Monday, January 7, 2013
In Need of a Good Wife
By Kelly O’Connor McNees
New York, Penguin Books, 2012
387 p. Historical Fiction
The years following the Civil War continue to provide fodder for books of every sort—from novels to histories—and about every conceivable type of situation. Among the most poignant are the stories of women left husbandless after the war, either because of the death of a husband or because of the dearth of men left in the community. Other stories tell of homesteaders and ranchers without wives in a “lawless” West. Historical novelist Kelly O’Connor McNees expands the literature with a study of women seeking husbands on the plains of Nebraska in the years immediately following the Civil War. In Need of a Good Wife begins in 1866 with a newspaper article about the community of Destination, Nebraska and their total lack of wives for the homesteading men.
Meanwhile, In Manhattan, Clara Bixby is at a dead end. She has lost her job as a barmaid in the tavern that used to belong to her father. She has been abandoned by her husband and needs a fresh start. She decides that she will broker wives for the men of Destination, and she sets about to do just that. As she searches for women willing to move from Manhattan to Nebraska, she discovers that there are many women who are also looking for a fresh start. She matches the potential wives with the men of Destination, and the women correspond all winter with their intended husbands. In the spring, Clara takes the first group of women on the long train journey from Manhattan to Destination. Of course, the path to marriage is not smooth; some women defect, one of the young women dies on the train, and things in Destination are not quite as they were advertised.
Wisely, McNees chooses to focus on only three of the women—Clara, the marriage broker, an older laundress named Elsa, and a duplicitous young widow named Rowena. Clara’s scoundrel of a husband arrives on the scene shortly after the women arrive in Destination, but like many men of his type, he cannot sustain the relationship or the responsibility of marriage, and he takes off once again but not before causing many problems for Clara. Elsa had responded to a letter from a curmudgeonly man needing a housekeeper rather than a wife and finds that she is quite content with her new life. Rowena, on the other hand, finds herself in a bad situation—the man she marries is the town’s butcher who has neglected to tell her in his letters that he has five children and they live in a “soddy”, a sod hut.
By the way, this book cannot be classified as a romance novel for there is very little romance in the hardscrabble lives portrayed. The men are generally kind, though rough hewn, and the women are realistic in their appraisal of their new lives on the plains, including dirt, drought, and worst of all, plagues of grasshoppers. These are strong women—survivors, as it were—and McNees does a fine job creating believable individuals. These are the type of women that one could imagine taking a six-day train ride to find a husband. I also liked that McNees created believable men, hardworking and for the most part honest men who are genuinely missing the warmth that comes from having a woman in the house. When Rowena gets over her anger at being married to a man with five children, she ponders what makes a good man. “A good man, Rowena thought now, was a man who moved through the world careful not to do others harm. That was it, simple as it seemed, but it was a profound and essential thing upon which to build an entire life, a succession of lives. Daniel Gibson was this sort of good man. Rowena didn’t love him, but she wished mightily that she could. Whoever did love him—and someone certainly would—was a blessed woman indeed.”
I found that I had several things to ponder as I read In Need of a Good Wife. Would I be willing to take such a chance for a new life? Do you have to love a man to have a good marriage? Does a woman need to be married to have a fulfilled life? Why shouldn’t a woman be able to take care of herself?
As I was finishing up the book last night, Rakan, the young Saudi Arabian man who until recently lived in the apartment in our home, came to visit and brought his new wife Michelle. She is a cousin that he had not seen since they were young children—not seen until the night of their wedding two weeks ago. She came to the United States two days ago with a man that she hardly knew to go to a school that she knew nothing about. As we sat and talked, I could see her become visibly more relaxed. Perhaps she thought that this new life wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
As in The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, which I read two years ago, McNees has done an excellent job of taking us to a place and time that we know little about or have read only snippets of information about. We have all heard about “mail order brides,” but it was enlightening to take a peek into the psyches of women who would make such a choice and leave everything they knew to head out into the frontier.
In an interview on public radio, McNees was asked a question about the difference between good and bad historical fiction. Her answer defined for me why I like her writing while I generally am not very fond of historical fiction. She says: “Bad historical fiction happens when an author decides to ‘teach’ readers about a particular period or historical event, or when he feels he must prove how much research he did by including a massive amount of historical detail that is irrelevant to the story. If you are writing a novel, your job is to tell a story … Good historical fiction evokes an era—its zeitgeist, its particular food and clothing, perhaps—but, as in all good fiction, the narrative must be driven by well-developed characters who are in trouble.”
Here is Kelly O’Connor McNees’ website: http://kellyoconnormcnees.com/