Brookland: A Novel

Brookland: A Novel

by Emily Barton

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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
A Los Angeles Times Book Review Favorite Book of the Year

Since her girlhood, Prudence Winship has gazed across the tidal straits from her home in Brooklyn to the city of Manhattan and yearned to bridge the distance. Now, firmly established as the owner of an enormously successful gin distillery she inherited from her father, she can begin to realize her dream.

Set in eighteenth-century Brooklyn, this is the beautifully written story of a woman with a vision: a gargantuan construction of timber and masonry to span the East River. With the help of her sisters--high-spirited Tem and silent, uncanny Pearl--Prue fires the imaginations of the people of Brooklyn and New York by promising them easy passage between their two worlds.

Brookland confirms Emily Barton's reputation as one of the finest writers of her generation, whose work is "blessedly post-ironic, engaging and heartfelt" (Thomas Pynchon).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312425807
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 02/20/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 686,021
Product dimensions: 5.44(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Emily Barton's fiction has appeared in Story, American Short Fiction, and Conjunctions. Her first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, called "blessedly post-ironic, engaging, and heartfelt" by Thomas Pynchon, won the Bard Fiction Prize and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She is the recipient of a 2006 artist's grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2006 fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt


By Emily Barton


Copyright © 2006 Emily Barton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-11690-3

Chapter One


At the close of the workday on Thursday the twenty-fourth of January, 1822, Prue Winship sat down at the large desk in the countinghouse of Winship Daughters Gin to write a letter to her daughter, Recompense. The power train had been sprung free of the windmill for the night, and the machines of the distillery sat quiet, the embers of its great fires still smoldering. Prue could hear the low horn of the steam ferry as it approached the Brooklyn landing. Her sister, Tem, with whom she ran the distillery, had retired an hour since to the Liberty Tavern, and had said she'd be home for supper; their overseer, Isaiah Horsfield, had gone home to his family. He'd left a stack of papers on his section of the desk, and would no doubt see to them first thing in the morning.

Prue's husband and fourteen-year-old son awaited her return, but she did not wish to put off writing the letter another day. In honor of Prue's fiftieth birthday, her daughter had sent her a lavish gift: a magnificent paisley shawl Recompense's father-in-law had brought back from a journey to Kashmir. Prue had opened the packet the evening before, and had delighted in the shawl's softness and its jewel-like shades of blue and green. When she'd wrapped it around herself in the kitchen, her son, Matty,had clapped in admiration and proclaimed her "the very queen of the Gypsies." Tem had shaken her head.

Prue might have dispatched her thanks in a quick note, had Recompense not enclosed a letter with the parcel. After wishing her mother a happy birthday, she had written the good news that she was with child. Should no ill befall her, she expected to deliver in the autumn. In light of this disclosure, and of the obvious adulthood it bestowed on its bestower, Recompense asked her mother to tell her about the bridgeworks, which she knew had caused her parents both happiness and misfortune, but about whose history she knew little. Recompense had never, until that moment, gathered herself to ask either of her parents about that chapter in their lives. The distillery had consumed most of her mother's time and energy, and Recompense had always feared importuning her with questions that might spoil her for business. As for Recompense's father, he was too good-natured and self-effacing to be much of a storyteller, and she found it difficult to cast him in her imagination as an actor in any sort of drama. Yet she wished to know the story of the bridge, if her mother had the time and inclination to entrust it to her.

Prue was discomfited by the request. She had always loved her daughter, but had given most of her adult life to keeping Winship Daughters Gin solvent enough to repay the high cost of insurance and her own significant debts. The distillery was the legacy her father had bequeathed her, and she had slaved to make it profitable enough to pass on to her own son and daughter. The children themselves had been, she admitted now, of secondary importance. And after placid Recompense had declined a third time to be trained in the family business, Prue had felt herself powerfully betrayed, and had wondered, with a flash of a cold-heartedness she had not experienced in some time, if she would ever again have use for such a daughter. Jonas Sutler, the son of a man in the whaling trade at Hudson, had come soon after to ask for Recompense's hand; and as her husband had given his warm consent, Prue had sat wondering why anyone would want such an unadventurous creature and why she herself was too hard-hearted to feel any of the emotions appropriate to the occasion. Yet when the August wedding day had arrived, Prue had felt a terrible, wrenching ache at the thought of her daughter leaving. She'd wished she could say she had never known such an ache before, but its pain had been so poignant because of its familiarity. It had reminded her in an instant of every loss she had ever suffered; and as Mr. and Mrs. Jonas Sutler had departed for their wedding tour of the Upper Hudson, Prue had stood on the landing of the New Ferry and wept into her husband's coat.

