In this delightful debut novel set in the early 19th century, a young woman fights to patent her flax-milling machine.
Ella Kenyon’s grandfather has a dying wish: that she finish designing and engineering the flax-milling device the two of them have struggled to develop. Finishing it represents not only the culmination of their work but the potential to remove herself and her family from the control of her abusive father, Amherst. But Ella is met with all manner of obstacles. The device works but imperfectly and impracticably. To patent the machine, she needs to trust the wealthy Mr. Emerston, who she knows is liable to steal her design. And perhaps more pressing, she must reconfigure her sense of self as aspects of her past—her real mother, her connection to her grandfather’s Native American assistant, Pete—come to light. While patenting a milling device may seem like dull territory for fiction, Lew-Smith’s greatest strength, among many, is ensuring that the plot is dramatic without being exaggerated, intricate without being convoluted. Allegiances shift and mutate, and characters show capacity for change and regret. Most arresting of these is Ella’s flawed and fascinating aunt Lucille, a woman who’d previously been only cold and distant to Ella but who has now taken a sudden interest in her success. When the need to patent the machine forces Ella to travel to Washington City, capital of the new nation, her cadre of friends and family help her get there, but it’s Ella who takes center stage. She’s headstrong and brilliant, unafraid of a scuffle and capable of tenderness beneath her rough exterior. While still more obstacles meet her on the journey—an exhilarating fire in the Pine Barrens, a kidnapping and torturing in Philadelphia—Ella remains steadfast in her determination to see her grandfather’s wish to its conclusion and, most importantly, to never become the victim.
An assured, cleverly plotted piece of historical fiction with an irrepressible female protagonist.