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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fallen Grace, written by Mary Hooper. Bloomsury, Penguin. 2011. $12.00 ages 12 and up

"By this time, however, they were so hungry that Grace decided they should use two of their precious pennies for a hot potato each. They began eating these in the relative comfort of a pew in Southwark Cathedral, but after being moved on by a verger, ended up sitting on the stone steps that ran from the top to the bottom of London Bridge."

There is something about stories set in Victorian times that really appeals to me. It certainly isn't that life is all rosy and romantic. Rather, it is often rife with poverty and great despair. The characters must deal in conditions that I cannot fathom, and most often prove themselves worthy of admiration for their grit and forbearance.

Grace is one such character. Her life is heartbreaking, full of hardship and great sorrow. She never whines or complains about the circumstances that she faces. Although she finds herself in abject poverty, caring for her older, mentally challenged sister without support from family or friends, she pushes forward doing what she has to do to eke out an existence and keep the two of them from the workhouse. She does this with quiet determination, dignity and a great deal of pluck.

The feeling of being there with Grace and Lily is palpable...the author writes the setting and circumstances with such clarity and compassion. Her extensive description of the funeral trade, its many facets and the various people hired to play roles at those funerals is fascinating. When we meet Grace she is boarding the funeral train, to a cemetery outside London where she can safely hide her deceased baby in the coffin of someone of a higher class, allowing that wee baby a safe resting place and offering its mother some solace:

"May you sleep content and one day may we be reunited."

At the funeral she attracts the attention of two people, the deceased's brother and the wife of the funeral director. One offers help if help is ever needed, the other a job as a mute to stand silent and respectful at upcoming Unwin funerals. She takes a card from each. Each will prove useful as Grace and Lily face even more dire circumstances, when the rooming house where they live is torn down in order to build better housing in the future. They find themselves on the street and in danger of finding refuge only in a workhouse, the one place where they never want to be. Because we have come to care for them, we want life to be better than that, too.

It is a compelling tale and one that grabs at your heartstrings and won't let go. The sisters are treated abominably, bullied and made to work with the Unwins under false pretences. The skulduggery is rampant, and it takes persistence and intelligence for Grace to finally unravel the mystery. I couldn't put it down once I started reading, and I know that it is a story that will remain with me for a long time. It will also lead me to find other stories by Mary Hooper with hopes of finding other strong, resilient characters in historical settings.

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