As the seasons begin to change, check out the newest historical fiction at the Field Library and take a quick vacation to the end of the American Civil War and the Roaring Twenties in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon).
You wouldn’t think there’s anything new to say about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, but you would be reckoning without the skill of Jennifer Chiaverini, whose previous bestselling historical novels include Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, have also explored the period during and just after the American Civil War. Her newest book, Fates and Traitors, takes the somewhat daring and unusual task of looking at the life of John Wilkes Booth, trying to understand him and his terrible actions, and, as is her wont in her historical novels, she looks at Booth through other people, the people who were connected to him during his life. The book starts with the part everybody knows: the fateful shots fired at Ford’s Theater which killed Lincoln, but then backtracks, looking at Booth’s upbringing and his life before the assassination, focusing on his relationships with four important women: his mother (a former flower girl at Covent Garden in London), his sister, Asia (his confidant in many regards), his lover, Lucy Lambert Hale (the daughter of a Senator), and his co-conspirator Mary Surratt (who ended up being hanged for her role in the plot). Will you end up sympathizing with Booth? Probably not. Will you be fascinated by his story and understand him better after reading this book? Quite probably.
For a peek at a different historical period in a very different place, let’s turn to The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries. Gwendoline, a naive young Englishwoman in the 1920’s, marries a widowed tea plantation owner in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Traveling to a foreign country where she knows no one but her somewhat distant husband, and where the customs, especially ones having to do with the divide between the white planters and the natives who work on the plantations, are very strange to her, Gwendoline soldiers on through her pregnancy and the arrival of her husband’s interfering sister, Verity, but questions start to arise about her husband’s past, more specifically the real cause of death of his first wife. It’s not just a clever reworking of the famous Rebecca, but a look at the realities of colonial life, the clashes between British overlords and Ceylonese workers who are tired of being treated like subhumans, a mystery to be unraveled and a vivid picture of a place and time most of us know very little about.