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Book Review: My Name is Resolute

By (February 8, 2014) No Comment

My Name is Resolutemy name is resolute

by Nancy E. Turner

Thomas Dunne Books, 2014

 

Can it really be 75 years already? Three-quarters of a century since the redoubtable Elizabeth Page published her 950-page magnum opus historical novel, The Tree of Liberty in 1939, a sprawling work that follows the interlocked destinies of three families through the tumultuous decades leading up to America’s Revolutionary War and first years as a new nation. The Tree of Liberty was a Literary Guild selection with a very healthy print-run, and Page transformed her copious research into dramatically effective intimate details:

Colonel Hamilton made so plain the terrific risk of leaving great power to the state governments, of allowing the people to injure themselves, and his distrust was so thoroughly confirmed by all that brilliant company that it seemed impossible any intelligent man could disagree. There was General Knox who had been sent by Congress to help Massachusetts suppress Shay’s Rebellion. He grew so excited explaining how that uprising proved the inability of Americans ot govern themselves that he incessantly wound and unwound the black silk handkerchief he wore to hide his mutilated fingers.

But it was long, a great big block of a thing. A novel that size imposes its own gravitational field on its readers; they can’t just dash their way through it. Novels like Page’s calmly refuse to blurt their secrets – they’re elaborately planned and painstakingly executed – you’ll either adapt to their way of doing things, or you’ll be forced to go elsewhere in search of your reading pleasure.

In the 21st century, you’d almost think such novels had entirely disappeared, replaced by shorter, more impressionistic works told in the present tense and larded with the rhetorical jump-cuts a video-gaming culture has come to expect. The weary, cynical thing to say would be this: if Elizabeth Page, lugging a manuscript the size of a microwave oven, tried to sell Tree of Liberty today, she’d find no takers.

But somebody at Thomas Dunne Books obviously believes otherwise. In Nancy Turner’s fourth book, My Name is Resolute, a chance is being taken that behemoth historical novels following decades of life in colonial-era America still have a claim on the sensibilities of the reading public. And it’s a good gamble: this is Turner’s best book by a long measure, a deeply involving and unassumingly ambitious work that succeeds in virtually everything it sets out to do.

It’s the story of Resolute Talbot, who’s kidnapped with her brother and sister from their family’s Jamaican plantation in 1729 and launched on a series of adventures that eventually land them in New England as indentured servants, little better than slaves, complete with slave-style re-naming by their “employers” (Resolute’s stubborn refusal to surrender this part of her identity is one of the meanings of the book’s wonderful title). Resolute is taught the craft of spinning and weaving, and as the years pass, her life in Lexington, Massachusetts steadily fills with people: her husband, Cullah, her siblings, her children and grandchildren, and her friends.

One character early on in the book comments to Resolute: “Your eyes are so hard. Your soul is far away, is it not? You must accept your life. So much sadness you have seen.” But much later in the narrative, Resolute’s friend Margaret accuses her of the same hardness: “Resolute, you are so unkind,” she say, to which Resolute replies, “I am not unkind. I am honest with the people I love.” It’s one of the book’s countless well-realized moments of insight into Resolute’s nature.

As she grows older and more sure of herself, as she weathers the daily-life hardships and catastrophes colonial-era life throws at her, Resolute becomes more and more of an emotional pillar of strength for those she knows and loves. This very quality becomes increasingly tricky as the novel’s storyline draws closer and closer to the revolt of Massachusetts against the depredations of the distant Crown, not only because Resolute’s two sons, Brendan and Benjamin, find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, and not only because Resolute herself is increasingly involving herself with the Bay Colony’s power elite, many of whom are actively involved in fomenting colonial unrest (among other name-brand patriots like Paul Revere and Joseph Warren, for instance, she meets the “alarmingly attractive” John Hancock). And trickiest of all his her relationship with Margaret, who’s often openly envious of the heft and sincere worth of Resolute’s life:

There is nothing but talk of war from every quarter. I am so tired of it. That night spent hunting for your grandbabe made me realize I have so little of what is real in this life. I have made a life of pretense and meddling. It is all for nothing. Everything that matters at all was in the eyes of your granddaughter, lost all night long, the face on that little girl when she saw her mother and father. The joy of finding your man. You have everything, Ressie. I am a hollow shell.

The reason Resolute’s dealings with Margaret become trickier than her dealings with everybody else is because Margaret is married to General Gage, the man in charge of the growing British military presence in Boston and the surrounding towns. This sense of inexorably-tightening occupation becomes almost unbearably sharp in the book’s final fifth; these hundred pages are the best in the book, and a huge part of their power derives from the slow, incremental life-journey on which we’ve been accompanying Resolute for 500 pages. By the time she begins to experience the pinches of privation, we’re ready to experience them right alongside her:

Every week that went by it became harder to afford things we used to spill. Flour and salt, sugar and tea. We tried to sell our vegetables but people did not buy. Beer was so high we bought cider, and Cullah built a cider press so we could make our own, but we could not make enough in one harvest to last a year, and it would get hard so soon that at times the children went to be drunk.

My Name is Resolute is a slightly defiant oddity, an old-style Victorian-era “triple decker” of a novel that should be absorbed and savored as much for the lovely, tensile line of its prose (“The trees were lush with fruit, the grounds smelled of vegetation and yesterday’s rain,” Resolute notes at one point, “Swirls of mosquitoes boiled in the dappled sunlight”) as for its well-drawn cast of characters, foremost Resolute herself, narrating the whole story from the vantage point of her hard-won and contentious old age. The Literary Guild doesn’t endorse books like this anymore (its attentions have turned to anorexic cookbooks and gory cop-thrillers), but I most certainly do.