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  • Writer's pictureKenneth

Three Books Set In The 1800s

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Hello and welcome to another edition of me randomly hitting buttons on the keyboard hoping something worth reading comes out! (probably not worth reading, but I am tenacious in my pursuit for mediocrity, so I continue on)

Today I am not doing one book, but three, the reason for it is simple, last year I (by chance) read three books in a row, all set in North America, all set more or less in the same time period(1840s-1850s) and all based on true events, the books were: “The Terror” by Dan Simmons, “The Hunger” by Alma Katsu and ”Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood.

The Terror: The men on board Her Britannic Majesty's Ships Terror and Erebus had every expectation of triumph. They were part of Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition - as scientifically advanced an enterprise as had ever set forth - and theirs were the first steam-driven vessels to go in search of the fabled North-West Passage. But the ships have now been trapped in the Arctic ice for nearly two years. Coal and provisions are running low. Yet the real threat isn't the constantly shifting landscape of white or the flesh-numbing temperatures, dwindling supplies or the vessels being slowly crushed by the unyielding grip of the frozen ocean. No, the real threat is far more terrifying. There is something out there that haunts the frigid darkness, which stalks the ships, snatching one man at a time - mutilating, devouring. A nameless thing, at once nowhere and everywhere, this terror has become the expedition's nemesis. When Franklin meets a terrible death, it falls to Captain Francis Crozier of HMS Terror to take command and lead the remaining crew on a last, desperate attempt to flee south across the ice. With them travels an Eskimo woman who cannot speak. She may be the key to survival - or the harbinger of their deaths. And as scurvy, starvation and madness take their toll, as the Terror on the ice become evermore bold, Crozier and his men begin to fear there is no escape...

First book out is the brilliant “The Terror” by Dan Simmons (slight side note, all the books I write about today is lack for a better word brilliant!). It is a fictional horror story based on the real-life disaster that was the Franklin expedition. One is not to expect a happy ending since the expedition was disaster, but I found myself rooting for several characters to survive, reason for that is that they are all well rounded and believable characters, or maybe a part of my mind was hoping (against all reason) since I knew they all were based on real people.

Dan Simmons must have done a ton of research for this book; the everyday details are staggering, this (for me at least) helps the immersion, you feel a part of the crew in this 900 page tome (if one reads the acknowledgments part of the book, where Simmons have listed all his sources, it reads like a history thesis). It is a good look in how life was on sea back then.

With the expedition trapped in ice and no way for escape of its members, the entire story have a claustrophobic feeling to it, nowhere for anyone to escape to.

The supernatural aspect of this book is not the scary part, what is truly terrifying is the real-life aspects; the scurvy, not a nice way to go, and I have said this to many a person; I am glad I do not suffer from scurvy (I do have a lot of weird conversations with people). The injuries and the accidents, life at sea was a perilous one, so many ways to get hurt, so many ways to die! It did not help that the canned food supplies where badly done and gave the members of the expedition lead poisoning that affected the both the physical and mental state of the sailors. As the story progresses, the mental state of most of the characters deteriorates with their bodies. All in all, this is an unrelenting tale of survival in an unsurvivable situation.

Slight side note (side note bonanza today), the tv adaptation of “The Terror” is quite good, it follows the book rather well, a few changes. Well worth a watch.

The Hunger: After having travelled west for weeks, the party of pioneers comes to a crossroads. It is time for their leader, George Donner, to make a choice. They face two diverging paths which lead to the same destination. One is well-documented – the other untested, but rumoured to be shorter.

Donner’s decision will shape the lives of everyone travelling with him. The searing heat of the desert gives way to biting winds and a bitter cold that freezes the cattle where they stand. Driven to the brink of madness, the ill-fated group struggles to survive and minor disagreements turn into violent confrontations. Then the children begin to disappear. As the survivors turn against each other, a few begin to realise that the threat they face reaches beyond the fury of the natural elements, to something more primal and far more deadly.

First things first, seems like joining expeditions in this time period was a sure way to meet your doom!

But for the book; Alma Katsu have crafted an astonishing tale, this, like the previous book in this blog post, “The Hunger” is also a well-researched book. The Donner party expedition was an undisputed disaster, only 48 of 87 survived (Still better than the Franklin expedition).

This story is more focused on the characters themselves. The characters are well written, Charles Stanton is probably one of the finest character put on paper in the last few years! (in my opinion) with Mary Graves as a close second.

It is a harrowing tale from frontier in America. The story starts out in the open prairie landscape, as the party travels further west trough more hostile terrain their problems increases, most of the issues they encountered could have easily been avoided.

As the story progresses, and the situation becomes more dire, and considering this is a quite immersive story (I had problems putting it down) the dread increases.

In the end I will say this is a good mix between horror and historical fiction.

Apparently, the book is being turned into a movie, something I am looking forward to. So hopefully we won’t be waiting too long for it to arrive the big screen.

Alias Grace: "Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor." Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim?

Third and final book is “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood. This book is a bit different than the other two, in the sense that this book is not based on a doomed expedition or contains any supernatural happenings, nor isolating claustrophobic terror. This is a fictional true crime (is that even a thing? Well, it is now), it is based on a real-life double murder that happened in Canada.

In “Alias Grace” we follow Doctor Simon Jordan who is trying to determine if Grace Marks is responsible for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery, she tells the tale of her hard life, how she arrived Canada from Ireland, the loss of her mother on the way over, her experiences when she arrived and how she became a servant in the household of Mr Kinnear.

The story is told from the first-person perspective of Grace herself with third person chapters/segments following Dr Simon sprinkled about the book, this should give the reader a more sense of what is really true, but Atwood handles the story deftly, You are kept in a constant state of suspense, wondering whether Grace is a murderer or innocent, mad, calculating or simply naive.

This I for me the best book from Atwood, one I recommend to people as often as I can (I occasionally work in a bookshop, I don’t go around in the street yelling at people that they should read this book).

I was a bit late to the game of reading this book, I picked it up when I heard that they were making a tv adaptation of the book, I prefer to read the book before I watch the shows, but so far I not gotten around to watch the show, maybe next week.

Also, lately I have been reading some historical crime books (“The Way of All Flesh” and the sequel “The Art of Dying” by Ambrose Perry) that are set in the same time period, albeit set in Edinburgh (Scotland), they also have a lot of elements based in real historical events.

So, what can you learn from these books? One thing is that the mid 1800s was a horrible time period to be living in, death was lurking in every nook and cranny (I almost wrote granny there, I doubt 1800s where riddled with murderous grandmas, but I might be wrong).

Social equality between genders and races where nothing but a madman’s fever dream. So, if anyone says life was better before, tell them to live in the 1800s and die of typhus. On average infant mortality rate was around 43,3% worldwide (not from typhus alone, but from a concoction of general horribleness). It was also a time of great advances in technology and medicine. It was also a time of exploration, the 1800s was the golden age of exploration, all this though came at a high cost of human life.

If you have read one or two of them, then pick up the others to read! If you have read all of them and want more of the 1800s, then read “The Way of All Flesh” and “The Art of Dying” by Ambrose Perry. If you want more Dan Simmons, then read “song of Kali” (his first book), “Carrion Comfort”, “The Abominable” and “Drood”.

For Alma Katsu, have not read any of her other books, but her upcoming book “The Deep” looks like another hit! (coming in march 2020)

I am not doing any recommendations for Margaret Atwood, just go and read her books!!



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