Whither Thou Goest (Book VII in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage
Recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion
People who populate today’s societies—ehem, us—have a tendency to believe our world is superior to that of the past: more conveniences, broader rights for women and minorities, better medicine. While these advantages have indeed developed, they come with trade offs and in the realization of these gains we’ve lost bits of our selves and relationships. In Whither Thou Goest, the seventh installment of Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga, this theme comes closer to the fore as time-traveling Alex Lind and her 17th century husband, Matthew, make their way to the West Indies to rescue their unknown nephew from the horrors of indentured servitude—in reality, brutal slavery.
Matthew himself once suffered this fate and it is largely his history that decides for the Grahams they should heed the plea of Matthew’s brother Luke to rescue his son, a youngster persuaded into the Monmouth rebels now facing a terrible future as the consequence of his misguided involvement. There is no love lost between Mr. and Mrs. Graham and Luke, but they also conclude that young Charlie should not be left to such a terrible fate as a result of the animosity between his father and uncle and events not of his doing. Their decision reflects the book’s title as well as their own bond forged, a bond that, like that of Ruth and Naomi, was not “supposed” to be:
“What do we do?” she said, coming over to hug Matthew from behind. She rubbed her face up and down between his shoulder blades, feeling him relax.
“There isn’t much choice, is there?” he said. “I have to go down there and attempt to find him.”
“Wrong pronoun,” Alex told him. “It’s ‘we’, Matthew, not ‘I’.” No way did she intend to let him face the ghosts of his past alone.
“We,” he said, and twisted round in her arms to hold her close.
So they go, and readers follow along, though with the added advantage of seeing events occurring in other family members’ lives. There also are small delights throughout as readers recognize events from the Grahams’ past that led to these moments, links bringing on the awareness of Belfrage’s genius for tying it all together, and from and through such a distance as thirty years. The book’s pace is swift, but not quite as whirlwind as its predecessor, and the author engages in language realistic for the period yet also a comfortable fit for us. So comfortable it is, one never wants to take it off. The only disappointment in this series is that eventually each book comes to an end.
It is a testament to Belfrage’s prowess as a writer of historical fiction that she can manage to get so far into a complicated series of events and a seventh novel, and still maintain reader attention as raptly as in the first book. But more than that, just as history is never static, neither are people, and the author brings us along as Matthew and Alex progress through the years: readers never grow out of the series, but rather the characters grow with them.
Therein lies the ability for Alex to accept—even in many instances relish—the hand she has been dealt. A freak thunderstorm painfully threw her past where a veil customarily divides time and in meeting with Matthew Graham she recognized something so special she fought powerful forces attempting to yank her back. There definitely was a fair share of life in 1658 Scotland unfamiliar and not terribly attractive to Alex—by law and religious tradition loss of voice and stature, for one—so why did she opt to stay? While there were pros to life in 2002, her personal assessment of where she stood may have brought a realization that there, too, the voice she had was also suffocated by circumstance.
Now, in Whither Thou Goest, Matthew and Alex are engaged in welcoming 1686—they have been together for nearly thirty years. The opening passages introduce us to one of the contradictions Alex has grown with all this time:
The shrubs were beginning to show buds; here and there startling greens adorned the wintry ground[. . .].Winter was waning, and soon it would be brisk winds, leaves on the trees and weeks of toiling in the fields or the vegetable garden.
The beauty of the new life of coming spring is paired with the awareness of the backbreaking labor it brings, with only brief opportunities to savor it around an immediate need to work for survival. In Alex’s 21st century life she wouldn’t have had to do this; instead she would have faced other perils connected to food supply. The lifestyles are so different, but Alex recognizes the similarities as well, here and in many other elements, such as religion. She is content with her choice, a promise towards Matthew that “thy people shall be my people,” and Belfrage’s treatment of Alex’s attitudes towards various aspects of her life strikes a balance, much like the one Alex maintains as she adjusts and carries on.
