Edge of Night by Carol Warburton
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
Edge of Night highlights a time when women had few more legal rights than slaves. Carol Warburton tells a story of one courageous woman’s escape from an unjust “benefactor” and shows a subtle parallel between the woman’s struggle to achieve control over her own destiny and the danger fraught journey of black slaves who fled their masters along the underground railroad in search of autonomy.
The story begins with a double prologue that isn’t really a prologue at all. First there’s a teaser, hinting at an event that doesn’t occur until chapter four. Then the second part of the prologue sets the frame around the story by introducing the reader to Jessica Taylor who is taking time from her hectic modern day schedule to attend the temple. In her hand is a pink card with the name, Tamsin Yeager, on it. Tamsin is Jessica’s ancestor who lived in Massachusetts in the mid-1800’s, and the rest of the book is Tamsin’s story.
Tamsin tells her story, beginning with the first time she sees Caleb Tremayne, a conductor on the underground railroad. Taking a brief respite from her dying mother’s bedside to stroll along a bluff overlooking a small cove, she spots a stranger striding across the sand. He doesn’t see her and they don’t even meet at this time, but he is destined to play an important role in her own emancipation. From there we learn of Tamsin’s family and the events leading to her and her mother living in a cottage near the most powerful man in the village and how they became totally dependent on his generosity for their home and the necessities of life.
The man, Deacon Amos Mickelson, pretends to protect and provide for a widow and her two young daughters after the woman’s husband dies in a farm accident, but he has actually stolen their farm and has designs on first the mother’s, then each of the young girls’ physical charms. There were three other daughters, one who married a printer in Philadelphia and two who went West with a couple of Mormon elders, but since the deacon controls the post office and appropriates the Yeager mail, the woman and her daughters are completely cut off from them. The youngest daughter elopes with Tamsin’s fianc to escape the situation, leaving Tamsin alone and vulnerable after her mother dies.
When the deacon attempts to force himself upon Tamsin, she hides, then stows away in a wagon loaded with barrels of pickled herring and bags of outs. After an uncomfortable ride, she arrives in Bayberry, penniless and hungry, knowing no one, and with no place to go and no job. With her faith in God and her willingness to work, she soon finds herself employed as a housekeeper for Caleb Tremayne, the man she’d seen on the beach in the little cove near her old home. Caleb is a secretive man with a reputation for having a hot temper. He employs two other servants, a cook who suffers from dropsy, and a mentally challenged young girl he rescued from an abusive father. Little by little Tamsin discovers her employer’s secret and becomes involved in the freedom effort of the pre-civil war underground railroad which guided runaway slaves to Canada and freedom. She also finds more than an employer-employee relationship developing between herself and Caleb.
I’m not a big fan of the story-within-a-story; neither am I particularly fond of first person fictional historicals. Edge of Night by Carol Warburton has both of these elements, and yet, I liked this book a great deal. Long flashbacks generally don’t work well in my opinion, but in this case they do. Not only is the entire story a flashback, but Sister Burton makes liberal use of the technique within the main story to flesh out motives and background. The book is rich with detail concerning the 1850’s and moves at a slower pace than most modern action novels. The tone is near-literary, yet has enough of the popular novel in it that I suspect it will appeal to a broad cross-section of readers.
The individual’s role and the part others play in achieving freedom from slavery, or bondage, is a major theme of Edge of Night. The individual courage and sacrifices made by black slaves who risk beatings, pursuit by vicious dogs, starvation, even death to control their own destiny is portrayed well. The bondage imposed on the weaker members of society by those who have greater legal or social power is exhibited by Tamsin and the young housemaid in the home where she is employed. Other forms of bondage are seen in the mother who takes to her sick bed rather than face reality; the young girl whose mind is damaged through abuse, the widow who wallows in grief, and even strong, resourceful Caleb who occasionally allows his temper to override his usual good sense.
More powerful than the slavery motifs are the stories of these individuals’ quests for freedom. Early in the story we see a mother who seeks freedom from her situation, first in illness, then in death and a sister who saves herself at her sister’s expense. Witnessing these events, Tamsin learns she has to plan and be decisive in order to survive. We soon see that those characters who make achieving their own freedom the most compelling force in their lives achieve a higher level of freedom than do those who acquiesce to whatever bondage they are placed in, and those who risk their precious freedom for the sake of others gain a level of freedom that goes beyond the physical. We see this as a black mother physically challenges anyone who threatens her child, as the fifteen-year-old maid faces her fears and does her part to save the severely wounded man who earlier rescued her from a life of abuse and degradation; as a belligerent, rude escaped slave turns back at the last moment to save the life of the courier who guided him to a ship sailing for Canada.
Warburton’s style is more formal than that of most modern writers and much of the story is given away in advance merely through the use of the first person narrative style she employs. Good pacing and attention to detail counter balance these potential drawbacks and the time period of the story and the upbringing of her characters makes this more formal style feel right.
Though Tamsin and Caleb are not members of the Church as their story is told, the frame provided by the opening and closing scenes taking place in the temple are comforting to the reader. It is unthinkable that a couple who endured so much and loved each others so dearly might not be together for eternity. Edge of Night is a story worth reading. It invites the reader to take a closer look book at the freedoms we take for granted and to ponder the stories of those on our own family trees who also deserve a chance to spend eternity with their loved ones.
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