Despite the odds being stacked against them, Annie and Euphemie eventually realize their dream of escaping to America, thanks to a fateful run-in with a group of Solemnites—a “family” who pride themselves on being “kind without joy” and offer them sanctuary, in hopes of their religious conversion in exchange. As the Lestables try to make a new life for themselves in America among the Solemnite community, young Auguste quotes his father’s philosophical rantings to the acolytes and his newest friend, Pansy, while his mother and Euphemie develop a clandestine love affair. Meanwhile, a rumored three-eared bear begins wreaking havoc on the locals while an upcoming religious festival sets the groundwork for what can only be described as an explosive debate.
Hill’s revelation of youthful curiosity winds throughout, illustrated by Auguste’s tender age, the young-at-heart Annie and Euphemie, and the characters’ hopeful trek to a new start. The narrative is both whimsical and entertaining, even as it crescendos to a shocking conclusion, while Hill offers unsentimental free-falls into the show-must-go-on mood of its characters: “they all partook of the thick air of a tragic winter’s evening” is the general response as the central cast turns away from the finale’s events to embark on yet another new voyage.
Takeaway: Polished characters and satirical musings complete this 19th-century American celebration.
Great for fans of: Christopher Buckley’s The Judge Hunter; Isabel Miller’s Patience & Sarah.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
A unique historical novel about the depth of relationships
Annie and Euphémie, both recently widowed, find themselves fleeing their home in France due to murderous circumstances, and they’re bringing Annie’s son Auguste with them. After they are helped by a few missionaries from the United States, the French trio sets their sights on Indiana with the Solemnites. From there, they embark on a devastating journey across the Atlantic to live in a seemingly blissful village with a Christian sect (or cult, as some may say) that commemorates solemnity.
Everything seems to be going well for a while, even if the missionaries do prefer to ignore the romantic stirrings between the widows. It is idyllic and beautiful and pleasure-avoidant, right up until things take a turn for the worse: Solemn is chosen to host the 1885 All-Tent Revival. It does not take much to imagine the sort of chaos that the trio are about to get into, especially since Auguste might be a little too clever for his own good.
I love Hill’s commentary on fellowship within this story. We are given a variety of instances in which philosophies and the modalities of conversation slam together in a way that is both thoughtful and humorous. Particularly exemplary of this are the conversations between Auguste and Pansy, one of the daughters of the Solemnite missionaries. These two can be found butting heads over just about anything. Pansy has grown up within this strict and—for lack of a better word—solemn religious group, and her worldview is very much colored in that way. Auguste, on the other hand, takes his father’s word and raises it on the highest pedestal, causing a number of clashes between the two.
When Pany and Auguste run into a pair of siblings from Second Solemn, their views diverge further. Pansy wishes to engage in their understanding of religion and the differences between the two Solemns, whereas Auguste is fascinated by the possibility of a bear attack in the village. It can be easy to forget the ages of the children, as they speak with the same cadence as their adults, but Auguste’s curiosity brings you back to the reality: these are children in close quarters who just want to gain understanding.
From murder to bear hunts to the deconstruction of the guiding principles of an entire religious sect, Sister Liberty is a fully-fledged revolution. With such a deep focus on the inner workings of the relationships between women and women, and women and society, the book is bound to stir up curiosity.
A satirical historical novel about wayfarers caught up in an American religious revival.
The main action of Hill’s tale opens with the hanging of a man in the French village of Sanvisa in 1885. Arthur Lestables is sentenced to death for “the drowning murder of Henri Deplouc Senior, and, furthermore, for being a troublesome pain in the groin at this very moment,” as a magistrate puts it.Arthur, a seemingly inoffensive writer who’d been hard at work on his magnum opus, The Theory of Human Development, is buried by his 11-year-old son, Auguste, and soon after, the boy and his mother, Annie, flee France for the United States. In Indiana, they take refuge with members of a religious group who call themselves the Solemnites; as their name suggests, they take a dim view of all forms of pleasure (“As long as my performance is unmusical,” one of them confesses, “I still get to go to heaven”). When the Solemnites become involved in a religious revival, Auguste and his fellow fugitives get caught up in it, as well. Hill’s story is convoluted and rhetorically intricate in ways that seem decidedly out of fashion in the modern literary moment but fit well in the era in which it is set. The author frequently presents elegant phrasings, usually to striking effect: “In the woods that bordered the path, finches skipped and diddled, spiders reknitted rain-ripped webs, and snails sapped water that dripped from the leaves of saturated trees.” The tale is also replete with tossed-off humor that often lands; when Arthur is allowed some final words before his execution, for instance, he asks, “Do any of you understand human goodness?” and the magistrate snaps, “I’ll have no rhetorical questions out of you, Lestables”; Deplouc, Lestables’ alleged victim, is described as “a stain upon the very concept of table manners.” Overall, the work will have readers both pondering and chuckling.
A funny and subtly subversive historical novel about naïfs in the 19th century.
Sister Liberty, the first volume of the Stables Family Chronicles, opens with an "author's note" by C.J. Stables, who recounts his birth in 1942 and his family circle and upbringing. Actual author Gregory Hill adds his own introduction after this (he's identified as the 'ghostwriter' of this novel) that follows the family link into modern times with an added note of humor that permeates the story that follows.
The ghostwriter's challenge of traveling to the world of the 1800s to properly begin this family history again is delivered with the force of a writer seasoned with humor: "It’s often said that the man who knows he has a small anus does not swallow coconuts. As I continue to wrestle with this project, I’m beginning to suspect that, in answering Mr. Stable’s call, I’ve swallowed the whole fucking deserted island."
The actual tale begins in 1885, with a murder. But the perp isn't fleeing—he's turning himself in.
In addition to wry humor, Gregory Hill excels in a sense of observation that juxtaposes contemporary language with powerful images that contain both a sense of place and a strong sense of people:
"Speaking in his clusterbomb of a voice, Arthur would pace the cell’s hardpacked floor while Annie tidied his grammar and rendered sensible the overall rhetorical shape of what would be his last words. These were the happiest moments of a marriage that had endured twelve years of famine, had produced one child, and which was very nearly at its end."
As a romp ensues to America and through issues of religious folk, intolerance (and tolerance), revivals and unwritten rules, and the odd lesbian couple who find themselves, ironically, encountering an Indiana cult (the Solemnites, whose edict forbids pleasure), irony and religious satire abound which is guaranteed to lightly offend and generate much laughter in the process.
Under the veneer of social and religious connections, Hill adds a heavy dash of atmosphere permeated by commentary that is unexpectedly wry throughout:
“Are you afraid of the werebear?”
Auguste’s eyes grew wide, his mouth dropped open. “Holy smoke! I think I saw it last night!”
“Saw what? And it’s holy smokes, plural.”
The result is a delightful romp through mystics and cults, a fractured American Dream, an immigrant experience of the odd kind, and the rollicking world of the late 1800s which introduces a literary and historical flavor not to be found elsewhere.
Libraries seeking entertainment and literary value will find Sister Liberty an outstanding read that is hard to easily categorize but easy on the eye, destined to attract a wide audience looking for a novel that is thought-provokingly original.