FeaturedHistorical Fiction

Great Crossing


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6 stars, fictionalised biography worthy of Hilary Mantel. The writing is absolutely superb.

Richard Mentor Johnson, 9th vice-president of the US under Martin Van Buren, looks back on his childhood in Great Crossing, Kentucky—his parents and many siblings, the society they moved in, and their relations with their slaves. Richard’s partner, Julia Chinn, an octoroon (one-eighth African), is one of these, and she becomes not only his mistress but, though prohibited by racist law from marrying, treated as his wife. Julia’s mother Henrietta is cook for the Johnsons, and Julia is his mother’s maid.

We follow Richard through a failed engagement—to a seamstress, just not high enough status for Richard’s mother Jemima—and we experience the contradictions of the inter-relations between slaves and masters of the time. Julia’s skin is fairer than that of the Johnson siblings, yet she is not free. As his brothers become colonels and generals and his sisters marry well, he’s off to Washington as a Congressman, leaving Julia to pine. He plans to take her to Washington with him and pass her as white. He backs Jefferson; he argues for war with England. He fights the Shawnee and kills Tecumseh, but he champions education for Indians.

We also follow the life of Julia. She watches her mother die, and it gives her a desire to be a healer, fostering a closeness with Dr Theobald. Miz Jemima dotes on her, and the sisters are jealous. She fends off advances from Richard’s brothers and their friends. Richard elopes with her, then has the audacity to try to seat her with the family at church. He tries to make his plantation at Blue Spring a haven for their love, but their marriage causes a huge ripple in the Johnson family and threatens his political career. Miz Jemima won’t speak to her. But Julia bears up with fortitude. She waits, without him, to manage a resentful staff at Blue Spring while he’s in Washington, suffering pregnancies, miscarriages and the birth of two daughters.

Their daughters are raised as free, are educated, and marry white men; however, the law disinherits them on grounds of their ‘illegitimacy’.

I wish I could give this book at least 6 stars. This is fictionalised biography worthy of Hilary Mantel. The writing is absolutely superb, and the style is in keeping with early 19th century, which is important to me. I can’t help but love a writer who uses the word ‘passel’. It’s tightly edited, and there are no wasted words; every one is a jewel. The characterisation is gorgeous. The little details of everyday life—the newness and fragility of the American political system, the feuds and duels between the Founding Fathers, the precariousness of life during warfare, the tremendous ordeal of childbirth—fully transport you into the period.

It was additionally fun for me reading this book as one of Richard’s sisters-in-law, Verlinda Clagett Offutt, was my 3rd cousin 4x removed.

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Susie Helme is an American ex-pat living in London, after sojourns in Tokyo, Paris and Geneva, with a passion for ancient history and politics, and magic, mythology and religion. After a career in mobile communications journalism, she has retired to write historical novels and proofread/edit novels.

INAUGURATION March 4, 1837. Washington, DC A pity the sun chose today to shine for the first time in months. A shame he couldn’t use the freezing rain as an excuse to cut short his time in the Senate. He did not want to leave the warmth of his bed for an upstart ray of sunlight. He needed the stillness of his grief more than the trouble of his inauguration. Let a man bereaved of wife and daughter remain in the shadows where all good vice-presidents belong. Thirty years ago, he thought he was everything, and Washington behaved as hopelessly naïve, as maddening in its optimism as he had. And by 1814 that second war with the King had left his body and this town in ruins. In the quarter century since the war, he’d used his battle scars to good effect. But the town had taken a turn toward faithless ignorance and aimed its terrifying, deliberate cruelty towards too many, including himself. It happened without anyone in particular getting the blame, and it happened in that slippery, small-town fashion: a look cast with the lighting of a cigar, a word murmured after a sip of floral tea. At night, unable to sleep, he fancied the wind full of the cries of good boys like he’d once been, as they threw over their good intentions in order to survive just one more election. And when he walked each morning to the Senate and turned his head toward the sky, he could almost see the impossible promises and muttered threats lift into the air to join the mists rising off the Potomac. In a few hours, he would swear an oath of office. And what would that be? To uphold the past two terms of promises and threats from his old friend Jackson. Marty got picked for the top instead of him, and it was a sore that would never heal, but they both accepted the fact that their mentor’s hands would still hold the reins. He thought of the wreckage left in Jackson’s wake and his stomach clenched with the sure knowledge every whipping boy learns the hard way: he would pay the price, not Marty. The new president had little in common with the old. Marty played the indoor games, while he and Jackson earned fame the hard way as Indian killers. The president’s expulsion of the Civilized Tribes stank of cruelty, and Marty planned on finishing the order. But who would get the blame? He would, because he’d killed too many Indians twenty and some odd years ago while Marty’d stayed indoors. Because of that damned reputation, his penance‒the Indian Academy back home ‒might very well be put to the torch. He and Jackson shared another fame that he thought had made the president more his brother than Marty’s. They had shared the exquisite torment of ridicule from the press and the public because of their wives. And his ambition for the White House–knowing Julia and their daughters would never be allowed to cross its threshold–made him pander to such childish policies as letting Peg O’Neale tear up Jackson’s Cabinet. A sudden screech of wind through the chimney agreed with his thoughts. Bitter cold, despite the sun, would punish old Jackson and Marty both, as they made their victory ride down Pennsylvania Avenue. It would punish him as well, making his battle scars constrict and his hands rigid as old leather. At least his swearing-in would be in the Senate chamber by a nicely stoked fire. That would serve as a bit of consolation for playing second fiddle. The thought encouraged him enough to throw off the covers, careful not to ruffle Lydia in her sleep. He sat on the edge of the mattress for a minute, waiting for some sign of feeling in his toes and stared at the painting over the fireplace mantel. It depicted an old castle fortress, clinging to a sea cliff. How Julia had feared it, as if one day she’d pass by and find the castle fallen into the waves below. Her superstitious notion that it portrayed their lives had led him to give way to his own superstition after her death. Each morning he stared at it reverently and prayed the briefest moment. Don’t be too disappointed. I almost made it. You would have made it had you left my girl where she belonged. Not Julia’s sweet consolation; not Adi’s teasing assurance. He heard his mother. With a sigh, he crawled back under the covers, but closing his eyes did not close off the memories or the regrets. It was no use; he sat upright again and stared once more at the painting. As he watched, the sunbeam that had roused him expanded and lapped gently at the castle ruins. Suddenly, millions of dust bits entrapped within the beam turned brilliant, taking on a life of their own. He felt a familiar warmth embrace him, a pressure on the bed by his thigh. It’s our first morning, isn’t it? He asked. The pressure moved up his scarred arm. They had shared breakfast for the first time as man and wife in a humble widow’s kitchen where the sun lit up Julia’s face and made her sparkle like a jewel. Richard stared in wonder at the shimmering air until his chin trembled and he could bear the memories no longer. Then he put his head in his hands and wept.

About the author

History teacher and hopeless romantic, I met my husband in my rare book shop. Passionate reader of all genres but with the inevitable soft spot for historical fiction. Turned to writing as a form of literary archaeology, a way of making friends with fascinating rakes, saints and the misunderstood. view profile

Published on June 04, 2021

110000 words

Contains mild explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Historical Fiction

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