Jean Harrington’s “Lion” of a Book

Published in the Sept.-Oct. 2009 issue of Fort Myers Magazine.

Click here: Ft.Myers magazine – Jean Harrington

What Naples author Jean Harrington does so well is provide a fully-textured sense of place.  In the Lion’s Mouth (from Highland Press) is set in Ireland, England, and the colonies of Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the late 1660s. As we follow Harrington’s colorful characters, we encounter the details of clothing, diet and food preparation, rural and urban dwelling places, weaponry, and sailing vessels. We can’t be sure that Harrington is accurate, but she does create verisimilitude.  The abundance of consistent detail makes the world she builds credible. Her characters inhabit it plausibly, and as we believe in them, we believe in their experiences and vicariously share the sensory dimensions of their lives. On these grounds alone, In the Lion’s Mouth is worthy of commendation.IntheLion'sMouth-HighRes

However, much else is accomplished. Harrington dazzles us with the lure of the New World – its vast expanse, its promises of freedom, self-reliance, and opportunity. She also gives us the historical realities of European encroachment on the lands of others, pettiness and greed, and the long arm of English rule.

Against this background, Harrington continues the story of Grace O’Malley and Owen O’Donnell , whom readers first met in The Barefoot Queen. The plight of these two lovers, now married, grows out of the English exploitation of the Irish and particularly the English usurpation of Irish ancestral lands. The haughty and villainous Lord Rushmount is the local landholder in Grace’s and Owen’s corner of Ireland. Grace, like her father before her, has defied him in many ways. When family and friends were perishing from lack of food, Grace took it upon herself to become a deer poacher – and thus a criminal. It’s one thing for a young woman to be at the mercy of a tyrant; it’s something more when that tyrant is obsessed with that shapely woman’s beauty and fire. Grace’s copper-red hair is the symbol of her fiery spirit, both of which Rushmount is driven to possess. Grace has rebuffed his advances and given herself to the handsome, though crippled, Owen. Like Grace, Owen seeks justice for his people. But he and his wife are outlaws, or at least enemies of authority, who must escape Rushmount’s mixture of lust, wrath, and vengeance. They must put Ireland, friends, and family behind them.

As they journey from home to Galway, Cork City, and Dublin, hoping to book passage across the Atlantic, Grace and Owen are regularly threatened by Rushmount. They discover that Liverpool is the closest place to embark on such a journey, and though they don’t wish to spend time in England (the “Lion” of the title), it seems a necessity.  They are delayed there for many months, during which Rushmount puts Grace in a compromising position that she feels she must not reveal to Owen.

Harrington’s narration of the Atlantic crossing aboard the “Seafarer” is masterful. Her verbal art breathes life into the character of the vessel, the living conditions, the ravages of bad food and severe storms, the ebbs and flows of despair and determination, and the ecstatic and bewildering arrival of the young couple to Newport harbor. Of course, the demonic Rushmount is there as well, having made the crossing to serve as a Tax Collector for His Majesty.

Finally, Grace and Owen reach their desired destination – the combined colonies of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation. Harrington involves them with her versions of the historical Roger Williams, founder of these colonies, and Canonchet, the legendary Narragansett chief. Harrington’s treatment of these relationships emphasizes Williams’ respect for the Native Americans and his insistence that their lands may not be taken: they must be fairly paid for. Jean Harrington imagines that a man with Williams’ philosophical pedigree would fully honor the concept of religious freedom and offer the utmost hospitality to the Irish Catholic newcomers.

Before reaching Providence, the young couple meets Absalom, the Narragansett leader who is an adopted son both of Canonchet and Williams. His upbringing has shaped him to be the ideal bridge between the two peoples, leaving him at the same time a man divided. He is also the Noble Savage par excellence, extremely helpful to Grace and Owen in their land clearing, planting, and other pursuits in their new environment. Absalom, however, is no exception to the rule that a man with a pulse will fall for (and maybe from) Grace.

The strains on the marriage, the delights and hardships of Providence, the contrasts developed among Owen, Rushmount (always nearby), and Absalom propel the later chapters of the novel through many suspenseful twists and turns.

Like any good writer of historical fiction, this former college teacher of literature and writing is a good researcher. Using the internet, Harrington found information on the chronologies of English rulers, key historical events and issues in successive reigns, period dress, the evolution of Irish law, and much else.

She writes, “One of the most interesting research sites was the Narragansett Indian web site.  It was a mine of information about sachem succession, planting, food preparation, clothing, house construction, marriage customs, tribal lore. For basic information, or to check facts found on the web, I often turned to the library for verification.  For example, a book on jewelry design there helped me to describe how Owen might have crafted the ring he gives to Grace.   And believe it or not, the children’s section of the library with its illustrated cutaway line drawings of sailing vessels made the internal workings of an ocean-going ship of the period clear to this land lubber.”

 Since most of the available material on clothing and furnishing concerns the aristocracy, Harrington needed to dig deeper to glean similar information about the peasant class. She sought out “tales of descendants and Irish buffs who had much to tell of their forebears’ hardships.”

photo by Martin Miron

photo by Martin Miron

In blending research, imagination, and a nuanced yet highly accessible style, Jean Harrington has fashioned a compelling, earthy, and exciting romance that never flags. In the Lion’s Mouth brings us vigorous, passionate characters leading their lives against the perfectly realized backdrop of a changing world.

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