I was checking out a pile of books at the library a few days ago, and something on the counter by the librarian's elbow made me catch my breath:
I was utterly flabbergasted. No! My title! How could anyone take my title?
So I checked it out, and I read it. It's a historical, set in the titular Minnesota town, ca. Civil War era. It has twins separated shortly after birth, and escaping slaves, and a whorehouse, and a bad mother, and a priest and a nun and an orphanage. The author reaches for lyricism, and sometimes achieves it, but the style can give a reader whiplash: the POV jerks back and forth too quickly, especially in the early dialogue scenes. Also, less is more with characterization: I felt like so much information was poured out at once that it made the characters too slippery to grasp.
The author depends a bit much on a certain vulgarity to set the historical tone. Everyone stinks, or has bad breath, or scratches lice or whatnot. I started blocking it out about the time that the author signaled how bad a corrupt judge was by having him scratch a hair from his armpit to study. The structure is episodic, and the characters are all mysteriously bound up to one another, whether they ever intersect or not. Connections are made or missed, but there's a frustrating lack of development that made me wonder why some of the stories were even being told. One character dies so arbitrarily that I wondered if the author was drawing from a historical source, because it made so little dramatic sense.
But what really made me raise my eyebrows was the portrayal of historical Catholicism. I did a bit of searching around and discovered that the author had been raised Catholic, and there's some of that flavor to it: a more contemporary Catholicism just moved back in time, with some oddly unconvincing details thrown in for color. A priest visiting a brothel weekly to hear the prostitutes' confessions, and then lining them up to distribute Communion, in the 1840s? The priest shouting up general absolution to the prostitutes on the balcony because the streets are too muddy for him to come in? The priest hearing the nun's confession face to face in a closet (a closet? in the 1840s?), with absolutely no reference to the historical form of confession? Indeed, confession seems to be the main sacrament of the Church, though there's little enough feel for what confession actually is. The nun, a sympathetic character, gives cliched advice about how Catholic women should make lots of good Catholic babies. The priest and the nun doubt in strangely modern language. The Rosary makes a historical-color appearance. The priest has mildly lascivious thoughts and takes the discipline with a horsewhip. Come on. There's simply no sense that Catholicism is actually an institution with its own history, with practices that have had different forms at different times. For all I know, every incident that rang false was meticulously researched, but in that case it helps to signal why something was being done differently than the norm. Otherwise it really does read as if the author really doesn't know what she's talking about and is making a lot of unforced errors.