Executioner’s Song: Real History, Real Romance

THE TRAITOR’S WIFE by Kathleen Kent

Real history and the author’s family lore combine for an intensely romantic tale with a larger than life badass hero and a dangerously outspoken badass heroine

The Setting: Eastern Massachusetts (Middlesex County, north and west of Boston) in the hardscrabble 17th century countryside. The IMG_5158story takes place in and around towns I visit regularly today, along the Concord River, and up towards Salem. There’s something about the specificity of place, landscape, and architecture that has always made historical fiction even more compelling for me as a reader when I am fortunate enough to visit sites that evoke the setting of a well-loved novel. I can’t help it, I am a sucker for the ‘historical squee’ of breathing in the atmosphere of a historic place or standing on a spot where history happened, even if it’s now doing time as a gas station or Starbucks  (there are a lot of these spots in my town).

It’s quite possible my deep response to this richly rewarding novel is influenced by my other obsession with the history and material culture of colonial New England.

But back to the love story –

He: Thomas Carrier, tall, silent hired man with mysterious past, uncanny strength, and immense capacity to hold love and secrets in his heart. A Welshman, former bodyguard of Charles I and later soldier for Cromwell, he’s an outlander in the insular Puritan community and rumors abound about his role in the killing of a king.

She: Martha Allen, difficult, outspoken daughter; capable, pragmatic servant in her petulant married cousin’s household; a fatally independent thinker and keeper of secret and painful histories, she ultimately faces persecution for witchcraft.

Brought to you by:  Kathleen Kent, in The Traitor’s Wife (2010; Little, Brown/originally in hardcover as The Wolves of Andover).

From the publisher (jacket copy):  In the harsh wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, Martha Allen works as a servant in her cousin’s household, taking charge and locking wills with everyone. Thomas Carrier labors for the family and is known both for his immense strength and size and mysterious past. The two begin a courtship that suits their independent natures, with Thomas slowly revealing the story of his part in the English Civil War. But in the rugged new world they inhabit, danger is ever present, whether it be from the assassins sent from London to kill the executioner of Charles I or the wolves-in many forms-who hunt for blood. A tale of love, courage, and independence, The Traitor’s Wife confirms Kathleen Kent’s ability to craft powerful stories set against the dramatic background of America’s earliest days.

This book blurs the lines between romance and literary historical fiction as greatly as anything I’ve read in quite a while.  It’s also a form of family memoir, since the author has fashioned a love story from the known facts of the lives of her nine-greats grandparents. Martha Carrier was executed for witchcraft in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, and this novel is a prequel for Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter (2009), which tells the story of Martha’s children during the terrible time of her arrest, imprisonment and execution.

Kent writes eloquently in the afterword about her research process and the significance of these powerful stories passed down through the generations in her family.  Both Thomas and Martha were historical figures whose lives were shadowed by dark deeds, and somewhat shrouded in mystery. The historical facts of Martha’s prosecution are more readily available (though of course there is no single “answer” to the historical mystery of the witchcraft hysteria itself – why then? why this town and those girls?), but the legend and lore surrounding Thomas as the executioner of Charles I remain murkier.

In relating her fictional endeavor to her historical research and family traditions, Kent powerfully articulates a rejection of the Halloween-izing of the witchcraft trials and the peculiar devolution of Salem’s rich and complex history to its annual October masquerade as “The Witch City.” I’ve refrained from casting this as a Halloween post in spite of the date on the calendar and my own culturally ingrained initial connection between the witchcraft context and Halloween this week.

Traditional romance doesn’t usually feature actual historical personages, except as secondary characters, and I can’t think of another trad romance featuring the author’s own ancestors. Certainly everything about this book, from its serious treatment of harsh historical truths, its beautifully rendered prose and layered storytelling, to its packaging and marketing, says “serious historical fiction.”

