Friday, March 2, 2018

Classic Fiction: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

This upcoming Thursday, March 8th, Margaret Atwood will conduct a free public reading at Trinity University's Laurie Auditorium. Although she is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays, I unfortunately can say that I have only read four, including today's selection, Alias Grace, which is now also a series on Netflix. It is the fictionalized story of the real Grace Marks, who was convicted of murder in the mid-1800s in Canada.

The Situation: Grace Marks is serving a lifetime sentence in The Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario. At the time that Dr. Simon Jordan, a physician attempting to make a career in mental health, comes to question her, the year is 1959, and Grace has been incarcerated for 15 years. When she was originally tried and convicted for the murder of Thomas Kinnear (and also his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery), she was sentenced to death, as was the man she was accused with, James McDermott. While McDermott would be hanged, Grace's sentence would be reduced to life in prison. Dr. Jordan has been summoned by a committee of the Methodist church as they plan to have her pardoned, since they believe she is innocent. They are hoping he can question her and find out the truth of what happened, as Grace has long maintained that she does not remember the most crucial hours of the night of the murders. McDermott's testimony would have everyone believe she was his willing accomplice, almost the leader. And Grace herself has already told three different versions of the story.

The Problem: Grace herself makes the point many times that once people believe something about you, and rumors get started, there is not much that will sway their opinion. Many willingly believe she is a murderess and should have hanged for what she did, while others, namely the committee from the Methodist church, believe her to be innocent. They are hoping that Dr. Jordan's findings will show that she is either insane, or at the very least, was forced to go along with McDermott's plan out of fear for her own life. Unfortunately, it seems Dr. Jordan is having as hard a time as anyone getting straight answers out of Grace as to the night in question, and he is not sure what to believe. With patience beginning to run low on the side of the committee, and strong opposition from those who believe Grace is guilty, Dr. Jordan has little choice but to move forward as best he can. He is hoping such a case will jump start his career, but if he makes a false move, it could tarnish his reputation before his career can even begin. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in the mid-1800s in Canada. Grace Marks was a real woman convicted of the 1843 murders of the man she worked for, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Atwood's main addition to the story was the character of Dr. Jordan, who in the book is summoned to make his own assessment of Grace in the hope that he will believe her to be innocent. While he may have been hired by those who wish to set her free, he is determined to form his own conclusions and not be swayed by anyone else's opinion. But Grace proves to be as much a mystery to him as she does most everyone else, except for those who have formed their opinion and are sticking with it. Real opinion about Grace Marks remains divided. Some accounts of her story are not trusted because they have been sensationalized, while others are not trusted because the methods used to evaluate her were less than scientific. Also in the background of the story are the looming Civil War in the United States, as well as Canada's own issues with rebellion and the rise of the lower classes. Then there is the question of a woman's reputation and how easily it can be ruined, as well as prevailing views on mental health and the condition known as "hysteria" in women.

My Verdict: The idea of not being entirely certain if a convicted murderess is truly guilty or not is always intriguing. Add whether or not she can be declared mentally ill adds another dimension. Present the possibility that she knows exactly what she is doing and is simply putting on a show for all, and the story becomes something else entirely. I will say this, if you are all about the destination, then this book may not be for you. Alias Grace is a journey, with the truth of what happened the night of the murders being the ultimate goal, but it will take a lot to get there. Sometimes Grace is the narrator, and sometimes there is a third person telling the story. Still other times developments are made via letters that are exchanged between the characters. Every character has their own objective regarding Grace Marks, and everyone has their own reason for being interested in her story, which she proceeds to tell in incredible detail, all except the events you want to know about the most. Atwood presents a fictionalized account that is as fascinating and engrossing as the real story.

Favorite Moment: When Dr. Jordan realizes why Reverend Verrenger is so interested to see Grace released from prison.

Favorite Character: Jeremiah the Peddler is a character that will follow Grace from her early days  as a servant, well into her time in prison, though his look and identity may change. He is a character that proves to be as mysterious as Grace, though much more lucky.              

Recommended Reading: Stone Mattress is a short story collection by Atwood that I enjoyed more than I do most short story collections. Some of the stories are downright fascinating and showcase Atwood's incredible imagination.                                                                                  

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