I was expecting this book to be simply about the murder of Albert, “Bert,” Massey at the hands of his maid, Carrie Davis, who shot him in cold blood after he made a sexual pass at her. The book however unravels to tell a story of Toronto in 1915, a rapidly changing city at the height of the First World War.
Gray moves carefully through each chapter providing details of the case and trying them to larger trends in Toronto. The first half of her book deals largely with Victorian sensibilities regarding women, something that I have always found interesting. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a rise of reform movements, most notably for suffragettes, women campaigning for the vote. Upper and Middle Class white women also campaigned for a number of different causes, including prison reform. Gray deals popular practices in criminology at the time including craniology, as well as the idea that while men committed crimes, women committed sins and could therefore be rehabilitated.
The most shocking thing about this case is while even though Carrie Davis admitted to killing Bert Massey, the jury voted her not guilty. Gray details the brilliance of her lawyer, Hartley Dewart,and how he tied Carrie’s case to the War overseas. Carrie as a virgin girl was protecting herself from the advances of her employer, much like British soldiers overseas were defending themselves against the advances of the Germans. He essentially made Carrie an allegory for British values and it worked.
Gray talks a lot about the popular opinions surrounding the trial and the ways that the different newspapers in Toronto treated the case. I wish she spent a bit more time tracing the fall out, but she does mention that the case against Carrie Davis did not set a precedent. This book was still great, it’s always interesting to read about places that you are familiar with and reading about Toronto in 1915 as well as seeing pictures was enjoyable.
The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea in 1961 has kept the world guessing for years. Carl Hoffman, in this book chronicles his travels to New Guinea and his attempts to reconstruct the events that led to Michael Rockefeller’s death.
No trace of Rockefeller was even found after his disappearance and soon rumours surfaced that he’d been killed and eaten by the Asmat, a local Native tribe whose culture included ritual cannibalism. The Rockefeller family and the Dutch government vehemently denied the story ruling Michael’s death officially as a drowning. Carl Hoffman travelled to New Guinea immersing himself in the culture of the Asmat, located witnesses willing to speak publically about the event and finally “solves” the decades-old mystery; chances are that Rockefeller was eaten ceremoniously.
While Hoffman in this book claims to “illuminate a culture transformed by years of colonial rule,” the whole narrative itself seems to further perpetuate it. Hoffman is quick to criticize the decades of Dutch colonial rule in this area and points out that the “pull of the primitive” is outdated, but his descriptions of the Asmat and being around them read like a 19th century anthropological account. Here, cannibalism is still being treated like an oddity in a very voyeuristic and almost sensationalized way. It felt wrong and kind of off-putting to me. I understand what Hoffman was trying to do, but I don’t think that there was much awareness on the part of Hoffman as to his position; A white male, asking questions about another white male who died 50 years earlier. By framing his story this way, with the focus on the murder of Michael Rockefeller, Hoffman is essentially shaming the culture for their ritual practice of cannibalism, whether he intends to or not.
Maybe I’m wrong and reading too much into it, but as I was reading something just didn’t sit right. His writing is poetic and he does tell an exciting story compelling the reader to continue. I just felt like Hoffman didn’t have the same amount of respect for the Asmat as he could, or should have. His descriptions of their day-to-day lives is reminiscent of some of the 19th century travel writing I’ve come across written by Englishmen about Native Canadians. For Hoffman, the “pull of the primitive” still holds its appeal.
I have previous stated elsewhere that I only enjoy Margaret Atwood’s dystopian futures. Alias Grace is not a dystopian future, but is historical fiction, which is my favourite genre. While it took me a while to get into the story, Atwood likes to switch between the perspective of a doctor and the perspective of Grace herself which makes the story feel disjointed at times, I fell into its pace quickly.
Alias Grace, is Atwood’s take on the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. While I had originally anticipated the book to be Atwood’s reconstruction of the events, the story was much more. The novel is not an attempt to blame Grace Marks for the murders, nor is it an attempt to dissolve her from guilt. It took me a while to realize what Atwood was trying to do, but from my point of view she was trying to show the how Grace Marks was viewed at the time, especially through the eyes of a (fictional) doctor conducting research into criminal behavior, and the media. Atwood also writes from Grace’s point of view regarding events leading up to the murders and after her conviction but when written from Grace’s point of view, the reader is not sure if Grace is speaking or thinking, thus if the events are true, making this read even more intriguing.
There is no question that Atwood is a wonderful story teller and she spins the story of Grace Marks in such a twisted and interesting way. While Grace is the main character in the story, the reader never gets a true grasp on who she really is. Even through her own perspective, Grace’s character seems to shift into all the different roles ascribed to her, a murderess, a seducer, an innocent servant tricked by a jealous farmhand. Just as historically no one was sure if Grace Marks was guilty or not, the reader is left similarly wondering the same thing.