Book Review: A Newfound Land

A Newfound Land (Book IV in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage

Winner of the B.R.A.G. Medallion

The fourth novel in Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga series opens with promise: the sun on the eastern rim and Alex awake before anyone else, moving forward towards her morning refreshing, seeing the “stands of grasses to her right sparkle with dew, and just by the door her precious rose was setting buds.” By this time the Grahams had been here, in their Maryland homestead, since four years, long enough for Alex to derive a sense of comfort from the permanence of the building. Alex likes roots.

newfound landThat yearning would be understandable, given her circumstances: Thrown through a severed veil separating time from her native 2002 back into the Scotland of 1658, Alex has had to endure a great deal of building in order to create and maintain the life she has acquired. Now married to Matthew Graham, whose familial history entails bitter feuding, questionable circumstances of birth and death, and the attempted destruction of his life and marital family, she has also suffered with him the religious persecution that finally drove them out of Scotland and to the early Colonies.

By this time Alex has been in her adopted era since fourteen years, and the narrative shifts between her current here and now and the world she left behind, particularly with her father, Magnus, who later connects with Alex. In one scene between the pair Belfrage addresses the issue of how Alex manages to reconcile her previous lack of belief with her current faith in God, even if that faith isn’t exactly in line with Matthew’s. The exchange is painful but realistic in its provision of explanation, not despite but because of its passion as well as shortcomings.

“Your faith?” Magnus broke out in loud laughter. “Come off it, Alex,” he said once he had calmed down. “You’re not sitting here telling me that you’ve developed a belief in God, are you? What happened to my super-rational daughter?”

She gave him a cold look, stood up and moved away from him, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Alex, you can’t believe all that stuff.”

“I can’t? How would you know? You have no idea what my life has been like these last fourteen years or what events have shaped me, do you?” She looked out into the yard where Ruth and Sarah were playing a game of tag, and then turned to face her father. “In this life, God is a constant. Sometimes He’s all we have. So when I say our faith, that’s exactly what I mean: our faith. I may not be quite as much of a Bible reader as Matthew, and there are aspects of his belief I don’t agree with, but I’ve learnt the hard way to put my trust in God and hope He’ll keep me and mine safe. And so far He has.”

The Grahams need this protection because this installment introduces them to the Burleys, a set of brothers so corrupted and foul that nothing seems too extreme for them. They also encounter an unwelcome ghost from their past, lies intended to trap them, Indians with whom they fortunately get on, even if it is an uneasy alliance, and a host of ordinary events that pepper the lives of people over the years and ones part of a foundling community.

One of the larger challenges Belfrage herself encounters in portraying the relationship between Alex and Matthew is the bringing together of their two worlds. Like Magnus, readers may question not only how she adapts but also why she accepts some of the circumstances she does. Alex speaks well for herself on many occasions, not only to us but also her husband, who, while adamant in his determination to retain the patriarchal status as provided by the coverture system, also listens to and thoughtfully contemplates where his wife is from and what she says. The pair don’t always agree, but his serious deliberation exists, and the author maintains a balance not just for balance’s sake: she makes a considered approach to what is believable not only to us, but also to Matthew.

What works for Matthew might strike some modern readers as anachronistic, given the reputation 17th century men have for keeping women in their place. But Belfrage doesn’t deviate or follow a disingenuous path; Matthew is a strong enough personality that he would never allow this. He does come to “absorb” some of Alex’s perceptions or at least appreciate them, and though he makes himself heard, he also listens, forcing us to question our assumptions about his people’s humanity and sense of compassion.

Following an especially bitter and ongoing row over a minister tasked to educate their children in religious studies, the methods of which Alex objects, Matthew forces his wife to apologise for her rude behavior. Her refusal and subsequent avoidance of him—she is deeply hurt and angry at being humiliated via the minister’s relentless misogyny and Matthew’s failure to check it—in turn causing him despair at the “walls of impenetrable ice she was putting up around herself.”

When the pair at last arrive at a place where they can exchange words, he speaks his own hurt:

“Do you recollect, once, very many years ago, when you told me I was all you had?”

Of course she did; a dark night in Scotland when she’d pleaded with him to put her and her children first—before his religious convictions.

“It’s the same for me. You’re all I have, Alex. All I want and all I need, and when you choose to close me out as you’ve been doing these last few weeks, you leave me standing very alone in a cold and unwelcoming world.” He rested his forehead against hers. “I don’t like it out there on my own.”

As stated, however, Matthew is very much his own man, despite the control Belfrage holds over him.

“Another one?” Magnus sounded disgusted. “But David’s just seven months old!”

“As I said, it isn’t always easy to avoid.”

But, of course, in this specific case there’d been no question of attempting to avoid it. Matthew had set out to make her pregnant and she had silently acquiesced without really knowing why. That was a lie. She knew exactly why: because the loving had been spectacular, a reconfirmation that it was she and Matthew against he world—and because he’d demanded her submission.

Addressed in this installment as well are relations between the colonists and local Indian tribes, and Belfrage does an impressive job of bringing Alex’s 21st century sensibility into the mix without falling prey to what so many authors do: the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle anti-Americanism that has more to do with sneering than valuable critical commentary. With this formidable skill she enables readers to continue stepping through time closer to what it really looks like as opposed to a whitewashed version of events.

Indeed these are times when alliances could mean the difference between life and death, and with the Burleys on the rampage, warring Indian factions spilling over borders—unrecognised by them, of course—and the ghostly past inhabiting, indeed invading, his present, a friend is never unwelcome. The Grahams are provided with a uneasy glimpse, however, of what such partnerships might cost, as well as the fearful understanding that paying it may be their only option.

A Newfound Land, while part of a series, is readable as a stand-alone novel. While the past is a large part of the events occurring in this installment, Belfrage takes care of that by skillfully and effortlessly weaving necessary details throughout the story via dialogue and other means, which readers don’t at first realise are for their benefit because the author does not rely on formulaic fillers.

Having said that, prepare yourself for the need to go back to the beginning—not owing to any lacking of the current book, but rather because Belfrage’s storytelling, melodic, detailed, filled with the passion and hunger for life and historical understanding, will make you wish to experience all that as you peel away the layers of events that brought Alex and Matthew together in the first place.

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Read my review for A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for Like Chaff in the Wind (Book II in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for The Prodigal Son (Book III in The Graham Saga) (with author interview)

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Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. You can also learn more about Belfrage, her characters and her world at her website and blog, which also contain details about her upcoming series.

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This post previously appeared in 2015 on the blog’s alternative location.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Newfound Land

  1. Pingback: On My Retrieval of Apple Pie from Sweden (A Chat with Author Anna Belfrage) – before the second sleep

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Revenge and Retribution | before the second sleep

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Serpents in the Garden | before the second sleep

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