March Book Review: The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

The Mirk and Midnight Hour
By: Jane Nickerson
Release Date: March 24, 2015

*Beware: Spoilers ahead!*

Official Synopsis:
Seventeen-year-old Violet Dancey has been left at home in Mississippi with a laudanum-addicted stepmother and love-crazed stepsister while her father fights in the war—a war that has already claimed her twin brother. When she comes across a severely injured Union soldier lying in an abandoned lodge deep in the woods, things begin to change. Thomas is the enemy—one of the men who might have killed her own brother—and yet she’s drawn to him. But Violet isn’t Thomas’s only visitor. Someone has been tending to his wounds—keeping him alive—and it becomes chillingly clear that this care hasn’t been out of compassion. Against the dangers of war and threatening powers of voodoo, Violet fights to protect her home, her family, and the man she’s begun to love.

My Synopsis:
The war has already taken away Violet Dancey’s twin brother, and now her father has decided to leave as well.  Rather than leave her alone on their small farm in Mississippi, he remarries, saddling Violet with a flighty, flirty, attention-seeking stepsister and an opium-eater stepmother.  To top it off, two distant cousins are coming to stay as well, one seeking refuge from the encroaching Union army and the other hoping to gain better access for his blockade-running operation.  Violet quickly takes her younger cousin, Seeley, under her wing, taking him on adventures through the woods surrounding their farm.  One day their adventure leads them to a forgotten hunting lodge deep in the woods, a fort that should be abandoned but has becoming the hiding place for Thomas, a wounded Union soldier.  Despite their differences, Violet begins to fall for the soldier, but it soon becomes clear she’s not the only one visiting Thomas, and his other visitors may have much more sinister plans in mind for him once he’s healed.  Forced to face the dangers of voodoo spells and the ever-encroaching threat of war, Violet must find a way to protect not only her family but the soldier she loves.

My Thoughts:
     There was a lot I loved about The Mirk and Midnight Hour, and just a few things I didn’t.  Honestly, though I didn’t realize there were bits I wasn’t overly fond of until after I had time to reflect upon the story, as the story kept me so engrossed in Violet’s world while I was reading.  The biggest issue I had was that TM&MH was meant to be a retelling of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin.  I didn’t read the Scottish piece before jumping in to avoid any possible spoilers.  However, labeling this as a retelling is skewing things a bit.  Yes, there’s one scene near the end that echoes the end of Tam Lin, but it seemed like such a small party of the overall story that I don’t think I’d consider this a true retelling.  Unlike Ms. Nickerson’s Strands of Bronze and Gold, which is a good retelling of the Bluebeard folktale, but TM&MH easily stands as its own novel without being forced into the same category.  

     I loved Violet as the main character.  At the beginning of the story, she’s in mourning for her twin brother, Rush, who died fighting for the Confederacy.  Although she plays the role of a good Southern woman—volunteering at a hospital for wounded soldiers, making pen wipers to sell at the Summer Bazaar and raise money for the troops, going without new shoes to ensure someone like her brother would have something to cover his feet— deep down, Violet doesn’t agree with the values for which the South is fighting.  Laney, along with her husband and son, are the Dancey family slaves, but to Violet, they’re family.  Laney is in every way her sister.  The two of them, along with Rush, spent their childhood days playing and laughing together, and there’s no one else that Violet trusts more.  I was glad that, as the story moved on and she began to discuss slavery with Thomas, Violet was able to openly discuss slavery with Laney, even going as far to tell Laney that if the South won, she’d do what she could to ensure Laney and her family made it North to freedom.  It was obvious from their relationship beforehand that Violet felt this way, but it was nice, from both a reader’s and from Laney’s standpoint, to hear Violet admit that she knew the whole institution was wrong, regardless of her familial allegiances.  Laney was family, too, and no one should have the right to own another human being.  

     Aside from the growth of her feelings in regards to the war, I also liked the way Violet handled her expanding family.  All at once, her father leaves, but she gains not only a stepmother (Miss Elsa) and a stepsister (Sunny) but two new houseguests in her cousins, Dorian and Seeley.  Right off the bat, I knew Seeley was going to be a little scene-stealer.  Away from Panola, the great plantation where he’s the young master, Seeley’s able to be a little boy as a little boy should be.  The relationship between he and Violet was precious; she saw him as a younger version of Rush, and it was good for both of them to be able to do all the things that Violet, Rush, and Laney had done when they’d been younger—climbing trees, exploring in the forest, swimming in the creek.  Being able to play and laugh gave Seeley a chance to grow more confident in himself and allowed Violet to make new, happy memories in honor of her brother.  

     It was only fitting, then, that it was on one of these adventures that Seeley and Violet should discover Thomas Lynd.  The discovery of a wounded Union soldier was immediately telling of Violet’s true character.  As a loyal supporter of the Confederacy, at least in deed if not in belief, her duty was to report Thomas’ presence to the authorities.  The law would’ve allowed Thomas to be treated for his injuries, but Violet was well aware that, with such a serious injury, such action would be a death sentence for the man.  Instead, she decides to care for the soldier, at least in as much as bringing food and providing company.  Seeley’s opinion of Thomas, who also happened to be the author of the famous “Heath Blackstock” books of which the young boy is a fan (Because of course the random wounded soldier you find in the woods is your cousin’s favorite author.  If only I could be so lucky!), certainly played a role in Violet’s decision, but once she’s made up her mind, she never wavers.  At least not because of guilt over helping a Union soldier.  It’s only when she begins to fall in love with the kind, creative teacher/author turned soldier and comes to (mistakenly) believe that he was engaged prior to leaving for the war that she stops visiting.  Of course, that doesn’t last long, but I think that this says a lot about Violet as a person—she’s kind hearted and has a strong sense of right and wrong, but she’s still a romantic, and when the situation may end with a broken heart, she’s wise enough to walk away.

