Book Review: Reuben and Rachel: Or, A Tale of Old Times by Susanna Rowson

Reuben and Rachel by Susanna Rowson
Published by Broadview Press on 2009-02-18
Genres: Europe, Fiction, Girls & Women, Historical, Literary, Multigenerational, Sagas, Values & Virtues
Pages: 420
Format: Paperback

Susanna Haswell Rowson, a popular and prolific writer, actress, and educator in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, had a truly transatlantic life and career, moving twice from England to America and publishing extensively in both countries. A transatlantic sensibility informs her fictionalized “history” of America, Reuben and Rachel, which traces ten generations of an extended family, beginning with the marriage of Christopher Columbus’s son to a native Peruvian princess, moving through the Tudor succession crises and the colonial settlement of New England, and ending with the title characters, who leave England for America, renounce titles of nobility, and consider their children “true-born Americans.” In Rowson’s representation, the American character derives from fusion and hybridity, the results of intermarriage across racial, religious and national lives.

My Review:

If you are anything like me, Susanna Rowson is not a name you’ve stumbled across at any point in your life.  I’ve read a lot of books, but I tend, generally, to avoid early American novelists because, well, the puritan thing really gets to me.  However, now I’m in a class that has me studying four of those novelists and Rowson was first up on the list.  I got a taste of her in reading CHARLOTTE TEMPLE, but REUBEN AND RACHEL really took that taste and made it into a full-fledged meal, including dessert.  If you are at all interested in exploring this author, let this review serve as a guideline to help you through the book.

First, have a pen and paper handy.  No, make that a pencil and paper, because you will be erasing things.  This is important because, ultimately, REUBEN AND RACHEL is a multi-generational saga that will expand on a family tree way too intricate for you to keep track of in your head.  And, to make matters worse, the story will begin somewhere in the middle of that family tree, trace itself back through a series of letters, and then continue forward in a way that reminded me of a full-speed locomotive.

Now that you are prepared, let’s talk about the two volumes of this story.  The first volume is mostly historical.  There’s not a lot of action, there is some, but it’s nothing compared to the second.  Mostly, you need to remember that Rowson was playing with a very important historical figure here (Christopher Columbus) and teasing out his relationship with Ferdinand and Isabella.  This leads into a very convoluted story that explores the exploitation of people in Peru, the glorification of Columbus into a sort of Christ-like figure, and finally, the worship of Isabella as she reappears in the names of various women in Columbus’s genealogy throughout the book.

That said, once you get through the letters and move onto the the actual saga, things get interested.  Provided you keep track of where you are (again, the pencil and paper help for notes – get used to pinging and ponging back and forth across the Atlantic), the story moves at a good pace.  Just don’t expect the title characters to show up for a while.

On page 194, just a mere page away from the start of Volume 2, REUBEN AND RACHEL make their appearance.  It’s incredible what you’ve gone through at this point.  There’s incest, murder, various deaths due to other natural reasons, chains, arrests, rape, accusations… the list goes on and on.  So it was a relief to finally get to the title characters, as you can imagine.  Little did I know.

Volume 2 flies by, folks.  Seriously, hang on to your seat and keep that pencil and paper handy because all sorts of men will fly in and out of Rachel’s life.  If you get invested into stories like I do, you will find yourself gasping out loud and angry and righteously incensed at the mistreatment of Reuben and Rachel from the various people in their lives but that is what Rowson wants! Remember that!  There are even moments when she interjects her own voice to bring you around to her way of thinking.

This is a book that spawns hours of conversation in a classroom so keep that in mind when you pick it up.  Choose it for a book club or read it in partnership with a friend so you can have someone to discuss it with.  I promise, REUBEN AND RACHEL will hold your interest just as much as any modern thriller would.  Just give yourself time to invest yourself in it.

Have you read REUBEN AND RACHEL?  Link to your review in the comments below!

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