Calico and Silk by Christine Evans

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This is the final book in Christine Evans’s “Gorbydale” (Rochdale?  Or maybe Oldham?  Or somewhere in the Rossendale Valley?) trilogy – completed not long before the author’s tragic sudden death last January.  The Cotton Famine and the American Civil War are long over – although we see how the effects of an economic shutdown last for many years – and there’s not that much history in this final book; but it’s a very readable family saga.  And it’s interesting to see Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily make appearances, and also to see disabled character Matt lead a fulfilling personal and professional life.

There are more daft names (Hadrian) and slightly daft plots (man thought to have been eaten by alligators comes back from the dead but then collapses and dies of alcohol poisoning in the street, wife accidentally kills husband with laudanum overdose).  The alligators are in Louisiana, BTW: there are no alligators in Rochdale.  At least, I hope there aren’t.  But it’s generally a good read.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, it might be rather confusing, especially as there are two different families involved, and two different branches (plus assorted relatives by marriage) of one of those.  But all three taken together aren’t bad, and there are so few books about the Cotton Famine (my dissertation topic) that I get very excited whenever I find one!   I was just so sorry to hear about Christine’s sudden death, and am glad that she was able to see her work, or at least the first two-thirds of it) published whilst she was alive.  I was also very sorry to hear about the recent death of Sharon Penman, one of my all time favourite authors.  Sad news.  But their books live on, at least.

Twist of the Thread by Christine Evans

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This is the sequel to Song of the Shuttle.  Much like that, it’s well-researched and quite entertaining, but a little far-fetched!  I’m not sure how realistic it is that a housemaid from a Lancashire mill town would persuade a former Confederate soldier to marry her, and then take over the running of his ruined plantation, insist on paying all the former slaves a fair wage, and become close friends with all the former slaves, giving everyone else in their district of Louisiana a salutary lesson in race relations and equality, during Reconstruction.  Nice idea, though!  The fictional town of Gorbydale doesn’t match up exactly to anywhere, but it’s probably closer to Rochdale than anywhere else, and Rochdale was particularly well-known for its anti-slavery stance.

Meanwhile, the dodgy husband tried to murder his wife’s ex-employer’s cousin, accidentally murdered her friend instead, spent a lot of time gambling on Mississippi riverboats, faked his own death, and then turned up in Liverpool.  As you do.  As I said, it wasn’t particularly realistic, but, apart from a quibble over the demography of Cheetham Hill, and possibly some confusion over the date of the opening of Strangeways (I’m not quite sure what year it was meant to be in the book by then), the actual history was fairly accurate.  And it was a good read.  I need distracting, at the moment.  I’m sure we all do.

This was meant to be a series, but, sadly, the author died suddenly.  She’d written the third book before her death, but obviously there won’t be any more.  There wasn’t as much history in this book as in the first one – that, despite the rather bonkers storyline, appealed to me because it was about the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, and the American Civil War, one of my great and long-term historical loves, but this one was more about the personal lives of the characters.  As well as the story of Dolly, the housemaid, we heard about Jessie, the main character in the first book, and how she coped with having a disabled child, and also about Jessie’s friend Honora (whom Dolly’s husband tried to murder!) and her medical studies in America.  It was all quite interesting, but a bit more about Gorbydale’s recovery from the Cotton Famine would have been nice.

During the Famine, of course, there was state assistance via the Public Works Acts, but there was also a huge privately-organised relief effort, with money being raised from all over the world, and local committees distributing it, and organising, for example, sewing schools, which feature in this book.  With Andy Burnham launching the OneGM fund today, and Marcus Rashford doing so much to raise money to provide meals for disadvantaged children, I’ve been thinking a lot about this.  And my house is built on the site of what was a Cotton Famine Public Works programme.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.  This isn’t the greatest book ever, but, as a 99p Kindle download, it was well worth reading!