Title: The Wives of Henry Oades
Author: Johanna Moran
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Library Thing
First line: A common bat on the other side of the world elects to sink its rabid fangs, and one’s cozy existence is finished.
In the late 1800s, Henry Oades moves his wife and children to New Zealand to take a post as an accountant for a British firm, never knowing that the move will irrevocably change the course of his life. While living in New Zealand, Henry’s wife, Margaret, and their four children are kidnapped by Maori warriors. Henry goes crazy with grief, searching for his family for months on end, finally giving up and accepting the fact that the female remains in the burned out yard were his wife’s and that he’ll never see his children again.
After a couple of grief-filled years in New Zealand, Henry moves to Berkely, Californnia, to start a new life. He becomes a successful dairy farmer, and when Nancy Foreland’s husband dies in a fire a month before she is due to give birth to their first child, Henry offers to marry her. What starts as a marriage of convenience and companionship leads to love. Both of them have moved beyond the griefs in their pasts as best as they could – until Margaret and three of Henry’s children show up on their doorstep six years after they were taken, very much alive. Henry is faced with a dilemma he never could have imagined – and also with the ridicule and hatred of his neighbors, who try him for bigamy.
As I read The Wives of Henry Oades, I couldn’t stop reminding myself that this book is based on a true story – that this horrible, tragic event actually happened. I found myself feeling so desperately sad for Henry and Margaret and Nancy, caught up in a tangled web if circumstances that go beyond the wildest things they could have imagined for their futures.
Margaret’s strength was a fearsome thing, and I was so in awe of the way she handled her captivity with the Maori, teaching her children English and French and arithmetic and manners, all in the desperate hope that they would one day be returned to Henry and society.
Nancy is young and falls apart in a very realistic way when Margaret and the children show up, turning her life upside down, threatening the new love she has discovered with Henry.
Henry is an honorable man faced with an impossible situation, and I admired the way he was determined to do what was right for both of the women in his life. I found the judgmentalism and hatred of their neighbors despicable, but not unrealistic for the time period.
Moran has written an engrossing novel about one of the most astounding true stories in California history. I especially appreciated the way she writes her female characters; often, women in historical fiction act like modern women, with modern sensibilities and attitudes, and thus distract from the truth of the story. Margaret and Nancy were very much women of their time – strong women, but women raised with the societal expectations and taboos you would expect from the turn of the century. I highly recommend this novel to lovers of historical fiction.
(Disclosure: An ARC of The Wives of Henry Oades was provided to me by Library Thing for review. Many of the links on my site are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on one of these links and subsequently purchase anything, I will receive a small percentage in commission.)