I must disclose that I am a big fan of historical fiction, and this book falls in that genre. Regardless of possible bias, A Shocking & Unnatural Incident is engaging first because it is well written, second because it has an interesting plot, third because it has a surprise (to me) ending, and fourth because it is about a part of United States history that I know little about.
Tess is out of place in her pre-Civil War family. She wants to see the world and chafes at the constraints placed on females. She wants to do the things boys do and frequently acts like her older brother Coop, short for Cooper. Tess also has a ringside seat at the beginnings of the movement for woman’s rights (author Georgia Ann Mullen explains that the movement used this name rather than “women’s” rights, and why). Author Mullen uses real characters such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott, and a real event, the first public women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York, to spice Tess’s story, and our enjoyment.
Tess’s story would be exciting with only the historic events happening around her. Author Mullen does make significant use of those events, but also makes Tess’s life a reflection of Tess’s era by showing the burdens that women and girls of the era faced along with the hopes that many had. In order to provide many perspectives of the society in which Tess lived, Mullen fills Tess’s life with an array of characters typical for that time.
An African-American woman, August, and her daughter, Beany, also called Willow, help Tess’s mother at the boarding house that Tess’s mother operates. I thought something was strange about August almost from the time Mullen introduces her. It turns out that August has many secrets.
Tess’s father is an abusive alcoholic, a stand-in for the many abusive men of the era; men who often thought they had a right to be the lord of their household, even if they contributed nothing but pain to it. Mullen paints such a bleak picture of Tess’s father that he would seem to verge on caricature. While he may not have been typical, there were many men similar to him in that era.
Tess’s mother suffers in silence as a dutiful wife, ignoring, and simultaneously suffering from, the infidelity of her husband, his alcoholism, his abuse of her and others, and his many other sins. While Tess’s mother appears and disappears, she is rarely a central character to the story except as a victim of her husband’s behavior.
Miranda Manning is the upper-class woman who does little or no work as a sign of her husband’s social standing. Lucy Manning, her daughter, is like Tess in that she chafes under the restrictions placed on women of the era. Lucy wants more than to be some man’s wife, poorly educated and relegated to her place at home while a man makes all her decisions for her. Abner Manning is somewhat typical of the upper middle class men of the era. He has a nice home with many servants. He expects his sons to get a good education and take their place as heads of their own households. His daughter should grow up to marry a nice, preferably well off, man.
The one omnipresent wild card in this deck of characters is Tess’s older brother Coop, who represents the world outside Seneca Falls to Tess and to us. Tess often speaks of Coop’s life and escapades, invariably in envious terms, even when the events of Coop’s life, barroom brawls and his harsh life as a “canawler,” appear somewhat barbaric. That barbarism represents freedom that Tess never sees and, if her society has its way, never will.
All these wonderfully described characters populate a story that seems routine, mirroring the issues of the time. However, we slowly realize that there are several subplots in Georgia Ann Mullen’s story. We realize that Tess, though not always a participant, is at the center of events that will change her life, the lives of many of those around her, and the lives of Americans over the next century and a half. Tess begins as an observer, but she soon finds herself participating along with others, many of whom would prefer to remain in the background, but eventually realize that they have a chance to change, if not their lives, the lives of their daughters, for the better.
The pace of the book is quick, but becomes almost frenetic as we near the end. Indeed, events happen so quickly that the story grabbed me and dragged me to the final pages almost faster than I could read. The ending was…shocking, and an opening into the next book in Georgia’s series, due out next year.
Comments about the writing and editing should seamlessly be part of the review, but I could not figure out where to put these comments in so I get an awkward paragraph. First, I was impressed with Mullen’s ability to make the characters accessible. Yes, these people are multiple generations in our past, but they seemed quite real. These people are, as should be no surprise, just like us. Second, the editing was superb. I found one, tiny error in the book, which would be excellent for any book.
This book provides a rare glimpse into the lives of women in civilized United States society about 1848 (in contrast with the lives of women on the frontier, which could be quite different). Not just any lives, but the lives of women present at the genesis of the suffrage movement, a movement that continues today. Mullen’s perspective on women’s lives more than a century and a half ago and using events associated with the first public women’s rights conference completely fascinated me and I look forward to the next volume in her series.