Alias Grace has been waiting on my bookshelf for a long time. I am lucky to have signed copy after meeting Margaret Atwood this past November as she spoke about The Heart Goes Last. She has been in the news with the Emmy award winning series of The Handmaid’s Tale which was followed with release of the Alias Grace mini-series. I finally got to reading the novel which was another example of the diversity and powerful writing of Margaret Atwood.
This Giller Prize winning novel was published in 1996 and told the true story of a poor, servant girl, who was charged with taking part in the murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (I should say housekeeper with benefits). At the age of 16 years her alleged accomplice was hung and Grace was imprisoned for life in the new Kingston Penitentiary. By accounts, she was a composed and model prisoner although she had previously spent time in a lunatic asylum also.
Atwood was inspired to write this fictional story of Grace’s experience after reading Life in the Clearings by Susanna Moodie. She spun the tale with Grace sharing her life story with a physician who was hired to assess her with hopes that she could be freed from her life of imprisonment. The reader learned of Grace’s early years as she emigrated from Ireland after a dreadful trip overseas where she lost her mother (imagine the devastation of a young girl as she watched her mother buried at sea) and landed, poverty-stricken in Toronto. As she cared for her younger siblings, her father drank away his income and forced Grace to work as a household servant.
The historical plight of women was highlighted. With no birth control, her friend became pregnant and in despair died after a dangerous abortion. The doctor’s landlady’s struggled after her husband abandoned her leaving her close to destitute. Kinnear expected more than just cleaning from his housekeeper. Women had a lack of options and control over their own lives.
As Grace recounts her life story, the reader is entranced, wondering how truthful she is being or how skillful in weaving her tale. The mystical thinking of the time with seances and hypnosis add intrigue and I am still not sure whether Grace was an innocent bystander swept away by her lack of experience or whether she collaborated with the shifty peddler who eventually helped her case for freedom.
Atwood has spun a great tale blending Canadian history with suspense. The unmarked graves of Kinnear and his house keeper remain in Richmond Hill and readers can now tour the Kingston Penitentiary which opened in 1835.
Before watching the Alias Grace mini-series, grab the book and get lost in the pages of fiction which embeds Canadian history!