It is 1887, and Henry Ward Beecher lies dying. Reporters from around the world, eager for one last story about the most lurid scandal of their time, descend on Brooklyn Heights, their presence signaling the beginning of the voracious appetite for fallen celebrities we know so well today.
When Henry Ward Beecher was put on trial for adultery in 1875, the question of his guilt or innocence was ferociously debated. His trial not only split the country, it split apart his family, causing a particularly bitter rift between his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Harriet remained loyal to Henry, while Isabella called publicly for him to admit his guilt. What had been a loving, close relationship between two sisters plummeted into bitter blame and hurt.
Harriet and Isabella each had a major role in the social revolutions unfolding around them, but what happened in their hearts when they were forced to face a question of justice much closer to home? Now they struggle: who best served Henry -- the one who was steadfast or the one who demanded honesty?
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Patricia O'Brien is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Glory Cloak and co-author of I Know Just What You Mean, a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
March 7, 1887, 7:00 a.m.
A persistent skittering sound from the darkened space between floor and baseboard pulls Isabella from an uneasy sleep. She sits up, shivering in her thin cambric nightgown, scanning the room. The bed in which she lies, no more than rusting scrap iron, creaks ominously as she hugs her knees to her chest.
Her gaze travels from an old sideboard with broken drawer pulls to the green curtains hanging like seaweed from the window, resting finally on a scattering of black pellets that confirm the origin of the sound coming from the floorboards.
Mice. She hates mice.
What is she doing here? She wonders if she is insane after all.
But the day has begun, and there's no use crouching in a ball feeling sorry for herself, wishing only that she could drift back to sleep and pick up the threads of her dream. She had been a child again, with Henry's large hands gripping hers, swinging her by the arms, both of them laughing; she, knowing he would not let go, knowing it was safe to throw her head back and not worry that her feet were nowhere near the ground.
Fully awake now, Isabella presses her fists into her eyes to stop sudden tears. At this moment a few houses away, Henry lies in his own bed, cut down by a stroke. Everyone from President Cleveland to Queen Victoria is keeping a death vigil for Henry Ward Beecher, for his eloquent preaching has enthralled the country for decades. But she, his sister, uneasy occupant of a garret room, is keeping vigil for the brother who played with her as a child, the one who hasn't spoken to her in fifteen years.
"Why?" John Hooker's voice had been more exasperated than astonished when she told him she was going to Brooklyn. His face had that worried look which she had come to know so well through the long years of their marriage. "You've got this vague idea that he wants to see you. If you show up now, that family of yours will pull you apart. You're making a mistake."
"I want to see him before he dies. He's my brother; I love him."
"He's in a coma."
"He'll know I'm there."
"What is it you want, Bella? An apology?"
"I want...mutual forgiveness."
"You are fantasizing," John said somberly.
"I have to try," she said.
She knows the words ring hollow. Persuading Henry's wife to let her see Henry will not be easy. Eunice does not forgive.
Isabella swings her feet to the floor, searching with her toes for her slippers before padding to the window. People are gathering on the sidewalk. There are some with heads bent, praying silently, probably Henry's parishioners from Plymouth Church. But most are men milling about, talking in low voices, stamping their feet to warm them on this frosty morning. They wear bowler hats, cheap black ones, which mark them as reporters. Maybe it is the angle of the hats -- jaunty, pushed back -- but she knows there is more going on down there than a death watch. Those men are salivating for a meal long gone cold. They want to revive what twelve years ago they dubbed the "trial of the century." Henry's trial. They want it back in all its lurid detail: the accusing, cuckolded Theodore Tilton raging for justice; his waiflike wife, Elizabeth, alternately confessing and denying her guilt; Henry, insisting he, as a man of God, would never commit adultery.
Twelve years now since the scandal that tore her family apart. Twelve years since she and her brothers and sisters were said to wobble on their national pedestal of moral virtue. The Beecher family, shaken by accusations of Henry's human frailty -- that was the story reporters fed on, and it was true.
She knows the scandal still courses under the surface, emerging from time to time in jokes and ditties sung on the streets and in the saloons. And she knows that even though Henry continued to preach on Sundays from the pulpit of Plymouth Church, his voice was never again quite as strong or his demeanor quite as confident.
Had those snickers and snatches of song bothered him? Or did he come so to believe his own recounting of events that he became detached from the pain and the lies that destroyed so much? Isabella wonders where that calamity lives in his heart. She knows where it is in hers.
She draws back into the room. She can't afford to let anyone see her yet, particularly her sister Harriet, who arrived in her carriage late last night. It was Harriet, after all, who sent the chilly note reminding her she was not welcome in Henry's home. Sitting back in Hartford with that note on her lap, staring at the formality of its stiff phrasing, parsing each word for hidden meaning, Isabella had made her decision: enough of deferring to the nurtured wrath of her family. She would go to Brooklyn.