Prue had struck up the correspondence to case the intolerable pain of having a little-valued daughter vanish from sight. She herself had once passed the town of Hudson by boat, but not knowing she would ever wish to envision the particulars of its streets, she had committed nothing but its vaguest outline to memory. Now she peppered her daughter with questions, and learned the Sutlers had a tall house bounded by a fence, with a garden that continued to produce cabbage and chrysanthemums well into October. The household employed three Irish servants. Jonas had grown up in educated society, and the wives and sisters of his cousins and childhood friends were lively conversationalists, zealots for good books, the manumission of the few remaining local slaves, and politics. Yet for all this, Recompense confessed to missing Brooklyn, with its old Dutch houses scattered across the landscape despite a newly laid grid of regular streets. She was homesick; in addition to which she was spending the longest evenings of the year propped up on a sofa and trying to keep down salt biscuits and tea. Prue realized it was only natural her daughter should seek out the missing pieces of her family history. And though she herself had taken pains to conceal the story of the bridgeworks all this time-one evasion leading to the next until at last she had lost sight of the original reason for her reticence-her love for her far-off daughter, and her compunction at having ignored her before she'd moved away, made Prue believe she could change her course. It was thus that on the first full day of the sixth decade of her life, Prue Winship thanked her daughter for the beautiful shawl, expressed her delight at the prospect of a grandchild, and commenced in a roundabout way telling the story Recompense wished to hear. The correspondence would hold them both in its thrall the remainder of that winter and spring.

"There is much to tell you," she wrote,

though of course if you were here I would brush off your questions and return to my gin as ever I have done. But distance changes much;-I have missed you with a pain very like that of yearning for the dead since you've been gone. And you were a decade since old enough to hear the whole of it. I would like to think only my busyness in the distillery has kept me from relating it, but this is not so. My silence on this matter has been partly due to bad character; which I hope at this late date I can emend.

You ask for the story of the bridgeworks, but if I am to give you not only the history of that matter but its justifications, I must begin by relating a metaphysickal crime I long ago committed against my sister Pearl. I laid a curse upon her when I was still a child. Perhaps you will think it peculiar of me to recall such a fancy now; but that tale itself unfolds from my twin obsessions, with Mannahata & with Death; and all three must stand in some wise as the founders of the bridge. To relate the story properly, dear one, I shall begin there.

I was born in January of 1772 and Pearl in July of 1778, which gave me six and one half years to grow accustomed to being my parents' only child. This was more time than you had before Matty came along, but you must surely know what a long span it seemed. My parents, Matthias and Roxana Winship, were an odd lot. As I may not have hitherto told you, my father had escaped the seminary at Cambridge to jump on the Eliza Dymphna in Boston Harbour, and he set sail for the West Indies, slaves, and rum. To the chagrin of his father, a dissenting minister, Matty Winship,-your grandfather, that is,-realized what the colonies lacked was good, native-brewed strong drink, produced on a large scale; so he took his next passage to England & there apprenticed himself to a rectifier of distilled spirits. Eight years later he returned with a receipt for an excellent and most alcoholick geneva, and with my sharp-tongued mother, Roxana Parker (also a refugee from dissenting parents), in tow. They settled here in Brookland, where stood a derelict windmill, as old Mr. Joralemon had tried his inexpert hand at distilling once before, only to burn his operation to the ground. Here on the East River, Father reason'd, would also be easy shipping for the forthcoming gin. Father had no license to distill liquor,-none was granted at that era, as the Crown's policy was to keep the colonies dependent on the mother country for finished goods,-but he resolved from the start to pay the inspectors handsomely; & there was no man among them so loyal he could not be tempted by a small gift of money and a monthly allotment of good gin. This, of course, until the colonies engaged in open rebellion, at which time the manufacture of goods in defiance of royal decree became an act both lucrative and patriotickal.

