July 1, 1923. “I drew a deep breath and marched into the woods behind my house with a two-barreled pistol hidden beneath my blue cotton skirt.”
In this loose reimagining of Hamlet, Hannalee Denney is the daughter of a white woman and a black man, which means she isn’t exactly popular in her small town in Prohibition era Oregon. The young man who killed her father in a drunk driving accident has just been released from prison, and he’s singing a tune that might just change the key of Hannalee’s thirst for vengeance: he claims that her stepfather killed her father, not him. As Hannalee walks the line between the real world and the world of the dead to try to ascertain the truth behind her father’s death, she must navigate the sordid reality of her small Oregon town, a reality that involves the KKK, the Eugenics movement, and all sorts of other nasties.
I really enjoyed Cat Winters’ In the Shadow of Blackbirds, and so was intrigued by her newest edition of historic paranormal mystery. Plus, it’s loosely based on Hamlet! Maybe you’ve noticed that I’ve said it’s loosely based on Hamlet a couple of times, and I want to emphasize the loose aspect of its influence. The basic premise is there: murdered father in ghost form and a suspected stepfather, but there is nowhere near the body count of a Shakespearean tragedy. No drowned Ophelia parallel, and in fact much of the complexity of Hamlet fails to be reimagined here. This is not to say that it’s a simple or mediocre book, at all! Just don’t expect anyone to get accidentally stabbed through a curtain, is what I’m trying to say.
Edit: When I was taking a shower this morning I suddenly realized that there IS a drowned Ophelia parallel, it just didn’t register as such when I was reading the novel. Whether that’s because I didn’t initially identify that particular character as the Ophelia of the text, or whether I actually found that plot point to feel a bit forced (because I did, it’s actually when I started to lose interest a bit), I’m not sure, but there you have it. It’s there!
From this broad basis of Hamlet Winters takes us on a fascinating exploration of Oregon in the early 1920s, a subject I knew basically nothing about before reading this book. While I knew what the Eugenics movement was in a vague sense I was pretty ignorant about the specifics of things like forced sterilization. In fact, the strongest element of The Steep and Thorny Way is the meticulously researched story that Winters tells about two misfits in a time of extreme bigotry. She is a master at invoking a specific place in a specific time, and The Steep and Thorny Way is no exception to that rule I just created. I’ll admit that at first I was a bit unsure about a white woman telling a woman of color’s story, but from this white woman’s perspective Winters did her research and told a sensitive story that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the time. She acknowledges her initial discomfort in writing from this perspective in that she felt it wasn’t necessarily her place to do so. Something of this discomfort with writing about oppression from the perspective of privilege comes through; Winters’ writing here is cautious with characterization in a way that it wasn’t in Blackbirds. I’d be curious to hear what a woman of color would have to say about the depiction of Hannalee’s experience as a mixed race young woman in a setting in which her conception was actually illegal.
Now, for all that The Steep and Thorny Way has a strong foundation, a rich setting, and a mountain of research to support it, all of these trappings failed to coalesce into a novel that I truly loved. It almost seemed as if Winters’ reticence in telling Hannalee’s story translated into an emotional disconnect; for all of the research that went into this book, it was missing a bit of its heart. There were also moments in which Winters lost the tautness of plot tension; Hannalee’s behavior is erratic and borderline unbelievable without the madness of her literary predecessor to support it. The combination of missteps in pacing and occasionally dry characterization meant that I never fully connected with the novel on a personal level. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I definitely squeezed the book really hard during the climactic scenes, but I think that was due more to the intensity of what was happening than to any deep concern for the characters.
Bottom line: I feel a bit ambivalent about this one. There were elements I really liked, and elements that didn’t quite work for me. Overall it’s very good, but if you want to give Winters a try I’d recommend In the Shadow of Blackbirds, first.
For music, let’s do “The KKK Took my Baby Away” by The Ramones <3.