AVERY'S KNOT by Mary Cable


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This reconstruction of an historical crime--the 1832 murder of Fall River mill-girl Sarah Cornell--begins splendidly, as Cable, in the chilling dead-pan of all great true-crime writing, sketches in the discovery of the body and the growing evidence against Methodist minister Ephraim Avery. But after these first 60 pages (ending with Avery exonerated in a pre-trial hearing), the book flashes back to tell Sarah's life story--which, though sturdily written, is an uneasy cross between period melodrama and sociological case-study. Middle-class-born Sarah, it seems, has an ""innate sense of independence,"" and Cable, only half-persuasively, tends to see the tragedy in largely feminist terms. Denied the best suitors because of one lapse into half-innocent teenage shoplifting, Sarah is soon ""ruined"" by an Irish sailor. Thus made unmarriageable, she struggles for self-sufficiency as a roving mill-worker and purity as a Methodist (then a revivalist religious extreme). But in Lowell Sarah is seduced by charismatic, married pastor Avery; and when she tries to break it off, he hypocritically brands her as a harlot, hounding her with slander as she tries to escape to other New England towns. ""Men might behave impulsively and independently whenever they pleased, and if they were not always admired for it, they were, at least, forgiven. If a woman did the same, even once, she could be sure of a bitter dose for the rest of her life."" Finally, then, Avery does re-seduce Sarah (at a Methodist ""camp meeting""), getting her in ""a certain situation""--with fatal results when Sarah, ever more her own person, fights off Avery's crude attempt to abort the baby. But though the minister does eventually come to trial (presented in rather fiat, transcript-style), he goes free . . . to the horror of his put-upon wife and the general populace. A dark, resonant story? Unquestionably. Cable's fictionalizing, however, doesn't reach deeply or strongly enough to shape it into a satisfying novel (see Judith Rossner's Emmeline for a richer portrait of the mill-worker life); and, while this is readable and intelligent, one wonders if a more consistently non-fictional treatment might not have better suited the powerful material here.

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 1981
Publisher: Putnam