From the desk of Kimberly Denny Ryder:
Much of the Jane Austen Fan Fiction that I read usually falls in to two categories: works that take place during the Regency Period and works that take place during contemporary times. Works that take place during times of war are fairly rare (Darcy Goes to War by Mary Lydon Simonsen being a notable exception) and works that take place in the South (Mary Jane Hathaway’s Jane Austen Takes the South series being the only other example I’ve read) are also unfamiliar to me. Enter Longbourn’s Songbird by debut author Beau North, a re-imagined version of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice taking place in 1940’s South Carolina.
It’s 1948, only three short years since the end of the Second World War. The setting is the small, sleepy town of Meryton, South Carolina in the American south. Will Darcy has come to visit Charles Bingley and conclude some business in the acquisition of Longbourn Farms. While there, he comes across Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who despite the painful events of her past finds that she can’t stop thinking about Mr. Darcy, who engages and challenges her enough to bring her out of the vanilla monotony that she has settled in to as of late to protect her emotionally. Not only do we get to experience the charged and engaging dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy, but we also have a host of other interactions that play out, including an interesting relationship between Bingley and Jane Bennet. Jane is terrified when she realizes that Charles fancies her and has recently purchased Netherfield Plantation, because she is afflicted by diabetes, which she knows will limit her lifespan and may make Bingley rethink his choice.
All of these interesting relationship advancements occur along a backdrop of changing values and shifting culture of the south. Although Jim Crowe laws are still in full force, the beginning of a movement against racial segregation is not too far behind. Additionally, the ghosts of the war are still very real, as PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) plays a role and physical violence is also present. These all act to enhance the culture and authenticity of the tale, using this tumultuous time to provide a dynamic background to layer in these character storylines.
As I mentioned earlier, I knew that this particular setting would be quite different than most of the other Jane Austen Fan Fiction I’ve read. What I didn’t expect was how well it lent itself to marrying the issues the characters face with some of the greater societal issues of the time. When one thinks of the post-war era, we typically think of the booming economy and social welfare that put the United States back on track. What we don’t typically expect are the hidden horrors of PTSD and spousal abuse, for example, which were manifestations of the six years of horrific war that a huge segment of the population was exposed to. Couple this with the strong writing that North displayed and you have a debut novel that was fantastic right from the beginning. Her ability to weave the stories of Darcy, Bingley, Jane, Lizzie, and all the others with these issues was fantastic. One example of how North accomplished this can be found when we hear about Darcy’s hiring practices. He doesn’t hold the color of a person’s skin against them when they apply for a job. The best person for the job, regardless of skin color was chosen. Darcy’s inclusiveness makes him stand out when you factor in the fact that the civil rights movement hadn’t happened yet.
Speaking of Darcy, I thought North did a fantastic job writing the dialogue between him and Lizzie. I could feel the frustration and attraction coursing between them with each exchange. The mutual anger mixed with a magnetism that drew them together was great. It was another solid example of her strong writing, along with a creative use of foreshadowing. She was able to use it to give the reader a peek at future events of the novel and prepare him/her for some of the darker elements later on, so they wouldn’t come out of left field. I felt that this was a clever tactic and played well with the story, along with revealing enough to keep me interested but not enough to be a spoiler.
In all, North has come up with a fantastic debut work in Longbourn’s Songbird. I was entranced by the setting, character interactions and complexity, and the general detail of it. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for us in the future with North after creating such a strong opening. (I bet you it will be fantastic!)
5 out of 5 Stars
Longbourn’s Songbird: A Novel, by Beau North
Meryton Press (2015)
Trade paperback and eBook (300) pages
Cover image courtesy of Meryton Press © 2015; text Kimberly Denny Ryder © 2015, Austenprose.com
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