Connecticut, 1720: In an attempt to give his family financial security, school master Jem Bradley hires himself out as an indentured servant – and thus begins an odyssey which will take him to the small settlement of Kennet and a burgeoning friendship with enigmatic blacksmith Will Middleton.
Trouble is never far away, however, and when Jem is accused of committing a bloody murder his future begins to look very bleak indeed…
49,000 words/226 pages
Review by Michael Joseph
James ‘Jem’ Bradley would do anything for his sister Meg. She’s the only family he has after the two of them left their family in old England and immigrated to pre-revolutionary New England. They left over their father’s objections to Meg’s plan to marry Neil Iveson, and it seems daddy may have been right. Neil has taken all of their money, and borrowed more, to invest in a failed get-rich-quick scheme. Now the creditors are knocking at the door and threatening to send Neil to debtor’s prison. With two children to support, there’s no way Meg could survive on her own without Neil. The only way out seems to be for Jem to sell himself into indentured service for five years to pay off the debt.
Jem finds his indenture through one of the owners of the shipping company where Neil works, Amos Tanner, who is looking for a worker for one of the other farmers, Dan Wallace, in the inland settlement of Kennet. Although Tanner negotiates the indenture for Wallace, he sets his own sights on Bradley. Tanner, the father of two sons, has ‘unnatural desires’ as they put it, and Jem flames his desire like no-one else has for years. Tanner escorts Jem back to Kennet and turns him over to Wallace.
Dan Wallace is a lonely and somewhat bitter man. His wife and children were killed by Indians many years ago, and since then the man has grown gruff and demanding. Lacking much experience, Jem at first seems to be in a very uncomfortable position, but his eagerness to learn and his gentle nature soon has Wallace warming to him, and the two men settle into a close relationship almost like father and son.
It can’t last, and one day Tanner returns, demanding that he needs Jem to work on his own farm. Tanner is an important man around Kennet, and he holds the mortgage on Wallace’s farm. Wallace has no choice but to sign over Jem’s indenture to Tanner. The greedy Tanner soon makes it clear why he really wants Jem, and to increase his hold over the young man, he tells him that he has bought up all of Neil’s markers. If Jem doesn’t cooperate, Neil will be sent to prison and Meg and the children will be out on the street.
Tanner bides his time for a little while, but when he finally makes a move on Jem, the young man strikes out at him. Seeing the altercation, but not knowing the reason, Tanner’s two sons come to his aid. With the help of his sons, Tanner beats Jem severely. Only the timely arrival of the town blacksmith Will Middleton prevents it from going further. Middleton takes Jem back to his own place, where he calls on Doctor Powell to see to the young man.
Without even knowing the reason for the altercation, Middleton is dead-set against Jem returning to Tanner to work, even with the indenture. Jem doesn’t tell Will what else Tanner holds over him, or why. As Jem begins to heal, a solution is hit upon when Middleton finds out that Jem was a teacher before entering into his indenture. The town needs a teacher, so Will resolves to purchase Jem’s contract and put him to work in the school. Much to Jem’s surprise and relief, Middleton and Powell convince Tanner to part with the indenture.
Jem settles down into the happy role of teacher for a while, but then news comes that Tanner has been killed, with an ax, and Jem was seen in the area with an ax at the time. At the hearing to determine if there’s a case for Jem to answer, the man he was cutting wood with in the forest comes forward to provide his alibi, but not before one of Tanner’s sons accuses Jem of having made unwanted advances to his father. Everyone in town knows about Tanner’s beating of Jem, but nobody had known the reason for it.
With his alibi, Jem is released but his reputation is in ruins after the false allegation of Tanner’s son Virgil. It isn’t long, of course, before the school board dismisses him, and once again he’s left with no occupation. Jem thinks it would be best if he left Kennet, but Will won’t let him go and holds the indenture over his head to keep him around. Middleton’s obstinacy seems unreasonable to Jem, who feels that the longer he stays, the more Will’s reputation will be harmed. But it both men had an epiphany during the ordeal of the hearing. They’ve realized that they love each other, although each is afraid to do anything about it for fear of what the other will think.
I was quite pleasantly surprised by Solemn Contract. The plot kept me guessing, which is always good. Every time I thought it was heading into familiar territory, it veered off in a different direction. I wouldn’t say it was unique, but it avoids a lot of clichés. The main character Jem remains sexually ambiguous for more than half the book, which adds to the mystery about where the story is heading. The plot is complemented by a writing style that flows easily. The author has thankfully eschewed any attempt at trying to render early eighteenth century speech, and delivers both the dialog and narrative in simple modern English which somehow manages not to seem out of place.
The story is not without a few flaws, although they are rather minor. The first is Jem’s alibi for the murder of Tanner. The man who provides it, Zeb, is never mentioned until Jem is taken into custody. I literally had to stop and think, “Zeb? Who’s Zeb?” when Jem suggests that he can provide an alibi. Zeb makes his appearance at the hearing only after all the damage is done, and then promptly disappears again. He’s only mentioned once more in passing a few pages later. It all seemed rather odd, like a last-minute contrivance by the author that wasn’t fully fleshed out. The entire circumstances of the alibi come as a surprise. It seems like they could have been set up better.
The other issue is with Jem’s sister Meg and her family. Remember, he cares about her so much that he has sold himself into indenture to make sure her husband is kept out of prison. He writes to her when he is working for Wallace, and even mentions some irregular communication while he is at Tanner’s, but after he’s beaten, there’s no further mention of any letters. Even after Middleton wrests the indenture away from Tanner, we still don’t hear anything more about Meg and Neil. If Amos Tanner was telling the truth about buying up Neil’s debt, then his vindictive son Virgil might well have sent Jem’s brother-in-law to prison, yet the whole question is left hanging. Even when Jem wants to leave Kennet, there’s no mention that he might return to his family and his old life. The whole reason he’s there in the first place is almost completely forgotten.
Even with the flaws, I found Solemn Contract a rather enjoyable read. While the characters and the plot are not entirely unfamiliar, they’re put together in a way that at least seems fresh. A solid four star read.
You can find out more about Morgan Cheshire at her blog.
Solemn Contract may be purchased from Manifold Press |