It's 1750s Long Island, and the British and French colonies are in conflict, the loyalties of many merchants in question. When Jean-Philippe, a young French-Canadian lieutenant, is captured and billeted with the Wilde family, he slowly begins to pitch in with the household tasks and farm chores. He also finds himself drawn to the daughter of the house, Lydia.
Fast-forward a few centuries: legend has it that the forbidden love between Jean-Philippe and Lydia ended tragically. When the town's new museum curator hears the story, she's determined to piece together the clues they left behind and slowly unveil the truth.
Susanna Kearsley's own lineage was the inspiration for Bellewether. "I've known since my childhood that ancestors of mine lived on Long Island in those days," the Toronto-based author says, "and that a couple of them took in captured French officers on their parole of honor during that war. And then one day I came across Thomas M. Truxes's nonfiction work Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York. I realized that some of my own New York ancestors had probably been caught up in this kind of trade activity. So, I started taking a deeper dive into the period. Bellewether grew from there."
Part history, part romance, Bellewether is deeply researched and provides a glimpse into Long Island during 18th-century wartime. "I'm drawn to the subject matter of a book because I'm personally fascinated," Kearsley says. "If I happen to pass on some of what I've learned to my readers, then that's a bonus."
To learn more about Long Island during the French and Indian War, Kearsley made many weekend research trips to New York. Her background in museum curating deeply informed that exploratory process. In addition to seeking out primary sources such as original letters, journals, and wills, the author contacted period experts. Kearsley was also conscientious about the words she used in Bellewether.
"Working in museums taught me to be mindful of the power of small choices," Kearsley says. "Curators influence how we preserve and view the past by choosing what to keep, what to discard, what to display, and what to tuck away in storage, out of sight. And writers, too, make choices that can influence the way their readers view someone or imagine what the past looked like. I won't make a real-life person a villain or a saint without good evidence or change the outcome of a real event."
The results of Kearsley's carefully chosen words are novels that don't fit neatly into any one genre. "There's a bit of everything in them," she says. "There's a mystery, but it's not a body-in-the-library sort of mystery. There's romance, but it's not always front and center. There's often something paranormal going on, but it's not too strange or creepy. And I think there's a certain old-style suspense to the stories."
Kearsley is a New York Times– and USA Today–bestselling author and a favorite of booksellers and librarians; her last book, A Desperate Fortune, was an Indie Next and a LibraryReads pick. Currently, she is finishing a novella that is part of a historical mystery quartet written collaboratively with authors C.S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, and Christine Trent. Sourcebooks will publish the book in 2019.