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.
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.