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Review: The Mirk and Midnight Hour

Review: The Mirk and Midnight Hour

Title: The Mirk and Midnight Hour
Author: Jane Nickerson
Published: 2014
Length: 371 pages

My star rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★

With her father away serving in the Confederate Army and a new stepmother, stepsister, and young cousin to care for, and the still-raging war making even the most basic supplies difficult to come by, Violet Dancey has her hands full already in the summer of 1865. Then, while exploring in the woods, she and her adventurous cousin Seeley stumble across a badly-wounded Union soldier called Thomas. Violet, still grieving her twin brother Rush, thinks she knows the ins and outs of the war. Her acquaintance with Thomas, however, makes her reconsider more than just her view of Northerners even as her situation at home grows dire.

The Mirk and Midnight Hour is in part a Southern Gothic retelling of the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin”, in which the headstrong Janet goes to pluck roses at Carterhaugh against her father’s wishes and ends up with a fairy lover.

Most of the time, though, it’s its own story with its own characters, and it’s wonderful.

My review of Jane Nickerson’s debut novel, Strands of Bronze and Gold, was one of my very first on this blog. I gave it a single star and a long, scathing dressing-down and called it “dreadful”.

Supposedly this takes place in “the same world” as the previous novel, though (mercifully) the only reference to it that I found to it was one place-name.

Maybe it’s because I went into The Mirk and Midnight Hour with such low expectations (I almost didn’t read it), but Nickerson truly impressed me at almost every turn. Beautiful prose, strong characters who really developed, and a solid plot with decent pacing–it was a joy to read. Plus, this time she did the Southern Gothic thing and the historical fiction thing right.

The heroine, Violet, has a good head on her shoulders, but she is empathetic and spirited as well. Cliche as it sounds, she really does “grow and change” throughout. I  also believed that she really inhabited the 1860s, unlike Nickerson’s last dunderhead of a heroine, so that came as a pleasant surprise. The major secondary female characters–Violet’s best friend Laney, her stepsister Sunny, and her stepmother, all have flesh on their bones, too. I’d liked to have seen more of Laney, whose childhood closeness to Violet is complicated by her technical position as the slave of Scuppernong Farm. Sunny starts off as a total cliche, but she improves way beyond what I was expecting–again, a very pleasant surprise. Even the shy, dreamy stepmother with the laudanum addiction gets a chance to shine here and there. There’s also a Crazy Cat Lady character, because why not? Flannery O’Connor would be proud.

As for the male characters, Violet’s father is sort of awful, but his presence is brief. Her cousins are main characters–the elder, Dorian, is shady from the beginning and the younger, Seeley, is quite endearing without his scenes coming off as sickly-sweet. The Union soldier Thomas has his charms, though like Laney, I often wanted to see more of him. Yet hardly any of them feel truly flat or two-dimensional, even those with limited screentime, and those that do are mostly secondary or even third-tier characters.

While the Tam Lin story proper made up less than a third of this book, it managed to develop a slow-burning plot all its own through which the fantastic was woven in bits and pieces. It isn’t action-packed–more coming-of-age-and-running-the-household-in-a-time-of-crisis type stuff, which is perfectly respectable in YA–but I still found it interesting. Though her novel is far less epic in scope, Nickerson obviously borrowed a few subplots from Gone With the Wind (Sunny is a bit of a Scarlett O’Hara herself, right down to blaming her Irish heritage for her temper). As for the actual fantasy, I thought that worked, too. Sometimes the Tam Lin parts felt a bit rushed–including the romance, unfortunately, though at least it wasn’t insta-love!–but overall I liked the way she incorporated it into her world. Not all the elements from the ballad are kept, and some are altered to work in their new context. I thought the way she reworked it to fit her story and her characters rather than copying and pasting the ballad word-for-word and forcing her characters to fit that framework was much more effective than the last Tam Lin retelling I read. For those familiar with “Tam Lin,” you’ll also find small details from the ballad scattered throughout.

And this time, Nickerson had the “Southern Gothic” vibe down pat, too.

Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction that includes themes of “deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

Eccentric characters? Check. (See: the aforementioned Crazy Cat Lady, Violet’s stepmother, Sunny herself, Dr. VanZeldt…)

Hoodoo? Oh yeah. The whole Tam Lin plot revolves around what Violet, and later Laney too, at least think is hoodoo (which is a real thing).

Decayed settings, the grotesque, sinister events, derelict settings, poverty, crime, violence–it’s all in there in one way or another. The book includes all sorts of commentary on race, gender, and class as they exist in the South as well. It’s not totally dark and creepy, of course, but the tone is appropriately unsettling much of the time as well. Everything that she tried to force–without success–in her last book worked beautifully here.

And on that note: I’m sure some readers might take issue with the portrayal of the VanZeldts–the characters that stand in for the fairy court and fairy queen from the original ballad–and their enigmatic African religion, whose rituals and beliefs seem strange and sinister to the other characters. However this, too, is an element of Southern Gothic–not just the idea of hoodoo, but also the perceptions of it, especially by white characters, and what those say about the characters who hold them. And despite how much Violet fears their practices, they are never portrayed as evil. They are simply different in a society that shunned differences and feared anything foreign. Moreover, they are described in much the same ways that fairy folk often are in European folktales–beautiful, mysterious, dangerous, and powerful–and that’s appropriate considering their role in the story.

Moving on. This book worked quite well as historical fiction, too. Not only did all the characters speak and behave as though they were living in the 1860s save for the occasional anachronistic dialogue, the book never verged into history textbook territory. Nickerson never info-dumped about the Civil War via Violet. If this book encourages less-informed readers to learn more about the Civil War, great; but she mentioned battles and generals without ever feeling the need to elaborate or explain and thus deviate from the story. It was great.

So was this:

I had donned a pair of Rush’s old trousers to enable me to move quickly, unencumbered by billowing skirts. It had taken ma moment to put them on; it took courage to wear men’s clothing. I found them less comfortable–hotter and more binding–than ladies’ things. Still, they made for swifter travel. (352)

Hallelujah, friends! A historical heroine who wears pants just once out of necessity, but still prefers skirts! I love you, Violet Dancey.

And I did mention he beautiful writing, right?

Our paddles sloshed and splashed through the sleek river–shiny and shimmery like green-black watered silk. […] The air smelled of moss and wet earth, pine straw and honeysuckle. Varying hues in the wall of leaves beside us blended into one thick summer green. The woods were busy and vibrant, everything always moving. Trunks swayed ever so slightly, leaves quivered almost imperceptibly, insects darted, squirrels and birds left branches quaking in their wake. (143)

I’ve never been to Mississippi, but Jane Nickerson makes me feel as though I have.

The pearly air turned the landscape into a faded dream with no boundaries between field, river, and wood. I must be extra watchful, extra wary in such a world. […] Heat dragged at my boots and at my bones, and my clothing hung heavy. […] The house at Shadowlawn slept, floating on its cloud of mist like Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted castle. (352)

The prose is never too flowery or overwrought, either–just so lovely.

So to sum up: I thought The Mirk and the Midnight Hour was a vast improvement for Jane Nickerson. It succeeded on every level and boasted elegant and readable writing, sympathetic characters, and intriguing storyline. My only complaint is that I wanted more–more character development, more interaction between the romantic leads, more fantasy, more backstory, and more of that gorgeous prose!

I can hardly believe this was written by the same author as Strands of Bronze and Gold. Keep up the good work, lady–and let’s all agree to pretend that first embarrassment was never published.

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