Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: The Woman in the Photo by Mary Hogan

Have you ever seen old photographs with unidentified people in them, especially ones of probable family members? They make you wonder at the people in the picture and the life they led, don't they? When I was in high school, one of my English teachers handed out old time photographs she had found for pennies at an antiques store and we each had to write a story about the person in the picture we held. Obviously we never found out the real stories behind these photos, as they were unidentified, anonymous, and left to be glanced at by strangers in a bin at an antiques store. But what if one of those pictures had had a famous person in it, someone that would enable the viewer to trace the picture's story? That is the case in Mary Hogan's new novel, The Woman in the Photo, a dual narrative novel about the horrible tragedy of the Johnstown flood and a modern day adoption search.

In 1888 and 1889, Elizabeth Haberlin is going from Pittsburgh to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club where her family owns a cottage on the man-made Lake Conemaugh. The Club is the playground of the Pittsburgh elite and Elizabeth is the daughter of a wealthy physician and his wife. She is a headstrong beauty who doesn't always follow the dictates of her privileged society although she can be just as superficial and selfish as any of her peers. She is most concerned with her impression on a visiting British family, and their son in particular.  She reflects, as always on the marvel that is Lake Conemaugh, the lake suspended in the sky, contained by an earthen dam fifteen miles above Johnstown, as she, her mother, and younger brother cross the top of the dam returning to their summer retreat once again.

In present day California, Lee Parker lives with her mother in a moldy pool house of a large and glittering home in the hills above LA. They must pretend not to live there as a condition of her mother's employment as the maid in the big house. Her father has run away and her brother disappeared after a Bernie Maddox-like character lost all of their money, including Lee's entire college fund. Lee was supposed to be at Columbia starting her freshman year, not working at Bed, Bath, and Beyond and struggling just to find gas money to get her to and from work. As if her world hadn't already crashed around her, a letter arrives telling her that health information about her birth mother has been received and she's entitled to that information after her 18th birthday. When she goes to find out this new genetic information, she sees a picture of a maternal ancestor in her file. The unnamed woman is standing beside Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. And it is this picture and the connection that Lee feels with the woman in the photo that sends her on her quest to uncover information about her birth family.

Initially the two narratives alternate back and forth but as the story goes on, there are more historical set chapters than there are present day chapters. And the historical story, that of privilege and wealth inevitably causing a horrific, preventable tragedy out of stubborn blindness and hubris, is a stronger story than that of Lee feeling pulled to uncover her biological roots. Although history has already recorded the massive loss of life, the terror, and tragedy of the Johnstown flood, Hogan has managed to keep the tension of the coming cataclysmic disaster building as the story progresses. The mystery of Lee's connection to the woman in the photo does not quite maintain that same necessary sense of tension or anticipation, perhaps because the mystery is so clearly not a mystery to the reader. Or perhaps the difference in tension levels can be traced to the fact that Lee's story is told in third person while Elizabeth's is in first person, making the latter more immediate and personal. In addition to Lee's and Elizabeth's chapters, there is one chapter from Lee's adoptive mother's perspective and occasionally her thoughts and feelings find their way into the chapters focused on Lee but her perspective is not all that developed. There are also a few short bits on Clara Barton's life and what drove her to devote her life to a life of service to others. Although this information is interesting, it interrupted the general flow of the novel. Hogan has done a good job contrasting wealth and working class in both the past and the present day and of depicting the lead up to the flood and its terrible aftermath quite well though. The question of whether genetics is destiny or not weaves its way through both story lines and a letter from Elizabeth to her unborn child makes clear the author's position on this question although there are pieces of the story that argue the answer is actually more nuanced than a simple yes or no suggests. Lee does manage to identify and trace the woman in the old photo and she uncovers quite a story, something most of us faced with unidentified people in old black and white photos don't have a chance to do.  Readers of historical fiction and those interested in the Johnstown Flood will appreciate the story Lee uncovers for sure.

For more information about Mary Hogan, take a look at her web page or follow her on Twitter. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Hi Kristen: Thanks for your careful read and thoughtful comments. Awesome.

  2. I'm completely fascinated by old photos, and I do my best to put names to all the old photos my family has. So this book definitely captures my imagination!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


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