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The Hidden World of Women as Told by a Man

MidwifeCoverThe Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas is the story of a seventeenth century gentlewoman, Bridget Hodgson, played out against the backdrop of York, England, during the siege in 1644. Even in a city under bombardment and swarming with hostile soldiers, she carries out her honor-bound duties as a midwife, helping the destitute as well as the wealthy to be delivered from their labor. The descriptions of the customs and medicine surrounding the then mysteries of childbirth were fascinating, but the story goes beyond this cultural history–it is wrapped around a mystery. Lady Hodgson’s friend is accused of murdering her husband with poison and is hastily sentenced to burn after a sham trial. Bridget, convinced of her friend’s innocence, sets out to find the real murderer. To this end, she joins up with a feisty servant girl, Martha Hawkins, who mysteriously turned up on her doorstep and also has a rather shady past. Along the way, we are treated to wonderful descriptions of that era’s taverns and prisons as well as the fine homes and luxuries. Author Thomas weaves in a good dose of the political backdrop of that time as well. Although the mystery was compelling and following Bridget through her investigations which led us from infanticide to drunken labor rooms, all full of interesting places and characters, the plot felt rushed at the end when it was all wrapped up with a long eleventh hour “confession” and re-cap. I also found the very casual relationship between a Lady and her newly acquired servant girl unbelievable at times, but they make a dynamic investigatory team. Would I read another historical mystery by Thomas? Yes. I also found it interesting that a university history professor would choose a woman confined to a female-dominated world by virtue of her profession to be his main character.  I felt he provided an even-handed portrayal of women–weak and strong, evil and magnanimous, and everything in between.

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How Much History, How Much Fiction?

poisonHistorical Fiction.  A genre that probably needs some defining.  What exactly constitutes a historical fiction novel?  Is it enough to set it in a real place and time, with the occasional walk-on character from real world events?  Where is the balance between the history and the fiction?  The historical fiction work is a novel after all, it is meant to entertain, sweep the reader away, elicit emotions, well, you know–otherwise it would be a history book.  What brings me to pose these questions is a work I just finished by Sara Poole called “Poison.”  It is a book in her series about the renaissance, which focuses a great deal on the Borgia family.  The gist of the story is this: the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia’s “poisoner,” –a man employed to do his bidding by poisoning enemies or taking measures to see that Borgia is not poisoned– is killed, but his daughter, Francesca, assumes his role.  As such, she vows to avenge her father and gets embroiled in a plot to kill the reigning pope, Innocent, and replace him with Borgia.  All this must be accomplished before Innocent can sign a writ, backed by Torquemada, expelling the Jews from Rome and all the lands under Christian rule.  Granted, the historical characters were real, Borgia was portrayed particularly well, and there may have been a precedent for such a situation involving the Jewish ghetto, but that is where the history ends.  This particular novel devotes much time to the romances of the main character.  Astoundingly, every young male from Borgia’s son, to the evil monk villain, to the Jewish resistance fighter are preternaturally handsome and manly, and this is not lost on Francesca.  She herself is no slouch, just check out her comely image on the cover.  Hmm, did renaissance women wear their hair down like that?  I think she appeals more to our modern sense of a heroine.  And I believe that is the fiction end of the bargain.  In order for books to sell, the publishers (and authors) want them to appeal to a wide audience– maybe scoop in some of the romance readers, maybe appeal to a women’s fiction crowd.  I find that although Poole has done her homework on the Borgia family, the facts seem ham-fisted into the story, more like a book report than a plot point, and some of the language is too modern.  On more than one occasion, our heroine repeats the phrase, “Make no mistake, ….” so that I could not but help imagining George Bush speaking.  There was also a case of using an expression from a later era, such as “take him down a peg.”  But all that aside, it seems to me on balance the fiction and exciting plot and romances of the story take a decided more important role than the history.  Poole could be described as a Philippa Gregory mixed with Janet Evanovich.  Oh, and if you like a nice, tidy ending…forget it.  This work was clearly left hanging in order to such the readers into a series.

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