‘Worthy Brown’s Daughter’: fighting for freedom in Oregon
Phillip Margolin’s new novel, “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” is a 19th-century courtroom drama about a black man trying to get a white man to free his daughter from slavery.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” will appear at these area locations:
• He will sign books at 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, at COSTCO in Kirkland, 8629 120th Ave. N.E. (425-827-1693).
• He will sign books at noon Monday, Feb. 10, at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737 or seattlemystery.com).
• He will read at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10, at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
• He will read at 7 p.m. Feb. 11 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
• He will sign books at noon March 22 at the Fort Lewis Main Store, Bldg. 5280, Pendleton Ave., Joint Base Lewis-McChord (253-964-5955).
Portland writer Phillip Margolin, a criminal-defense attorney turned best-selling author, has long been a source of sturdy legal thrillers set in modern times. In “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” (Harper, 352 pp., $26.99), he strikes out in a new direction: It’s a legal thriller of sorts, but set in the 1860s, the early days of Oregon’s statehood.
The book is very loosely based, in part, on a real-life case. A white man moved in 1859 from Missouri to what was then Oregon Territory, promising to free his family of slaves. But in 1860 — with Oregon a newly minted state — he freed the parents but kept several children as servants. The parents sued to get their children back and eventually prevailed.
This event provides one of Margolin’s two plot lines. Lawyer Matthew Penny encounters a free black man, Worthy Brown, and his teenaged daughter Roxanne. The Browns’ former owner, Caleb Barbour, is a sleazy lawyer who has reneged on his promise to free Roxanne even though the new state has constitutionally banned slavery.
Worthy implores Matthew to help him. He has no money, but pays Matthew with valuable information that proves crucial in another case. That, plus Matthew’s natural sympathy, puts him squarely on Worthy’s side.
When Barbour rapes Roxanne he adds another terrifying layer to his already evil character, and he soon ends up dead. Worthy, the obvious prime suspect, is thrown in jail. But is he guilty? Matthew and Worthy are the only ones who know what really happened, and Worthy has his own reasons for confessing to the crime.
At the same time, Matthew is entangled in the affairs of Sharon Hill, an amoral gold-digger and former prostitute with designs on Benjamin Gillette, the richest man in town. Meanwhile, Gillette’s daughter Heather quickly captures widowed Matthew’s heart.
Unfortunately, the book has some serious flaws. The Hill-Gillette plot nearly swamps the story, and the Browns’ situation (which is much more compelling and poignant) disappears for long stretches. Also, the characters tend to be one-dimensional — the good people are very good, the bad ones very bad. Moreover, Margolin skirts what could have been the real meat of the story: a deeper consideration of racism.
But Margolin’s popularity stems, I think, not from prose style or character development, but from his knack for storytelling. And at that he succeeds very well; “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” is a fast and absorbing read, and Margolin’s law expertise makes the book’s climax — a courtroom battle — an exciting moment indeed.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 7, 2014, was corrected Feb. 7, 2014. The dates of the author’s local readings changed after publication.