Summary and book reviews of Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien

Harriet and Isabella

By Patricia O'Brien

Harriet and Isabella

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Book Summary

It is 1887, and Henry Ward Beecher lies dying. Reporters from around the world, eager for one last story about the most lurid scandal of their time, descend on Brooklyn Heights, their presence signaling the beginning of the voracious appetite for fallen celebrities we know so well today.

When Henry Ward Beecher was put on trial for adultery in 1875, the question of his guilt or innocence was ferociously debated. His trial not only split the country, it split apart his family, causing a particularly bitter rift between his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Harriet remained loyal to Henry, while Isabella called publicly for him to admit his guilt. What had been a loving, close relationship between two sisters plummeted into bitter blame and hurt.

Harriet and Isabella each had a major role in the social revolutions unfolding around them, but what happened in their hearts when they were forced to face a question of justice much closer to home? Now they struggle: who best served Henry -- the one who was steadfast or the one who demanded honesty?

Chapter One

Brooklyn Heights
March 7, 1887, 7:00 a.m.


A persistent skittering sound from the darkened space between floor and baseboard pulls Isabella from an uneasy sleep. She sits up, shivering in her thin cambric nightgown, scanning the room. The bed in which she lies, no more than rusting scrap iron, creaks ominously as she hugs her knees to her chest.

Her gaze travels from an old sideboard with broken drawer pulls to the green curtains hanging like seaweed from the window, resting finally on a scattering of black pellets that confirm the origin of the sound coming from the floorboards.

Mice. She hates mice.

What is she doing here? She wonders if she is insane after all.

But the day has begun, and there's no use crouching in a ball feeling sorry for herself, wishing only that she could drift back to sleep and pick up the threads of her dream. She had been a child again, with Henry's large hands gripping hers, swinging her by the arms, both of them ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Discussion Points

  1. On page 10, Harriet tells a young Isabella that hypocrisy is the enemy of truth, the coward's way out. What circumstances prompt this moral proclamation, and how deeply does it affect Isabella?
  2. Discuss Harriet's and Isabella's opinions of each other as each reflects on the past while Henry lies dying.
  3. After seeing a woman struck by her disapproving husband at Anna Dickinson's speech in Hartford, Isabella realizes how closely paralleled are slavery and the treatment of women, especially underprivileged women. What similarities do you see in the abolition and women's suffrage movements and their philosophies as described in this novel? Do you agree that the situation of the slave and that ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

There are many good reasons to recommend this book but perhaps it's greatest strength is that through the skillful characterization of Harriet and Isabella I could understand why each one felt the way she did. Their actions seem perfectly justified based on the background we are given in their formative years, not only as individuals but as the role they played within the family unit. It's amazing that against the broad background of sweeping historical events, O'Brien's attention to personal and intimate details is what puts the reader exactly where they want to be--immersed in a great story.   (Reviewed by Vy Armour).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Geraldine Brooks
While everyone has heard of Uncle Tom's Cabin and can name its famous author, few know the story of the distinguished family from which she came, the remarkable Beecher clan. In Harriet and Isabella, Patricia O'Brien has brought the Beecher family back to life. These passionate abolitionists, ardent preachers, and reformers are also touchingly fallible human beings, whose loves, feuds, and scandals provide O'Brien with more than a family drama, but rather the drama of an American era.

Author Blurb Gore Vidal
The trial of Henry Ward Beecher and its impact provoked an earthquake in the political life of the United States. Now, Patricia O'Brien has given the Beecher family its due long after the original scandal has faded away.

Publishers Weekly

Which of my stories was true? That the question remains just makes the telling juicier, and O'Brien delivers just enough history to make a reader feel virtuous while savoring the gossip.

Library Journal - Kathy Piehl

This intriguing novel illuminates the era's political and social struggles as well as the stresses within a celebrity family.

Booklist

O'Brien provides an interesting new spin on an infamous nineteenth—century scandal...Authentically detailed, this finely wrought historical novel also features plenty of family drama and juicy dish.

Kirkus Reviews

This could have easily become a soapy melodrama, but O'Brien smartly blends history about this fascinating family with moral questions that have no easy answers. A winning piece of historical fiction.

The Washington Post - Carolyn See

What happens when a family sets itself up as a symbol of moral purity? What happens when that standard is threatened or breached? And—when push comes to shove—where should one's individual loyalties lie…This novel is about our country's ideas and ideals, how we strive, incessantly, to be better than anyone else in the world, and how, sometimes spectacularly, we fail.

Reader Reviews
Kim

Good historical fiction
There were several things that surprised me about this book. The first that struck me was the way the author chose to structure her narrative. Its beginning scenes take place as Henry Beecher is dying, but flashbacks soon take the reader back to ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Absinthe & Brooklyn

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was the best-selling novel of the 19th century (and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible) and is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850's. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States alone. Considering that the population of the USA was about 23 million in 1850 that would be equivalent to about 4 million copies being sold in one year today. The book's impact was so great that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the American Civil War, Lincoln is often quoted as having declared, "So this is the little lady who ...

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