STRANGE SAINT

By Andrew Beahrs
New Milford, Ct: The Toby Press, 2005
ISBN # 1-59264-124-5
386 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2010

Andrew Beahrs presents us with a lovely slow-moving historical novel. He mixes two totally unconnected historical tales to create a single novel that gives the reader a strongly felt sense of what drove early settlers to flee England for the wilds and fears of pre-colonial America.

The novel centers around Melode, a servant girl living in a conservative Christian religious group, The Saints, who are carefully modeled on the Puritans. She is both a woman of her time and a rebel. She can read and write, but isnít otherwise much educated. She loves to swill beer and ale with the best of them, often demonstrating a rather crude set of habits of life, lusty, explosive, and able to defend herself.

The Saints are victims of their times, suffering more from rising capitalism and the enclosure of the commons than from any direct religious persecution. They decide to flee to the colonies for a chance at a better life.

Melode may well not have gone with them, but while the turmoil of decision making was going on, she fell madly in love with the son of the Saintsí leader, who himself is a rebel against his fatherís stern leadership.

What follows is the tumultuous life of Melode for the next couple of years. I think it best not to say anything more about the plot; I fear that could spoil a readerís delights in reading the novel.

Author Beahrs knows the history of The Pilgrims and his second historical source which gives us the plot line, and he has a marvelous ability to make the reader feel these times and the radical changes of early 17th century England Ė including the roughness and primitiveness of early American settlements.

There are a number of beautiful, often touching, passages I wish to share, that, without spoiling the plot, can give potential readers a sense of Beahrís marvelous prose.

Early in the novel Melode is carry out her normal task at her masterís home in England -- to uncover the simmering coals and bring them back to full flame, also lighting the dark house.

As the flame rises, the brickabrac of the household grows around me. Sacks of carrots and onion, guns on the wall, herbs, the table holds a dusty gaming board with pincer pieces, jars of pins and ball-shaped buttons, combs, scissors, nails and pipes and fatty soap.

For a moment I feel Iíve made them. See what I can do with my breath.

Beahrs painted a vivid sense of the leader of The Saints, Master Stradling, walking in a manner that underlines his self-importance as leader.

Master Stradling has a staff, with each step he thuds it to earth, as though heíll set it in the ground for a flag.

Melode falls in love with Adam Stradling, the leaderís son, and I delighted in her descriptions of a loverís quarrel they had.

That was the start of a fine row, though we made up.

At times since Iíve felt towed behind a vessel he pilots.

The passage also gives us an insight into her desire for and sense of independence.

Later on, while still in England, a midwife is helping Melodeís mistress to deliver her baby. The earthiness of the authorís description was refreshing.

She strokes Mistress Jacobís forehead with a weathered hand, talking quiet, regular nonsense, the kind of talk on offers a bull before gelding.

Lastly there was a touch I loved in the tying together of two passages separated by some 250 pages. Very early on Melode goes to a local fair. There she sees herself in a small hand mirror. Prior to that she had only seen herself in clear water, and some dim reflections on granite.

Not at all unpleased, yet she is surprised to think that others know what she looks like much better than she herself.

Some 250 pages later, now in Newfoundland, She is ushered into the local leaderís office and is startled once again to be in the presence of a mirror, this time a very large one hanging on the wall. I just loved the authorís linking the two experiences:

In the small market mirror, what seems long ago, I looked fed, and content and desirable. But this woman in the glass -- her cheeks are worn, from within and without -- from want of food, from wind. I put one hand to my face. The hand in the glass moves up, and touches this woman. She looks my elder aunt.

This is a very carefully crafted and slow-moving novel; not fast food but a delicious gourmet treat of words, images and stories to be digested slowly with attention to the spices of words and images.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu