Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: we is got him

In 1874 a four year-old child named Charley Ross became the first kidnapped person in America held for ransom.  Carrie Hagen's novel we is got him traces the kidnapping that grew into a national embarassment.

The book completely fascinated me as Hagen brought 19th century Philadelphia to life.  Born and raised in Philadelphia, I learned a lot about society, corruption, and the quality of life for most from we is got him.  Through the setting Hagen recreated the events of the day and brought to life just how unsettled we still were as a nation--the irresponsibility of partisan politics rears its ugly head.

For me, the real stars of the book are the ransom notes:
Mr. Ros: We supos you got the other leter that teld yu we had yu child all saf and sond.  Yu mite ofer one $100,000 it woud avale yu nothing.  to be plaen with yu yu mite invoke all the powers of the universe and that cold not get yu child from us.  we set god--man and devel at defiance to rest him ot of our hands.
Hagen serves as a detective, piecing together the clues, ransom notes, statements, and people on both side of the ledger--the kidnappers and their families, the victims and their families, and the politicians and police from Philadelphia and New York.  She certainly pins down the high probability of what (may have) happened--the facts of the case were never resolved--and leaves me with a strong feeling of regret and empathy for the father and mother of Charley Ross.

A high profile case when it occurred, the story of Charley Ross faded with time--even as a Philadelphian I'd never heard of the case.

Overall, the case as it unfolds is exciting to follow.  As each ransom note and correspondence appears, and the months pass by painfully for the family, I was hooked and didn't find any parts slow or poorly told.  I liked Hagen's clear, efficient, style but especially appreciated the little details which brings a whole world to life:
Like so many other instituuions, the postal service changed dramatically during the Civil War.  Officials thought it more appropriate for women to learn of family deaths in the privacy of their homes, rather than the public sphere of the post office.  In 1864, sixty-six American cities instituted home delivery.  For the first time it was possible to anonymously place a letter in a container at a post office, hotel, bar, or letter box, and know it would reach a designated person exactly where he or she lived.
I heartily recommend this book to anyone, but especially those people who enjoy a mystery, crime, or historical story.  Well researched and well written, this book combines the best components of all three--add to the fact that if you are a Philadelphian, then the book becomes a must-read.

Thomas Eakins - Baby at play

No comments:

Post a Comment