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Reviews of The Dumb Shall Sing

Harriet Klausner 6/25/99 (Highly Recommended):

In 1638 Newbury Bay in the American Colonies, the British Army massacres the Pequot Indians. The Governor drowns the few surviving captives except for their leader, Massaquoit. The widow Catherine Williams, using the influence of the loan her late spouse provided the British, saves the Indian leader's life. Massaquoit objects because he wants to die with his tribesmen rather than be a slave, but has no say in his fate. The brief war leads to greater mistrust between the settlers and the natives. 

Catherine learns that a baby died a few days after she helped deliver the child. The father accuses their Irish serving girl of committing murder while the mother remains in muted shock. Catherine thinks this is another case of prejudice, but needs to obtain proof that the serving girl is innocent. With the help of Massaquoit, Catherine begins her own investigation into the death of an infant. 

Fans of colonial mysteries will gain much pleasure from Stephen Lewis' The Dumb Shall Sing. The who-done-it aspects of the tale are entertaining while the novel depicts early seventeenth century Puritan life in the Massachusetts Colony. The fifty-year old Catherine is an intrepid character whose fight against prejudice of all types rings loud and true throughout the tale. The nearly silent, but extremely intelligent Massaquoit serves as a superb partner to the boisterous Catherine. The support cast adds the feel of the austerity of life in that era. Stephen Lewis provides historical mystery buffs with an arousing novel that deserves sequels.


J. Kingston Pierce, "Minor Offenses," January Magazine:

Although America's colonial period of the 17th and 18th centuries has since gained a luster of innocence, writers of historical mysteries remind us that in its pre-Revolutionary War days, what's now the northeastern United States harbored con men and connivers -- and a smattering of witch burners -- right alongside its turkey-sharing pilgrims and would-be nation builders. Margaret Miles has made good use of this background in two novels, A Wicked Way to Burn (1998) and her newly released Too Soon for Flowers, both focusing on a Massachusetts widow, Charlotte Willett, and her farmer neighbor Richard Longfellow as they search for human causes and culprits behind crimes that the superstitious are quick to call the Devil's doing. Also worth reading (but sadly out of print) is S.S. Rafferty's Cork of the Colonies (1984), in which Captain Jeremy Cork and his "financial yeoman," Wellman Oaks, tackle clever puzzles all over British America's east coast, rubbing elbows with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other notables on their way. 

Now comes Stephen Lewis with The Dumb Shall Sing, his first whodunit set in the fictional New England coastal hamlet of Newbury. It's 1638, right after the Pequot War (during which hundreds of Native Americans were massacred in Connecticut), and widowed midwife Catherine Williams learns that a baby she'd recently helped deliver has died under questionable circumstances. An Irish serving girl, Margaret Donovan, is charged with killing the infant, and the Puritan community of Newbury quickly condemns her, mostly because she's Catholic. However, Catherine believes that the prejudices of her fellow townsfolk have blinded them to the possibility that somebody else -- probably a member of the baby's household -- is actually to blame for the death. While the late infant's mother remains mute behind her wall of pain, and demands are made for Margaret's expeditious hanging, Catherine goes looking for evidence to save the servant's life, helped in her quest by Massaquoit, an intelligent and independent Pequot whom Catherine has just saved from the hands of vengeful colonists. 

Lewis has a keen eye for period details, not only in the physical attributes of Newbury, but in the frequently odd behavior of its citizenry. The enthusiastic rush of Newburyites to witness the cruel pillorying of a thief in this tale reminds me of how far entertainment has come in 400 years, while a pseudo-courtroom scene, managed by a narrow-minded governor and a wickedly intolerant minister, is particularly well executed. The dialogue in The Dumb Shall Sing can be era-accurate to the point of ponderousness. But it is the courageous, 50-something Catherine Williams and the defiantly proud Massaquoit who are the principal draws here. Through their eyes, we see the too-frequently idealized Puritans as what they really were: a people just as weak in their morals and hopeful of their future as any who have been born after. 

"A Mystery Bookstore and More" - The Poisoned Pen Guest Reviews,
Reader Pamela Bigelow:

I'd like to recommend The Dumb Shall Sing ($5.99) by Stephen Lewis - the setting, colonial America, is vividly captured by the author who has strong characters, both men and women, and a mystery to boot! 

Jeri Wright, The Mystery Reader:

It is 1638, and the elders of the Puritan town of Newbury are gathered to witness the execution of the remaining leaders of the Pequot Indians. Victors in a war that decimated the tribe, the English have no inclination to show mercy now. Wealthy widow Catherine Williams, who disapproved of the war all along and is appalled by the executions, is able to save one of the condemned by claiming him as a servant in lieu of a debt owed her husband. Massaquoit, now called Matthew by the English, is not particularly grateful at the reprieve. Mourning the death of his wife and child, he sees little to rejoice in the life he is given. But this plump, middle-aged Englishwoman, with an open mind so uncommon among the white men, interests him and he keeps in his heart hope for eventual freedom. 

Catherine, a midwife, becomes involved when a baby dies under mysterious circumstances and a young servant girl is accused of murder. Superstition and prejudice seem to be the main evidence against her; as an Irish Catholic, the girl is seen as little better than a witch by the stern Puritans. Catherine is her only defender, and with the help of Massaquoit she must uncover the truth in time to prevent a hanging. The child's mother, made dumb by the tragedy, may be the only one who knows what really happened -- and Catherine must find a way to make her speak. 

The rich historical background makes this an intriguing read; Lewis brings the place and the time to life in many small, vivid details. The independent, strong-minded Catherine and the somewhat enigmatic Massaquoit (who will never truly be a "Matthew") are both interesting as well, but I would have liked to know them better; the setting is in many ways the main "character" of the book. The mystery is really more one of psychological suspense than traditional investigation, with a dark, moody feel and talk of evil and pacts with the devil. I enjoyed the way in which Catherine is able to use the townspeople's superstitions against them in an unexpected manner. I never felt deeply involved in the story or the characters, but I was continually interested, and all in all this was a good read. 

Toby Bromberg, Romantic Times:

Catherine Williams, a 50-year-old widow, works as a midwife in 1638 New England. A tolerant woman, she hopes for understanding and respect between the Pequot Indians and the settlers, something no one else seems to want. She even saved Massaquoit, a Pequot leader, from execution and took him into her home. 

When a few-days-old infant she had delivered dies, she is called to testify. Grief has struck the baby’s mother dumb, but her husband accuses Margaret, their Irish Catholic serving girl, of murder. 

Catherine cannot believe Margaret harmed the infant and thinks that the accusations come from religious intolerance. She has her own suspicions about the infant’s death, but no proof. With the help of the reluctant Massaquoit, Catherine comes up with a way to cut through the bigotry and discover the tragic truth behind the death of the baby. 

Reminiscent of Margaret Lawrence’s 18th-century Maine mysteries, The Dumb Shall Sing paints a marvelous picture of the harsh realities of colonial life. Catherine is a strong and wise character and Massaquoit, keeping his own council, makes for an intriguing companion.

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