Brookland: A Novel
by Emily Barton

Published: 2006-02-21
Hardcover : 496 pages
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Since her girlhood, Prudence Winship has gazed across the tidal straits from her home in Brooklyn to the city of Manhattan and yearned to bridge the distance. Now, established as the owner of the enormously successful gin distillery she inherited from her father, she can begin to realize ...
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Since her girlhood, Prudence Winship has gazed across the tidal straits from her home in Brooklyn to the city of Manhattan and yearned to bridge the distance. Now, established as the owner of the enormously successful gin distillery she inherited from her father, she can begin to realize her dream.

Set in eighteenth-century Brooklyn, this is the story of a determined and intelligent woman who is consumed by a vision of a bridge: a gargantuan construction of timber and masonry she devises to cross the East River in a single, magnificent span. With the help of the local surveyor, Benjamin Horsfield, and her sisters—the high-spirited, obstreperous Tem, who works with her in the distillery, and the silent, uncanny Pearl—she fires the imaginations of the people of Brooklyn and New York by promising them a bridge that will meet their most pressing practical needs while being one of the most ambitious public works ever attempted. Prue’s own life and the life of the bridge become inextricably bound together as the costs of the bridge, both financial and human, rise beyond her direst expectations.

Brookland confirms Emily Barton’s reputation as one of the finest writers of her generation, whose work is ”blessedly post-ironic, engaging and heartfelt” (Thomas Pynchon).

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.



At the close of the workday on Thursday the twenty-fourth of January, 1822, Prue Winship sat down at the large desk in the countinghouse of Winship Daughters Gin to write a letter to her daughter, Recompense. The power train had been sprung free of the windmill for the night, and the machines of the distillery sat quiet, the embers of its great fires still smoldering. Prue could hear the low horn of the steam ferry as it approached the Brooklyn landing. Her sister, Tem, with whom she ran the distillery, had retired an hour since to the Liberty Tavern, and had said she’d be home for supper; their overseer, Isaiah Horsfield, had gone home to his family. He’d left a stack of papers on his section of the desk, and would no doubt see to them first thing in the morning. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. How were you affected by the presence of Prue’s letters? How does her storytelling
compare to that in the rest of the novel?

2. Discuss the pivotal scene from Prue’s childhood in which she batters her doll
(chapter one). How would you characterize Prue’s feelings toward Pearl throughout
her life? Would their trust have been shattered later in life regardless of Prue’s guilt
about her alleged hex?

3. What role does religion play in the village of Brookland? How is Matty’s atheism
received, and how does it affect his daughters’ attitude toward death and suffering?
How is Ezra Fischer’s Judaism received? What distinctions are made between
Protestants and Catholics?

4. Do Prue, Tem, and Pearl share any traits derived from their upbringing? How
did they cope with the deaths of their parents?

5. Anyone familiar with Brooklyn Heights will recognize location names from the
families described in the novel, including the Pierreponts, the Joralemons, the
Remsens, and the Livingstons. How did the history presented in Brookland compare
to your previous impressions of Brooklyn’s early European settlers? What images
surprised you the most?

6. To varying degrees, the Winship daughters are faced with sexism and stereotypes.
How did each of them respond to this in charting the course of her life? Would you
have married Ben, knowing it meant technically relinquishing your father’s company
to him?

7. Chapter nine, “The Dream,” describes both Prue’s nightmare regarding Pearl
and her dream of building the bridge. Are these two visions related? What does the
bridge ultimately come to represent in Prue’s life?

8. In what ways did the novel’s depictions of slavery, particularly in the characters
of Johanna and Abiah, differ from depictions of slavery in fiction set in the South?
What did you discover about the abolition process in New York discussed in chapter

9. Prudence, Temperance, and Recompense: Is there irony in these character

10. Was Pearl ever truly heard by her family or by Will Severn?

11. The novel’s epigraph, which includes Yosa Buson’s lines, “You are the slaves/of
chrysanthemums!,” captures many aspects of Prue’s life. To what is she enslaved?
What is the source of her liberation?

12. Discuss the effect of gin as the commodity of choice to drive the novel’s storyline.
How is Brookland enhanced by the fact that the Winships’ livelihood depends
on alcohol consumption?

13. What impact did the hazards of their era—timber fires, infant mortality, epidemics,
gruesome on-the-job accidents—have on the Winship daughters? Did they
possess a deeper appreciation for life because of such hazards?

14. Prue would not have lived long enough to see John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge,
which was completed in 1883 after more than a decade of hazardous, multimilliondollar
construction. As in the novel, many Brooklynites opposed the bridge and
sought to keep a cultural distance from Manhattan. What might Prue have thought
of present-day Brooklyn and its role as a borough of New York City?

15. How would Ben’s presentation tactics have fared in the world of contemporary
public works projects? Has the process for acquiring such funding changed very
much over the past two centuries? What is the modern-day equivalent of Prue’s
bridge? Can you think of an outrageous invention that has been widely wished for
but never successfully built?

16. What do you imagine Pearl’s fate to be? What unresolved answers lurk in your
family legacy, akin the way Recompense continues to hope she will find her aunt?

17. What similarities and differences exist between Brookland and Emily Barton’s
debut novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron? What makes her approach to storytelling

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Story of Woman Living in Brooklyn in the late 1770's with a dream"by Marti S. M. (see profile) 06/23/07

The story moves very slowly and is laborious reading.

  "Historical novel about the Brookland bridge"by Stacy L. (see profile) 03/30/07

Overall the book club had trouble finishing the selection. All agreed that the writing was exceptional but, the storyline dry. Had another writer crafted this tale it would have been a dimal failure

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