Blindspot is a love story and a murder mystery suspended between the picaresque journal entries of Stewart Jameson and the letters of Frances Easton, and couched in the exigent art of seeing, really seeing, things as they are. Or not. For our minds play tricks with how and what we see, and our perceptions are riddled with blind spots, some real, some metaphorical -- ignorance, say, or prejudice. Then there's love, a blind spot often big enough to drive a car through.
The setting is Boston in 1764. Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, historians teaching at Brandeis and Harvard, respectively, have given their collaborative novel an 18th-century cast, with its decided earthiness and a joy in clever wordplay that seeks after the spirit of the idiom ("crapulous claw-baw") but avoids being smothered by it. Shades of Sterne, Fielding, and Richardson, though the authors are clearly too mischievous for only that; Jameson can as easily sound like the Captain in Tintin -- "Judas Iscariot on a flaming red chariot!" he barks -- as exhibit Ben Franklin's inclination for puns or Yogi Berra's for malapropisms.
Jameson has fetched up in Boston -- and what a Boston, chromatic in its role as backdrop, even in its state of shabbiness after a number of hard years -- on the run from a very big, bad debt back home in Edinburgh. He's a decent fellow, as well as a bit of a rascal. He has knocked around some in his 30 years and has a hand for portraiture and a knack, as David Hume put it, for reading the internal fabric of his sitters. He also has a head full of steam for quips, digressions, and womanhood, which is why he is unnerved, once he has set up his humble atelier in Boston, to be passionately, ineluctably drawn to his apprentice, young Francis Weston, "more beautiful than I would wish him to be."
Weston is an urchin fresh from the streets when Jameson takes him on because he shows a gift for painting. At the interview, Weston pulls a few samples of work from a grubby bag: "Out came half a dozen likenesses, such as Hogarth himself might have made. Sweet Jesus," marvels Jameson. Outwardly, the penniless Jameson shows less awe; better to keep Weston without airs, and thus without wages.
Weston is also Easton, Frances "Fanny" Easton, outcast daughter of Edward Easton, a despicable man who will become chief justice of the colony's highest court. Her knocking around has been at the hands of men -- her lover, her father -- and with a little help from her streak of rashness, she has gone from elegant townhouse to vile sweatshop in a single bound. Escaping, her breasts bound and hair shorn (though she can't hide the long-lashed eyes or radiant blush), she answers Jameson's advertisement.
Meanwhile, Boston is beginning to roil over taxes imposed by a parliament 3,000 miles away and the arrival of the royal grenadiers. (The history here is smart, stylish stuff, unsurprising if you know anything of Kamensky and Lepore's books, or Lepore's essays in The New Yorker or Common-place, the sophisticated, online journal they started that fuses academic and popular interests in American history.) The authors are obviously not unaware that they are fiddling with dates, but the soldiers play an important, quietly ominous role fanning the town's sense of persecution. One of the pleasures of Blindspot is to watch as two meticulous historians take fiction's liberty.
Liberty -- it raises its proud head on every page: Jameson needs to be liberated from the (quite literally) bad debt and the prickings of his conscience concerning his apprentice; Easton, from her dissembling and the ghosts of her past; the working folk of Boston, from ruinous financial burdens.
And though many want to, there is no way of avoiding the elephant in liberty's living room: slavery. The "great paradox" is played like a stringed instrument by the authors, a mournful music for sure, sometimes aching its way to a dirge. Attitudes toward slavery cut across class and ideological lines in Boston. Both the good and the bad are held up to the light. Foul deeds are done as a result of the ignominy, and the novel's mystery hinges on it. A blind spot, then, for the book's more unsavory, entitled, blackmailing, and supercilious characters, and a petard with which to hoist them. The murder mystery is a knotty one, involving a Boston graybeard -- Samuel Bradstreet, a not-so-dim likeness of James Otis Jr., one of the real town's deepest-running revolutionaries -- and Ignatius Alexander, a friend of Jameson's and a runaway slave. As a child, Alexander had been bought off a slave ship by an English nobleman, who had wagered a bet that, given a proper English education, he could be "civilized...indistinguishable, except for his skin, from an English gentleman."
Alexander is the most complex, or at least the most inscrutable, character. His intellect has indeed become prodigious, and he is still a black man, with all the tribulations that entails once he's been wrested from Guinea. He is also imperious, demanding, cryptic, and insulting -- a strange friend -- as he endeavors to solve the murder and secure a slave's freedom. He orchestrates the story's tension: there may be an obscure method to his madness, but he is like a ticking time bomb, in one world but combustively not of it. A slave once again, he may have seen and endured too much.
