Book Review: The Tale of Halycon Crane by Wendy Webb

I have told you guys before how I love me some Gothic story telling. Big old houses, a single person against a world of things that may or may not go bump in the night – well, you know I will be reading that …

I have already read another Wendy Webb book, The Fate of Mercy Alban. I enjoyed the tone of it, the magic, the mystery – the fact that you never knew who was watching you because of all the hidden passageways and secrets, and more especially the setting. Ms. Webb has a thing for the Great Lakes – and I lived most my life near or on one of them, so it brings me home – even though the lakes I spent time on were Ontario, Eerie and Huron, not the Superior. It does bring me home …

So without further ado, my review of The Tale of Halycon Crane.

Synopsis:

When a mysterious letter lands in Hallie James’s mailbox, her life is upended. Hallie was raised by her loving father, having been told her mother died in a fire decades earlier. But it turns out that her mother, Madlyn, was alive until very recently. Why would Hallie’s father have taken her away from Madlyn? What really happened to her family thirty years ago?

In search of answers, Hallie travels to the place where her mother lived, a remote island in the middle of the Great Lakes. The stiff islanders fix her first with icy stares and then unabashed amazement as they recognize why she looks so familiar, and Hallie quickly realizes her family’s dark secrets are enmeshed in the history of this strange place. But not everyone greets her with such a chilly reception—a coffee-shop owner and the family’s lawyer both warm to Hallie, and the possibility of romance blooms. And then there’s the grand Victorian house bequeathed to her—maybe it’s the eerie atmosphere or maybe it’s the prim, elderly maid who used to work for her mother, but Hallie just can’t shake the feeling that strange things are starting to happen . . .

 

So we open with Hallie, reading a letter sent to her by a lawyer she’s never heard of, pertaining to the mother she’d thought dead for most of her life. Rather, we open with Hallie already on her way to a small island in the Lake Superior thinking about the time between her getting that letter, finding out her mother was just recently dead, her father’s death soon thereafter, and her journey since. She leaves Seattle with a lot of questions and a will to get them all answered.

I was called to the tiny island in the middle of the Great Lakes by a dead woman. I traveled there at an unwelcoming time of year to learn the story of her life, hoping to discover my own story as well. A few whitecaps and swells wouldn’t keep me away.

Hallie is the type of character you root for: She’s had her ups and downs – she married once, but then divorced and though they remain friends, there is a lot of angst for her in getting close to men; she’s lived her whole life with her father whom she adored – and now realizes he might have intentionally kept her away from her mother for her whole life; and yet, she’s not afraid to discover her own past. Or rather, she’s afraid, she’s just not going to let that stop her from doing so. She’s a tough but fragile cookie, who has a bit of a chip on her shoulder but a keen mind and she’s quick to admit her own faults and fears – when she’s scared she doesn’t rush headlong into something, she seeks out help. She’s smart.

That “help’ comes in the form of that same lawyer who contacted her initially. A small-island attorney with a father-son practice that seems to slow down to a crawl in the off-season, Will is the epitome of a well-adjusted islander – with even his own horse and buggy to get around in. He’s formal with her, not entirely believing she is the daughter of Madlyn Crane – long thought dead by the locals, but eager to help her ease into the island – which is full of people with long memories and sharp tongues.

The island itself is shrouded in the past: the more Hallie remembers the bits and pieces of her own childhood there, the more there seem to be forces threatening her out of her mother’s house. The more she strives for reason, the harder she is thrown into chaos. It’s a tight line of believability and the fantastic, and the dark undertones weave well into the whole of it. The atmosphere of the entire book is unquestionably Gothic, with the budding relationship between Hallie and Will a good romantic twist on the genre. There are snow storms, high winds, the images of scary white caps cresting the lake as well as the dense forest, icy cliffs and the family plot near the road with its well tended headstones shaded in secrets. It is the ideal setting for a little bit of ghostly mischief.

The story itself unravels in stages – as Hallie listens to her mother’s former housekeeper’s stories of her family lineage, she is pulled into each generational story – from her great grandparents, who she finds started the great secrets of the Hill family (Crane being her father’s name) through to her animal-loving grandfather and his gentle wife, to her mother’s childhood and then finally to hers. Each account of family history leads Hallie to more questions that take her closer to the startling truth of her own biography. I liked the way the histories were set up as stories, told by an older women to a younger woman, usually over lunch or dinner, in a homey way. It evoked that sense of family and legacy, and it made the stories come to life with little family sayings and tidbits of knowledge. It was altogether a well done family tree.

The romance part of it – as with most Gothics – slightly unnerving through most of the book. For me, anyway. You see, I grew up with the idea that, in the Gothic world, anyone can be your enemy – a lover can be a very convincing ghost, a dear family member can be a mad scientist or a friendly neighbour can be a crazed serial killer, or a nanny a delusional child-smotherer. Really, the Gothic exists to make your adrenaline rush and your mind race – trying to uncover all the possibilities before you read them. Sigh, I do love a good Gothic. So for me, the romance part of them is always a tad suspect. You never know if loverboy will turn out to be a mental patient with a fixation on pushing our heroine off a cliff or a nice guy. Not until near the end. That being said, I was rooting for Will from early on – partly, okay, because he has a horse named Tinkerbell, but also because they just had good chemistry – a good pull and push relationship where he wanted her to remember the time when they were children, and she didn’t and they both wanted to move forward together, even if it meant having to sacrifice what they knew of the past. Very well done.

All in all, a good read – I read the entire thing within a few hours in the desert while the love of my life raced cars around under the hot sun. It says something, I think, when you’re in the dessert, sweating, and yet,because the book says it’s November and the chilly wind is blowing outside and the snow is falling – you get a bit of a chill.

 

What are you reading?

AmmyB

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