This compelling historical novel centres around The Peterloo Massacre, a real life tragedy of 1819, when close to 100,000 peaceable protesters gathered on St. Peter’s Field, Manchester to campaign for parliamentary reform. Nervous magistrates watched from a nearby window, then decided to read the ”Riot Act,” calling on up to 600 armed soldiers from the Manchester Yeomanry to break up the meeting, with the intention of arresting the main speaker, Henry Hunt. The soldiers, brandishing sharpened sabers, rode in among the crowd. Hundreds were injured and dozens killed, including women and children.
Carolyn O’Brien wisely uses the voice of Nancy Kay, a young mill worker, to tell most of the story, giving a distant historical event a much more human feel. Nancy lives with her young son, Walter and ailing mother, Ann, in a permanent state of grinding poverty and hunger, brought about by low wages and crippling prices. The author subtly portrays their dire situation without being heavy handed or patronizing, which often makes for heartbreaking reading.
Nancy’s voice alternates with friends, relatives, enemies and the two widely different men who share her life that momentous summer. Nancy is an energetic, likeable, well-drawn character with a thirst for knowledge and a strong sense of justice. When she is given the chance to learn to read by her sympathetic employer, Samson, she becomes even more aware of the rampant social injustice that keeps her and her neighbours and co-workers, hungry and impoverished for life. Soon she is inspired to join the reformers in a great movement that calls for social change. Little does she know that the great protest being planned, will turn out to be a terrible human tragedy and not the triumph they hoped for.
|Author, Carolyn O'Brien|
At first, I found the author’s use of alternating voices a little jarring, as it interrupted the story’s narrative flow. I appreciated that this was intended to provide an interesting mosaic of differing points of view, but I found myself wanting to get back to Nancy’s voice and her absorbing story. Gradually, however, the other voices became stronger, particularly Adelaide, the snobbish social upstart and Samson, her empathetic nephew whose terrible experiences in battle showed him that all human beings should be treated with dignity regardless of social class.
Overall, I found myself rooting for the main character and her fight for social justice at a time when the poor were treated as little better than slaves, and children were forced to work in dangerous industrial situations with no concern for their safety. It’s refreshing to hear the voice of the marginalized and silenced telling the story of such an iconic historical event, especially at the commemoration of its anniversary.
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