Thursday, September 21, 2017

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

A friend of mine talked about this book in last month's book group, and I gladly accepted his offer to read the book this month.  It had been on my radar for a few months, and after Kirk's review of it, I couldn't wait to dig in--and this was the perfect introduction to my favorite holiday, Halloween.  

Lizzie Borden, as we know, is infamous for the murders of her father, Andrew Borden, and her step-mother, Abby Borden, on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts.  They were both bludgeoned to death by an ax in their home:  Abby upstairs in the guest bedroom; Andrew lying on the couch in a downstairs parlor.  Lizzie was charged with their murders, brought to trial, and found not guilty.  She lived the rest of her life in Fall River, a bit of a pariah, and died in 1927 of pneumonia.  She never married.  

Lizzie Borden

These are the basic facts.  What Sarah Schmidt has done is to recreate the days leading up to the murders, and the few days after the murders, as told through the eyes of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and a very unsettling young man named Benjamin.  Moving back and forth between these characters, we learn bits and pieces of events surrounding the murders, and a little bit about each person.  It quickly becomes apparent that each had a motive for murder, and at least two of them are completely unhinged.  

The brilliance of this novel is the unbalanced feeling you have while reading it.  The best analogy I can use is to imagine yourself on the deck of a ship in the middle of a storm, trying to constantly keep your balance; shifting your weight, wondering when the next roll of the deck will come.  That's how I felt, especially while reading from Lizzie's viewpoint.  Her behavior and thoughts are, at times, downright repulsive.  Her tangled relationship with Emma, her love/hate for her father, and her disdain for her stepmother all are constantly changing as her mind wanders between the brutal present and the past.  Bridget is the only really normal character.  Stuck as a maid for the Bordens, she's been saving her money in a tin box underneath her bed, so she can leave and go back home to Ireland.  When Mrs. Borden finds out she wants to leave, she takes away Bridget's tin full of money.  Bridget's resentment of Mrs. Borden, her feelings of helplessness, and her awareness that "this family just isn't right" (my words, not hers) seems like the only normal part of the story.  Everyone else's views are subject to half-truths, truths, and lies. 

Benjamin is one awful man.  He's sent by Lizzie and Emma's Uncle John to take care of Andrew Borden.  Take care of how, it's not quite clear, but would involve violence.  He's really angry when he arrives and things aren't what Uncle John promised.  Don't even get me started on the high creep factor Uncle John brings to the story.  His treatment of Lizzie made my flesh crawl; sexual predator came to my mind more than once.  Emma's a whole lot more aware of Uncle John's creepiness and keeps well away from him. 

There are two points in the story where you realize who committed the murders, and when two other characters realize who committed the murders.  One of the turning points is fairly quiet, but made me say "Holy Crap!" out loud.  The other involves the murder weapon, and what becomes of it.  

Sara Schmidt is a gifted writer.  Her ability to set you squarely in the Borden home on those hot, humid, awful days creates a the illusion in your mind that you're kind of a peeper, standing in the corners, watching it all unfold.The smells, the textures, the descriptions of food may leave you queasy. I can say the word 'mutton' makes me feel a bit ill.  

I recommend this novel for book groups, folks who love true crime, and anyone who likes a good psychological thriller.  The big theme is the powerlessness women felt while under the thumb of their father; their inability to create a life on their own without the approval of parents, and the frustration that created.  Power is a very big theme--it can bring wealth, but it can also bring resentment, chaos, and violence.  While the murders to this day remain unsolved, Sarah Schmidt has her own idea of who was guilty of the crimes.  

Just in case you're interested, the Borden house is now run as a Bed and Breakfast, and you can stay in the room where Abby Borden was murdered.  It's also known to be haunted by Andrew Borden.  

Rating:  5/6 for a fantastic imaging of the Borden murders.  Highly recommend. A writer who brings all of your senses into play.

Available in hardcover, and e-book. 


  1. Great review! I have heard many good things about this book.

  2. It was very hard to put down. A gifted writer. Can't wait to see what else she writes.