.