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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

North and South

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell For some reason I confused this novel with the John Jakes book of the same title and I wondered why a young female Victorian author would have written a book about American Civil War. Any way, when I started writing this review I sat for minutes staring at the blinking curser wondering how I should begin. The first paragraph is often the hardest as there is no momentum to speak of. So I thought I would cheat a bit and have a look around other GR reviews for inspiration (or something to rip off). Interestingly practically all of them mention the BBC's 2004 TV adaptation. The BBC's mini-series is very popular and highly rated (see IMDB), it basiaccly brought North and South back in vogue. The only snag is I have not seen it so the novel just made a transition from my reading bucket list to my DVD one. OK, that is enough shoehorning of the BBC thing, I got my first paragraph.

North and South is a social / romance hybrid novel, if Dickens had collaborated with Austen they may have come up with North and South, especially if Thomas Hardy e-mailed them some suggestions resulting in a number of deaths to put our protagonist through the wringer. The book starts off inauspiciously with some old ladies discussing desirable marriages. This Austenesq scenario almost sent me packing there and then but as I was only a couple of pages in I thought perhaps I should give Ms. Gaskell more of a chance. It is well that I did because North and South soon become much more meaningful and heartfelt.

Our heroine Margaret Hale has much more to do in this story than looking for a suitable husband. She has to move with her parents from a picturesque agricultural town to a busy smoky industrial one. This requires considerable attitude adjustment. To make matters worse her nearest and dearest start dropping dead like flies. The only bright spots seem to be her meeting stuffy but interesting industrialist Mr. John Thornton and making some working class pals. Her eventful life in Milton includes inadvertently getting involved in a violent factory workers strike and almost getting stoned to death for her troubles, not to mention unintentionally causing stiff upper lipped Mr. Thornton to fall violently in love with her.

What makes this book special is the characterization. The characters are very vivid, complex and believable. Starting with the protagonist Margaret Hale who is of the “still water runs deep” archetype; hardly an original characterization but she is so well developed that you cannot help but become emotionally involved in her plight. Then we have Mr. Thornton who seems to be a graduate of the Darcy School of Haughtiness. His mother is wonderful, a tough as nails lady with a heart of gold who I cannot help but visualize as looking and sounding Kathy Bates. There are too many characters to mention and every one of them come alive through Gaskell’s narrative.

Equally important is the plot, the social aspect of the story. The trade off between profitability and the welfare of the workers. The communication failure and misunderstanding between employers and employees. Both sides are often at war because they assume the worst of the other and act on those assumptions without attempting negotiations. Such problems still exist today though they were much more severe in the 19th century.

I suspect 90% of the trouble and heartaches in Victorian fiction would never occur if people, workers and lovers alike, would only speak their minds, make it their top priority to clear up misunderstandings. The only problem with that is that we would end up with nothing left to read. North and South is beautifully written and overflowing with pathos, be sure to have a box of Kleenex within arm’s reach should you attempt it. There are minor flaws in the plot contrivances such as several characters suddenly dropping dead in fairly rapid succession just to serve the plot, not from any contagion either. The romantic wrap up at the end is also a little too rushed given the very gradual buildup throughout the book.

Still, I love books that push “the feels” button and this book does that beautifully. Read it and weep my friends.