'Night Shade' by Pauline Knaeble Williams. (40 Press, 224 pages, $16.95 paperback.)
Ambitious and arresting, Minneapolis native Pauline Knaeble Williams' second novel tells the story of Penny McGinty, a hardworking, kindhearted Irish immigrant maid for a Philadelphia family. It's 1850, just after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that all escaped slaves be returned to their masters upon capture, even those in free states.
Even free blacks were terrorized by the law's enforcers, who often didn't bother to find out whether their captives were freemen or escaped slaves. One day, Penny answers a knock on the kitchen door to find a bedraggled, exhausted young woman who appears to be white but who in fact is an escaped slave seeking refuge. She has taken the name of Larkspur.
"Night Shade" is the story of Penny and Larkspur's friendship and of the adventures they experience, along with the house's wealthy inhabitants and their acquaintances, both black and white. Williams' historical novel is most powerful when it examines the growing doubt of characters who have long blindly adhered to the law after they come to witness the fear and damage it spreads.
"Night Shade" (the title refers to a plant pivotal in the plot) features a compelling and smoothly paced story line, complex characters and plenty of nuance and surprises. But it has a glaring fault – it's often poorly written, or edited, rife with dangling modifiers that aren't just clumsy, but confusing. Such carelessness is inexcusable, especially in an otherwise fine novel, and should be a caution to both the writer and her editors. Nevertheless, readers will find the story's stronger traits worth their time.