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Merle

Merle

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke - Sally Cabot Gunning Unlike the two previous books in this series, The Widow’s War and Bound, this book is as much about the Boston Massacre and the events leading up to it as it’s about the title character trying to find her way in the world. It’s interesting from a historical perspective, but unfortunately, Jane’s story suffers.

After Jane turns down a marriage proposal her father supports, he packs her off to Boston as a companion to an elderly aunt; while there, she witnesses some historical events. I liked the historical parts, which I’d never read a book about before, and Gunning handles the conflict between the Bostonians and the British soldiers in a nuanced, interesting way. It was especially interesting to see Jane’s opinions evolve with the events she experiences. For instance, early on, some troublemakers turn a soldier’s greeting her into his “accosting” her, leading her to suspect that the newspaper stories about the soldiers’ wrongdoing are entirely fabricated. Then later events force her to rethink that position. It’s done well, with the exception that I never really felt the tension or the anger. While certainly competent, Gunning’s writing is not the most evocative or immersive.

The problem with Jane is that she’s so generically inoffensive. The title is clearly intended to have a dual meaning, referring to both the general rebellion Jane witnesses, and Jane’s personal rebellion against her father. But while she makes a couple of major life decisions against her father’s wishes, there’s nothing truly rebellious about Jane. She has no sense of adventure, no innate curiosity, few strong opinions. And unlike Gunning’s previous protagonists, Jane never really has to fight for what she wants--she's willing to accept the alternative to marriage that her father offers her: spending all her time nursemaiding her aunt. She has a few good moments, but mostly, she’s bland.

As for the other characters, it’s a mixed bag. If you liked Lyddie Berry and Eben Freeman in past books, their story continues here; Nate is also interesting and has changed since the previous book. Jane’s relationship with her father is well-done, and he gets more depth here than he did in previous books, as do the other members of Jane’s immediate family. On the other hand, there's a plot twist dealing with Aunt Gill that didn’t convince me at all, and all the characters’ having very poor social skills is bizarre. They’re always rushing out the door in the middle of dinner, or going to visit someone and then staying only long enough to exchange a few words, or walking off as soon as there’s an awkward pause. (I think this is the author’s way of only showing the reader the important things, but I’ve never seen a book be so noticeable about that before.)

After reading reviews accusing this book of having a “feminist agenda” I was expecting it to deal with gender issues, the way The Widow’s War does--but it doesn't. Despite defying her father, Jane stays within the roles her society has prescribed for women, and whatever "modern values" other reviewers saw did not stand out to me. Of course, Gunning’s choosing to write about a woman rather than a man, and furthermore about a woman who takes responsibility for her own life and whose story doesn’t follow the conventional girl-meets-boy arc, is a feminist decision, and one I fully support. But our literature is in a sad state when that seems remarkable.

Ultimately, this is a quick read, a competently told story with good historical detail. While the characters aren’t exactly memorable, it's an entertaining way to learn about American history. The Widow’s War is still the best of Gunning’s books, but if you like that one, I’d recommend trying this one too.