Mirrors & Smoke

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
556 Pages
Reviewed on 03/18/2024
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

Mirrors and Smoke by Adrienne Stevenson is a fascinating tale of life on the United States/Canada border at the start of the nineteenth century; a time of upheaval and potential revolution as the English fought to retain their North American colony against the newly independent United States of America. Based on actual events and people, the story gives us great insight into life for ordinary folk on this wild and rugged frontier. Rebecca Plummer is a single woman, a midwife and herbalist/healer, who is looking after the husband and the two daughters of her late cousin, Mary. As the war of 1812 approaches, Rebecca, a strong woman with a feminist attitude and a desire to help other women achieve their potential in this rugged frontier, must balance her outspoken views with those of her conservative Church of England Minister employer, as well as her loyalty to her mother country, England. The story of the prelude to war, the war itself, and its aftermath is conveyed through several perspectives; those of Rebecca; Jack, a young British Army officer, soon to be caught up in the fighting; Tom, the foster son of Rebecca and her employer; and Joseph Willcocks, a radical politician. All must navigate the hardships and violence of war and nature to survive.

Mirrors and Smoke is much more than a great story. It is also a social anthropology of a unique time in Canadian history as it began its transition from a splintered culture with different languages, a frontier mentality, and a powerful, unique indigenous population into a strong, independent country. Author Adrienne Stevenson has perfectly captured the spirit and the diversity of life on the Canadian frontier. Readers will feel the suffering that these people endured not only from the horrors of war, the terrible injuries inflicted on these young soldiers, and even civilian populations but also the sheer struggle to survive against the harsh climatic elements and the shortage of food. I particularly enjoyed Rebecca’s courage and forthrightness not only to endure but to make a better life for herself, her family, and her fellow Canadians. The author pulls no punches when describing the pain and suffering of those involved in the fighting, especially the maimed and badly injured, usually without the benefit of pain-killing medicines and in horribly unsanitary conditions. The character of Joseph Willcocks was a fascinating one. His radical ideas and desires to educate the populace may have been excellent, even if they were against the plans of the elites, but to watch his transition into a brutal, evil man, determined to achieve his goals through a bloody revolution was fascinating. I liked the slow-burning but impossible-to-deny love that grew between Rebecca and Robert. Although their views were probably opposed on many issues, when it mattered, they sought the same thing; a better life for their family and all citizens of the Canadian frontier. I also appreciated the summation at the end where the author explained in detail not only what was fact and fiction in her story but also the ultimate disposition of the main characters. This is a wonderful historical novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

Asher Syed

Mirrors & Smoke by Adrienne Stevenson is a historical fiction novel that, through multiple points of view, follows Rebecca and her family's experiences through political turmoil and the impending War of 1812 in Canada. After a period of uncommon independence for a woman of her time, Rebecca marries Robert, who faces financial difficulties while fulfilling military duties and political responsibilities. As war approaches, Rebecca balances roles as a chaperone, herbalist, and midwife, assists during childbirth, and tends to the wounded. Robert's involvement in military strategies and Parliament discussions adds to the family's entrenchment, while Tom becomes embroiled in dangerous and surprising work. Maryel develops a romance with a soldier stationed in Montreal in the build-up to the United States' invasion of York. In the throes of chaos and uncertainty for Rebecca and her family, she spearheads preparations for the approach of war that is now terrifyingly close to home with her characteristic strength and resilience.

I went into Mirrors & Smoke thinking that the bulk of Adrienne Stevenson's story would be focused on Rebecca but was pleasantly surprised to find that her fortitude is not limited to bucking societal norms, and comes to full fruition when she takes on the leadership role of uplifting the whole family in times of dire need. Rebecca is a strong female protagonist, and how this is viewed is offered in shifting point of view characters in a unique touch that elevates the roundedness of the narrative. Stevenson plots the novel's course with deliberate patience and the slow simmer to boil takes some time, but this turns out to be a credit to the story's growth, particularly in areas where Stevenson recognizes the importance of indigenous support in the war effort. When we do hit full steam, there is no turning back. We are talking double agents, military ships being set ablaze, and prisoners of war. I loved the emotional toll we witness in addition to physical brutality, like survivor's guilt, which is rarely addressed in fiction even today. Overall, this is a well-written, immersive, and solid work of historical fiction that sheds light on a war few know much about, and even fewer can write about. Very highly recommended.

K.C. Finn

Mirrors & Smoke is a work of fiction in the historical fiction, interpersonal drama, and women’s fiction subgenres. It is best suited to the general adult reading audience. Penned by author Adrienne Stevenson, the plot chronicles one woman's brave journey to protect her family amidst the chaos of the War of 1812 when the United States invaded Canada. Rebecca Plummer, a herbalist and midwife in Niagara, Upper Canada, faces challenges due to her feminist beliefs and activism, which clash with the colonial establishment. As a single woman in the young colony, she navigates precarious situations, especially when war breaks out. Rebecca's resilience is tested as she strives to maintain her family and community's well-being amid wartime hardships.

