The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore

We like to think that we would be heroes, the kind of people who would save others or stand up for our principles. History and literature are full of examples of folks who become heroes when the opportunity arose. For my part, I’ve always had a soft spot for people who make different decisions because I think these stories are more honest, even if they’re more ignoble. I know enough about myself to realize that I’m no hero. If given the choice between dying to save someone else and living, I’ll probably choose to live. So when I met Rebecca West, the protagonist of A.K. Blakemore’s outstanding novel The Manningtree Witches, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in this regard.

The Manningtree Witches is based on historical events that took place during the English Civil War. It even features real people like the notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Rebecca West and her mother also appear in the historical record. We meet the prickly and peculiar Rebecca on an ordinary day in the town of Manningtree, Essex in 1643. It’s an ordinary day for her. She gets up, grabs a bit, bickers with her mother, and goes to work. She lives a hard life near the bottom of the social pecking order. Shortly after this introduction, Matthew Hopkins arrives and purchases one of the town’s taverns. His quiet but menacing presence makes his real business—seeking out witches—readily apparent. It’s not long before cold, hunger, and misfortune start to bring out the worst in people. Egged on by Hopkins’s talk of witches and demons, folk start to point fingers at Rebecca’s mother and her friends. Rebecca gets swept along with them because it is a lot easier to tar someone with the brush of witchcraft than it is to exonerate them.

Frontispiece from The Discovery of Witches, by Matthew Hopkins, 1647 (Image via Wikicommons)

We follow Rebecca as tensions rise in Manningtree. Through her eyes, we see the mundane spats between West’s mother and the other accused witches that later become the evidence used to convict these women. A sharp word to an annoying child is transformed by the townspeople into a witch’s curse. A fatal illness or a miscarriage are seen as proof that there are agents of the devil walking around. Rebecca is much more rational than Hopkins and the rest of the accusers. She knows that there are reasonable explanations for everything. But, because she is so shy and of such low status, no one listens to her when she manages to get a word out.

Rebecca’s inability to speak up for herself also provides ample room for her to think about the catch-22 she’s in. When Hopkins gives Rebecca a way out—if she lies about her co-accused and confesses to being caught up in witchcraft—she’s faced with a stark choice. On the one hand, is there any honor in telling the truth and being hanged as a witch? On the other, could she live with herself for lying and condemning her mother and her mother’s friends? Rebecca grew up in a Puritan town. Lying is a sin, let alone betraying her mother. But then, committing the sin of a lie might be a small price to pay for one’s life and the chance to get far, far away from Manningtree.

The Manningtree Witches is written in lively and authentically old-fashioned language that made me feel like I was sitting on Rebecca’s shoulder while she worked and pondered and debated. I relished the vocabulary of this book and utterly adored the vivid descriptions of the poor, backward town of Manningtree. The fantastic writing, paired with the rich character development of Rebecca and Hopkins, made this a knockout work of historical fiction. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read about a witch trial. It’s never sentimental but honest and gritty.

The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia, by Max Besora

In the prologue to the descriptively titled The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia, by Max Besora (and brilliantly translated by Mara Faye Lethem), an invented academic explains how he combed through centuries old archival documents to piece together the story of the forgotten conquistador, Joan Orpí del Pou. This academic allegedly found a version of Orpí’s story, as told by a bunch of soldiers during the Siege of Barcelona in 1714. What follows is a madcap adventure through the first half of the seventeenth century, full of anachronisms, literary references, obscene events, and a quest for glory.

Orpí (in this fictional biography) is the kind of kid that makes his parents despair. He’s naive, trusting everyone he meets. He’s curious about all the wrong things, meaning that he’s a terrible student. After failing so many opportunities, Orpí’s father packs him off to law school in Barcelona. Orpí’s smart mouth and inability to keep it close have to be good for something. But a series of wild events lead Orpí to boarding a ship for Spain’s colonies in what is now Venezuela.

