1 January 2014

Review: The Quaker and the Rebel by Mary Ellis

Unlikeable heroine. Oops.

Miss Emily Harrison, a Quaker from Ohio, has accepted a role as governess for the slave-owning Bennington family in Virginia in the early months of the Civil War. My first impression of Emily was of a self-righteous, judgemental and naïve young lady, someone who has been raised in an insular anti-slavery environment and who hasn’t yet learned that life isn’t all black and white. I found her to be an unlikeable heroine, and that affected the whole book for me. That’s not just my opinion—Emily’s employer calls her “stubborn, wilful, and opinionated”, and Mr Alexander Wesley Hunt, her love interest, says “things aren’t as simple as your small, narrow mind would like them to be”.

It didn’t help that we didn’t find out Emily’s personal history until well into the story (why was she, as a Northerner, working in the South?). It was also never adequately explained how and why she got involved with the Underground Railroad—I thought this subplot could have had substantial impact, whereas it actually seemed like a contrived way of getting Emily in the right (wrong?) place at the right time.

I understand that she is against slavery from a biblical and ethical viewpoint. But that’s no reason to be rude to a slave who is merely trying to do his job. It’s not as though he chose to be a slave. I found her initial assumption that every black person was a slave annoying, and asking a black man whether he was a slave bordered on insulting, not just to the man she is asking but to his employer (or and owner)—her host. Perhaps it might have come across better if her actions had been balanced against a Christian faith, but they weren’t. While Emily was a Quaker, there was no indication of any personal faith in God—her religion appeared to be little more than a set of rules.

Alex had potential as a character. He is secretly the Gray Wraith (based on a real life character known as the Gray Ghost), stealing supplies from the Union to give to the Confederates. He is attracted to Emily (it seems) for no other reason than she isn’t attracted to him. Unfortunately, this came across as a bit of a cliché, probably because I found Emily so unlikeable (his liking of Emily also made me question his intelligence and discernment).

When The Quaker and the Rebel is good, the writing is as good as anything I’ve read. But then it slips from active scenes into passive telling, backstory and omniscient point of view, which brings the forward pace to a grinding halt, and it then takes an age to get going again. And while both the main characters did change during the five years covered by the book, I felt I was being told they had changed, rather than shown. The Quaker and the Rebel had a promising blurb, but overall, the plot and characters aren’t strong or interesting enough to overlook the faults, or to read the next book in the series.

Thanks to Harvest House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Mary Ellis at her website.

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