Henry and Rachel

Written by Laurel Saville
Review by Nancy J. Attwell

In the second decade of the 20th century, Rachel, the author’s great-grandmother, uprooted herself and four of her children from their home in the West Indies and traveled by steamer to New York City, where she lived out the rest of her life in poverty. Rachel left behind her husband, Henry, and her eldest son, James. Henry never saw his family again. In this fictionalized version of her great-grandparents’ marriage, Saville imagines the personalities and circumstances that might have led Rachel to make such a drastic choice.

Abandoned by her own parents as a young girl, Rachel had been left in the care of the George family and raised as neither daughter nor servant. The hint of duskiness in her skin led many to assume she was Mr. George’s natural child by an Islander, not an unusual circumstance in the West Indies. Henry, on the other hand, came from a large and happy British family which had scattered throughout the world in search of wealth and adventure. Henry found neither, and teetered on the edge of respectability as he spent more and more time pursuing his dream of success as an inventor.

Although it is unusual to have a story jump around in time and viewpoint (eight altogether), this format allows the reader to understand and appreciate each major character. After reading this book I was left with a feeling of great sadness because so much that was wonderful was thrown away by the characters. It is, perhaps, this ache for a better ending that gives the book its power. We cannot change the course of Henry and Rachel’s story, but we can take action and change our own.