Yet at its core The Traitor’s Wife is a love story. And it’s a love story that touched me deeply. I found it achingly romantic.  So I started to think about my response to this novel as a romance, and why I had a reading experience that was emotionally similar to my experience when reading a tremendously satisfying historical romance novel.  It really makes me wonder why, and whether, we – consumers and/or producers of fiction — are so invested in being able to neatly label books as one thing or another.  Or are we? Is this literary historical fiction, traditional historical fiction (genre fiction), and/or romance fiction? And what is the significance of the re-branding of this book, from the hardcover The Wolves of Andover to the softcover The Traitor’s Wife?  It still doesn’t look like a romance novel, but something about the newer cover signals “women’s fiction” to me. It certainly makes the marital relationship the titular center of the story, and sidelines the parallel narrative of the “wolves” (these are the brutal and sadistic assassins — the villains, if this were a romance novel, whose evil and ominous pursuit of the hero is conveyed via short interspersed alternate POV chapters — sent by the Crown (Charles II) to track down the regicides in the colonies and bring them back to face a traitor’s death).

I’ve come up with 5 fundamental ways The Traitor’s Wife feels like reading a good romance novel. I’m sure in some circles a statement like that about a “serious” work of historical fiction would cause a pang of anguish, but as anyone who has visited this blog before knows, when I say “like a good romance novel” I mean “I loved this book and highly recommend it, for romance readers, history lovers, and for people as serious about reading as I am.”

Hero and Heroine POV. Martha’s POV is the primary one, but when silent Thomas lets down his guard he offers her, and the reader, lengthy reminiscences and stories that reveal his past, his priorities, and his heart.  These near-soliloquies are so deftly woven in that they never feel like exposition, and they layer in the hero’s POV without head-jumping or inner “he reflected on her incredible awesomeness” nonsense.

Focus on characters. Much of the plot development occurs as back story so the timeframe encompassed by the novel primarily focuses on the interactions and domestic routines that build the relationship between Martha and Thomas over a period of months. As the two strongest adults in a household at the edge of the wilderness (the master and mistress are depicted as ‘weaker’ and less capable by virtue of Daniel’s frequent absences and infidelity and Patience’s helpless petulance and pregnancy), they bond by fighting off predators (wild animals, disease, hostile human threats) together. They find in the other a fortitude and survival instinct to match their own.

Banter.  If there is such a thing as flirting via taciturn banter of a semi-hostile nature, this is it. The spoken and unspoken communication between this couple is a big part of this novel’s appeal as a romance.

“What’s a Swedish feather?”

He turned to her, startled, with raised brows, as though she had asked him to jump off a cliff.

“John says I have a tongue like a Swedish feather.” She had asked the question in all earnestness, but when he moved to hide a smile, she bridled.

He straightened his mouth and answered, “It’s a weapon. A short pike with a steel-pointed blade. I say so as I have had necessity to use one.”

“And where,” she asked stiffly, “would you have had use for such a one as those?”

“Most times, missus,” he said, standing, “between the eyes and the belly.”

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition pp. 101-102)

I just love how Thomas routinely leaves sharp-tongued Martha grasping for his meaning, offering her space to come to her own conclusions.  While simultaneously revealing the knife-edge intensity of his feelings for her.  Her strength, desire, and pain gut him, she is deep beneath his skin.

Space for female sexuality/sexual desire.  Martha’s inner narration frequently reveals the tense and vibrating nature of her gaze when in proximity to Thomas, and she begins to notice him physically long before she begins to have substantive conversations with him. She has much to overcome in order to allow herself to feel and act upon her own desire, and when they share physical intimacy it is truly an expression of love and redemption. The brief love scenes are never what romance readers would refer to as ‘steamy’ but nor do they retreat into the arch vocabulary of historically circumspect and discreet language.  There is a rawness, grace, and physicality that I found quite powerful.

HEA/HFN. This may be the real ‘stretch’ in making an argument for Martha and Thomas as a love story that functions as a rewarding romance read. Because this is a prequel and they are historical figures, most readers will already know there is no Happy Ever After for this couple. And in fact the end of their story, as told by Kent in the earlier book (The Heretic’s Daughter), is so wrenching and painful it is one of the saddest and most affecting books I read last year. But take The Traitor’s Wife on its own merits, embrace the Happy For Now of these scarred and battle-weary survivors, and there is a deep satisfaction in seeing them married and settled together on a piece of land at the end of this beautiful novel:

The couple being poor, and they being of remarkable fortitude for work, I have offered them, along with Carrier’s man, John Levistone, a good plot of land from my own holdings, in return for some period of labor and a gold coin given to Goodwife Carrier by her father.

