Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

We easily remember the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We can read the reports that suggest that we've had a bit of a reprieve from bad hurricanes in recent years but that our luck might be running out. Those of us far enough from a coastal area to only feel weakened fallout from something like a storm of this magnitude probably don't give a whole lot of thought to the idea of hurricanes. In truth, even those who must track and watch every year are unlikely to have considered much about Hurricane Isaac, the terrible and devastating storm that decimated Galveston, Texas in 1900. Ann Weisgarber's amazing historical fiction, The Promise, is set just prior to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of this intense, fierce storm and uses the falling barometer to great effect, not only in terms of the impending weather but in the coming storm of love and inflexible social expectations.

Oscar Williams is a dairy farmer on Galveston Island with a young son when his beloved wife succumbs to malaria. Having grown up in Dayton, Ohio, the son of a coal man, Oscar has made his own way in the world, working hard and caring for the people around him, rising above his origins. He once had an appreciation of music and beauty and the niceties of the world he was not a part of but he does not yearn for those things any longer, invested now in the life and family he's built himself.

Catherine Wainwright was a young women in the world Oscar only dreamed of. She left home to be educated and became a concert pianist, even supporting herself in a time when it was not easy for women to do so. But Catherine has a love affair with her invalid cousin's husband and when rumor and innuendo take hold as they must do, she is ostracized from her community; her very means of supporting herself stripped from her. Desperate and with no one else to turn to, Catherine resumes a long ceased correspondence with Oscar, who once admired her playing and herself. When he eventually proposes to her via letter, she grasps the lifeline he offers her, packs up her belongings, and makes the long journey by train to Galveston, hoping all the while that Oscar hasn't heard about her indiscretion.

When Catherine arrives, she discovers that her new life will be very different from her old one. No indoor plumbing or electricity, a suspicious housekeeper who was Oscar's late wife's best friend, the challenge of mothering a small stepson, learning about her new husband and the rhythm of his days, and the empty stretch of her own long days without anything to occupy her time. And as all of this closes in on her, Catherine must also grapple with her shame and guilt over the scandal in her past and the fear that Oscar will discover it.

The novel's narration alternates between that of Nan, the housekeeper, a Galveston native, and Catherine, very obviously a hothouse flower in this isolated and extremely rustic place. Weisgarber has done a beautiful job conveying a vivid picture of the island at the time and how vulnerable it was in the face of the terrible storm that bore down on it. Through Catherine's outsider's eyes, she has shown the remote beauty of the place while Nan's native knowledge brings the local people and their characters to life. Oscar is inherently good and kind and his stated hope that Catherine will be able to pass on an appreciation of the finer things in life to small Andre as a way to make her feel necessary is lovely. The way in which Catherine is faced with few choices in her life reflects a greater truth for women of the time. Although both she and her cousin's husband engaged in the affair, their sins reflect solely on her, in turn leading her to abandon pursuit of a life lived on her own terms and to conform to the socially mandated expectation of marriage. Weaving through the entire story is a vaguely ominous air; something terrible is certainly and inevitably coming. The novel is well-researched, well written, and gripping. It captures a fascinating time and a place long since gone, flattened by the storm and by the changing tides of society itself but detailed here forever.


  1. I have got to read this book. The Galveston setting alone is wonderful and I've read several books about this particular storm. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Kristen, thank you for reading The Promise and for writing this wonderful review. I'm twirling on toes!


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