Fans of historical novels - particularly the fat, meticulously researched kind - have I got a bridge to sell you. During the Revolutionary War, a little girl looks across the East River and imagines that Manhattan is "the Other Side," where everyone says the dead go - although she can't quite work out whether it's supposed to be heaven or hell. The girl, Prudence Winship, spends much of her life trying to bridge that divide in Emily Barton's compelling second novel, Brookland.
The book opens on Prudence's 50th birthday, when she sits down to write the story of her life at the request of her newly married daughter, Recompense. And what a life. At a time when women weren't considered citizens, Prudence is a prosperous businesswoman. Along with her sister, she runs Winship Daughters distillery, one of the largest employers in Brooklyn. But the main goal of her life was the bridge she labored to build for years.
While skeptics may argue that having a woman design a bridge in the 1800s plays too fast and loose with history, consider the following quote from David McCullough's "The Great Bridge," about Emily Roebling, wife of Brooklyn Bridge builder Washington Roebling: "It was common gossip that hers was the real mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous."
The bridge in question isn't the Brooklyn Bridge, which wasn't completed until 1883. Instead, Barton has said in interviews that she's given Prudence the task of completing the Flying Pendant Lever Bridge, which was designed by landscape architect Thomas Pope (a minor character in "Brookland") in 1811 but never built.
Barton takes her time re-creating both the 18th century and Prudence's bridge, with long chunks of Sunday sermons and detailed discussions on both bridge-building and the manufacture of gin. Readers used to four-page chapters and breathless narration should take a deep breath, slow down, and smell the lavender and anise. (The one misstep among the dozens of characters is Recompense, who exists solely to read the letters.)
The leisurely pace evaporates near the novel's end, when calamities come thick and fast - so fast that the ending could use another 30 pages to balance the weight of them. Until then, Barton unscrolls long, enjoyable set-pieces, such as the winter the East River freezes and the Winships stroll across an ice bridge into Manhattan. That visit puts paid to Prudence's childhood fancies, although her adult self isn't necessarily grateful: "What a comfort it would have been, had she known where the dead resided. Manhattan was such an easy solution - big enough to hold every sinner in Creation, and with a various terrain of shoreline, creeks, city streets and winding country lanes, rocky precipices and rambling hillsides. In it was a place to suit any individual's preference, and sufficient goods and trade to supply an eternity of afterlife."
Prudence's mother calls her a "dark-minded critter"; she's also ambitious and tenacious. "I've always felt you're the one most like me," says her beloved dad, Matthias, "the one with a head for business; the one who loves a project." And how: The teenage Prue dreams of her bridge the way most girls dream about falling in love. Her experience running a manufacturing concern makes the foray into bridge-building less unlikely, but no less impressive, when one considers that her knowledge of architecture, engineering, and mathematics are self-taught. Prue is also helped by her sister, Pearl, a mute artist kept confined at home by her fearful family, and by her husband, an easygoing surveyor who serves as the public face of the project.
The dark-mindedness is evidenced by Prudence's "twin obsessions, Manhattan & Death," along with what Prudence calls the "metaphysickal crime" she committed against Pearl. Little Prue was happy being an only child, and in a moment of jealousy, asked God to smite her unborn sister. Pearl was born mute; and Prue is inflicted with a lifetime of guilt and terror that her family will somehow find out her childish wish. Barton isn't foolish enough to expect modern readers to believe that God curses babies on the say-so of 6-year-olds. But family secrets have a way of becoming devastating if left to fester long enough.
With her poignant novel, Barton turns imagination and luminous prose into precision instruments that measure how cracks in a foundation can undo the most solid-seeming of structures.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.