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Cradle to Grave by Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is obviously well-versed in the history of Shaker country in upstate New York and New England and in life in general on the harsh frontier in the decades after the American Revolution.  Her latest historical novel, “Cradle to Grave” is infused with the atmosphere and socio-economic realities of that period in these backwoods settlements.  Kuhns is a librarian by profession and a very promising novelist.  Her first work, “A Simple Murder” won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

In “Cradle to Grave” her protagonist, Will Rees, a weaver from Maine, travels to a Shaker village in New York with his new wife, Lydia, to help one of Lydia’s friends who has broken the law in abducting five children of a single mother the friend, Mouse, believes are being neglected.  The mother is murdered and Mouse is accused of the crime.  Rees learns that there are many individuals in the town who have a reason to harm Maggie Whitney, the frequently drunk wet nurse who is killed.  Most of the town’s council members want her gone because her family threatens to become a drain on the town alms to the poor.  In those days many communities like Dover Springs, NY turned out, or “warned out” anyone who applied for assistance or failed to pay taxes if they or their parents were not born in the community.  In colonial and early republic days destitute widows and their children ended up dying of exposure because social welfare was only granted to those who “belonged.”  There are also a number of men in the community who might want to see Maggie and her children disappear rather than get discovered to be the father of one of the kids.  One other man wants her gone so he can claim the small farm and cabin that Maggie inherited from a relative.

The character development, the accurate historic context, and the bleak mid-winter physical descriptions are exceptional in “Cradle to Grave” and I was thoroughly absorbed by this mystery.  I plan on going back to read Kuhns’ two earlier novels and look forward to her next one.

Liz Nichols

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