Historical novels amuse, teach
Readers of spy novels, romances, and Western sagas will all find that history has been artfully blended into their favorite format in three novels that are both entertaining and educational.
In A Bloodsmoor Romance (E.P. Dutton, $16.95), Joyce Carol Oates shows us yet another side of her multifaceted writing skill, as she assumes the guise of an elderly maiden lady and chronicles the life and times of the Zinn family of Bloodsmoor, Pa. But be forewarned: Miss Oates is a skilled artist, and her book is a masterpiece of written trompe l'oeil, where nothing is as it seems.
The diarist is not indulging in mere flimflammery, but hopes to enlighten us by the use of satire to the binding attitudes and customs thrust upon and held by women of the Victorian era. It is no mean task; it takes more than 600 pages. Let me quickly assure you, Dear Reader (as the narrator would say), that it's worth almost every page. More often than not, we glimpse unexpected pleasures even when the route is circuitous.
The narrator charts 20 tumultuous years, 1879-99, in the life of the five Zinn daughters, who were taught, as a reader of romance well knows, to direct their every thought, action, dream, and scheme toward the -hallowed state of matrimony. To tell you that some of them had different plans will not spoil the tale. One hopes it will entice you to see how these five reckless females dared to take off society's blinders and take charge of their lives.
This charmingly disguised anti-romance illuminates the Victorian mentality as well as the customs, manners, and toilette of the era. Miss Oates is a shameless name-dropper, and anyone of note living in this period is mentioned. Mark Twain has a dalliance with one of the sisters, and the scoundrel Thomas Edison is forever stealing Mr. Zinn's inventions! Transcendentalism is in full swing, and one of the daughters becomes a world-renowned spiritualist. Mary Baker Eddy and her new religion, Christian Science, are also mentioned when one of the grandmothers becomes ill and enlists a local practitioner to pray for her recovery.
A word of caution, Dear Reader: Although this tale is handled most delicately by its spinster narrator, there are a few episodes involving carnality which could prove upsetting.
Me and Gallagher (Simon & Schuster, 143 pp., $13.95,) is short, sweet, to the point, and, like a derringer, it packs a wallop.
The bare-bones story is narrated by sidekick Grubby, who tells of his two years with Gallagher, a man cast in the same mold as Hollywood's Shane. Written in the first person, the story involves us at once in the hard and rough life of the Old West. The rescue by Gallagher and Grubby of a family during a blizzard chills you to the bones, and the account of a vigilante hunt and trial makes you shiver for a different reason.
Author Jack Ferris is a poet, who gives you a skeleton and makes you feel you've been offered a feast. His language is occasionally rough and profane, but readers who persevere will find a warm and engrossing tale.
Was Benjamin Franklin a British spy? If you're game, Poor Richard's Game (Delacorte Press, 309 pp., $16.95) will entertain you while ensnaring you in a tangled web of political intrigue.
In 1781 the Americans were winning the war on the battlefield, but were afraid that a traitor at the American consulate in Paris would give away their victory at the peace table. So our fictitious hero, the dashing Irish soldier Desmond de Lawless, is sent to ferret out the mole code named ''Moses'' and discover if he really is Franklin. Author G.J. O'Toole has done his homework, as shown by the bibliography. But what sets this book apart is the skillfully constructed dialogues.