By David Healey
In the summer of 1865, the nation is just beginning to heal from the bitter Civil War. The signs of the war are everywhere—in the man with one arm on the street corner, the empty chair at the table, the still-bitter ring of names like Shiloh and the Wilderness.
As if this wasn’t enough to bear, the narrator of Kim Taylor Blakemore’s lyrical new historical thriller AFTER ALICE FELL must also cope with the guilt—and mystery—of her younger sister’s death at an asylum in rural New Hampshire. As Marion Abbott delves deeper into 24-year-old Alice’s death, allegedly during a fall from the roof at Brawders House Asylum, she begins to ask questions about herself, her family, and whether her sister’s death was an accident, suicide, or murder.
The first set of questions result in anguish; the last questions prove very dangerous, indeed.
That’s the premise and setting for AFTER ALICE FELL, a deeply researched and richly written novel from Amazon imprint Lake Union Publishing, which has been generating a string of bestselling historical novels featuring iconoclastic female characters.
“It was just a time of flux right after the war with a sense of unease,” Blakemore says of the Civil War setting. “As a writer, you build in that feeling of unease.”
Clearly, the novel required a great deal of research into the time period, on everything from Civil War medicine to the dynamics of 19th century families.
The setting is the same textile mill town as Blakemore’s earlier novel, The Companion. The rural town is isolated and insular, a place where people are not expected to stray much from the norm. And yet, the residents extend a gruff kindness to one another.
“I just love these towns,” Blakemore says of rural New Hampshire, with the location in the novels being a blend of real places.
She toured with a local historian to get a sense of what once was, even exploring abandoned sites where towns faded away when they found themselves too far from railroads and the economic lifeline these provided.
Blakemore likes to visit locations as much as possible. She describes it as, “Going, walking, feeling, smelling. It’s really weird little things, like the sound of the cicadas in the trees; that’s why I like going to places.”
Of course, there was a lot of reading involved. Blakemore delved into the pages of small weekly newspapers from the era, picking up the news and rhythms of daily life. In researching, she didn’t read beyond the period in the novel, but focused on that moment in time. “You need to understand the characters and their context,” she says. “It was their time, not ours. It’s very interesting to see the world through their eyes.
“It’s super fun to read newspapers from back then.”
She came across quirky news such as the skeleton of an eight-foot man found buried under a tree, and a woman shot in the eye by a stray bullet as she stood in the kitchen. “Now, that’s a novel in itself,” she says.
Soon, bits and pieces of research, from newspaper articles to images and random words, began to fill the corkboards lining the walls of her office.