In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a woman by the name of Belle Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset, quietly terrorized Chicago and La Porte, Indiana. It is now thought Gunness may have been responsible for the deaths of up to 40 people. Having never been caught, much of the facts of Belle’s story are the result of speculation. In the Garden of Spite is Bruce’s version of what the black widow’s story may have been, including her origin story of trauma so terrible it pushed her to the point of unthinkable evil.
The novel begins in Norway with Little Brynhild, the daughter born to a poor working class family, an abused mother and a cruel father. As a teen, we watch in horror as her dealings with men become more horrifying than you can imagine. Her experiences do two things. They give her the desire to escape the hell she experiences in Norway, and they give her a thirst for vengeance. From there, the novel follows her to Chicago to move in with her sister, Big Brynhild, now known as Nellie. The novel progresses in alternating chapters from the perspectives of both sisters and goes through Belle’s life as we experience her slow transformation into the twisted serial killer, the “Black Widow of La Porte.” I will actually refer to her as Belle in this review, though the novel refers to her as Bella. According to the book, Bella was her chosen name and it annoyed her that people referred to her as Belle.
Full disclosure, this book is disturbing as hell. It’s gory and gruesome in pretty graphic detail. I mean, Belle Gunness was a serial killer who literally butchered her victims into pieces with a cleaver in order to more easily bury them on the farm, so what else would you expect? This book is an incredibly dark mix of psychological horror and historical fiction.
From my own independent research into Gunness, I would say Bruce has done a pretty fabulous job of piecing together a possible historical timeline. She mostly sticks to facts as they are known for the story but she does add her own embellishments here and there. I won’t say what it is, but there is one fact to the conclusion of Belle’s story I always found so horrifying as to have difficulty believing it’s true, and Bruce explains this in a way I found believable but also retains what small shred of humanity Belle had left in my mind.
In general, this book is extremely psychological in nature. First of all, we get the origin story for her. She experiences trauma at the hands of a cruel man. Bruce does humanize Belle, especially in the beginning. I truly did feel for her during her most anguished hours. Her desperate loneliness and grief were very raw and gripping. This allowed me to fully see how someone could wind up down such an awful path in life. However, without already being predisposed to mental illness, I don’t think Belle would have been capable of such atrocities. If every woman abused by a man became a serial killer, there wouldn’t be any men left in the world.
Bruce paints a portrait of her suffering from mental illness that goes all the way back to childhood. At the risk of giving a purely armchair amateur diagnosis, I feel she’s presented as both a malignant narcissist and a sociopath, if not a full on psychopath. She’s completely devoid of empathy, not even for her adopted children she professes to love. Belle is presented as someone incapable of loving anyone the way she loves herself. However, she is able to fake it in an expert fashion. She’s the ultimate charlatan, duping literally everyone she comes into contact with save for one person who recognizes her for what she is.
The novel is well written with compelling characters. In Belle’s case, she is absolutely infuriating. It’s rare to find a book where the protagonist is so much more of an antagonist. She’s the ultimate villain, and we have to be in her head for half of the book. That’s at once a fascinating and frustrating experience. More frustrating than Belle’s perspective, however, is Nellie’s. Nellie is so naive and blinded by love for her sister she seems incapable of recognizing what’s before her very eyes. I will say that Bruce has admitted Nellie’s portion of the story to be mostly fabrication. In reality, Nellie had little to no contact with Gunness following her exit from Chicago and relocation to Indiana. The book shows the two remaining in close contact in order to increase suspense. We see Nellie as someone who could stop Belle if she would just pull her head out of the sand long enough to thwart continued tragedy.
There is one character I’m on the fence about. Belle meets an enigmatic man much like herself, James Lee. It’s through Lee that we see the encouragement of the growth of her more sadistic side. Lee has a similar thirst for blood and he helps Belle cultivate her own. Bruce admits in the afterward that Lee is completely fabricated. There’s no evidence in the historical record that anyone aided Belle in her bloody schemes early on in her killing. On the one hand, I see this type of character as a great plot device that helps the reader understand Belle’s transformation. On the other hand, I feel like adding a man to Belle’s story to “teach” her how to be a better killer takes away some of the power from the real historical figure. I’m not sure it makes much sense to have Belle Gunness, a butcher of men, be in possession of a male mentor. Often times, it was Lee who had the more intelligently crafted schemes and Belle was presented as so careless and blood-thirsty that he had to admonish her to be more careful. I’m not sure this is fair to the original Belle Gunness who was in possession of a crafty scheming nature and was able to get away with it for so long. Additionally, it shows Belle as being inspired in her insurance schemes by the infamous Chicago serial killer, H.H. Holmes. While it’s likely this might have been true, it’s once again presenting ideas coming from a man rather than Belle’s own ingenuity. To her credit, however, Belle got away with it and Holmes did not. Some people may believe Belle died in 1908, but I’m about 99.9% sure that she disappeared to a new life. That being said, if Gunness had tried any of the things she got away with in today’s modern times, she would have been caught faster than you can say miranda rights.
Truly, this is such a compelling book. It’s sure to fascinate both history buffs and horror fans alike. While it’s not for the faint of heart, it’s definitely a page turner. Overall, I give this one 4 stars for sheer readability, depth of research, and it’s in-depth psychological info on a real historical figure.
Image sources: Image 1 – Belle Gunness. IndyStar News. https://www.indystar.com/story/news/history/retroindy/2017/11/10/female-indiana-serial-killer-comely-belle-gunness-loved-her-suitors-death/848023001/ Image 2 – Belle Gunness and adopted children. La Porte County Historical Society Museum. https://laportecountyhistory.org/exhibits/belle-gunness/
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