She walks now over to the chest and picks up a pink tortoiseshell hand mirror, stroking the garnet beads that frame the back in a graceful, curving line. How many times has she done this? Hundreds of times.
"They aren't real," Hattie had said quickly when Isabella, with a cry of pleasure, pulled the mirror from its wrappings on her fifteenth birthday.
"Why would I care? It's beautiful, Hattie, it's the most beautiful thing I own. Thank you, thank you!" She threw her arms around her older sister.
"I wanted you to have something elegant," Hattie whispered, hugging her back. "I wanted you to see how lovely you are. But be sure to keep it in your room. Father would disapprove."
Isabella had nodded silently. Lyman Beecher was a towering figure of moral authority, both at home and throughout the nation, and he would call this a vain, frivolous gift, a bauble flouting modesty, an occasion for the sin of pride. It awed her to realize Hattie was willing to risk his displeasure.
"I would like to be a writer someday, like you," Isabella had said shyly as Hattie leaned over to pick up the wrapping paper crumpled on the floor. Harriet glanced up with a smile, and then said something Isabella would never forget: "You are a dear girl, Bella, and just as smart as anyone in this family, and you will find your own way. I want you to start by enjoying the gifts God has given you."
So long ago...Isabella stares down at the mirror in her hand. She has never reached the level of Hattie's fame, but she has made a name for herself. She has traveled the country, speaking and organizing women to fight for suffrage and legal rights, trying to instill in them a passion for what should be theirs. She has tried to stay true to her values. Would that Hattie valued her for that.
Why has she kept this old treasure all these years? And why did she bring it with her?
Slowly she turns the mirror and stares into the glass. She no longer sees the surface image -- the dark hair and smooth skin that still draw attention. She would like to find some clue as to who she really is, but the mirror won't tell her that. So what is she looking for? Hattie, of course. All her life, she has looked for resemblance to the vibrant, brilliant sister she loves most, straining to see more similarity than could ever have been possible with two different mothers. How exciting it had felt as a young woman to stand proudly and say, "Yes, my sister is Harriet Beecher Stowe, and yes, she is indeed the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin." How thrilling to realize her big sister had awakened the nation to the evils of slavery and shaped the focus of the War Between the States, an amazing achievement, all with the imagined story of one humble man.
"Hattie, where did you go? Where are you?" She listens to the sound of her own voice in the empty room, hearing it more as an echo deep from the past. From when?
She closes her eyes. It was that first summer in Cincinnati, after Lyman Beecher moved the entire family west to establish a new seminary. She was ten years old. She can feel the spongy wood of the old dock under her feet, smell the acrid, soupy air, hear the water sloshing against the rotting piles.
The weather was burning hot, but she didn't care. She loved being with Hattie on any venture, and going down to the river was the most fun. It seemed to her this time that the crowd of grown-ups around her were jostling one another too much, and Harriet explained they were impatient for the late-arriving mail boat. Just like me, she said with a smile. If I get the big batch of student applications I'm hoping for, our new school can open and we can all make some money. Isabella smiled back and held on tight to her sister's hand as they pressed to the front of the crowd.
But it wasn't a mail boat steaming up the Ohio River to the dock. It was a vessel with the name The Emigrant painted on the bow. Its deck was jammed with people, most of them half-naked, the hot sun glistening off the sweat of black skin. They seemed to sway in unison with the vessel as it approached across the lapping waves. Isabella guessed there were a hundred of them.
"Hattie? Who are those people?" she whispered, tugging at her sister's sleeve.
"Slaves," Harriet said, pulling her little sister closer, squeezing her hand.
The boat docked amidst shouts from the crowd on the wharf. "About time!" yelled one. "We've got eight escaped ones for you!"
"Bella, let's go," Harriet said, sounding alarmed. "This isn't the mail boat." But the crowd was pushing forward, and they couldn't retreat. Isabella lifted a hand to keep her hat from being knocked off, still staring at the people on the deck as the vessel docked.
They were close up now. There were men and women, and there were children too. She saw a girl about her own age and impulsively waved. The girl slowly raised an arm but kept it motionless, as if to shield her eyes from the sun. Only then did Isabella see an iron cuff on her wrist. From it swung a chain of iron links, one looped through another, like the daisy chain of paper Isabella had made that very day at home for her mother. Her eyes followed the links to a woman standing next to the child, to a band on her wrist. And from there to a man, and from there to another child. They were...
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Book Description Thorndike Press, 2008. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX1410406156