If you’re not a fan of leisurely historical novels, Emily Barton’s will bore the britches off you. But everything that stymies the goal-oriented reader — unhurried essays on antique gin-distilling techniques, verbatim chunks of sermons, phalanxes of peripheral characters — makes Barton’s stately period piece even more of a treat for the rest of us. In her account of an extraordinary woman’s life in Brooklyn circa 1800, Barton has re-created the borough’s brief pastoral moment in such lavish, precise detail that I can’t think of a single recent historical novel that compares.
At 50, Prue Winship begins a correspondence with her grown daughter, Recompense, attempting to explain her past. As a restless young woman gazing across the East River from ”Brookland” to ”Mannahata,” Prue dreamed up and designed an enormous bridge. Trying to get at the inspiration for her epic endeavor, Prue begins recounting her story, beginning with a ”metaphysickal crime” she committed against her younger sister Pearl. When she was 6, Prue discovered her mother was pregnant and cursed the unborn child. Pearl was born mute, and Prue decided that she was to blame, a devastating conclusion intuited and perpetuated by Johanna, the family’s slave.
Barton’s narrative has a powerful central current — the bridge will be built, and the ”metaphysickal crime” punished — but on the way to its shattering climax, there are many wonderful eddies and whirlpools, each of which deepens our understanding of Prue’s reality. The same village characters appear and reappear — bores, drunks, gossips — until they become part of the landscape. And Barton captures this life’s rhythm, which is built around work. When she is 10, Prue’s father begins teaching her the family gin business, an apprenticeship that Barton describes at luxurious length, as Prue learns to mash, ferment, and flavor the liquid that ”delights the senses and buoys the heart.”
It is not the gin, though, that buoys Prue’s heart: It’s the making of it. ”I’ve always felt you’re the one most like me: the one with the head for business, and the one who loves a project,” her father says. And in her mid-20s, Prue launches her biggest project. If you think an 18th-century woman engineering a bridge sounds unlikely, read Barton’s exquisite depiction of the years-long process: drawings, models, funding disasters, and construction catastrophes. This would be dry stuff indeed if Barton did not make clear that it is the central adventure of Prue’s life, one that combines self-expression with intellectual challenge. As she later writes of the bridge to Recompense,”I cannot say I’d loved anything so much till then. My parents, my sisters, your father…they all had their hold on me; but that view of a thing sprung of my imagination…it seemed my whole future happiness depended on it.”
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, who died this month at 85, asserted that work can offer gratifications that hearth and car pool cannot. While female detectives may exercise their faculties in contemporary thrillers, mainstream fictional heroines engrossed in challenging jobs — as opposed to challenging cads — are rare. Which makes Brookland that much more of a rare delight.