“A series of wild events” is a good way to sum up this version of Orpí’s life. Highwaymen rob him. Women wind him up in their schemes. No one gives the Catalan a chance. Enemies plot against him constantly. But this summary barely scratches the surface of the sheer wackiness of what happens in this book. Every page had me gasping in surprise, laughing out loud, rolling my eyes, or gripped by the action. The summary also doesn’t reflect how well Besora captured the idiom of seventeenth century literature. Cervantes and Rabelais are name dropped more than once. Plus, Besora’s dialogue is full of period and anachronistic speech that made me chuckle at the way it wandered through centuries of linguistic evolution. Translator Mara Faye Lethem deserves all kinds of awards for her work on this book. She is pitch-perfect at translating all kinds of voices, dialects, time periods from Catalan, Spanish, and other languages into English. She’s so good that I genuinely thought this book was originally written in English, by someone who knows the history of the language from the 1600s to the present.

The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí is a remarkable book, even though some of the events mentioned in the book (especially the sexual ones) are hard to take. Thankfully, these are brief and, I think, only included because they were the kinds of things that would have been included in period literature. I mention them because they hold me back from unreservedly recommending this book to fans of historical metafiction and pastiches. I feel like I would need to warn a reader about the orgies and racism while I was talking up this truly outstanding book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Mouth of the Unare River, Venezuela. New Barcelona was founded some miles up the river in 1671 (Image via Wikicommons)

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

How we deal with adversity in life depends a lot on how we answer this question: why do bad things happen to good people? Some people are more comfortable with chaos and don’t believe in karma or divine action. Others look for a bigger reason than A causes B and shit happens. In the 1600s, in the Holy Roman Empire and a lot of other places in Europe, the bigger reason was witches. If something bad happened to you, your family, your business, or your livestock, it was because you’d had the misfortune of getting on the wrong side of a witch. The real bad luck, I think, is if you’re the one accused of being a witch, like the protagonist of Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.

I didn’t know before I started this book that it was based on real history. In the 1610s and 1620s, the astronomer (and writer of proto science fiction, it turns out) Johannes Kepler had to take breaks from his position as Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft. Katharina Kepler is the kind of woman who annoys people, even those who say they like her. She says whatever comes into her head. She insists on doing things her way. The fact that quite a few people in her town owe her money is also a mark against her. But everyone thinks that she might have been alright if she hadn’t filed for slander against the first people who officially accused her of being a witch and embarrassed the local aristocracy. From there, things get increasingly dire.

Galchen wrote in her afterword that she used translated court documents from Kepler’s trial, letters, and other contemporary sources to give structure to a narrative that moves between Katharina’s version of events and those of her neighbor Simon, who agrees to act as Katharina’s guardian (because women needed one in those days). Reading all these different accounts—the things the characters say and purposefully don’t say—makes for a very interesting story of betrayal, denunciation, lies, loyalty, and tangled legal proceedings. And I do love a book with unreliable narrators.

It was an interesting experience to read Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch shortly after reading A Demon-Haunted Land, by Monica Black, a nonfiction account of healers and witch accusations in Germany after World War II. Black’s book is full of citations to philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers who theorize about why people believe in witches. I felt more prepared for Galchen’s fictionalized version of Katharina Kepler’s story; I paid a lot more attention to the hidden motives of Katharina’s accusers. The first accusers were, I think, motivated by money that they owe Katharina. But then things start to take on a life of their own as more and more “witnesses” come forth to link a look or a bad word or a remedy from Katharina to something bad that later happened to them. Black’s book showed me the “logic” of witch accusations. Which is to say, because I knew more about how accusations of witchcraft come about, I was lot more afraid for Katharina than I might have been before I read A Demon-Haunted Land because I knew there would be no reasoning with the people pointing fingers at her.

Galchen writes in a very modern-sounding idiom. (There are a lot of people saying “okay” in this book.) The writing style, the use of historical research, and sense of time passing made for an absorbing reading experience. I got completely pulled into Katharina’s life and trials. This was historical fiction at its best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple

As I read The Anarchy, a history of how the East India Company came to take over most of India in the eighteenth century, I kept having the same thought: they can’t do that! This heavily researched yet highly entertaining history reveals that, when there are no laws to stop you and no authority strong enough to stop you, it is entirely possible for a business to boldly disrupt and then conquer the empires of India. The Anarchy is wall to wall audacity.

