CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 32. . . .April 19, 2013
Strands of Bronze and Gold is a lush, gothic retelling of the Bluebeard story. It’s a disturbing fairy tale, and Nickerson gives her novel all the creepiness of the original, if not more. She chooses to set the tale in the American South, before the Civil War. Her Bluebeard character is M. Bernard de Cressac, a wealthy Frenchman who transported an ancient abbey stone-by-stone from Europe to Mississippi, and so the story takes place in a huge castle-like house with rambling rooms and mysterious ruins in the garden.
Sophie is the heroine; M. de Cressac’s is her godfather, and when Sophie’s parents die in an accident, he invites her to come stay with him. He does not make it clear that his wife has died and that Sophie will be alone in the house with him and the servants, who are almost all slaves. At first, Sophie is delighted because her family was not well-off, and she now gets to live a life of luxury with this intriguing, mysterious benefactor.
But M. de Cressac has strange moods and becomes violent when he is crossed. When Sophie accidentally meets Gideon, the local preacher, she knows she must keep him a secret from her godfather. And when two slaves from the house escape, she particularly must keep secret Gideon’s involvement in the Underground Railway.
Sophie gradually realizes that de Cressac’s intention is to woo her and make her his fifth wife. The house is haunted by the ghosts of his former wives who try to warn Sophie. When Sophie’s sister and brothers come to visit, Sophie tells them that Bernard has asked her to marry him, thinking they will be appalled at the inappropriateness of the match and will take her home with them, but it turns out her family is in dire financial straits and they need her to save them by agreeing to the match. This is a nice turnaround of the fairy tale’s rescue of the heroine by her brothers.
At first, Sophie tries to reconcile herself to marrying de Cressac for her family’s sake, but then she finds out that he has raped one of the slaves. Knowing she must escape him, she looks for money, and, in her search she discovers the bodies of the former wives. In a suspenseful scene in the ruined garden, she gets away from de Cressac, and he gets trapped in one of his own bear traps.
The setting is delightfully rendered: the house both beautiful and spooky, the garden lush and dangerous. Sophie’s journey from innocent fascination to horror is convincingly inexorable. De Cressac begins as a kind, worldly, mysterious father-figure and slowly reveals himself to be a controlling, creepy pedophile and murderer.
I have two quibbles with the plot. The subplot about slavery and the Underground Railway added a nice depth to the story that could have been explored more. And Sophie’s discovery of teeth in a jar does not seem adequate evidence for her to suddenly conclude that Bernard murdered his former wives. The bodies in the old church are suitably shocking, but the way she discovers them is a little anti-climactic, especially given that the fairy tale revolves around this discovery.
I do not recommend this book for younger readers. Although the violence and sex are either PG or off-screen, the topics are mature. (Bernard’s attempts to seduce Sophie are all along the lines of the hand-holding in the quotation above, but the paedophilic nature of the interactions, because of his age and power over her, and Sophie’s understandably confused reactions to him are disturbing.) For older readers who enjoy gothic creepiness, Strands of Bronze and Gold will more than satisfy.
Kim Aippersbach is a freelance editor and writer with three children in Vancouver, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.