The following review comes from Emily @ Oh Magic Hour, who wanted to share her thoughts on Jane Nickerson's The Mirk and Midnight Hour. Don't forget, we've got an interview with Jane up, as well as a giveaway for 2 copies of the book, so make sure to check those out! But now, on to the review — take it away, Emily!
I was incredibly excited when I found a copy of The Mirk and the Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson in the "Just Released" section of my local library. I read her previous work, Strands of Bronze and Gold, at the behest of Misty I THINK during a previous Fairy Tale Fortnight and while I didn't absolutely LOVE it, I did enjoy the atmosphere of the novel. I had heard pretty much nothing about The Mirk and the Midnight Hour, but liked enough about that first novel to give this one a go as well. My excitement was pretty much through the roof when I realized it was a Tam Lin retelling set in the South during the Civil War. I love Tam Lin and retellings of it, and I think that period of history is incredibly interesting and rife with potential for story goodness.
I was absolutely not disappointed. This is the story 17-year-old Violet Dancey, a girl from Mississippi who is living during the Civil War. Her twin brother, Rush, has been killed in the war and her father is about to head off into the fighting as well. Her best friend and confidant is a slave girl, Laney, who is also 17 and lives and works in the Dancey home along with her husband and young child. Just as her father leaves for the war, three things happen that change the course of Violet's life. First, her father remarries, bringing into the home her new "sister", the flighty and flirtatious Summer, and a step-mother who is so addicted to laudanum that she is barely there. Second, distant Virginian relatives decide to send her young cousin, Seeley, to Mississippi for safety. And finally, later in the summer, Seeley and Violet discover a wounded Union soldier living in the woods near her home. Her reaction to this discovery is overshadowed only by the realization that someone is caring for this man and that their intentions may not be entirely pure.
Overall, I found this effort from Nickerson really fun and engaging reading. It combined so many disparate things - the historical fiction atmosphere of the Civil War, an exploration of the strength of family bonds, a touch of voodoo, and a splash of Tam Lin -- into a really compelling narrative. It was lighter in tone, overall, than her first work, was hard to put down (I read it in two evenings!) and left me feeling really satisfied once I had finished reading it. (Note: Which isn't to say I wouldn't mind an Epilogue or short story featuring the characters down the road. Jane? Are you listening?)
That is not to say, of course, that it was completely without weakness -- few books are! I actually wanted a bit more of the myth and retelling portion than there was; it seemed to be mostly put into the last portion of the book. Of course if you are familiar with the Tam Lin story, you will know part of how this one ends, but how she gets there is interesting enough to forgive that small weakness. I might need to re-read Tam Lin again to see if there were other references to it (I did note the roses!), but I certainly wouldn't call it the focus of the story. I also thought the use of the magic was interesting, but also not always explained as well as I might have liked. That said, it was mysterious to the narrator, so maybe it was ok to be mysterious to the reader (but what was with the bees...).
All that said, I think some of the criticism I have seen levied in other reviews falls into the "mistakes a writer for her characters" trap that is easy to fall in to. In fact, I think in my previous reading of Strands of Bronze and Gold I may have fallen into this trap a bit. Most notably, some reviews accuse Nickerson of a surface level treatment of the racial issues at play during the Civil War or of the oft-criticized "insta-love". I actually thought both were handled in a pitch perfect way given who the narrator was and where she lived at the time. About the Civil War -- this is an ugly time in America's history and I think that was shown here, but this story also wasn't ABOUT that. It was about Violet's comprehension of what was going on around her, and I imagine that a 17-year-old girl living at the time would have a very different reaction to the War than you or I would now in retrospect. And about the insta-love; I'm as loud of a critic as any, but this didn't feel like that to me. It felt like two people living in a different time were courting and fell for each other very naturally. Yes, it felt like things happened off the page, but that doesn't bother me. It felt like a natural coming together and I was swept away by it.
One major weakness, to me, and something that I think is resulting in some confusion among the readers of this novel is not within the novel itself, but in the summary of the story on the back of the book and on Goodreads. This summary focuses entirely on the romance between Violet and Thomas, which makes people pick this up expecting a romance tale between a Southern girl and a Union soldier. But please know, although there is romance in this story, this is not a tale of romance. It's honestly only barely a Tam Lin story in some ways. To me, what is beautiful about this book is seeing Violet's development within its pages. Seeing her come to understand the War, her family, Seeley; to find her strength, let go of her grief and learn to love and to be loved; that is the strength of this book. Focusing the summary on Thomas alone I think has caused some to be disappointed that he does not appear until almost halfway through the tale. But this is not his story (just like, I would argue, the tale is not Tam Lin's story). It's a story of a girl who is strong enough to hang on and to keep holding on until all the many disparate pieces of her loved ones are pieced back together. And she shows up on the first page.
Overall, I highly enjoyed this book. It was stronger for me than her first effort, while still making the best use of all the things I thought were strong in that novel -- creepy, gothic atmosphere; spunky and intelligent female protagonist; realistic take on the time period in question -- and added to that list some really fun and interesting side characters and a perfect-for-the-time-period romance that I really enjoyed. Violet was a great main character and I would definitely recommend this read.