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


Someone laughed.

"You haven't proved anything, you just scared the son of a bitch," the captain said with a chuckle. "All right, climb on. We'll hash it out on the other side."

The man was still on his knees, his head hanging down between his arms, which were pulled taut by the connecting chain. He looked like he was praying, Isabella thought.

"Get up," said the captain. He yanked on the chain, pulling the slave to his feet. The line moved on again. When the man shuffled past Isabella, she smelled something strange and acrid, a very different smell from that of sweat on a hot day. What was she smelling? Suddenly panicked, Isabella began flailing against the legs of the men pressing forward.

"Hattie, Hattie, where did you go?" she wailed. "Where are you?"

Someone shouted that a child was alone on the dock. Men who had been focused on the escaped slaves began looking down at her, which only made her scream louder. One tried to pick her up, and she punched out at him, refusing touch or help. But then suddenly Hattie's familiar arms were wrapped around her.

"I thought I lost you, I thought you fell in the water," Harriet said, holding her tight, her voice shaky with relief.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Isabella sobbed. "I'm sorry I let go."

Later that night, back at home in Walnut Hills, they lay in bed, hugging each other. "Hattie, what did I smell when those poor people in chains were going onto the boat? What was it?" Isabella asked.

Harriet pulled her so close, she could feel the thumping of her heart. "You smelled fear, Bella," she said. "The fear of people who are never free. It's wrong, it's wrong."

Isabella would remember that talk with Harriet as her first lesson on the dark contradictions of human souls. Good people turned away from slavery because they felt no moral obligation to interfere, Harriet said, her voice trembling with anger. They wanted trade with the South, so they kept quiet. Hypocrisy was the enemy of truth, she said. It was the coward's way out, and don't you forget it, Bella.

In the boardinghouse, she wipes her eyes, reminding herself that brooding only feeds the strange pleasure of melancholy, and she cannot afford that anymore. She has to believe that Harriet suffers too, otherwise their love for each other could not have been real, and that would be a travesty. The big sister who taught her to read at the age of five by holding up word cards, who patiently coaxed her through learning her sums, who walked her to school each day for those precious few years she was allowed to attend -- could she truly be gone? No, it wasn't possible.

But the truth is, her family is gathering today in a house that has no room for her. In this neighborhood of elegant homes graced with mellow brownstone stoops and finely wrought iron balustrades, she sits in a room with mouse droppings. On the sidewalk, the reporters think of her as the shunned daughter of the famed Beecher family. The pariah. What an irony that her banishment came for telling the truth.

"I am not crazy," she whispers into the air. "No matter who says so."

She hears something new from outside, a different sound. A snatch of song? Isabella goes back to the window and gazes across the street in the direction of Plymouth Church. She glances again at the sidewalk in front of Henry's house and sees the bowler hats watching a strange-looking creature perform some kind of dance. She rubs her eyes. It cannot be. But yes, a man dressed as a caricature of Uncle Tom, his face darkened with lampblack and burnt cork, his lips wide, thick, and painted a gleaming white, is prancing before the Beecher home.

Beecher, Beecher is my name -- Beecher till I die!
I never kissed Mis' Tilton -- I never told a lie!

"Go away, you stupid fool!" she screams before she can stop herself. She sticks her fist out the window and shakes it, venting her rage, only to see the figure in blackface dance away down the street, followed by the guilty chuckles of the bowler hats.

Copyright © 2008 by Patricia O'Brien.

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