Healey takes poetic license in his debut novel about a “forgotten” manuscript—supposedly found among his deceased grandfather’s belongings—that tells the story of a romantic relationship between two of American’s most well-known early writers.
Autobiographies and historical documents about the lives of long-dead prominent figures sometimes pique the imagination of novelists who then seize the opportunity to flesh out the subjects’ lives. Healey’s narrative, about a journey undertaken by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and siblings Austin and Emily Dickinson, endeavors to humanize the three authors along with a young Walt Whitman. It’s the summer of 1851, and Melville’s wife, Elizabeth, is heavy with their second child when Hawthorne convinces Melville to travel with him. The two men show up at the Dickinson home in Amherst and invite Emily, barely 20, and her older brother to join them as they travel to Boston and New York. The foursome sets sail to New York from Fall River, and Emily is thrilled with the excitement of this new experience. She’s also drawn to Melville, who’s more than a decade her senior. The two end up on deck during the late hours of the night and share a kiss. Hawthorne, the staunchly conservative eldest of the group, is angry when he learns of Melville’s attraction to Emily, and he parts ways with them. Reduced to a threesome, the travelers meet Whitman, attend a dinner party and go to an oyster restaurant. Melville and Emily decide to take a different route home via the Long Island Railroad, but Austin decides to travel home via Boston because he has to attend to some personal business. Whitman (who’s involved in the Underground Railroad) accompanies the couple on the train as he helps a runaway slave to escape to the North and to freedom. Throughout the narrative, key characters expound upon religion, slavery, the fears that drive men, love, sexual orientation and societal institutions. Readers who know a bit about these authors’ lives will not be shocked by Whitman’s dalliances or Melville’s exploits.
Despite the fact that Healey tries to deliver an entertaining romance, some readers may feel uncomfortable with the liberties he takes with these literary icons.