“While Sarah’s family had lost nearly everything at Harper’s Ferry, the good would rise as unstoppably as a river after the storm.” This one sentence aptly describes the tone of this lovely little piece of historical fiction from Sarah McCoy. The stories of two women, Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson, are told through alternating chapters where we experience the frustration, heartbreak, and joy of their lives. McCoy connects Sarah and Eden in two specific ways – they both experience transformative love in the same house, although more than a century apart, and both experience the utter heartbreak of not being able to bear children.
Sarah Brown is the daughter of abolitionist John Brown who was executed after his history-making raid on Harper’s Ferry just prior to the Civil War. We first meet Sarah as she is recovering from a near-death experience with dysentery which leaves her barren. She is determined that her life, that *she* will not be defined by her inability to procreate, and so she begins using her artistic ability to draw maps for slaves on the Underground Railroad. Immediately after her father’s failed raid in Harper’s Ferry, Sarah, her mother, and her sister Annie travel to New Charlestown to stay with the Hill family while her father prepares for his execution. While there, Sarah begins to care for Freddy Hill, son of their host. Their budding romance grows through a lively correspondence and occasional meetings, until Sarah finds herself in the position of having to refuse Freddy’s marriage proposal. Sarah leaves the Hill home and returns to her studies in Saratoga, until she is called again to Freddy’s side as he hovers near death after being shot in the War. Ultimately, Sarah joins her family and moves West to California, where she lives out her days, without Freddy but caring for two free-born twins sent to her for safety.
One of those twins and her doll becomes the thread between the past and present in New Charlestown, between Sarah and Eden.
Eden Anderson is a successful businesswoman married to the love of her life who is nonetheless broken by her inability to conceive. We first meet Eden and her husband Jack as they struggle to acclimate to a new home in the small town of New Charlestown. Jack is away on business most of week, while Eden rarely leaves her bed, paralyzed by years of fertility treatments, hormone injections, and failed pregnancies. Eden slowly comes back to life as first a puppy then a neighbor child come into her life and reintroduce her to the joy of living. Eden, fascinated by a porcelain doll head she discovers in a root cellar in her kitchen, begins the process of getting her house on the National Register of Historic Places. She enlists the aid of locals whose families have lived in the area for generations and ultimately discovers a very real connection of the past to the present which helps her begin to heal.
When authors attempt to tell to separate stories at once with the goal of twining both together throughout and at the end, the effort can be awkward and clunky. It takes a skillful author to make the multiple transitions needed through the narrative. McCoy does a good job of that by keeping the chapters short so the reader remains connected to the past while reading the present and vice versa. There were a few moments that did not ring true and didn’t really add anything to the story, but this was an ARC and some of that clunkiness may be tidied up when the final version is published. Nonetheless, this is a good read, and will appeal to readers who like a blend of history, mystery and romance in their reading.