The years before the Revolutionary War were a tumultuous and fascinating time, especially in the larger cities and towns of what was to become the United States of America. In Sally Gunning’s latest novel, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, this ferment is seen through the eyes of Jane Clarke, a young woman from Satucket, a place of routine and petty rivalries that sometimes turn ugly; in the latest kerfluffle, her father, a miller, is suspected of cutting the ears off a rival’s horse. And Mr. Clarke is not only difficult with his rivals, he’s difficult with his own family. His young wife, the latest in a string of wives, is overburdened and neurasthenic. He barely notices his younger children and exiles Jane, his beloved eldest daughter, because she refuses to marry a man he wants her to marry. He sends her to attend a dotty, elderly aunt in Boston, but instead of the experience breaking her will, Jane blossoms.
The strong will that inspires both love and exasperation in her father helps Jane hone her political and moral conscience. Her training as a nurse in a time of poxes, carbuncles and “gangrenous sore throats” has already made her tough. She rejects the knee-jerk hatred the Bostonians have for the occupying British soldiers. She witnesses what will be known as the Boston massacre and during its particpants’ lengthy trial (which lasted more than a day, a shocking rarity back then) tells the truth of what she saw, a singularly brave act. She weathers a betrayal and grows confident enough to decide what sort of man she will, or will not, marry. She just might even go back to Satucket and stand up to her father.
Gunning fills her novel with believable and complex characters, some of whom are historical figures. She gives us John Adams, passionate, principled and even tenderhearted, and his prickly cousin Sam. We see Paul Revere’s propagandistic engraving of the massacre, and of course, the massacre itself, in its confused rage, musket smoke and splashes of red blood on white snow. Gunning is also good with the particulars of 18th-century colonial life, with drafty keeping rooms and parlors, candles made of grease, guests served cider or beer in place of water that’s probably too dirty to drink. The dialogue can be formal without being too flowery. Best of all, she’s created an intriguing and admirable witness to history in Jane Clarke.