The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran
When Henry Oades tells his wife, Meg, that they will be moving from London to New Zealand, she isn’t exactly thrilled about the prospect. In the late 19th century, a trip from London to New Zealand could be quite the harrowing experience, and New Zealand did not have many of the creature comforts of London. However, it was initially supposed to be only two years, so she agreed to take her son and daughter and go with him. Of course their trip was not only two years long, and their family grew while in New Zealand by twin girls. Then, one day, while Henry was at work, Meg, her children, their neighbor, and her son were set upon by Maori seeking revenge for the public punishment of one of their own.
When Henry returns to his house that night, he finds a woman’s body no longer recognizable. The neighbor’s carriage is at his house, so he has no idea whether the body belongs to her or to his dear Meg. Regardless, his wife and children are either dead or missing. After a long period of mourning, Henry finally gives his family up for dead and decides to move to Berkeley, California, where he will not be so haunted by the memories of his family. In Berkeley, Henry makes the acquaintance of a young girl left pregnant and widowed. After the birth of her child, he marries her for what is love on his part, and protection on her part. When Meg and her children show up one day on Henry and Nancy’s front porch, everything in all of their lives becomes infinitely more complicated – and they are indicted for bigamy.
This was a beautifully written book, based on real events. All Moran had to work with was a scant document, she had to fill in the majority of the action herself, and she did a superb job. The thing that particularly struck me was how sympathetically the characters were written. I really, really, really wanted to hate Nancy multiple times; for one thing she was essentially the other woman, although that was not her fault. Much more obnoxious was her immaturity, she did not truly seem to want to be either wife or mother. Since regaining her status as wife and mother was what Meg truly desired, it pained me to see Nancy in her place. However, every time I got myself good and worked up to hate Nancy, Moran would show me her frailty and humanity and I would find it impossible to feel anything but sympathy for the predicament she found herself in. I also appreciated that Moran presented the story of the Oades without moralizing, I have no idea whether she considered Nancy or Meg Henry’s true wife, or what she felt about their predicament.
Although there were perhaps a few elements of Nancy and Meg’s stories that could have been explored further, this was overall a completely lovely debut novel, a fresh and new work of historical fiction. I will definitely be looking for more from Moran in the future.