When I know an author has spent a year and more writing a new book, I feel a little guilty zipping through it too quickly. Kelly O'Connor McNees' In Need of a Good Wife is so wonderfully readable, though, that I couldn't help it; I found myself continually drawn back into the characters' world.
By the fall of 1866, Clara Bixby, a Manhattan tavern keeper's daughter, has fallen on difficult times: her father is dead, her husband abandoned her after a miscarriage, and she desperately needs money and a fresh start. When she reads a newspaper article about the bachelor overpopulation in faraway Destination, Nebraska, she seizes the opportunity to set up the town's men with New York brides and bring the civilizing influence of good Christian women to the lawless West.
Rowena Moore, a once-prosperous Civil War widow, dreams of settling down with a wealthy businessman and re-establishing herself in social circles; Elsa Traugott, a quiet, middle-aged German laundress, hardly dares acknowledge any dreams for herself at all. They and other single women sign on with Clara's plan, putting their future in her hands. As the plot follows them from New York City to their new homes on the frontier, little works out as planned for any of the three, or for the hopeful men of Destination, for that matter.
Mail-order brides have appeared in historical fiction before, yet this is the first time I've seen the matchmaking process imagined as a potentially lucrative business venture. This clever twist on a theme, along with the novel's depth of detail and the intertwining of its three brave heroines' stories, make it stand out. Kelly O'Connor McNees was kind enough to answer some questions as part of her blog tour. I hope you'll enjoy this Q&A!
You've described yourself as a city girl. What aspects of life on the isolated Nebraska prairie of the mid-19th century did you find especially intriguing or appealing?
I think I am interested in the hidden domestic lives of the women of the past because for a long time those experiences were missing from the narrative of history, and because I think the key to understanding what life was like for them lies in understanding the way they spent their time.
Keeping a family clothed, fed, and healthy was a task so arduous it boggles the modern mind. This was true in cities as well as rural outposts, but homesteading women had it particularly tough. These couples had to be almost completely self-sufficient. If you didn’t have something, you either made it yourself or went without. But there was enormous pride for them in being able to break the land and make it yield something, in building a house and a family.
I read one account of a woman homesteader that described how she gave birth, unassisted because there was no doctor nearby, to her sixth child on the kitchen table. That was in the morning. By the evening she was up cooking a meal for the men in the field. I admire and also am sort of haunted by that kind of resolve. Because you know there was pain and loneliness and suffering there, even if they wouldn’t acknowledge it.
Clara, Rowena, and Elsa are very different from one another, and sometimes their personalities and motives cause conflict (particularly Clara and Rowena). Did you identify with any of them more than the others, or find yourself taking one woman's side more frequently?
Some people have told me that they find Rowena unlikable. I find that interesting. Obviously, she is self-interested, a thief, and a liar, so that’s not a ringing endorsement. But there’s something about her I like a lot. She will not be defeated. She will do whatever she has to do to survive in the way she feels she must. But she will pay a price for that too.
Clara, I felt, had to take on this project of matchmaking because she had to make her life about something besides the grief she feels after losing her child. She too is trying to survive somehow.
Elsa is quieter than the other two, more at peace with herself and her place in the world. She has made a little country inside herself, and she doesn’t need to leave it. There is strength in that, but strength too in venturing out anyway. I know she doesn’t actually exist, but sometimes I really wish I could have a cup of coffee with her.
With this novel, you’ve switched from writing about a well-known historical character to having three fictional women as protagonists. Did you find it any more liberating, knowing you were able to create their characters yourself?
Oh, yes! It was wonderful to have the freedom to structure the plot any way I wanted, and to put these characters through a series of experiences I could invent. On the other hand, I started from an absolute blank, so it was a lot of work!
I loved reading the section of letters between bachelors and their potential brides. Were they as much fun to write as they were to read?
Yes. That was one of my favorite sections to work on. I briefly considered writing the whole novel in that style, but of course epistolary novels have all kinds of pitfalls and I would have missed the opportunity for setting and description and real-time dialogue. I found inspiration for the tone and the content from letters in the Library of Congress archive. And just from imagining what kinds of things these potential mates might want to know about each other.
What were some of the more fascinating or surprising facts that you picked up in the course of your research?
I was surprised to learn that in the early years of the Homestead Act, single women could take on as much land as a man could. That seemed very progressive to me—what an opportunity for a woman in that time. And I was fascinated anew (since I learn it over and over again as I read about the past) by just how resourceful and determined some women could be, how they never accepted the limitations of their time but went headlong into the thing they wanted—whether it was freedom or money or fame or regard—and claimed it.
In Need of a Good Wife tackles some serious issues – not just the difficulties of prairie life and the complications of marriage, but also things like the Civil War’s aftermath, urban poverty, and even insane asylums. Despite this, the novel isn’t depressing, there are many wonderful touches of light humor, and its tone is ultimately hopeful. Did you find this a challenging balance to achieve as you were writing?
I don’t think I set out to include humor in the story, but it just sort of found its way in. I think a wry view of the world—an ability to laugh at inevitable suffering—is probably the most useful coping skill a person can hone. The real letters I found in my research, as well as the personal ads in the matrimonial newspapers, were often written with humor. These people knew finding love through an ad was a long shot, and possibly even a ridiculous endeavor. I found plenty of stories about the ways in which it went wrong. But they seemed to throw up their hands and say, “What the heck?” I admired this attitude: realistic but never cynical. This is the attitude that built the frontier.
Thanks very much, Kelly!
In Need of a Good Wife is published this month by Berkley in trade paperback ($15.00 / $16.00 in Canada, 387pp, including a detailed author's note and reader's guide). Visit the author's website at kellyoconnormcnees.com.
To follow along on the blog tour for In Need of a Good Wife, check out these sites as well:
Oct. 2: http://stylesubstancesoul.com/category/interviews/
Oct. 3: http://www.greatthoughts.com/
Oct. 4: http://nomadreader.blogspot.com/
Oct. 5: http://www.erikarobuck.com/Blog.html
Oct. 8: http://www.2readornot2read.com/
Oct. 9: http://themaidenscourt.blogspot.com/
Oct. 10: http://literatehousewife.com/
Oct. 11: http://www.luxuryreading.com/
Oct. 12: http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/
Oct. 25: http://womensfictionwriters.wordpress.com/
Oct. 29: http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/