In truth, soon after I started reading _The Vanishing Point_, I thought it was a romance novel. It’s not a genre I’m fond of, but I kept reading anyway because I didn’t want to be unfair to the author. I’m glad I did — _The Vanishing Point_ is a well-researched historical novel with complex characters and enough plot twists and surprises to keep readers guessing and second-guessing right up to the end. It could do with far fewer details about the main characters’ sexual escapades (unless, of course, you like that sort of thing — I found it tedious and a needless distraction), but in other instances, the rich period detail truly gives the flavor of life in 17th-century Maryland, where most of the story is set.
The story, which begins in England then moves to colonial America, centers around the lives of two young women, sisters May and Hannah Powers, who each push the boundaries of that era’s propriety, though in very different ways.
May is a beautiful young woman whose sexual exploits jeopardize her chances for marriage. Her father sends her off to America to marry a distant cousin, where she immediately witnesses the harsh treatment given a woman whose husband accuses her of adultery, and soon afterward meets a man of high social standing who is a well-known adulterer, but suffers no consequence as a result. While Sharratt’s positioning of these elements in the story makes this double standard obvious, she doesn’t belabor the point, but just shows it to us in the course of the plot unfolding. It’s artfully done and reflects the author’s careful research into the time and place in which she sets her story, as well as her skill as a storyteller.
Hannah, the younger sister who stays behind to look after their aging father, is her father’s helpmate in more ways than one. A doctor-surgeon whose hands are growing less steady and whose eyesight is beginning to fail, Daniel Powers teaches his young daughter how to perform some of the more delicate procedures so that he doesn’t have to quit his practice too soon. She is secretly performing surgeries, such as the removal of kidney stones, that would become scandalous if it were known.
When the father dies, Hannah goes off to America to join her sister. There she realizes that, despite a shortage of doctors in the colonies, there is no way she can offer her skills to those who greatly need it, despite meeting a man in great pain because of kidney stones who has no access to a surgeon on this side of the Atlantic. Sharratt doesn’t ignore or denigrate the skilled midwives and herbalists in America, but simply offers us a female character with skills she can’t use in a place where those skills are much needed — a situation that is both ironic and poignant.
Once Hannah arrives in America, the plot twists begin, turning this into a mystery (but not a whodunnit) as well as a work of historical fiction with obvious scholarship behind it. Sharrat is especially to be commended for providing a realistic depiction of the plight of indentured servants, who were little more than slaves and subject to abuses that could be just as harsh as the better-known atrocities committed against African captives in the Southern colonies.
Although the story unfolds with one surprise after another and the gutsiness and resourcefulness of the characters is often inspired and inspiring, it stays within the range of the historically possible and even plausible. Women in colonial American were subject to harsh double standards, but in a land where the trappings of the English gentry remained on the other side of the Atlantic, those women were not powerless, and often found ingenious ways to defy convention and live on their own terms–to a certain extent. This novel pays tribute to the resourcefulness of the many real women who, like these fictional characters, helped shape the American character in those early days.
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Mary Sharratt is in town this week and will be reading from _The Vanishing Point_ while wearing a 17th-century-style outfit — and she will raffle off a copy of the book to a member of the audience who also dresses in period costume. We do sincerely hope for Ms. Sharratt and her fans that all of the following venues have working air conditioners.
Tuesday, June 20, 7 p.m.
Merriam Park Library, 1831 Marshall Ave., St. Paul. 651/292-6624
Wednesday, June 21, 7 p.m.
Micawber’s Bookstore, 2238 Carter Ave., St. Paul. 651/646-5506
Thursday, June 22, 7 p.m.
Amazon Bookstore, 4755 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis. 612/821-9630
Friday, June 23, 7 p.m.
Magers and Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis. 612/822-4611
Wednesday, June 28, 7:30 p.m.
Barnes & Noble-Edina, Galleria Mall, 3225 W. 69th St., Edina. 952/920-1060
_Sharon Parker is a freelance editor in Minneapolis. She and her husband, Craig Cox, publish the online local news source,_ The Minneapolis Observer (“http://www.mplsobserver.com”:http://www.mplsobserver.com), _and recently launched a new print quarterly called MOQ, a journal of nature, art and urban miscellany._