An accomplished novel that looks at the true wildness of the wilderness and the stakes of rugged individualism.
In 1806, a massive swamp stretches across northeastern Ohio. In the not-so-distant town of Severne, separated from the swamp by the Thieving Forest, there live five sisters who are just starting to learn how to get along following the deaths of their parents. It seems bearable enough until a band of Potawatomi tribesmen emerges from the woods, loots the girls’ home, and kidnaps Aurelia, Penelope and Naomi. Aurelia, partially scalped by one of her captors, is found by searchers not long afterward and dies a few days later; Penelope and Naomi remain missing, and Susanna and Beatrice begin what seems an impossible journey to find them. A trying, harrowing search follows, vitiated by uncertainty and the dangers of shifting geography as well as racial and political disputes. The story is a careful consideration of the strength and flexibility of family bonds, as the sisters each go their own ways in the aftermath of the attack, though not always by choice. Susanna dreams of reuniting with her sisters, even when the dream seems destined to remain unfulfilled; after a long expedition with a native woman as a guide, for example, she finds that one of her sisters has married into a Native American tribe. Conway’s (12 Bliss Street, 2003) historical novel features prose as rich as its characters; throughout, it looks at the hard facts of settling the American frontier and the capacity of the imagination to surpass the limitations of one’s surroundings. The stark, solid plot never plods, moving deftly between the characters’ physical and spiritual trials. Overall, it’s a hypnotic, capacious and cutting evocation of a bleak period of American history.
An elegiac, hopeful historical novel.