Excerpt from Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Harriet and Isabella

by Patricia O'Brien

Harriet and Isabella
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2009, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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Print Excerpt


Had those snickers and snatches of song bothered him? Or did he come so to believe his own recounting of events that he became detached from the pain and the lies that destroyed so much? Isabella wonders where that calamity lives in his heart. She knows where it is in hers.

She draws back into the room. She can't afford to let anyone see her yet, particularly her sister Harriet, who arrived in her carriage late last night. It was Harriet, after all, who sent the chilly note reminding her she was not welcome in Henry's home. Sitting back in Hartford with that note on her lap, staring at the formality of its stiff phrasing, parsing each word for hidden meaning, Isabella had made her decision: enough of deferring to the nurtured wrath of her family. She would go to Brooklyn.

She walks now over to the chest and picks up a pink tortoiseshell hand mirror, stroking the garnet beads that frame the back in a graceful, curving line. How many times has she done this? Hundreds of times.

"They aren't real," Hattie had said quickly when Isabella, with a cry of pleasure, pulled the mirror from its wrappings on her fifteenth birthday.

"Why would I care? It's beautiful, Hattie, it's the most beautiful thing I own. Thank you, thank you!" She threw her arms around her older sister.

"I wanted you to have something elegant," Hattie whispered, hugging her back. "I wanted you to see how lovely you are. But be sure to keep it in your room. Father would disapprove."

Isabella had nodded silently. Lyman Beecher was a towering figure of moral authority, both at home and throughout the nation, and he would call this a vain, frivolous gift, a bauble flouting modesty, an occasion for the sin of pride. It awed her to realize Hattie was willing to risk his displeasure.

"I would like to be a writer someday, like you," Isabella had said shyly as Hattie leaned over to pick up the wrapping paper crumpled on the floor. Harriet glanced up with a smile, and then said something Isabella would never forget: "You are a dear girl, Bella, and just as smart as anyone in this family, and you will find your own way. I want you to start by enjoying the gifts God has given you."

So long ago...Isabella stares down at the mirror in her hand. She has never reached the level of Hattie's fame, but she has made a name for herself. She has traveled the country, speaking and organizing women to fight for suffrage and legal rights, trying to instill in them a passion for what should be theirs. She has tried to stay true to her values. Would that Hattie valued her for that.

Why has she kept this old treasure all these years? And why did she bring it with her?

Slowly she turns the mirror and stares into the glass. She no longer sees the surface image -- the dark hair and smooth skin that still draw attention. She would like to find some clue as to who she really is, but the mirror won't tell her that. So what is she looking for? Hattie, of course. All her life, she has looked for resemblance to the vibrant, brilliant sister she loves most, straining to see more similarity than could ever have been possible with two different mothers. How exciting it had felt as a young woman to stand proudly and say, "Yes, my sister is Harriet Beecher Stowe, and yes, she is indeed the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin." How thrilling to realize her big sister had awakened the nation to the evils of slavery and shaped the focus of the War Between the States, an amazing achievement, all with the imagined story of one humble man.

"Hattie, where did you go? Where are you?" She listens to the sound of her own voice in the empty room, hearing it more as an echo deep from the past. From when?

She closes her eyes. It was that first summer in Cincinnati, after Lyman Beecher moved the entire family west to establish a new seminary. She was ten years old. She can feel the spongy wood of the old dock under her feet, smell the acrid, soupy air, hear the water sloshing against the rotting piles.

Copyright © 2008 by Patricia O'Brien.

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