Bookworm: Examining a famous trial, Brooklyn’s colorful history

Also, ‘hunting’ for a good read? Try ‘Wolf Pack’

Terri Schlichenmeyer
“The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story” author Cara Robertson.

“The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story”

  • By Cara Robertson
  • c. 2019, Simon & Schuster
  • $28, $37 Canada; 400 pages

Twelve people just like you. At trial, each of them will hear the same words. They’ll see the same evidence and watch the same witnesses, but they’ll each embrace different things. How will they judge – guilt or innocence or, as in “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” by Cara Robertson, will the end of the story come as a surprise?

"The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story" by Cara Robertson.

Were she a child of today, Lizzie Borden would be considered spoiled. Her father, Andrew, was a parsimonious, dour man of means who was quite surprisingly generous to his two motherless daughters but he favored Lizzie, who once admitted that she always got what she wanted.

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That was not the case, however, with Andrew’s second wife, Abby, a plump former spinster who was forced to make do with a small allowance to run the family’s sizeable household.

Though Abby was, by most accounts, a pleasant-enough woman, her existence seemed to upset the Borden girls, both of whom were disdainful of her. As the girls matured, the atmosphere at the Borden home was often tense, becoming worse in 1887 when Andrew helped his wife’s half-sister, financially: Lizzie and her sister Emma were reportedly very jealous and, although their father tried to soothe angry feelings and he offered monetary gifts to the girls, the situation simmered for months.  

But did it get so bad that, five years later, Lizzie Borden took an ax and … ?

At the inquest, most evidence pointed to a resounding “yes.”

District Attorney Hosea Knowlton questioned Lizzie at great length about where she was, what she was doing, and how it was that she saw and heard nothing while her father and stepmother were bludgeoned to death. During the questioning, she appeared to be either crafty or addled, contradicting herself, doubling-back on answers, and frustrating the D.A. with her befuddlement.

Investigators and observers were sure that Lizzie was a killer. Her trial would prove otherwise.

For sure, readers of this book’s first pages will be amazed at that outcome from more than a century ago. The evidence, presented at trial and again by author Cara Robertson, still overwhelmingly seems to point to guilt but “The Trial of Lizzie Borden,” a day-by-day account of then-sensational courtroom proceedings, explains what happened.

And that’s a fork in the road for readers.  

Generations of true crime fans have devoured the story of Borden’s supposed “hacks,” and they’ll be delighted with this detailed re-telling of her life, of the bloody crime, and of the weeks before arrest and trial, all of which take up much of the front half of the book. As soon as Robertson gets to the trial, however, this account becomes more about proceedings and legalities and less about the crime itself. That isn’t a bad thing at all for deep courtroom-drama fans but it could overwhelm true crime devotees.

Ultimately, be aware of what you want out of this book and proceed accordingly. “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” is an excellent addition to this gruesome story, but wise readers will reserve their personal judgment.

“Wolf Pack”

  • By C.J. Box
  • c. 2019, Putnam
  • $27, $36 Canada; 371 pages

Hunting season has opened. And there you sit, waiting. It’s quiet in the woods, where a snapped twig is as loud as a gunshot out there and as urgent. That snick, and your attention is focused, your adrenaline rushed. The question, as posed in “Wolf Pack” by C.J. Box is: which are you, the hunter, or the hunted?

“Wolf Pack” by C.J. Box.

According to Courtney Lockwood at the Forest Service, wolves in Yellowstone Park never strayed beyond the park’s boundaries.

Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett knew that was untrue, as did the ranchers in Twelve Sleep County; as if anecdotal evidence wasn’t enough, a black wolf had been caught and contained in a rancher’s horse trailer. It was a magnificent animal, but it was killing the rancher’s heifers.

More:Bookworm: Ready to feel all fizzy inside?

Like most game wardens, Pickett had a soft spot in his heart for wildlife, the wolf included, just as it bothered Pickett that someone left unchecked traps in his territory. To let any creature needlessly suffer was unimaginable to him; that the trapper left his name and address on the traps was laughable.

But the guy was a “ghost,” which wasn’t funny at all; going by what Pickett could tell, the trapper didn’t exist prior to two years ago. No records, nothing.

