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Review: The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley

Sunday, December 18, 2011
4 Stars: A Great Read
Hardback/Paperback: 229 Pages
Publication: July 7, 2011 by Annick Press

A strong-willed 16-year-old girl fights for survival in 18th-century North America.

Françoise Laurent has never had an easy life. The only surviving child of a destitute washerwoman and wayward soldier, she must rely only on herself to get by. When her parents die suddenly from the smallpox ravishing New France, Françoise sees it as a chance to escape the life she thought she was trapped in.

Seizing her newfound opportunity, Françoise takes a job as an aide to the wife of a wealthy fur trader. The poverty-ridden world she knew transforms into a strange new world full of privilege and fine things -- and of never having to beg for food. But Françoise's relationships with the other servants in Madame Pommereau's house are tenuous, and Madame Pommereau isn't an easy woman to work for. When Françoise is caught stealing a pair of her mistress's beautiful gloves, she faces a future even worse than she could have imagined: thrown in jail, she is sentenced to death by hanging. Once again, Françoise is left to her own devices to survive . . . Is she cunning enough to convince the prisoner in the cell beside her to become the hangman and marry her, which, by law, is the only thing that could save her life?

Based on an actual story and filled with illuminating historical detail, The Hangman in the Mirror transports readers to the harsh landscape of a new land that is filled with even harsher class divisions and injustices.

Before I start my review on the actual book, I have to say that I found the synopsis misleading. After reading it, I thought that the story would take place mostly in the prisons. In reality, the story is mostly about Françoise trying to better her life and consistently finding herself unsatisfied with what she has.

Nevertheless, I love historical fiction, and The Hangman in the Mirror is a satisfying novel. It the detail and imagery to back the historical aspect of the story. It is also very real and gritty. Françoise isn't a character who rises above her situations and acts like a saint. No, she is a conniving, ambitious young woman. It is what makes her such a realistic and dislikable character, yet appealing because her desires are relatable though her actions are morally wrong.

Some characters you love, and some you can't stand. Françoise is one of the latter. She has the wit and ability to do so much with her life, and she wastes them trying to act like a fine lady when she's a mere servant. Even in prison, she doesn't change, and she connives to convince an innocent guy that she is worthy enough for him to become to hangman. Not until the end does she realize what she's done, and even then she values her life too much to sacrifice it for a young man's innocence.

The Hangman in the Mirror is about an ambitious young woman trying to work her way up in the world and falling hard when she makes the mistake of wanting more, and it shows the cruel reality of the hardworking having few to zero opportunities to rise far above their station in life. I recommend this story to fellow loves of historical fiction, especially for those looking for a historical novel that takes place in Quebec.

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A copy was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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