New York Times Review
In 1828, when this novel commences, Cincinnati is a bustling crossroads with a teeming, polyglot populace and tobacco, indigo and?1 runaway slaves flowing up from the South. Fifteen-yearold Olivia arrives from Ireland with her two brothers to settle in "the North's last bastion before the frontier." After their mother dies and their father runs off, Olivia, James and Erasmus must fend for themselves. A young woman of independent mind and progressive morals, Olivia looks back on her exciting, subversive youth from the vantage point of her ninth decade. James goes into the candle-making business, Erasmus fashions himself an itinerant preacher and Olivia struggles to fit into the female role that's been assigned to her. She holds needlepoint "in my lap like a sleeping cat," knowing she should impress a suitor with her cross-stitched daisies, but can't bring herself to care. Instead she gains entry to the secret world of the human body when she befriends and later marries a doctor and assists in his anatomical research. She also follows Erasmus to camp meetings, which "might otherwise be a bacchanal, had more liquor been available." Olivia becomes entwined in antislavery pursuits, first on behalf of a woman named Tilly, setting her up in a hairdressing venture through which she might buy back her freedom, then in a more elaborate scheme involving a wagon filled with hats for sale and an ingeniously concealed, human-size compartment. As improbable as some of the particulars might be, Gamble seduces with her rich, rollicking portrait of life in Jacksonian Ohio.
Publishers Weekly Review
Gamble's third novel (after Good Family) concerns the lives of the Givens siblings, Irish immigrants who start over in 1819 Cincinnati. Olivia, the book's strong-willed narrator, takes a shine to like-minded doctor Silas Orpheus, who admires her distaste for religion and allows her to surreptitiously dissect corpses with him. Olivia's older brother, James, a successful candle maker who married rich, is initially reluctant to give his blessing for their marriage, as Silas's disreputable brother, Eugene, sends a slave, Tilly, in lieu of a proper dowry. Olivia and Tilly become friendly, and Tilly helps her set up her own business doing hair. Olivia's ambivalence toward slavery dissipates when Silas dies and she meets Eugene's family on their Kentucky property. When Olivia enlists the help of her younger brother, Erasmus, now a Methodist preacher living on a river encampment, to help lead one of the slaves to freedom, Eugene retaliates by demanding that Tilly be returned. Since Ohio is a free state, an ill-fated trial ensues. Olivia and her family are thereafter pulled into the movement to smuggle slaves to freedom. Gamble adeptly chronicles Olivia's transformation from a free-thinking but unaffected young woman into a determined widow who wants to indirectly avenge Tilly. This is a standout depiction of family dynamics, and will appeal to fans of fiction set in pre-Civil War America. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.