Originally founded in 1660, the East India Company was started to compete with French and Portuguese traders who were starting to make a lot of money in India from their small trading posts. But, where other nations moved slowly with the various emperors, nawabs, and other rulers of India’s empire and kingdoms, the men who the EIC sent to India were more likely to start fights. These fights escalated over the years from skirmishes in the 1600s to full-on wars in the 1800s. Battles like the ones at Plassey and Assaye were so devastating to indigenous powers that the EIC was able to push right into the power vacuum. The EIC’s aggressive expansion and their rapacious money making were so inhumane that even members of Parliament (the ones whose finances weren’t dependent on the Company) were appalled enough to start regulating what the Company could and could not do.

Dalrymple recounts the battles and fights with the kind of blow-by-blow commentary that reminds me of the first history lessons I ever got, ones that focused on the movements of armies and the bold (or foolish) actions of the Indian and British leaders. Dalrymple’s commentary is balanced in two ways (for those who don’t want histories that are all about fighting and politicking). First, Dalrymple frequently discusses how all of the EIC’s actions affected the daily life of ordinary Indians, from changing their farming practices to disrupting the entire artisan class to destroying the military class up to so aggravating a famine that up to a fifth to one-third of all the people in Bengal died in 1770. Second, Dalrymple does outstanding work letting historical figures speak for themselves. Dalrymple used materials from the British and Indian Company archives, contemporary letters and diaries, and accounts from Indian historians to bring figures like Shah Alam II, Tipu Sultan, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and dozens of other to life. Reading the words of all these contemporaries brought immediacy to The Anarchy; this is one of the most gripping histories I’ve read.

After reading The Anarchy, I know what happened and a lot of the why. That said, I continue to be astounded by the rise of the East India Company and its actions in India. I tried to imagine if, say, Apple or Walmart decided to set up shop in another country and then decide to start fighting with that country’s army before eventually just taking over. It seems unthinkable now, even though I know that it’s happened since then in Hawaii and Guatemala. The powers of capitalism and colonialism are stronger than a nation’s right to sovereignty, says The Anarchy (and a lot of history).

Mir Jafar meets Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey, in a painting by Francis Hayman (Image via Wikicommons)

Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit

Our European founders have been mythologized for centuries, even though authors as early as Nathaniel Hawthorne have turned a critical eye on the Puritans. In elementary school, I was taught that the Puritans were brave, Christian people who just wanted to practice their own religion. I was even taught whitewashed myths about their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the Atlantic coast. Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit, is one of the most recent books that explodes the traditional story of the pious, upright Puritans. This novel is based on the few known facts about the first murder in the American colonies, which Nesbit turns into a deep exploration of hypocrisy.

Three people tell the story of that first murder and life in the colony nine years after its founding. Alice Bradford, the second wife of the colony governor at the time, and Eleanor Billington, tell their stories in retrospect. Their narratives are full of regret. They wish, over and over, that they had done things differently. At the time, they were stuck in their roles as peacemaker (Alice) and co-rebel (Eleanor). John Billington tells the rest. John’s anger at the colony, at Myles Standish, and at William Bradford has been simmering for years. John rails against the lies that the colony’s governors and investors have told to get people to emigrate to New Plymouth and the other colonies in Massachusetts. He’s also still angry about his treatment as an indentured servant at the hands of these so-called godly people.

So, on one side of Beheld, John fulminates. He wants the extra acre of land he believes he’s entitled to and the last straw for him comes when he finds a new colonist chopping down a tree on “his” land. The man tells him that he’s planning on building a house on Billington’s “lost acre.” On the other, Alice Bradford reflects on her own happiness with her husband and her lingering grief for her friend, who was Bradford’s first wife. Moments of hypocrisy pop up throughout the narratives. Standish is a violent man, one who goes looking for fights instead of turning the other cheek. Bradford and the other rulers of the colony show themselves to be much more interested in profits and keeping up appearances than one would expect of people who profess to be humble folk.

