Olivia Givens, narrator of The Eulogist, remembers life on the Ohio-Kentucky border in the pre-Civil War years. Terry Gamble's third novel (after Good Family and The Water Dancers) spans most of the 19th century and presents a bleak picture both of the reality awaiting hopeful immigrants and the brutal fate of Africans, enslaved or free.
Livvie begins her tale at age 86, recalling the poverty that compelled her parents and their three children to leave northern Ireland for a perilous crossing and a fresh start in Cincinnati, "the Queen of the West." In 1819, the city was a "mosquito infested backwater," and the Givenses' luck plummeted further there. Soon the children are on their own, and The Eulogist follows the family members' intertwined lives. James, the cerebral one, builds a successful candle-making and marketing business. Erasmus, the attention-seeker, takes up preaching. His self-indulgences thwart his efforts, but his evangelism is popular and creates opportunities. As a woman, Livvie has limited choices, but her strengths and defiance of tradition are critical to her brothers' survival. And, despite their differences, the three take roles in the abolitionist movement, using their means, wit and bravery to bring slaves to Cincinnati and beyond.
In Gamble's West, cholera, floods and lawlessness are prevalent, though extravagance, culture and education are also enjoyed or within reach. (The quest for the finest millinery is a recurring theme and adds levity.) In the last pages, Livvie reveals the complete family tree, a genealogy that invites reflection on America's roots. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco