Book Review: So Far From Home
Reviewed by Joelene Pynnonen
A vivid true crime story that dives into the social and political climate behind a gruesome murder
True crime is a genre that fascinates a great deal of the population. The recent success of documentaries, podcasts, books, and vlogs on the subject can attest to that. In the late 1800s, the general public was just as enthralled by murder. The more sensational, the better.
In Northern Kentucky, 1896, the headless body of a young woman was found. Soon identified as Pearl Bryan, the 22-year-old daughter of a wealthy farmer from Indiana. The horror of such a fate befalling this young woman caught public attention from the start. When it is discovered that Pearl is five months pregnant, it causes even more sensation. The pressure is on police to find her killer or killers and bring them to justice.
With Pearl identified, it isn’t difficult for police to ascertain that the prime suspect is a previous acquaintance of hers: dental student Scott Jackson. Before long, Jackson’s roommate, Alonzo Walling, is also arrested. Both men claim to be innocent, while implicating the other.
Evidence is scarce in the case. And with the murder being so sensationalized in daily papers, many of the people who come forward as witnesses have ulterior motives. But given the nature of the crime, the public demands justice and the authorities feel the pressure to comply.
So Far From Home is a fascinating historical tale. While the crime is at the forefront, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. Wilhelm paints a full picture of the stakes that pertain to all parties through the trial. Pressure is on the prosecution to return a guilty vote.
If the verdict goes against popular opinion, there is a real chance that mob justice will prevail. The defense is fighting for the lives of two men, who have nothing but circumstantial evidence against them. Also explored are the circumstances of the families of the accused and Pearl’s family.
Author Robert Wilhelm maintains the perfect balance in giving all parties involved a voice, but also in making each of their perspectives persuasive. He takes the time to humanize the people involved in this story. For a book gleaned from old newspapers, it does well in delving into personalities.
The research behind this book is extraordinary. Wilhelm follows the case from its start right to the finale. He lays out the dead ends that the case hits, the political climate, the public’s reaction to the murder and murderers. Pearl Bryan’s murder created so much uproar amongst her contemporaries that following all of the different threads that arose from it should have been confusing at best. The way Wilhelm sets the case out manages to paint a clear picture of the situation however.
One detail that stands out is Pearl Bryant’s father’s fear of his beloved daughter being “remembered only as the murdered girl buried without her head.” It’s a sad picture, and, unfortunately, while So Far From Home digs deeply into the events and perspectives of the people involved in the story, it feels as though we only ever get a glimmer of Pearl as a person. For the most part, she is the object that the story revolves around. Given the care Wilhelm takes with every other aspect of the story, I don’t think this is a failing on the author’s part. It seems to be a failing on the part of an 1890s society that followed the details of the murder and trial with a voracious appetite, but didn’t spare a thought for the victim at the center of it all.
For history buffs or fans of true crime, So Far From Home is a fantastic read. It paints a vivid picture of the social and political climate of the American Midwest in the 1890s. The information is painstakingly compiled and follows the facts of the case as closely as possible without the author impressing his opinion. There is a lot to think about once this book is done. Too many parties involved had vested interests in certain outcomes, so the real story will never be known, but it is impossible to read through this without forming your own opinion on the tale.
Genre: Nonfiction / True Crime
Print Length: 211 pages
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