Friday, October 2, 2009

Newes from the Dead

Mary Hooper's excellent YA novel Newes from the Dead is based on the true story of Anne Green, a 22-year-old servant seduced by her employer's grandson and unjustly hanged for infanticide in December 1650. Anne lies in her coffin—paralyzed, not dead—and thinks over the choices that led to her tragic fate (supposing herself in purgatory), as a team of Oxford physicians prepare for her dissection. The two narratives converge quite elegantly, as Anne is restored to life and hailed as a miracle of divine justice.

The historical detail is vivid and often horrifying, but I kept thinking as I was reading that Anne speaks more like a Victorian lady than a 17th-century illiterate drudge. In all fairness though, if Mary Hooper had written a more 'authentic' narrative, most readers would have found it pretty much impossible to get through. Anne's naiveté and weakness of character are the very things that lead to her near-demise—she forsakes her sweetheart, John Taylor, because she believes Geoffrey Reade (an out-and-out scoundrel) when he promises to make her lady of the house someday. She suffers appallingly for her foolishness and inability to protect herself and her unborn child; but then comes her redemption, and the reader is left with the definite sense that Anne will live her life quite differently from now on.

Here's my favorite passage, in which Anne recounts her last moments on the scaffold:

...my eyes alighted on John Taylor, and for a brief moment my heart again leaped with joy, for his face was neither accusing nor vengeful but was filled with compassion. This gave me some small peace, for it told me that he'd forgiven me and that, at some passing time, he had even loved me. I smiled at him, though my head was swimming and I felt as if I was in a strange daydream, for 'twas the most curious thing to think that in a short moment I would cease to exist.

Beside the gibbet stood the hangman, wearing heavy clothes and a blanket against the weather, also a leather facemask so that he would not be recognized after. He was big and burly, looking very like the bogeyman that your ma tells you will come after you if you sin. And so he had.


Those last two lines give me willies! It never occurred to me that a hangman wore a mask so he wouldn't be harassed in the street afterward; I always assumed it was because hangmen were sadists and so wanted to look as demonic as possible.

2 comments:

Susan said...

Yes, that is creepy. You'll have to find something an excerpt even more creepy to blog about as we approach Halloween. I'll help you find one!

Kate said...

What have I told you: You need to find happy/uplifting books!