Desert Isle Keeper
Fans of Susanna Kearsley have waited three years for Bellewether and I think the majority will find that this novel lives up to their hopes and expectations.
Charley Van Hoek doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she does believe in family. When her brother dies, Charley goes to Long Island’s Northshore to be near her niece and to take over the curatorship of the Wilde House Museum. The legacy of the building comes from Benjamin Wilde, a daring privateer and dashing hero of the revolution. Everyone seems most interested in him, but Charley finds herself fascinated by a different Wilde, Benjamin’s sister Lydia. The fable surrounding her has given rise to a saga of doomed romance; it is a love story built on honor and duty which ends with a tragic ghost.
In 1759 the Wilde clan is a knotted mess of familial threads. Eldest brother Reauben has no love for his youngest brother Zebulon and seems to delight in causing chaos in his life. Reauben’s latest volley in that arena is volunteering his brother to billet two captured French army officers, which is a problem, since that branch of the family has suffered at the hands of the French during the current war and has no desire for semi-permanent guests of that nationality. With no way to decline, Zebulon brings home his uninvited tenants.
Lydia, young and beautiful, has had the matriarchy of the family forced upon her by her mother’s death. She is struggling to keep the peace between her brothers Joseph and Benjamin and has no desire for the added burden of keeping peace between her brothers and the French officers. She is especially disturbed by French-Canadian lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran. While not able to speak English, he communicates his lack of desire to be there and his deep wish to return to his men very clearly. He is also a vastly observant man – and that observation has Lydia being equally watchful of him. Which is literally all they do for eighty percent of the book: look at each other with varying degrees of interest, hostility or desire. The language barrier – Lydia speaks no French and Philippe no English – keeps them from exchanging more than a few words, most of which are banal pleasantries.
Our modern-day hero and heroine don’t fare much better. Charley was made curator of the museum against the wishes of one of the board members, and she has to fend off the hostility of that woman while establishing herself in the community and proving herself in the job. Fortunately, she has help with that. Sam, the contractor working on the reconstruction of various parts of Wilde House, is smitten with Charley from the first. He pretty much smooths things over for her as much as possible, from buying her practical gifts like a hard hat and boots, to fixing the wonky door in her home that never closes right. This couple also excels at longing looks and limited communication, keeping the bulk of their conversation centered on practical matters and not moving towards any kind of relationship beyond casual friendship until the story is almost over.
That novel revolves around three things. The first is life in pre-revolutionary America. The author does an excellent job of taking us through the day-to-day existence of middle-class people and giving us an interesting and informative glimpse at how The Seven Years War played out from a colonial perspective. Philippe, as a French Canadian, and the Wilde family as English colonists, hold divergent views on which land belongs to whom but they have a similar work ethic and lifestyle. Phillipe soon finds himself helping the family around the farm, in spite of the fact that it was against the rules for billeted officers to “aid the enemy” both because he likes the Wildes and to stave off boredom. I learned a lot I hadn’t known about this period of history from reading the book.
The second primary facet of the tale is the work of history itself. Charley, as a curator, has the job of pulling together the story of the Wilde family. While some details are known about the dashing revolutionary figure Benjamin Wilde, little is known about the rest of the clan. As Charley spends time tracking the facts, she begins to realize she is also tracking the truth. The author does a fantastic job of juxtaposing the two stories so that we see an event take place in Lydia’s world and then get to watch Charley discover the veracity of it for herself. It gives an interesting insight to the process of investigating the past.
The third aspect of the tale is family dynamics. The Wildes have a great many issues amongst themselves and Charley’s family in some ways mimics those dynamics. How women help the people around them balance hopes, hurts and expectations is what weaves the story together.
Which is fitting, since this is very much women’s fiction over romance. It’s not just that the love stories don’t start heating up till the last fifth of the book, it’s that the narrative doesn’t revolve around that love. Lydia and Phillipe have only a handful of encounters that could, if one were generous, be called romantic and in all but one other people are present. The same is true of Charley and Sam. The characters fall in love not by interacting but by observing traits they like in the other person. Phillipe sees Lydia’s love of her siblings and father, her care for those around her, the peace-making she does within her family/community and deeply admires it. Lydia sees his patience, honor, care for his men and hard work and admires that. In many ways it’s the same for Charley and Sam: he admires her integrity, her work ethic, and her love for her niece, and she admires his honorable nature, generosity, skilled workmanship and kindness. They display those traits towards others as well as each other. Passion, romance, intimate friendship, private jokes – those are all missing.
Two other threads weave in and out of the tale. The first is multi-culturalism. From the issue of slavery in American history, represented by the character of Violet, to the vibrant world Charley lives in which includes people of varying ethnicities and sexual orientation, the author paints her little corner of the world as inclusively as possible.
The second thread is a touch of the supernatural, represented by the ghost of Wilde house who proves to be an extremely helpful host to Charley.
Fans of historical books and dual timeline novels will thoroughly enjoy Bellewether. While the pacing here is slow and occasionally pedantic, the author’s smooth, lyrical prose and amazing ability to recreate life in another time and place make the moments spent within the pages a pleasure. I am happy to recommend this to fans of the author and to encourage anyone interested in a good tale to pick it up.