Prather's Pick: 'Worthy Brown’s Daughter' is an intriguing and well-crafted book

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This week’s novel, set in the early American West, 1860, is based on a real court case from the Oregon Territory.

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Diane Prather

Phillip Margolin, author of “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” has plenty of experience with court cases. Besides being an author, he has a background as a criminal defense attorney and has handled 30 murder cases. Although he has written 17 bestsellers, this is Margolin’s first book of historical fiction.

The protagonist of this week’s novel (although it might be argued that there are two leading characters) is Matthew Penny, an attorney who made a decision to leave Ohio with his wife Rachel for hopes of a bright future in the Oregon Territory. They joined a wagon train, but along the way they had to cross a swollen river and Rachel drowned. Matthew is having a hard time coming to grips with Rachel’s death.

He has settled in Portland, an Oregon town that is not even a year old. Matthew has rented an office and joined several other young men in a law practice.

As the novel opens, however, Matthew is in a little town of Phoenix, Ore., where he has come to defend Glen Farber in Farber v. Gillette. Because it was rumored that the railroad soon would be headed for Phoenix, Oregon’s wealthiest businessman, Benjamin Gillette, approached Glen Farber about buying some property. Now he has decided not to honor the contract, thus resulting in the court case.

Before Matthew is able to talk to his client, however, Judge Jed Tyler, Justice of the Supreme Court and the judge presiding over the Phoenix area, asks him to defend Clyde Lukens right there and then. Matthew is afraid to defy the judge who he is sure to meet up with in other court cases.

That’s how he first meets up with Caleb Barbour, a powerful attorney whose methods often are questionable. He also meets Sharon Hill, a visitor in Phoenix who claims that Clyde Lukens stole $200 from her. Matthew and Barbour are opposing attorneys in the Lukens trial, which doesn’t turn out so well for Lukens or Matthew. However, Farber v. Gillette is another matter.

Prior to the second trial, Matthew is surprised to get a tip from Worthy Brown, a black man who secretly approaches him. The tip has to do with the Farber v. Gillette case. Brown is hoping that if the tip proves helpful, Matthew might represent him with a legal problem.

After returning to Portland, Matthew is visited by Brown who explains that when he, his wife, Polly, and daughter Roxanne lived in Georgia they were slaves owned by Caleb Barbour. When Barbour decided to move to Oregon he told Brown that if they would help him get a farm started in the new territory he would free them the next year.

But Barbour reneged on the agreement. He freed Brown but kept Roxanne, now nearly fifteen, until she had paid off her living expenses. (Polly since has died.) He wants Mathew to help him get Roxanne back.

All of this and the plot of the novel has just begun. The reader also meets Heather Gillette, Benjamin Gillette’s daughter, and Orville Mason, another attorney. The events build to an unexpected ending.

In the “Author’s Note” at the book’s end, the author writes about the inspiration in writing this historical novel. Included is a bibliography of sources consulted for the book.

This is an intriguing and well-crafted book. Phillip Margolin is the winner of the Distinguished Northwest Writer Award.

“Worthy Brown’s Daughter” is published by HarperCollins (2014). The hardcover book is $26.99. It also is a new book at the Moffat County Library.

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