HARRIET AND ISABELLA
By Patricia O'Brien
Touchstone, 320 pages, $25
Imagine, for a moment, a family that so enthralls the country that its members' every move is chronicled by the media. Think reformist Kennedys, stalwart Bushes and add authors of unbelievable renown to the mix, and then -- maybe -- you would have the Beechers.
One of the sons, Henry Ward Beecher, was the best-known minister of his time, in the mid-1800s. One sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a blockbuster book that was translated into 60 languages and that Abraham Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War. Another was Catherine Beecher, something of a Martha Stewart, who wrote pivotal works about domesticity and was an ardent, early advocate for education for women. Yet another sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, took Catherine's efforts on behalf of women a step further and became an early suffragist.
It was one high-powered family, the fabulous Beechers, whose various members often turned up at the epicenter of the major movements of their day.
But they were not without scandals. In 1875, the country's attention turned to Henry Ward Beecher and allegations that he'd had an illicit relationship with a parishioner. As his adultery trial convened in New York, the country split -- and so did the family.
Most of the Beechers, schooled in loyalty to the family name above all else, sided with Henry Ward. But Isabella, the younger half-sister of the popular preacher, was more inclined to believe her brother's accusers, some of whom she numbered among her friends. Her relations with the family were not helped by a fellow suffragist who daily and publicly asserted Henry Ward Beecher's guilt.
When the court was unable to reach a decision, and Beecher was neither convicted nor exonerated, most of the family kept publicly quiet, but Isabella was incapable of that. She continued to call for her brother's confession for the sake of his soul.
The formerly formidable family was rent asunder, and the loneliness of estrangement fell heaviest on Isabella, who had grown up much in the care of her older half-sister, Harriet.
By the time Patricia O'Brien takes up the Beechers' story in her historical novel "Harriet and Isabella," the minister is dying and the family has gathered -- all but Isabella, who has long since been banned from the house. She takes a room in a boarding house and figuratively presses her nose against the Beecher window.
Will the family heal old wounds, for the sake of the dying brother?
Will hard-headed Isabella and her equally stern sister Harriet put aside their egos long enough to reconcile?
The impressive part of O'Brien's writing is that you don't need to be a Beecher scholar to get caught up in the intrigue. Through well-written flashbacks, she draws the world of the Beechers with a sharp pen. Even if you've never been a fan of historical fiction, you might still want to give "Harriet and Isabella" a try. The characterizations ring true, from Stowe's distress at the loss of her infant son Charley to Isabella's dogged loyalty to her friends over her brother. O'Brien manages to bring long-dead people very much to life
O'Brien does a deft job of exploring the meaning of celebrity -- then and now -- and what it means to pursue justice on the grand scale, while ignoring it on a smaller one.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun