“Gun Ball Hill,” by Ellen Cooney; University Press of New England; hardcover, $24.95

When Lavinia Mowlan left the house at dawn, she left a call to revolution on her bureau. The year was 1774, and Lavinia had just finished her first column for the Gazette, a newspaper that served the liberty-minded colonists of Boston and the province of Maine. The article, left for her husband to read, concluded with, “We know of the English hand at our throat. … Should you (the English) think you strangle us … we find better ways to breathe.”

You need only to read to the end of the first chapter of “Gun Ball Hill” to know that Lavinia Mowlan will never return from the barn, and her husband, William, will never take the article from the bureau top.

In a mere 20 pages, author Ellen Cooney paints such a lush picture of the passion, good sense and suffering of the Mowlans that the reader will feel the full sadness and fury of their shortened lives throughout the novel.

“Gun Ball Hill” follows the stories of the Avens, Winnie Goodridge, Patrick Rouse and others, all of whom carry the same sadness and fury for the loss of the Mowlans. Lavinia hoped to radicalize and rally her neighbors with her article, but her death served the same aim. The funeral itself was so charged, that instead of a sermon, Lavinia’s brother-in-law, the Rev. John Avens read from the just inked “Declaration of Rights” from the Continental Congress.

Most of the book’s characters are residents of Tibbetston, and many others are drawn to the Maine town by the polarizing Mowlan murders. John and Jossey Avens decide not to return to their comfortable life in Boston as pastor and pastor’s wife. Cooney draws a compelling picture of the radicalization of the gentle preacher. In a riveting chapter, Jossey whispers to her dead sister, Lavinia, telling the story of the night John Avens painted his face with soot and tossed tea into the bay of Boston.

John Avens becomes involved with the smuggling goods into blockaded Boston in partnership with Lavinia’s friend, tavern owner Winnie Goodridge. Since her depressed husband took his own life over restrictions laid down by the British, Winnie has harbored a hatred for the king’s rule. Her experience in helping run her husband’s foundry provides the spark of an idea that will make Tibbetston a true contributor to the war against the British.

As war is declared, Winnie’s idea to start a foundry on the Mowlans’ farm to produce ammunition for the war galvanizes the mourners. Smuggling that ammunition and delivering blows to the British at sea is another of Cooney’s incredibly realized characters, Patrick Rouse. Through Patrick’s eyes, the reader meets the militias of Lexington and sees the massacre at Bunker’s Hill in Massachusetts and other battles. His perceptions of the escalating war are raw and emotional, flavored by the death of his sister, Lavinia.

Near the end of the novel, Patrick tries to “remember what everyone used to be like when all they knew of war was the desire for it.”

The journey of the Avens, Goodridge and Rouse from grief to their desire for war, to the harshness of war has the clarity of nonfiction and the intimacy of the best fiction. Lavinia threatened in her article that the colonists would “find better ways to breathe.”

Ellen Cooney allows her Maine characters to feel the breath of freedom despite the horror of war. And the author allows the reader to feel the breath of real Mainers who sacrificed for our freedom.

Kirsten Cappy is a bookseller in Portland.


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