Saturday, April 2, 2016

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

It's September 16, 1890  and seventeen year old Josephine (Jo) Montford, a senior at Miss Sparkwell's School for Young Ladies is worried about the piece she's written for the school newspaper,  the Jonquil.  At teatime, she asks her friend Gertrude (Trudy) Van Eyck to look over the story which is an expose on the abuse of girl laborers at Fenton's Textile Mill. Trudy warns her not to hand in the story to Miss Sparkwell as she will be given detention for a week. When Jo compares herself to reporter Nellie Bly, Trudy reminds Jo that she is a Montfort and therefore expected to marry young and well and that her intended Mr. Abraham Aldrich will not want his future wife to know the real world.

Now editor of the Jonquil, Jo tells Trudy that she wants to inform readers and "draw back the veil that hides the injustices that surround us". Jo believes that the girls in the mill are very unfortunate because no one knows about their plight but Trudy believes they are worse off because they are not yet engaged yet and therefore must preserve their reputations. Trudy tells Jo that her way around this is to marry Mr. Gilbert Grosvenor early and then to do as she pleases even if it means having to give away her body to a man she doesn't love.

Jo is called to Miss Sparkwell's office. Expecting to be admonished about her news article instead Jo is told by Mr. Abraham (Bram) Aldrich and his sister Adelaide (Addie) that her father has been killed in an accident. He was cleaning his revolver when it went off. Jo is devastated but manages to gather her personal belongings from her dormitory room and accompany Bram and Addie back home. At Charles Montfort's funeral luncheon, Mrs. Cornelius  G. Aldrich, Bram's grandmother complains about the delay in Bram's engagement to Jo due to the death of her father. Jo and Bram's families have long expected them to marry, however, an engagement must now be delayed.

Jo cannot believe her father was killed cleaning his gun, given that he was always cautious and an experienced sportsman. In his study, Jo finds a bullet behind the long draperies at the bay window. She notes the bullet has the letters W.R.A. Co. .38 Long on the bottom. Jo remembers her father standing at the window of his study as if he was waiting for someone, his face often having a haunted look.

Jo is tasked with taking a bequest to Arnold Stoatman, editor of the city newspaper, the Standard. Jo's father owned several lumber mills, a rope company and was a partner in Van Houten shipping along with six other men. The Montforts also own the Standard which used to be a shipping newspaper. However, while waiting to meet Stoatman, Jo overhears reporters talking about various stories including her father's death. One of the reporters, a handsome man by the name of Eddie Gallagher states that he knows Charles Montfort killed himself and that the police were paid to state it was an accident. After seeing Mr. Stoatman, Jo is taken home by Eddie whom she confronts about what he said regarding her father's death. Eddie tells Jo that her father's bullet wound is consistent with suicide and that his gun was found in his right hand. He reveals that the police captain and the coroner were bribed to record the death as accidental so as to avoid scandal. That night Jo returns to her father's study but when their butler Theakston unexpectedly enters the room, she must hide under her father's desk. This leads to Jo inadvertently discovering her father's agenda in a hidden compartment in the floorboards under the desk. The agenda is filled with one thousand dollars in cash and mysterious entries about meeting someone named Kinch at the Van Houten's Wharf as well as an unknown Eleanor Owens b. 1874. Jo wonders if Eleanor Owens might be her father's mistress, although she is sure he is a good, upstanding man. Before leaving her father's study Jo notices a man who seems to have a dirty face watching the window of the study.

Having many questions and no answers, Jo decides to talk to her father's brother and a partner in Van Houten, her Uncle Phillip. Phillip is angry at Jo for visiting the Standard but he confirms that her father did kill himself. When she shows Phillip her father's agenda he states that the names and dates mean nothing to him, although he attempts to have Jo give up the agenda to him. Phillip refuses to answer most of Jo's questions and warns her that he has worked hard to protect her reputation by keeping the truth of her father's death out of the newspapers so that she can marry well. Jo is not put off however and decides to pay Eddie a visit at his lodging at 23 Reade Street. Eddie is on his way to the morgue so Jo decides to accompany him. At the morgue Eddie introduces Jo as Josie Jones a new reporter to Oscar Rubin a medical student who works nights at the morgue. Oscar who is interested in forensic medicine tells Jo that her father, Charles Montfort was murdered. Oscar was there with his boss, Dr. Koehler who immediately ruled the death a suicide. However Oscar's examination of the death scene suggested that Charles was shot in the head. Oscar told Koehler later on but he did not agree with Oscar's theories.

Jo wants to go to the police but  Eddie convinces her she needs solid evidence because the police in New York are often paid off. Eddie offers to help Jo get the proof she needs in exchange for a good story he needs to establish himself as a crack reporter. Eddie warns Jo that the truth about her father and her family may not be what she wants to know. He indicates that what they really need to answer is who did Charles Montfort anger enough that he was killed. As Jo and Eddie follow one lead after another, the deaths mount and the danger increases. As the shocking truth is revealed, Jo must choose between her family and the truth.


