Author John Milliken Thompson created a captivating novel, The Reservoir, after researching an old court case involving the death of a woman in Richmond. On the morning of March 14, 1885, the body of a young, pregnant woman was found floating in the Richmond reservoir. Investigators first thought the woman had committed suicide, but evidence suggested that a second person had been with her the night before, when she had drowned. The body was eventually found to be that of Fannie Lillian Madison, known to her family and friends as Lillie. The Richmond Dispatch followed the case from the discovery of Lillie’s body through the trial of a distant cousin of hers, Tommie Cluverius, charged with first degree murder. Lillie had been involved with both Tommie and his older brother, Willie, when she was living with her aunt in King and Queen County. It was not known for sure whose baby she was carrying—one of the brothers’, or perhaps someone else’s. The case was a sensation at the time, with front-page headlines in Richmond and even in the New York Times.
Thompson writes chapters that take place after Lillie’s death in the present tense and chapters up to her death in the past tense. This was a little uncomfortable at first, but it only took a few chapters to get used to it. Then I found that the change in tense helped clarify the time period I was reading about.
I read The Reservoir twice, and both times I was absorbed in it. I thought about the book all day as I was doing other things and wanted to get back to it as soon as possible, even the second time I read it. There is a real sense of the nineteenth century, and of a very Southern Richmond, only a couple decades after the Civil War. From my memories of older Virginia relatives, the dialect Thompson uses seems just right.
Thompson posted images from the sources he used on his website, including images of articles in the Richmond Dispatch and the New York Times, photos of Richmond from the time, a photo of Lillie’s grave, and a map of Richmond showing where the reservoir and other key places were. Viewing these images further helped me feel I was immersed in the period about which I was reading.
As I read, I had to remind myself that this was a novel. Thompson didn’t really know what transpired between the brothers and their cousin, but he created such realistic characters that I felt I knew their motivations and emotions. By the end of the novel, the reader still isn’t sure what happened, but it doesn’t matter. A pat ending wouldn’t make this novel any better. It would, in fact, be disingenuous to what happened. We know what the jury decided; we don’t know what really took place.
Check the WRL catalog for The Reservoir