See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Published: August 1/17, Atlantic Monthly Press
Reviewed by Kirsten Lowe
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks, when she seen what she had done, she gave her father 41.
I remember skipping rope to that eerie riddle during recess in elementary school, too young to understand its origins … Author Sarah Schmidt has taken one of the most famous American murder cases turned legend and has rewritten it into a novel.
Andrew and Sarah Borden were married and had two daughters, Emma and Lizzie. Sadly Sarah never quite recovered from the birth of Lizzie and passed away. Though Sarah is gone her brother, John Morse, would always drop in to check up on his nieces in their small town of Fall River, Massachusetts.
Andrew goes on to marry Abby who becomes the girl’s new stepmother, but even if he’s re-married and his daughters and growing into young women, Andrew refuses to move his family out of their somewhat poor conditioned home despite his wealth. Instead he allows Abby to hire one housemaid – an Irish immigrant named Bridget. In the beginning everyone seems to get along fine, but over time Bridget begins to feel an uneasy storm brewing among the family.
The Borden sisters, though close, are complete opposites. Emma comes across as the sensible one. She’s the daughter who wants to escape the family but is trapped by the murders because to her “family is family.” Then there is Lizzie, who as a child doubted her father’s authority. The daughter one who won’t compromise and will punish what she considers to be cruelty and injustice. At the age of thirty, she and Andrew share an odd relationship in which they care and tolerate each other but all the while Lizzie plays many games on him to gain his attention, while giving no respect to Abby.
Out of nowhere, John Morse shows up to check up on his nieces but sees the resentment and struggle in Emma and Lizzie, and has already made plans to exact revenge on his former brother-in-law for his treatment towards his daughters. He has hired his friend, Benjamin (who is hiding in he Borden’s barn) to “do something” to Andrew. The next morning, a series of odd events occur that involve Abby ‘supposedly’ leaving to visit a sick friend, John Morse heading in to town to meet some bankers and Andrew preparing to leave for work.
Without spoiling the story anymore I’ll end it with the cops arriving and finding Andrew and Abby Borden murdered with an axe. Benjamin, who is still hiding, is confronted by John – the plan never involved Abby. That’s when Benjamin replies that he never got the chance to hurt anyone and flees.
A few days later, Lizzie is arrested but is not found guilty. The book doesn’t cover the trial, instead it’s told in a few small sections as part of the conclusion to the book. We learn what happened to Bridget, Lizzie and Emma in the future years, as well as John and Benjamin. Schmidt has unearthed this old legend and has given it new life with descriptions clearly showing what the house looked like and how the family lived, along with the complexities of living in the 1890’s beneath one’s means when there was money to do things in a better way. For those who have a tendency to be squeamish, be careful for there are a few graphic scenes. And I must note that this story is not for everyone. Readers need to be ready to start this book with an open mind. This novel and situation will make you think.
Kirsten Lowe studies at Athabasca University.