The Monk Woman’s Daughter
Everyone knew the story of Maria Monk back in the 1830s and the decades following; the publication of her book, which told the infamous stories in which she claimed to have been forced into carnal relations during her time in a nunnery, turned her into both a celebrity of sorts and a figure of moral derision. And those who hated her used her story to support her cause for many years. But what happened to her daughter, supposedly born from this sin? Vera St. John, as she’s known in this historical fiction novel, spent much of her life trying to escape her mother’s shadow. This novel explores what might have happened to this woman in her own, unique life.
Vera did manage to get away from her mother as a young girl, escaping to the home of a relative of her stepfather, where she did her best to keep her head down and keep anyone from finding out the truth. The Monk Woman’s Daughter follows Vera through many years of her life, from childhood to adulthood and on. We get to know Miss Julia, the woman who took her in and taught her a trade; Mrs O’Hanrahan and her daughters, who helped Vera begin building a life of her own; Jimmy O’Dea, the charismatic Irishman she gets married to; Elijah Smith, the freedman desperate to find his enslaved wife and child; and many others. We follow Vera up to Baltimore, back down to Washington, D.C., and on a journey to Tennessee.
It’s a fascinating tale, if a bit long-winded; despite the many twists and turns Vera’s life takes, though, most readers will stay firmly engaged. Author Susan Storer Clark has quite a talent for storytelling, and she does an excellent job using historical references to weave a plausible story of Vera’s life. In addition, she subtly includes references to various important happenings of these times, including the gangs in Baltimore, the Civil War, and the aftermath of the end of slavery. Clark even manages to make readers feel a bit of sympathy at the final plight of Vera’s mother, the infamous Maria Monk, who, in this book, dies nameless in prison.
Clark makes it clear at the end that The Monk Woman’s Daughter is a work of fiction; the times and places are real, and Maria Monk was real, but next to nothing is known of the child supposedly born of her time in the nunnery. Despite this, Clark is able to create a story that is wholly believable, starring a protagonist who is mostly likable and sympathetic, populated by a colorful cast of supporting characters, and set vividly in the not-too-distant past. Don’t let the mediocre cover or the slightly awkward opening chapter put you off. This book is worth reading, and it’s hard to put down once begun!
Susan Storer Clark