Book Review: Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Amanda Flower

In Amanda Flower's Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Emily Dickinson and her housemaid, Willa Noble, realize there is nothing poetic about murder. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Young Willa Noble is thrilled to be able to leave her position at the beck and call of an overbearing boarding house mistress to go into service in the home of one of Amherst, Massachusetts’ most prominent families instead. Her new superior, Margaret O’Brien, is demanding but fair, and the pay is much better. The Dickinson family too is far more complicated and interesting than Willa ever imagined. Eldest daughter Emily is independent and, to Willa’s surprise, her biggest supporter in the Dickinson household.

This becomes an unexpected boon when Willa’s beloved younger brother, Henry, is found dead one night at the stables where he recently began work. The siblings have depended solely upon each other since the death of their mother, with Henry constantly dreaming of saving up enough money to either buy them a house to live in or to move out West. Willa had far more modest dreams than her brother, but is still utterly devastated by his death, throwing herself into her work on Margaret’s advice. Emily is dismayed to discover this, telling the younger woman:

“I do not know what I would do if my brother Austin died. I would not be able to get on with it. I would crumble like a centuries-old retaining wall and be nothing but a pile of dust.”


That was because she was in a different class than I was. It was because she lived in this grand house and had a father who had wealth and prestige. In the lower classes, like mine, we didn’t have the option to crumble. I was proud of myself when I didn’t say any of this aloud.

While the two women may be of different social classes, they’re both determined to get to the bottom of what actually happened to Henry on the fateful night he lost his life. The police and the stable owner insist it must have been an accident caused by Henry’s clumsy handling of a spirited racehorse, but Willa knows her animal-loving younger brother was much smarter than that. Headstrong, justice-minded Emily is intrigued by the mystery of it all, and isn’t afraid to use her social position to help them both get answers.

When the trail leads our heroines south from Amherst to Washington DC and Mount Vernon—George Washington’s historic estate on the banks of the Potomac—Emily arranges for Willa to accompany her and her sister Lavinia as their ladies’ maid so that they can continue investigating together. But the further afield they travel, the more they uncover of the festering secrets of their own hometown, leading to their return and a reckoning that could have fatal consequences for Willa and Emily both.

I fell a little bit in love with this imagining of Emily Dickinson as intrepid sleuth, a position that is not at all contradictory to what we know of the historical figure and poet. Amanda Flower does an exemplary job of extrapolating from the real Ms. Dickinson’s life to construct a clever, socially-conscious historical mystery that isn’t afraid to confront the United States’ troubled past, especially in regard to slavery. While kind, retiring Willa is our main viewpoint character—in what’s hopefully the first in a series which will see her grow even more than she already has in this novel—Emily is just as much of a driving force in the narrative. She’s never afraid to pursue her interests, whether serious or frivolous, nor to defend said pursuits, even at her father’s dinner parties:

“Men’s work, women’s work. I can scream the number of times I have heard that. What if my interests are supposed to be reserved for men? What am I supposed to do with those?” Emily wanted to know.


“They can’t be your interests,” the young and bearded Mr. Allen said.


“How can you tell me how I can and cannot feel?” Emily asked. “If you stub your toe and experience pain, what should I say to you? Well, as a man you should be stronger than that. That should not hurt you. I don’t think you would like that.”


“That is not the point I’m making.”


“I see, but it is the point I’m making, which is the difference.”

Emily would be appalled by the modern rise of the toxic masculinity that embraces exactly the ridiculous supposition she presents here, but at least in 1855, her dinner companion has the grace to be ashamed of, and perhaps re-evaluate, his rank sexism. 

While this isn’t the first fictional adaptation of Ms Dickinson’s life, it’s certainly the only one I know of where she helps solve a murder. More importantly, Because I Would Not Stop for Death is unafraid to tackle the very American questions of class and injustice, using the framework of a historical mystery to get its point across. It is a superlative effort, and entertaining to boot.

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