Place: New York, early 1930’s and mid-1950’s, as well as on board a travelling circus
People: Lilly Blackwood, nine years old. Julia Blackwood, 19 years old.
Plot: Lilly Blackwood has never been out of her room in the attic of the Blackwood Horse Farm. She dreams of knowing what the air feels like outside on a rainy day, of seeing the horses in a way that doesn’t involve a telescope, of seeing her reflection in a mirror so she can finally understand why her mother says she must stay locked away for her own safety – and why anyone who sees her would be fearful of a child. But when the day comes when Lilly’s Momma retrieves her from the attic room and leads her out into the night, Lilly wants nothing more than to go back. Momma takes Lilly to the nearby circus and sells the child to a sideshow.
In 1956, on Long Island, Julia Blackwood has escaped the cruel and loveless home she grew up in, only to find herself forced to wash in a grocery store bathroom and work in a local greasy spoon. When a private investigator tracks down the 19-year-old runaway, he brings news that Julia’s mother has died and the family horse farm and manor now belong to her – but only if she returns home to Blackwood Manor. Julia has few good memories of her childhood and has been carrying the guilt of killing her father – or, as least that’s what her mother has always claimed; that Julia’s father was killed because of his daughter. Her return to the manor is filled with trepidation, but also a desire to know why her mother was so heartless and unloving.
The novel is told in turn by Lilly and Julia. As each chapter begins and ends, readers uncover the dark secrets of the Blackwood family.
Pacing: Measured and steady
Perspective: The Life She Was Given left me with a lot of mixed feelings. The storytelling is outstanding. Ellen Marie Wiseman crafts an artful tale in a style that urges the reader to continue chapter after chapter. The nature of the story, however, is dark and heavy. There are themes of child neglect, abuse, and animal cruelty that are difficult to digest. I’m an advocate for elephants and some of the scenes in the novel were heartbreaking and very hard to get through. That said, there is also an inspiring thread of resilience in the story. It’s amazing to see the kindness within both Lilly and Julia, especially given their families and the environments in which they grew. The one thing that I am sure of, is that this is a story that will stay with me.