Review: The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

mapmakers children by sarah mccoyFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction
Length: 320 pages
Publisher: Crown
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril.

Eden, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance.

Ingeniously plotted to a riveting end, Sarah and Eden’s woven lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.

My Review:

The lives of two women, 150 years apart, tied together by a doll’s head. And a little bit of mystery.

The two women at the center of this intertwined story wouldn’t seem to have much in common. And they don’t except for an accident of place and a misfortune of circumstance – both Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson are childless, and not by choice.

They are both caught in the position of making a fulfilling life for themselves that does not fit the standard pattern, and both find themselves mothering children not theirs by birth. They also both occupy the same house, at very different points in time.

Sarah Brown was the daughter of revolutionary abolitionist John Brown. History remembers him for his famous (or infamous) raid on the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry (West) Virginia in the fall of 1859. The raid was an attempt to start a slave uprising and help the slaves to free themselves. Brown was either ahead of history or a catalyst for it, and was hanged when his raid failed ignominiously. His sons and most of the others who participated were either killed in the raid or hanged afterwards.

Sarah Brown, along with her mother and sisters, were left behind when Brown died. Sarah, too, was an abolitionist, and was also an artist who drew maps on anything handy in order to assist runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Some of those “handy things” were dolls’ faces, and it is one of Sarah’s doll heads that Eden Anderson finds in the root cellar under her new home in New Charlestown, West Virginia in 2010. The search for the history of that poor little head, and the house surrounding it, become the catalyst for Eden’s healing after the final ending of her hopes for a baby.

At the beginning of Eden’s story, it also seems possible that the house will witness the end of her marriage, as strained and cracked as it is after many years of failed attempts, failed hopes, failed dreams, and fertility hormone-induced moodiness and finally depression.

Her husband Adam brings her a dog. The dog brings a little girl to take care of him, and most importantly, a reason to get out of the house and to let other people in. And Cricket brings his loving self and his need for a forever home, no matter how brief his forever might turn out to be.

Escape Rating B+: I really enjoyed this story, but I can’t point to a specific reason. I just did. The two parts don’t gel until the very end, and the switches between Sarah’s story in the past and Eden’s in the present sometimes felt abrupt. At the same time, I liked and felt for both women, and no matter which story I was in, I always wanted to know how the other one was doing.

Both women are in the middle of lives that need rebuilding. In Sarah’s case, that rebuilding is frequent and often, due to circumstances outside her control. From the moment her father leaves to conduct his famous raid, until the Fisher children arrive at her home in California, Sarah keeps dealing with blows that strike her from all sides.

At the same time, she takes a licking and keeps on ticking right up until the very end, making a new life each and every time she is struck down. Much of her life in this story moves in the direction it does (and did in history) because in fiction, at least, she was declared to be unable to bear children after a near-fatal attack of dysentery.

In history, she did not marry or have children, but the reasons are lost to us.

Sarah really did paint maps for the Underground Railroad, but whether she used doll’s heads for her maps is not certain. In this story one doll’s head provides a much-needed link to Eden in our present.

While Sarah seems like a heroic figure, Eden starts out her story as a self-absorbed and self-centered depressed wreck. All of her attempts to conceive a child have failed, and her IVF clinic has told her that it’s over. After 7 years of fertility treatments and failed hopes, she has given up everything that she was in pursuit of something that will never be, and she feels like she has nothing left.

The dog her husband brings home, Cricket, slowly brings her back to life, an irony that is not apparent until the very end. Because Cricket needs care, and her husband, out of a desire to help her and keep her from reaching past her current constricted boundaries, has given her not just a dog but a person to care for the dog.

Eleven-year-old Cleo needs just as much care as Cricket, but is much, much less willing to admit it. But Cleo is an incredible little girl who stirs up everything in her wake, and in that stirring, Eden comes back to life. She begins to reach out to the life she now has, instead of reaching back to the one she gave up or the child she will never have. And in that reaching out, she finds the world again.

It’s not so much Eden’s reawakening that brings the joy, as Cleo’s fascinating ability to make it happen. It all starts with Cleo’s amateur investigation into the mysterious doll’s head that Cricket finds in the root cellar, a search that ties Eden back to the town, and ties her house and its history all the way back to Sarah Brown. And all the way forward into the life of a place that Eden has come to love.

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