In his third novel, aptly titled "A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag," Josh Russell recasts a 17th-century captivity narrative as a modern-day campus novel, in which our intrepid heroine discovers that her life is taking similar—and game-changing—turns.
During her first semester as a grad student at Cornell University, Hannah Guttentag finds plenty to admire about the early American women whose memoirs of Indian captivity she studies: "They were tough Puritans. The Indians killed their kids, their sisters, their mothers-in-law ... husbands and uncles," and yet they soldiered on and survived to tell the tales.
The memoirs typically began with a raid on a white settlement, continued over a series of "removes" as the women were marched from camp to camp, and often ended with the victim being traded back to her family—or what was left of it—for a handsome price.
Hannah appreciates "the simple force of their stories: This horror happened, then this horror, then this horror, then the Indians sold me to the French, who tried to make me convert to Papism, and then the French ransomed me back to the English, and now I'm telling you about it, Dear Christian Reader."
Not surprisingly, these bloody histories became the bestsellers of their day. Though written by women, they were often edited and published by men who revised them into "propaganda beneficial to their own commercial, racial, religious and gender agendas." Imagine that.
"A True History" takes its cue from Russell's earlier work, two well-received historical novels both set in New Orleans, one in the mid-1800s ("Yellow Jack"), the other in 1945 ("My Bright Midnight"). Their more formal tones give way to Hannah's breezy, contemporary voice, one that opens the book with a defiant, middle-finger to all the naysayers in her hometown of Nashville who say she can't cut it at an Ivy League school.
Independent, mouthy, and unabashedly sexy, Hannah's a tough cookie too, more than capable of roughing it in the wilds of Ithaca. And sure enough, during her first semester, she wards off plenty of savages, though they're the civilized kind who snub her at parties, laugh at her decision to marry, and belittle her academic standing.
Until she meets up with Frank Doyle, that is. Hannah finds a kindred soul in Frank, lately of scruffy Cleveland State, and before you can say, Hey, this isn't 1691! they're married, she's pregnant, and the next stage of her captivity ensues: A research fellowship for Frank means moving to even wilder Nebraska—and the end of Hannah's graduate studies.
Dear Christian Reader, where are the French when you need them?
Thankfully, Hannah never abandons her dream, the thesis she'll eventually write inspired by the tale of one Sarah Weed, a captivity narrative distinguished by the presence of Sarah's exasperating husband, Samuel, kidnapped in the raid with her. A man who tried to disguise himself in women's clothing, Samuel later behaved in such cowardly fashion that he endangered their safety, and Sarah was glad when his fraud was discovered and he was "knock'd on the head" (read, tomahawked) by their captors.
Could it be a sign of things to come? Frank, who from the start has displayed Puritanical traits—he oversees the cooking, he scolds Hannah for not rinsing her breakfast dishes, he oversees their laundry, he knits!—even dons a dress one day for a graduate student party, reminding Hannah of Sarah's husband "as a bonnet'd Goodwife."
As time goes on, Frank also turns out to have a penchant for identity theft on a much grander scale than Samuel Weed's—but just as potentially fatal to his wife's future.
Academia is the source of some of Russell's slyest, funniest observations, especially about a certain breed of grad student: "Frank's Spring semester schedule was Advanced Fiber Arts, an independent study on silence with a professor named Kierkegaard, and three thesis hours," Hannah notes. "I shook the printout at him. 'Is this for real?'"
But even though "A True History" reads as a gentle spoof of college life, Hannah's day-to-day domestic life is the real heart of the story, whether she's wishing she hadn't worn the "cheery sundress and matching yellow hairband" to her first grad student mixer (where the other woman are all in black) or laughing at her obstetrician's bad jokes: " 'Let me get some blood and urine.' Dr. Archie grinned. 'Blood and Urine .... I have their first EP on purple vinyl.'"
Even if her "afflictions" don't come close to "the firing of the barns and the tomahawking of the old men" observed by her dusty historical forerunner, the Hannah of Russell's affectionate portrait rings true: the highs and lows of her brand-new marriage, her disillusionment with Cornell, the pretzels she twists herself into trying to explain Frank's lapses, the astonished love she feels for both husband and infant daughter.
In the old narratives, deliverance was literal: Captives were sold back into civilization to celebrate weepy reunions with husbands and grown children. Modern Hannah has no one to ransom her out of captivity, but she emerges from the dark woods a stronger, smarter version of herself, knowing better what she'll need to survive among her own, sometimes savage tribe.
Russell, who was born in Illinois but now lives in Decatur, is an associate professor at Georgia State University, where he teaches creative writing and serves as co-director of the Creative Writing Program.
"A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag"
Dzanc Books, $15.95, 170 pages