What do you get when you’re computer illiterate and you convert a file into a jpeg all by yourself? Hopefully, more applause than you can shake a stick at… Okay, it was funny in my mind. Maybe not as funny as my meagre attempts at book reviewing. You’d think I’d learn by now, sadly it’s not the case.
Today, I switch gears from horror anthologies to the British Victorian Period. See what I did there? I linked info; you’re welcome. I’ll wait right here while you polish up on history…
*Takes a bite of gas station nachos*…
Finished? ‘No, Erin. I’m not.’
Now? ‘Fine Erin, I’ll read more later.’
Great! Moving right along.
‘Kith and Kin’ is a Victorian novel, set in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The work is written by Sophie Bowns and as a reader who loves British Victorian Literature, it immediately grabbed my attention. I had to read it. Bowns’ piece features Dickensian Commentary that I couldn’t help but find brilliant and relevant.
“I actually got the idea for Kith and Kin from a book that I had already written a few years back. I think John McGrath is my all time favourite character because he is a family orientated man who is ahead of his time. His parents both died when he was young which meant that his childhood was a loveless one,” says Bowns about what inspired ‘Kith and Kin’.
From the very beginning, we are sucked into John McGrath’s world. I use the term ‘sucked’ because, in truth, if I had a choice between Mr. Hopps’ mill and a Caribbean cruise, I’d go with the boat. Mr. Hopps’ is a cruel and abusive caretaker and throughout the first few chapters and intermittently in subsequent sections, Bowns’ captures the short term and long-term trauma many children, especially orphans endured working in mills and factories during the Industrial Revolution. Are you thinking Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ yet? If not, then you should.
We could simply be told that John didn’t get much to eat, yet Bowns’ takes it one step further and describes his bony fingers and hands in fantastic and heartbreaking detail. The orphan children get a half-day off on Sunday afternoons… what-ever will they do with themselves? John finds himself milling around town and right as he’s about to pick-up nearly rotted fruit from the ground– sounds yum, right– he jumps behind a bush to avoid being caught by a wealthy lady and her maid.
Now, I can’t speak to modern-day England, but I can say in the United States, we have an over-crowded foster care system with underpaid workers drowning in caseloads and just like John and his best friend Caine, some will end up living with a Mr. Hopps. I will add that I personally know many wonderful foster families, however, with the good comes the bad and while this doesn’t translate directly into the children being overworked in a mill, the status quo opens the door for foster homes to profit directly off a disadvantaged group.
Any ‘Bleak House’ enthusiasts out there? *Raises hand*… Remember Mrs. Jellyby, or how about Mrs. Pardiggle and the famous “brick-maker’s scene” (one of my favorite scenes ever)– Dickens makes compelling commentary about telescopic philanthropy and how society tends to police philanthropic acts.
What does all this have to do with ‘Kith and Kin’?
Well, meet Miss Rochdale; she’s the face of everything unconventional. Not only is she unmarried, *whispers* she’s independently wealthy. *gasp*… No need to reach for your spectacles… you read that correctly. While many women were fast becoming ‘angels of the hearth’ (No, this isn’t to be mistaken for an 18th-Century version of Charlie’s Angels…), Rochadale is over here defying social-norms. Think Margaret Hale without a John Thorton, badass, right?
Rochdale is not only the antithesis of society’s expectation for women, she also negates what many would’ve considered ‘ideal’ in terms of charity.
As John breaks the cycle of abuse he’s endured at the hands of Mr.Hopps, Miss Rochdale steps in; not only does she offer him boarding and food, she gets him a job interview with Mr. Duce, the local tailor… and BAM!… John McGrath starts to become his own man.
But what about Caine? If John’s ability to overcome the mistreatment suffered at the hands of Hopps represents lower-class ‘success’, then does Caine embody the voices of those left behind?
Caine finally escapes the mill after an incident leaves him without one of his arms– A significant metaphor for everything that years of abuse takes away from a person. He moves away to live with family and I’m left to wonder, where was this family all along?
A push-pull question that speaks to the title of the novel itself ‘Kith and Kin’. John is always the one there for Caine in his most difficult of times just as Caine looked out for John at the mill. Could ‘Kith’ be before ‘Kin’ because sometimes its our friends whom we find more reliable than our own blood? It’s those people who aren’t even related to us, but we know we can call them in the bleakest of circumstances and they’ll come as fast as they can (with an entire army if we need it!)… or, at least with a bottle of wine and a listening ear.
This novel is an onion, no… not because it made me cry (Okay, I might’ve sniffled a little… but, I can’t tell you when because that’ll ruin everything.) and No, not because it stinks. There’s more layers to this book than Ralphie’s little brother wears in A Christmas Story.
If John’s ability to overcome what we’d diagnose now as PTSD and his willingness to forgive Mr.Hopps, hold a steady job, and be a dedicated husband and father, is viewed as movement and growth, then Maira, his wife, represents stasis.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe in equality in any marriage. I don’t view the husband’s role as the ‘leader’ or ‘head of household’, but I think marriage is a team. I enjoy those ‘sit down and discuss’ moments where each spouse brings logic, emotion, and points of contention to the table and discusses important decisions as a unit, while weighing the costs and benefits of every outcome.
For someone who asks her husband a few times to buy her a new dress, Maira clearly wears the pants in the McGrath household, making the reader wonder if she sees John’s gentle nature as a means for her to be controlling. On the flip side, if John’s only ever lived a life of exploitation, would he recognize the difference? Or, would he see Maira’s control as a ‘norm’? What about when Maira loses her temper with Bonnie? In a normal situation, I feel like John would’ve stood up for Bonnie more. Perhaps it’s left up to the reader to decide, but I saw Maira’s authority as brave commentary on the cycle of abuse and how once a person is used to submitting, it becomes a difficult habit to break.
From its genuine social commentary to an endearing use of the word ‘mollycoddled’– which has officially been added to my everyday vocabulary, I see ‘Kith and Kin’ as a must read with the main weakness being grammar issues here and there. Despite this, I’d give it five thumbs up. Why, you ask? Please refer to my neatly numbered list.
1.) I’m not the grammar police
2.) I tend to be in a school of thought that believes it’s not worth running up my electric bill by spotlighting minor errors that don’t throw me out of the story.
But for just $1.33 (USD), ‘Kith and Kin’ is absolutely worth the read. And as for a sequel?
Hang on to your lederhosen, kids…
“There will be a second novel. I am currently 49,000 words into the first draft of the sequel and I would like to get to a stage where it might be ready for release in the summer or autumn. The second (title-less) book should hopefully answer many of the questions that my readers had about Caine’s family and his slightly secretive past. I want to put more focus on John and Bonnie…” Says Bowns.
I’m on the edge of my seat over here because I have questions I want answered and am equally excited to watch Sophie Bowns grow as a writer.
‘Till next time…