Calling all goths and steampunks: I’ve found the latest 19th-century murder mystery to appeal to your historical little hearts. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly takes place in turn-of-the-century New York City, where Jo Montfort is being groomed to be the perfect high-society lady. Yet Jo wants more to life than marrying the rich and handsome Bram Aldrich as her family expects her to. She would rather be a reporter, although she knows that is hardly a suitable occupation for a well-bred lady. But when her father dies under dubious circumstances, Jo’s penchant for exposing the truth gets personal. Full of action, romance, a little grave-digging, and strong feminist themes, These Shallow Graves is definitely a worth-while read.
Jo’s father’s death is labelled a suicide but Jo can’t believe it. She enlists the help of a dashing young Irish reporter Eddie Gallagher and his friend Oscar Rubin who works at the morgue to unearth the real story behind his demise. Yet as a string of murders target her late father’s business partners, the investigation becomes more dangerous than Jo ever imagined. Just as dangerous are the feelings she begins to develop for Eddie, which threaten to bring her pre-arranged future as a New York aristocrat toppling down. Bram Aldrich would never marry her if he found out she had been sneaking out to the slums at night to investigate a murder, but then again, would she even want him to? Torn between duty and freedom, Jo doesn’t know what decision she will make. But first she has to survive the investigation.
Jo comes from a world where women are supposed to be pretty, proper, and quiet, but that does not mean she accepts her society’s values unquestioningly. She desires freedom not just to love who she wants, but to pursue a career and travel about in the city unchaperoned. In short, Jo wants the same freedoms that she sees the men in her life enjoy (though even the men are not free from the pressure to marry whoever their family decides is best for them). Jo is deliberately written as a feminist character in an era known for its suppression of women, and her ideals are prevalent throughout the story. Here are some of my favorite feminist moments in the book:
- When Jo recognizes her privilege as an upper-class woman and wants to use it to help raise up those who are not so fortunate. As she says, “We who have means and a voice must use them to help those who have neither.” One of the reasons she wants to be a reporter is so that she can bring the public’s attention to the harsh lives of female mill-workers or prostitutes and make their stories heard.
- When Jo talks to her maid Katie about the true meaning of headstrong: “Headstrong is just a word, Katie—a word others call you when you don’t do what they want.” This is relevant to a lot of recent feminist articles about the negative influence of the word bossy. Her same definition could also be used for ‘slut,’ ‘bitch,’ or various other words used mostly to refer to women, whose usage and meaning are so versatile they have ceased to mean anything besides a woman who is not acting the way someone else wants her to.
- Along the same lines, Jo talks about how the people around her use shame as a tool to modify and control women’s behavior. She learns to break that control by refusing to feel the shame they try to put on her and being brave enough to face down society’s disapproval.
- Lastly, although Jo does at one point end up a bit of a damsel in distress, it is not her male love interest who comes in with a daring rescue as I expected, but rather her female friend, a pick-pocket named Fay. In fact, Fay saves Jo several times throughout the book and Jo, in turn, helps Fay escape from being sold into prostitution. Jo and Fay demonstrate the importance of women who come from different walks of life supporting each other rather than competing.
These Shallow Graves was published on October 27th 2015 by Random House Delacorte. You can purchase it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at your local bookstore. To learn more about it and the author, check out Jennifer Donnelly’s website.