I understand some of the buzz around Beheld. Nesbit found an interesting story to tell and she does a very good job at developing her female characters. Nesbit turns these historical figures back into flesh and blood humans who feel rage and doubt, who fret and worry, and who are much less noble than the Puritan legend would have us believe. I have some quibbles about odd word choices in the characters’ dialogue that bothered me. (“Dothn’t”? Really?) I also wish that Nesbit had pumped the brakes on the pacing a little, so that I could have more time to think about what the Billingtons’ story and Alice’s story were trying to say.

Recommend to fans of historical fiction, with some small reservations.

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Everyone can agree that the storm came from no where. On Christmas Eve, 1617, just as the men of Vardø, in Norway’s extreme north, were setting out to begin the day’s fishing, a terrible storm appeared and drowned them all. The women, children, and a few old men, are left to fend for themselves in the aftermath. The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is set in the years that follow the storm, as paranoia and racism conspire to kick off the deadliest wave of witch-hunting Norway ever experienced.

Maren Magnusdatter, one of two narrators of The Mercies, offers an insider’s view of life in Vardø. The village is poor, but it is an important outpost for whaling and fishing and keeping an eye on the Russian Empire. After the 1617 storm, a village of women has to wrestle with their grief at the same time that they have to learn how to fish (purely a man’s job) before they starve. Some of the women of Vardø grow more independent. Kirsten Sørensdatter, for one, seems to relish the freedom and space that allows her to be a leader. Others, like Toril and Sigfrid, turn to the church and begin to believe that the devil and witches and especially the local Sámi people are to blame for the loss of the men. Maren is torn between the two groups. On the one hand, Kirsten’s practicality keeps the lot of them from starving and gives them a direction. On the other, Maren’s mother sides with the women who mutter about witches.

Ursula Cornet, our other narrator, is an outsider. She is the daughter of a formerly wealthy shipowner in Bergen, who suddenly finds herself married to a Scotsman who is on his way to Vardø to work for the local governor. It’s only much later that Ursula learns, to her horror, that her husband has been hired as a witchfinder. He’s been summoned because of his expertise at torturing confessions out of women who’ve been accused of being witches. While Maren’s perspective shows us a village tearing itself apart, Ursula’s view provides context for what’s happening in the somewhat wider world. Unfortunately, both seem equally powerless to stop what’s happening.

The Mercies is a highly atmospheric novel. As I read it, I felt the cold and almost smelled the heather, damp, and unwashed clothing of Vardø. This is a big part of why I seek out novels set in places and times I haven’t read about yet. I want a small walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how bleak it is. This novel is also the first time I’ve been able to read more, in fiction, about the Finnmark witch trials, which I’ve only heard about in passing until I listened to a recent episode of The Dollop, one of my favorite irreverent history podcasts. Having listened to that episode, I knew that Maren and Ursula were about to witness something terrible. I felt dread for most of the book, just waiting for the hammer to fall. What I didn’t know before reading The Mercies was that the Sámi were one of the chief targets of the witch trials and of assimilationist policies that strongly resembled the way that Americans suppressed the culture and traditional life of indigenous people in the United States.

I can strongly recommend The Mercies for readers who seek well-told stories about darker periods in history, in places that rarely feature in fiction. This novel has a lot to say about how grief can turn to anger and fear, conflicts in border spaces, colonialism, and how hard life can be on the edge of the known world.

Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, Finnmark, Norway (Image by Bjarne Riesto, via Wikicommons)

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann

Normally I don’t comment on the covers, but I have to say that I vastly prefer the original German cover.

There is no such thing as verifiable truth in Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll. There are only the “truths” and “facts” that the characters can convince each other of; he who argues loudest and with the most convolution wins. There are so many ludicrous examples of circular logic that I couldn’t help but laugh and roll my eyes at the same time. This intellectual landscape is the setting for Kehlmann’s retelling of an old German legend, Till Eulenspiegel, as he bounces around the Thirty Years’ War, political machinations, one witch trial, a possible encounter with the devil, and a lot of squirrelly logic from some of the leading minds of the age.