A complex personality, Alex may differ with us on various perceptions of 2002 as well as 1658 and on, but the author gives Alex’s voice life in a way that even those most opposed could admit that she makes a good argument.
Like Alex, Matthew is a strong enough man not only to survive, but also thrive because he is willing to grow in a similar way. While Alex certainly caught him off guard that day when they both were on the run and she literally landed at his feet, the intervening years have led him down the road he shares with her. The pair do not always agree, but he has grown secure enough to speak of Alex’s mother—the woman whose hand initiated her daughter’s passage through time—as someone deserving of compassion, even if she was a witch as he always feared she may have been. In discussing her horrific death, Matthew speaks of her dying “well,” that she forgave her tormentors not only because they needed it, but also because she did.
There is a welcome peace about and within this installment—for reader as well as protagonists, especially given recent events in the Grahams’ lives. Not that Belfrage gives anybody too much of a break—the 1600s in Scotland as well as the Colonies, to where the Grahams have repaired, is a perilous time for all, and getting hold of Charlie is the easy part. Finding their way back to Maryland is the real challenge. Moreover, Alex comes face to face with an old nemesis only to learn painful truths about the world and her place in it.
Nevertheless a softening shift can be felt, and Belfrage winds the threads of this aura through her narrative like a subtle breeze come to cool a painfully hot day. Acceptance occurs a lot, between Matthew and Alex as well as each of them with others, and the bond they have, one that has been growing over the years to reach this point, is tangible to another. It is significant that Belfrage has this insight coming from a relative of the Burleys, dangerous and destructive men once driven to destroy the Grahams, as she shows us again through this contradiction how life often blooms from the seeds of destruction.
Tilting his head, he studied Matthew Graham and his wife, fascinated by how they automatically fell in step, a slight leaning towards each other. Her skirts brushed against his leg, her profile turned towards him, and she said something that made him laugh, bending his head close to hers. Her hand touched his, fingers widened and braided tight together as they continued down the dusty road.
He had never seen anything like it, never seen two bodies come together so effortlessly, so obviously halves of a perfect whole. Welded together, it seemed, and Michael stood where he was, his eyes glued thoughtfully to their backs until they dropped out of sight.
Here as in many passages, Belfrage utilizes ordinary yet such poetic language, painting a moving picture in which readers can easily see what she describes: the tender closeness of a man taking in the words of his wife, the curl of her swinging skirts’ material, the wide, deliberate yet instinctive opening and joining of fingers as they move in time to each other’s steps. What’s more, she does this undetected: the words and rhythm are so natural it is as if they are a part of ourselves; we only understand how much these characters have “over the years” come to mean to us. Like the paintings of Mercedes, Belfrage’s draw us in and bring us to another time.
There are, of course, no easy conclusions, and the novel ends with a few questions unanswered, a lead-in to the next—sadly the last—installment in the series. There are continued contradictions with which the Grahams find acceptance: an event Alex has painfully yearned for occurs, but at a price; Matthew helps his son build a bridge between his own two worlds; a cherished piece of his past is re-imbursed, though he may never be able to claim it; and, as in the opening passages, fragile life makes an appearance, life that will bloom, but only with perseverance.
Whither Thou Goest, to be sure, contains scenes of heartbreak and sadness, with painful reminders for some characters of a past and connections they will never completely be able to escape. But it also is a love story of sorts, in which promises and commitments are made, solace is taken from unexpected quarters, and individuals experience awakening, a blooming of new life amidst ruins to be cleared as futures are built. It is a story only Anna Belfrage could tell of a family readers will never forget and often wish to re-visit.
About the author …
Anna Belfrage can be found at her blog, which also maps out The Graham Saga series for readers. Find her as well at Twitter, Facebook and at her Amazon author page, where you can also learn about her newest series, The King’s Greatest Enemy.
This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternate location and a copy of Whither Thou Goest provided in exchange for an honest review.
Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here.
Lisl is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and in Alaska Women Speak. She is currently editing her volume of poetry, Four Seasons, and scribbling away at a collection of novellas, tentatively titled Border Dwellers.