By Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is an award winning author of over fifty books of poetry, short stories, fiction, and nonfiction. Her list of achievements and honors over her career is quite long, as is the number of honorary degrees she has received from various universities. Her fiction is as diverse as her style, ranging from speculative fiction to historical fiction.
Alias Grace is the story of Grace Marks, a sixteen year old girl accused of murder in 19th century Canada. The story is, for the most part, based on historical fact. In the year 1834, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were viciously murdered. The two other members of the household, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were found guilty of the murder of Thomas Kinnear. Interestingly, they were never tried for the murder of Nancy Montgomery, because both were sentenced to death. James McDermott was hanged for his crimes, while Grace Marks got a last minute appeal to keep her from the gallows. She spent time in both an asylum and a penitentiary, before being released thirty years later.
The story begins when Grace has been in prison for quite some time. She is introduced to Simon Jordan, a doctor who is interested in studying mental illnesses. Grace claims to have no memory of the murders themselves, despite the fact that she had given several conflicting confessions to various people. Dr. Jordan spends his time with Grace attempting to help her recall those memories, by having her tell her story from the very beginning. She talks about her immigration from Ireland, her abusive father and many siblings, and her entry into the workforce as a maid. Grace is very detailed in her recounting, but it is never completely clear if she is speaking out loud or thinking her words.
Dr. Jordan’s perspective is used throughout the work as a counterpoint to Grace’s first person narrative. He faces his own trials as an unmarried man seeking to make a mark on the world of medicine by discovering the truth behind Grace’s memory loss. He finds himself at odds with the very people who want to help prove Grace’s innocence, and not because he disagrees with them.
This novel is written in such a way to leave the reader guessing about whether or not Grace is a cold-blooded murderess or a young girl caught up in circumstances beyond her control. Through use of Grace’s first person ramblings, Dr. Jordan’s third person adventures, and various “letters”, the story explores the Victorian era view of women as creatures of dual natures and justice.
Margaret Atwood is the 2012 Nashville Public Library Award winner. She will be giving a public lecture in October, sponsored by the Nashville Public Library Foundation. Please check the Library website for more details as they come available.
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