These Shallow Graves is a murder mystery set in the City of New York during the years 1890 to 1891. In the late 19th century, young women, whether they were rich or poor, were rarely able to escape the social class they were born into. The main character, Jo Montfort belongs to a family with "old wealth". She lives in a beautiful mansion at Gramercy Square with servants, attends lavish balls and has beautiful gowns made to order. Her family has an Adirondack estate and she spends her summers in Newport. However, like most wealthy young women of this era, Jo is expected to marry well and have a family to ensure the family wealth is passed on to the next generation. It was only when married that young women finally have some freedom to indulge in their passions. Jo is rebelling against these expectations. Her friend Trudy warns her "You know the rules: get yourself hitched, then do what you like. But for heaven's sake, until you get the man, smile like a dolt and talk about tulips, not mill girls!" Her family expects her to accept Bram Aldrich's marriage proposal expected any day. And to give up her dreams. "Well-bred girls from old families came out, got engaged, and then went back -- back to drawing rooms, dinner parties, and dances. They did not venture into the dangerous, dirty world to become reporters, or anything else." Jo questions why "boys get to do things and be things and girls only get to watch?" Gradually Jo finds a way to "do things" that only men can do.

In order to investigate her father's murder, Jo must secretly slip out of her proper world so as to avoid scandal. She breaks almost every rule of decorum in almost every way; she is out of her house late at night both alone and in the company of a man, she goes to the morgue, to a brothel, to a den of thieves, to the docks and to Eddie's room. She even breaks the law by digging up a corpse. However, despite longing for the freedoms men have, Jo experiences fear and conflict because if discovered, she will ruin her reputation and her future. She tells Fay, a young pickpocket who is trapped in a life of poverty and crime, "I wish I'd never gone to the Standard and never overheard him talking. That's how I found out about my father, you know. Ever since that day, I've been doing things I never thought I'd do. And most of them aren't good. I keep stepping out of my world, going farther away from everything and everyone I know. I'm scared, Fay. Scared I'll go too far one day and I won't be able to find my way back."

When Jo brings her concerns to Uncle Phillip he makes her feel ashamed. "Her uncle's words, she knew, were intended to make her feel ashamed of herself. That was what people did when they wanted to stop a girl from doing something -- they shamed her.
Don't fill your plate; it's greedy. Don't wear bright colors; you'll look fast. Don't ask so many questions; people will think you bold."

Later on Trudy and Jo discuss marrying a man they do not love. Trudy considers marriage a business transaction: she is willing to trade her beauty and freedom for money and a comfortable life. Jo wonders what their lives would be like if they had their own money. "What if we were the the ones with jobs and bank accounts and investments? Can you imagine how different things would be?"

Despite being in mourning, Jo is to attend the Young Patron's Ball. Before her father's death and her meeting Eddie, Jo was looking forward to the ball. However now Jo wants to avoid the ball because it will be the lead up to Bram's marriage proposal which she does not want to accept. The ball symbolizes Jo's privileged but scripted life. "Everything was lovely and perfect as long as each person knew the steps and executed them. The women must only ever watch and wait. The men were the ones who would decide. They would choose. They would lead. And the women would follow. Tonight and forever more."

Jo experiences deep conflict over her feelings for Eddie and her desire to escape the expectations of her family and her upper class society. While Bram represents a life she does not want, Jo recognizes he's a good man. "He was a solid, honorable man who would always take care of her and make sure she lacked nothing." But Jo know Bram will never allow her to pursue a writing career nor give her the freedoms she wants. She also believes he will never love her with the same passion as Eddie has shown.

Jo accepts Bram's marriage proposal because she mistakenly believes Eddie isn't interested. However, when Madam Esther tells Jo she is no different than the prostitutes who work for her, Jo realizes that her marriage proposal is more like a business transaction. "And suddenly Jo saw her engagement to Bram for what it was: a business deal, and she was the commodity that had been traded. She didn't love Bram. And he didn't love her. He cared for her in his way, as she did for him. But it wasn't love. It wasn't what she felt for Eddie." Jo decides she will tell her mother she cannot go through with the marriage. She backs down when her mother learns that Charles Montfort was murdered.

In the end, circumstances free Jo from marrying Bram and the collapse of her family's social status allow her the possibility to make her own choices in life and love. It should be noted that not all wealthy young women felt the constraints Jo Montfort did. Many used their wealth and position in society to help others. However, breaking free from their families expectations often meant losing everything as the character Sarah Stein demonstrates. Sarah, who is a friend of Oscar Rubin was disowned by her father when she decided to attend medical school.

In Jo Montfort, Donnelly has created a strong, intelligent female character who demonstrates persistence and courage to discover the truth and to live her own life. Donnelly portrays the restrictive lives of women, both poor and wealthy in the era known as the Guilded Age. These Shallow Graves is populated with many interesting secondary characters.

Readers will likely guess who is responsible for the murder of Charles Montfort early on, but this won't affect their enjoyment of seeing how the story line progresses. Some of the twists feel a bit contrived but they do allow the author to tie up all the lose ends. Overall, These Shallow Graves is another outstanding novel from Jennifer Donnelly but is recommended for older teens.

Book Details:

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
New York: Delacorte Press    2015
482 pp.

No comments: