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Book Review: Sixteen Brides by Stephanie Grace Whitson

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Sixteen Brides by Stephanie Grace Whitson isn’t really about sixteen brides at all, but five. However, that’s quite enough main characters to challenge any writer. Whitson has managed to pull off telling this story, with its quintet of leading ladies, with remarkable aplomb.

The story begins in the spring of 1871 as a motley collection of single women find themselves together on the train heading from St. Louis to Cayote, Nebraska and a new start. Under the auspices of the Ladies Emigration Society, Mr. Hamilton Drake has promised these civil war widows, homesteads. However, before they ever reach their destination, they discover Drake’s mail-order bride scheme. Eight of the passengers (of whom Caroline, Ruth, Ella, Sally and Hettie feature prominently), get off the train at Plum Grove, insisting they will make their own way from there

Over the next few months we follow them as they forge new friendships, stake a homestead claim, build a sod house, grow and harvest a garden while each takes giant strides in healing the hurts from the past that she has brought with her.

Whitson does a remarkable job of telling the stories of the featured women (in bits and pieces, which we fit together over the course of the book). She also adds to the mix  two teens, a couple of single homesteaders, a handsome rancher, and a steady pioneer couple. It’s quite a crowd. Though I did have moments of confusion at the outset, thanks to the author’s skill with characterization (lots of interchanges between and among characters with each main one convincingly fleshed out through speech, appearance and mannerisms) I was soon right at home with this lively, often hurting bunch.

Whitson’s writing style is proficient and brisk. She manages to say a lot in a few sentences, as evidenced by this opening scene of the community’s sod-house building bee for the new homesteaders:

“The farthest thing from Ella’s mind was to create a sensation. She didn’t even think about the ramifications, really. She just did what she naturally wanted to do and what she was gifted to do, which was not lingering near the supply tent pouring lemonade and coffee or sharing community gossip while the ladies sliced bread or opened jars of pickles or served up pie. These things were part of Mama’s world, but not Ella’s. And so, after Mr. Cooper plowed the first furrow, and Will Haywood cut the curls of sod into three-foot lengths, and after Frank Darby drove his flatbed wagon up so the sod strips could be loaded and hauled to the building site, it was the most natural thing in the world for Ella to be loading sod. The thing was, that didn’t seem natural to anyone else.” p. 194.

As each main player faces the mistakes and pain that has brought him or her to this place, Whitson offers us insights into forgiveness, communication, trust, self-acceptance, marriage, parenting, and faith. The message in that last department is outspokenly Christian with some of the main sympathetic characters offering a compelling case for faith. (Each chapter also starts out with a Bible verse epigraph. These seemed odd to me; I wasn’t sure what they were meant to achieve and seemed more of a distraction than an asset to the story.)

The end of the tale with its (almost too) neat series of concurrent pairings left me feeling light-hearted and hopeful. All in all, Sixteen Brides is an optimistic take on a challenging, lively and interesting era on the American frontier.

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