A Novel That Needed To Be Written: The Promise

The PromiseThe 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 DuPreeThe 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.


Ah, Honor Bright! The Last Runaway

The Last RunawayThe Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

I have been a fan of Tracy Chevalier since I read The Lady and the Unicorn when it was first published almost a decade ago. Like all other Chevalier fans, as soon as I heard The Last Runaway was due to be published I was keen read it.

This novel did not disappoint. A young English Quaker from Dorset, Honor Bright, is jilted by her fiancé. Suddenly feeling untethered from her community, she boards a ship with her sister to begin the journey to Ohio where she will be seeking solace in a newly formed Quaker community. In Ohio, Honor becomes acquainted with people she would never imagine forming bonds with in her previous life. Honor inadvertently becomes involved in the Underground Railway, helping escaped slaves cross the nearby Canadian border. What Honor reluctantly discovers is that the whole abolition scenario isn’t as clear cut as her English Quaker sensibilities imagined.

I was taken by Honor’s voice from the first page. I recently wrote a blog about unique character voices; Honor certainly has one. Chevalier uses Honor’s passion for quilting as a way to show her desire for life to be orderly. Honor values structure and her possessions and interactions to be of superior quality, just like her quilts. Honor’s faith is shown through the way she uses the process of quilting as silent meditation, similar to being at the Meeting House. Finally, the importance Honor places on quilts and meditation shows the clear boundaries and limitations of her world view. Despite this, Honor does not strike me as naïve.

I liked Honor’s gentle observations about the differences between Ohio and her ‘one thousand year old hometown’ in Dorset. Not only is the Ohio landscape untamed and lacking order, the buildings and towns feel new and flimsy, as if they could be destroyed on a whim. This is troubling for someone seeking permanence and stability. The muddy roads and paths in Ohio constantly intrude on Honor’s activities and travels. As Ohio in the 1850s was a transitory place, perhaps this is a metaphor for Honor being unable to find where she belongs. Much to Honor’s surprise, she does not feel comfortable in the local Quaker community as she believes their actions to be at odds with doctrine.

Although the Underground Railway is an important part of this story, Honor’s contribution is rather minimal in the wider context. She feels it is her duty as a Quaker to help others escape from the bonds of their slavery but it is pointed out to her that while her actions are appreciated, she has only helped a handful of people. These runaways would have made it to the next safe house with or without her assistance. This does not bother Honor as she is on a personal journey which involves finding the courage to obey her inner light and do her duty.

Chevalier sensitively portrays the runaway slaves Honor encounters. The runaways often appear fleetingly, quickly passing through the woods near her farm to the town of Oberlin. Many of their back stories are only subtly hinted at. This makes the subject of abolition more powerful as the silences are there for you to fill in. Chevalier does not patronise the reader; she has kept the narrative concentrated on Honor and how she responds to the abolition movement. Essentially, the novel is not necessarily one of slavery but of Honor finding a place where she belongs.

The Last Runaway has a consistently gentle pace throughout, much like Honor’s measured approach to life. The ending of is realistic and rounds off the story well. It is a relatively slow paced read but I still found it a page turner.

The Last Runaway: 5 Stars

Thank you to Harper Collins for providing a review copy of this title.

The Last Runaway reminds me of another excellent book I have read:

The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber. In the early 20th century, Rachel and her husband Isaac are working their cattle ranch in the Dakota Badlands during an unforgivable drought. Black ranch owners are few and far between which makes Rachel’s feeling of isolation more precarious. Living one step away from absolute poverty and trying to provide for her children and support her husband’s decisions, Rachel’s story is moving and tender. The author found inspiration for this story after seeing an old photo of a Black female rancher at a museum. I have recommended this book to two people who loved also loved it, as they probably will The Last Runaway.