Author: Kaaren Christopherson
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Group, New York, New York
Reviewer: Ralph Peluso, Literary Editor
Zebra Rating – 4.5 Stripes
The bubbly author, Kaaren Christopherson, writer and professional editor of over twenty five years provided an interesting historical backdrop to the development of her marvelous period novel. Her love in writing about history began during a family vacation to the battlefields at Gettysburg when she was an impressionable ninth grader. Gettysburg, the bloodiest of all the conflicts in the war against northern aggression, or Civil War depending one’s vantage point, is emotional and fascinating.
Christopherson knew there were many stories, many of which were yet untold. She found one in Jenny Wade, the only civilian killed at Gettysburg. But she took it a step further. The straightforward story would have been to celebrate the bravery of Jenny while nursing wounded soldiers as the battle raged on every side of her. Or, the fact that she was engaged to a Union soldier who was risking his life to ensure all Americans were in fact free, who was most likely destined not to return. She could have told of Jenny’s fearlessness as she knelt next to a fatally wounded Union soldier helplessly watching as he bled out, ignoring the bullets whizzing dangerously close until one tragically cut her life short. But no, she composed the portrait from the perspective of Jenny’s sister who witnessed the heartbreaking scene. In writing about how she felt, the fourteen-year old painted a story that drew from a young woman’s emotions who saw the unfortunate and unnecessary death of her altruistic sister.
In the development of Decorum, Christopherson began to have repeated visualizations about two characters dressed in attire of the late 1800s. There was a man dressed very elegantly, including top hat and silver-handled cane, fixed in front of an equally stylish woman. The pair, standing in front of a hotel, was absorbed in an overheated argument. A hansom cab was a few feet away with a top hat-wearing driver, holding the reigns tightly to calm his restless stead. Other carriages passed in the background. Christopherson had no idea what the argument was about, or what the dress of the 1890s was but she launched full bore into a period of discovery about the era and development of two of the characters in Decorum.
She began to imagine other scenes including the female (Francesca) singing as the male (Connor) energetically played the piano. Set in New York City during its gilded age, the scene and character development are meticulously careful, particularly of her four critical characters. Riches aren’t enough for Casey O’Connor, a millionaire New Yorker of Irish descent, who seeks to build a legacy. Francesca Lund is beautiful and as equally wealthy. As much as she tried to avoid the trappings that came with affluence she couldn’t, nor wouldn’t resist the allure of wealthy well-dressed gentleman. An ill-matched engagement to the very dapper Edmund Tracy forces her to acknowledge that the rich, including herself are not exempt from the deadly sins. Then of course mix in a siren named Blanche and you have yourself a plot.
The author utilized her grandmother’s recipes about proper etiquette as a preamble to each chapter. Whenever her writing stalled, she’d seek advice for the characters from the etiquette book, finding a rule not followed. I found the decorum rules very applicable for today’s society in both social settings or in the business workplace. “Avoid opposition and argument when in conversation” I have seen family dinners and business meetings deteriorate when emotion takes over. The Republican candidates for presidential nomination should take this rule to heart. “Cautiousness and the check of habitual self-control should accompany the mind of everyone who launches out in an animated conversation.”
Christopherson invested a tremendous amount of time in writing Decorum, spending countless hours studying old photographs and reading the accompanying information. Her diligence pays off for the readers. For example, the masquerade ball scene attended by Blanche and Connor came from hours studying a photo of an impressionist work by Mary Cassatt published in Harper’s Weekly. A graduate of Central Michigan University, Kaaren Christopherson is still very active in Alexandria, Virginia, where she lives with her two cats, Archie and Sammy.
I give in 4.5 stripes! A must read.