Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE THIRD MRS. GALWAY by Deirdre Sinnott


by Deirdre Sinnott

Pub Date: July 6th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-61775-842-3
Publisher: Kaylie Jones/Akashic

When an abolitionist convention comes to Utica, New York, in 1835, mayhem both public and private ensues.

In this eloquent debut, a diverse cast of characters embodies the political, class, and racial upheavals of its time and milieu, and does it all in living local color. Helen, an orphan raised in a genteel finishing school for young ladies, is wed in a quasi-arranged marriage to Galway, a prosperous older widower. Her naïveté regarding the issues of the day—in school she was taught that Southern masters treated their slaves like family—is tested when Imari and her son, Joe, escapees from a Virginia plantation, turn up in Galway’s shed. Helen’s domicile is further disrupted when Galway breaks his leg in a drunken fall, ushering quack doctor McCooke into their midst, as lecherous as he is incompetent. Meanwhile, Pryce, a young man unsure of his career path, pays more welcome attention to Helen. The streets of Utica come alive, especially as observed by minor characters—Owen Sylvanus, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Alvan Stewart, a crusading lawyer leading the abolitionists, and Horace Wilberforce, a fishmonger and fixer. Utica’s section of the Erie Canal, where freighters are hauled by mules along a towpath, is vividly evoked. Slave catchers have arrived, not only menacing Imari and Joe, but rallying the mob against the abolitionists. Galway himself opposes abolition—instead, he advocates sending American Blacks to colonize Liberia. His servant, Maggie, who was formerly enslaved by his family, is a force to be reckoned with. Since Helen is the second Mrs. Galway, the title provides a clue to explosive family secrets. The text treads very carefully when treating the subject of slavery, and, occasionally, unavoidable echoes of today’s world lead to didactic moments that feel anachronistic. Often, when too many characters crowd into a scene, the logistics can verge on unintentional farce. But despite Sinnott’s extensive research into her hometown and its role in abolition, the pace is never slowed by excessive detail.

A localized but no less powerful look at the prologue to Emancipation.