If you have traveled to North Carolina, you may have visited the Museum of History and the exhibit dedicated to Virginia Dare, believed to be the daughter of Eleanor Dare, the first English child born in the New World. This powerful legend and its haunting story of female strength inspired Kimberly Brock’s second novel, THE LOST BOOK OF ELEANOR DARE.
In the 1500s in England, Eleanor White, like others of her sex, inherited her mother’s whispered stories and cherished words that encouraged Eleanor to be more than her mother could be. Though women could do only women’s work and were forbidden new and exciting adventures, they learned to find ways to break rules, their ideas and truths hidden in what came to be known as The Commonplace Book. Even its title masked its contents, for within her deceased mother’s jottings, Eleanor White found hidden messages, secret charms and cures that she could pass on to others of her sex. This was not unlike the anatomy of a women, her necessary and important role in human creation, always having to be hidden under long skirts, cloaks and her silence.
A spark in Eleanor White made her refuse to hide her talent, she becoming her artist father’s apprentice, creating inspired and artful engravings, though only her father’s name could be added to her completed work–Eleanor, a woman, an artist, forced to be invisible. Yet she accepted this, polishing and wearing her deceased mother’s red boots, long grey cloak, and clinging to The Commonplace Book where she copied parables and recipes that helped her accept such a life while creating her own vision of how that life might change, what that life might become.
But in the late 1500’s, when Eleanor’s father is made Governor of a new colony in North America, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke colony, Eleanor must marry Ananias Dare, a man chosen by her father. He will accompany Eleanor and the newly appointed governor to the New World. At their departure, Eleanor is already pregnant, clasping The Commonplace Book to her breast, drinking her mother’s dark tea recipe, fighting to become her own woman, the one she is meant to be–the progenitor of the line of women who appear in Kimberly Brock’s seductive and beautiful novel. In the words of Penn, the daughter of Alice Young who currently guards The Commonplace Book: We grow and change, we claim our very own world.
FICTION AND HISTORY
Readers of Brock’s novel are in capable hands, this being a tale of mothers who all had daughters, mothers who passed The Commonplace Book from one generation to another, relating the myth of a stone whose engraved words connected all the generations to the historical figure of Eleanor Dare and her female descendants. Brock names them Alice, Bernadette, Claire and yes, Eleanor.
The novel begins with the world in the midst of WW II. Alice Young and her teenage daughter Penn have lost husband and father in the war, and are now driving back to Ever-tell, the home of Alice’s grandmother and mother, supposed descendants of Eleanor Dare.
Alice and Penn have inherited the gentile house on spreading grounds near rivers that feed the Atlantic Ocean. Ever-tell is expansive, with outbuildings, spreading vegetation, wandering peacocks, even a small island. It is a place of lost grandeur and disrepair, yet for Penn it becomes alluring with its hidden stories revealing the lives of people who have lived and are still living there. At a time when Penn craves adventure, yet once thought attending a secondary school was her calling, everything changes. She begins to see that she could be an actual descendant of Eleanor Dare, the pull of Ever-tell, its history, slowly opening her eyes to past worlds, the history of this line of strong women. Impulsively, Penn starts the process of change by inviting the aging lawyer, Oscar Lewallen, to dinner. He concurs that yes, Ever-tell has been passed to Penn’s mother, the 236 acres, a mill, a cemetery on Bell Isle, everything.
Penn’s plan to attend a secondary school fades away. Maybe it is the very ground Penn now walks upon, the people who have lived here for years, the bell that no longer rings and other mysteries of the place that excite her. So much better to fall in love with the history of the females in her family, with all the mysteries connected to them and The Commonplace Book that her mother Alice finds in the dusty and neglected house.
There is Bernadette Reece Telfair, possibly the heir of Eleanor Dare, who completed Ever-tell in 1799, but also found a hand drawn map (so like Eleanor) in the Commonplace Book, with the initials EWD. She sent men to find the source, the beginnings of the lives of Eleanor and her descendants, believing in the stone, one inscribed with the story of the fate of those first adventurers. Verbal history claims the stone was found and brought to Ever-tell to protect it from robbers or the possibility of defacement. But when Bernadette’s daughter Camille disappears, the stone is blamed, Bernadette believing she had brought a curse on the family. Now, where is the stone?
Kimberly Brock has written a novel of strong women, of the struggles of Penn to decide her future: is she being called away from Ever-tell to a different pathway–or should she claim the inheritance before her. She succumbs to the enchantment not only of the physical house and land, but also the history–the missing stone, the damaged bell, wrought by Paul Revere, that Penn believes must ring again.
CHANGE IS ETERNAL
What is so beautifully wrought in this novel are the hearts and souls of women. We don’t need to believe in the myth of Eleanor Dare to become enchanted with their individual stories, their losses and struggles. The explosion that kills a son, and causes the death of an innocent man. The relationships between men and women that have fallen away, because of the darkness of war, because of loss and lies.
Though it provides an historical context, this novel focuses on the sorrows and joys of people connected to the land and buildings that are Ever-tell. The thoughts and words of Penn and her mother Alice underline that the journey is timeless. “I could see the girl I’d been when I’d believed in my own magic,” Alice says. And though she is eager to explore and understand Evertell, she is also conflicted, her husband having been killed in the ongoing war. “I’d gone dark too long ago.” And so had Ever-tell, for on arrival she finds all neglected, not unlike her desire to make a life, to believe once again in her now deceased mother Claire, to help Penn on her path to womanhood. Alice faces much as she slowly discovers the secrets of Ever-tell, realizing that like the bell that needs repair, “she had gone quiet inside.” But watching her daughter embrace a legacy fraught with sorrow and joy, Alice is once again able to open her heart to the legacy of her ancestors, the strength of womanhood, and the love of man who will aid her in claiming the legacy, help her carry the story of her ancestors forward.
From the novel: “Now people live and die in a place, and when you walk the streets, the lawn and orchards, you are walking over lives, over bones—you are tramping on history.”