Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley
Published by: Sourcebooks Landmark
Genre(s): Romance, Romantic Suspense, Fiction, Historical Fiction
HB&W Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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“She will run before all the others,” had been William’s explanation of the sloop’s name. “Like the sheep we bell to lead the flock.”
It is 1759, the United States don’t exist yet, seeds of discord are already being sewn among the colonists, and England is at war with the French in the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War. As was common practice during this time, captured officers of warring armies were billeted with British colonists on a parole of honor, and so our story begins. Two captured French Lieutenants are paroled with a farming family in a small cove off the coast of Long Island, amongst a family who has lost much to the war and to the French. But as the parole continues with no sign of a prisoner exchange any time soon, the lines between prejudice and understanding become blurrier and loyalties are tested, as the daughter of the house, Lydia Wilde, and one of the captured Lieutenants, Jean-Phillipe, begin to fall in love with one another, culminating in a doomed romance that has become a local legend to the present-day inhabitants of the cove. Enter Charley, a French-Canadian historian who has agreed to curate a museum dedicated to Lydia’s famous brother, Benjamin, who later goes on to become a local hero in the Revolutionary War. But as mysterious happenings force the skeptical Charley to concede that ghosts really do exist, we learn that maybe things didn’t happen exactly as legend states.
Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets. The Wilde House seemed to have decided that the time had come to let them go.
Do you have a go-to author whose books you return to time and time again just because they feel like a warm hug, inviting and easy? Susanna Kearsley is that author for me. If I’ve been stressed or worried or maybe my last read left me feeling a bit on-edge, immersing myself in a book written by this woman is the book equivalent of comfort food for my brain. So, when I saw her most recent book sitting in my mom’s book pile a few weeks ago…I totally commandeered it. Sorry, Mom. (#sorrynotsorry)
This book follows Kearsley’s typical recipe of dual plot line + historical romance + intrigue + supernatural to cover the overarching themes of the book: loyalty, honor, love, prejudice, humanity, and war. One of the reasons I like Kearsley is that her romances are cheese-free, light romance, where the book may have a defining love story, but it is never the whole story. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the French and Indian War, we follow Lydia Wilde as she struggles to hold her family together against the strain of her merchant brother’s treasonous trade with the French and the potential reaction of her Loyalist brother Joseph, who suffers from PTSD, should he find out. Her struggle to help assuage Joseph’s hair-trigger temper is compounded with the arrival of the two French soldiers on parole of honor and billeted at her home. Even aside from the inconvenience of the officers and the added strain it added to her daily life, Lydia herself was also prejudiced to hate these men because of what they did to her fiancé at Oswego, but over time, she comes to see the lines between prejudice and understanding are blurred.
Wars lay easier upon the conscience, Lydia decided, when you could not see the faces of the people you were fighting. And it was vastly easier to hate a man when you’d not learned his Christian name, or pried into his private thoughts and learned that he was human.
In the present, Charley, a French-Canadian, moves to the cove to live and care for her recently deceased brother’s daughter. In need of a job, Charley is hired to curate a museum centered around Captain Benjamin Wilde, Lydia Wilde’s youngest brother, and a current local Revolutionary War hero, to be housed in the old Wilde house. But as she is getting settled in, stories keep popping up about a ghost that is said to be the French officer who was killed by Lydia Wilde’s older brother, Joseph. Charley doesn’t believe in ghosts, but as strange things keep inexplicably happening, she is convinced that the legend is more than just a story. She resolves to find out more about the local legend, and it seems that her paranormal companion would like to help her.
As we stood watching, the chair began moving of its own accord. Sliding over the planks of the floor on a perfect diagonal, it came to a stop by the large window right at the front of the room, before pivoting slightly to rest at an angle.
As I mentioned, Kearsley’s books are my brain’s version of comfort food. I love settling in with one of her novels and getting lost in the history that she so thoroughly and eloquently recreates. Her ability to weave actual historical events and figures into the tapestry of her overall story speaks of skilled research and dedication to the history of the time. I liked that she chose the time before the American Revolution, which for her was stepping outside of her box a bit, since her previous novels all seemed to focus on historical events in Europe, particularly England, Scotland, and the Jacobites. I even learned a few things, like the New York trials and burnings in 1741, something I can positively say I never learned about in my US History class, and spoiler alert, Massachusetts tried to warn New York against them. Or the practice of “parole of honor,” which had me debating with myself of the practicalities of its usage then versus the concept of applying it now. Both of these would make excellent topics at a book club discussion of this novel.
I also enjoy how peripheral characters from her previous novels make cameos in later books, tying everything together in ways you may not understand unless you’ve read them all. In this book for example, there is an elderly lady toward the end of the book from Paris, who we originally met in A Desperate Fortune. After reading the Author’s Note at the end of the book, we learn that some of the people in the book are actual figures in history, whose names and stories may have been lost to time, not even a footnote in the history books, but who Kearsley brings to life so that they may have their moment. Captain Wheelock, Big-Headed Tom, and Violet were three such people in this story, and Kearsley goes on to explain a bit of their stories in her Note.
There wasn’t much I didn’t like about this novel, but I will say that the plot resolution with Charley’s grandmother left me a bit disappointed. It felt a bit trite and anticlimactic, and I dare say, a bit cheesy. I also would like to know more about what happened to Joseph, since it was pointed out toward the beginning of the book that he was a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War and fled to Canada. Given how wrong the present-day characters had gotten the story of their resident ghost, it made me wonder if maybe there was more to Joseph’s story as well. But maybe, hopefully, he’ll make an appearance in one of her subsequent books and we’ll learn more at that time.
Everyone likes a good ghost story, don’t they? This book certainly haunted me. When I was in the middle of everyday tasks, I found myself wondering more about the characters, the story, and trying to guess what actually happened. Even long after I turned the last page, I found myself thinking about it, such is the way that Kearsley writes. While this story didn’t compel me like Mariana or The Winter Sea, it is still a wonderful story and you’d be surprised what you might learn about this part of our country’s history.
Pierre’s hard finger jabbed him in the chest, above his heart. “God gave you this. He set it like a light within you, so that you could see it well and know the way to go. You follow THIS Marine. Don’t look behind.
I hope you enjoyed this review. If you have read Bellewether, what did you think? Who is your go-to author when you need that mental hug? Let me know in the comments!
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The book cover image is credited to https://www.harpercollins.com