“I’ll be a sad day when I cannae lift a hand to help a neighbor.“
Born on a farm outside Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century, Agnes Watt is embraced by family, community and tradition. Her youthful hopes and dreams are quashed but she falls in love and marries William Miller, a Gordon Highlander. Life spirals into dark places as the couple becomes ensnared in the nightmare that descended on the Scottish working-class during the industrial revolution.
The triumphs of the great Victorian era came at an appalling human cost and Agnes fights against disease and grinding poverty. She tries to keep her family safe as tragedy stalks them in an age known in Glasgow as ‘the slaughter of the innocents’. The friendship of other women and her unshakable belief in education strengthens her resolve. Will she endure to rise above the cruelest blow of all?
This book was a challenging read and that is mainly due to how wonderfully it was written. Agnes’ struggles become your struggles; you feel every worry, every moment of uncertainty. Each new home that needs scrubbed and sanitized, the fears and joys of motherhood, the longing and pain that love brings, and life’s big questions all come to the forefront as you are swept away into the soot and excitement of Scotland in the late 1800’s. And no matter how dire the circumstances were, or how painful the experience, Agnes held her head up and did the best she could with what she had.
Honestly, if you don’t shed a tear at least once while reading this book, you may want to go back and read it again. It’s painful, but such a beautiful story. And though this is a work of fiction, we know so many men and women lived lives that were not so very different from the characters portrayed within these pages.
I love that the author has chosen to write the characters’ dialect as accurately to that time period as possible. The glossary of terms at the beginning of the book was super helpful, and made it possible to understand what was being said. I really appreciated this aspect of the story. It gave the narrative another layer of depth that made the experience that much sweeter.
But most importantly (for me, anyways) is the communal aspect of the story. This is absolutely a study of humanity, and the importance of community. When one is down and struggling, you help them up. How little Agnes or one of her neighbors had, someone was always there to do what they could to ensure the survival and sanity of the person that needed it the most. You can glean from the story just how contented and at peace it made Agnes feel to know that though she and her family were barely able to survive at times, spreading a little brightness into another struggling human can oftentimes be the life-giving hope that saves you both.