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Book Review: “A History of Silence”

Montpelier author Cynthia J. Bogard’s novel “A History of Silence” (Atmosphere Press, 2023) could not be more timely in the #MeToo era and reckoning with the racism underlying our national history. Bogard expertly weaves together the legacies of slavery and white patriarchy in a dramatic tale of five women finding their voices in the 1980s in middle America.

As the novel opens in 1986, Maddie, a white history professor at a fictitious Texas college, is distraught over the loss of her long-time Black partner, Roz, who walked out with no explanation. Jane, a grad student at the same college, struggles to escape her youth in small-town rural Iowa. Liz, a faculty wife also associated with the Texas college, feels abandoned by her workaholic husband and her 19-year-old daughter. Jenny, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, tries to erase her past in a nihilistic lifestyle that involves too much Valium. What they have in common is Professor Johnny Wharton, who has just been murdered. 

Maddie is his colleague, Jane his graduate assistant and lover, Liz his wife, and Jenny his daughter. Even Roz has a connection with him which isn’t revealed until two-thirds of the way through the book.

Bogard skillfully alternates the narrative voices of Maddie, Jane, Liz, and Jenny. Roz has no narrative voice, a choice both intentional and appropriate, given the novel’s framework. Her family’s story speaks for the millions of Black families who have gone unheard throughout U.S. history.

In a minor sense, this book is a whodunit. Who killed Johnny Wharton? But much more significant is the big WHY? Exploring this question highlights the author’s larger theme of truth-telling. 

The self-blame and self-hatred internalized by most of the protagonists will be familiar to every victim of sexual abuse, homophobia, institutional racism, or good-ol’-boy power structures. Maddie’s career choices are boxed in by the cultural reaction to her lesbianism. Friendless, isolated Jane doesn’t know how to relate to men. Liz, raised to be a good southern belle and get her “M.R.S.” degree, has no inkling of why her marriage has dried up and her daughter won’t speak to her. Her self-destructive daughter, Jenny, finds that letting friends into her life for the first time makes her much too vulnerable.

Each of them takes on the burden of shame and blame for what was done to her by her family and society. The strength and healing they gain by beginning to speak their truth gives us hope and inspiration for the future.

A word of warning: Though there is redemption in truth-telling, this story is not an easy read and may be triggering for some readers. Otherwise, “A History of Silence” will make you sad, angry, and ultimately hopeful. And there’s more good news. This is only the first novel in Bogard’s “Heartland Trilogy.” Watch for the second volume, “Beach of the Dead,” in 2024.

“A History of Silence” is available for pre-order at Bear Pond Books before March 7, and in-store thereafter. It is also available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookshop.