Title: The Widows of Braxton County
Author: Jess McConkey
Narrator: Coleen Marlo
Audiobook Length: 9 hours, 5 minutes
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Origins: Harper Audio
Release Date: 23 July 2013
Bottom Line: Spooky and suspenseful
“Family secrets can bind and destroy…
Kate is ready to put her nomadic, city-dwelling past behind her when she marries Joe Krause and moves with him to the Iowa farm that has been in his family for more than 140 years. But life on the farm isn’t quite as idyllic as she’d hoped. It’s filled with chores, judgmental neighbors, and her mother-in-law, who—unbeknownst to Kate until after the wedding—will be living with them.
As Kate struggles to find her place in the small farming community, she begins to realize that her husband and his family are not who she thought they were. According to town gossip, the Krause family harbors a long-kept secret about a mysterious death that haunts Kate as a dangerous, unexplainable chain of events begins.”
Thoughts: The Widows of Braxton County is yet another novel that uses the past versus present narrative switch. However, rather than groan at its overuse, in this instance the narrative shift makes sense as one of the few concrete ways to tie together the past with Kate’s present. In the context of the story, one has to know what happened 140 years ago in order to obtain the full impact of Kate’s situation. The parallels drawn between the two time periods are indeed creepy and provide much of the Gothic elements of the story, providing one of the few times where the use of the switch in narratives is one of the best ways to increase the suspense.
Kate Krause is somewhat of a conundrum. On the one hand, she has all of the hallmarks of an abused woman – low self-esteem, subservient to her husband and mother-in-law, introspective, withdrawn, concerned about appearances, and so forth. However, just when one thinks she cannot get any meeker, she exhibits an independent streak that ultimately causes tension in her marriage. Granted, it is in the moments where she breaks from her natural tendency to acquiesce where the story gains interest, but these little acts of rebellion seem out of character for her in the bigger context. Much of her self-reflection revolves around keeping the peace and making her marriage work. While one applauds her independent acts for proving that she is not the complaisant, mild-mannered people-pleaser she appears to be, the fact of the matter is that Ms. McConkey takes quite a bit of page space to create her as such. In that way, her acts of defiance, while welcome, are out of character for her and therefore disruptive to the narrative. One could explain these through character development, but her behavior does not feel like character development so much as convenient behavior changes to help drive the story and build greater connections between past and present.
The rest of the characters are flat and stereotypical. Distrustful of strangers and slow to accept outsiders into the fold, they keep their enemies close and their secrets closer. It is not difficult for readers to discern just how many secrets are percolating within the town, and most of the secrets are not a huge surprise when they are finally revealed. In that aspect, the story is predictable and therefore somewhat disappointing. However, Ms. McConkey minimizes this dissatisfaction with her crisp narrative and taut suspense. The shift in narrators and time periods also enhances the complexity and absorbs the negativity of the small-town, Midwestern archetypes.
Coleen Marlo is a decent narrator, but her performance is not all that memorable. She serves the purpose of telling a story and does so adequately. Her differentiation between characters is sufficient, and her emotional involvement in the story is reasonable. She neither adds nor detracts to the story. This is through no fault of hers though. The Widows of Braxton County is the type of novel in which the story shines on its own, and even a passable narrator will suffice. In this instance, Ms. Marlo does not have to put forth much effort to make the story enjoyable, and what effort she does expend serves to highlight the narrative as set forth by Ms. McConkey.
The Widows of Braxton County is a delightfully spooky, suspenseful mystery that emphasizes the recurring pattern of abuse which so often befalls a family. 140 years is a long time to suffer because of the sins of the father, and yet there is no doubt that is exactly what happens to the Krause family. The reasons for the family curse unfold slowly and carefully, as Ms. McConkey paces the unveiling of secrets to mirror real-life curiosity and gossip-mongering. The Gothic atmosphere keeps a reader guessing about the involvement of the supernatural and lends the entire story a more negative tone – one which fits perfectly with the historical farmstead and town. The result heightens a reader’s overall enjoyment and anticipation.