Review: Kimberly Brock’s ‘The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare’ is rich storytelling

Kimberly Brock's debut novel, "The River Witch," earned her the Georgia Author of the Year award in 2013.

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Kimberly Brock's debut novel, "The River Witch," earned her the Georgia Author of the Year award in 2013.

You do not need a deep grounding in colonial misadventure to appreciate Kimberly Brock’s graceful work of speculative, historical fiction, “The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare,” but it helps to know the few, established facts.

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"The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare" by Kimberly Brock

Credit: Courtesy of HarperCollins

"The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare" by Kimberly Brock

Credit: Courtesy of HarperCollins

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"The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare" by Kimberly Brock

Credit: Courtesy of HarperCollins

Credit: Courtesy of HarperCollins

In 1587, 117 English men, women, and children landed on Roanoke Island to establish a settlement in the so-called “New World.” One voyager, Eleanor Dare, gave birth upon arrival — America’s first white baby. Leaders of the group returned to England to stock up on supplies, but when they got back to the shores of what is now North Carolina, the settlement had vanished. “The Lost Colony of Roanoke” became one of history’s most enduring mysteries.

To complicate matters further, a stone tablet with strange glyphs turned up in 1937. Is it a tombstone or some other message to the English? Known as the “Dare Stone,” it has been neither authenticated nor debunked and continues to inspire breathless conspiracy theories among historians.

The most poetic of these interpreters is Atlanta’s Kimberly Brock, whose debut novel, “The River Witch,” won her the Georgia Author of the Year Award in 2013 and established her as a soothsayer of women’s wisdom. She takes the Roanoke story’s loose ends and plaits them into an elegant, intricate braid, to muse on what might have happened if Eleanor Dare had survived and produced a long line of proud and plucky female descendants. Gentle in tone, it is matrilineal feminism at its most dreamy.

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Kimberly Brock's debut novel, "The River Witch," earned her the Georgia Author of the Year award in 2013.

Credit: Claire Brock Photography

Kimberly Brock's debut novel, "The River Witch," earned her the Georgia Author of the Year award in 2013.

Credit: Claire Brock Photography

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Kimberly Brock's debut novel, "The River Witch," earned her the Georgia Author of the Year award in 2013.

Credit: Claire Brock Photography

Credit: Claire Brock Photography

Two of Dare’s supposed heirs are widow Alice Young and her 13-year-old daughter, Penn. During World War II, they visit the family estate, Evertell, in a small town on the Georgia coast with the goal of selling it to finance the girl’s education. The house itself is practically a character, revealing how crumbling, old tabby mansions exert a power of their own. During her awkward homecoming, Alice puzzles over her family’s past with its transfiguring secrets, one of which involves the centrifugal Dare Stone.

This ambitious, indelibly Southern novel is told from three points of view — Eleanor, Alice, and Penn — in two timeframes. The storytelling is rich, lyrical, and garlanded with Spanish moss, with jewel-like passages that beg to be re-read. Brock, however, is just elliptical enough, and deft with her pacing, to keep the pages turning:

“She loved the great oaks that spread their arms to shade the wide lawn and the shady pond and the snapping peafowl with their long arrogant necks, their glorious feathers drifting over everything, turning up in every corner, reminders of a whole universe of possibility,” she writes.

Yes, peacocks. Cue the Flannery O’Connor comparisons that Brock has earned. She is far more tender-hearted toward her characters, though. You never doubt that Alice and Penn will prevail somehow, despite old sorrows.

Children are famously challenging to write without making them too unbelievably precocious. Bold little Penn is the most enjoyable tomboy since Scout, in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She sees simple blessings, and bonds of connection, that the adults miss. And she ultimately figures out a euphonious way to heal her war-wounded community. Her rallying cry, handed down through the generations: “Look there, so fair, the Evertell heirs of Eleanor Dare!”

Amid all this swirling estrogen is an exquisitely rendered male character: Sonder, the disabled caretaker of Evertell. Subtle as a housecat, he conveys more with his dignified silences than any of the chattering magpies in town, and he lends a light touch of romantic tension to Alice’s life.

In its background, this novel also skillfully renders small-town life -- the gossip and claustrophobia on one hand, and the intimate warmth on the other. Should Alice and Penn put down roots and stay at Evertell? Maybe the answer lies in the confounding Dare Stone.

Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Garden and Gun, Georgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.


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