We Have Moved!

We have moved our blog to the new CHB website! Check us out over there to find our latest stories and reviews!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Michelle Reviews: Madam by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin

All of the most famous cities in the world have a personality. We are drawn to them in the same way we are drawn to each other. New Orleans is alluring. It bristles with life, music, culture, and most importantly history.

The most fascinating period within the history of New Orleans has to be the sex-crazed, gin-soaked, debauched Storyville era at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, many records of Storyville have been destroyed, and the history of this famous red-light district has always been somewhat underground. Luckily for us though, authors Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin have seen to filling some of that void. Lynn and Martin have written Madam: A Novel of New Orleans. The book is a captivating romp through Storyville’s rise beginning in 1897.

Madam tells the story of Mary Deubler, the woman who would become the famous Miss Josie Arlington. Mary’s life lacked the auspicious beginning a figure of such and enduring legacy typically enjoys. We are told that she was born the child of a prostitute thus practically ensuring a life along the same path for the young girl. Mary moves through life existing and subsisting but never really living. She is so beaten down by her uncle (who has functioned as her pimp since the age of fourteen), her johns (who use and degrade her), and her position (outside of Venus Alley “whores” like Mary are viewed as practically subhuman) that she sees no way out even with her intelligence and beauty intact.

Only when her brother’s wife becomes pregnant does Mary begin to look for a way out. She cannot suffer another generation of her family to be debased in the way that she and her mother before her had been. Lynn and Martin do a great job describing the anxiety that permeates this section of the novel. Mary’s place in the world is so tenuous, her position so unsure, that each new experience could prove disastrous, and the authors are at their best when describing this fear. However, Mary is very intelligent and while wise enough not to be fearless she is very brave in stepping out to better her situation. With the help of Tom Anderson, the unofficial mayor of Storyville, Mary does rise from the dregs of society into wealth and infamy to become Josie Arlington, one of the most powerful and feared madams of the district. 

We hear very little of Mary’s life once she becomes Josie, though the authors do posit that it is not a happy one. We do however hear from Mary’s niece, and everything Mary hoped for her seems to have come true. She is affluent and well educated; the world is open to her. The novel ends with Mary’s niece Anna working through her own history and trying to accept the truth of her Aunt Mary’s life as a prostitute and madam.

Madam succeeds at what I love best about historical fiction – it leaves the reader wanting more. The authors note in their preface that they have maintained “as accurate a sense of history as possible” and their attention to the facts and meticulous research show. Upon finishing the book, I found myself seeking out books and articles about Storyville…separating the truth of Madam from the flushed out fiction. While reading through historical documents and especially Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans I was impressed by just how much of the time the authors were able to fit into the novel. From famous quotes to tongue-in-check cameos; it’s all there from the birth of jazz to the rise of the railroads. Madam is great read, and one I would definitely recommend to fans of historical fiction in general and southern history in particular.

I would be remiss to leave this post without also noting another recent release. One of the historical documents featured in Madam is the Blue Book; a pamphlet used to advertise the ladies, houses, and entertainments offered within Storyville. The Blue Book is a rare historical document for many reasons: not only was much of Storyville’s history burned but the Blue Book was meant to be used as a guide and then discarded. Luckily, a few copies do still survive and even more serendipitous one copy ended up in the hands of Judith Lafitte, owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans. Judith oversaw the reproduction and publication of her copy of the Blue Book, which is now available in print. The reproduction is an exact replica of the pamphlet and it is a thrill to look through. There are, of course, things to shake your head at while being happy about how far we have come, but on the whole this historical document charms me with just how little our basest natures have or ever will change.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...