Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Lace Reader / The Mysteries of Salem

In the mid-nineteenth century a literary fad emerged in Germany and France which spread to the US. Steeped in the German romanticism of the earlier part of that century, the genre spawned a series of books that frequently contained the words “the mysteries of” in the title. This was followed by the name of a city and the books were often serialized in local newspapers. Today these titles may sound a little oxymoronic to our ears: The Mysteries of Detroit, The Mysteries of Cleveland.

One of the most notable and enduring was The Mysteries of New Orleans by Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein which appeared in a German language newspaper printed in New Orleans between 1854 and 1855. The book is still available in print --- I know this because I own a copy. It is really quite an amazing tale filled with all manner of sensational themes: sex, lust, the occult, demons, depravity, all that good gothic stuff that thrilled readers of the era and, earlier, inspired a writer like Jane Austen to create Catherine Morland, her gothic-obsessed heroine of Northanger Abbey.

What made me think of all this was reading Brunonia Barry's novel The Lace Reader. It had been recommended by some readers in one of the knitter's forums I participate in and I'll confess that I really loved reading it --- in no small part because so much of the landscape was so familiar to me.

Set in modern day Salem, the story revolves around a family of mostly women who have the unique ability to “read” the images they see while looking through pieces of Ipswich lace. The story is enhanced by quotes that begin each chapter from a book called “The Lace Reader's Guide”, ostensibly a manual that teaches the proper method for reading lace. Because I lived for several years in Salem and Marblehead, and the exact terrain described was an everyday part of my life --- most notably Peache's Point where I lived overlooking Baker's Island and the Misery Islands, and the Salem Willows where I often spent summer evenings --- it was delicious to get lost in this mysterious story that all took place in a landscape I knew so well.

The story is clever. Nothing is what you think it is. Well, that's not quite true. I admit I figured out pretty early in the narrative that the heroine and her sister were.... well, I won't give anything away. But the elements of a good gothic novel, as well as those of a contemporary tale of destruction and abuse, are all there. Witches, pagans, religious fanatics, a brave hero, a dastardly villain.... what's not to like? On a serious level Barry paints portrait of abuse and its effects that is all to believable. And on a fantastical level she creates a world that the readers of Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein would have loved. In a way it is the delicious cast of peculiar character and the background of a city that has not only overcome the horrors of its seventeenth-century misdeeds but developed a thriving tourist industry based on them, that saves this story from falling into that horrible miz-lit category. In the book's climax, when the contemporary religious fanatics gang up to attack the “witches”, the tourist crowds gather around to watch the goings-on quite sure that what they are witnessing is a re-enactment and not the assault by a crazed mob that it is. The basic story is a horrible one but the telling is brilliant.

So, as I reluctantly turned the last page, I could not help but think of The Mysteries of ... books. This is a good read. It faithfully and accurately paints a picture of the Salem and Marblehead I know. It effectively tells a story that is all too believable, and it does it all with wit, style, grace, insight, and no small amount of gothic thrills. I loved it.

Thanks for reading.

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