Under the circumstances, the love angle inches along in fits and starts. It is not giving away anything unexpected to tell that Weston's guise drops, and she and Jameson get on with it, "it" being a good dose of merrily bawdy nookie, told with a color and carnality that would do another Fanny proud -- with plenty of sweet, tender caring to boot. And if, perchance, they fornicate too much for some, it sure beats reading about economic theory.
Kamensky and Lepore have great fun in these pages, as will readers. Yet the book is more than a takeoff on 18th-century novels. It is a window into the everyday lives of its characters, commoners and grandees working to find their measure of deliverance and satisfaction, though as long as the institution of slavery blots the moral landscape, it will diminish -- at the very least -- all those it touches: a blind spot to some, and a terrible sore spot to others. This is a learned, engaged entertainment; you leave it quickened in a number of ways. --Peter Lewis
Peter Lewis is an editor at the American Geographical Society. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, Outside, and Public Radio International, among others.
Read an Excerpt
Had Columbus my gut, the world would be a smaller place. And maybe the better for it. O brave new world: wild, rebellious, mysterious, and strange. And distant. God above, who knew it could be so
Now begins a gentleman’s exile, and, with it, my tale.
You may wonder, dear Reader, dear, unfathomable Reader, why I have undertaken this voyage, why a man of parts, of fine parts, I may say, and education, better than most, would hazard a crossing and that, in April, the most treacherous of months—showers sweet turn to tempests bitter—and, worse, on a galleon with no berth for a gentleman but a bunk not fit for a dog, not even my mastiff, Gulliver—and I, though six foot tall, his Lilliputian—who, despite my best efforts, splays himself, fleas
and all, atop my moth- ridden blanket, with me huddled under it, as if I were a city and he a great army, equipped with cauldrons of drool, besieging me. While you wonder why I wander, know this: run I must.
Aye, I would have stayed home if I could. If I could. Instead, each day the winds blow me farther from the dales and vales of Jamesons past, clan of clans, men among men, though, truth be told—and here, dear Reader, it will be told, and without ornament—our tartan is sold by the yard at Covent Garden to every shaver, ever striver, every waster with twopence in his pocket and a plan to marry a merry widow with ten thousand a year and an estate in Derbyshire, with horses, comely, and tenants, timely in their rents. Had I ever come across such a lady—let us call her the Widow Bountiful—I would have wooed her with sighs enough to heat a stone- cold bed- chamber in the dead of winter. Perhaps she waits for me, my Widow B., somewhere on the other side of this
wretched sea. Hark, she pants for me. Or, no, ’tis only Gulliver, giant cur.
As a man of both sense and sincerity, I admit, freely, and with that same unsparing candor which you must henceforth expect of me, that I leave behind little but debt. Twould be an even greater sorrow to leave Edinburgh, that nursery of enlightened genius, did not each degree of longitude stretch the distance betwixt me and my creditors, to whom I owe so much gold, and so little gratitude, the brothers McGreevy, with their Monday duns, Tuesday threats, and Wednesday bludgeons. Suffice to say: I sailed on a Thursday, a day too late, with the scars to show for
it. Departed, the Sea- Serpent, April 5, 1764.
Sterner men on stouter ships have crossed this vast and furious ocean, training their hopeful gaze upon the horizon; I, ever squeamish, scan only the depths and see naught but gloom. I would blind myself—and spare you the sight—but I find, as ever, that I cannot close my painter’s eye. Here the blue sloshes into green, and there, gray, and just here, as I lean over the gunwales, lo but the ocean becomes a rainbow of muck, a palette of putrefaction. The lurching, the To and the Fro, are my twin tormentors; and the sea, my sewer and my jailer.
Wheel of Fortune, pray, turn: let some young Bluebeard take the Sea-Serpent as his prize. Let his pirates throw me overboard. Let them haul me ’neath the keel and drown me. Sweet Jesus, just get me off this ship. Captain Pumble, a bulge- eyed, blotchy frog of a man, hops about the deck, uncloaked, even against the fearsome wind, as I, shivering, lean over the rails once again. He tells me that Boston will be temperate by the time we dock.
“Yar, ’twill be blooming in the city,” croaks he, clapping me on the back, as jolly as if we were sat in a tavern, instead of steering through a storm. “Ladies walking about without shawls. And a dandy, and a Scots gent, no less, will be most welcome by the lasses. Or is it the gents you
Between you and me, Reader: this Pumble has not entirely earned my affection.
