March 06, 2006 12:00 PM

by Emily Barton



The Brooklyn of Emily Barton’s second novel barely resembles the bustling borough of today. In the late 1700s, as New Yorkers adjust to the Revolution’s end, the village of Brooklyn, or “Brookland,” has amassed “one alehouse, one tavern; one rope manufactory; one sawmill, one gristmill; one chandlery.” Barton’s book is enriched by historical facts and scenes painstakingly rendered in fluid and evocative prose, but it’s the characters who make this convincing story. Brookland pulses with the energy of its people—dreamers and drinkers and one highly driven protagonist. Prue Winship, the oldest of three girls, inherits her father’s gin distillery and, in the letters to her grown daughter that frame the narrative, recounts the story of the mill and of her attempt to build the first Brooklyn-to-Manhattan bridge. It’s nervy enough for an 18th-century woman to run a distillery, but Prue’s contemporaries are truly awed and a bit mystified about her proposal to span the East River (this, before steamships plied the Hudson). Yet in Barton’s expert hands, Prue’s ambition is frightfully real. Her desire to make her mark in a man’s world never flags; she’s powered by childhood memories (including a secret history with one sister) that haunt her until the end. Barton’s story takes a while to kick in, but once it does, it’s thrilling to see Prue in action, and gut-wrenching to watch her discover the high price paid by those who are blinded by ambition.


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