In the aftermath of the Civil War, marriageable women far outnumbered men. Add to that number the still young women who were tragically widowed and it is easy to see that in a time and a society where one of women's only options is to marry, many, many women were facing uncertain and impoverished futures. Clara Bixby is one such woman. Her life has not been an easy one. Her debt-encumbered father is long dead. Her husband walked out on her for another woman not long after their infant son died. The tavern where she has worked as a barmaid and cook trying to make ends meet can no longer afford to keep her on. She is in rather desperate straits but she is determined to succeed and make a life for herself. When she reads a newspaper account of a town of bachelors in Destination, Nebraska, she hatches the plan to provide mail-order brides for the men. She writes to the mayor of the town with her intent and many of the men agree to pay Clara to broker marriages for them. Next she goes about finding women willing to leave New York for the rough and remote West to become wives to men they have never met. Carefully vetting the women, she pairs them with the men and starts to prepare for the long journey west as her selected brides correspond with their intended husbands.
The letters from the men to their prospective brides are wonderful, offering small clues into the dispositions of the men since they are not physically present for the first part of the novel. Each of the women selected for the journey west is described but two women in particular become representative of the whole: Elsa, an immigrant looking for a better life than as one laundress among many in a wealthy and controlling woman's home, and Rowena, a bitter and unhappy widow whose fortune has crumbled and whose father has been committed to an expensive asylum with a disease resembling Alzheimer's. Both women have very complicated reasons for wishing to go to Nebraska with Clara Bixby, not that they have divulged everything to Clara, who forms her own not entirely informed opinions of the women and assigns them specific men accordingly.
Even with careful vetting of the women, Clara cannot control all aspects of her marriage brokering business and as the women gather and travel west, unexpected and unavoidable calamities occur, leaving Clara in a difficult position with her only option continuing on to Nebraska and explaining the situation to the waiting men. Her original intent had been to see the women settled and then to go further onward herself to find her imagined cottage and slip into a new life. But circumstances dictate otherwise and she must stay in Destination both because her honor requires it and because she is legally bound to do so until everything surrounding the promised brides is resolved.
Focused primarily on Clara, Elsa, and Rowena, this is an engaging tale about the lengths that some women were driven to in order to move on in their lives, to rebuild and find a future they could look squarely in the eye, even if it meant taking a chance and relying on complete strangers and unknowable circumstances. The men of Destination equally gambled to find a piece of what was missing in their lives, hoping that wives willing to be subjected to the hardships of the new West and homesteading would fill that void.
Surprisingly, the story took longer to move from New York to Nebraska than might have been expected allowing the reader to come to know Clara, Elsa, and Rowena far better than the men, to understand and sympathize with their individual plights, and to uncover the secrets and heartaches in their pasts. So the women are much less stock characters than many of the men of Destination end up being. The plot rolls along with consistent pacing and although much of the end of the novel is predictable, this is still an interesting look at a time, place, and practice that is not often mentioned in conventional history. In addition to the fascinating look at what mail order brides and other women left in reduced or impoverished states after the Civil War could have experienced, this is also a novel about trust, secrets, friendship, love, and what a little enterprise and determination can yield. It's a quick and engaging read that will appeal to lovers of historical fiction, especially those with a fascination for the grit and determination shown by those who ultimately settled the West.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.