A Writer's Journey

March 26, 2012

Book Analysis: “Lake in the Clouds” by Sara Donati

Filed under: journey,writing — mackenziew @ 12:00 am
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“Lake in the Clouds” is the third book in Donati’s “Into the Wilderness” series. It’s the most recent one I’ve read, so I’ll be discussing it first.

Once again, this is more an analysis than a review. This is a warning for spoilers.

“Lake in the Clouds” tells a few stories all surrounding the Bonner family of Paradise, NY. When a pregnant runaway slave arrives, Nathaniel and Elizabeth promise to help her get to a group that will help her. When they reach the group, they find it has been decimated by disease. So Elizabeth recruits help in getting them to Canada, where they will be safe. Along the way, they get stopped by bounty hunters looking for the runaway slave. Rather than be found, she gives her newborn son to another ex-slave, weighs herself down and jumps into the water. Heartbroken, the Bonners help the others get to Canada.

Meanwhile, Hannah travels with family friend Kitty Todd and her son Ethan to New York City. Kitty has been sick for some time and hopes a new doctor can help her. They stay with Elizabeth’s cousin and her husband, who is involved with helping runaway slaves. Hannah works with doctors who are caring for the city’s poor and immigrants. She also learns about smallpox vaccination. Hannah hopes to use the knowledge to help her mother’s people.

Back in Paradise, Jemima Southern is unhappy working for Mrs. Kuick, the richest woman in town. However, she does fancy the widow’s only son. She plots to get him to marry her and sees her opportunity when she discovers the man is gay. Using a returned Liam Kirby—who is chasing after the runaway slave—Jemima becomes pregnant and blackmails Isaiah into marrying her. But she is still not happy.

As the Bonners reunite in Paradise, a sickness starts sweeping over the town as a long lost relative returns with a friend. In the end, Hannah leaves married to the friend as the family looks to the next chapter in their lives.

Of “Into the Wilderness,” “Dawn on a Distant Shore,” and this book, I find “Lake in the Clouds” the weakest of the series. Donati continues a trend she started in “Dawn on the Distant Shore,” namely telling more than one plot in the book. In my opinion, it worked better in the earlier book. The characters were separated, but on the same quest–to go to Scotland. Hannah and Curiosity arrive there first and Hannah befriends a young girl. This allows her to learn information relevant to the plot. Meanwhile, her parents get to have an action-adventure plot filled with soldiers and privateers. They even get to meet Robert Burns, the Scottish poet.

In “Lake in the Clouds,” there really isn’t this gelling of the two stories. They do have something in common–a runaway slave and Curiosity’s son Manny. However, the stories are still so far apart that they could’ve easily been two different books. I think the problem lies in that I feel “Lake in the Clouds” is clearly Hannah’s story. It’s her coming-of-age, her journey from girlhood to womanhood. It is about her journey to New York and her fight over where she belongs in the world–is she white or Native American?

The plot regarding Elizabeth and Nathaniel seems shoehorned in, as if Donati realized that her readers wanted more of her main characters. But in my opinion, the two would’ve served better as background characters for Hannah’s story. Hannah has emerged as a character in her own right. It was her time to shine.

I could understand people wanting Elizabeth and Nathaniel to be the forefront. They were what drew us first to this series. They carried the first book. They even carried most of the second. I feel it’s okay to give them a break now. Though after Hannah’s story, the parts with Elizabeth and Nathaniel are some of the book’s best.  Especially with her struggle after a death prior to the book’s start and how it affects her reaction to the illness spreading throughout Paradise. It was really moving and strengthens their romance.

There isn’t much by way of other romance pushing this story forward, putting this book more into historical fiction rather than historical romance. Donati tries to write romances in this book, but I don’t think it gives way to them naturally like “Into the Wilderness” did. The one new romance in the book felt forced to me.

Please bear with me. This is one of the few bones of contention I have with this book. It’s introduced late into the book, especially after we spent time learning more about a former friend of Hannah’s throughout the beginning. In some ways, either a subplot needed to be dropped or the romance needed to be moved to work better. Not that I like the romance either.

Let me explain. It begins when Otter, a character introduced as a young boy in “Into the Wilderness,” returns all grown up. He brings with him a friend named Strikes-the-Sky. Remember how I said this story is mostly Hannah’s debate on which world she belongs to? This newcomer plays a part in it. Shortly after he arrives, everyone decides that Hannah will marry him. Why? Mostly because of what I like to call “they’re bickering—it must be love!” Now, I must stress the following is how it came off to me as a reader. Someone else may see it differently. So, yes, Hannah and Strikes-the-Sky tend to bicker. But rather than a battle of wills, Hannah is downright hostile to him.

There was a brief moment where I wondered if maybe the relationship would work. But then Hannah realized her place in the world. And here’s where I disagree with the way Donati took her. It appears Donati’s intention was for Hannah to take her place as a Native American. I thought she was going to take her place somewhere she could be both identities. Because of that, I no longer thought the romance was going to work.

And then I didn’t like how Hannah ultimately got together with Strikes-the-Sky. It’s toward the end, after a major outbreak of scarlet fever. Hannah has been helping tend the sick and therefore gotten little sleep. She’s also been at the deathbed of a woman who is family to her. There are two ways to read this. One is that she is emotionally raw and ready to face the truth. The other is that she emotionally raw and in no condition to make any life-altering decisions. That is how I read it.

So those are some of the reasons I didn’t like the romance. That and the fact I didn’t feel it. And that’s important in a romance.

With that out of the way, Donati did her research well. Yes, she fudged some things which she admitted in her after notes. For example, she moved up the discovery of the smallpox vaccination she used. But artistic license is to be expected. I once read the advice for writers to know the rules so they know how and when to break them.

Donati’s description also benefits from her research. She vividly paints Manhattan of the 1800s. At the time I was reading those sections of the books, I was working in Manhattan. I was often around one of the areas Donati mentioned. It was fun to imagine what it looked like back then. She also captured the racial tensions and class prejudices that simmered in the city. The danger, the intrigue and the social injustices were all present.

Most of the characters are against the injustices—Hannah especially because of her own descent and her chosen profession. But some of their viewpoints can feel like they are better suited to living today. But that may just be how it goes. I write historical novels. Sometimes, it’s hard not to include modern beliefs. And it might be difficult for a modern woman to connect with a woman who doesn’t act the way we think they should.

Lily and Daniel grow as characters as well. The last time we saw them, they were babies. Now, they are headstrong and mischievous young children. Daniel is a little adventurer while Lily is trying to find her place in the world. She ultimately finds a talent for viewing the world and capturing it in drawings.

While I wanted to slap Jemima several times, I also wanted to know how her story played out. I was glad to see her get her comeuppance at the end, though she is still back in the next book.  I also wanted to learn more about Liam’s story and hope to see him again in the future.

Do I recommend the book? Yes, but you’ll want to read the other two books first.

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