"Decency requires the truth and love requires a lie." This was
the moral dilemma Isabella Beecher Hooker faced when brother Henry Ward Beecher,
the most celebrated and famous preacher of the 19th Century, went on
trial for adultery. Isabella chose to take the decency route and this choice
cost her the friendship of her beloved sister, Harriet, who insisted her brother
was innocent of charges. This question is at the heart of this story of two
sisters and how best to serve their love for their brotherthrough loyalty or
The book's action takes place in two days of March 1887. Henry Ward Beecher is dying as the family gathers near and the public waits at his doorstep. But in flashbacks, through the alternating voices of Harriet and Isabella, the reader is taken back to the year 1872 where we come to intimately know the members of this powerful literary and political family. To put these events into the perspective of today's culture it has been said that the Beechers were the Kennedys of the 19th Century. Everything they did was newsworthy. When Henry is put on trial for adultery, it was called the Trial of the Century.
As if this isn't enough to make the story interesting, the reader is given intimate details of real-life characters such as Samuel Clemens, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas and Julia Ward Howe. One only has to recall the very recent presidential election of 2008 where potential candidates were both a woman and an African-American to truly appreciate the actions of these early Americans. With their dedication to a cause and the courage to act upon their beliefs, often at great risk to themselves, they laid the ground work in fields of women's suffrage and abolition. They blazed trails for future Americans to participate fully in government, regardless of sex, race or creed.
Although the history is rich and accurate, (actual transcripts of the trial are woven into the story), the beauty of this story lies in O'Brien's ability to capture the external events while giving the reader a glimpse into what she imagines was in the heads and hearts of these noble people. Although they were influential in shaping America's character in the 19th Century, O'Brien reminds us that even the most brilliant icons are only human.
It is also a page-turner in that the reader wants to know the outcome of the trial and more importantly the fate of the sisters' relationship. Isabella has been banned from the Beecher home by Henry's wife, Eunice, but will she be allowed one final meeting with the brother she loves on his deathbed? Does his death reunite the sisters or prolong their estrangement?
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.
Patricia O'Brien is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Glory Cloak and co-author of I Know Just What You Mean, a New York Times best-seller.
When asked about her writing process for Harriet & Isabella, Ms. O'Brien says, "The most important process at the beginning was deciding what to discard. The Beecher saga is incredibly rich. The connection I needed to Harriet was the gold slave bracelet given to her by the Duchess of Sutherland. I had the great satisfaction not only of tracking it down on the Internet in the listed contents of boxes from Beecher repositories, but of briefly slipping it over my wrist and wondering how Harriet felt the night it was placed on hers."
"Another part of weaving the past into my story was walking the streets of Brooklyn Heights, especially on a snowy night when it's easier to imagine carriages clattering down the streets and gaslights flickering behind the windows of the brownstones. Being on the site where history happens anchors imagination."
When asked what she hoped the reader would take away from this story, her reply speaks to the heart of the story: "I hope in an era where sound bites pass for wisdom and where certitude is somehow a virtue, that readers will reflect a little on the ambiguities of the human heart. In real life, it isn't always easy to know what is the "right" thing to do. Motives can be mixed, truth can be murky, and loyalty can be blind. It's not just about the frailty of great people. It's about all of us."
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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