The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

16071367Published May 14th 2013 by Clarion Books
My father was Western-Fanboy. When I was a baby he would read to me stories about the conquest of the wilderness and a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice. When all my kindergarden friends went to watch the latest Disney movie my father took me to watch old black and white Western films with John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and even those Karl May Western with Pierre Brice. You have to think about it: A German-Yugoslavian production with a French actor impersonating a Native Indian! Yihaa! When I finally grew up and could tell my father that I would rather play Princess all day than shooting with fake revolvers in the wilderness of our living room he just ignored me and quoted: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much.” Of course that’s a quote by John Wayne.

Much, much later I found old Western books in a box in our basement. Zane Grey (1872-1939)! An American author best known for his popular adventure novels and stories that presented an idealized image of the American frontier. Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was his best-selling book. I’ve read them all. Loved them to pieces and I remember reading those stories like it was yesterday. There is one book, where every time that I pick it up, I just start crying and crying because it’s so damn sad.

What I wanted to say with all this: I was born to love; I was drilled, trained & cultivated by my father to adore the 19th century and the stories about the American frontier. The Caged Graves is not a Western but the historical setting of Catawissa, a small-rural farming town in Pennsylvania in 1867 is approximate enough for my childhood memories to surface. The Revolutionary War and the American Civil War both have had far-reaching ramifications for the small-town community and thus vast influence on the plot. The setting has a very authentic feel to it. For all those who love to read a well written and researched historical novel set in the late 19th century in North-America this book will not disappoint! Dianne K. Salerni has done a great job depicting life in a rural surrounding in 1867: the landed gentry, a life that’s shaped by farming and hard work, the social aspects of village life in the late 19th century, the superstitiousness and small-mindedness of its people. As the story is inspired by a pair of real caged graves in present-day Catawissa, it adds even more authenticity to this historical YA novel. Whoever is interested in learning more about those graves may follow this link: http://colcohist-gensoc.org/wp-conten…

Apart from the Western feel there are also some gothic elements to the story. The combination of both was very well implemented into the plot. I love Jane Eyre; I love the elements of social criticism and spiritual sensibility, its gothic feel, the dark corners, the eerie mystery, the almost supernatural of voices in the wind and ghostly laughter in the night. The eerie mystery surrounding the caged graves combined with the realism of farming and the villager’s small-mindedness fit really well together. There is a lot of social criticism in this book. For one, strong-willed Verity Boone is determined to solve the mystery surrounding the cages on the graves of her mother and aunt as well as finding out why they had to die at such a young age. She is especially resolute on putting them on sacred ground by appealing to the reverend to enlarge the cemetery. Verity also criticizes the town’s bigotry towards the Boones, the offspring of those Native Americans who fought on the wrong side of the war. As an outsider Verity is prone to notice the backwards ways in Catawissa and tries to change it for the better.

Dark Romantics emphasized human fallibility and proneness to sin and self-destruction, as well as the difficulties inherent in attempts at social reform. You could say the love triangle is adding a self-destructive, sinful element to the story. Verity is being seduced (kind of) by the young and charming Doctor while at the same time she starts to develop a deep and strong affection to her intended, the gentleman farmer with whom a marriage has been arranged. The element of an arranged marriage and the complex pro/contra arguments were extraordinarily well integrated into the story. I feel no shame to admit that that was one of the best love triangles I have read so far and I enjoyed every moment of the romance.

The gloomy swamp called “The Shades of Death”, the forbidding cemetery, the suspicious behavior of the Claytons and other village people complement the gothic feel. The paranormal aspects inherent to gothic fiction are well done in the Caged Graves: there is suspicion of witchcraft, the walking dead, even vampirism. There are open diaries lying on the table that should have been somewhere else and eerie lights in the dark. Verity is truly caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying situation and has to deal with the strangeness on her own because others don’t want to see one.

The Caged Graves weaves gothic mystery, historical novel and a charming romance into a suspenseful story that captivated me till the end.

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