One woman lays bare her family’s secrets—for better or worse.
Set in the decades before the Civil War, Gamble’s (Good Family, 2009, etc.) novel centers around the Givens family, which has emigrated from Ireland to America, settling in Cincinnati. After their mother dies in childbirth and their father abandons them though they're still teenagers, the three Givens children—Olivia, who becomes a transgressive schoolteacher; James, a hustling businessman; and Erasmus, an itinerant preacher with a penchant for alcohol—must find a way to survive and thrive in a strange land. Told from Olivia’s perspective, the novel touches on abolition, immigration, religion (or lack thereof), courtship, and illness through the lens of one family’s history. As a character, Olivia feels true to the 19th century while defying and questioning societal norms as often as she can—for example, she reads, writes, and wears men’s clothing. When she meets Silas Orpheus, a doctor, her life changes in ways she could never have anticipated. Silas introduces her to Tilly, a talented slave owned by his brother. When her attempt to help Tilly goes horribly awry, all three Givens children become involved in the abolition movement to varying degrees. Gamble’s writing is delicate when she’s describing the natural world: “even at this hour, the air was as thick as cream,” and “soon the bats came out, dodging and darting, winging along the water’s edge where the insects were thick.” The plot can feel uneven at times, lingering too long on certain scenes and glossing over others too quickly. However, as the narrative structure becomes clearer, the novel’s proclivity for detail feels purposeful rather than tedious. It’s a book that would benefit from a reread—if only to catch all the hints along the way.
A sprawling yet richly drawn family saga.