Bookmonger: Author Phillip Margolin gives historical fiction a try

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 27, 2014 

When it comes to race relations, the Pacific Northwest has had a checkered past and this column has featured a number of titles that have delved into the topic.

Now Portland author Phillip Margolin takes on racial injustice in his new book "Worthy Brown's Daughter." This work of historical fiction is a departure for Margolin, who has written a string of contemporary legal thrillers. While he still includes a couple of courtroom procedurals in this story, they take place in 19th century Oregon - where circuit riding judges might hold court under a tree in one town and in a warehouse loft in the next.

Matthew Penny is a young Portland lawyer who still grieves the loss of his wife, who died along the Oregon Trail.

In 1860, the state of Oregon is only one year old and the population is still accustomed to frontier-style justice. But Matthew is proving his mettle as he seeks to overcome the region's penchant for lynchings and corruption

When a black freeman named Worthy Brown asks Matthew for help, however, the young lawyer may be in over his head. Worthy had been brought to the state as a slave and has since been liberated, yet his former owner refuses to set Worthy's daughter free. The man claims that the girl is his ward and he is her legal guardian. Worthy wants to sue for her freedom.

As a widower, Matthew understands all too well the pain of separation that Worthy must be feeling and he is sympathetic to the man's plea. But he fears that the state's new, untested Constitution will not support Brown's case.

Margolin bases this story on a real case that took place in Oregon Territory in the 1850s. But he adds an assortment of motley characters to the mix: Judges and lawyers who walk a fine line between clever and corrupt, a wealthy businessman and his lovely daughter, bodyguards, thugs, jailers, pastors and a scheming femme fatale.

The action is brisk and the villains are shifty, as Margolin fans have come to expect.

The author has done some homework when it comes to recreating 19th century scenes, from the informal courtrooms to the makeshift jail to the streets of Portland and San Francisco.

Still, Margolin apparently has never met an adjective he didn't love and want to bring home. One of the most striking examples from this book is his description of Matthew as - "gaunt," "unwell," "always exhausted" and "morose" - all in one sentence!

Another example of careless use of language: When Matthew reflects on unhappy incidents, "these visions were joined by a loop that replayed the blow...." It's difficult to conceive of any kind of loop replaying anything in the 19th century - this thoroughly modern reference is simply ill fitted to the story.

Nonetheless, this energetic tale does cover interesting regional history for readers who might be averse to picking up a book of nonfiction, but who are willing to follow Margolin in his break from the regular routine.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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