Writing a work of historical fiction is like walking a narrative tightrope. Stick too closely to the facts, and the plot can grow tedious, but if you embellish the story too liberally, you can risk losing authenticity. Add true crime to the mix, and the task becomes even more difficult, as you’re faced with the dilemma of fictionalizing real-life violence without minimizing or exploiting that brutality. Camilla Bruce’s historical novel In The Garden of Spite effortlessly avoids these pitfalls while still providing a thrilling narrative. Her fictional portrayal of Belle Gunness, the infamous “Black Widow of La Porte,” humanizes the famous serial killer without excusing her appalling crimes.
Synopsis: Belle Gunness is one of the most prolific female serial killers in American history, but before the Black Widow of La Porte got her name, she led a respectable life as a housewife in the suburbs of Chicago. Born in Norway as Brynhild Størseth, Belle comes to Chicago determined to build a new life for herself, away from the poverty and abuse she endured on her family farm. But Belle soon realizes that a wholesome married life won’t bring her contentment, and her greed and ambition put her at odds with her meek new husband, Mads Sorenson. Intent on having her way, Belle decides to rid herself of Mads, and opens the door to a bloody new future.
My thoughts: The most difficult part of writing about serial killers is attempting to explain their motives. Most perpetrators don’t offer explanations for their crimes, and those that do rarely seem capable of understanding, let alone explaining, why they committed those acts in the first place. Belle Gunness never left behind any confession that accounted for the countless murders she committed on her lonely farm in Indiana, but that doesn’t stop author Camilla Bruce from constructing a compelling and ultimately convincing motive from the scraps of life that Belle did leave behind.
In her author’s note, Bruce, who hails from the same region of Norway as Belle, writes that she “could not fathom how a dirt-poor girl from the middle of Norway ended up in Indiana with a yard full of corpses — and maybe even got away with it.” Her desire to understand how a woman with a similar upbringing to herself could become a cold-blooded killer imbues the novel with much needed empathy. In writing “a folkloric monster back to flesh and blood” (468), Bruce gifts the reader with a nuanced perspective of an otherwise salacious story, allowing them an opportunity to understand Belle’s motives and still condemn her actions.
Because much of Belle’s life is lost to history, Bruce fills in the gaps by weaving strands of local gossip into her tale. One such story concerns a brutal beating by a farmer’s son that caused Belle to miscarry their illegitimate child. The attack, described by Bruce as a “questionable truth,” serves as the inciting incident in Belle’s life; an event that leaves her with permanent physical injuries, an unpredictable temper, and an infinite supply of spite. In the novel, Belle takes her revenge on the farmer’s son by poisoning him to death, while in reality, Bruce states that no one can say for sure whether the man died from natural or unnatural causes. Nevertheless, the truth of the attack and its consequences are less important than the symbolism they provide, as they sets the stage for Belle’s future as a black widow, and gives the reader insight into Belle’s transformation from housewife to murderer.
Another embellishment is Nellie Larson, Belle’s older sister. Nellie provides the second perspective in the novel, serving as the work’s moral compass and audience surrogate. While she originally views Belle through rose-colored glasses, incapable of seeing her as anyone other than her vulnerable and misunderstood little sister, Nellie later becomes suspicious and fearful of Belle. Nellie’s perspective is invaluable for the reader and serves as an important counterweight against Belle’s personal account. While Belle constantly minimizes her brutality and justifies it as a necessary consequence of survival, Nellie sees the stark reality of her murders. Nellie’s point of view prevents the novel from leaning too deeply into Belle’s skewed narrative, and provides a necessary dose of sympathy in addition to blame.
Importantly, Nellie doesn’t realize the extent of Belle’s violence until it’s too late. Nellie’s inability to truly hold Belle accountable is one of the most realistic aspects of the novel. Bruce could have re-invented Nellie as a sort of avenging angel who saw past her sister’s facade to the ruthless killer within, but such a character wasn’t true to history. In her author’s note, Bruce states that there is “nothing to suggest that Belle’s family knew anything about her criminal activities” which is in line with the disappointing reality of many serial killers, whose crimes go often go unnoticed and unpunished for decades.