     I thought that romance between Thomas and Violet was truly sweet and truly believable.  Page-wise, it seems like a short time between their meeting and the first “I love you,” but their visits span a period of months, which would’ve been a long courtship during that period.  Furthermore, Thomas is a soldier, and there’s no guarantee he’ll return from the war, so it was important for their true feelings to be known before he left, without all of the playing hard to get that was so prevalent back then.  I did love Violet’s letter to Thomas at the end of the book, especially the line about Seeley: “You do know he’s ours forever, don’t you?”  It was the perfect little ending to the family they had formed in that derelict lodge deep in the woods, a family of laughter and adventure and a determination to see each other through anything.

     Violet’s relationships with the other characters were well-written, too.  I was especially fond of how she and Sunny grew from the schoolyard mean girl and victim of sorts to true sisters, even if there were more than a few bumps along the way.  Sunny got on my nerves at times, especially in her total adoration of Dorian, but she thought she was in love and was willing to do whatever her true love asked of her.  Unfortunately, it took poisoning Seeley to realize just how twisted Dorian’s love was, but in the end, she was truly sorry for what she had done and earned her forgiveness.  

     And on that note, let’s discuss the villains of the story.  I went into this story thinking that the VanZeldts were the story’s bad guys.  They’re outcasts from the townsfolk, not only because of their looks but because they’re known practitioners of voodoo.  Once I read Tam Lin and realized how Ms. Nickerson had worked voodoo into the story in the place of faery magic, I loved this aspect of the VanZeldts even more.  It added all the right notes of creepy and mystery and gave Violet a real, terrible enemy to fight against.  The sacrifice scene at the end was masterfully written, morphing Violet from a transfixed bystander to a hero powerful enough to defy the power of voodoo.  The shapeshifting as she tries to save Thomas from becoming the VanZeldts’ sacrifice, the actual nod to Tam Lin, was equal parts chilling and exciting.  I loved that at the end, as they’re leaving town, the VanZeldts stop by to congratulate Violet on winning the fight.  Yes, they’re peeved at having lost their chance to reconnect with their god, Raphtah, but they’re proud of Violet for having fought a fair fight and for coming out the winner.  I felt that the VanZeldts were well-written, managing to be mysterious and dangerous but still beautiful and friendly in their own ways.  And that is why I felt that it was not them but Dorian that was the story’s true villain.  I will admit right away that Dorian had a reason for everything he did; there was no question as to what motivated his actions.  But trying to murder his family—poisoning Seeley, then setting the house on fire with everyone locked inside—is a sure sign of crazy.  Land and wealth can be powerful motivators, especially in a society where plantation owners are essentially kings, but trying to kill your young cousin to take his place as master of the house is the sort of wrong that makes you sick.  So hats off to Ms. Nickerson for creating such a great villain in that regard.

     There were a few things that I didn’t like so much.  Aside from the lack of retelling in this supposed retelling, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t overly fond of Violet’s connection with her bees.  It was a great idea, a bit mystical and definitely helpful, but it seemed out of place and needed a little more development to have really been interesting.  I also didn’t like how late Thomas came into the story, but this was really what I didn’t realize I had a problem with until after I had finished reading.  Thomas wasn’t introduced until over a third of the way into the book, which surprised me when I went back to look.  At first, I wondered why he hadn’t been introduced earlier, as it would’ve provided more time for us to get a better feel for him as a character and more time for his and Violet’s relationship to grow, but then I realized that his appearance was perfectly timed.  Everything before that point was establishing the other important relationships in Violet’s life: if she hadn’t been saddled with Sunny and Miss Elsa, she would’ve spent more time helping Laney around the house; if she hadn’t see how Dorian treated Seeley, she wouldn’t have taken it upon herself to help Seeley become more confident; if she hadn’t grown so close to Seeley, they wouldn’t have gone on adventures and they never would’ve found Thomas in the first place.  So although it initially seemed odd to leave out such an important character until so late in the book, there was actually a good reasoning behind this decision.

     Overall, I felt that The Mirk and Midnight Hour was a great read, masterfully mixing history, romance, and dark magic to give us a story that is strong enough to stand as its own story without being considered any sort of retelling.  Ms. Nickerson does a wonderful job of describing the setting and time and creating this lush world full of vivid characters that you can’t help but root for.  I’ll definitely be picking up anything written by Jane Nickerson, “retelling” or not, as it’s sure to be a story that weaves its way around you until you truly believe you’ve entered her real-life fairy tale world.

Favorite Lines:
• “There are too many bodies.”
• There we were in our enchanted circle in a green-lit, vine-shrouded ruin.  It lay in the middle of a dense forest inhabited by dark, threatening fairies.  Day after day, in this charmed sphere, we were safe and secure and each of us shone in a way that I, at least, never did in the real world.  Or perhaps the glow was from the sweat on our faces.  The Lodge was sweltering in July.
• “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.”


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