Lizzie Borden took an axe

Like just about everyone else, I find other people fascinating, especially when they do things I cannot fathom.  Like turning Lizzie Borden’s home into a bed and breakfast.  If you don’t live near Massachusetts, perhaps you didn’t grow up with the charming jump rope rhyme about Lizzie Borden whacking her parents to death with an axe.

Wherever you live, now you can delve into the world of the Bordens in Sarah Schmidt’s new book, See What I Have Done.  And if you finish reading it and think, gosh, I’d like a bit more darkness in my life, go spend the night in one of the murder rooms.  Please then tell me all about it so I can question you like the thwarted anthropologist I am at heart.  Double points if you read the novel while staying in the house.

See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt

I’m going to go ahead and warn of mild spoilers in my post for this one.  I’m not giving away the ending, but consider yourself alerted.

This historical novel retells the life of Lizzie Borden and those around her, including her doomed father and stepmother.  The story delves into the darkness of the family home, with secrets glinting like diamonds, motives aplenty, and serious, unnamed mental illness.

The small irritations of life in the 1890’s – the outhouses, the terrible food, the strict rules of class and gender – are just the starting point.  Then, imagine being trapped at home with no modern distractions from the ugliness of a truly messed-up family.  Lizzie and her sister Emma live tightly circumscribed lives, well past when they should have flown the coop.  The detail is fabulous and suffocating.  It’s the kind of novel where even a week later, I can walk through the house in my mind.  And it’s not the kind of home I would want to linger in.

The perspective shifts between Lizzie, Emma, the maid Bridget, and a random hitman who wanders into the scene.  Personally, I found the hitman the least interesting character.  Bridget is given her own voice and existence, suffering alongside and below the sisters, who never let her forget her inferiority.  She is as trapped as the rest of the women, and the glimpses of her life in Ireland before immigration are a welcome break from the oppressive nature of the Borden household.

As a child of New England, living not far from Fall River and familiar with the basic story, I read the book expecting a massive twist.  There really isn’t one, which is in itself a sort of twist.  It’s also more realistic.  Too much time has passed for anyone to be able to say without a doubt who committed the crime.  The case has also been scrutinized enough to make any massive revelation seem implausible, even given the freedom of fiction.  In the end, the simplest, most painful explanations are best.  A dark world, with dark characters in a deep trap from which they will not emerge.

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