by Gwen Bristow
416 pages. Chicago Review Press.
Review by Kate Kasserman
Every now and then, a book surprises me.
I approached Celia Garth with decidedly modest expectations, and the beginning of the story more or less met them precisely. Celia is a plucky 20-year-old orphan in 1780 Charleston, working as a junior apprentice seamstress in a hoity-toity shop and dreaming of better things (love; respect for her extra-spiffy sewing skills, which languish unrecognized while she is tasked on low-level button-reinforcing work and the like; and in general “getting her way,” because, as a Southern character of a certain type, she is full unto bursting with “gumption”). That was a fine set-up. Celia’s fine eye for detail-work (even if no one seems to know it other than herself) is matched by her close observations of the people around her; these are rendered fascinatingly through the simple, direct language of a bright, introspective person with little formal education. So I liked Celia very well, for all that everyone (the author included) keeps calling her sassy. She wanted love and a place in the world – and she had the talent and the moxie and the looks (if she does say so herself) to earn them, if only she got the chance.
Well, she did get the chance, when a well-connected friend (later fiancé) sets her up with the opportunity to sew for a VERY hard-to-please customer who becomes Celia’s mentor and surrogate mother-figure – but right on the heels of that, Celia also got the war exploding around her ears, rendering her hard-earned connections impotent or even dangerous. I was happy enough with the story and the characters that the prospect of watching Celia struggle through to triumph was enough for me; it was a fine and pleasant journey, and I really didn’t need anything else.
Except Bristow pulled a particularly deft switcheroo on me and offered a great deal more.
The book is structured as a potboiler. You can read it cheerfully as such with no harm done, except that the ending might seem like a puzzling brief coda tacked onto the proper conclusion (in my view, it is anything but). There are dastardly deeds and backstabbing, grasping relatives and spies and traitors and hypocrites and MULTIPLE explosions and hair’s-breadth escapes and secret passages and death – almost an overabundance of drama, except that Celia’s matter-of-fact point of view keeps everything grounded – and besides, it really was that violent and tense in the then-and-there. The end-of-Revolutionary-War fighting in South Carolina, gentlepeeps, was deeply, deeply ugly, and Celia is thrust in its maw. Bristow, incidentally, nods to some facts that are inconvenient to the general storyline – like that the Patriot mobs were no more moderate in their predations and slaughters than the Loyalist ones, and the complexity of the entire slavery issue – but does not elaborate on them. It is conceivable to pick a bone with her over this, but I think doing so would be mistaken. This book is told from Celia’s perspective, for one; and for another, it is simply not possible to say everything about everything at once. At any rate, there is plenty of blood and thunder, and it is all very exciting on that score.
But the triumph of the book is that Celia – who does cave in for a while but ultimately never loses that gumption or, God help us all, the sass – thinks and learns so much from the terrible, soul-crushing events around her (warning: Bristow WILL KILL PEOPLE YOU LIKE). That sounds tame. It is not. She’s no Katie Scarlett O’Hara, just “keepin’ on keepin’ on” no matter how rough the sledding, although of course there is a rough, brutal glory in that.
Celia keeps on, all right, and she holds to her moral compass as well (are you listening, Scarlett?). But her understanding of human nature (including her own), and of human relationships, is gouged by terrible experience with scars that deepen her – gullies will do that – and reveal to her the trembling fragility of everything (love, friendship, home, status) to which she had always aspired as a rock upon which she could finally rest one happy day. Now she knows that day will never come. She discovers what she calls the “lonely places” inside every one of us – places that we simply cannot share, no matter how much we love and trust each other, no matter how great our intimacy and regard and even understanding. There is a fundamental solitude that cannot be breached, and cannot be explained. And there are “lonely places” between groups of people too; as when Celia realizes that her husband does not, and never will, understand what is passing between her and her surrogate mother Vivian – although Vivian understands just fine. It doesn’t mean that Celia and her husband (oh, I should mention, that is sort of a spoiler – you are in doubt for a good long while in the book whether C. will ever make it to the altar – but it is mostly not a spoiler, because there is plenty of question about it that I will not resolve or allude to here!) love each other any less.
That is a hard, cold lesson – that there are spaces that cannot be bridged, and that there is no perfect safety in the world, but only possibility, and hope, and faith, no matter how hard you try and even how much you succeed.
And thus we have the ending of the book, which comes after the “happily ever after” where Charleston is restored to America and the war is won and Celia and her new family are back on top. We don’t stop on that upbeat note, but continue on to Celia ruminating about some of the lonely places between herself and her husband – and then learning that with all the clean-up being performed in Charleston after its long, miserable siege and occupation, there is one thing that cannot come back: the English have stolen the expensive church-bells and whisked them away in their retreat.
The bells would remind her of so much. They would remind her – men like war, women don’t. Women like being peacetime homemakers, men don’t. Be gentle, Celia. Be understanding. You’ve got a rough road ahead of you and so has he. Everybody has lonely places. Even [redacted: her husband].
She stopped and turned around, and looked back across the housetops to the steeple. This was what the bells would say, but they were not there to say it. The steeple was silent.
Celia wanted to cry out, No! It must not be this way. She could not, she simply could not, accept the idea that she would never hear the bells again, that her child would never hear that lovely whisper of music. Standing on the sidewalk, she looked up at the silent steeple.
“Please,” she whispered, “please don’t let it be always silent! Please God, give us back the bells!”
We do not conclude, then, with certainty – we move on to the next step, which is the question, and the plea – only something that draws people together from their various lonely places can ever really bring them to where they can touch each other again. As a side note, not alluded to in the book (which ends with the lines above), the bells of St. Michael’s were indeed subsequently recovered in London and restored to the city and people that missed them. But I am quite certain that Celia would have found a way to keep soldiering on even if they had not.