Excerpted from Brookland by Emily Barton. Copyright © 2006 by Emily Barton. Published in March 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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 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 ease 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.