Book review: These Shallow Graves, Jennifer Donnelly

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other compensation was offered. 

It’s the turn of the 20th century in New York City, and Jo Montfort has a problem. The wealthy teen is away at finishing school, preparing to become yet another socialite in a glittering world of wealth and power, but she really just wants to become a journalist, following in the footsteps of Nellie Bly and other women who have boldly defied social norms. Things get even worse for her when her father dies in an accident and she’s packed up and sent home, thrust into a family drama that unfolds into something much, much larger over the course of this fantastic offering from Jennifer Donnelly, who has yet to disappoint me.

Historical fiction needs to have two traits to succeed:

  1. It needs to be well-researched. Even if I’m not familiar with the intimate details of 1890s New York, I know when something is anachronistic and jarring. I need to be able to feel that the author dug in and thought about the era she’s writing about, and got into the minds of the era, not just the mechanics. At the same time, if every single detail is lovingly carved out in detail, that means the research is showing a bit too much. It needs to run unobtrusively throughout the text. I know it’s hard when you uncover something great to resist including it, but that’s what the acknowledgments/additional comments section is for (and I love it when authors of historical fiction include some notes at the end).
  2. It has to be set in a given era for a reason. Contemporary fiction has obvious applications, with writers depicting the here and now. Hard science fiction and fantasy explore different time periods (sometimes in the far past, or the future) and universes, and that makes sense in the context of that kind of worldbuilding. Other forms of SFF may actually take place in the modern day, with some extra-special tweaks. But you can’t just arbitrarily plop a story into the past: You need to anchor it into that setting with a specific purpose in mind, and your characters need to fit there, walrus moustaches and all. If they feel weird, that means the story probably doesn’t work in that time period — I’m going to have a hard time swallowing a story where characters and indeed the whole plot are clearly, painfully, out of place.

Donnelly works both of these qualifications into her work, which is very thoughtfully researched and also decisively set in the eras she writes about. In this case, we need to see Jo living in an era where women were discounted and excluded for a variety of reasons, all of which build onto layers of her character. And we need to see her living in this specific era and location because of the storyline and what she uncovers about her family secrets along the way. This is a novel that delves deeply into some of the most unsavoury and grim parts of the history of the United States, looking particularly at the slave trade and the people who profited rather immensely from the sale of human beings. In order to make that immediate and intimate, her character has to live in an era when businesspeople who directly engaged in slave trading were alive and working, and we need to see how that affected her life.

It’s also a great era for newspapers, as we see the huge shifts that happened in media in general but in New York media specifically. New York was a critical proving ground in the newspaper industry in the United States, and while everyone knows the Times today, they forget that at the turn of the last century, there were a large number of competing newspapers, all of which ferociously fought to get the latest breaking and sensational news, to push out editions harder and faster than others. Newspapers were inflammatory, they were incisive, they were a totally different landscape than they are today, which is both good and bad. Jo lived in an era where women in journalism were primarily relegated to the ‘ladies’ pages, writing about flower arrangement and frocks, and where women who wanted to pursue investigative journalism were really rebuked for it. Seeing her go through that experience shapes who she is, and provides deep insights into that era.

So I love the book for all these reasons, but there’s a very specific reason I particularly like it, and people who’ve read it and are familiar with my work probably know what it is. If you have read it, you might want to take a pause and come back later, but if you don’t mind being spoiled a bit, read on.

As Jo digs deeper and deeper into the history of her family’s business, she also uncovers some very dark secrets surrounding its participation in the slave trade. And her uncle very much doesn’t want her to find these secrets. Threats and intimidation don’t work, so he does something more insidious, turning her family against her by spreading the notion that she’s been undone by her father’s death — she’s hysterical, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she’s crazy. These are ancient tactics used to silence troublesome women, and in the era when Jo lived, they came with a very serious danger, because family members could confine women to institutions effectively indefinitely if they felt so inclined (something Nellie Bly herself explored).

Thus it is that we see Jo forced into a mental health facility for being investigative and outspoken, for sticking to her ethics in the face of considerable opposition, and we see how women of the era were suppressed, particularly in the case of wealthy women. High society didn’t want their circles disrupted by women behaving outside the social norm and it bundled them off for being pregnant out of wedlock, for having opinions, for being too inquisitive, for refusing to go along with their families. It’s really important to talk about this and see it in fiction, and I’m really glad to see so much YA tackling the issue.

At the same time, it’s easy to fall into a dangerous trap wherein we are supposed to worry for the character because she’s been institutionalised but isn’t actually mentally ill, while everyone else belongs there. Donnelly really avoided that by highlighting the abuses and horrors of the asylum, and making it explicitly clear that the ‘mental health treatment’ of the era largely fell into categories of abuse and silencing, not actual treatment for people in genuine need of care. It can be tough to do that without moralising or feeling anachronistic, and for that, she’s to be commended.

Image: Flatiron Building, RV1864, Flickr