Debut novel draws page-turning journey

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WEB mill horse reviewcopyright the Chronicle November 26, 2014

The Clever Mill Horse, by Jodi Lew-Smith. Paperback. 409 pages. Published by Caspian Press, Hardwick. $16.99

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Jodi Lew-Smith has written a rollicking story here, as unlikely as that seems, given that the plot revolves around securing a patent for a flax-milling machine. I would not, myself, have thought of patent rights as the most gripping subject for a young adult adventure novel.

But it works. The characters are well drawn, for the most part, and the plot has considerable twists and turns.

Ms. Lew-Smith’s day job is plant breeder at High Mowing Seeds. She and her husband and their three children also have a big apple orchard and raise beef cows. She admits that she’s a woman who wears many hats, and says that both her husband and her trees are amazingly patient with her while she works at being a novelist.

The Clever Mill Horse took years to write, she says on her website, though she had set out thinking it was a simple enough matter to write a novel.

It turns out that it isn’t, but she has pulled off a good story that’s a fun read.

Ella, a young woman with demonstrable engineering ability — certainly unusual for the early 1800s — has been working with her grandfather on a machine that will mill flax, turning it into linen. They’re close to perfecting it when thieves set upon Ella’s grandfather’s fine horses.

There’s a struggle. Ella, who’s no slouch of a fighter, having been tutored by Pete, an Indian who sometimes works for her grandfather, kills one of the thieves with a knife.

Her grandfather apparently is also killed in the fight, but had previously given Ella the mission of continuing work on the machine to bring it to its successful end. She takes it seriously, in honor of her beloved grandfather. While the engineering ability may not have been so unusual for the time, the fact that she was allowed to exercise it most likely was.

Meanwhile, Ella and her brother and sister live with a kind mother and an abusive father, who only Ella has the strength and skill to thwart.

The drunken, abusive father can be a handy cliché, but Ms. Lew-Smith gets away with it here, largely because Ella’s dad is so vicious, so vindictive, and has such a complicated history that he’s not entirely flat. Not quite the, oh yeah, that guy who we’ve seen so many times.

In fact, no one in this novel is who he or she appears to be, which is one of its strengths. It’s also a reason that it’s a little tough to write about. Many of the best moments in the book are its surprises, but mentioning them would, of course, be a spoiler.

What follows that somewhat bewildering night of theft and death is a journey, and personally, I like journey stories. You get to meet a lot of people on the way if the author is any good at it. Cormac McCarthy is my favorite, but Charles Frazier did a lovely job of introducing us to all kinds of people in Cold Mountain.

The people you get to meet in this story are interesting.

For instance, you’ll visit a Seneca village, a joy of a place for a boy, in this case, Ella’s young brother Jimson. Pete, a significant character in the book, is Oneida, but the Seneca are also among the five tribes in the Iroquois nation, so there’s a relationship.

Then there’s Martha Furnace, an old iron works in the New Jersey pines. It was a real place. Its ruins are still apparently there. This is a historical novel, and there’s merit to its accuracy and also its offbeat choices. Martha Furnace? What an interesting place to go.

Ms. Lew-Smith has done a fine job of drawing her characters. Ella is memorable. She’s feisty, doesn’t fit in and doesn’t much care. You have to like people like that, as long as they’re not too obviously heroic.

The secondary characters are fleshed out, as well. Ella’s sister Jenny is, at first, simply another cliché — the nice, mild-mannered younger sister, but she grows. And Lucille, Ella’s aunt, is a total surprise.

The book goes over the top sometimes. There’s considerable violence, and you have to ask, really? All this would happen without intervention? Or even, this would happen at all? Perhaps, in the early eighteen hundreds, but some of it strains belief, and the book would have benefited from a little more restraint.

My one serious gripe is how Pete, the Indian, is portrayed. It’s generally a bad idea to try to recreate dialect unless you’re on very firm ground and know the dialect intimately. In this case, I found it offensive that Pete’s speech is the equivalent of a 1960s B movie, slightly below Tonto for those who remember “The Lone Ranger.”  In the vein of “How. Me Pete.”

Ms. Lew-Smith has drawn a portrait of a good and interesting man who she diminishes by failing to let him talk in complete sentences. I sincerely hope that, in future books — and she’s made it clear that this is a series — she gets over that. Even in nineteenth-century America people of Indian heritage could speak articulately.

But that aside, she has written a book worth reading. It’s a good story, one that makes you want to turn the pages and see what happens next. And it’s grounded, both in history and in technology. There’s something to be learned from reading it, another good quality in a book.

There is, by the way, no connection that I could discern between the title of this novel and its content. Do not, like me, keep waiting for the clever mill horse to save the day. He doesn’t, and what the title of this book has to do with anything inside of it remains a mystery.

contact Tena Starr at [email protected]

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