Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

Why You Should Read Alias Grace: Because why settle for historical fiction like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies when you can have a mashup of Downton Abbey and The Silence of the Lambs?

Book Size: Medium. Expect reading it to take a few weeks, depending on your tolerance for quilt patterns.

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The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

It’s 1843 in rural Canada and two servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, have murdered their masters, stolen their clothes, and fled to America.

The two are recaptured, and the first is easy enough to deal with: a jealous manservant with a chip on his shoulder and a history of violence, he’s promptly tried, convicted, and hanged.

It’s the second, Grace, who’s the real mystery…

A pretty, quiet sixteen-year-old who, as far as anyone can tell, is the perfect servant: obedient, dutiful, and none too bright; the very opposite of what a murderer should be.

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Was she a victim in her own right, forced to help her partner with his terrible deeds? Is she secretly a jealous fiend, a succubus who murdered her handsome employer when he took up with another woman? Is she a working-class avenger, a foreign half-wit, a female Jack the Ripper with a thirst for blood?

No one knows, but everyone has a theory. Grace becomes a national craze, the subject of ghost stories, dirty rhymes, scientific papers, and everything in between.

The book steps into this story decades after the fact, when Simon Jordan, a young man studying the newborn field of psychology, comes to visit Grace in prison and figure out once and for all who and what she is…

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As always, Grace is the picture of obedience and good manners, sewing quietly in her cell as she answers his questions: about her dismal childhood, her mother’s death, her time as a servant in the homes of the rich and powerful, and about Mary Whitney – the friend whose name she took as an alias while on the run.

It’s a perfectly ordinary story, the kind that any servant girl could tell. But does that mean that the story is a lie, or that murder might secretly lurk in the heart of any of the hundreds of anonymous girls just like her?

 

The Characters:

Grace Marks, the murderer. We first meet Grace as a grown woman hardened by years in prison. Strong-willed and guarded, she is highly intelligent but only alive because other people do not know that. Between her abusive father and a series of overbearing masters, Grace has grown up as a person not meant to be noticed, a little figure in an apron sweeping the corners of other people’s lives. As a result, she’s developed a cynical streak and a snarky sense of humor that she’s smart enough to keep to herself.

While we know right away that there is more to Grace than meets the eye, we also know right away that most of the theories about her are wrong. She’s not a crazed sex fiend, not a psychotic, and if she’s a bloodthirsty serial killer, then she’s a bloodthirsty serial killer doing a remarkably good impression of a down-on-her-luck woman who wants nothing but to be left alone.

On the other hand, isn’t that just what a murderer would do?

Mary Whitney, the murderer? Alias Grace is obsessed with Mary Whitney, Grace’s only real friend, whose name she borrowed while on the run from the law.

A fellow servant in the first house where Grace worked, Mary was a free spirit, poking fun at gentlemen and masters for all the flaws that only someone who washed their dirty laundry could see. Mary took pride in standing up for the downtrodden and refusing to accept her place at the bottom of the totem pole, even when doing so put her in danger and went against all common sense.

In fact, of the two of them, you’d guess that Mary, not Grace, would be the one to shoot her employer and strangle his mistress with a kerchief if she thought they deserved it.

That would be a murder story that anyone would believe… if only Mary hadn’t died years before Grace’s master was murdered.

It’s almost enough to make you believe in ghosts…

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The Themes and Ideas:

Wacky Victorian sexcapades. This is a book of the Victorian age all tied up in the complicated love-hate relationship that era had with sex.

Grace, in particular, has every reason to be terrified of sex. She grew up poor and hungry in a family with too many children, and by the age of thirteen she was at work in a world where masters often expected service in the bedroom and pregnant servant girls faced a choice between starvation, prostitution, and death at the hands of an illegal abortionist. In a culture that viewed all women as insatiable sex fiends, she knew that even someone who caught a man forcing his way into her room would still blame her for leading him astray, which would mean no home, no job, no life.

Worst of all, no one could talk about it, because sex, pregnancy, and birth control were all topics unfit for decent servants to discuss, and servants who weren’t decent quickly became servants with no jobs. It was fine for the upper classes to speculate in parlors and salons that all poor women were nymphomaniacs, but poor women themselves had to settle for half-finished sentences and cryptic Bible verses about the wages of sin if they didn’t want to be turned out onto the streets.

It’s a good history lesson for anyone who thinks Victorian squeamishness about sex didn’t cause any problems worse than a tendency to put pants on piano legs and call chicken breasts “white meat.” It all seems like a joke to us now, but for people living at the time, especially poor women, an inability to talk honestly about sex could mean the difference between life and death — or could make life into the kind of anxious pressure cooker that might just drive a woman to murder…

The Mind, the Soul, and the Wardrobe. Simon Jordan, who narrates half the book, is a psychologist working back when the field was so brand new that it didn’t even have a name. With few tools at his disposal and a sketch of the human brain scientists were only beginning to fill in with crayon, he struggles to untangle the mind of a fairly disturbed, very intelligent person in much the same way a caveman might struggle to carve the ground with a rock.

Grace is a formidable opponent by herself, but the forces arrayed against Simon are far more powerful than she could ever be. He’s up against madhouse keepers who think the only way to deal with the insane is to douse them in water and lock them in a dark room, priests who blame demonic possession and the devil’s temptations, and spiritualists who think a good séance will cure Grace of what ails her — and all of them are richer, more influential, and on surer societal ground than he is.

Living on the razor’s edge between the woo-woo irrationality of the nineteenth century and the scientific mania of the twentieth, Simon is fighting a battle not just for Grace, but for the whole idea that even the bloodiest, most violent parts of life can be understood in a rational way.

Unfortunately, the poor guy probably should have picked a different person to base his proof on.
 

TL;DR:

Alias Grace tries to explain one of the most iconic murders in Canadian history by admitting that the difference between insanity, possession, and a perfectly natural response to a world where you can never win might not be as big as we like to believe.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

Gone mad is what they say, and sometimes Run mad, as if mad is a different direction, like west; as if mad is a different house you could step into, or a separate country entirely. But when you go mad you don’t go any other place, you stay where you are. And somebody else comes in.”

 

Side Effects of Reading This Book May Include:

Ectoplasm, phantoms, mysterious raps on tables, red flowers growing where you least expect them, and an intense distrust of newspapers, doctors, priests, philosophers, and basically everyone.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…real talk about the harsh and contradictory reality that proper society forced on the women of the past, try Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea. A landmark feminist work, it retells Jane Eyre from the point of view of Rochester’s crazy first wife. On one hand, it kind of ruins the romance of Jane Eyre, but on the other, it makes it funny as hell when someone finally sets Rochester on fire.
 
…the part where we try to untangle a murderer’s story and figure out why people snap when they do, try Michael Finkel’s True Story. The chronicle of his interviews with a man who murdered his own wife and children, it also has the advantage of being exactly what the title says it is.
 
…looking at the connections between science, psychology, and the supernatural, try Mary Roach’s Spook, another nonfiction book about various experiments people have performed to try to prove the existence of the afterlife. Just like the séances and hypnotic sessions in Alias Grace, these experiments tend to say a lot more about the people conducting them than they do about the afterlife.