by Julie Cabitto
William Newman was born in Virginia, in 1744. In his ninety-ninth year, two of his granddaughters, Martha and Varinda, suggest, given his remarkable life, that he allows them to write down as much of it as he can remember. William Newman’s Adventures is the record of that life, memory by memory…
Cabitto has written a lovely, warm, and heartfelt novel which is unsurprising as Newman is one of her ancestors. His story and the time in which he lived have been painstakingly researched. Consequently, Cabitto convincingly evokes the period and the people.
From the minutiae of their daily lives to seismic events, the reader is effortlessly carried along and immersed in a fascinating world that appears drenched in sepia tones.
Despite the personal connection, Cabitto has carefully considered the book from a reader’s perspective. The nicely old-fashioned but precise layout complements the contents, and Cabitto is careful to ensure momentum and does not, overall, maintain a continuous narrative but, instead, focuses on Newman’s most pertinent achievements, albeit in chronological order.
This framework avoids superfluity, allows focus, and emphasizes that Newman is verbally reminiscing to his granddaughters. Cabitto has stitched all the memories seamlessly together and, although the novel has a relatively leisurely pace, the short chapter structure keeps interest, and the pages turning.
Newman’s trajectory from a painfully shy six-year-old who has not long lost his father to a self-assured, comfortable, and gently commanding man with a large, close family provides captivating reading.
Whilst it appears to be a simpler time as Newman navigates rites of passage and comes of age, it is not without suffering and hardship. However, struggles are dealt with through philosophical stoicism and, ultimately a level of acceptance despite pockets of raw, emotional grief.
The early scenes with his step-father, Henry Motley are incredibly moving and the genuine interest and kindness shown by Mr. Baylor and his family are equally as heartwarming.
It’s through the recognition of William’s quiet talents and innate decency by Mr. Baylor and the opportunities he subsequently affords him, that the reader begins to realize that William is a stronger, more complex personality than at first thought.
His cool, pragmatic approach, quick intelligence, and inherent integrity emerge when he becomes a first-light dragoon. The level of detail in Newman’s military career and his covert maneuvers is impressive, packing these chapters with suspense and gripping interest.
Indeed, the narrative moves through several sub-genres under the umbrella of historical fiction. The relationship between William and his wife, Ann, is touchingly portrayed, as is the one between his mother and Henry Motley.
Additionally, the sense of community, inclusion, and pioneer spirit that Newman fosters with his immediate and extended family following the move to Orange County is groundbreaking and inspiring, especially in relation to his daughters learning to read and write.
Notwithstanding, there are moments when the pace is a little slow. Further, as the novel progresses there is a large cast to wrestle with, all of whom have similar if not the same names. Cabitto helpfully provides a detailed family tree but, occasionally, dialogue lacks individuality leading to the odd moment of reader confusion.
Nonetheless, the penultimate Chapter where the family gathers for a ball is beautifully written. Lovingly detailed and liberally sprinkled with poignancy, tenderness, and infectious merriment consolidating William Newman’s Adventures as an absolutely charming slice of engaging escapism. Well worth a read.