Destination: Hudson River Valley, New York
Book: Seven Locks by Christine Wade, Published January 2013
Thus it would seem that knowledge and genius, of which we make great parade, consist but in detecting the errors and absurdities of those who have gone before, and devising new errors and absurdities to be detected by those who come after us.
A History of New York, 1809
Quoted at the beginning of Part III of Seven Locks
When we celebrate Independence Day on July 4 in the United States, we tend to think of the big dramatic moments–Bunker Hill, the Boston Massacre, George Washington crossing the Delaware. But Seven Locks takes us inside the lives of ordinary people in the Hudson River Valley who lived through those days for a totally different view of Colonial America.
The characters’ interest in the revolution range from the school teacher’s drive to educate townspeople about the politics of the day, to the more common view that it is being fought way off there somewhere and doesn’t much affect the people of this small settlement. However, as the war spreads, farmers crops are requisitioned for the army and the Hudson River Valley becomes a battle ground. Still, we do not meet the celebrities of the Revolution. No Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams here. Instead we see a splitting of a once-cohesive community who thought of themselves as Dutch as some decide to support the British and others begin to think of themselves as American. The woman narrator says
I long thought of the British as a primitive people because of their reputation for religious intolerance, palpable greed, unbridled aggression, relentless snobbery, poor performance, limited craftsmanship, and bad food. It was known that typically they smelled.
While it has a historic setting, Seven Locks: A Novel is not your usual concept of historic novel. Instead of dwelling directly on July 4 and its aftermath, it is an exploration of the mind and emotions of one woman who happens to live before and during the American Revolution in the Hudson River Valley. Like all fine novels–and this is a very fine novel indeed–the story contains many worlds. The author’s ability to encapsulate recognizable truths–universal and timeless– concisely is part of the charm.
Seven Locks can be read as a feminist novel telling the story of a woman who does what she must to survive. Because she does not accept her husband’s drunken dreaminess, (“He liked to manage his own task list, and to have very little on it.”) she has the reputation of a shrew. The men of the town sympathize with her, because,
Clear lines had always been drawn, and everyone knew that women’s expectations of an ordered world were beyond how men’s hands could shape it.
But it can also be seen as the great American myth–as it is based on the mythological tale of Rip Van Winkle, told in the Dutch communities of the Hudson River Valley and retold by Washington Irving. People live between the truth and myths that explain their sometimes puzzling lives. Even the gossip of the women in the village takes on a mythical quality.
Women came together, as women do, to braid their tales. And these braided tales formed ropes for hauling secrets out of wells, for tethering all that is valuable to home. And of, course, for hanging.
This passage particularly shows Christine Wade’s talent at capturing life in metaphor. I use little metal clips called a Book Darts to mark passages that I want to remember in a book. Generally I use 3 or 4 in a book. In Wade’s Seven Locks, I found myself wanting to use markers on every other page.
The heroine, whose husband disappears, encounters Native Americans who possess practical knowledge she needs, and she understands them in a new way. She meets a black couple who perform rituals that puzzle her but somehow feed her soul. She develops a new understanding of the meaning of slavery. She loves books. “I taste words with my tongue,” she says. She works hard, gardening, preserving, taking care of children and animals, chopping wood.
The book can be searing in its raw description of the life of a woman deserted by husband and children and community. But the language is so beautiful that you can’t put it down. Within its many threads, it comes down finally to a question of what is true and what we believe.
What actually happened and what the good people remember are as different as the wind and the sound of the wind. People will believe what sets easiest between their ears and within their hearts. Certainly they believe whatever they are told often enough…Thus we know that sharp-tongued scolds are women without just concerns, that a man can sleep for twenty years, that revolutions are fought for the freedom of all, that the earth is round and spins like a top, that the Dutch are but Cheeseheads, …that love lasts between a man and his wife and lives between them as a memory.
Note: This book was provided by the publisher for review, but my opinions are most definitely my own. Book Darts did not pay me to mention their product. It is simply a product that I cannot imagine getting along without. Photos are from Flickr and used with Creative Commons license. Links to Amazon provide an easy way to you to shop while supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks for your support.