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Review: The Eulogist, by Terry Gamble
Morrow, 2019. 310 pp. $27

When fifteen-year-old Olivia (Livvie) Givens and her family emigrate from Ireland to America in 1819, disaster haunts them from the start. Their ship nearly founders in an Atlantic storm, so the captain jettisons most of their worldly goods, including a piano. When they finally settle in Cincinnati, Livvie’s mother dies in childbirth, and her father leaves on a river boat headed for New Orleans.

Livvie and her two brothers must now fend for themselves, barely possessing the proverbial pot, and, as she notes, the future looks most unpromising. Her elder brother James, astute, ambitious, and hard-working, may have a head for business, but he lacks both capital or gift for conversation, so he’s unlikely to attract investors, let alone a wife. The other brother, Erasmus, “not right in the head,” has no talents except seduction and debauchery and can’t be trusted to carry out any task James gives him.

However, James digs in, and over the years, his grit and determination pay off. Erasmus turns preacher, wandering off, abandoning his responsibilities, as usual. Livvie picks up various pieces of their lives and takes political stands that cause an uproar, as when she expresses doubts about God’s supremacy. The good people of Cincinnati don’t take freethinking lying down, and Livvie’s observations provide a vivid picture of striving America in those years, with all the flies, smells, and pretensions, not to mention political strife.

Cincinnati, seen from the north, 1841, by Klauprech and Menzel. The foreground depicts the Miami and Erie Canal; the Ohio River and Kentucky are in the background (courtesy New York Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s my favorite aspect of The Eulogist, how Gamble paints her American portrait with finesse and well-chosen detail. Even better, Livvie’s wit makes you laugh:

Clearly, she had her cap set on my brother. Hatsepha, with her wide, bland face and badly spelled name that gave a nod to the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Today, her head was a bowery of satin roses stuck all about. I fancied a swarm of bees might rush through the window in a frenzy of pollination.

But just when you think you’re getting a novel of manners, the narrative and tone shift. Cincinnati lies close to Kentucky, where slavery is legal, and as the years progress, that issue dominates public life. Livvie, who begins the novel naturally opposed to slavery while refusing to take a meaningful stand, becomes an ardent abolitionist, though for her safety, she must be discreet. I like how Gamble handles the transformation, which extends to Livvie’s influence on her family.

I also admire how, with authority over the smallest intricacies, the author demonstrates how the slaves suffer, how risky and terrifying their attempts to flee to Ohio, and the lengths to which patrols and bounty hunters searching for runaways and their “abettors” take brutal revenge. Along the way, Campbell creates memorable minor characters, like the cranky Kentucky store owner who’s an “abettor,” and Salmon P. Chase, the ambitious attorney well known to history, who defends a slave in a case in which Livvie has a central interest.

That said, The Eulogist’s shift in tone and substance comes as a surprise. I would have been better prepared had I consulted the jacket flap, but, as my regular readers know, I don’t until after I’ve read the book. In this case, I’m doubly glad. Not only does this one make the shortlist for the Worst Ever Jacket Copy Prize, going on forever and revealing far too much plot, you might think The Eulogist is more essay than novel, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Even so, I have to say that the two halves of the book don’t entirely fit, and not just because the voice changes. Does the first part serve only to cement Livvie’s iconoclasm, so that you can accept her unusual political stance and activities later? I don’t think that’s necessary; and I object to how the author contrives the mystery of certain characters’ origins, which involves a trick or three and yet another layer to a narrative that’s complicated enough. And as long as we’re talking about devices, neither Livvie nor her brothers even think of their late mother, the stillborn sibling who died with her, or their father, vanished forever. That seems a little convenient.

Still, The Eulogist makes for fine storytelling, and I think that those readers who pick it up will be rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.