Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: Hanging Mary

Susan Higginbotham
Hanging Mary
By Susan Higginbothem
Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2016

About the Book

1864, Washington City. One has to be careful, with talk of secession, of Confederate whispers falling on Northern ears. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy. Like Mrs. Surratt.

A widow who runs a small boardinghouse on H Street, Mary Surratt isn’t half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he’s not delivering messages or escorting veiled spies, he’s invited home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage.

But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Was she a cold-blooded accomplice? Just how far would she go to help her son?

Based on the true case of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin’s gun.

Historical Novel Society Review

In this novel we meet Mary Surratt, the only woman convicted and executed in connection with the Lincoln assassination. The widow of a drunkard, Mary remakes her life as a boarding house owner in Washington, DC. With her eldest son, Isaac, fighting for the Confederacy, Mary has concerns about her wayward son, Johnny, an impressionable and frequently unemployed young man who undertakes dubious schemes in support of the Southern cause.

The other voice within this novel is that of Mrs. Surratt’s boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick, admirer of President Lincoln and loyal friend to the Surratt women. When Johnny Surratt brings home the charismatic actor John Wilkes Booth, Mary’s boarders are star struck. Although concerned by Johnny’s mysterious associates, Mary agrees to look the other way and is eventually convinced to pass along cryptic messages, although she prefers to remain blissfully ignorant of the details.

Higginbotham’s Mary is a supremely devout woman, a true “victim of circumstance” who pays dearly for her naiveté. She is tried in a military court, and despite several pleas for clemency, she becomes the first woman executed by the U.S. government.

Three things make this novel truly shine: the many historical details that paint a vivid picture of those days in 1865, and the facts that neither narrator is an eyewitness to the assassination and that Mary’s fate is revealed on the title page, yet the plot never suffers for it. Two notable women, with different perspectives, get a chance to tell their tales. Whether you believe Mary was an active accomplice or unwitting victim, the injustice she faces at the hands of those out for revenge won’t fail to grip you until the final pages, even as she approaches her own inevitable conclusion.