Because he'd not been born to the business of distilling, in those first years my father often asked my mother's advice on the savour of the finished product (this though she knew little about gin, though she did have her fair measure of sense); as a result of which, in my early childhood I was largely left to do as I pleased, so long as I kept within the bounds of our stone fence. I was forbidden to wander the distillery lest my hand be smashed in the herb press, and forbidden to run out in the road lest, Mother told me, some officer with wrist frills try to offer me a pear. I had only a hazy notion what the war meant beyond the movement of troops, the building & toppling of forts, and the occasional fusillade of artillery fire, which sent the slaves & housewives running to gather the children indoors and left me quaking with fear for my Daddy, who would not leave the distillery to come up the hill and check on us until the gunfire had subsided. I saw men both in uniform and ordinary cloaths limping about town with bandages on & leaning on crutches; and there was a sad autumnal funeral in which the children of the Sands family bawled their eyes dry because they'd lost their father in the fighting. As their mother had died the previous year, they were hastily removed to their grandparents' property east of Bergen's Hill, a location which at that time seemed so far distant, I feared I would never see them more. Thus I gathered early on that soldiers, even those who dressed neatly, were not to be trusted, though the local boys seemed to find them congenial company. I was also denied free access to our kitchen, but only because our slave, Johanna, was blind and half deaf with age, and likely to stumble over me or set me on fire. She was a gruff old woman; you would'n't have liked her. All these rules were my mother's, by the bye; it had been Father's original notion to fit me out with a pint-sized firearm and set me loose upon the neighbourhood;-which, when he suggested it (rather, I should add, to my pleasure), resulted in my mother huffing up the Front stairs to reappear only well past sunset with her lips pursed shut. Johanna, meanwhile, tisked and muttered much of the afternoon, which gave me to understand she could hear well enough, were the topick sufficiently juicy.

Because of this lack of direction I was often lonely and bored; but it was my solace the long leg of our fence ran along the crest of Clover Hill, uninterrupted that quarter mile. I paced its length in all kinds of weather, looking north-westward across our manufactory, the port, and the river, to the great city on the far shore. Just past dawn and right before dusk, when no fires were lit at our distillery or the Schermerhorn ropewalk, I could see clearly all the way to Mannahata.

As I'm sure you well remember from your own childhood, the booming straits was a feast for the eye of a watchful girl. There were no steamboats then; everything on the river was powered by wind or by oar. Packets from the far continents discharged drab passengers along with barrels and bright fruits. Losee van Nostrand plied the only ferryboat between his landing and Fly Market, loudly crying,-Over! each time he returned. Pointy-tipped wherries and flat-bottomed dories wove among the hulking ships, and in winter dodged the flotillas of ice that hugged both shores. When barges set out for New-York, they hung low in the water with timber, vegetables, rope, or my father's gin; and when they returned they rode high & empty on the grey waves.

I could see best by standing atop the tumbledown fence, though I could do so only when safely beyond your grandmother's purview. -Mannahata! I'd whisper to the city, straining ever northward against her dense forest, and -Scheyichibi! to the green hummocks of Jersey, stretched out before me in a broad, flat band. -Ihpetonga! I'd think passionately, feeling the resonating power of the rocky. Heights on which I stood as I called it by its ancient name. The natives of the place had been driven east into Nassau and Suffolk generations before my parents had arrived (though, on occasion, I dug one of their arrowheads, or a wampum shell, or a shard of pot from the soil of our yard), but I still liked to let their words roll round my mouth, like smooth river stones. These were clearly the names by which the places knew themselves. I felt them respond to my call, however quietly I voiced it; and I half expected the ground to tremble and send forth some spirit, either to squash me like a bug or to do my bidding.

I kept an eve trained ever on New-York, to learn what I could of that foreign place. The spire of her largest church rose higher than her trees, and her three- and four-story buildings,-veritable exaltations of window glass,-stood ranked up each morning to reflect the rising sun and the broad dome of sky. Yet the windows never opened, and I could neither see nor imagine families stacked one atop the other within. The bluffs of Clover Hill sang with birds and nickering horses, but no sound but the booming of ships' guns came from across the river. The scents of ripe corn, horse dung, & my father's juniper berries tickled my nose in summer, but though the westerly wind blew fierce, New-York had no smell but brine. All the life I could see was of people and horses in the immediate vicinity of the docks. Some other child would have thought nothing of these circumstances, but it was by these signs,-fueled, I admit, by that same natively dark imagination that later jumped to conclude, whenever you or Matty were tardy for supper, that you'd been drown'd in the millpond or run down by the stage; and woefully unchecked by parental intervention,-that I came to believe the Isle of Mannahata was, in fact, the City of the Dead. Once I had chanced upon this notion,-which another might have tossed out, but which I, made nervous by the sights & sounds of the war & by my mother's weird rules governing my ingress and egress, determined could be nothing but the dark truth the world strove to hide from children,-everything I saw across the water added to New-York's sepulchral mystery. All those goods that travelled thither were offerings to appease the shades; and it was a grim but necessary duty my father fulfilled when he loaded his barge with libations. That he bore the task so lightly & returned each time with the same blithe expression on his brow, I took for the mark of his good character and valour.

It did not help that your dry-witted grandparents spoke often of the Other Side, that life to which each of us was doomed or blessed, according to his merits, to go when this one expired. (I was too young to understand these references as sarcastickal, or to know I was living in a house of non-believers, who'd named me as much to mark their freedom from the strictures under which they'd been raised as because they thought it pretty.) Viz., my father once said, through the fug of tobacco smoke that surrounded him of an evening,-Let's sleep late on Sunday, Roxy. The hell with church.