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition p.288)

This happy ending is recounted in the form of documents, which means that we get just fragments from which to imagine their union. But it is enough, to see Martha as Goodwife Carrier, and the two of them working the land together, as equal partners as was possible given the legalities and customs of the time.

It strikes me now, as I try to wrap up this long-overdue post, that what’s missing from this book, as a romance, is an epilogue after the epilogue of the documents.  Instead, there’s a letter from Martha to her daughter Sarah. Not exactly the traditional romance “baby epilogue.” Rather wrenchingly the letter sort of aft-shadows the tone and voice of the companion book, Sarah’s story (The Heretic’s Daughter).

Even in the passage I just quoted, “Goodwife” itself evokes the “Goody” of “Goody Carrier” — for some, myself included, that is all it takes to transport the mind to the awful milieu of 1692, Cotton Mather, the “afflicted” girls, and the tragic mayhem of the witch trials.

There’s a lot to wrestle with here, but I simply love the fact that after writing truly the most harrowing and powerful fictional account of the trials I have ever read (it was generally well reviewed, in the New York Times, for example), Kent went back and lovingly crafted this elegiac romance to commemorate who Martha and Thomas were before they became “the accused,” and how they fell in love.

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6 thoughts on “Executioner’s Song: Real History, Real Romance

  1. Miss Bates says:

    This book sounds wonderful … and so succinctly and elegantly advocated in the post. Miss B. is looking for Christmas gifts for beloved friends, with a view to 😉 making some romance converts and you’ve added an weapon to her arsenal! You’ve made it sound so moving and interesting.

    • pamela1740 says:

      It is wonderful book! I do find myself rather bogged down with questions of genre here, though. I think it’s doubtful that romance readers who want a genuine, unshadowed HEA would enjoy this as much as I did, at least not if reading it as a romance novel. I read it for the history, and sort of accidentally experienced it as a romance. Probably because it is the genre with which I am most familiar, and I saw some basic parallels with romance conventions.

      But I skimmed rather blithely past the suspense aspect of the plot in my review, because it was less interesting to me. There are these interspersed short chapters portraying the professional torturers and assassins who have been sent to capture Thomas (the “wolves”), and they add to the novel’s darkness and sense of foreboding. For me, these chapters interrupted the story I was really enjoying, and I probably didn’t read them as closely. Not quite as bad as my wholesale skimming/skipping of many chapters of evil “Lesser” POV in JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood novels, but this is a similar literary structure and I am similarly disengaged with it. Now that I think about it, I frequently rush through villain POV-speak in romance novels — I understand that it functions in various subgenres romances to make the eventual triumph of the H/h that much more meaningful, but there are many instances where I find it uninteresting to spend that much time inside the villain’s head.

      Lest you worry I have totally gone off my rocker in proposing to read this book as a romance novel, I hasten to assure you that Martha and Thomas do in fact prevail over these and lesser villains as well. I certainly think it would be an intriguing strategy of an experimental nature to include this in a romance conversion kit!

      • Miss Bates says:

        I skip the villain’s bits too … romance rarely does really good villains, I think. Though mystery novels often do, I used to read a lot Ruth Rendell. She did really good villains. But I’ve had enough of villains, so I’d skim those parts in this book too. Historical fiction was my first loving read: from grade school, when I read Cue for Treason, Eagle of the 9th, and Witch of Blackbird Pond over and over again.

        As for my conversion kit: well, I’m reading a book now where a character gets that scrunched nose of judgement look that people who scorn romance get, the one that looks like a bad smell has entered the room … and I’m hoping that a book like this might ease some buddies in, lure them! 🙂

  2. Becky Hirst says:

    OK, after reading your review of “The Traitor’s Wife,” I am intrigued! I just finished reading another really great historical fiction/romance, “A Thousand Years of Johnny Von” by Edith M. Cortese and loved it! I especially love how the novel is easy to read, it has depth in the content, but a light page turning quality to the work. I am desperately looking for a new book to read. Looks like “The Traitor’s Wife” is my next pick! Thanks for recommending it!

    http://www.trumpetboypress.com/

  3. […] Andover and Salem in the years prior to the witch hunts, the former is so achingly romantic I reviewed it as a romance even though it is so not a Happy Ever After story. It was a beautiful HFN, though. […]

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