Friday, September 20, 2013

Rebellious Heart by Jody Hedlund

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 20, 2013

In 1763 Massachusetts, Susanna Smith has grown up with everything she's ever wanted, except one thing: an education. Because she's a female, higher learning has been closed to her, but her quick mind and quicker tongue never back down from a challenge. She's determined to put her status to good use, reaching out to the poor and deprived. And she knows when she marries well, she will be able to continue her work with the less fortunate. Ben Ross grew up a farmer's son and has nothing to his name but his Harvard education. A poor country lawyer, he doesn't see how he'll be able to fulfill his promise to make his father proud of him. When family friends introduce him to the Smith family, he's drawn to quick-witted Susanna but knows her family expects her to marry well. When Susanna's decision to help an innocent woman no matter the cost crosses with Ben's growing disillusionment with their British rulers, the two find themselves bound together in what quickly becomes a very dangerous fight for justice.

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Those who follow me know I don't give out fives lightly, but if you're coming across my commentary for the first time, know that I reserve five stars for those books that I can't put down, the ones that keep me engaged cover to cover and/or the ones that strike a chord within me and spark my imagination. Jody Hedlund's Rebellious Heart is one such book.

First and foremost, I adore Hedlund's leads. It is obvious from the beginning that Ben and Susanna will end up together, but what surprised me is that their relationship isn't characterized by instant lust. Yes, you read that correctly. No instant lust. Amazing concept right? Two people who fall in love slowly, who are at times intimidated by their emotions and even deny their affection out of fear or spite. I rarely see such realistic portrayals and was pleased to find one here. 

Another thing that appealed to me was Hedlund's dedication to historic detail, especially when it came to colonial society and the prejudices it held. In the opening chapters readers are treated to a marvelous example of eighteenth century justice as the citizens of Braintree convict an elderly man of murder on little more than his status as an outsider. Later in the novel Susanna questions the fairness of laws and social dictates designed to penalize women and deny them the opportunities freely afforded their male counterparts. Hedlund touches on children conceived outside of wedlock, indentured servitude, slavery, smuggling and the growing political tension between the colonies and their English monarch. Hedlund wasn't intimidated by the ugly side of things and didn't try to shield her readers from the realities of the period which is something I truly appreciate. 

Finally, I liked that Hedlund's cast is composed largely of multifaceted personalities. Susanna is an intelligent young woman, but she has a tenancy to let her parents think for her. Ben is ambitious, but has difficulty overlooking past wrongs. Mrs. Smith spends much of her time aiding the poor, but is a prejudicial woman who isn't shy about denouncing those she feels inferior. There are few black and white characterizations here and again, I felt Hedlund's approach added to the overall authenticity of her work. 

As you might have guessed, I was quite impressed by this piece when I finished the final chapter, but the kicker came in when I read the Author's Note. Never having read Hedlund, I had no idea her entire body of work is inspired by and loosely based on real people and I have to admit that when I learned this fact, I was in absolute awe. I already liked the piece, but the idea that Hedlund found this story in a history book and re-imagined it for her readers made it all the more fascinating. 

Easily one of the best books I've read all year, Rebellious Heart is a wonderfully engaging story with a beautiful theme. Not to be missed.  

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Ben's body tightened with old insecurities. He fought the pressure to slouch and fade into the background. Instead he pushed himself to his full height and reminded himself why he was fighting against injustice - to give the downtrodden, like himself, a fair chance in a world in which those with the most power and wealth make the rules.
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