Title: The Caged Graves
Author: Dianne K. Salerni
Rating: 4.5 Stars
When I think of the post-Civil War Era, I envision a nation torn apart by war, weary from years of struggle, and disheartened by life. I think of communities trying to re-build themselves, families joining together in companionship, and tentative smiles being shared over a dinner table. I think of the political strife in both the North and the South, the armies of soldiers kept to guard the untrustworthy South from resorting back to rebellion and the assassination of a beloved leader. I do not, however, think of Revolutionary War stories that haunt small towns, gold-digging visitors blinded by greed, or the graves of witches defiled both by the cages that stand over them and their blatant exclusion from holy ground. Now, though, it's practically all I can think about.
The Caged Graves is an incredibly atmospheric piece, immersing readers into the small-town life of 19th Century Pennsylvania where young men dream of growing farms, fathers ache to put the war behind them, and doctors yearn for the blissful ignorance they held prior to serving in the war effort. Verity Boone, having spent the last fifteen years away from her father and childhood home, finally returns to Catawissa, but not quite with the homecoming she's expecting. After agreeing to an arranged marriage with the most eligible bachelor in town, Verity is shunned by her new neighbors and distant from the father she never grew up with. Moreover, Nathaniel, the boy she has agreed to spend the rest of her life with, is a far different creature than his letters made him out to be. Although he is just as handsome - if not more - than his portrait alludes to, the shocking realization that Nate might have written his letters to Verity with a great deal of help from his sisters, potentially going so far as to have them select gifts for her, puts a damper on Verity's former excitement. After all, now she is stuck in the small town where she was born only this time, she is practically a stranger in her own household and, what's more, is about to marry a man who she realizes is not as familiar as she would have wished. Furthermore, to make matters worse, Verity discovers that her deceased mother and aunt are buried in caged graves, just outside the cemetery, and the quiet father she knows once used to fill his head with tales of buried treasure left over from the Revolutionary War. Already struggling to fit into her new home, Verity must now seek the answers to the questions regarding her mother's unexpected death and, most of all, the gold-diggers who still believe her mother's grave contains buried gold...
Where The Caged Graves shines is in its defiant portrayal of Verity, a heroine whose determination and flaws go hand-in-hand. From the first page itself, Verity's voice is seamless to slip into and her narration an enjoyment to read. While we first meet Verity on a train bound for Catawissa as a vivacious and energetic young woman, we quickly see her grow to make a niche for herself, despite the disappointments her homecoming brings. Moreover, it is Verity's unwavering stubbornness which drives the novel forward. Whether it be in her efforts to connect with the family she has grown without - father, uncle, aunt, cousins - or get to know her future husband, she is diligent and kind, not above letting her poised demeanor slip once in awhile, revealing the truly passionate girl that lurks within. Although The Caged Graves kept me glued to my seat from start to finish, the plot truly picks up once Verity uncovers the graves of her mother and aunt. From that moment on, Verity is an unstoppable force, going on with her day-to-day life while perusing her mother's diary entries and attempting to uncover the truth of her mother's death - a truth no one, especially not her father, will reveal to her.
It is an engaging mystery, paced impeccably and made all the more intriguing for the stories of buried treasure whispered through the winds of Catawissa. While these two plot threads seem to be quite distinct at first, they soon diverge to build the suspense already palpable within the story. Verity, as the novel wears on, hardly knows who to truly trust and though the ultimate reveal is a tad-bit anticlimactic, it is strangely satisfying. Moreover, the inclusion of the mystery throughout the novel only helps Verity's character to grow, change, and rise to challenges. Where she came to Catawissa prepared to wed, to run her own home and to deal with proper society, she did not expect to find so much mystery and mahem at her doorstep and, as such, the plot reveals hidden depths both to her character and those of the people who surround her as well.
And yet, for all the interest that the plot of this novel generates, not to mention Verity's indomitable nature, the romance still had me anxious, reeling, and swooning all at once. While there is, admittedly, a love triangle in this novel, it was one I enjoyed - embraced, in fact - as it built upon the plot and Verity's character both in admirable ways. For one, the inclusion of the love triangle is a welcoming admittance to the fact that Verity does, in fact, have options in life. Although Verity herself instigated her arranged marriage, for a woman during her time period to be able to choose who she wishes to marry is a freedom offered only to few. Henry, the assistant to the village doctor, is a far cry from Nate whose aspirations lie in successfully running his own farm. Not only does Henry make his interest in Verity clear, flattering her in the process, but his profession lends itself to a greater scope of knowledge which is attractive. Additionally, Verity feels safe with Henry, trusting him to help her solve the mystery of her mother's death and though her heart is firmly set in making a home for herself and Nathaniel, she cannot help but wonder how her life would be if she married someone different. The Caged Graves makes effective use of this love triangle, using it to mold Verity into a woman who eventually comes to stand by her beliefs and convictions. Moreover, the ability that Verity has to choose her future makes her a much more confident character and her doubts about her relationship with Nate, a man who seems obliged to court and marry her due to their arranged marriage situation and the fact that Verity's dowry included plenty of fertile land for the farm he dreams of owning, are realistic and this challenge is yet another one to overcome.
Attracted to both of them in different ways, yes - but how, at seventeen, was she supposed to recognize love?And though Verity considers another man, despite her engagement to Nate, he is still the one with whom her affections lie. At first, Nate is a difficult character to like. After all, he all but admits that his sisters helped him court Verity through letters and in person he is quick to follow his mother's orders, never taking the initiative to propose to Verity on her own. Nevertheless, rocky start aside, as Verity begins to spend more and more time with Nate, she comes to trust him, rely on him, and even admire the person he truly is. What Verity struggles with, throughout the novel, is identifying her feelings as love. Salerni touches upon this subject only briefly, but it is a lasting theme in the story as Verity, who comes to love her father, her extended family, and even the housekeeper who brought her up, is unable to identify if she loves Nate. While she once thought she did during their letter correspondence which began before she returned to Catawissa, she hesitates to throw the word around lightly. Moreover, doubts and hesitations stand in her way, as they do in every relationship. The Caged Graves, though a historical fiction novel with a mysterious plot line, takes the time to thoroughly flesh out its characters and their relationships to one another, creating complex story lines that are impossible not to become invested in. Yet, perhaps the best aspect of the romance is that I never truly took one side or the other; I wanted Verity to be happy. Salerni builds such a strong bond between the narrator and the reader that it is impossible to feel anything but happiness at the ultimate conclusion of this romantic dilemma, especially as it remains such an important emotional journey for Verity herself, integral to making her embrace the woman she becomes by the end of the novel.
Needless to say, The Caged Graves is near-perfect, drawing together real-life historical elements, fictional characters who feel life-like, and writing which flows seamlessly to create a novel that is not only impossible to put down, but impossible to forget. While I've been lucky enough to read The Caged Graves so early in the year, I already know it's one title I will be recommending for the next twelve months to come.