Wednesday, June 07, 2006

From My Bookshelf

The Inquest
by Jeffrey D. Marshall
Hardscrabble Books/University Press of New England, 2006
288 pp., $24.95

I admit that I'm biased a) toward historical fiction and b) toward historical fiction written by authors who, like me, have some professional training in history. So when I saw that UPNE was publishing this novel by Jeffrey D. Marshall, who is Special Collections Librarian and University Archivist at the University of Vermont and editor of A War of the People: Vermont's Civil War Letters, I was immediately intrigued.

Marshall's debut novel is inspired by the true story of a Vermont woman--Experience "Speedy" Goodrich--who died in 1830 after having an abortion. Marshall presents the story through three first-person accounts of individuals who played some role in the story, especially in the inquest that followed Speedy's death: Charles Daggett, a student at the University of Vermont medical school accused of procuring (and, in the eyes of many, performing) the abortion; Stephen Decatur Parker, another student who is asked to record the proceedings of the inquest because of his unusual shorthand skills; and Nancy Goodrich Proctor, Speedy's sister.

Only Parker is a wholly invented character. Marshall cleverly (if somewhat disappointingly) leaves out accounts from others involved in the case by opening the book with a note titled "About These Accounts." The narrator of this note is Charles Adams, a former prosecutor for the State of Vermont who explains that he was dissatisfied with the original inquest and had decided "to inquire of several persons most familiar with the facts of the case whether they would set down their recollections, in narrative style, for my edification." He then adds that of the individuals whose testimony he solicited, only Daggett, Decatur, and Proctor responded.

It was a very smart choice to open the book with Daggett's narrative. Daggett has the most knowledge of the case; he's central to everything else that occurs; the reader finds herself caring about what happens to him at least as much as--if not more than--what happens to Speedy herself. In some ways, it's not difficult to imagine his section of the book as a stand-alone novella, although the other two sections do round out the story.

Throughout, Marshall conveys a tremendous amount of historical information. Those interested in the history of science will learn a lot about medical education in the early 19th century; the history of New England comes alive here, too. And then, of course, there's the historical context of this particular story of an abortion.

Like many other works of historical fiction, this one appends an "Author's Statement" which throws light on how Marshall developed and researched his book. Somewhat atypically, at least in my reading experience, the statement appears as part of a Reading Group Guide which presents not only some questions for group (or class) discussion, but a Q&A with Marshall, too.

"In the end," Marshall says in his Author's Statement, "I am not sure that I have done justice to Speedy and the other real characters by presenting the story as historical fiction, but I hope I have suggested something closer to the truth about the times they lived in than I could otherwise do. I hope, as well, that the story will prove entertaining and thought-provoking." He has, and it does.

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