Time Out

Small windows, deep-set

In a whitewashed wall

Cobbled, dung-splashed

Yard, fiery red-topped

Roosters

Pecked unwary legs

Crusty, griddled bread

Thick with yellow butter

Our towny tongues unsure

Of still-warm milk

Cool, beaten earthen floor

Rough on shoe-soft feet

At night the whisper

Wheeze of bellows

Turf smoke burning eyes

Murmured prayers before

The lamps, blood-red and

Phosphorescent blue

My mother’s mother nodded

Black-robed in the corner

Her father sang us songs

Threaded laces in his boots

And shooed us, lit by candles

To the quilted, feather bed.

A review of “Blood in the Valley” by Jean M Roberts

I was sorry to come to the end of this book. Although it finished in exactly the right place I was loathe to leave behind all the characters I had come to know. This is a story about the birth of the United States, and although I briefly studied the American War of Independence at school (a long time ago), it was so interesting to read about it in a novel, and to see what it must have been like for the families who lived through it.

When we first meet Catherine, the main character, she is minding her baby brother, so we see her first as a loving, caring and kindly girl and as she grows to womanhood her personality doesn’t change – although during the war she taps into parts of herself she didn’t know existed! Her husband, Samuel, is a decent, hard-working man who loves his family, and when the war begins he proves himself to be brave, steadfast and intelligent and plays an important part in the outcome of the war. The other characters, their family and friends, are people anyone would like to spend time with.

The narrative drive in this book is very strong and I was drawn into it straight away. The writing is clear and precise – there is no padding here. You can see the families and hear them talking and you understand how they feel. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the countryside:

“The falling water sparkled like gems reflecting the early morning sunshine. The river flung itself over the falls, cascading seventy-five feet or more into a boiling cauldron before rushing away in swirling eddies toward the Hudson.”

God, religion and the community is of extreme importance and the base of all social life for these pioneers and settlers. It’s where Catherine met Samuel, and there are some romantic occasions, which I loved, and which make you aware of how different life and language was then. Samuel says to Catherine:

“Miss Wasson, I have had a delightful day . . . I hope you will allow me the pleasure to call on you.”

At the advice of Catherine’s uncle, three related families decide to move to New York where land is “plentiful and cheap“. These are big families with a lot of children, many of whom bear the same names. I could easily imagine the family gatherings with all ages present; the feeling of belonging to a clan; everyone with the same objective – to live and love and farm and bring up their children in peace and safety.

The journey to New York is long, dangerous and arduous, by land and sea. But they make it, and eventually Samuel builds a wonderful house in Cherry Valley where they settle down and run their farm. But there is now the threat of war and I’m aware that some of these familiar and well-known characters are going to die. I read on with trepidation . . .

The families are separated by the war but for me this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book – so many letters going forwards and back, so full of love and hope and encouragement. There is a fantastic occasion (referred to above) when Catherine takes to the ramparts of the fort where they are staying, with a rifle, an unheard of thing for a woman to do, and she earns herself a place in history.

And so, to a perfect ending when the war is over: The United States comes into being and American citizens can rebuild their houses and their lives and their families again.

I  would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical novels and family sagas, and a book with a strong narrative drive. The pace and shape of the book is so good; there is no slump in the middle, no part is too long or too short.

I give this book 5 Stars.  

Elizabeth Merry

09/06/20