Bruce spends a lot of narrative time in building a believable motive for Belle, but her attempts to humanize Belle never come at the expense of the woman’s numerous victims. So many works in the true crime genre fall prey to what I think of as the “roll-call of death.” When they mention victims, it’s only to detail their gruesome deaths, and they make little effort to humanize them or give them distinguishable characteristics. Because Belle has so many victims, Bruce could have taken this same path, but instead, she takes great pains to make Belle’s victims feel fully developed, and to make the reader care about their deaths. Belle may despise her husbands and justify their murders, but Bruce’s characterization of these two men depicts them as casualties of Belle’s greed. As for the countless faceless men who answered Belle’s lonely heart advertisements and found themselves six feet under, Bruce gives them enough color to be distinguishable from each other and humanize them to the audience. Overall, Bruce’s efforts make it so that Belle’s victims get their proper place in her story, an admirable feat in a genre that often glorifies killers at the expense of their victims.
The only part of the novel in which Bruce gives Belle too much benefit of the doubt concerns her treatment of her children. Bruce paints Belle as a devoted mother who takes in orphans and foster children and treats them like her own. It’s hard to square Bruce’s depiction of Belle as a woman who adores children with the reality that all of her children ended up dead. Whether their deaths were intentional is still up for debate, and Bruce chooses to believe that Belle was a murderer of men, but not a murderer of children. In her author’s note, she says:
It has often been assumed that Belle killed two of her children in Chicago, and later Peter Gunness’ younger child, but there is no proof of that. Child mortality was high at the time, and the children could have just as easily have died of natural causes. There has also been speculation that Belle killed her children in La Porte before starting the fire, either as part of a murder-suicide or to cover her tracks as she fled. This seems very strange to me, as her one redeeming quality in life was a love of children, and there is nothing to indicate that the younger ones were ever mistreated at home.
Bruce’s leniency with Belle in this area is surprising to me, because even though there is no proof to suggest the Belle killed any children in Chicago, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that she killed her children in La Porte. The dismembered body of her eldest foster child Jennie Olsen was found on her property, and the bodies of her three youngest children, along with a headless woman, were found in the farmhouse after it burned to the ground. While investigators originally thought that the headless woman was Belle, the body was noticeably smaller than her own, and couldn’t be identified further because of the missing head. Most people assume that Belle killed her children, set the fire, and left to start a new life, and Bruce assumes this too, though she gives Belle the benefit of the doubt in this arena by having the children die accidentally after eating poisoned oranges meant for one of Belle’s unlucky suitors. It’s unclear why Bruce can readily believe in Belle’s ability to murder men, but not in her ability to murder children, even though in her own author’s note, she states that Belle “was mercurial in every way…Her sister said that she loved children, while Jennie Olsen’s suitor claimed that the girl was mistreated.” It’s not a far reach to assume that a woman with a terrible temper and murderous tendencies would not hesitate to harm her own children if they stood in her way, and it seems that when Belle realized that her days were numbered, she cut her losses and killed her children to throw investigators off her trail. On the last page of the novel, Belle seems to acknowledge her inherently violent nature, saying “when I was younger, I sometimes thought the devil had slipped inside me in place of the child I had lost. Later I came to accept that there was never anyone but me in my skin, human through and through.” It would be more out of character for her violence to be limited in nature than for it to encompass all of her enemies, adults and children alike. Belle’s children never had the chance to testify for themselves, and Bruce does a disservice glossing over the suffering of Belle’s most vulnerable victims.
Ultimately, In The Garden of Spite is a chilling historical novel that presents a nuanced take on an infamous serial killer. Bruce’s version of Belle is a realistic and fully-developed portrayal of the enigmatic black widow, and her richly rendered story fills the gaps in Belle’s story without taking too many liberties. Too many true crime narratives depict serial killers as mythical villains in the vein of Freddy and Jason, but Bruce makes a point to portray Belle as nothing more or less than human. She hammers home this theme in the novel’s eerie final passage.
We are all just creatures on this earth, fending for ourselves the best that we can. There is nothing unnatural about me. I walk the same pastures as any other. I am as natural as they come. There are just not many of my kind.