Robert Goolrick’s remarkable first work of fiction takes you to 1907 back-of-beyond Wisconsin. If you can slog through protagonist Ralph’s sexual frustrations and fantasies before he marries Catherine, it’s a darn good story. We understand his frustration, not a lot of “hookeries” in small town Wisconsin. As the owner of the biggest (only) business in town, it wouldn’t do for him to be having a taste of the local ladies. But really, with one’s own train car, one can run down to a big city for a day of release.
Goolrick is quick to acknowledge his reliance on Wisconsin Death Trip for the description of how difficult life could be in rural Wisconsin. It wasn’t only on the prairies and out west that people succumbed to the stresses of trying to build a life out of mud, grass, rock and snow. The Northern climes had just as many instances of fragile sanity, self-mutilation, or spouses and entire families slain.
Catherine is effectively a mail-order bride. She responds to an ad in the Chicago newspaper reading, “Country businessman seeks reliable wife.” After some months of correspondence, Ralph sends his private train car to bring her to Wisconsin. None of the players is quite what the others think and their characters unfold to disclose a plot that would make a pretzel jealous. While Catherine’s schemes and plans are extremely clever, Ralph seems to be just a step ahead of her.
The author’s story is a wonder of expanding and contracting feelings and objectives. Each player evolves as you read and try to decide who is in the right. Your empathy quickly flips from one character to another and back again. It makes for great reading.