“At the moment, Captain,” I manage to reply. “I favor deep pockets. Deep pockets, and solid ground.”
It is customary, at this point in a narrative of a gentleman’s adventures in the world, be he knave or rogue, to offer a pedigree. So be it.
The brown hound that whelped my Gulliver belonged to a butcher who cut meat for the Laird of Firth, a corpulent and stingy man—for I find that podginess and parsimony generally travel together—who claimed that his mastiffs were descended from the kennel of the Kubla Khan, brought West by Marco Polo, and on down, across the generations, to the court of Henry VIII and his bloody Mary, and thence to Scotland. In Firth, the Laird fed his dogs better than most gentlemen feed their valets. But the old miser—too cheap to pay for the meat—instead gave the butcher his best bitch, her belly swollen with pups who, once weaned, nearly ate the butcher out of his shop. Cheated and bested, he returned the litter to the Laird. Twas then came I to town, to paint a portrait of the Laird and his favorite dog, a beast as big as himself, with teeth a sailor might scrimshaw. The subject would have defeated even my friend Gainsborough. My portrait, a study in Venetian red, caught the Laird’s greed in his ruddy cheeks, his bleary eyes, his dog’s great maw. Alas, rarely does a man love his true self. Seeing his and his mascot’s likeness so well captured displeased this gentleman, who refused to pay the balance of my fee, instead tendering a black- and- white pup, the runt of the litter, though as tall at the withers as a lad of ten. And so was I saddled
with Gulliver, sired by gullibility, son of a butcher’s bitch.
A devil’s bargain, you might think, Reader: ’twas either the cur, or naught. Would you deny me the dog’s company? Surely my exile would be even lonelier had I forfeited my fee. And be forewarned: I have made worse bargains.
chap t e r 2
In Which Our Author Secures a
Situation in a City on a Hill
As Pumble navigated the Sea- Serpent through the harbor—I craving land more than poor, scurvy Magellan ever did, and Gulliver, galumphing about deck, in a frenzy of anticipation—we sailed past a
chain of small islands, perfect refuges for pirates.
“Are you quite sure we won’t run aground, Captain?” I ventured, for, though the day was clear and the water calm, we tacked perilous close to the isles.
“I could put you at the helm, if you like, Jameson. Got the sea in your blood, eh?” he smirked. But then he softened, slightly. “No, you sorry Scot. Rest easy. I won’t smash her to bits. Though this shallow harbor has wrecked many a ship, I don’t mind saying.”
“Shallow, Captain?” I asked nervously.
“Yar, she’s deep enough for the Sea- Serpent, but New York, where I’m bound, has deeper. Which is why that city builds banking houses, while this here Boston builds churches.” He nodded toward the town—cut against the sky, as if in silhouette—and pointed out the North Church, with its proud wooden spire, the tallest among a thicket of steeples. Prim, pious, and provincial. Trim, trim, and tidy, all.
“Ah, well then,” I answered, brightening. “Tis proved: a merchant measures his prospects by a port’s fathoms and not by its people’s piety, just as a whore measures a man’s parts by the bulge of his purse and not of his breeches.”
Pumble rewarded me with no more than a mincing smile.
Mark me, dear Reader: bidding my captain farewell will not break my heart.
Closer to shore, I spied people bustling about—along streets riddled with ruts and gutters of mud and manure whose stench reached us even before we docked—everyone hurrying, but at a trot and not a gallop. Here is no London, where men race as foxes chased by hounds. Here is
a place where, pray God, I can stand still.
I put on my hat, left my bags on board, and stepped ashore. Stumbling about the dock, my spirits soon improved, and my gut seemed to slow and finally halt its orbit round my middle. Along what is called the Long Wharf, I found a tavern, the Blue Herring, and I quaffed. Say I: there is fine beer here, brewed, I am told, by a man named Adams, in barrels built of the pine woods of New Hampshire. Steadied, fortified, I took a brief tour of the waterfront, and report, also, this: if there is nothing elevated and fine in the town of Boston, there is little to be found that is particularly unpleasant, save the restraint of the townspeople, who stare at strangers—even at a tall, brass- buttoned Scottish gentleman, and likelier than most—with a coldness that runs to cruelty.
