“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril.
Eden, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance.
Ingeniously plotted to a riveting end, Sarah and Eden’s woven lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.
The two timelines in this split-narrative story are united by place, centered on a single home in New Charleston, West Virginia.
In the contemporary storyline, we follow Eden, a woman whose marriage is on the rocks after years of failed fertility treatments. In a last-ditch effort to both conceive a child and repair their relationship, Eden and husband Jack have left city life behind to settle in a small town. Here, Eden gets to know the cute neighbor kid and then the other townspeople, finding in this little place a welcoming community and a home.
Meanwhile, in the historical chapters, we meet Sarah Brown, daughter of radical abolitionist John Brown. The books opens right around the time of the failed Harper’s Ferry uprising, closely followed by John Brown’s hanging. Sarah vows to carry on her father’s work with the Underground Railroad (the UGRR), using her artistic talents to create pictographs that escaping slaves can use as maps as they find their way to freedom.
Sadly, neither storyline drew me in. Sarah’s story should have been interesting, yet there were big gaps that kept me from connecting with her. Perhaps it was the choppy approach to the narrative, jumping forward months at a time and with the alternating timeline constantly breaking up any momentum in her story. In any case, Sarah’s art and her work for the UGRR are not adequately explained or developed, and I never got a strong sense of the impact of her artwork or felt that her personal story had a true dramatic arc.
Meanwhile, Eden’s part of the story is all fairly trite. A small town full of quirky townspeople, a whimsical bookstore, a cute girl and adorable puppy, a corporate career woman embracing a slower yet more meaningful way of life — none of it seems particularly new or engaging.
The connection between the two halves of the tale is a porcelain doll’s head that Eden finds in a hidden cubby in her house. The doll’s head prompts Eden to try to get the house listed as an historical site — and of course, this head can be traced back to Sarah and the UGRR.
I fully expected to love this story, based on the description. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d usually enjoy. Something about the execution, though, made the book feel really bland to me. The characters felt flat and lifeless. Sarah seemed very cookie-cutter to me, lacking true agency, and Eden could have been anyone.
I was interested to note, via the author’s note at the end, that all of the places and dates in Sarah’s story were real. Knowing nothing about John Brown’s family previously, I had no real sense in reading the story as to which bits were based on history and which were purely fictional. I wish I’d read the notes ahead of time — perhaps that might have helped me feel more engaged.
The history itself is interesting — the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry, the secret network that kept the UGRR alive in the South, and the impact of the Civil War on the townspeople, both during and after the war. The novel itself, though, lacks a sense of energy and movement. Ultimately, I had to force myself to keep reading and came close to abandoning the book several times. In fact, even close to the end, I didn’t really care very much, and had to actually remind myself that there was still more to read.
Those interested in Civil War history may find this an interesting perspective on the role of women in the abolitionist movement. However, I suspect that reading historical non-fiction about the Browns might prove more enlightening and engaging than this novel.
Title: The Mapmaker’s Children
Author: Sarah McCoy
Publication date: May 5, 2015
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher