Title: Grace Hammer: A Novel of the Victorian Underworld
Author: Sara Stockbridge
No. of Pages: 277
First Released: September 2009
Synopsis (Courtesy of B&N): Whitechapel, 1888. Grace Hammer and her children live comfortably in Bell Lane, their home a little oasis in the squalor of London’s East End. They make their living picking the pockets of wealthy strangers foolish enough to venture there. But Grace’s history is about to catch up with her. Out in the countryside Mr. Blunt rocks in his chair, vowing furious retribution. He has never forgotten his scarlet treasure, or the coquettish young woman who stole it from him.
Fast-paced, racy, and reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Hammer depicts nineteenth-century London amid corruption and a plague of poverty, peopled by orphans, harlots, and petty thieves. Sara Stockbridge introduces an unlikely heroine in Grace Hammer, a captivating young matriarch in a complicated web of intrigue, deceit, loyalties, and betrayal.
Comments and Critique: Have you ever been completely ambivalent about a book, to the point where you are not certain what you want to write? That is rather how I feel about Grace Hammer. I did not hate it, but I did not absolutely love it either. There were definitely some charming points about the story, and I am glad that I read the novel, but I am struggling to find the words to describe this book and my feelings about it.
When Ms. Stockbridge uses the caption “A Story of the Victorian Underground”, she definitely means it. This book describes humanity at its lowest. The main character is a successful pickpocket living amongst thieves, murderers, prostitutes, and drunkards. No one has much money, and most of the characters spend their time earning enough to go get blitzed at the many pubs available to them on the East End. It is a bleak outlook on life, one that I know existed, but one that is not typically brought under the spotlight with such clarity.
Grace Hammer is a likeable character, if a reader can get over the fact that she is a pickpocket by trade and has taught her kids the same skills. She is an excellent mother and dotes on all of her children, and the children support and love their mother. This, to me, is the most touching part of the story. Their love is beautiful to behold, especially when compared to their surroundings, their neighbors, and friends. Ms. Stockbridge accentuates this point a bit too forcefully though, in my opinion, by continually pointing out how clean and spotless they are. However, it is this family dynamic that drives the storyline, for when Grace is in danger, the reader automatically sympathizes with her plight because of what it means for her family, and so I understand why Ms. Stockbridge makes such a point of this difference, even if I do believe it was a bit awkward and clichéd at times.
I enjoyed how Ms. Stockbridge weaves a bit of true history in the backdrop of the story. As the main villain is stalking Grace throughout Whitechapel, the undercurrent of tension caused by the recent murders of prostitutes makes the villain even more ominous. It’s a brilliant ploy because it is so subtle.
Unfortunately, none of the characters are fleshed out as fully as I would have liked. The evil are truly evil, dark, and miserable. The good are clean and spotless. The guilty are slimy and miserable. These caricatures make it difficult to truly care about what happens to any of the characters. Ms. Stockbridge took a bit more care with her heroine, as we do learn more about Grace, her opinions, her thought processes, as well as her actions, but I feel that she could have done even more character development.
By all accounts, I felt that this should be a book that would be difficult to put down because the reader is truly anxious about Grace’s fate. Unfortunately, I found it quite easy to put down and pick back up several days later. Towards the end, I found myself more engaged, but it is not a long book, and it became a page-turner during the last twenty-five pages. I did not care about the characters as much as I wanted to or felt I should. In the end, I feel that this book has great potential but it fell short of that potential and subsequently left me feeling flat. I’m left with a feeling of sadness as to what could have been rather than what was.
I did learn more about how hard life was in London during the 1800s, and for that reason, I would recommend this to others interested in learning more about life in the London underground. I suspect that others will enjoy this much more I did because I had amazingly high expectations for this book that just did not come to fruition. If you like a good old-fashioned thriller, then this book is definitely for you. Thank you to Library Things Early Reader program for the opportunity to review this book!