Wednesday, October 22, 2014

E. B. Moore's An Unseemly Wife: A different look at the American westward migration

In 1867, two visitors to Aaron Holtz's central Pennsylvania farm stop by to tell him enticing tales of free land out west.  With four young children and another on the way, he can't resist the opportunity to provide a prosperous future for his family even though he and his wife, Ruth, already have a happy, plentiful life.  To her shock and dismay, and even greater fear, Ruth gets pulled into Aaron's daring plan to uproot their family and livelihood and travel to distant Idaho by Conestoga wagon alongside a group of strangers.

This isn't your typical novel about a family's 19th-century westward migration, for Ruth, Aaron, and their "littles" are all members of a tight-knit Amish community.  Ruth has never so much as crossed to the other side of Lancaster County before, let alone spoken to one of the "English."  A dutiful wife who obeys the husband she loves, Ruth does her best to ready herself and her children for the months-long trek.  Knowing that they risk attack by Indians if they travel alone, she sees her forced interaction with non-Amish settlers as "one evil warding off a greater evil."

I found myself unprepared for this novel's emotional heft.  Moore renders her heroine's physical and inner journeys with sensitivity and great depth, giving readers a sense of how wrenching it is for Ruth to disobey the Ordnung followed by the Plain People and leave everything she knows for parts and places unknown.  Through wagon mishaps, illness, personal betrayal, and periods of even more intense darkness, Ruth already a tough woman who had been "childbearer, cook, housekeeper, milker, horse trainer, sheep shearer, gardener, plowman, field hand" develops even greater strength and an independence that would have been previously unthinkable.  I very much enjoyed the poetic writing style but also wanted to turn the pages quickly to see where Ruth's journey was leading her.  This is a hard-hitting, courageous book.

An Unseemly Wife was published by NAL this month in trade paperback ($15.00 / Can$17.00, 320pp), including discussion questions and a Q&A with the author. I had picked up an ARC at a library conference earlier this summer and was also granted access via NetGalley.

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