Who gets to tell the tales? Who assumes the caretaking of family memories? Of history? And how strong are familial and communal bonds without them?
Terry Gamble’s affecting novel “The Eulogist,” published this week by William Morrow, raises those questions between the lines of a story that spills from Cincinnati in the free state of Ohio across the Ohio River — a forceful character in and of itself — into slaveholding Kentucky during the four decades leading up to the Civil War. Immigration, slavery, and myriad injustices are witnessed through the experiences of an Irish-American family in a period of rigidly corseted propriety, burgeoning technological innovation, Jacksonian populism, and the Enlightenment-disputing Protestant evangelism of the Second Great Awakening. Tensions between slaveholders and abolitionists escalate as the story is recounted by Olivia Givens, disenfranchised not by her Irish birth but by her sex, for whom politics becomes violently personal as she is drawn into helping runaway slaves.
Gamble’s prose is vivid. Olivia, “eighty-six and nearly blind” and suffering no fools gladly, recalls her 15th year when her family emigrated from Ireland:
“I once saw a riverboat explode, raining body parts on the Kentucky and Ohio shores. … If you happened to be on the banks of the Ohio in 1819 when we drifted past, you would have seen a father, a mother, and three children with the erect bearing of the privileged. Look more closely and you would have noticed our frayed clothes, my brothers’ pants too short, my dress hanging limply on my ungenerous chest. … We had come to America to pray and to prosper.”
Victimized by circumstance, the impoverished family is soon reduced to Olivia and two brothers: self-denying, practical-minded James, who diligently builds a business empire making candle wicks and lights, and pretty-eyed womanizer Erasmus, who “could talk a housewife out of her rolling pin” and who follows a traveling preacher into the wilderness before emerging as one himself. Proud, solitary Olivia tutors bratty children. (The symbolism of the siblings’ varied paths is impossible to miss.) Too plain to attract wealthy suitors, she impatiently refuses to play the coquette to win a man she does not respect or to affect religious piety she does not feel, but is obliged to spend Sundays with insufferable preacher’s daughter Hatsepha. When she references “needlepoint in my lap like a sleeping cat” on a summer afternoon in 1828, Gamble evokes the oppressive setting with language almost as compact as poetry:
“It was the steamiest of days — the kind that dampens the lightest muslin as soon as it touches your skin. Even the river seemed stupid in the heat. Slow flowing and sluggish, it meandered past banks of cicada-infested trees. Cincinnati, Sabbath-silent but for the occasional hymn, had surrendered to its lethargy.”
The raw atmosphere of the multiracial boomtown “teeming with barkers and boatmen … ruffians and feral chickens” contrasts viciously with the pseudo-refinement of its society. Riots erupt between Irish Catholics and free blacks vying for work. The Ohio River is ever present, symbolic and serpentine, defining borders of geography, business, law, and freedom.
In Kentucky, after Olivia secretly observes an oppressed wife displace her rage onto a defenseless slave boy with a switch, she moves to help him — until an older slave gently admonishes, “You didn’t hear nothin’. You should get back to the house.” It’s a revelatory moment that shames her already tweaked conscience into action.
“I felt as though I were a schoolgirl being shooed from the yard. All those years ago when I’d sat at lectures, listening to Fanny Wright or the students at Lane Seminary talk about the abolition of slavery, it had been an abstraction, repugnant as leprosy, but little to do with me. It was like the tract on which you wipe off your hands. It was like that body in the river; something you caught out of the corner of your eye.”
Gamble tracks Olivia’s evolution with keen psychological and linguistic sensitivity. Now based in the Bay Area, she has blogged about growing up in Pasadena with “resolutely Victorian parents” and her writing displays familiarity with that era’s social mores and discretion. A rape occurs off the page; a subsequent abortion does not, thereby magnifying the painful consequences of violence without glorifying it, while further delineating the limits of women’s rights and choices in 19th-century America.
With the possible exception of the surprising Hatsepha, other characters are less fully fleshed. Olivia’s distracted, slyly humorous husband Silas encourages her intellectual independence while refusing to grant physical freedom to beloved slave-turned-assistant Tilly, rescued from his brother’s clutches across the river; when he rasps his last breath economical paragraphs after his first cough, he’s like an unsolved riddle. Eventually he’s explained, but other male characters — the conflicted Erasmus, cherished nephew William — propel the plot more than they reveal their organic selves. Post-Civil War updates tying up loose ends have the truncated feel of entries in the family Bible.
Which, unsatisfying or not, may be the point. Olivia cites “the begats in the Bible” as she unknots a complicated, disturbing, uniquely American family history that illuminates just how interconnected we all are. “The Eulogist” presents an insistent vision with contemporary resonance: of women imprisoned in business-like marriages, denied personal agency; of revival camp preachers and followers confusing sensuality with spirit; of ancestors lost to potter’s fields, and other family bones dug up and reinterred in a fashionable cemetery designed by Frederick Law Olmsted; of human beings enslaved by chains of metal as well as law and hate, bound to embrace degradation to survive. Questions linger, as they often do in history books and family stories — as does that vision, well after the final page has turned.