Friday, March 4, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Susan Higginbotham is well known for her historical novels set in the Middle Ages and during the Wars of the Roses. (See my review of The Stolen Crown.) The remaining novels are on my TBR-list, but then I heard she was switching time periods and location to write a novel set in the 19th century U.S.. The novel, Hanging Mary, is the story of Mary Surratt and her involvement in the Lincoln assassination. It sounded so intriguing I couldn’t wait to read it!

The story is told from two points of view, that of Mary herself and that of Honora (Nora) Fitzpatrick, a young female boarder.

Mary is a widow whose deceased husband, an alcoholic tavern owner, left her in financial straits. Aside from the tavern, he owned a house a ways from the center of the city, which was leased out. Mary reverses the situation by leasing the tavern and taking possession of the house, which she converts to a boarding house. Mary’s family are southern sympathizers, and they are in relatively good company in Washington City, though outnumbered by Unionists. Mary’s eldest son went off to join the confederate army. Her second son, John, and her daughter live in the boarding house. Both are more vehemently pro-South than their mother, who mostly wants the war to end and her son to come home.

One of her first boarders is Nora, daughter of a comfortably well-off banker. Nora’s mother died when she was very young, and she needs a respectable place to live. Nora is firmly in the Union camp, but has been taught by her father to be discreet and respectful of others’ opinions.

It isn’t long before John brings home a new acquaintance, the famous actor John Wilkes Booth. A handsome man with extraordinary charm, he ingratiates himself with Mary and captures the heart of Mary’s daughter. Nora, too, is mildly infatuated with the actor, but she is much more pragmatic and realistic. She grows more fond of him for his kindness, but recognizes the unlikelihood of his interest in either Mary’s daughter or herself.

The war is, naturally, a source of daily interest and consternation in the Surratt household. The occupants follow the news and attend historic events where the president speaks. They also attend the theater to watch their new friend, taking pride in the acquaintance.

However, Mary grows more and more concerned with her son’s activities. John has become secretive, and he keeps bringing strangers around to the boarding house insisting they be given temporary lodging. The guests are not the type of people Mary is comfortable having in her home. Still, when she senses John is in danger, and armed with reassurances from Booth that they have no intentions of causing anyone harm, she increases her support of them.

The rest, of course, is history.

Higginbotham grows her characters with skill. While it is easier to sympathize with Nora, an intelligent, caring woman caught up in a situation over which she has no control than it is with Mary, who seems at times to willfully allow herself to be misguided, it is also possible to understand how a mother could make missteps where a beloved son is concerned.

This is wonderful historical fiction, informative and emotionally involving. A great choice for book clubs!


  1. I find myself adding almost all the books your review to my TBR. This one sounds good. Love historical fiction. Thanks!

  2. I am reading this now.

    Thank you for your review. It will help sort things out.

    I am anxious to get back to my book after reading your review.

    ENJOY your day.

    I am stopping by from the Saturday Review of Books Post.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

  3. This sounds great! I've enjoyed Higginbotham's novels in the past and wondered about this one. Thanks for the review.