The Monk Woman’s Daughter
It’s 1846, and Vera and Lizzie St. John run carefree through the streets of New York while their father attempts to put food on the table and their alcoholic mother alternately beats them and begs them to fetch her more booze. Only ten years old, Vera already knows that there’s something different about her mother, something that sets her both above and apart from the scores of other drunks packed into their ghetto. But it’s not until their father takes her and Lizzie away to stay with “relatives” that Vera learns the truth. Her mother is the infamous Maria Monk, whose scandalous claims of sexual abuse while living in a nunnery have been written out and printed far and wide. Although whether they’re self-serving lies or terrible truths, no one can say.
And so begins Vera’s journey to leave behind her shameful family secret and become a self-sufficient woman. Judged continuously—sometimes for being the heathen daughter of Maria Monk, other times simply for being a woman—Vera fights to keep her life her own, even in the midst of a turbulent political landscape that inches steadily toward civil war. Refusing to become a prostitute, and uninterested in being a servant, Vera slowly uncovers the fabric of her real life, and who she wants to be in it.
The portrayal of the heated political environment leading up to the American Civil War is a vibrant part of Vera’s backstory, and Clark does a great job of weaving it seamlessly into the narrative. However, if you prefer layered storylines and characters who display complex emotions and motivations, then The Monk Woman’s Daughter is not for you. This is not a reflection on the author’s writing but rather a statement of personal reading preference. Vera’s story is told in a straightforward manner, with each scene, each character (and their relationships to each other) painted in clearly defined brush strokes, with lines rarely crossing or getting blurry.
I found that while Vera’s tale was interesting, it also felt as though it was skimming over topics that could have definitely brought some more texture to the narrative. Vera’s relationships with both Mary Easley and Bill McCracken beg to be plumbed to the bottom of their murky, enlightening depths, but alas. These astonishing chapters of Vera’s life are glossed over fairly quickly, with minimal commentary and little exposition.
Overall though, I thought The Monk Woman’s Daughter to be a pleasant enough read, with a forthright heroine and a vibrant political background woven into the story.
Susan Storer Clark