You do not have to be a Beatrix Potter fan to appreciate Susan Wittig Albert's latest addition to her historical fiction/mystery series. Set in the early 1900s in a rural sector of northwestern England known as Land Between the Lakes, The Tale of Hawthorn House has enough intrigue and fantasy to tickle anyone's fancy (and funny bone).
In real life, Potter lived part time at Hill Top, a farm she purchased with generous royalties and merchandising offshoots from her successful children's books that began with The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She went to this personal haven as often as she could—in part to get away from her demanding and domineering parents in London and, in part, to fill the empty void left when her beloved fiancé died.
As the recurring heroine of Albert's Cottage Tales, Potter is as adept at solving mysteries as she is at capturing our hearts through the beloved animals in her books. In The Tale of Hawthorn House, she sets out to help the Justice of the Peace, Captain Miles Woodcock, find the mother of Baby Flora, the infant left on her doorstep in a basket by Mrs. Overthewall. The only clues are the basket, a sprig of hawthorn, an antique ring with the initials RK, and a piece of exquisitely woven cloth.
Albert, who also pens the China Bayles Mysteries, has obviously done her homework. She creates her Cottage Tales based on her research about Beatrix Potter's life and books in such a way that you gain insight into Potter as a person. You are also able to enter her fantasy world of the animals that became the characters in her books. Interjecting gossip from both the people and the animals that inhabit the tiny village in the Land Between the Lakes, Albert uses the characters and their relationships to weave color and texture into the tapestry of the plot.
Much like Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, twists and turns in the events and the relationships of the characters keep things moving and the reader wondering. There is the mystery of the suspicious flight to London by the young maid, Emily Shaw, as well as the question of whether the Hawthorn Folk are really fairies. Besides the strange appearance of Baby Flora, there is the conundrum over Jemima Puddleduck (one of the characters from Potter's books) and her na´ve desire to hatch her own eggs. Parallel to Jemima's relationship with a questionable fox named Mr. Reynard Vulpes, Esq. (who woos her with his fake French accent and exotic foreign food, such as pâté de foie gras), is the suspense about whether Major Christopher Kittredge will be able to overcome village gossip about his previous marriage and win the heart of Dimity Woodcock.
Although it took a few chapters to draw me into the story, Albert's careful attention to detail about Potter and the era in which she lived made this fiction/fantasy a delightful read. Keeping her readers entertained with historic information about the quaint Land Between the Lakes area, she included maps, recipes, and a glossary of archaic terms. The Tale of Hawthorn House was my introduction to the Land Between the Lakes, which Potter tells her brother Bertram "is infinitely interesting, like the world in miniature." I agree and am looking forward to reading the other tales in Albert's series.
Susan Witting Albert grew up on a farm in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkely. A former profesor of English and a university administrator and vice president, she is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, as well as the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter She and her husband, Bill live near Austin, Texas. Visit their website.
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