22 November 2016

Review #558: Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Woman must have her freedom, the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers — and before it can be his, it is hers alone. She goes through the vale of death alone, each time a babe is born. As it is the right neither of man nor the state to coerce her into this ordeal, so it is her right to decide whether she will endure it.”

----Margaret Sanger

Mary Volmer, an American author, pens a well crafted as well as an enthralling historical fiction, Reliance, Illinois that centers around the life of a young teenage girl and her young unwed mother, who shifted from Kentucky to Reliance in order to get married to a wealthy bachelor, all the while addressing the little daughter with a birthmark covering half of her face, as the woman's little sister, grief-stricken by her mother's actions and the coldness by her mother's new family, the little girl takes shelter in the mansion of the town founder's daughter, who teach her a great deal about life women's life in the post-Civil war period, but dark secrets threaten to destroy the safe coccoon of happiness that the little girl built around her.


Reliance, Illinois tells the story of a young woman faced with choices that will alter the course of her own future, and offers a brilliant window into American life during a period of tumultuous change.

Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there. When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Deeply injured by her mother’s deceptions, Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragette and purveyor of black market birth control who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. Madelyn, though, wants to feel beautiful and loved, and she pins her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.

Madelyn, a barely 13-years old girl, travels with her young unwed mother, Rebecca from Kentucky to an exciting little Mississippi River town, Reliance, where her mother is supposed to get married to one of the affluent businessman of the town. Upon arrival, without wasting a single moment, the man gets married to Rebecca, who addresses her little teenage daughter as her younger sister, and reluctantly the man allows Madelyn to live in their house. But the cold welcome and an equally hateful attitude from her mother's new family, forces Madelyn to take shelter in Miss Rose, the town founder's wealthiest daughter's mansion. Within few days, Madelyn also develops a crush on the local photographer and Civil war Veteran mysterious young man, William. Under Miss Rose's wings, Madelyn learns a lot about the women's rights for birth control and under another writer's eyes, she learns about world of classic literature, all the while befriending the staffs working in the mansion. Little did she knew that the murder of a servant girl would jeopardize the warmth she felt for William. Above all, will she get her mother's love, while struggling to survive with a birthmark and without any love in a strange town?

This book marks as a glory and honor to all the suffragettes who fought for the women's equal rights in a post-Civil war era. Many names have been forgotten, while some are given credit even to this day and the author has aptly evoked that sense into her readers' souls about the a women's fight for equal rights for not only education but also for sexual freedom. The book opens interestingly as the author strikingly captures the voice and mind of a 13-year old girl, who is not only educated by interprets things like a mature adult. The author also captures her fear of losing her mother to a different family and her fear of losing herself amongst the haughty and eccentric towns folks of Reliance. The moment I started reading, I felt myself drowning into this post Civil war Mississippi river town, layered perfectly with unraveling secrets and with dramatic folks.

The writing style of the author is remarkable, laced perfectly with evocative sentiments to make the readers' heart sync with the shifting emotions. The narrative captured by the author is engrossing, articulate and free flowing, that will make the readers easily comprehend with the dialogues shared among the characters. The pacing is moderate but it will feel a bit rushed near the end, as the author quickly manages to bring justice to the story line. Although, the author left no room for disappointment as there are plenty of twists and layers that the author peels away gradually one after another through the course of the story and so the readers will be easily swayed with the pace of this heart warming tale.

The timeline depicted by the author is fascinating and extremely visually graphic enough for the readers to feel like the scenes are unrolling right before their own eyes. The timeline is thought provocative, vividly drawn with its then political reforms and systems, the then society harboring narrow minded ideals, the then people who thought women are subjected to limited opportunities and freedom of their own, the then landscapes with its through detailing and layers. The time warp feeling will hit the readers right from the very first page itself and for that all the credit goes to the author whose research as well as imagination gave wings to this marvelous story.

The characters are well developed with enough realism, that harbors their flaws as well as inner souls, as a result, it will be easier for the readers to connect with them. Although, I failed to connect with either William or Rebecca or Mr. Dryfus, the only characters with whom I could strongly connect with are Madelyn and Miss Rose, rest felt like a portrayal from the point of view of Madelyn. The protagonist, Madelyn is an honest character, who sees and interprets things around her in a striking manner, unlike any immature child. Although she behaves like a erratic teenager at times, especially with her mother, and not to mention her heart's weakness towards handsome William. Her attitude is relatable and her journey, especially her ordeal with the people and the murder of the servant girl in Reliance is arresting enough to keep the readers stuck to this story till the very end.

In a nutshell, the story is emotional and deeply touching, also being thoroughly illuminating enough to leave a lasting impression in the minds of the readers.

Verdict: A promising tale of a struggling teenager in a post-Civil war American town.

Courtesy: Thanks to the author, Mary Volmer, for giving me an opportunity to read and review the book.

Author Info:
I grew up ten miles outside of Grass Valley, California, a Sierra Nevada foothill town in the heart of Gold Country. Dad taught high school Special Ed. Mom was a librarian, a second grade and then a middle school English teacher, so most of my early memories feature blackboards, books, dusty, deserted playgrounds, and bigger kids who were mostly tolerant and kind, in a dismissive sort of way. I adored them all but idolized Jean, a freckled blond girl in my older brother’s class.
Jean was bigger than most of the boys, faster too, and her knees were branded with the most exquisite collection of bruises I’d ever seen. Jean taught me how to dribble a basketball, how to elbow my way into games, how to play through bloody noses, how to go get the ball when the boys wouldn’t pass to me. I wanted to be Jean. But any playground respect I might have earned as her understudy was undercut by the fact I was a teacher’s kid, and a crier, and too eager to please for my own good. It also didn’t help that I loved to read and play make believe with another, brainy and distinctly uncool faction of kids who became my lasting friends.
I never imagined I’d write books, though I read constantly and made up stories to act out with my best friend Amy in the manzanita bushes behind our house. At ten I dreamed of two things. Playing NBA basketball with Magic Johnson, and singing in Star Makers! a junior high song and dance troupe complete with sequined leotards and tap shoes. One of these dreams came true, but I have burned all video evidence. I did some success on the basketball court. At any rate I performed well enough in high school to earn a scholarship to play at Saint Mary’s, a small, division one college on the west coast. We won a lot, which was great, but I was undersized and rarely played, which wasn’t great. It also became clear in my wretched first year, that I was not cut out to be a pre-med student. (I thought athletes were competitive!) After fumbling around a few semesters I found a home with English majors, many of whom also wrote squalid little poems and stories in beat up notebooks, and what’s more, admitted to doing so.
After college I studied writing on a Rotary Scholarship at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales. Here, with the confidence of a novice, I decided to write a novel, and set about it with an athlete’s bullheaded determination, blocking out time and showing up each day whether I felt like it or not. In fiction I found a medium appropriate for the outsized emotions that had always plagued me. The best thing about books—writing or reading them—is that you’re invited to feel and think deeply with, and for, other people. Even people who never existed, or lived hundreds of years before you. I also tried my hand at acting in Wales but my first role, as a mad lawyer in the Duchess of Malfi, was also my last. The whole venture felt too much like sports, with a coach or casting director determining whether I would get to play. Editors, those literary gate keepers, can say no, but they can never stop you from writing.
Probably my folks imagined I’d go away for a year and get this writing thing out my system. Instead I returned to attend my alma mater for an MFA. A year later my first novel, CROWN OF DUST, was published. Now after marriage, my first full time job, and a baby, and a few spectacular failures, my second novel—RELIANCE, ILLINOIS—has finally endured that treacherous sophomore road to existence. I’m working on a third.
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