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Book Review: The Woman at the Light by Joanna Brady

The Woman at the Light by Joanna Brady (St. Martin’s Griffin; 352 pages; $14.99)


            Lighthouses have always fascinated me.  Each has its own unique beauty and history, and all were designed to steer mariners from cliffs, shoals, reefs, and shorelines in fog and at night.  Nowadays, lighthouses do not have keepers, as they once did, because the lights are automated.  But that was not always the case.  Tending lights was a difficult job.  Anyone who has ever climbed the steps of a lighthouse knows this.  Just imagine climbing those steps four or five times a day!

My fascination with lighthouses compelled me to read Joanna Brady’s novel The Woman at the Light.  I had very mixed feelings about this book.  It is not well written, but I was prepared to overlook this fact.  The main character vacillated between action and inaction, yet she was the novel’s most interesting and central figure.  At times, the writing was awkward and I did find an anachronism.  Yet, Brady delivers an early history of Key West, Florida, that I found absorbing and captivating.  Furthermore, she peoples the story with real women who were in charge of keeping the lights.  Brady wrote The Woman at the Light because of them.

Emily Lowry is Brady’s main character.  The story is actually a flashback as the elderly Emily looks back on her life.  Although she discusses her early life in New Orleans, she concentrates on the 1830s and 1840s after she married Martin. Martin lives in Key West, and he takes Emily there to live.  Eventually, he becomes a lighthouse keeper at a fictional light on Wreckers’ Cay.  Their life, though far from idyllic, fulfills Emily, and she busies herself with raising three children and aiding her husband in his duties.  One day, though, Martin does not come home.  He is lost at sea.

Denial sets in for Emily.  She will not let herself accept that her husband is dead, especially when a body never washes up on shore.  Emily is faced with not only raising three children alone but with also tending the light alone.  This is no easy task.

Then, an escaped slave turns up on the island.  Emily initially worries for her children’s and for her own well-being.  However, Andrew soon wins her over by helping out with the light.  Emily is grateful.  Soon, Emily and Andrew engage in a romantic relationship.

Interestingly, Andrew introduces Emily to cannabis.  Such a thing is plausible.  Although the cannabis plant is not native to Africa, Arabs introduced the weed to Africans and its use spread quickly.  African slaves brought their knowledge of the drug to the Americas.  In fact, in sixteenth century Brazil, Angolan slaves were allowed to plant cannabis between rows of sugarcane and smoke it between harvests.

Brady uses the cannabis to break down barriers between Emily and Andrew.  At first, she only yields to him under the influence of the weed.  The drug lowers her inhibitions.  I could not help but wonder if the two would have ever gotten together without the cannabis.  Emily’s family owns slaves.  Emily herself makes a note of how light-skinned Andrew is, leading me to wonder what would have transpired if he had been darker.  Theirs was a relationship I needed more convincing to believe.

After Andrew’s arrival, Emily’s reputation as a lighthouse keeper explodes.  She is lauded with praise.  But Emily is not really tending to the light; Andrew does all the work.

In 1835, a hurricane hits Key West and the fictional Wreckers’ Cay.  Brady’s hurricane actually did happen and it changes everything for Emily and Andrew.  A new, unwelcome chapter in Emily’s life unfolds.  Later, she marries a wealthy Cuban, who is himself a slave owner.  Seňor Salas is older but enjoys making love to his young, beautiful wife.  Brady uses an anachronism here.  Emily uses the word “sex.”  But it was not until 1929 that “sex” was first used to describe sexual intercourse in the writings of D.H. Lawrence.  I can forgive many things, but an author and editor should get their facts straight.

Emily is truly a woman of great interest in the story.  Her fortunes rise and fall.  She is at times a creature of inaction.  Instead of doing what needs to be done herself she depends too often on others who only lie to her and steer her in the wrong direction.  Other times, though, Emily is cold and calculating.  For example, she only marries the wealthy Cuban man for his money, and her decision was wise.  Brady creates many layers for Emily’s character, yet I found her unlikable.  She is a woman who defies convention, and I feel she will appeal to many readers based on that fact alone.  Emily does not have anything in common with her contemporaries.  She is unlike many women, including her sister Dorothy, who was another character I disliked.