The bigger problem, though, was that it was late spring, the elk and deer that survived the winter were fragile, and some idiot with a drone was harassing the animals. Pickett’s colleague in the next county was as peeved about it as Pickett, but the issue was complicated by fact that the harasser appeared to be the father of Pickett’s daughter’s boyfriend.

This wasn’t going to go well at all.

Just outside the county, Pedro Infante knew he was losing control.

Of the four people in the Wolf Pack – three men and Abriella Guzman – Abriella was trouble: beautiful, confident, completely merciless, all good reasons why she wasn’t in charge. Pedro was, but finding their target and assassinating him was taking too much time. Abriella was growing impatient.

The Wolf Pack was getting nervous…

So. How are your fingers?  In good shape, are they?  Great, because you’ll need them for edge-of-your-seat clinging while you’re reading “Wolf Pack.”

But first, readers may be surprised by an opening chapter that’s kind of clunky and a bit on the prurient side. It’s important to the story, so power through it – what’s to come will more than make up for it, as this tale literally winds up mountains and down through arroyos, between rocks, far above ground, and between bullets. That this book is a thriller is appealing, but the scenery in the story is just as attractive and author C.J. Box tops it off by bringing into this novel many of his best-loved characters.

 Just beware that some of them may not make it out.

If you’re new to this author, prepare yourself for a future search for the rest of the series. For fans of Pickett or Box, though, you know what to do about “Wolf Pack”: hunt it down.

“When Brooklyn Was Queer”

  • By Hugh Ryan
  • c. 2019, St. Martin’s Press
  • $29.99, $38.99 Canada; 308 pages

Your city sure has changed. Landmarks were destroyed, the skyline is different, and streets are shifted in a way that feels same-not-same. It’s like having dinner with a relative you met once, when you were nine: as in “When Brooklyn Was Queer” by Hugh Ryan, everything and nothing is familiar.

“When Brooklyn Was Queer” by Hugh Ryan.

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was little more than farms and fields.

That’s the vista Walt Whitman saw when he stepped beyond the boundaries of the city where he’d been creating his Leaves of Grass. He loved the area, a love he shared with laborers, prostitutes, and the rest of the crime-ridden, mostly-white population of Brooklyn in the mid-1800s.

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As a gay man, Whitman would have noted upcoming changes.

In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, making it easy for residents to reach New York City. There, male and female impersonators found work at live entertainment venues, where race mattered little; and sexes and social classes mixed freely at saloons, concert halls, dancehalls, and theatres. For African American actors, that relative permissiveness led to more acceptance and sometimes, fame.

By the time Brooklyn merged with The Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island in January 1898, a new word had emerged. “Homosexuals” had been targeted by obscenity charges for quite some time then but, though laws were created against them, they had a solid presence in mainstream society. Even so, says Ryan, most people didn’t learn much about homosexuals until World War I.

And yet – people couldn’t get enough of “queer” folk, especially with cabaret shows, vaudeville, and “freak shows” so wildly popular and a subway ride to Coney Island costing just a nickel. New Yorkers flocked to the boardwalk, perhaps titillated by the idea that the performers were “gay.”

But “things started to go off the rails” for the LGBT community at the end of World War II. Being gay was perceptually equal to a crime. Starting then, says Ryan, “ … the vibrant queer histories of places outside Manhattan would soon be forgotten.”

Reading “When Brooklyn Was Gay” is something like frosting a cake.

From the starting point of a poet and a wharf full of sailors, readers glide smoothly to wood-floor dancehalls; sweeping near audacious lesbian actors, scandal rags, legal fights, burly-Q stages, then to the Jazz Age and beyond. Each spot is covered, sprinkled with asides, personal anecdotes from author Hugh Ryan, and modern references to create connections, then gently folded into the next subject.

What may delight readers the most, though, is in the details.

While this is a history of Brooklyn, specifically, and New York, in general, we’re taken to other cities and cultures to see how worldwide changes impacted Brooklyn’s residents. Like the inner workings of a clock, tiny facts turn larger events that become part of a big picture for readers to see.

Unlike many books, this one doesn’t ignore anyone in the LGBT initialism; all are mentioned here and given due diligence. For readers searching for a fun, fascinating, all-encompassing history, “When Brooklyn Was Queer” is a nice change.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.