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Brookland    by Emily Barton order for
by Emily Barton
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Born in January of 1772, Prue Winship - against all odds - grows up (in Emily Barton's beautiful, lyrical novel Brookland) to become one of the most remarkable women in America. Brookland - a deftly written tale in which Barton successfully combines third-person and epistolary narrative - is Prue's compelling story.

Remembering her youth, as Prue would later recall in letters to her adult daughter Recompense, 'I {had already} resolved {at five years of age} in my childish way to learn what I could of building, to store up against future use.' When she was five years older in 1782 - as readers of Brookland will discover - young Prue began having a most unlikely dream about a bridge across the East River that would connect Brooklyn with Manhattan, the place Prue had become convinced was the haunted and strangely different 'land of the shades.' The ten year old's peculiar dream, however, was destined to remain little more than a fanciful and obsessive delusion since young Prue had just then begun many years of intensive training at her father's distillery where she would eventually be solely responsible as owner and manager of Winship Gin.

In 1796, however, when she was twenty-six years of age, Prudence Winship Horsfield - the wife of Isaiah and sister of Pearl and Temperance - made an audacious announcement to her husband and her sisters: 'I'm considering building a bridge ... Across the river. A bridge to New York.' Her sisters laughed at her, but Prue insisted, 'I am quite serious, ... {It will be} a vast bridge ... Simple in form and tall enough to admit the masts of ships ... I've been thinking of traversing the distance a long time; and as I say, most everyone believes a bridge would be of service. It's been a matter of arriving at a workable plan. I think I may have done so.' In fact, the dream became reality when the first bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn opened in 1803.

And there, in an overly simplified nutshell, is the essence of the imaginative plot in Emily Barton's fascinating novel. Brookland, however, is much more than the enthusiastically recommended story of an early American woman's precocious dream and the ultimate building of a singular bridge. Brookland is partly a young girl's coming-of-age story, partly a cultural history of late 18th and early 19th century America, and partly an epic tale of a fiercely independent and resourceful woman - Prue Winship, Distiller of Gin - who dared to dream and succeed in a society that was not particularly hospitable to women who sought to make intellectual and technological contributions.

More significantly, though, Brookland is the fictional story of one woman's remarkable life - a life dominated by determination and passion, a life haunted by a loathsome fear of death, a life complicated by shameful secrets and relentless guilt, a life enriched by the unbridled power of a visionary imagination.

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