By Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood tackles one of Canada’s most mystifying murders that to this day has people wondering: did she do it? The reason to read the novel is not to discover the answer, for it remains unanswerable; it’s to immerse yourself in the atmosphere conjured up by Atwood’s superb writing.
In 1843, near Toronto, James McDermott and fifteen-year-old maid Grace Marks were accused of murdering their employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery. There seemed to be no question about McDermott’s guilt; he paid for his crime with his life, on the gallows. However, because of her age, her demeanor, and her wits, many were not convinced that Grace Marks voluntarily participated in the murders, the belief being McDermott coerced her into taking part and that she was insane, at least at the time. For these reasons, the uncertainty and the apparent insanity, her death sentence was changed to life in prison. Part of that sentence, she served in an asylum until officials deemed her well enough to enter the general prison population. It’s there where we meet her awaiting Dr. Simon Jordan, a budding psychologist in the days when psychology was a new and developing science. We learn her story, pretty much every aspect of her life in her own words, as she relates it to Jordan. Additionally, we learn about the current thinking of the times on psychology through Jordan.
Of course, though, we learn much more, among them these things: the toughness of life in the mid-1800s, the subservient status of women that puts poor women fully at the mercy of men, the hardships of prison life, the difficulties of servant life down to chores and meals, the constrictions of the sexual mores of those days on both men (who indisputably had more leeway) and women and the pent-up frustration produced by those restrictive standards. It’s here that the novel shines and earns its merit.
Atwood bases her retelling on archived facts of the case and material published at the time of the crime and since. She fills in the missing parts, which are vast, by extrapolating her fiction from the facts of the case and knowledge of life in Canada at mid eighteenth century. You’ll definitely draw conclusions about her guilt or innocence as you progress through the novel, only have them cast into doubt at the end. For, if anything, Grace Marks continues to prove herself to be an elusive woman. w/c