Tyll is the son of a miller. This sounds ordinary enough until you meet Tyll’s father, Claus. Claus Ulenspiegel (as it’s spelled in the book) has been exposed to a dangerous amount of alchemy, philosophy, and the science of the day. Consequently, it’s not hard to arrest, convict, and execute Claus as a warlock. After his father’s murder, Tyll runs away from his village with Nele, who becomes his adopted sister. Throughout the novel, we check in with Tyll as he becomes a traveling jester, occasional refugee, and briefly court jester to Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. I caught some references to other historical figures that appear in this book, like Athanasius Kircher and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. I’m not well-versed enough in seventeenth-century German history and culture to catch the others.

There is plot in Tyll, but most of the book reads like a series of set-pieces in which characters pontificate on their latest theories or argue with each other. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the barrage of words coming at me. It was only after a few chapters that I started to see a pattern. Kehlmann (albeit a few centuries too late) takes the absolute piss out of the torturous logic like that used by two different characters to explain the existence of dragons, based on the evidence that substances that are similar to dragon blood or bile, can be used to heal people—if the sick person dies, it’s only because they couldn’t get the real stuff to heal the patient. Makes total, sense right? Claus Ulenspiegel torments himself by trying to work out at which point a heap of grains stops being a heap if you take away a grain at a time. The only people who seem to be aware of the absurdities all around them are Tyll himself (who uses it to play sometimes vicious pranks) and, later in her life, Elizabeth Stuart, who pulls off an incredible political gambit that would take pages to explain.

Woodcut of Eulenspiegel, c. 1515 (Image via Wikicommons)

It should be no surprise, with all this intellectual chicanery, that another theme of Tyll is the malleability of history. Not only is history written by the victors: it’s also written (often in advance) by the people who live long enough to tell the tale. Again, most of the action takes place during one of the most confusing and violent conflicts in European history, so surviving is a sort of victory. At one point, Tyll and the people who have been sent to fetch him to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor blunder into one of the last big battles of the war. Near the end of the book, Tyll manages a last visit to Nele—who left the road for a comfortable marriage and settled life—in a scene that implies that Tyll’s life has become so storied that he will, effectively, become immortal. The details of real experiences and life never matter in this book. The legend is what matters.

I’m glad I requested a copy of this book from Edelweiss. I had a great time reading this book. This might sound weird, considering the frequent violence that afflicts Tyll and the other characters. I was hugely entertained by the uproariously twisted intellectual efforts of many of the characters. I laughed out loud at several parts of Tyll. Above all, I was interested to see how historical events were almost immediately spun by characters to their own advantage. (Elizabeth and her husband, Frederick V, both convince themselves that they were the voice of reason when Frederick was asked to be the King of Bohemia—a decision that touched off the Thirty Years War.) Novels that highlight the phenomenon of, for lack of a better term, creative historiography fascinate me.

I’m not sure who to recommend this book to. I know there are other readers who enjoy intellectual puzzles that might like Tyll. It is a very good book and Kehlmann is a very talented writer. The problem is that this book is so unique and it requires not a small amount of background knowledge that I feel like I might need to administer a quiz before I try to talk people into reading it. Tyll is a (worthwhile) challenge for fans of smart historical fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

What better book to accompany me on the twenty-hour round trip from my home to my brother’s house for my annual Christmas trip, than a gargantuan history of the Romanov dynasty? Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs, as billed, takes us through the family’s history as the rulers of the Russian empire from 1613 to 1918. Not to be too metaphorical about it, but the twists and turns of the family were a fantastic accompaniment to the twists and turns of the old highways I prefer to use on long road trips. I was hooked for the full thirty-odd hours of the audiobook. My only quibble is that the narrator sometimes pronounces things oddly (egotism was always pronounced as eggo-tism* for some reason), though I appreciated not having to figure out for myself how to pronounce all those Russian names.

Montefiore keeps the focus of his history tightly on the immediate Romanov family as much as possible. If he hadn’t, it would have been impossible to contain the story in one volume (or even five volumes). He begins with a prologue that bookends the rise and fall of the family by describing how Mikhail Romanov was asked (coerced) into becoming the Tsar after the end of the Rurik dynasty and how Alexei Romanov was murdered with his family in 1918. These historical bookends set the tone for much of this bloody, sensational history. Seriously, there are parts of this book that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of the Game of Thrones novels. Montefiore even plays up the theatricality of the Romanovs’ history by dividing the sections into acts and scenes.

