Monday, July 11, 2011

Flesh and Grass

 Flesh and Grass 
Author:               Libby Cone
Publisher           Createspace (June 2011)
Paperback         174 pages
Available from Amazon

This is an historical novel, based loosely on the story of the ill-fated Plockhoy settlement in Delaware.

It is 1699 in Germantown, Pennsylvania and Cornelis Boom sits reminiscing about his arrival  in the New World more than 35 years earlier. He recalls the people he travelled with, their hopes and fears, the successes of their first year and the tragedies that were to follow.

Just as in her first novel, War on the Margins, Libby Cone has chosen to write about a small, tightly-knit community that becomes overwhelmed by outside forces and events. Once again, her research is meticulous and the fine detail of everyday life transports the reader to the very heart of that community.

Cornelis recalls how his father, Pieter Cornelissoon Boom set sail from Amsterdam in 1633 with his family and a small group of fellow Collegiants, to establish a Mennonite Commonwealth in Delaware Bay. He describes the difficult voyage and the establishment of the small colony in Swanendael in the Dutch-held territory of the New Netherlands.

Hard work, determination and a strong sense of community, based on their shared faith, lead to the successful establishment of the tiny commonwealth. But peace and prosperity are short lived.  The bay is subjected to frequent raids by pirates, who plunder and destroy the settlers' crops.  Worse is to come as the economic rivalry between England and Holland develops into war;  the settlers become victims of violent clashes between the two factions and the colony is destroyed.

This is a very absorbing story with the tensions greatly enhanced by the choice of Cornelis as narrator. Not only is he a young boy, with limited understanding of what is happening around him but he is also blind. Situations that fill everyone with dread are even more terrifying for him. His recollections in adulthood are not of things he witnessed but of what he experienced through his other senses, most vividly through his sense of smell. He is haunted by the scents of sweet grass and burnt flesh.

A first person narrative has inevitable limitations. We can only learn what Cornelis is able to tell us and his observations are limited by his blindness and his youth. I wanted to know more about the characters and what happened next. I suppose all good stories leave us wanting more and Flesh and Grass has already led me to find out more about the Plockhoy settlement and, just in case Libby isn't planning to write a sequel about Cornelis' life in Pennsylvania, I will be reading about the Mennonite settlements there, too.

This is an excellent read and I highly recommend it.

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