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The Monk Woman's Daughter Paperback – July 14, 2017
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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Clark’s tale reads like a cross between Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Dickens’s David Copperfield, revealing the struggles of females and Irish and blacks in that tumultuous period of American history from the 1840s through the 1860s. We follow Vera from place to place in the northeastern USA, beginning in a squalid part of New York where she dances in the muddy streets. Pigs roam free until chased down for slaughter. When mother’s drinking gets out of hand, the good stepfather takes Vera and her sister down to the river, causing the younger Lizzie to ask, “Is he going to drown us?”
Instead he takes them out to Flatbush where Vera is left to live with Miss Julia, a widow and Universalist. At first rather standoffish, Julia finally gives her a hug, saying, “I am a crank, but I’d a sight rather be a crank than a fool…. It don’t matter to me who your mother was…. It can be lonely here, and I am mighty glad of you.”
Clark knows how to stage a scene. It is from the pulpit that Vera learns “why my mother was scandalous.” Like Dickens, she can create a character with a few well-drawn strokes. The visiting preacher, Mr. Oosterhuis “was a small, thin man, and his booming voice was a startling surprise…warning us about the tortures of the fires of hell.” It is from his fiery sermon that Vera learns the source of Maria Monk’s ill repute.
Like Moll Flanders, Vera moves through a series of situations, each one revealing the challenges of being female in mid-nineteenth century America. Julia finds her a place in a hat shop doing needle work for room and board and she begins to see life as an adult. When she marries an Irishman who takes her off to Mob Town (as Baltimore is known at the time), she discovers how different that city is from the New York she grew up in. Instead of mud, the streets are cobblestone and the building brick instead of wood. Clark has done her research, capturing the detail of place and language which brings this tale to life.
At first married life is good but then her husband begins spending his evenings talking politics with men who oppose the famous Know-Nothings of the day. She writes Miss Julia, that down-to-earth Unitarian who cared for her. Julia advises her to seek ways to take care of herself: “Men have the best of intentions, but they have a number of inconvenient habits such as becoming politicians or drunkards or even dying.”
That last word foreshadows Vera’s next situation as a widow rolling up her “floorcloth” and looking for a new place to stay. Offered a place at a brothel, she declines, but remains friends with Emmeline and Delilah. “Don’t look at our color,” Emmeline tells her, “Look at us.”
Vera’s journey is a search for home, that place where we feel we belong. “Did other people always feel a sense of belonging?” she asks herself. Then speculates: “Maybe a sense of belonging was just a comforting illusion. Like God.” Vera, like many of Dicken’s protagonists, struggles to find her right place in the world and remain true to herself in bitter circumstance.
With the onset of the Civil War, soldiers fill Baltimore, making life difficult. Vera visits her sister in “Washington City” who, to her horror, owns slaves. Yes, slavery was legal in our nation’s capital until the Civil War was half over. But their value declines as it becomes increasingly clear that they will all be freed.
The end of this historical novel deals with the aftermath of the war, as Vera learns to see across the racial divide to the humanity of those people we now call African-American. She becomes close friends with a freedman, Elijah Smith, assisting him in freeing his wife, Bathsheba Spottswood. “Why isn’t your name Spottswood?” Vera asks. “I be the smith,” Elijah tells her. “My name is what I am.”
After they learn of Bathsheba’s death, Vera decides to help him find his wife’s daughter. Not his daughter, but that of Bathsheba’s white master. She takes the train to war-torn Memphis and finds the daughter. As she returns she wonders to herself “Will Elijah want me along with her?” Even to the end, Vera is never sure of belonging.
Bill King, a retired professor of English. He has reviewed books for numerous publications including the Denver Post and the Jackson Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com.
lived through this time. The only part I questioned was the book written by the Monk woman and it wasn't until I had finished the book that I learned it was true. I strongly recommend this book.
I got this copy from the publisher. This, is my voluntary review.
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drawn into the story immediately .