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Brookland by Emily Barton

Brookland (2006)

by Emily Barton

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Good historical fiction must revolve around characters whose thoughts and personalities accurately reflect their time; one of the worst mistakes a writer can make is put modern thoughts, words, and actions into someone living in a totally different era. The idea of a colonial woman running a gin distillery and attempting to build a bridge across the East River at first glance might seem anachronistic-no woman in the 1700's would have even thought about it. But Prudence Winship is totally believable and her quest to build the bridge and its aftermath are convincing.

The Winships are free thinkers who have carved their place by establishing a successful gin distillery. With only girls to inherit the business, Prudence and her sister Temperance take their place learning all aspects of the business while Pearl, a sister unable to speak, takes care of the household. The early death of their parents, puts Prudence in charge of the business sooner than expected, but also gives her the reason and confidence to pursue a dream of building a bridge to link Brooklyn to Manhatten. The bridge soons becomes an obsession which affects the lives of all the sisters and those they care about.

The writing of this unusual look at colonial times is clean and straightforward. The story is told from the viewpoint of Prudence writing to her own grown daughter who wants to know more about the "missing pieces of her family history" - the subject everyone has avoided for so many years - the building of the bridge. The author skillfully interwines Prudence's thoughts to her daughter with the history. Since Pearl cannot speak, she must communicate through writing of notes; Pearl's spelling and wording remain faithful to colonial language.

Although sometimes the details of distilling gin and engineering a bridge are almost more than I wanted to know, they project an authencity necessary for good historical fiction. This is a wonderful book and one that any lover of historical fiction should find fascinating. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 16, 2013 |
Prudence is the eldest daughter of a successful gin distiller. When no son is born, the father decides to allow Pru to join him in his business, an unusual choice in America's earliest days. Pru is followed into the business by her younger sister, Temperance, who is, ironically, quite a frequent tippler. A third sister, Pearl, is born mute and is overly sheltered by Pru. Her rebellion near the end of the novel is disastrous. One of the interesting aspects of the novel is that Pru and Tem succeed in overcoming the prejudices against women that would have limited their lives, yet they place even stricter limitations on Pearl's life because of her handicap.

The main focus of the book is Pru's driven desire to build a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The process is covered in great detail, yet we know at the beginning of the book that the effort leads to disaster. Perhaps it is intended as a lesson in hubris but that doesn't align well with the generally feminist themes of the book. ( )
  bookfest | Sep 7, 2012 |
I would normally love so many things about this book: a strong female protagonist, the use of historically relevant language, a new way of thinking about a place I already know... But somehow, I couldn't become involved in or attached to the story, which is my true barometer of enjoyment. So, I will assume it was me... ( )
1 vote Lcwilson45 | Dec 10, 2011 |
The author has rave reviews from the likes of Thomas Pynchon, so I expected something special. This just never grabbed me though, and given the basic plot it should have. I love historical fiction and as a native New Yorker I love books about my city. I haven't seen many novels set in the New York City during and right after the Revolutionary War--a period when slavery was still legal in the state and much of Brooklyn, Queens--even Manhattan--were still forest and farms.

The book is also centered on strong, active female characters. Because Matthew Winship has no sons, he trains his daughters to run his gin distillery. His eldest, Prudence, inheriting with her sisters, decides to build a bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan. (Not the Brooklyn Bridge, which began construction much later in 1870. This bridge is fictional.) Every once in a while in history there are women who break the mold of the roles the age sets for them, so I didn't find the premise all that improbable. But the farther into the book I got, the slower and slower I found myself reading. Too much of the book is taken up with Prue's guilt over her jealous curse when she was five-years-old of her then not yet born younger sister, who was then born mute. It probably doesn't help that early on Prue admits she wasn't much of a mother, not caring much about her daughter until she misses her after her marriage.

None of the characters ever really won my sympathy, and somehow I just never felt that sense of another place and time alien to my own that I find so fascinating in well-done historical fiction. Nothing here that kept me wanting to read, until around a third through the 400 page plus book I gave up. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Jun 20, 2011 |
I really wanted to like this book because of my love for Brooklyn. I expected somewhat of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but, was sorely disappointed. It was slow and hard to come to. I abandoned it after several chapters. I'll never know how it ended because I never really started reading it. ( )
  verucas_chaos | Jul 7, 2010 |
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Chrysanthemum growers-You are the slaves of chrysanthemum! -Buson trans. Robert Haas
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At the close of the workday on Thursday the twenty-fourth of January, 1822, Prue Winship sat down at the large desk in the countinghouse of Winship Daughters Gin to write a letter to her daughter, Recompense.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312425805, Paperback)

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
A Los Angeles Times Book Review Favorite Book of the Year
Since her girlhood, Prudence Winship has gazed across the tidal straits from her home in Brooklyn to the city of Manhattan and yearned to bridge the distance. Now, firmly established as the owner of an enormously successful gin distillery she inherited from her father, she can begin to realize her dream.
Set in eighteenth-century Brooklyn, this is the beautifully written story of a woman with a vision: a gargantuan construction of timber and masonry to span the East River. With the help of her sisters--high-spirited Tem and silent, uncanny Pearl--Prue fires the imaginations of the people of Brooklyn and New York by promising them easy passage between their two worlds.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:33 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Brookland is the story of a determined and intelligent woman in eighteenth-century Brooklyn who is consumed by a vision of a bridge, a gargantuan construction of timber and masonry she devises to cross the East River in a single magnificent span." "Since her girlhood, Prudence Winship has looked across the tidal straits from her home in Brooklyn to Manhattan and yearned to traverse the distance. Now, established as the owner of the enormously successful gin distillery she inherited from her father, she can begin to realize her dream. With the help of the local surveyor, Benjamin Horsfield, and her sisters - the high-spirited, obstreperous Tem, who works with her in the distillery, and the silent, uncanny Pearl - she fires the imaginations of the people of Brooklyn and New York, promising them both a bridge to meet their most pressing practical needs and one of the most ambitious public works ever attempted. Prue's own life and the life of the bridge become inextricably bound together as the costs of the structure, both financial and human, rise beyond her direst expectations."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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