One of the reasons I love historical fiction is how it sheds light and reality on our ancestors—that’s if it’s done the right way. We spend so much time thinking about the “good old days.” People have always been nuanced, imperfect and life has never been white and black.
In the novel Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham, she explores the relationships and historical confluences that led to one of the darkest days in American history—the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.* It’s got all of the things American kids learned in history class, John Wilkes Booth and Ford Theater. This novel is so much more though.
Before I go any further, here’s the synopsis:
1864, Washington City. One has to be careful with talk of secession, of Confederate whispers falling on Northern ears. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy. Like Mrs. Surratt.
A widow who runs a small boardinghouse on H Street, Mary Surratt isn’t half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he’s not delivering messages or escorting veiled spies, he’s invited home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage.
But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Was she a cold-blooded accomplice? Just how far would she go to help her son?
Based on the true case of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin’s gun.
You’ve probably seen the picture. Three men and a woman hanging from the gallows. I know I did. I briefly wondered about that woman, whose skirts were tied down. How did she come to be there? What was her role in the whole thing?
Higginbotham helps bring to life this woman and explains what might have brought her to that point. In a book told from two women’s points-of-view, Higginbotham depicts a Washington D.C. that isn’t nearly as Union as you might believe. The view points are nuanced and just because the people might be living blocks from the White House doesn’t mean they aren’t taking subversive actions against the North and their attempt to keep the United States as one nation. Those who are pro-Union may not be on that side for the reason, slavery; we’ve all come to believe. (Watch Mercy Street to get an even deeper look at these political nuances in a really good TV show.)
The Mary Surratt who tells her story in Hanging Mary is first and foremost a mother, a mother who is trying to desperately hold her family together during the waning days of the Civil War. With a son who is fighting for the Confederacy and another who is running the blockade and evading Union bullets, she is sympathetic to the South’s cause. She’s also a pragmatic woman whose dead husband left her holding debt. Add in a daughter who will soon need to marry, and Mary’s life is full of unknowns and fear.
The other point-of-view is Nora Fitzpatrick, a young woman with no mother, who comes to know the Surratt’s because she boards in their home. Her story intrigued me because I wasn’t sure why she was included in the book. Then it became clear. She provided the view of a young lady living in the house, unaware of the conspiracy, and who sees the Mary Surratt history may have forgotten—the compassionate mother.
Once Higginbotham has all of the central players living under one roof, John Wilkes Booth enters from stage right. Did you know that he was like today’s Leonardo DiCaprio? I sure didn’t. Every young woman probably had a picture of him in her album. People flocked to theaters to see him perform. John quickly charms his way into the hearts of Mary, her daughter and Nora.
As the story unfolds, Higginbotham creates a sense of urgency, especially in the final chapters. You know how the story ends. It’s well-documented. Yet, I was flipping the final pages hoping for a different ending and feeling the panic that Mary felt.
Higginbotham has delivered a great read, while weaving historical facts and colorful characters. Highly recommend!
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Love is Eternal: A Novel of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln by Irving Stone
- Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (Because it’s fun!)
- Mercy Street on PBS
- Gone with the Wind
*The publisher made this book available for a full, honest review.