Monday, August 17, 2009

Alias Grace: Margaret Atwood

In 1843 Grace Marks was arrested along with James McDermott for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housemaid Nancy Montgomery. Grace and James were employed by Kinnear and were accused of first murdering the maidservant and quartering her, and then shooting and killing the master of the house. The supposed motive for the murders was lust and jealousy, as the testimonies put everyone in everyone else's bed. Grace was just sixteen years old.

It was, of course, a great scandal at the time. A young girl, so innocent in appearances and history, being taken into the folds of an evil plot. There were also rumors that the maidservant had been impregnated with Kinnear's child before her death. It was a headlining news story in Canada, America, and Britain. The trial for Thomas Kinnear's murder was held first, and as McDermott and Marks were both found guilty and sentenced to death, the trial of Nancy Montgomery's death was never held as it was considered redundant. It was only the outcry by a group called The Committee For The Commutation of Grace Marks that she was not hanged until dead. She was instead sentenced to life imprisonment, which was very fortunate, as she was in fact later commuted and pardoned after serving just twenty-nine years of her life sentence.

Atwood has taken all of the transcripts and news articles, the psychological reviews and personal interviews into consideration. She has remained as accurate as possible in her fictional retelling of the story of Grace Marks. The problem there is that the stories are all so conflicting. Grace Marks tried to maintain that she was unconscious during the murders and had no recollection whatsoever of the twenty-four or so hours during which McDermott committed his crimes, but one of her many confessions states that she was an unwilling participant in parts of the murders. And McDermott himself gave multiple confessions, including one version in which he was a mere pawn in Grace Marks' plot, in which she wooed him with sexual invitations to convince him to do her bidding. Really, it's all very thickly layered on. I don't know how a jury ever managed to convict considering the complete lack of consistency. It just goes to show, when at a loss to prove your innocence, confuse 'em with as many stories as possible!

In my (para)professional opinion, after having read this novel as well as some other sources of fact, I believe that Grace Marks may well have been schizophrenic. During the times when she was unconscious, her witnessed behavior was different, and quite coarse in comparison to her usual prudish nature. Some psychologists chalked this up to her amazing ability to appear insane in an effort to save her life. Others argued it was a case of possession in needs of exorcism. Regardless of what is believed, I think that it's obvious Grace Marks was not in her right mind during the murders.

A note on the writing...Atwood is rather well known for her work in poetry. As such, I would expect her fiction writing to be concise and well-written. I found Alias Grace to be verbose and almost painfully long. Granted, when writing about a piece of history, a certain amount of expository is to be expected. I felt that it was perhaps overdone in this novel. For one thing, so much is said rather than shown making the text slightly dry to read. On the other hand, all of the information was provided, and I felt that I was able to make a reasonable conclusion of my own based on evidence presented. So perhaps the expository was necessary. I will have to read more of Atwood's fiction to make a fair judgement of her writing style.

Ultimately, I slogged through this novel in the interest of finding out The Truth, whatever it may be, and I think I discovered it by the last page. It was a very tedious read, but not without reward. Grace was only forty-six when she was released from the penitentiary and I can't help but wonder...then what happened?


  1. From the approach, I can see why this book might drive the reader batty.

  2. Smellincoffee is funny. Hi Chrissey! I have only read one Margaret Atwood book. Yes, A Handmaid's Tale. I did not know about this murder. Sounds ultra-creepy. I have to go back to school tomorrow. Weep. Actually, I'm ready to see the kids and get to know them. Go to my blog and comment. Tell of an eighth grade memory!