Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Shadowbrook by Beverly Swerling

1754. In a peaceful glen in the Ohio Country, the firing of a musket ball signals beginning of the infamous seven-year that paved the way for the American Revolution.

In Shadowbrook a cast of unforgettable characters brings to life the bloody conflict between the French and the English that ignited the 18th century and sparked a nation's battle for independence. Characters like Quentin Hale, the fearless gentleman-turned-scout the Indiians call 'Red Bear'; Cormac Shea, the part-Irish, part-Indian woodsman scarred in battle by his own kin, sworn to drive white man from his land; Nicole Crane, the beautiful young half-French woman whose struggle to reconcile her love for Hale with her vow to become a nun causes her to become a pawn in the quest for territory.

Centred around the coveted Shadowbrook, a prosperous plantation in the northern wilderness, and peopled with such historical figures, including a young George Washington, this richly textured novel vividly captures the conflict that opened the eighteenth century and ignited our nation's quest for independence. A classic in the making, Shadowbrook is a page-turning tale of ambition, war, and the transforming power of both love and duty.

When I read City of Dreams, one of the things that I found most surprising was that the author chose to tell the story of several generations in one book, and therefore covered quite a significant period of history (from 1661 to 1798). Whilst it didn't detract from the novel too much, I do much prefer to read a book that concentrates more fully on just one set of characters.

There is nothing in the blurb to easily connect Shadowbrook to the first book. It is only as you start to read that you find out that Quentin Hale's mother is a Devrey of New York and therefore connected to the characters from the first book. With a time frame from 1754-1760 this book sits within the scope of the first book, but I guess the story was just so much bigger than just being a section of the earlier book.

The two main characters are Quentin Hale and Cormac Shea - they are not physically brothers, but they are in all other ways, including by the fact that they have the same adoptive Indian father, with Quentin having been adopted by the Potawatomi tribe. Cormac is half Irish and half Indian, and had been bought to Shadowbrook as a young teenager when Quent's father made Cormac's mother his mistress. To the Indians these two young men are Bridge people - men who can provide a way for the Indians to understand what is happening in the very different world of the white man. For Cormac and Quent, quite often it means internal strife as they must try to balance the two worlds of which they are part.

The story that Swerling attempts to tell is huge - not only is there the Indian vs white man issues to deal with, there is also the simmering tensions between the British and the French who are fighting to win control of the land stretching from what is now the northern US up to and including Quebec in Canada. Add in the machinations of the Church, and you have a complicated and diverse cast of characters. There are also episodes of Indian mysticism, as well as Catholic religious experience.

As if all of that is not enough, when Cormac and Quentin meet after a long time apart, Cormac is accompanying a young lady north to Quebec. Her name is Nicole Crane, and she is half British-half French, and she is travelling north to become a member of a the Sisters of the Poor Clares - a convent. Whilst Quentin is a man of honour and wouldn't dare to touch Nicole whilst he believes that she has chosen Cormac to be her man, he finds himself falling in love with her, and when his mother seems to sanction her as the perfect wife to be mistress of Shadowbrook, he knows that she should be his. The only problem is that Quent will never be master at Shadowbrook. As the younger son, he has to watch his sadistic older brother (a completely one dimensional character - evil in just about every way - particularly in comparison to the perfect Quent!) make decisions that will cause trouble for all those who live there, including the slaves and the Quakers who live in a township on the Hale patent.

There are several historical characters woven into the narrative - in particular during the sections dealing with the battles between the British and the French. Possibly the most interesting inclusions were a young man by the name of George Washington who was leading a force of Virginian soldiers and fighting on the side of the British against the French, influential Indian chief, Chief Pontiac, and several generals on either side of the battles over land.

On many levels this story did work for me, but at the end of the day, there was too much left unexplained for me to really love this book.

As an example, one of the major story lines was the wheeling and dealing that was being driven by a one-eyed Scottish man, Hamish Stewart, who fought at Culloden. Hamish wants the Hale patent...badly...and will do almost anything to get his hands on it. He manipulates and bribes, even at one stage trying to destroy the Hales, just so that he can be the owner. What I never did get is what his motivation was. He had been coveting the land for over twenty years, but why THAT land. Why was he so determined that Shadowbrook was the only land that he wanted. This is just one example.

Before finishing up I should mention that this is not a book for the faint of heart. There are battles galore, blood everywhere, and plenty of scalpings. For the most part, it is a fascinating read, although it is a long way from being a perfect read. I would class it as mostly enjoyable.

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