Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins

The Crooked Branch.  Jeanine Cummins. Penguin Group (USA). March 2013. 400 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 97800451239242.

Could losing one’s mind arise from the presence of an ancestor’s spirit in one’s home?  Majella is giving birth to her daughter, Emily, and thinks she is going mad.  At first the reader thinks it’s only the effects of Majella’s labor which has lasted twenty-seven hours before she finally has a Cesarean section.  Could it be hormonal imbalance?  Whatever it is, she’s hearing crunching sounds and dreaming the most awful scenes of murder and guilt, and it’s clearly thought to be a passing phase by her family and friends. Even the second therapist she sees is unable to find a cause and finally allows this haunted woman to just tell her tale as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, she finds a diary from the 1800’s written by her maternal ancestor, Ginny Doyle, a woman who is living through the “Troubles” time of the devastating potato famine.  Nothing could possibly be worse than being unable to feed one’s children and yearning for hope against hope while awaiting word from her husband who traveled to America in one of the famous “coffin” ships that were filled with men who hoped to raise money in the States to help their families survive.

To say more would be a spoiler but little by little the reader discovers the mystery of a woman who befriended Ginny but with a terrible price compounding that aid. Emma’s drastic feelings and thoughts begin to resolve as the riddle unfolds but it’s no less a fear-filled, disorienting, and sad tale in the process of that historical journey.

Jeanine Cummins is a master at creating the mental and emotional atmosphere pervading the events of both centuries.  Society’s expectations are the standard of normalcy that belie the horrors of both women’s experiences and actually heighten the same.  Very potently crafted, Ms. Cummins!

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