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The Hidden Hand

by E.D.E.N. Southworth
544 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

A fun, action-filled novel with an excellent heroine and plenty of intrigue.

Plot

Note: This is a review of the Lamplighter Publishing edition, which has some differences from the original (notably the marking out of oaths).

Capitola Black has lived on the streets of New York from the time she was a child, fending for herself quite skilfully in the city slums. But when an old and wealthy benefactor takes her home with him as his ward, knowing more about Capitola's tangled past than Cap herself, she is thrown into a whole new world - but not one without adventure. With a relative out to kill her, an outlaw trying to kidnap her, mysteries and legends surrounding the nearby Hidden House, and a tangle of other problems, Cap's life is peppered with wild adventures that earn her the title of a female Don Quixote.

Alongside Cap's story is that of the widow Marah Rocke and her son Traverse as they suffer from the same villain who now attempts to do away with Capitola. Their story intertwines with Cap's, and the escapades take characters from the Mexican War, to insane asylums, to duels on the streets, while all along Southworth makes it clear that God's hidden hand is bringing about the triumph of good and the downfall of evil.

Morality

The overarching theme of the story is that of a conflict between good and evil, in which good triumphs. Capitola is very fiery and tends to get herself into trouble, and she also has difficulty respecting and abiding by the rules of her guardian, Old Hurricane; the authoress states in one place that she does not condone Cap's actions - merely "relates them." Cap struggles with her desire for justice and at one point challenges a character to a duel. However, she also extends mercy in very potent ways.

Old Hurricane has a very bad temper, but this is used more to provide humor and set off his character than for anything else. There is separation between a man and a wife over an alleged act of immorality, there are mentions of murders "and worse," and the villains perpetrate a number of heinous crimes - from which they repent, or for which they are punished.

Spiritual Content

The side story of Marah Rocke and Traverse has more outright Biblical content than the main part with Capitola (a great deal of Scripture quoting, prayer, etc.), but Cap also prays and tries to do rightly. She and the housekeeper tell ghost stories, and the nearby house is said to be haunted. The camp meetings and outdoor preaching that were popular in the Second Great Awakening show up; one character is disguised as a preacher. Repentance is a key point of the story and several of the villains refuse to do so; others do repent.

The book's title is never directly mentioned in the story, but refers to God's "hidden hand" at work throughout. The novel gives every appearance of being built on a biblical foundation.

Violence

Cap's new room at Old Hurricane's place has a large trapdoor, and the housekeeper tells stories about how it was used to trap Indians; she says that if one could see the bottom, it would be covered in bones. Someone later falls through and is badly injured. The murder of one man, which took place before the actual story, comes up. Black Donald is known for his acts of violence, some of which he actually committed, some of which were invented by the frightened populace. One character is held prisoner. Cap challenges someone to a duel and shoots the person.

Two characters join the American forces during the Mexican War and one is almost court-martialed and killed; one man is mortally wounded in one of these battles. However, the authoress does not detail any of the events of the war, but merely follows her characters.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Some of Black Donald's band are seen in "various states of intoxication."

Sexual Content

Black Donald is intent on carrying off Capitola and marrying her. There is a report that his band has perpetrated crimes "worse than murder"; two of the villains attempt to force a young woman into matrimony, threatening her with worse if she does not obey. The story of how a couple was separated after the husband wrongly accused his wife of being involved with someone else. Kisses are exchanged between engaged couples.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Old Hurricane frequently exclaims "demmy!" and Cap occasionally uses non-vulgar slang, such as "a lark." "Perdition" is used as a curse by one of the villains, and various "he swore's" are used, also by the bad characters.

Conclusion

"The Hidden Hand" is a much faster-paced, action-filled story than Southworth's "Ishmael" and makes for a more intriguing read. Capitola makes a fun, likable heroine, with her "newsboy" ways and longing for adventure, and her steadfast love for her guardian's nephew, Herbert, keeps her character feminine and not too wildly masculine. Traverse and Marah Rocke's story could grow a little tedious and angst-filled, but these parts did have a critical bearing on the story. Traverse himself could have done with a little spicing-up, but he made other characters, like Herbert, Old Hurricane, and the villain Black Donald, stand out. All in all, a very enjoyable, suspenseful tale for light reading.

Fun Score: 4
Values Score: 4.5
Written for Age: 13+

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