The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy
May 5, 2015
In honor of Mother’s Day today in the United States, this lookery examines two women who redefine “mother” and “children” in Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children.
To be frank, the opening paragraph of this historical novel did not appeal to me. If I had picked up the book in a bookstore, it would have gone right back onto the shelf. However, because Crown Publishers were kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review, I stuck with it — and I’m glad that I gave this novel another chance. The following pages were well worth reading.
Sarah Brown is a daughter of abolitionist John Brown. Her story starts in New Elba, New York in 1859. Although her age is not revealed, she seems to be in her teens. She has barely survived a wide-spread plague of dysentery, only to overhear her physician tell her mother that Sarah would never be able to have children. Mrs. Brown is devastated by the news. Who would love and marry her barren daughter?
Fast forward to 2014, New Charlestown, West Virginia, where Eden and Jack Anderson have moved into an older suburban home. Like Sarah, Eden is not been to conceive, in spite of years of trying and enduring various fertility treatments. As much as she loves Jack, Sarah’s mood swings and other treatment side effects have left her feeling hopeless and on the verge of proceeding with a divorce.
Jack attempts to enlarge their household with the addition of a dog. Eden is NOT amused, and rejects the pet at once. Jack travels for work, so he hires Cleo, a ten-year-old girl to care for Cricket until he can find the mutt a new home. Although Eden and Jack have lived in the small town for some months, Eden’s unsettled health kept them housebound. Cleo becomes Eden’s guide to life in the hamlet of New Charlestown.
The author alternates between Sarah’s and Eden’s stories. Sarah stumbles upon her father’s secret Underground Railroad (UGRR) activities late one night. She draws a map to guide an illiterate group of slaves to safety. John Brown and his select group of trusted friends of the railroad are so impressed by the simplicity and accuracy of Sarah’s map, that they swear her to secrecy and set her to work on creating pictures with hidden codes and symbols directing escaping slaves to freedom in the North.
Eden and Cleo become close friends as Eden drifts away from Jack. Soon the two are cooking organic dog food for Cricket. Keeping her strange eyes on the cooks is an antique porcelain doll’s head found when Cricket discovered a forgotten root cellar beneath Eden’s home.
Back in the nineteenth century, John Brown is arrested for his part in ambushing the Harper’s Ferry armory. Sarah, her mother and sisters rush to Virginia to see the horribly wounded prisoner before his death sentence is carried out. The Hill family are their hosts in New Charlestown, and also trusted friends with an active role in the Freedom Train. George Hill and his son Freddy accept Sarah’s involvement as well, although her family remains ignorant of her activities. The Browns return to their home in New York, but Sarah and Freddy maintain a lifelong friendship and correspondence.
McCoy traces the life of Sarah and the Brown and Hill families based on documents and research into the families’ histories. She ties Sarah’s life to Eden’s, a century and a half later using compellingly believable creative license as well as historical facts. Both women’s stories are intriguing — one real, one fictional. With letters, newspaper articles and other devices, author Sarah McCoy has created an exceptionally readable novel of two women’s struggles to define themselves in their personal lives and communities. Meticulously researched, but never dry or boring, The Mapmaker’s Children is a testament to the abilities of women to take on the mantle of motherhood without being broodmares both one hundred fifty years ago and today.