By Susan Kelly
Special to The Dagger
In the spring I plan to visit the grave of Martha Jane Cairnes at the Bethel Church near Jarrettsville. She and the man buried close to her, Nicholas McComas, are the main characters in the novel “Jarrettsville” by Cornelia Nixon. I am most intrigued by her tombstone which reads, “At Rest”.
Martha is described as a head-strong, generous woman who exhibited mixed emotions concerning love, sex, race, and religion. She is eventually destroyed by societal small-mindedness and the poisonous spirit that envelops her surroundings.
Harford County, the setting of this novel, serves as a microcosm of the divided country after the Civil War. Individuals and families are trying desperately to save vestiges of their prior lives while illness, financial hardships, and vengeance are running rampant throughout the county. Forgiveness is still far away in the minds of Yankees and Rebels alike.
Nick McComas and Martha Jane Cairnes fall in love. They are related, but that is not an issue during this time period and in this county. The problem is that Martha’s family has rebel sympathies and Nick’s father is a famous abolitionist. Nick, who is older and has war experience, understands too well the minds of individuals who had tried to destroy one another as recently as a year past. He says of the war, “I like to think it was all high motives but of course it never is.”
It is indeed low motives, racism, sexism, and rigid religious beliefs that lead to actions of gossip, beatings, burnings, and murders. The society that these two are loyal to—each in his own way—is what eventually destroys the marriage plans of the young lovers. They never fall out of love, but they do mistrust one another to the point that they can no longer be a couple. In the beginning of their relationship Nick had mused “…we could float high above….alone in peace and rest.” They never experience the peace because of the violence that invades their lives, and Martha ultimately kills Nick in cold blood for the betrayal of leaving her unmarried with his child.
Martha Jane Cairnes nursed the sick, buried the dead, mourned the death of many friends and family and worked day and night with little help, but it was the stigma of an illegitimate child that caused her to shoot Nicholas McComas to death. The murder trial was an epilogue, as she was already disgraced in the minds of citizens, family, and herself.
Recognizing landmarks and familiar names in this novel makes it an enjoyable read, but make no mistake, this story is tragic and it is to Nixon’s credit that she can take this unpleasantness and not make it maudlin. I thought she told a wonderful story based on true events and I only questioned her handling of the love scenes that seemed to veer to the brink of “Harlequin Romance” fare. But, she deftly navigated away and once again I was caught up in the lives and times of these characters. Even the minor characters had strong distinct voices and some scenes from the story are stored in my memory. I don’t think I will ever drive through Jarrettsville without some incident or detail from this novel coming to mind. Nixon has made the past of this county live for me and I am grateful to her for that.
We as a nation have moved far away from the hatred and extreme codes of societal conduct of the Civil War era. But many of us still live with fear of the future, financial disruption, and the fear of other religions or cultures, now globally, threatening “our way of life.” The threat we feel is palpable in our civil and uncivil discourse, much like the citizens of over a century ago. Martha Jane Cairnes of Harford County is “At Rest.” After many years, many wars and many social changes, are we?
Please join in the discussion of this novel. All comments are encouraged and welcome.
Points to ponder:
–Do we still have polarizing factions in Harford County today?
–Martha Cairnes had no “second act” in her life. Bu today we do—think Michael Vick. Is it because we are more tolerant or have we lowered our standards as to what is acceptable behavior?
–Does this novel read as well if you are not familiar with Harford County?
In approximately two weeks time, after this discussion, I will review Bill Bryson’s non-fiction book “At Home.”