Published by William Morrow on January 22, 2019
Source: the publisher
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From the author of The Water Dancers and Good Family, an exquisitely crafted novel, set in Ohio in the decades leading to the Civil War, that illuminates the immigrant experience, the injustice of slavery, and the debts human beings owe to one another, witnessed through the endeavors of one Irish-American family.
Cheated out of their family estate in Northern Ireland after the Napoleonic Wars, the Givens family arrives in America in 1819. But in coming to this new land, they have lost nearly everything. Making their way west they settle in Cincinnati, a burgeoning town on the banks of the mighty Ohio River whose rise, like the Givenses’ own, will be fashioned by the colliding forces of Jacksonian populism, religious evangelism, industrial capitalism, and the struggle for emancipation.
After losing their mother in childbirth and their father to a riverboat headed for New Orleans, James, Olivia, and Erasmus Givens must fend for themselves. Ambitious James eventually marries into a prosperous family, builds a successful business, and rises in Cincinnati society. Taken by the spirit and wanderlust, Erasmus becomes an itinerant preacher, finding passion and heartbreak as he seeks God. Independent-minded Olivia, seemingly destined for spinsterhood, enters into a surprising partnership and marriage with Silas Orpheus, a local doctor who spurns social mores.
When her husband suddenly dies from an infection, Olivia travels to his family home in Kentucky, where she meets his estranged brother and encounters the horrors of slavery firsthand. After abetting the escape of one slave, Olivia is forced to confront the status of a young woman named Tilly, another slave owned by Olivia’s brother-in-law. When her attempt to help Tilly ends in disaster, Olivia tracks down Erasmus, who has begun smuggling runaways across the river—the borderline between freedom and slavery.
As the years pass, this family of immigrants initially indifferent to slavery will actively work for its end—performing courageous, often dangerous, occasionally foolhardy acts of moral rectitude that will reverberate through their lives for generations to come.
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Eulogist by Terry Gamble is the story of an Irish immigrant family that comes to America in the early 1800’s. It isn’t long after their arrival that the children lose their parents, so the story is actually told as their lives unfold from 1818-1890. I tend to be most excited about historical fiction when I’m reading books that are set in the time period around the Civil War simply because there was so much going on and there is still so much to learn about this time period, so when I started this book I really dug into the story and felt in there. I had no idea how genuinely GOOD it was going to be though. Gosh, what a treat.
Of the three children: brother James ends up starting a business in candle-making and has a tough time getting started but eventually finds great success and name recognition; brother Erasmus, always sort of a wild-card, converts and becomes a preacher, traveling along the river trying to save the souls of everyone he meets; and sister Olivia ends up marrying someone with interests similar to hers-a doctor with strange curiosities-and bases her life on not only the choices that she makes but the opinions that she carries. It is Olivia that tells us the story. And it is Olivia that I felt most deeply connected to throughout the tale. She does not waver in her convictions. She understands that this will cost her, and yet she does everything that she does anyway.
Throughout the story, there are a couple of characters that carry the whole thing, whether they’re on the page or not. They are enslaved by Olivia’s in-laws and make such a huge impression on Olivia that the reverberations of these relationships are felt outward like ripples for generations.
The synopsis for this story captured my attention, but it really doesn’t tell how big this story is. By about 10-15 pages in, I was hooked. And the more the story progressed, I just couldn’t put it down. To me, The Eulogist goes beyond just another 1800’s historical fiction in so many ways. For one: This family has to settle into being immigrants and all that comes with that status while also navigating their views on slavery or not and I was fascinated by this. This story also tackles abolition from the point of view of three siblings and their spouses, where not everyone agrees perfectly on how to tackle the “problem” with slavery. Ultimately one hopes that ignoring the subject will make it go away, one immerses him/herself fully into abolition regardless of the potential cost, and the other works hard behind-the-scenes, being sneaky and propping up those that did the more visible work. I loved the way the news stories telling the fates of those that escaped and those that were caught assisting were woven into the narrative like small details because I think this added to the tension that this family felt over the decades as their business endeavors and their families grew. And they certainly added depth to the story because they helped to create a more full picture of what was happening right here in the United States at the time.
I also loved that there was a little bit of humor written into the story. Not too much as to take away from anything, but Olivia’s sense of humor made me smile multiple times while was reading. She was such a cool character-she is certainly more progressive than most anyone around her, and sometimes her mouth and her views got her into a little bit of trouble. I love that the author went in this direction with this character.
I also love that the author took the opportunity to have Olivia tell the history of her own family as well as the history of her husband’s family. By the time the story ended after barely over 300 pages, I felt so much for this family, for how far their reach extended, and for how they had blended themselves with other families to help America become the melting pot that we are. Honestly, the last chapter choked me up. It was hard not to be emotional at some of the revelations right there, at the very end. The way that I felt after I finally closed the book-that feeling-is why I love to read and why I bumped my rating up from 4.5 to 5.
I expected to like this one, but I had no idea how much I would love it. It’s a little bit more quiet than some novels because there are no huge action or dramatic scenes anywhere. I think the wondrous thing about this one is in the characterization and the way the author was able to spread this family out so, and then connect so many people by way of these three siblings. At the end, I felt like the story had come full circle. This is a top-shelf, definitely-reread story for me and I would love to hear Cassandra Campbell’s narration of this entire book on the audiobook. I’d LOVE that.
So, so good. I recommend this one to readers that enjoy those stories that really sneak up on you and leave big impressions. That’s what happened to me here.