set in 1907
With the letter she had sent a photograph of herself, and he could feel the tattered edge of it with his thumb as he raised his hat to one more person, saw, from the corner of his eyes, one more person gauge the unusual sobriety and richness of his black suit and strong boots and fur-collared overcoat. His thumb caressed her face. His eyes could see her features, neither pretty nor homely. Her large clear eyes stared into the photographer’s flash without guile. She wore a simple dress with a plain cloth collar, an ordinary woman who needed a husband enough to marry a stranger twenty years her senior.
He had sent her no photograph in return, nor had she asked for one. He had sent instead a ticket, sent it to the Christian boarding-house in which she stayed in filthy, howling Chicago, and now he stood, a rich man in a tiny town in a cold climate, at the start of a Wisconsin winter in the year 1907. Ralph Truitt waited for the train that would bring Catherine Land to him.
observations: Reading this book was part of a project to clear a TBR pile, and that worked out well because I bought it a while ago, and remembered nothing about it except what you would know from the excerpt above: that a man living in a remote mid-Western town in 1907 advertises for a wife, and she arrives by train. So something like Patricia MacLachlan’s YA classic Sarah, Plain and Tall? No, as it turns out, not one little bit.
I knew it had been described as a gothic creepy tale, but still every surprise and twist came to me fresh, and I enjoyed that – I am a good guesser, and there are only so many ways this plot could go, but still I could lose myself in the overblown prose, even if there were rather too many descriptions of sex.
There was one point where I found the plot unconvincing, but as it turns out, Robert Goolrick had thought of that too, right at the end, so that was satisfying. (I felt the whole business with the original photograph wasn’t really explained, either.)
We find out about Ralph Truitt’s past, and what he wants from the future: we find out some of Catherine Land’s past. He says to her ‘I know. I know what you are doing.’ But does he?
Some of the very lush prose became repetitive, and the endless misery got a bit much, with the sad stories of the people of the town, and the tagline ‘it was just a story about despair.’ But I found it involving, and a little bit unexpected, and I really did want to know what was going to happen to the people.
In Sunday’s entry on John Dickson Carr, another book set in 1907, I featured a picture of a young woman in a bathing-suit. It was captioned in a museum archive as 1907, although it did look much more recent than that, and one valued reader, Daniel Milford-Cottam, helpfully came into the comments to explain why he thought it had been wrongly dated. He was very convincing…. But whatever the truth, the world of bathing suits and exposed legs is very far from the 1907 portrayed in this book.
This photograph here is of Harriet E Giles, a pioneer and advocate of women’s education in the early years of the 20th century, and one of the founders of Spelman College.