#bookreview: Cursed

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JAMES ALSOBROOK AND FOUR MORE OF HIS PEOPLE DIED FOR WRONGING ME AND STEALING MY CHILDREN. JAMES’ WIFE WILL DIE SOON UNLESS SHE RESTORES MY CHILDREN. AND LET SOME NEARER HOME BE READY SEE EZEKIEL 33:14-16 7-8-13

My Review

Patricia Thrushart’s Cursed: The Life and Tragic Death of Marion Alsobrook Stahlman is a work of narrative nonfiction unlike any I’ve read before: a hybrid of genealogy, American history (including cultural history), creative nonfiction, and epistolary fiction.

The book begins with a local oddity in Pennsylvania called “Curse Rock” and ends with the gravestone of Douglas Stahlman, the unhinged hermit who carved the curse on a hunk of misshapen stone in 1913. The curse was directed toward the Alsobrooks, the family of Stahlman’s deceased wife Marion.

The circumstances under which this curse came to be written were triggered by Marion’s death from puerperal fever in 1901 after her husband denied her proper medical treatment. Widely covered in the press at the time, the facts of the case can be easily found.

However, to fully understand how a woman of thirty-two, under the care of a competent physician, could lose control of her medical treatment to her husband, Cursed presents a thoroughly-researched account of the Alsobrook and Stahlman families, with particular attention given to the historical and cultural forces that affected women’s lives and roles.

I was surprised to find that the book covers such a wide span of time: from 1578 through 1973.  Because this timespan involves so much historical and genealogical detail, a highly-skilled narrator is required to guide readers through the information and help them make sense of it. Thrushart meets this requirement admirably.

The use of creative nonfiction in the context of writing about history always raises the question for me of where the line is between making history come alive to engage readers and misleading them by deviating from documentary evidence. In the case of Cursed, the strength of the narrator ensures that the line is not crossed.

Thrushart’s experience as a poet is very much in evidence in the quality of her prose, particularly in the creative nonfiction sections, which are presented at key points in the book as vignettes to illustrate how a person might have experienced a significant event.

I highly recommend Cursed to readers interested in women’s history, genealogy, and narrative nonfiction.

The Author

I am a writer and poet living in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains just outside of award-winning Cook Forest State Park in the Wilds of Pennsylvania. The beauty of Northern Appalachia and its forests informs my poetry.  A poet writes to satisfy a need to express emotion or document life; having readers actually interested in sharing those moments is both exhilarating and humbling. If reading any of these poems creates in you a sense of gratitude, awareness or an appreciation of the beauty of our natural world, then I can consider my effort to be worthwhile.  Beyond my poetry, I write narrative nonfiction books that explore the lives of historical women whose stories have been lost to time.

The Inspiration

It wasn’t long after I moved to the Brookville PA area about ten years ago that I began hearing references to Scripture Rock Heritage Park, and the name Douglas Stahlman. I paid little attention— the idea that some eccentric had carved scriptural references into local boulders in the early 1900s did not interest me enough to learn more.
 
In the meantime, I joined a local writers’ group and one of the members asked me to be a beta reader for a project she had underway.  I agreed, and she handed me a few chapters of a fictionalized version of Stahlman’s life.  That’s when I learned about rhe Curse Rock, and what happened to Douglas’s wife, Marion Alsobrook Stahlman.  I was simultaneously incensed and immensely saddened.
 
My emotional reaction deepened when I realized how little was known about her — she was only a footnote to the story of her husband, who was directly culpable in her death. I decided at that moment that I would tell her story, vowing that when I was done with my research, any interested reader would know as much or even more about her than her husband.
 
I spent three years researching the Alsobrook clan, coming upon one surprise after another.  The resulting story starts, not with Marion’s birth in 1866, but her seventh-great-grandfather’s voyage to the New World in 1609.  To capture her full legacy, the book covers the lives of her two children, who grew up not knowing her name. Her youngest son, James Marion, died in 1962.
 
The other delight in writing this book was the review it provided of our country’s history. Because of who they were, when they came and where they lived, the story of the Alsobrooks is the story of our nation: its migration patterns, its wars, the changing role of women and its transformation from a rural to an urban culture.
 
Because I had no personal artifacts— no photos, letters, journals, testimonials— for any of these characters, I decide to write fictional vignettes to make these people come alive for the reader.  It was great fun.

103 thoughts on “#bookreview: Cursed

  1. I associate rural Pennsylvania with creepy family history. My paternal grandmother was born in Brookville and grew up there. She was born Martha Lindenbolt, but later changed her name to Patricia. Her father lost an arm in a railroad accident when she was little. Her parents divorced shortly after that, and she never saw him again. It was a dark period of her life that she never talked about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Liz for an excellent review. As always your rich insight into the mood, style and narrative encourages me to what to read the work. I appreciate your inclusion of the author’s inspiration, I always find that (for some reason) of particular interest.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. An excellent review, Liz, and I always appreciate the inclusion of the author’s explanation and insight into their working process.

    In my own nonfiction work, I try to stick with evidentiary narrative, but also decided to create a couple creative vignettes to make the readers feel closer to the principal characters. Not something to do lightly or extensively.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You raise an interesting question regarding creative nonfiction in terms of history. I’m sure that is tricky ground, especially when covering such a wide period where an author may have to take more educated guesses.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My nightstand is groaning with in-process and to-be-read books. Another pile of waiting books sits at the end of my desk My wish list of to-be-purchased books is frighteningly long. And Monday I vowed I will buy no more—nor even check out anything from the library—until I make significant reading progress.

    Well, that lasted until I read your review and Patricia’s comments. As a reader “interested in women’s history, genealogy, and narrative nonfiction,” and an avid student of the latter, I’ve declared this book a must-read. I’m off to find it and add it to the top of the piles!

    Thank you, Liz. I’m truly excited to experience how Patricia handles this real-life story.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Another brilliant, fast-paced review that had me on the edge of the seat. I am fascinated by how Patricia Thrushart used a single point in time to tell a story that spanned generations. I am very interested in reading this book. Do you know when Cursed will be available in Kindle version? Paperback is the only format that is available in Canada, which is priced at $28.35.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. It’s clear that Patricia Thrushart is curious about history and devoted to her characters, willing to tackle a saga requiring so much research. How interesting too that her passion for the topic began with being a beta reader for another book. Liz, this is a compelling book review of an author I’d like to get to know better. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This sounds like such an unusual book, Liz. I love how you find these unique reads. I enjoyed your description of the book’s structure and the author’s description of her inspiration and approach. Sadly, women are still subject to the control of men when it comes to their healthcare and bodies.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. That does sound like an amazing book and totally fascinating that it starts at the beginning of a family history. Poor Marion could never have imagined such a creative and well researched book being written about her well over a century later.

    Liked by 2 people

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