In 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were brutally murdered at their home in Kingston, Ontario. Two servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were tried and convicted. McDermott was sentenced to death, but Grace’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood uses scant historical evidence, and the character of young Dr. Simon Jordan, to tell Grace’s story.
Dr. Jordan is somewhat of a specialist in mental illness, and in 1859 is granted permission to conduct a series of interviews with Grace at the penitentiary. He hopes to learn her side of the story, not just what her attorney told her to say at trial. But Grace has blocked all memories associated with the murders, and uncovering the truth is a long process requiring much patience. Jordan visits Grace nearly every day, and she recounts her life story from early childhood in Ireland all the way up to the murders.
Very early on, I fell into reading Alias Grace as I would any murder mystery. I forgot it was historical fiction, and began reading between the lines, searching for red herrings and expecting surprise plot twists. But the fascinating aspects of this tale are actually due to its basis in historical fact. In the 1840s, the field of mental illness was going through tremendous change, with many new theories and treatment methods. Many psychological conditions were simply not well understood. And Grace herself was a victim of society’s prevailing attitudes toward women. Because she was attractive, some thought she must be the mastermind behind the murders. Others claimed her youth made her an unwilling victim. Margaret Atwood brings out another side of Grace, that of a strong independent woman whose psychological reaction to trauma fundamentally changed the course of her life.