The Promise by Ann Weisgarber
The year is 1900. Catherine Wainwright has so far managed to defy convention when it comes to marrying. She is a successful pianist and begins a relationship with a married man. Suddenly finding herself ostracised by the women of Dayton, Ohio, she knows the best way to salvage her reputation and dignity is to hastily marry.
Due to her reputation, the pool of eligible men is rather shallow but she reconnects via letters with Oscar Williams, an old acquaintance from school who left Ohio twelve years earlier to seek his fortune. There is great practicality in his proposal, as he writes, ‘My Son is in need of a Mother. I am in need of a Wife’. With no other available options, Catherine sets off to become his wife in Galveston, Texas.
Before reading this novel, I can’t say I knew much about Galveston but the author really brought it to life: the newness and rawness of the streets and buildings, the heat and sweat, the isolation of the island which gave the locals pride and made them pioneers with their own culture.
Alas, Oscar did not live in the town itself. His farm was a few miles away and there at the house to meet Catherine was not just the aforementioned son, Andre, but housekeeper Nan Ogden. Nan was the best friend of Oscar’s former wife who died of malaria and she jealously guards her relationships with Oscar and Andre upon discovering her position may be usurped by Catherine.
As you can imagine, the stage is set for rivalry and confrontation between the two women. The story alternates between both Catherine and Nan so you feel for both of them. The novel is incredibly well written so this tension simmers along gently in an understated way.
All petty jealousies are briefly forgotten in the second half of the novel when a hurricane is fast approaching. As the locals are used to regular hurricanes they are not prepared for the ferocity of this storm which ends up being the worst natural disaster in the USA during the 20th century.
The author has meticulously researched this storm and as someone who grew up with regular summer tropical storms (although not to this degree of severity) I can say that she perfectly captured the vivid sounds, colours and vibrations, as well as the texture of the air. The description of the aftermath across the entire island is also amazing: beaches and buildings completely washed away. It explains the unusual shape of Galveston today, thanks to the sea wall built as a result of this disaster.
As much as I enjoyed Catherine’s story as she tried to make a new life in Galveston, I think the hurricane stole my attention. It is a character in its own right. It details an important event in American history that is easy to forget as we really only focus on what is in today’s news. So that we don’t forget important events of the past – no matter how localised – it is important that novels like this are written. It is therefore a must for any historical fiction fans. Well done to Ann Weisgarber for finding such a unique angle for her story.
There are two more things that I would like to add. Firstly, I liked the subtle comparison between Catherine and Oscar’s first wife. It says a lot about Oscar and made me admire his character more.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I liked the ending to the novel. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and that’s a good thing as I don’t always like an easy resolution where female solidarity between two unique and strong women always wins. Don’t worry, this doesn’t really give anything away; you need to read the novel to see if you agree with me!
The Promise: 5 Stars
Thank you to the author and Pan Macmillan for a copy of the title to review.
If you like the idea of fiction about a forgotten side of history, then I also recommend Ann Weisgarber’s first novel:
The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber. The story of a Black family who set up a ranch in the Badlands in the early years of the 20th century. The author was inspired by a series of photos in a museum.