This is my first Charlotte Gray novel, although I first really came across her name in conjunction with Gold Diggers, which was recently adapted as the TV miniseries Klondike. She writes in a style that I think could easily be classified as narrative non-fiction, meaning that while the book is undoubtedly an account of a historical event, it reads like a novel. I just wrote in another post that I like my non-fiction to follow a fairly strict format, but in this case, following the story chronologically is enough.
In 1915, Carrie Davies shot and killed Bert Massey on the front steps of his Toronto home. A somewhat outcast member of the illustrious Massey family, Bert’s murder made headlines nonetheless, and Carrie was thrust into the spotlight. As a domestic servant who had immigrated to Canada from England seeking a better life, many wondered what could have made this young 18-year-old girl pick up a loaded gun and shoot her employer. Though Davies immediately confessed to the crime, her trial was just beginning, and new facts quickly emerged about the treatment she received at the Massey home and the idea that she shooting was done in self-defense.
Layered on top of this drama is the backdrop of The Great War, which by 1915 had proven to be a conflict with no easy outcome. Canadians were being sent to the front in huge numbers, and papers ran daily headlines covering the war in Europe and at home. As Gray points out, this wartime sentiment had a huge impact on how Davies’ trial played out.
I think the commentary on the impact of the war on a single murder trial is what made the book most interesting to me, but my inner historian worries that coming to conclusions about individual or group sentiment can be extremely difficult from a distance. Of course, certain assumptions can be made based on written evidence, but I like solid proof, so unless someone explicitly wrote “this made me feel…” or “I think…”, I have problems accepting the conclusion.
This is by no means meant to diminish Gray’s work. The entire book is laid out with a view to include all points of view, however backwards they may seem. She spends a great deal of time making the reader feel as though they really understand what living in Toronto was like at this time. Had this not been done properly, I think the drama of the trial would have seemed quaint and misplaced to a modern audience, but instead we end up feeling like everything that happened was a natural progression.
To help us understand why the trial ended the way it did, Gray also gives up some commentary on how that outcome would have been different even a few years later. This all ties back into the wartime landscape and the mood of the general public (and therefore the jury), but I thought that it was especially important that points were made as to the state of the legal system at the time and later in the century. For those of us not entirely familiar with how trials happen, what precedent is being relied upon, and how that might have changed in the past hundred or so years, this was a nice conclusion that really laid it all out for us.
The thing I’ve heard the most from other readers about this book is how much they liked hearing about the day-to-day lives of Canadians living in a rapidly changing urban setting. I think when we think of Canadian history, we are so often consumed by the railroad or farm life that we forget some of the incredible periods of urban growth and modernization. There is a great juxtaposition between the new advances in technologies that are beginning to take hold and the Victorian ideals that many people held onto so tightly. I’ve never really read about this period in Canada (I’m always preferential to what was happening in Britain) so this was a great read for me.
Overall, highly recommended. Fiction readers will find this accessible, while non-fiction readers will be impressed with the amount of detailed research that went into the work. This is also an Evergreen nominee for 2014, and voting will take place in Ontario libraries during Ontario Public Library Week in October.