Being an American, in the third century of the American experiment, I don’t have the mental framework for understanding autocracy (in spite of the efforts of some politicians lately). I was alternately fascinated and appalled by the way that, over and over, the tantrums and obsessions of various monarchs were tolerated. Peter I and Peter III, for example, were allowed to turn their courts into drinking clubs (Peter I) or Prussian companies (Peter III). Anna and Elizabeth did terrible things to courtiers who hurt their feelings. Where other nations were limiting the powers of their absolute monarchs—or even doing away with monarchies entirely—the Romanovs were only curbed in the twentieth century. The psychotic violence of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War make a lot more sense to me know, even if I still don’t understand how the Romanovs were allowed to be complete tyrants for 300 years. It was clear to me that the author loved diving into the psychology of the tsars and tsarinas and the effects of personality on Russian history. (If nothing else, this book could be a manual for how not to parent.)

Now that I’m done with The Romanovs, I kind of hope that Montefiore will take on the Rurik dynasty or the history of pre-Bolshevik revolutionary movements because this excellent history just fueled my fascination with Russia and Russian history. The Romanovs is an incredibly rich book, packed with details and wild personalities. I think other fans of histories who love books that take on big topics will enjoy The Romanovs as much as I did…although I will say to readers who are thinking about picking this one up, brace yourselves for an astonishing amount of sex and a lot of creative violence.

*I realize some Brits pronounce the word this way, but to my American ear, it sounds like an obsession with a particular brand of frozen waffles.

The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea

I still believe that one of the world’s greatest marketing campaigns was the one that got people to settle in Iceland centuries before fast shipping, improved agriculture, and antibiotics. Life could be bleak. It certainly is for Rósa, the protagonist of Caroline Lea’s The Glass Woman. After her father dies, Rósa and her mother are left in penury. They eke out a living for a little while, but Rósa ends up taking the desperate step of marrying a well off man from a remote village. He agrees to send money and food to Rósa’s mother. Moving away would be daunting enough if it weren’t for the other thing about Jón: his first wife died under mysterious circumstances and rumors of witchcraft. Perhaps Rósa is exchanging one set of dangers for another.

It’s hard not to feel for Rósa. She’s in a tough situation, but she’s doing her best to take care of herself and her mother. She’s in love with a local man, but can’t marry him. Her new husband is not at all demonstrative, demands obedience, and doesn’t want her to talk to the other people who live in his village once she moves there. At first, she didn’t strike me as the most savvy of women. The situation seems pretty hopeless…until Rósa quietly starts to buck the rules and stick her nose in where Jón really doesn’t want it. Of course, Jón should have known better than to tell someone to stay away from locked doors and then leave them alone with said locks. Besides, wouldn’t you want to know if your new husband was a grieving widower or a murderer who is desperate to keep a secret?

I wasn’t sure which direction The Glass Woman was going to go. Was this an Icelandic Rebecca set in the 1680s? Or was it a Bluebeard with a lot more dried fish? Or would Lea borrow more from the Laxdæla Saga that Rósa adores? I had no idea. I twisted and turned along with Rósa as she discovered more clues about what happened to Anna, and whether or not Jón is a villain. I definitely didn’t expect the LGBTQ elements that wove themselves convincingly (and heartbreakingly) into a story that ended up blending Rebecca, Bluebeard, and the Laxdæla Saga that kept me guessing.

There are some sections—narrated by Jón in his interstitial sections—that are a little overwritten. (It’s probably the saga coming through.) This is my only quibble. The Glass Woman hooked me. Lea’s research shows through in the way she recreates a hardscrabble (and very cold) Iceland, a place so demanding that it makes Rósa’s choice make complete sense. Really though, it was the characters that got me. I just had to know if Rósa would be okay. I had to know if Jón was really a murderer and what happened to that first wife.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Taste of Empire, by Lizzie Collingham

It’s not unusual for me to have mixed emotions while reading a book. Some books have made me feel happy and sad, others wary and mirthful. But I can’t recall a book that made me feel outraged and hungry. That is what I felt most of the time as I read Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. Each chapter of this book begins with a meal set in a variety of places in England or their former colonies, each illustrating how exotic ingredients became British staples or how culture was shaped by the trading empire, before zoomed out to the larger economic movements and consequences of those movements. I would have loved to have tea or try curried iguana with the people mentioned in the book, but then I would grow more and more angry as I read about how the rapacious and racist actions of British colonizers wrecked havoc on traditional foodways and culture.

