We read mysteries to see that justice is done. Taking up that worthy pursuit is Harry Green, the young protagonist of Wilmington writer Laura C. Stevenson’s brilliant “All Men Glad and Wise.”
A book reviewer, on rare occasions, will also take up that pursuit, and that rare occasion now falls to me. The injustice here is that on the Site That Must Not Be Named, “All Men Glad and Wise” is ranked #5,600,346 in most popular books in the country. People of Vermont and the rest of America, this injustice must be remedied.
Consider the opening lines of the book:
“The steward of Willingford Hall was murdered in the Dell on 12 March 1919. I found his
body because I’d been thrown by a horse.
It is difficult to say which event was more unlikely.”
The book does not dally. It proclaims itself a mystery right there in the subtitle and, by God, there’s a murder and a body in the first two sentences. The book is set in Oxfordshire, England, and the date is written the British way, a subtle detail suggesting that Stevenson is going to get the little things right. The year 1919 is charged with meaning: right after World War I, British society is poised to change, reeling from the sheer scale of death. Many of the upper class and the educated, who charged off to war abuzz with jingoistic, patriotic fervor, died horrific deaths, returning only to be buried and mourned. (The title alludes to misplaced values and dashed hopes when “tragic empires rise.”) Further, consider the 14-year-old protagonist, confident enough to step back from a body and size up his equestrian skills.
This is a book of secrets. Who killed Mr. Vanter, the unfortunate steward of the first sentence (who turns out to be evil)? Did he deserve it? (Yes, probably.) What of Farmer Farrington, who seems grumpy and friendless and sneaks around muttering to himself? How about Mr. Norton, a nouveau riche brewer who careens around town in a Rolls Royce, handing out fivers and tenners? And just who are these titled people popping up, visiting Sir Thomas (Lady Sylvia and Lord Sandford)? Is Morgan, the constable, corrupt?
The novel keeps us grounded at Willingford Hall and the surrounding lands. Ned Green, Harry’s father, is the head groom, overseeing the stables, especially Errant, a stylish horse Harry rides. Sir Thomas is the baronet of the land, but hardships are forcing him to consider selling at least some of it. As a result of the war, he has suffered the death of his son, Hugh, an exemplary rider, whose loss is felt achingly by Harry as well as the whole town. Hugh was popular among the workers, partly since he championed a classless society and redistribution of wealth. Stevenson’s storytelling deftly weaves in these threads, even if you aren’t particularly horsy. (I last rode a horse decades ago and fell off when the stubborn creature dashed under an apple tree.) The novel nods to “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Downton Abbey” and Agatha Christie, but differs in one important aspect.
(I’m now going to violate a law of book reviewing and reveal one of the novel’s secrets. Stevenson reveals it on page 28, so I feel justified that I will only partly spoil the first 27 pages. But readers who want to put me in a timeout chair for misbehaving reviewers may do so, in their own minds, and skip to the next paragraph.) On page 28, we learn, “Willingford Hall knew me as Harry the stable lad, but my true name was Harriet and I was not a stable lad at all.” Aha! If our (previously) reliable narrator could be holding a secret from all those at Willingford Hall (except her father), then could she be withholding something from us, her (now only somewhat) trusting readers? She is determined to solve the murder and prove herself Somebody — but could such a bold person break other cultural norms? After this paragraph, I will revert to the masculine pronoun, since that is the way Harry presents. But even having an issue over pronouns suggests tension at the heart of Harry’s/Harriet’s identity — more of a 21st-century reverberation that Stevenson successfully eases into this time period — and sets up a promise that it will be sorted by novel’s end. (It is, but I won’t divulge that secret.)
Just who is Laura C. Stevenson, anyway? Her webpage notes that she earned a doctorate from Yale in history, evident in her sure-footed evocation of this time, a hundred years ago. She’s written several novels — for both adults and young adults, experience evident in her clever handling of Harry’s psychology. She was married to F.D. Reeve, a poet and academic, who died in 2013 and whose son Christopher was well known for playing Superman before a tragic horse accident left him paralyzed. Seeing a dearth of coverage in Vermont fiction, she has been quietly reviewing the works of Vermont writers in Deerfield Valley News and posting them on her website (lauracstevenson.org). She cites the pastoral influence of her family’s old Vermont farm for imbuing her work with an appreciation of nature. On a personal level, she faced the challenge of going deaf, retreating for awhile before a job teaching writing at Marlboro College “made her rejoin the world,” as she puts it. (I like that, for her, teaching at a college is linked to the world, not a retreat to the “Ivory Tower.”) A cochlear implant in 2003 partially restored her hearing.
“All Men Glad and Wise” is a coming of age story for Harry: he stands in for all of us, trying to pierce through troubling mysteries and to act justly in a changing world. My recommendation, with the holidays approaching, is to buy this book as an early gift for yourself. Also buy one, or two, or three (if you can afford it) copies for good friends who would love discovering a hidden gem. You can take a small step at righting an injustice in the book world and send forth some needed holiday cheer.