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The Mapmaker's Children


The Mapmaker's Children

THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN would make a great episode of “Doctor Who.” If everyone’s favorite alien time lord could bounce back and forth between the 1860s and the contemporary world, he could visit both Sarah Brown, the daughter of abolitionist John Brown, and a woman whose life is unraveling in Virginia, and help the contemporary inhabitant of the Brown home to find something Sarah left behind that could change the course of her life. Seemingly by magic, these two very different women from different worlds would find a common thread. But, alas, there is no Doctor in this story --- just two beautifully written characters whose personal strivings will make historical sense in Sarah McCoy’s latest novel.

There are plenty of tomes on John Brown, but few about his irrepressible artist daughter. Coming of age in Civil War-era West Virginia, Sarah is given very bad news: she is unable to conceive and will never become a natural mother. At that point, she takes a cue from her father and becomes an active member of the Underground Railroad, drawing maps that are hidden in her paintings, a technique used by slaves in what were called “slave code quilts.”

"THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN will take any reader on a trip both forwards and backwards through time, offering up caveats that will resound in the contemporary present with echoes and thunder."

The Underground Railroad, operating as a carefully organized movement against slaveowners and the government, which allowed them to remain so, fostered great community and creativity in helping families escape their binds and find a way to get to the North and subsequent freedom. Slave quilts were invested with blocks that gave slaves directions to help find the best means of accessing these escape routes. And so Sarah uses her creative talent to help people escape as the United States falls into the Civil War.

One-hundred fifty years later, a married woman named Eden moves into the Browns’ home in the hopes that she and her battling spouse may be able to have a child and save their marriage with the start of their family. She ends up finding in the basement the head of an antique porcelain doll, which will connect her to the world of Sarah and the Underground Railroad and becomes the first link in a puzzling and compelling search for the truth of the past.

McCoy spent three years researching the Brown family for THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN, a smoothly dramatic rendering of real-life situations and the fictional world of Eden. In tying the history of these two women together in a simple but exciting way, McCoy is able to create a novel that reaches into the corners of all rings of issues: race relations, historical legacy, and the ideas of community and family --- what they meant then and what they mean now. It's wonderful to read a story that doesn’t utilize technology only to do the searching for information. As much as I like those “Who Do You Think You Are?” shows on television, in which celebrities are privy to a long and fascinating look into their family trees, it's great to go on this journey with a normal person who isn’t quite sure what is driving her to find out about the doll and all the things it will come to represent to her. McCoy renders this trajectory as something as brave, insightful and exciting as the original Underground Railroad idea itself. And the means by which she takes us back and forth between the two women is nothing less than mind-bogglingly perfect.

Readers of historical fiction will enjoy the Sarah Brown story, which is truly fascinating, but will find solace in the search for the past that Eden conducts. Fiction readers in general will enjoy McCoy’s quiet and measured telling of this complicated story and enjoy delving into its nuances and surprises. All in all, THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN will take any reader on a trip both forwards and backwards through time, offering up caveats that will resound in the contemporary present with echoes and thunder.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on July 17, 2015

The Mapmaker's Children
by Sarah McCoy

  • Publication Date: February 9, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • ISBN-10: 0385348924
  • ISBN-13: 9780385348928