A Bitter Brew: Faith, Power, and Poison in a Small New England Town
by Christine Ellen Young
Publisher – Berkley
Rating – 9/10
Summary – Author Christine Young takes the 2003 arsenic poisonings at a church in New Sweden, Maine, and turns the story into something special. Readers get to learn not only about the case, but about the rhythms of small-town New England life. A Bitter Brew is a winner.
Review – In April 2003 someone put arsenic in the coffeepot at New Sweden, Maine’s Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church. Sixteen members of the congregation fell ill and one of them died. Authorities attempted to unravel the mystery but found the case surprisingly difficult to crack. A Bitter Brew tells the story of the New Sweden poisonings.
Good, Vivid Writing
Author Christine Ellen Young deserves credit for bringing alive the setting and the people. She often chooses just the right detail. Consider this passage –
“Detective Lloyd Deschaine pulled out a chair in the interview room at the Criminal Investigation Division of the Maine Department of Public Safety. He saw down at the large rectangular wooden table, which was dotted with deep, black cigarette burns. Deschaine smoked Camels, but now everything was smoke-free this and smoke-free that so the butts had to stay in his pocket. As for the cigarette burns, Deschaine could recite exactly which one went with what case. That gay fellow who got tossed off the bridge, right here; the pot dealer burned alive, right over there; and the little girl starved by her demon-crazy mom, that one right there” (p. 97)
A Bitter Brew is as much about rural life as it as about murder. For people in northern Maine, their church is often the center of social life. In examining the crime, Young explores the inner workings of Gustaf Adolph Church. Her investigation reveals both the pros (generosity, feelings of community, lack of pretension) and cons (pettiness, lack of privacy, and festering feuds) of small-town life. Young manages to make the simmering bad feelings beneath New Sweden’s placid surface fascinating.
The book also provides some nice insight into Swedish-American culture. As the town’s name suggests, Swedish culture is pervasive in New Sweden and many of the residents retain ties to relatives in “the old country.” Interestingly, coffee is an important part of Swedish culture and – at times – even children drink it. The manner in which Gustaf Adolph’s members reacted to the arsenic poisonings was influenced by their Swedish heritage.
At the end the reader must conclude that there are many things that outsiders cannot ever know about New Sweden. Many mysteries remain.
A Reporter’s Perspective
Reporters flocked to New Sweden after the poisoning. Author Young often includes information about where the press assembled during the case, what the press was thinking, and how the authorities dealt with reporters. In doing so, she – at times – uses the “New Journalism” technique of making herself a character in the story. Young skillfully works this material into the book, so that it does not jar the reader.
Young found that the church members were often unreceptive to her and many refused to be interviewed. After she established contacts in New Sweden, some of the church members agreed speak with her. Among those who did not grant interviews, Young – at times – is rather harsh in her assessments of them. She includes the following passage concerning one woman – Norma – who did not grant an interview –
“Oh, brother, aren’t we Miss Nicey-nice? Karla thought. What happened to the real Norma – the pushy, brassy, domineering bitch who wants to take over the church? Suddenly so caring and concerned, when usually she avoids me like the plague because I can’t stand her and she can’t stand me” (p. 55).
Young’s portrait of her interviewees – while more generous than are her portraits of those who refused to be interviewed – can also be cutting. Of one large woman, Young writes, she “…placed her hands on her wide hips…” and “Nobody got in [her] way as she lumbered through the small hospital’s corridors” (p. 15). Some townspeople who granted access may have come to regret it.
Murder, She Wrote
The tale of a murder among the (seemingly) religious in a small Maine town sounds like a case for Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote. This isn’t the sort of story that normally appeals to me, but two people who had read A Bitter Brew highly recommended it to me. I’m glad that I did read it. In many ways, the murder in the case is less interesting than are the revelations about life in a small New England town. A Bitter Brew is a terrific, short read that teaches the reader about life off the beaten path.