Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley Illuminates Life during the Seven Years War
It’s always an exciting moment when I hear about a favourite author’s latest release. And so, as an avid reader of Susanna Kearsley’s books, I was thrilled to get my hands on Bellewether (Simon & Schuster Canada, Sourcebooks (US), 2018) this summer, a novel set on New York’s Long Island during the Seven Years War and the present day.
Kearsley’s signature is a dual-story narrative, in which contemporary characters are influenced by and/or connected to past events and characters, usually with a paranormal twist. She’s been compared to Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart for her ability to create suspense and compel readers to turn the page.
At Bellewether’s heart is a haunted house, though it doesn’t take on the form those words often imply. The novel centres around the Wildes, a colonial family living on Long Island who are required to house two captured French officers. Since the family, who consider themselves British, have experienced loss at the hands of the French, tensions are inevitable. But as time passes, 20-year-old Lydia Wilde finds herself drawn to Jean Philippe, the quieter of the two officers, who has suffered his own hardships and yearns for his home in Quebec.
Among their varied business interests, Lydia’s brothers have a ship named Bellewether, which the novel’s 21st century historians have linked to the most famous of those brothers, Benjamin. In the present-day storyline, Charley takes on the job of curator of the museum that occupies the former Wilde family home, reporting to a combative board of directors who are seeking to focus on Benjamin’s exploits. But Charley learns about Lydia and Jean Philippe and determines to broaden the museum’s mandate as well as uncover the truth of what happened to the potentially star-crossed lovers. As she deals with loss and complex relationships of her own, she finds herself drawing close to Sam, the contractor who is restoring the home to its colonial state.
This novel was inspired by Kearsley’s own family history. “The book . . . began in my imagination years ago, when I first came across a mention in my family’s records that my own Long Island ancestors had taken in captured French officers during the Seven Years War,” she writes. “The concept of parole of honour – that combatants in a war could sign a promise, give their word to pause their war while in the country of their enemy, and on that word alone could be accepted as a guest within a family’s home – was something I found fascinating. I couldn’t help wondering what that would feel like to those who were living it. And, more particularly, I wondered what it felt like to my ancestors, whose family was already starting to divide along the fault lines that would shortly lead the [United States] into revolution.”
Kearsley is meticulous about her research. Among her discoveries as she worked on this novel was the fact that her ancestors owned slaves. In Bellewether’s present-day storyline, Charley learns that there were slaves in the Wilde family, and had to break that news to a Wilde descendant who believed otherwise. Kearsley explains in her author’s note that while she feels “there can be no happy endings in slavery, I wanted to honour and recognize [a real-life woman held in slavery during that time period] the best way I knew how to, in this novel.”
She also created an 18th-century character taken from the West Indies to Canada who she notes “represents the many people, both Black and Indigenous, who were held as slaves in French and English Canada, and about whom I was never taught at school.” Sam, the contractor in the present-day story, is Mohawk, and while respected by many, is in one scene subjected to veiled racial slurs by another character. Referencing the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Kearsley highlights the finding that “the arts help to restore human dignity and identity in the face of injustice” and notes that this is what she’s tried to do with this novel (while recognizing that reconciliation is an ongoing process). Although this will continue to be a contentious issue in Canada and beyond, as are many aspects of writing about the past, Bellewether illuminates how life must have been during the Seven Years War.
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS Web Features Editor. She served as the Managing Editor of Solander from 2004 to 2009, and she helped start the HNS North American conferences.