Author Adrienne Stevenson has crafted a highly immersive and emotive work that never shies away from hardship and the gritty truth about life in the emerging nations of modern North America. The narrative offers diverse perspectives, including those of Rebecca’s foster son, a radical politician, and a British army officer. Each one is well-researched with clear attention to detail but also emphasized through realistic attitudes and dialogue that gives a strong sense of these characters’ connection to the time they’re struggling through. Rooted in historical events and real people, there’s a powerful sense of mood and emotion in the narration that drives the storyline home, addressing timeless themes of resilience, sacrifice, and the struggle for equality. Overall, I would certainly recommend Mirrors & Smoke to fans of atmospheric and well-penned historical fiction packed with detail, drama, and compelling characters throughout.

Edith Wairimu

A tension-packed historical novel that is both captivating and moving, Mirrors and Smoke by Adrienne Stevenson follows the events surrounding the War of 1812 through the experiences of remarkable characters. Though she might never return, Rebecca Plummer still considers England her home. Threats of war and her struggles prevent her from considering Niagara, Canada as her new home. As war looms, she uses her skills as a midwife and herbalist to help women survive this tumultuous period. When war breaks out, Rebecca’s courage is tested. She resolves to serve her family and community throughout the war. The story closely follows the lives of other characters, exploring their backgrounds and how their lives are affected by the turmoil that surrounds them.

Mirrors and Smoke is a moving novel with extraordinary characters and a suspense-filled plot. I loved that it explores an unfamiliar part of history and offers informative historical detail. Adrienne Stevenson skillfully covers Rebecca’s difficult circumstances and the wounds she carries from her past. Rebecca is a powerful character whose resilience and strength are displayed as she faces daunting circumstances. Her belief in women’s worth at a time when their needs are ignored is inspiring. Other characters including Reverend Addison and Rebecca’s adopted son, Tom, beautifully portray the value of kindness and bravery. I appreciated the main characters’ different points of view and loved that they were all well-fleshed out. Mirrors and Smoke is a powerful, enthralling offering. It blends actual historical events with the lives of realistic characters and explores timeless themes.

Constance Stadler

Mirrors and Smoke tells the tale of what occurred before, during, and after the War of 1812, turbulent and decisive times in the history of two countries. Set in Upper Canada, the region most vulnerable to attack, the stakes for four characters who have made their home in a border town become increasingly dire: Rebecca, a herbal healer and mid-wife, Tom, Jack, and Willcocks. Rebecca is the grounding force. Despite her desire for increased independence, she ably tends to the physical and emotional wounds of the young women in her charge who have been victims of physical assault, putting their needs ahead of her own. In the face of new hostilities, her response to the inexplicable actions of Tom, another ‘adopted’ child, reflects absolute trust and devotion. The arc of Tom’s life becomes indeterminate primarily because his service in defense of his homeland requires him to assume a treacherous role. Jack, unable to purchase an officer’s rank, dreams of distinguishing himself on the battlefield, where he learns much about the true nature of valor. His love for Maryel, one of the two young women in Rebecca’s charge, adds another dimension to Jack’s plan for the future. Rounding out the foursome is Willcocks, a liberal firebrand in the legislature, fervently committed to opposing a regional magistrate who governs according to whim. His impassioned opposition becomes the basis for questions regarding his patriotic identity later.

Persistent issues such as the Native American lack of linguistic parity to engage in European commerce add continually shifting and culturally relevant drama to the narrative. The cessation of hostilities exposes the mixed messages inherent in Canada’s loyalty to the Crown, which had offered little aid, and the fledgling United States’ aggression a mere fifty years after inception. Adrienne Stevenson’s skillful grasp of historical complexity, her compelling imagination, and a wealth of research coalesce brilliantly in Mirrors and Smoke, the structure of which is as unique as it is exemplary. In three sections which span from 1809 to 1815, sequential vignettes named for their featured characters establish ambiguous ties between individuals such as Tom and Willcocks to create a snapshot of indeterminate victory. So-called great events and day-to-day situations contrast and mesh in surprising ways that will keep readers – even those not normally enamored of war stories – wholly engrossed. Stevenson’s artful use of introductory quotes by Mary Wollstonecraft underscores the eternal human quest for a just social order at the heart of Mirrors and Smoke. When Rebecca caustically notes that while “women were not cannon-fodder as men were, [they] were equally at risk during a battle,” modern parallels become readily apparent. Mirrors and Smoke is as exceptional as it is memorable. It accomplishes brilliantly what most historical novels only approach.