Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Turning of the Tide by Liz Shakespeare

Review by Sheila R. Lamb

The Turning of the Tide by Liz Shakespeare is an immensely engaging story that captures the reader from the first page. Selina is a destitute, unwed mother, forced into the Bideford Workhouse. Trapped by her unfortunate circumstances, she – like all the mothers in the workhouse – lives for the few hours a week that she can visit her sons.

Dr. Ackland, a visiting physician to the workhouse, feels compassion for Selina when her eldest son dies. He employs her as a maid in his own home, much to the consternation of his wife, Sophia. Although their home is a better environment than the institutionalized prison-like life of the workhouse, Selina longs for her only son, Will, who is sent to live with her parents in the neighboring village of Clovelly.

Selina, timid and skittish from the abuse she has endured, faces societal condemnation for having two children out of wedlock.  Her sharpest critic is Sophia Ackland, although Sophia’s harsh judgments are internal. While the two women deal with their unspoken fears, Dr. Ackland is determined to bring hygiene, and therefore health, to Bideford. Shakespeare deftly illustrates the medical practices of the time and the diseases people were challenged with daily.

The Acklands agree to keep Selina employed on a temporary basis. Sophia slowly learns to trust her new maid and teaches her to read, yet she still retains a snobbish sense of betterment over her.  As the story unfolds, Sophia is compelled to face the hardships Selina has borne. In the meantime, Selina grows in confidence and health, and begins to recognize dreams and longings of her own.

In a unique and fascinating twist, Shakespeare smoothly inserts primary source documents within the text as the novel is based on historical figures from Bideford and Clovelly Documents include Bideford Workhouse records, newspaper clippings, marriage certificates, letters and photographs. Each document corresponds to an event that occurs in the novel (or perhaps, the novel corresponds to the event.) For example, in the novel, Dr. Ackland attends a tempestuous board meeting over his goal of expanding the local Smallpox Hospital. A newspaper article follows the chapter, dated December 1871, recounting a similarly dramatic board meeting.

Shakespeare provides a fascinating glimpse of life in 1871 Devon, England. She paints thorough portraits of the landscape as well as of the social community. No detail is left out, from examining social health, the class system, and attitudes of the time. Even more importantly, she writes a beautiful story of Selina’s strength and courage that holds the reader until the end.

The Turning of the Tide is available through Ms. Shakespeare's website.
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