McLennan’s (The Wealth of Jamestown, 2013) historical novel depicts America at a tenuous stage in its early history, when wealth, violence and political unease were all starting to swell.
Sarah Harrison Blair is the sort of historical figure who demands fictional interpretation. Married to one of the founders of the College of William & Mary, the (as characterized in McLennan’s novel) loathsome James Blair, Sarah has the business acumen and independent streak to rival any of Colonial America’s male adventurers. She is neither shy with a pistol nor afraid to work alongside the laborers in her family’s tobacco fields, if that’s what will get the job done. (“Darlin’, welcome to Virginia justice,” she tells one man. “If you keep still, I won’t blow your head off.”) The Colonial Virginia world in which Sarah operates needs people like her. It’s something of a free-for-all, with ineffectual governors coming and going, uncertainty about where to establish the colony’s capital (Williamsburg is being considered), and perpetual tensions and threats of fighting. Yet it’s also a place where democratic values are coalescing, a development made all the more evident in contrast to London, which Sarah and James visit. There, they encounter poverty and abuse all but directly caused by the old system. They also come across some truly rip-roaring excitement, complete with duels and romance. McLennan writes astutely about the political anxieties of the era—the novel spans the years 1699 to 1710—and depicts a lively world of pirates and paramours. Some observations are made repetitiously. For instance, American Colonial women are more financially savvy than privileged British women, and aristocrats are profligate. And the good guys are exceedingly good, the bad exceedingly bad; several characters are all but evil villains. Though the novel isn’t one of great nuance, it’s one of impressive scholarship. It will particularly appeal to readers interested in the early planning of Williamsburg.
An informative rendering of pre-Revolutionary America, with an inspiring female protagonist.