Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley/HNS
Read: March 10, 2016

Meet Mary Surratt, the woman who could have saved Lincoln. Find out what stopped her in this vivid reimagining of Lincoln's assassination. In 1864 Washington, one has to be careful with talk of secession. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy, like Mrs. Surratt. A widow who runs a small boarding house, Mary Surratt isn't half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he's not escorting veiled spies, he's inviting home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage. But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Based on the true history of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin's gun.

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Mary Surratt
I’ve been wanting someone to fictionalize Mary Surratt’s life since watching Robert Redford’s The Conspirator. The movie was inspired by Kate Larson’s The Assassin's Accomplice and though I’ve not read the book, the film made me think about Mary’s situation in an entirely new light. I’d known the history, but where I’d often speculated the question of Mary’s guilt, I’d rarely considered her character and personality. Could there be more to her? How did she view her circumstances? Did she believe her gender would shield her from the noose?

It took years, but author Susan Higginbotham stumbled over the story and accepted the challenge. An ARC of her book, Hanging Mary, found its way to me at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver last year and I added it to my short list of must reads for 2016 this past January. Reviews have been largely favorable and while I find I agree much of what has been stated in the four and five star commentary, I admit my personal experience and reflections fall in the more moderate three star range.

First and foremost, I have to admit to struggling with Higginbotham’s style. Please forgive my blunt statement, but I found the pacing of the novel insufferably slow. Hanging Mary is the first Higginbotham novel I’ve had opportunity to read so I am unsure if it is indicative of her particular approach, but I am adamant in that it did not work for me this time around. I felt the novel found its feet and picked up in the latter chapters, but by that point, I felt it was too little, too late. 

In looking at Mary, I again beg pardon, but I feel Higginbotham missed the mark in her characterization. I might be alone in this, but Mary struck me as rather detached and frequently seemed to act as a place holder in her own story. She goes through the motions, hitting her marks in accordance with the historic record, but most of her chapters are dedicated to recounting her son’s movements, establishing character relationships, and providing exposition. As a reader, I desperately wanted to get inside Mary’s head, but Higginbotham’s portrait lacked the depth I craved, struck me as superficial and left me decidedly unsatisfied. 

The premise set forth in the jacket description pushes Mary and her history, but it says nothing about second narrator Nora Fitzpatrick. If you’re scratching your head, don’t worry, I did the same thing and had to do a little background reading to learn that Nora was one of Mary’s boarders. Records suggest Nora was close to both Mary and Anna Surratt and indicate that she testified for both sides during the trial that followed Lincoln’s assassination. As a fictional character, I felt Nora interesting, sympathetic and well-rounded, but I was frustrated that she eclipsed the novel’s headliners so completely. As a Unionist, Nora was a safe and uncontroversial choice and perhaps that made her easier to write, but I found it impossible to ignore the depth and dimension in her make-up. Higginbotham is obviously talented, but in comparing narrator to narrator, I couldn’t help wondering if Mary’s historical significance and notoriety stifled the author’s creativity when it came time to set her vision to paper. 

Would I recommend the title? Certainly. It didn’t live up to my expectations, but there is no denying its virtues. Anna Surratt enjoys a supporting role, but she exhibits the sort of intrigue that taunts the imagination and leaves you wanting more. Higginbotham’s characterization of Booth was equally captivating and I quite enjoyed the wealth of historic detail the author slipped into the backdrop of the novel. Yes, I felt the narrators were unevenly matched and yes, I struggled with the pacing, but in terms of content Hanging Mary is both genuine and illuminating. 

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War is men’s business, I had always believed, but on the day Lincoln was inaugurated, my oldest son, Isaac, rushed off the Texas and later joined the Confederate army, so it drew me in.
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1 comment:

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Fantastic review. Your points are all valid and you explain your views so well. I didn't see the film and I am not at all familiar with Mary Surratt. The book sounds intriguing, but I am not likely to pick it up!