Author Sandra Wagner-Wright brings to life a story rife with “politics, power struggles, and patriarchy” in her newest historical novel Two Coins.
Mary Pigot is Lady Superintendent of the Ladies’ Association Female Mission in Calcutta, India. Born and raised in Calcutta, Mary is well acquainted with the climate, culture, and customs of the locals. Her diligence to faithfully spread God’s Word to the peoples of India while showing respect to their traditions places her in high esteem among the Ladies’ Association in Scotland.
In walks William Hastie, the new principal of the Scottish College, ten years into Mary’s position. His mission is to “restore harmony” between the Scottish College and the Female Mission. The only problem is that his definition of “restoring harmony” has to reflect Scottish principles. William realizes from the get-go that he has significant work to do when he recognizes Mary’s relaxed and unorthodox ways. As a result, friction immediately builds between the two.
While Mary continually contends with William’s nitpickiness, things grow from bad to worse when querulous Georgiana Smail comes on board as Mary’s assistant. Unbeknownst to Mary, Georgiana makes a detailed account of Mary’s faults and sends her findings in a report to the Ladies’ Association in Scotland. Mary returns to Scotland to defend her good name. More issues brew, this time involving her worst enemy, William Hastie. In the process of finding a solution to her ever-rising problems, the last thing she expects is to take William to court for libel.
Award-winning author Sandra Wagner-Wright brings to life an unprecedented event of the latter half of the 19th century. Based on actual events, Two Coins grew to fruition when she got wind of the case of Pigot vs. Hastie amid her research on missionary work in India. Original sources proved Mary Pigot to be a woman ahead of her time as marked by her professional accomplishments and tenacity for upholding her rights.
Building a plot from first and secondary sources is nothing to sneeze at, especially when details need to be presented in a way that identifies a novel as historical fiction. To Wagner-Wright’s credit is her ability not only to collect details but also breathe life into them. One of the most notable aspects of Two Coins is that it is written in present tense, which allows readers to feel as though they are experiencing a past event in real time.
Wagner-Wright takes her story one step further by designing her narrative in the first person and then alternates it between viewpoints from Mary and William (mainly), and (periodically) James Wilson, a close associate, and friend of Mary’s. The constant shifting while following a steady timetable allows the narrative to flow freely from one chapter into the next.
Two Coins keeps to the vernacular of the era with all of its patriarchally-laced social norms. Here the author includes a well-developed cast of primary and secondary characters that are mostly, though not exclusively, composed of historical figures. Scenes are a lively mix of engaging dialogue delicately balanced with a backset of nuances befitting British India—extreme temperatures (heat to monsoons), food, living conditions, adaptations due to climate (i.e., mosquito netting, nutshell-filled mattresses to keep away rodents), and Hindi terminology.
Tension (sprinkled with sarcastically comedic moments) rises with the court proceedings that are intertwined with unexpected plot twists. Two Coins, with its overtones to women’s rights, is nothing less than a stellar and ageless novel.