book review: Thieving Forest


When Susanna looks down at the peapods again she sees the new black lace on her cuff. Her parents died almost two weeks ago and only one day apart, Ellen first and then Sirus, as unexpected as two suns setting in the same evening. Susanna, who is superstitious, has put a piece of rowan wood in the pocket of her black dress to guard against ghosts, although she misses her mother, and would almost chance the frightening encounter in order to see her again. She's lonely for her. She's lonely for both of them. Part of her feels gone as well, like there's a room in her home that she can't go to anymore, a locked door. She thinks of her mother's freckled hands cutting bread.

Thieving Forest is being marketed as a Young Adult book, which I think is very unfair. It is suitable for young adults, being focused on a sixteen-year-old girl and with suitable content, but it would appeal just as well to anyone who enjoys well-researched historical novels. The main character is Susanna Quiner, the second-youngest of six sisters, and of life in the swamps and forests of Ohio in 1806. The youngest sister, Lilith, still lives in Philadelphia, which makes Susanna effectively the youngest. Before their parents' deaths, and certainly afterwards, the older sisters tend to order Susanna around, which is precisely why she is out of the house doing chores when the rest of her sisters are kidnapped and taken into the nearby forest. The only one left free, Susanna decides the only right thing to do is lead a search party to rescue her sisters.

The first thing I noticed reading Thieving Forest was the use of the present tense. It was unsettling for the first five pages or so to read an historical novel using this, but after the brief adjustment period it becomes an excellent device for pulling the reader into the story. The choice of verb tense reflects well on the rest of the prose elements — the writing is vivid but not florid, in a style that reminded me of Hemingway, but without his intense brevity.

The next noticeable thing is the incredible care taken with historical accuracy. Certainly the details all tallied with what I remember from school about the same period in Canadian history. The characters embody what is beautiful, ugly, great, and awful about this part of America in the early nineteenth century. To accomplish this, of course, the characters need to be well-rounded, and it was a real pleasure to see all of the various character arcs weaving through the story. Characters it was easy to dismiss as minor grow in importance, while ones that were essential fade away. Susanna is the through line, the reader's window into this world. The author doesn't shy away from depicting common prejudices of the time — instead, they are included as important plot points, as much as they may make the contemporary reader wince. A major theme is that any community will include good people and bad, leaders and layabouts.

The men shake their heads. The woman who collected bird bones looks at Seth. "Your women lost?" she says in English. "No good."
He tells her in Potawatomi that the two women are heading north. They are going to the Maumee. One has red hair.
"Many streams here." She shakes her head. "You are the first chmokman I see."

One aspect of the historical accuracy that I particularly enjoyed was how all of the major characters were multilingual. The ones who speak English as a first language know a little French, and are near-fluent in at least one First Nations language. The First Nations characters may or may not know English, but the major characters have at least a little French, or know other native languages besides the one their own nation uses. The characters' language knowledge doesn't slow down the dialogue or the plot at all — on the contrary, it enhances both. It also points out that the story takes place before the famous American "melting pot" effect has had a chance to work. The Midwest as such simply doesn't exist yet.

I have to admit: I was nervous about reviewing this book. The promotional blurb is up-front about the detail that the sisters were kidnapped by Potawatomi Indians, and I worried that the story would divide a little too neatly along the traditional Western "Indians bad except for this one token character/whites good except for this one token character" lines. I was relieved and very pleased to discover that this is not the case at all — even the sisters' kidnapping is a far more complex affair than it appears at the beginning of the book. I would be very curious to read a critique of the book from a First Nations perspective, though.

The only note of caution is that the depiction of life in 1806 Ohio is not romanticised at all. Characters get realistic injuries, and have realistic, 19th-century style medical care for them. Some characters die from injuries or illnesses which wouldn't even warrant a hospital stay in a modern city. Having said that, the physical details are sometimes grim but never gratuitous. There is absolutely no lazy-writer hand-waving over details like how to find food in a swamp with minimal tools and skills. When, late in the book, a character catches a vole for dinner, as a reader you're far too busy being happy that they won't starve after all to feel repugnance. (All right, not much repugnance. The point stands.)

Thieving Forest is the first five-star rating I've given on Goodreads since I read Wool, over a year ago. The clear writing style, vivid characters, well-turned plot, beautifully illustrated themes, and thoroughly-researched historical setting make it a very rewarding read.

About the Author

Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.