Mary Bishop, by Jane Yunker
Historic romance, 230 pages
February 2020, self-published
Reviewed by Lisa Lickel, www.lisalickel.com
I knew Jane Yunker as a most favored poet, so I was eager to read her first full length novel. This wonderfully poignant historical work set during a devastating period in American history admirably traverses northern and southern sympathies in the nineteenth century.
The first half of the story is set in Virginia where Mary, the daughter of a minister, is encouraged to read widely and learn about the world. She is a child of the South, but not a wilting Southern Belle. The love of her life, Earl Bishop, is raised in neglect and violence; a hard-working and sensitive young man, he finds his way to Mary’s family after attempting to show kindness to the slaves under his uncle, an overseer on a large plantation with many ill-treated slaves, and is beaten. Mary and Earl marry and set up their home nearby, making a good living from the land and Earl’s work at a lumber mill. Their firstborn, a son, is the darling of their eyes, and eventually Mary and Earl find special friends in Sara and Lucas when their sons join forces in mischief at school.
Earl’s sensitive reaction at the loss of an infant daughter push him off the wagon and he begins a lifelong battle with addiction. Only the perilous undertaking of giving aid to the most desperate gives him purpose in life. Mary lives in fear for Earl and their friends and family if Ear is caught. Her fears come true with the death of Sara’s husband. This tragedy is the tip of the iceberg of fear as war between the States looms. Mary and Earl’s son is the embodiment of State’s Rights convictions. Torn between pride in their child, Southern sentiment and tradition, and their own belief that the institution of slavery is wrong, Mary wonders if perhaps they shouldn’t have had more open dialog in their family as their son proudly goes to fight.
The ravaged South no longer feels like home at war’s end, and Mary and Earl relocate to northwest Wisconsin where Earl can work in the lumber mills. But the north is not so welcoming and the viciousness of those who also lost their sons to the rebellion make life intolerable for Earl. Twelve years of suffering pass and Mary is left a widow. But life is not over, and Mary learns that not everyone in her adopted community shares the sentiments of the most vile of town biddies. Meeting rumor, false accusations, and death threats with dignity and a well-aimed pistol, Mary shows her true character and reaps only good things.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Mary has nothing left and teaches her husband Earl a lesson in how his actions affect everyone around him. “Who taught you to swear?” he asks at one point. “Who do you think,” Mary responds.
Told through Mary’s point of view, this lovely, poignant story opens in the ultimate tragedy, reverses and builds slowly to meet itself in time and move forward. Mary’s insecurities, grace, longing, and anger offer readers who love strong characters at a fragile time in history much to enjoy in Mary Bishop.
Wisconsin Writers Association
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