In the Birmingham England of 1884 when a lecherous man starts eyeing one's four-year-old daughter, what’s a single mom to do but leave town? Jewel Libby’s parson refers her to his friend’s house in Gresham.
There, in the midst of the Hollis-Phelps clan, Jewel soon finds herself embroiled in conflict of another kind. In Lawana Blackwell’s The Jewel of Gresham Green we follow Jewel and members of the Hollis-Phelps family as they work through health and in-law challenges, advocate for a wealthy neighbor in the presence of a heartless and conniving heir, conquer self-defeating attitudes and, of course, find romance.
The plot follows the stories of many characters – stories that started in other books, I soon discovered (this is book four of the Gresham Chronicles). But though the plot has many threads, Blackwell manages to weave them together into a tale that is always captivating and contains just enough trouble to keep the reader off balance and wanting more.
Blackwell’s characterizations shine. She explores an array of characters in this book. Her portrayal – especially through life-like dialogue – of complex people that range from pretentious Londoners, to peasant farmers, to clergymen, to children is evidence of her range.
Blackwell’s storytelling style is brisk and efficient. She doesn’t over-explain and, given the large cast, at first I felt as lost as a new in-law at a family gathering – though by about a quarter way through I had my bearings. She does occasionally season her mostly plain-speech narrative with bits of fancy.
Note this passage where Julia muses on her daughter’s youth: “Grace had much still to learn, simply because twenty years was not long enough for the whole curriculum of human nature…” And here’s Aleda’s writerly metaphor: “Even so, the story stretched out before her like a road dipping over the horizon. Her pen was the tortoise on that road.”
Parenting is a theme that keeps coming up in The Jewel of Gresham Green. Blackwell addresses it in Jewel’s mothering of four-year-old Becky and again in Julia and Andrew’s parenting of their adult children. Faith is another theme that pervades the book. Julia, Andrew and Jewel flesh out their beliefs by praying, attending church and finding comfort and inspiration in the Bible. But this is by no means a sermon dressed up as fiction. Rather it’s an entertaining tale of textured life-like characters with whom we experience the ups and downs of family and community life as seen through a lens of faith.
If you’re looking to spend a few enjoyable hours with Maeve Binchy-like characters in a historical English setting as fascinating as Jan Karon’s Mitford, The Jewel of Gresham Green is your book.