I shouted, -Hooray! as Domine Syrtis spoke half the time in Dutch, some of the time in German, and muttered the rest, which made my skin itch as if I'd rolled in poison sumac.


Excerpted from BROOKLAND by Emily Barton Copyright ©2006 by Emily Barton. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Brookland are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Brookland.

Discussion Questions

1. How were you affected by the presence of Prue's letters? How does her storytelling compare to that in the rest of the novel?

2. Discuss the pivotal scene from Prue's childhood in which she batters her doll (chapter one). How would you characterize Prue's feelings toward Pearl throughout her life? Would their trust have been shattered later in life regardless of Prue's guilt about her alleged hex?

3. What role does religion play in the village of Brookland? How is Matty's atheism received, and how does it affect his daughters' attitude toward death and suffering? How is Ezra Fischer's Judaism received? What distinctions are made between Protestants and Catholics?

4. Do Prue, Tem, and Pearl share any traits derived from their upbringing? How did they cope with the deaths of their parents?

5. Anyone familiar with Brooklyn Heights will recognize location names from the families described in the novel, including the Pierreponts, the Joralemons, the Remsens, and the Livingstons. How did the history presented in Brookland compare to your previous impressions of Brooklyn's early European settlers? What images surprised you the most?

6. To varying degrees, the Winship daughters are faced with sexism and stereotypes. How did each of them respond to this in charting the course of her life? Would you have married Ben, knowing it meant technically relinquishing your father's company to him?

7. Chapter nine, "The Dream," describes both Prue's nightmare regarding Pearl and her dream of building the bridge. Are these two visions related? What does the bridge ultimately come to represent in Prue's life?

8. In what ways did the novel's depictions of slavery, particularly in the characters of Johanna and Abiah, differ from depictions of slavery in fiction set in the South? What did you discover about the abolition process in New York discussed in chapter eighteen?

9. Prudence, Temperance, and Recompense: Is there irony in these character names?

10. Was Pearl ever truly heard by her family or by Will Severn?

11. The novel's epigraph, which includes Yosa Buson's lines, "You are the slaves/of chrysanthemums!" captures many aspects of Prue's life. To what is she enslaved? What is the source of her liberation?

12. Discuss the effect of gin as the commodity of choice to drive the novel's storyline. How is Brookland enhanced by the fact that the Winships' livelihood depends on alcohol consumption?

13. What impact did the hazards of their era—timber fires, infant mortality, epidemics, gruesome on-the-job accidents—have on the Winship daughters? Did they possess a deeper appreciation for life because of such hazards?

14. Prue would not have lived long enough to see John Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883 after more than a decade of hazardous, multi-million-dollar construction. As in the novel, many Brooklynites opposed the bridge and sought to keep a cultural distance from Manhattan. What might Prue have thought of present-day Brooklyn and its role as a borough of New York City?

15. How would Ben's presentation tactics have fared in the world of contemporary public works projects? Has the process for acquiring such funding changed very much over the past two centuries? What is the modern-day equivalent of Prue's bridge? Can you think of an outrageous invention that has been widely wished for but never successfully built?

16. What do you imagine Pearl's fate to be? What unresolved answers lurk in your family legacy, akin the way Recompense continues to hope she will find her aunt?

17. What similarities and differences exist between Brookland and Emily Barton's debut novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron? What makes her approach to storytelling unique?

Customer Reviews

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Brookland 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
verucas_chaos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book because of my love for Brooklyn. I expected somewhat of a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but, was sorely disappointed. It was slow and hard to come to. I abandoned it after several chapters. I'll never know how it ended because I never really started reading it.
mbergman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brookland is Brooklyn in the years from the American Revolution to the early 1800s, remembered from 1822. It's another story of 3 sisters. They inherit a gin distillery from their father, & the oldes dreams of building a bridge to Manhattan. It's an ambitious and powerful, but slow-moving, story about a city, a family, a young woman's dreams & tragic flaws (she believes she caused her sister's disability by dursing her before she was born, then ends up cursing her by treating her as it she's cursed).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gave me a nice glimpse of what life may have been like for my Dutch ancestors in NY
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a great read! The characters are well drawn out and quite interesting. The plot really moves along. You really feel as if you are in Brooklyn in the late 1700s. All in all, this is an excellent historical novel. I purchased this novel by random from a bargain catalog sent to me by Barnes and Noble, and enjoyed it very much. READ THIS BOOK!!