A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
Deerfield Valley News, 12/5/2019
A Christmas Carol Reconsidered
Jon Clinch, Marley. Atria Books, 2019.
Ebenezer Scrooge, of Scrooge and Marley, has been an icon of anti-Christmas sentiment ever since 1843, when the first edition of Dickens' A Christmas Carol sold out on Christmas Eve. But what of Marley? His ghost drags a chain made up of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses" into Scrooge's bedroom, but Dickens offers no other details about the nature of his sins. Jon Clinch, whose 2007 novel Finn expanded on the dissolute life of Huckleberry Finn's father, has now written a similar "backstory" of Dickens' classic. The result is a dark re-creation of Marley (not to mention, of Scrooge and Marley), written in vaguely Dickensian prose and set in recognizably Dickensian London.
The Prelude with which Marley opens is set in 1807, the year in which Parliament outlawed the British slave trade. The new law threatens to bring disaster to the shipping company of Scrooge and Marley, which has been profitably engaged in the slave trade ever since the two men opened their business in 1799. Annoyed but undaunted, Marley makes good use of his business skills; with a little trompe l'oeil painting, he alters the name of his slave ship Marie to Mariel, "sells" it to a fictitious pair of Americans for whom the slave trade is still legal, and continues the trade in their name. Officials inquiring after the Marie find that it has gone down in the Atlantic with all hands. Eyebrows are raised, but Marley collects on its insurance. And where is Scrooge in all this? As he puts it to the father of Belle, the beautiful girl he wants to marry, "Mr. Marley deals in complexities and entanglements. I deal in innocent sums." Belle, however, refuses to marry Scrooge until his sums no longer record the sale of human beings, so he attempts to change the cargo. Marley's half-hearted attempts to do so result in financial disaster, so he goes back to the now-illegal clandestine complexities and entanglements of the slave trade, literally at Scrooge's expense—until Scrooge discovers the betrayal.
The portrayal of the psychological destruction wrought by two partners secretly at war with each other is powerful. So are the well-researched portraits of early nineteenth century shipping, the profitability of the slave trade, and the backstreet grog shops and whore houses that Marley frequents under a variety of assumed names. The cruelty and betrayal behind London lowlife will, of course, be no surprise to Dickens readers, but Clinch endows it with a sensibility that twenty-first century readers easily recognize. A minor qualification of this otherwise excellent book is Clinch's penchant for giving Marley's aliases and illicit firms the names of famous Dickens characters. While the idea may have been to give the book a Dickensian flavor (or worse, to glance slyly at the power of fiction to replace truth), it oddly ignores the possibility that names like Gradgrind, Murdstone or Micawber (not to mention ten or twelve others) call to mind characters who are themselves iconic—but have no place in the story of Scrooge and Marley. The book, which so interestingly fleshes out Scrooge, Marley, Fan, Belle, and Cratchit, would probably have been better served by choosing other names. Other than that, Marley offers readers a double pleasure: the first, that of reading it as it stands; the second, that of tempting readers to return to the classic behind it to enjoy it once again.