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Oct 16, 2009

Book Review: Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien

Harriet and Isabella: A Novel by Patricia O'Brien
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Touchstone; Reprint edition (January 13, 2009)
Originally published January 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0743277778
Review copy from Touchstone via
The Burton Review Rating:4.5 Stars at The Burton Review

"It is 1887, and Henry Ward Beecher lies dying. Reporters from around the world, eager for one last story about the most lurid scandal of their time, descend on Brooklyn Heights, their presence signaling the beginning of the voracious appetite for fallen celebrities we know so well today.
When Henry Ward Beecher was put on trial for adultery in 1875, the question of his guilt or innocence was ferociously debated. His trial not only split the country, it split apart his family, causing a particularly bitter rift between his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Harriet remained loyal to Henry, while Isabella called publicly for him to admit his guilt. What had been a loving, close relationship between two sisters plummeted into bitter blame and hurt.
Harriet and Isabella each had a major role in the social revolutions unfolding around them, but what happened in their hearts when they were forced to face a question of justice much closer to home? Now they struggle: who best served Henry -- the one who was steadfast or the one who demanded honesty?"

I absolutely loved this novel. My heart ached at several points within the book and then again at the end. I even cried. I checked the rating on Goodreads as I marked this finished, and the average rating is 3.24 of 5. So again, I am loving a book beyond reality. But I'm not changing my rating of 4.5, because I LOVED IT! This is a very absorbing fictional account of the sisters to Henry Ward Beecher who caused a sensational scandal in 1875 when he was publicly accused of being a cheating preacher. These two sisters were Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Isabella Hooker, who was a leader in the woman's suffrage movement and also became an author. Henry shocked his family and friends with the scandal of their times that tore the family apart, as he was the most eloquent and popular preacher of the time. This was not your ordinary family; the Beecher's were an intellectual group and there were a total thirteen siblings that called Lyman Beecher their father. Lyman Beecher was a force all by himself, and he instilled family pride and the desire for learning, along with political stands on abolition, into the family value structure. How the Beecher children took this knowledge to greater heights helped America to grow in the 1850's and beyond, such as with Harriet's book, which was a small factor in providing inspiration for the American Civil War.

Patricia O'Brien walked the paths of the main protagonists in Brooklyn Heights and read the archives of the Brooklyn Library to get the essence of her story just right. She conveyed the sense of of the period with ease, and focused on the story of two of the Beecher sisters, Harriet and Isabella. The story is wrapped with questions of virtue, humility, wisdom, and the price that was paid by Beechers for all of it. And at times, it was Harriet versus Isabella, and triumph versus burden.

Harriet Beecher Stowe,1811-1896
The novel opens up to Henry's death bed, and swiftly jumps to the earlier times of Harriet and Isabella's childhood and growing up as members of the prominent Beecher family. There are a few themes here, but the main theme stealthily ponders the justification of standing up for your rights, as a woman, as a member of the community, as a wife, and as a sister. Harriet stands by her brother in all ways, and in doing so has knowingly alienated her sister Isabella who she was once so close to.
Isabella Hooker, 1822-1907
The narrative is a third person omniscient, switching from Isabella's thoughts to Harriet's about halfway through the book which made me miss Isabella as I had grown attached to her. Harriet was a bit too haughty to really connect to until later on as we feel her thoughts and begin to empathize with her. Yet certain small things we would be fed, such as her humiliation of a book that was not as successful as her previous one, when she wrote about Lord Byron’s incestuous relations with his half-sister in Lady Byron Vindicated (1870) and The History of the Byron Controversy (1871), small insights that would begin to play on our sympathies for Harriet. The younger sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker also became an important woman in those times, like her sister, trying to fight the system as she spoke up for the right of women to vote, although she is always portrayed as more of a simple-stick-to-the-facts kind of person in the novel. She had associated with names we recognize from the time such as Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Victoria Woodhull was the one who broke the story on the scandal of Henry's adultery, and the family warned Isabella to stop seeing Victoria. As a result, Isabella became the black sheep of the family, but also because she wanted her brother to simply admit to the mistake of adultery and move on. But the entire family believed Henry was innocent, thus Isabella was treated harshly for her views.

The author shifts between their current time at Henry's death bed and then to early events that they recalled back from their memories and then back to the trial that was sensationalized because of who they were. The results of being a celebrity is another theme here, as one wonders if Henry wasn't a Beecher, would there have been such news about the trial.. would there have been a trial in the first place? The trial doesn't occur until halfway through the book, so the author does a good job of building up the characters and making us comfortable with our opinions of them before we try and discern fact from fiction as the trial occurs. We do not know if Henry is guilty of cheating on his wife, Eunice, who is such a cold person that nobody wonders why Henry would stray, but as a reader we are not privy to the answer to that all important question of innocence or guilt. That being the case, this becomes a tender tale of how a very close knit family copes with scandal in the midst of the harsh public spotlight, and the author treats it with a lot of drama, a little mystery and a lot of heart. The events that keep switching from 1875 to earlier days also makes the mystery fester as the story builds up to the conclusion of the trial.

I found the writing to be fluent and the nuance of the times she conveyed to be educational, with the issues of slavery and the suffrage movement. As a historical junkie myself, I would have preferred some more history in general but I still relished each page as the story unfolded. The switching to different periods got a little confusing when I was picking up the book again after 24 hours and I had to get my bearings as to which stage we were in. It was presented in a unique way that turned this mini history lesson into something meant to be savored. At 298 pages, this seems small in relation to the amount of historical facts the author could have barraged us with, instead she blends an intricate story of betrayal, family, love, loneliness, honesty with a little history into a compelling novel that I highly recommend.

After the 298 pages of text, the book includes a Reading Guide, Author's note and interview, and a suggested further reading list, which I intend to research for my own personal library; always a good sign that the author Patricia O'Brien did a good job of selling me the story of Harriet and Isabella. There is so much more to be learned about this great family of our American history, and the author has simply whetted my appetite. I felt deprived when the story did end, however, as I had fallen in love with the characters and did not want the story to end. I then found that the author has also written another historical fiction novel, The Glory Cloak, which focuses on Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. SOLD! Louisa May Alcott is always my favorite author from childhood; my first book beyond Judy Blume that I had read as an impressionable ten year old was Little Women, and my loyalty has never strayed. I enjoyed O'Brien's prose so much I hope that The Glory Cloak is similar in style.
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