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Posts Tagged ‘post-Revolutionary New England’

CRADLE TO GRAVE by Eleanor Kuhns: Book Review

The scene is Maine, the time 1797.  Will Rees, the protagonist of Eleanor Kuhns’ debut mystery A Simple Murder, has spent the last few months farming his land in Maine, but his heart isn’t in it.  By occupation and desire he’s a traveling weaver, plying his trade in New England and the adjoining states. 

Then he and his new bride, Lydia, get a letter from an elder of the Shaker society in Zion, where the couple met.  Sister Hannah Moore, better known by her nickname Mouse, has left Zion and now lives at Mount Unity, a small Shaker enclave near Albany, New York.  She has been accused of kidnapping five children from their home and bringing them to the religious group. 

Despite the treacherous wintry road conditions, Will and Lydia feel compelled to rent a carriage and follow the stagecoach route from Maine to Dover, New York, to find out what compelled Mouse to abduct the children.  Arriving at Mount Unity, they first meet with the Shaker Elder who explains the situation.  Mouse, along with another Sister of the Shaker community, had gone, as part of their charitable outreach, to the home of a poor woman with five children. 

On their first visit all appeared under control, although the mother seemed the worse for drink.  However, Mouse was not satisfied about the children’s welfare; when she returned on her own a few days later, she was aghast at the squalor and unhealthy living conditions of the family.  She took the children with her back to the Shakers, and the next day the children’s mother came to the compound with the town’s constable and the children were returned to her.  Mouse is still convinced that the children are in an unhealthy situation and that their mother is unfit to care for them, and she begs Will and Lydia to look into the situation.

Eleanor Kuhns has given readers a fascinating look into life at the end of the eighteenth century in the newly-formed United States.  Towns and cities had what was called Poor Relief, a kind of welfare for indigent residents.  Such relief was limited to people who had been born in that town, or possibly limited even more stringently to people whose parents had been born in the town.  Otherwise, the councils were entitled, and most often did, to force a family to leave their home and seek refuge elsewhere. 

That was a constant threat against Maggie Whitby, the mother whose children Mouse had taken.  But although Maggie had no obvious means of support, she had inherited the ramshackle cabin she lived in and thus was considered a property owner who could not be sent away or, in the words of the times, be “warned away.”

However, before any action against her is taken, Maggie Whitby is found murdered.  Mouse is the main suspect, although there are others with motives at least as strong.  Will is determined to prove Mouse’s innocence, and his investigation leads him into the many secrets that this small town is hiding.

Cradle to Grave is the third in the Will Rees series, the first novel having been the winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s First Crime Novel Award.   This book is equally good, with strong, interesting characters and the author’s knowledge of the early days of American history skillfully woven into the well-developed plot.

You can read my review of A Simple Murder elsewhere on this blog.  You can read more about Eleanor Kuhns at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.