The Lady’s Slipper, by Deborah Swift
The butterfly effect refers to how one small action can affect the future of everything, how one flutter of a butterfly wing can lead to a natural disaster halfway around the world. Or, in Deborah Swift’s The Lady’s Slipper, how picking one flower can disrupt an entire community.
Set in the eighteenth century England amidst a time of political turmoil, The Lady’s Slipper centers on Alice Ibbetson, an artist who is grieving over the recent loss of her baby sister. She starts to see joy in her life again after stealing a lady slipper, a rare type of orchid, so that she may preserve and study it. The man on whose land she found the orchid, Richard Wheeler, suspects her of the thievery but can prove nothing. Sir Geoffrey Fisk, one of Ibbetson’s art patrons, knows of the flower and starts to harass her to get seeds from the plant so he may grow more and profit from them. In very short time, the plant hiding in Ibbetson’s art room is ruling her life.
Although focused on reclaiming his lost flower, Wheeler, a Quaker, is distracted by having to constantly defend his religion and his fellow Quakers from religious persecution. Swift gives great insight into the bravery shown by the pacifist Quakers and the price paid for defending their religion. The religious and political tension she creates is carefully explained and has relevance still today. (Although not all of today’s issues end with heads displayed on stakes around the gaol!)
Throughout The Lady’s Slipper, Swift writes of things in such detail that you feel like you are holding the lady slipper in your own hand and seeing townspeople as if they are right in front of you. When seeing an orchid that Fisk wants Ibbetson to crossbreed with the lady slipper, she describes the new orchid:
The artist in her followed each part, the curving yellow column with its hairs bristling at the pink-tinged base, the halo of petals flaring like a sunset. … The red orchid was an imposter, Alice though – an imposter in outrageous fancy dress.
Swift deftly layers plots to build a story that is complex and engaging. The whodunit mystery of the stolen flower – although not a mystery to the reader – and religious turmoil lead into a tale of murder, wrongful death sentences and a love story.
If The Lady’s Slipper runs into any pitfalls, and it doesn’t see many, it’s in the ending of her story. As the book progresses, it gets more and more action-packed and fast -paced. And just when the storyline should climax, it becomes unbelievable. Not all readers will be left disappointed because Swift does tie up every loose end and the “good” characters end up where they should.
But life isn’t that forgiving, is it? If one insect can effect weather throughout the world, and outcome of one plant can wreak havoc on a town, then certainly the outcomes of people will be affected as well, regardless of whether we like them or not.