Raley’s (The Prodigal, 2016, etc.) novel tells the story of several families whose fates become intertwined from the 17th century onward.
Beginning in 1671 with the arrival in the Virginia Colony of Sir Henry Beaufort-DuCordier, 72, this novel traces several family lines as they spread across America and marry, prosper, or falter. Henry’s daughter Katherine marries three times, to Richard Blackwell, Phillip Sterling, and David Stafford (Phillip’s brother). Henry’s servant Matthew Stokesbury founds another line, in which some descendants shorten the name to Stokes; others in the family tree include the Ogilvies and Pickfords. Each chapter adopts the era’s linguistic style, as when Henry challenges Katherine’s choice of suitor with “Will thy strutting jack-a-dandy provide thee roof and warmth with his magical song and verse?” Various characters open an academy for young ladies in the Carolinas, live and intermarry with Cherokees, rescue a European woman from an African seraglio, survive a shipwreck, and fight in the Civil War. In the final chapter, the DuCordier name folds back into the story with Frenchwoman Madelaine-Marie DuCordier, who marries a Stokes as a 1940s war bride. Chapters begin or end with commentary from fictional genealogical sources including books, websites, and postings from people seeking information about ancestors. These often reveal confusion about facts that readers become privy to—a clever comment on the process by which everyday life becomes history. Raley uses the family-saga genre imaginatively, showing himself to be a versatile storyteller in many registers: tragic, picaresque, even magical realist. That said, he could have done more to show why readers should care about these people as a family rather than as a collection of stories; there’s no real throughline that connects them aside from the title image, referring to a woman left to fend for herself by an untrustworthy man, which only applies in a few cases. The book’s sweeping generalizations about particular cultures are unfortunate, as well, such as asserting the “sexual lust of African despots for young European women” and the idea that “Like all Frenchmen, [Madelaine-Marie] understood and claimed as her own the diamantine reasoning of Descartes.”
An ambitious, wide-ranging historical novel with some questionable cultural assertions.