I next made my way west along King Street, cluttered with shops, though whether this ambitious avenue is a credit to our third George in this, the fifth year of his reign, I could not claim. The trade seemed lackluster at best. Along a street called Corn- hill, I saw an utter desolation: the ruins of dwelling- houses, stores, and shops, burned in a fire that looked to have raged some winters ago, in a city too straitened to rebuild.
Just in front of a brick building called the Town House, which sits in the very middle of King Street, I found a spindle- shanked boy, no more than ten, peddling salted cod wrapped in old newspaper.
“I’m afraid I can’t stomach the fish, lad,” I said to him. “But be so good as to tell me where I might find fresher news than what’s printed in your wrappers.”
He directed me up an alley dubbed Crooked Lane—though all the streets here would equally well bear that name—to a dark, cluttered print shop whose stink made my eyes to tear ere I crossed the threshold. (My father had once wanted to apprentice me to an engraver, Reader, but I forswore the trade just as soon as I learned that every printer washes his plates in his own water. I would not toil in a piss- house.)
Behind the counter, tinkering with types, stood a man of about my own age, wise- eyed and wigless, his face as flat and round as the moon, his ginger hair tied back. From this gentleman, Mr. Benjamin Edes, I purchased a deck of cards, a map, and, for five shillings, a rather windy history of the
town, written by one Thomas Newcombe, wherein I have since read that Boston’s founder, a proper Puritan named John Winthrop, proclaimed to his followers in 1630, as they neared shore: “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with
our God, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”
Now, careful Reader, I ask you this: From such a lofty start, can any city do less than fall? Tis a small port, and charming enough. But it does not content itself with its smallness, its slack bustle, its less- thanprofound harbor. Nay, ’twould be Jerusalem. Here is a town that, by pretending to be more than it is, makes itself less. I had rather not draw an overhasty conclusion. But I have to wonder whether this is what hobbles Boston: its oversized ambition. The very opposite of what hobbles me.
While the printer tallied my items in his ledger, I picked up a copy of his twice- weekly newspaper, the Boston Gazette, and flipped to its back pages, filled with advertisements: “A fine Negro Male Child to be given away. It has been kept remote from the Small- Pox.” “To be SOLD: The very Best Vinegar for Pickles.” “RAN AWAY from his Master: A stout Irish servant.”
“Are you looking for something else, sir?” Edes asked.
“Aye. My bearings.”
“Just landed, I take it? If you don’t mind my saying, sir, you’re still a bit green about the gills.”
“Green’s an improvement, I assure you,” was my smiling reply. “Aye, I’m just in, from Edinburgh.”
“It’s as well you ain’t come from London, sir, else you’d bring bad tidings, sure.”
I gave him a puzzled expression.
“You wouldn’t have heard, sir, if you’ve been at sea these last two months. Parliament voted as you set sail, and the news washed up on our shores the day before you did. I’m just now setting the type to put it in Thursday’s edition. Bastards mean to tax us to pay for their war, what’s ended not a twelvemonth ago, with the French and the Indians. Tax our sugar, they will. Worse: we ain’t allowed to pay with our own paper money. Coin of the realm, it has to be. I ask you, sir, who has hard money in these hard times? And mind, they promise, next, to tax with stamps our every piece of paper!”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” I offered, and sincerely. I liked this plainspoken printer, and admired his argument, for the town looked poor enough already.
“Not so sorry as you’ll be when the shops start closing, for ain’t we struggling, after seven years of war? But I suppose I needn’t tell a Scotsman about English wars and English taxes.”
“Aye, that you don’t,” I agreed. “My grandfather fell at Culloden. But I trust you colonials will protest these measures. For as I always say, an empty stomach has a loud mouth.”
“Ain’t heard that one afore, sir, and ’tis true enough,” he said, flashing a smile. “But we won’t be laughing when the King sends over his redcoats, those lobsterbacked sons of bitches! Their fingers will be in our purses soon enough. There’s only so much a free people will bear, I tell you, and only so far the hand of tyranny can stretch, ere its reach exceeds its grasp.”
I shook my head, and pushed back my hat.
“Edes, your metaphors alarm me. Many’s the hand I would welcome in my pocket,” I said with a wink. “But not the hand of tyranny.”
Now did the printer laugh, easy, warm, and unrestrained.
“Say, Edes, do you get any Scottish papers here?”
“Indeed, sir. When traveling gentlemen bring them by. You’ll have no trouble hearing news from home. Old news, mind, but news just the same.”
Reader, this news of news is good and bad. Maybe I haven’t fled far enough.
From the Hardcover edition.