When Brady is on, she is on fire.  She is at her strongest when she portrays real events and real people.  “Wrecking,” a common practice of taking valuables from a shipwreck which foundered close to the shore, features prominently in the story.  This was actually an important economic activity in the Florida Keys, with hundreds of men involved at any given time.  She also shows how frightened people were of Indians.  Fear of Indian attacks on lighthouses was very real.  In Key Biscayne at the Cape Florida Light, keeper William Cooley lost his wife and children during a Seminole Indian raid in 1836.  The incident happened after the outbreak of the Second Seminole War.  Cooley left the lighthouse.  His replacement, John Thompson, and his assistant were attacked by Seminoles on July 23, 1836.  The Indians set fire to the base of the lighthouse.  The fire spread, and the Seminoles also set fire to the keeper’s dwelling.  They left in Thompson’s sloop because they thought an explosion killed Thompson, but he survived (Guide to Florida Lighthouses, p. 49-51).  Brady plays on this fear in her story when she has a group of Indians raiding Wreckers’ Cay.  The actions of one of the Indians, however, really irked me, but Brady explained it in the end.

Brady also accurately depicts a devastating hurricane that struck Key West and surrounding areas in 1846.  The storm took out the Sand Key Reef Light and killed keeper Joshua Appleby, his daughter, and grandson. Keeper Barbara Mabrity and her children took refuge in the Key West lighthouse. She survived, but her children and others who took refuge there, perished.

For me, the real female lighthouse keepers that Brady portrays made this book worth reading.  Their work was grueling.  They were also mothers who had to raise their children while still tending to the light.  They got little pay for the work they did and had to put up with ridicule and sexism.  Brady was as captivated by their stories as was I.  In fact, Barbara Mabrity, Rebecca Flaherty, and “Mary Carol and Mary Bethel, who came later, courageously tended lighthouses for many years in the Florida Keys and inspired” Brady to write her novel.

If you are interested in reading about these women, I recommend Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit and even climb a lighthouse, I urge you to do so.  It is an experience you will not soon forget.  Only then will you truly understand the triumphs and tragedies of female keepers.  Although I did not like Emily, the world of lighthouses and their keepers encouraged me to read this book.


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A New Look at Titanic

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott (Doubleday; 320 pages; $25.95).

            This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the doomed ocean liner Titanic, once thought to be unsinkable.  To commemorate the event, James Cameron’s 90s blockbuster movie Titanic returns to the big screen, this time in 3-D.  I am certain the History Channel and National Geographic will feature many documentaries as we get closer to April.  But you, dear reader, do not have to wait.  Novelist Kate Alcott (real name Patricia O’Brien) takes on the Titanic in her debut novel The Dressmaker.

Alcott’s protagonist is Tess.  When we first meet her, she is nothing more than a servant.  But Tess wants more.  Her dream is to become a seamstress, and she knows the only way to follow her dream is to go to America.  She has heard that a huge ship in need of workers and servants is just about to set sail.  With little more than the clothes on her back, Tess goes to the docks only to be told she is too late to be hired.  Alcott creates such a determined character in Tess, though.  When she sees an opportunity, she takes it.  For Tess, opportunity comes in the form of Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, a designer.  Lucile needs a ladies’ maid and hires Tess.

Titanic sets sail on its maiden voyage.  Alcott’s writing drags until the ship hits the iceberg.  Then, she almost hurries through the ship’s sinking.  Then again, perhaps I am accustomed to the movie.  I admit it was difficult not to picture the backdrop of the movie and even some of the people Alcott mentions as those actors in Titanic.

The beauty of this book reveals itself only after the ship has sunk and when the survivors gather on the Carpathia.  This is where Alcott’s storytelling is fresh and intriguing.  It is on the Carpathia where we are privy to the first whispers that something horrible happened on the rescue boat the Duff Gordons were on.  Tess gets on a different boat and so she herself does not know what occurred.  The whispers grow louder.

When the Carpathia arrives in New York, so do the reporters.  I find I like one of them more than I like even Alcott’s major character.  For me, Pinky, a female reporter trying to prove herself, has spunk and drive.  She is interesting and likeable.

Tess finds herself torn between two very different men, and her inability to choose grates me.   She is also too often cowed by Lucile.  Alcott, though, does a superb job of turning Lucile into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-type character.

Meanwhile, a powerful senator investigates why the Titanic sank and what happened in its aftermath.  He calls for hearings.  It is here where Alcott shines.  Lucile testifies.  Alcott uses literary license when she does this; Lucile never actually testified.  But the hearings were real.  Alcott takes historical facts and re-imagines them in such a way you must do your research to see what is accurate and what is not.  During the hearings, we finally learn exactly what the Duff Gordons and another couple did on the rescue boat.  Their actions will shock you and also make you think.  What would you do if you were in that kind of situation?

If you are looking for a Rose and Jack type of love story like in the movie Titanic, you will not find that here.  What you will find is what happens after and how this horrible tragedy affects the lives of the survivors.  Alcott does deliver on that.  She gives us a new look at Titanic at a time when everyone will be remembering the ship that was, indeed, sinkable.

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