Saturday, October 24, 2009

Review: By the Rivers of Brooklyn

Review by Nathan Brown

It has been a bumper publishing year for Adventist author Trudy Morgan Cole. But of her four books released in 2009, the one you are least likely to see advertised—or reviewed—in church venues is probably her most significant literary achievement.

By the Rivers of Brooklyn deserves a place of honour on that relatively small bookshelf that contains published mainstream fiction authored by Adventist writers. Cole has already established herself as one Adventist publishing’s regular, reliable and successful writers but her second foray into literary fiction—after The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson—sees her prove her credibility in a much wider publishing world, even if her book sales may well be fewer in that wider world.

Based in and around the experiences of a wave of Newfoundland migrants who settled in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, Cole’s novel fits within that well-populated genre of historical fiction focused on reclaiming women’s voices from places and times in which those voices have been lost or neglected. It is carefully crafted and elegantly executed, even if it takes a little time to warm up to the story and engage with the characters.

The story of By the Rivers of Brooklyn is that of the sprawling, multi-generational epic but the novel itself feels not quite large enough for the story. In her acknowledgements page, Cole comments that the original manuscript was “substantially shortened” in the editing process and perhaps this explains the sense that there is more of the story still out there. This is not necessarily a problem: the feeling of a larger story of which the characters are a part gives a sense of depth and credibility—although I think I might have preferred the extended version.

The novel feels like a collection of postcards, not necessarily from different places—of which there are only two primary settings—but from the different times spread across the novel’s span from 1924 to 2004. This snapshot narrative style means we do not get to know some of the characters as well as we might like but allows us to make a long-term acquaintance with the recurring characters, with the vignettes creating a more intimate kind of epic story.

Because of the scope of the story over three generations, keeping track of the different characters becomes more challenging toward the end of the book. To help readers through this complexity, a family tree is included at the conclusion of the story. This is helpful but should be consulted as late as possible in the reading experience as it contains significant plot spoilers.

The two settings impose similar limitations on the breadth of the story as those imposed by the sparseness of the narrative. While major world events such as war and depression impact on the character’s lives, we see only those impacts, not the events themselves. And even the interaction between St John’s, Newfoundland, and Brooklyn, New York, is always and only either in one place or the other.

But place is important. Cole’s storytelling—and historical research—works hard at creating the atmosphere of the respective places and does this well, albeit in a way that is realistically limited to the experiences of the characters. Ironically, it is often the place in which the character is situated that sparks the yearning for the other place and this is underlined by the regular switches between the two locations.

By the Rivers of Brooklyn is drawn around the question of “home.” This is an important part of the migrant experience and perhaps even more so when focusing on the experiences of migrant women, whose experiences of the new “home” is often limited compared to that of their menfolk who more directly engaged with the host culture by virtue of earning a living. Of the women’s voices we hear, only Rose, who becomes truly lost in the new culture, is most at home in her adopted Brooklyn.

While elements in this story situate it outside “Christian writing,” religion also plays an interesting role in various of the characters’ lives. This fits with the historical setting in which church was a larger part of society but perhaps also reflects on Cole’s questions about what faith may or may not be able to offer her characters by way of hope, solace and redemption. Her treatment of this aspect of her characters’ lives comes across more as faith experiment than preaching—and is stronger for it.

By taking her writing beyond the expected route of Adventist publishing, Cole demonstrates an ability and passion that also reflects well on her Adventist-published writing. Her books have a subtle quality that should not be overlooked in being “swept away”—to borrow a quote from the back of the book—by her storytelling. In this way, By the Rivers of Brooklyn fits with her other work, as well as finding stories, themes and readers bypassed by her biblical narratives.

For more about By the Rivers of Brooklyn, visit the book's

Cross-posted from
Adventist Today