Collingham takes us back to the Tudor era at the beginning of Taste of Empire, when the English began to branch out to find fish to feed their navy. She takes us aboard the Mary Rose, a ship that sunk early in a battle due to a freak of weather. The artifacts found on the wreck have given us an in-depth look at so much about Tudor life, but Collingham obviously focuses on the food. The sailors ate hardtack, salt fish, and peas, mostly. They were probably not happy about it. (Dissatisfaction with military rations is a running theme.) The last meal of the Mary Rose sailors becomes a springboard to a discussion of how early English fishermen stopped sailing to shoals off Iceland and moved to the shoals off of Newfoundland—with plenty of details of how cod were preserved in massive amounts of salt so that they would be edible when they arrived back in England. In subsequent chapters, Collingham teaches us about the origins of the triangle trade and the incredible growth of Caribbean sugar, the British and American slave trade, the theft of land from indigenous people, how the British East India Company traded opium for Chinese tea, the development of a variety of food preservation techniques, the British racist obsession with “civilizing” indigenous people, and much more.

A large part of The Taste of Empire examines how cash crop agriculture repeatedly leads to cultural destruction and malnutrition. In the American colonies, it was tobacco. In the Caribbean, it was sugar. In India, it was opium. These crops were so valuable that farmers around the Empire’s colonies stopped growing food because they could make more money with the cash crops. Because these farmers weren’t growing food, they grew dependent on British food imports from Canada, Australia, and other places. If that trade were ever interrupted or prices inflated, famine could break out–as it did repeatedly in India. Collingham includes a deliberately upsetting image of victims of the 1876-1878 Madras Famine to show us the very real consequences of British trade. During the Great Famine in Ireland and the Bengal Famine of 1943, food was exported to England at the cost of exacerbating local hunger. In addition to deliberately encouraging cash crop agriculture, British colonizers also pushed people in their African and Indian colonies to grow corn (maize) instead of their traditional millet, sorghum, and other grains. While they told local that corn was more useful and civilized, they didn’t know to pass on cooking methods that would actually make corn nutritious. Without extra processing, critical vitamins in corn couldn’t be absorbed by the human body. Consequently, people grew tons of corn and became malnourished as they ate it.

A 106-year old fruitcake made by Huntley & Palmers, found in Antarctic ruins. (Image via NPR)

I have a few problems with The Taste of Empire. Collingham deliberately uses colonial terms for places in India and Africa without parenthetical notes with the modern names. I realize that Collingham is trying to recreate the colonial world, but it bothered me that the indigenous names are erased. Reading about the famines in Bengal might have been a little more bearable if those names had been there to remind me that India would become independent after World War II. The other thing that bothered me is that, because she wanted to cover so much territory (temporal and physical), a lot of things are oversimplified or omitted. In her brief discussion of the Irish Great Famine, Collingham doesn’t mention that English colonizers still exported grain and livestock to England while the Irish were left with their rotting potatoes to eat. She repeats the idea that local Irish “over relied” on potatoes without reminding us that this over reliance came from the fact that there was nothing else for them to eat. Also, in trying to be fair to British colonizers, there are several sections (especially the chapter that discusses the opium-tea trade) in The Taste of Empire where I wish Collingham had been more judgmental of the British. Collingham criticizes but not as much as I would have wished, but I suspect this was because I was furious at what I was reading.

In spite of its problems, I was fascinated throughout The Taste of Empire. About a third of the actual length of the book consists of notes and references and I deeply approve of the amount of research Collingham did for this book. I loved the scenes of meals around the world, event when they were included to show just how stubborn British colonizers were in recreating good English meals wherever they were. She even includes recipes for some of the dishes mentioned. Every chapter was eye opening and, unlike some nonfiction books I could mention with hyperbolic subtitles, Collingham absolutely proves her thesis that the British drive for food (and cash crops) definitely helped create the world we live in now.