The Clever Mill Horse

Written by Jodi Lew-Smith
Review by Laura Fahey

Twenty-one year-old Ella Kenyon is the character at the center of Lew-Smith’s captivating novel. The setting is upstate New York of 1810, and young Ella’s dying grandfather imposes on her a wish that sets out a life-path very different from the one she might have dreamed of while out hiking and trapping in the peace of her beloved woods. The dying wish is for her to shepherd to fulfillment of the flax-milling machine that becomes the novel’s Maguffin, leading her to travel all over the very young country, from the Iroquois-haunted frontier towns to cosmopolitan Philadelphia and a wonderfully-realized Washington City. All the while she is pursued by enemy operatives who will stop at nothing to obtain the specialized plans she carries.

Lew-Smith juggles her many plot lines with considerable skill and a very good ear for dialogue (“You take original sin to a whole new level, don’t you?” one character quips). She presents her narrative’s more brutal details without sugar-coating (the ordeal of one of her more sympathetic characters is particularly stark), and she adroitly reserves a few genuine surprises for her book’s final pages.

The Clever Mill Horse (which recently won the James River Writers Award) ends with a promise of future volumes, and on the strength of this first, they are most welcome.