Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical mysteries can shed interesting light not just on an era, but also the lifestyles, customs and culture of the people who lived then. Eleanor Kuhns’ Will Rees series is like that, so let’s take a closer look at one of those novels today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Cradle to Grave, the third in the series.
Rees is an itinerant weaver who lives in 1797 Maine. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect, and is beginning to wonder how he’ll get used to staying in one place for any length of time. Then, Lydia gets a distressing letter from an old friend Hannah ‘Mouse’ Moore, who is still with the Shakers in their community near Dover Springs, in upstate New York.
Not far from Dover Springs lies the home and small farm of Maggie Whitney, a widowed mother of five children. Mouse is concerned about the children because she believes they’re being neglected, perhaps even abused. It seems that Maggie is overly fond of the bottle and in any case, isn’t able to care for the children by herself. Nothing’s been done about it though. So Mouse got desperate enough to take the children herself and bring them to the Shaker community. That of course means an accusation of kidnapping for Mouse. The children have been returned to their mother and Mouse has been confined to the Shaker property for the time being.
But she still worries about the children, and she wants Lydia to see they’re all right. Will is happy enough to be on the road again, so he and Lydia go to Dover Springs. When they get there, they find an unrepentant Mouse, and a Shaker leader, Elder Herman, who is very concerned about stirring up simmering resentment against the community. There’s not much that Will and Lydia can do about Mouse’s case; she does, after all, admit to taking the children. But they check to be sure the children are all right.
They’re on their way back to Maine when they hear even worse news: Maggie Whitney has been murdered. Mouse is a prime suspect in many people’s minds. Lydia persuades her husband to return with her Dover Springs to see what they can do to help their friend and look after the children.
Many people in the town seem all too eager to blame Mouse and be done with the whole thing. But Lydia is convinced she is innocent. Will doesn’t think she’s guilty either, and there are some things about that explanation that just don’t add up. So he and Lydia start to ask questions. Before long, they find that more than one person in town has some ‘dirty laundry’ to hide. And there are layers to Maggie’s history, and the town’s, that have to be peeled away to get to the truth.
In the meantime, the Shakers are very worried about the outcome of this case. They have enough difficulty as it is dealing with intolerence; they are not interested in having gossip go round that one of their own is a killer. If the case isn’t solved quickly, they could be in danger. Lydia may no longer be a member of their group, but she doesn’t want to see them harrassed either. So she and Will continue to investigate. They find that this murder has everything to do with past local history.
The novel takes place in 1797, so the memories of the American Revolution aren’t that far distant. There’s still talk of who had Loyalist leanings and who didn’t. Travel is difficult and expensive; for instance, it takes Will and Lydia two weeks to get from Maine to upstate New York. Accommodations at inns aren’t really luxurious; nor are the living conditions for anyone who’s not wealthy. But at the same time, there’s a middle class, and it’s possible to live safely and comfortably.
Kuhns gives readers a look at artisan skills such as spinning, weaving and barrel-making. There’s also a portrait of life in a small town in a time when many such places were more or less isolated, especially in bad winter weather. Everyone knows everyone, and the townspeople are more or less interdependent. While Lydia and Will are not seen as dangerous (by most people), they are definitely not ‘one of us,’ and they have to tread lightly, as the saying goes, and remember their places as ‘outsiders.’ There are also interesting perspectives on other attitudes and aspects of life just before the turn of the 19th Century, but mentioning them might stray too close to ‘spoiler’ territory.
We also see a bit of what life was like in a Shaker community. The Shakers are peaceful enough people, but they’re a closed group. Members are celibate and are expected to be obedient to the guidance of the Elders. It is, as Elder Herman says, a difficult life – not for everyone. For many locals, the problem with the Shakers is that they are pacificists. They refused to fight during the American Revolution and to many people, that’s tantamount to treason. While the action in the novel doesn’t really take place on the grounds of the Shaker property, readers do get a sense of what it’s like to live there.
The characters of Will and Lydia Rees are also important elements in this story. They love each other very much, but that doesn’t mean they don’t see each other’s faults. Will is dealing with his troubled relationship with his son David. Lydia has her own history and of course, concerns about being David’s stepmother. She also has a habit of being a bit quick to act when caution might be wiser. But they rely on each other and it’s clear that they don’t intend to let their differences get the better of them.
You can’t really call this a cosy; it has a bit more ‘bite’ than a true cosy. But at the same time, readers who dislike a lot of violence in their crime fiction will be pleased to know that there isn’t much of it in this story. Most of the violence that happens is ‘off stage.’
This is, as I mentioned, the third novel in the Will Rees series. But readers who are concerned about starting partway into a series will be pleased to know that it’s not difficult to pick up the main pieces of Will’s story. There are references to prior stories, and those who’ve read those novels will notice them. But that said, the stories aren’t re-told, if I can put it that way.
Cradle to Grave gives a look at New England life at the end of the 18th Century. It features a mystery that makes sense given the context, and a pair of sleuths who work together, each with a different kind of expertise. The novel shows the sometimes-harsh realities of life for widows, orphans and the poor, and gives readers a glimpse ‘behind the closed doors’ of the Shaker community. But what’s your view? Have you read Cradle to Grave? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 26 January/Tuesday 27 January – The Killing of Emma Gross – Damien Seaman
Monday 2 February/Tuesday 3 February – The Gingerbread House – Carin Gerhardsen
Monday 9 February/Tuesday 10 February – The Cornish Coast Murder – John Bude