Serpents in the Garden (Book V in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage
A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
Alexandra Lind in 2002 was living an ordinary Edinburgh life—well, as ordinary as could be with her family background and recent experiences. On her way through a freak thunderstorm and driving rain, Alex hits a crossroads, cursing the luxury car that would no longer work. Shortly thereafter she is catapulted into another world or, more accurately, another era, having been driven through a rip in the veil dividing time. She is now in 1658 Scotland and meets up with Matthew Graham, whom she inexplicably falls in love with, and decides to spend her eternity with him. Her decision is so firm she fights tooth and nail to stay when the frightening passageway between the worlds once again yawns open.
Since A Rip in the Veil Alex and Matthew have birthed and raised—and lost—children, created and nurtured a home, resisted religious bigotry and official persecution, and eventually settled in the Maryland colony with an aim towards a free and meaningful future for themselves and their children. There are haunting memories of this place, too, and Belfrage adds more historical detail via interaction between the Grahams and local Natives, particularly their chief, Qaachow, whose wife and infant son Alex had once saved, resulting in a shield of protection for their homestead.
This guardianship is sorely necessary, unfortunately, given the visits from the militia and frighteningly close and frequent contact with the band of Burley brothers, who themselves are a study in unflagging determination. They frequently raid for slaves, have absconded with Native and settler women alike and are bent upon revenge for Matthew’s role in their youngest brother’s death.
True to real life, the Grahams always seem to move from one set of complicated circumstances to the next, and Serpents in the Garden opens with their son Jacob’s abandonment of his apprenticeship as well as his handfasted wife. It doesn’t take long for Belfrage’s succinct manner and way with words to make itself known. As the parents discuss their son’s foolishness and rationale, a short exchange links the two eras—for the Grahams as well as readers—in understanding how teenagers can be so imprudent.
“The day I get hold of Jacob Graham I’m going to chew his ear off,” Alex said as she went about the room, hanging up [Matthew’s] clothes. “What was he thinking of?”
“You mean thinking with, and you know the answer to that as well as I do.”
“Do you really think that’s all it was?”
“He’s not yet sixteen and aye, he’s a lad of much heart – we both know that[….] Jacob has known for several months that he and Betty were to wed eventually, and there’s a fondness between them. He wouldn’t have done it unless he cared for her. Unfortunately, he didn’t care enough for her not to.”
“Or he was too young to understand that.”
“Aye, not quite sixteen is a wee bit too young.”
As the tile and opening suggest, betrayal is a theme throughout this particular installment, and it and its “promises” come in various waves and formats. Jacob’s naïve actions have consequences for the girl he has left behind, and as his parents scramble to right the situation as best they can, they both dip into an old betrayal involving Matthew’s brother Luke, and experience smaller ones between themselves and within their community. Amidst all this treachery large and small is the threat of duplicity that hangs over the family, a menace made all the more confusing to Alex given its presentation as well as the manner in which it weaves in and out of the fabric of her family’s life, threatening to destroy them.
Qaachow, the Indian chief, comes to remind the Grahams of his dedication to repaying the blessing he has received from them by bringing their own boy, Samuel, into his camp when the child comes of a certain age. Alex sees no way in which this could possibly represent gratitude, for it separates mother and child, but by its nature would also force the impressionable young boy to unwillingly and unwittingly betray his own family by bonding with another, as well as their way of life. The actual serpents Alex had been battling in her garden come to life in the form of Qaachow, because unlike other betrayals, which to her are clear and discernable, this one works by stealth, cunning in its deception, promoting what she sees as evil as good, rationalizing his future deed with words she tries to dismiss as ideas that will be forgotten.
The Grahams, however, do have extremely solid bonds of their own, amongst which lives a love that surpasses old treacheries, insecurities and uncertainties. Alex loves her oldest child—technically her stepson—with a fierceness he has been aware of since he was very young, and returns it in equal measure. Even Ian’s paternal line can technically be questioned, given his biological mother’s marriage to Luke directly after her divorce from Matthew—an old betrayal that might have caused the young man to question his loyalties had he not loved Matthew and Alex so much.
The intensity of this love and understanding amongst the family because of it—in truth they also all love each other fiercely—leads Matthew to divulge some identity secrets to Ian about Alex and when Belfrage brings another Graham brother home, he references an event that would have killed Ian had Alex not saved his life:
“Does it hurt much?” Daniel asked as they made their way back down.
“Aye.” Ian turned to face him and in his unshielded gaze Daniel saw just how much it hurt, and what effort went into concealing it. “But I could have been dead[.]”
“That would have killed her.”
“Who? Betty?” Ian gave a little smile.
Daniel gave his head an irritated shake. “Mama, of course.”
“Mama?” Ian sounded very surprised.
“She loves you best. We all know that.” Daniel smiled at the dumbfounded expression on his brother’s face. “We don’t mind, aye? And she can’t help it, can she?”
Ian cleared his throat, looking like quite the daftie with his mouth hanging open.
Daniel grinned and went to find Ruth.
Through all this Belfrage continues to portray the family as the real people readers will see and identify with. Their time is not our own, though some struggles can be understood and all the historical events appreciated, both from having learned about them on a broader scale and now for reading how they affected an individual—albeit fictional—family. She enables us to travel history with Alex as she lives a 17th century life with 20th century memories. The author then widens the spectrum—pointing towards the next in the series—and the cast of characters naturally expands as their lives grow bigger and the children move into adulthood and circles of their own. Belfrage handles it all seamlessly, creating stories within the story that will leave readers hungry for more.
There also are a number of seductions here and for readers new to The Graham Saga, Serpents in the Garden will present a complicated story they can sink their teeth into, for it certainly can be read as a stand-alone novel. Belfrage provides enough action and development in each of the series’ books that such satisfaction can occur, and always provides background information. Having said that, readers should know that as they come to this fifth in the series, they are very likely to end it having experienced their own seduction, one that will lead them back to A Rip in the Veil. Alex is a sympathetic character and brings her own identity into the mix, and her creator deftly weaves us into the story, us wanting to carry on as she prepares to tell us more in this award-winning series.
“I love you, too,” she breathed against his skin. “I always have, and always will.”
“Always?” His fingers brushed through her hair.
“Since before I was born,” she replied, giggling at her own jest.
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)
Read my review for A Newfound Land (Book IV in The Graham Saga)
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 just-launched series, beginning with In the Shadow of the Storm. (And watch for more mention of Belfrage’s newest novel here at Before the Second Sleep!)
This post previously appeared in 2015 on the blog’s alternative location.