A black man takes shelter in a train carriage amongst the animals. He has been shot and has no tongue. Two children are travelling from a Brooklyn orphanage to Illinois to start a new life on a farm. All three are on the same train. And so begins The Knife with the Ivory Handle, a lyrical tale by Cynthia Bruchman of Illinois in 1900 which knits together the stories of Annette and Jonathan, Casper and priest Father Kelly.
It is clear from the first chapter that the author has intimate knowledge of this period in history. The Brooklyn orphanage is a real place on the page – the nuns, daily routine and quiet corridors – as is St Bede’s Abbey later in the book. The Spring Valley Race Riot of 1903 did happen, and the locations from Bureau, LaSalle and Kane Counties are real places. Cynthia Bruchman [below] writes with confidence, placing her story and characters in a setting she researched for her Masters degree. But do not think I mean that the book is full of unnecessary historical detail, the research is not a heavy presence but colours the story of Annette, Jonathan, Casper and Father Kelly. It is the characters I care about. Will Jonathan become an artist? What do the old woman’s cards of fortune mean and what does the future hold for Annette? Does Father Kelly’s destiny lie in the priesthood? And will Casper ever get home to his wife and son Clementine and Petey? There is just enough exposition to help us understand the characters, with enough left unsaid to create intrigue.
The children are particularly well-drawn. Jonathan knows his sister is hungry. “He knew all of her moods by observing her eyes and hands and feet. These parts expressed how she felt inside quite thoroughly, although she was unaware of it.” Annette and her brother were left at the orphanage by their father when she was four, their mother had died during childbirth. Annette tries to remember that day. “Her father rippled in her mind like a gray shirt on a clothes line.”
This is a period of American history of which I know little and I read this novel quickly. It is an intricate tale told with subtlety and enough twists to be surprising.
To visit the author’s blog, click here.
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