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Harriet and Isabella    by Patricia O'Brien order for
Harriet and Isabella
by Patricia O'Brien
Order:  USA  Can
Touchstone, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

When accomplished author Patricia O'Brien's finely written historical novel begins, readers are dropped in media res into the final hours of the dying Henry Ward Beecher, the celebrated preacher of America's 19th century. Beecher's wife Eunice and one of his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the ardent abolitionist and celebrated novelist, are in solemn and fretful attendance at the Beecher family's Brooklyn Heights home on March 7, 1887.

Nearby and desperate to visit her dying brother is another sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, a staunch suffragist. However, because of an incident in Henry Ward Beecher's past, a terrible bitterness divides the Beecher siblings, and Isabella is not welcome in the Beecher home. Henry Ward Beecher had been put on trial for adultery in 1875 because of his alleged involvement with a woman named Elizabeth Tilton. Although Beecher was acquitted at the end of what was called the Trial of the Century, the shameful episode involving Beecher and Tilton was marked by twists, betrayals, and revelations. Beecher's public reputation was permanently damaged, and a terrible and protracted schism divided Harriet, his steadfast defender, and Isabella, the sister who had doubted his innocence and urged her brother to publicly confess his guilt.

One central question stands at the forefront throughout the elegantly fashioned Harriet and Isabella, O'Brien's imaginative retelling of love, loyalty, honor, redemption, and forgiveness within one of 19th century America's most intriguing and famous families: Can the shameful burden of the past - either real or imagined - be set aside so that a family can survive and overcome their resentful rift?

To answer that question, O'Brien adroitly navigates between the Beecher family's present and past - with particular emphasis given to the pivotal year of 1875 and the problematic intersection of passions, politics, family loyalties, and sibling rivalries - and she brilliantly showcases the minds and hearts of two women who mature and change during their long and painful family nightmare. As a complex portrait of a family and an age - the America that was nearly destroyed by social problems, slavery, and the Civil War - Harriet and Isabella is a vivid and powerful presentation. Moving, illuminating, provocative, entertaining, and (in some surprising ways) uniquely relevant to all of us in the 21st century, this is top-notch historical fiction.

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