Madeline Poage ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Worthy Brown’s Daughter by Phillip Margolin, published January 21, 2014 by Harper, is a historical drama that reads like a thriller. The story follows Matthew Penny, a frontier lawyer struggling to accomplish two things: to move past his beloved wife’s death and to eke out a law practice in the wild new state of Oregon. The action only really kicks off when he is approached by Worthy Brown, a former slave needing a lawyer’s help to rescue his daughter from his former master, who reneged on his promise to set her free. Penny is forced into moral choices that extend beyond guilty or innocent, a common trope in courtroom dramas. Regardless of when the story takes place, it is essentially that: a courtroom drama. But the surprising twists and the moral dilemmas that the characters are faced with, in a time when not everyone is equal and life is rarely fair, pushes the narrative beyond the stereotypes of its genre.
Problems do arise when Margolin relies on formulaic Western characters, from a sultry gold digger able to bend men to her will by simply batting her eyelashes, to a rival lawyer and promise-breaker, complete with a villainous mustache. There are also a few subplots that detract from the central narrative, but Margolin’s storytelling and the compelling relationship between Penny and Worthy Brown make up for this. Worthy Brown himself is easily the best character in the novel. A compassionate and self-sacrificing man struggling to keep his small family together, he ultimately is what carries the story. In fact, it’s Matthew Penny, the protagonist, who falls flat. Compared to Worthy Brown, he just can’t compete.
While the pacing in the beginning is slow and the story can lag when lingering on less interesting romantic subplots that hold no weight, there is a twist in the middle that subverts the traditional courtroom drama formula and sends the characters hurtling towards a suspenseful and violent climax that really captures the time period. This is essentially the novel’s greatest asset: Margolin never gets too caught up in the drama or the thrills to forget where the story is, and perfectly encapsulates the wild and untamed West. This isn’t just apparent in the descriptions, but is woven through the fabric of the plot and the character choices. The fact that Matthew Penny is a lawyer in a land just getting used to laws creates an interesting dynamic between the man and his environment, and the racism that pervades a developing justice system keeps the protagonists on the edge of peril at all times.
Yet while the novel takes place in an action-packed time period defined by violence, the heart of the story doesn’t rely on this, and instead focuses more on the character-driven plot, where there are no easy decisions and survival doesn’t require morals. The emotional undertones that underline every moment are what tie the story together and keep this tale of the west from going off the rails.