Johanna Moran’s debut novel, The Wives of Henry Oades is based on a legal case from late 1800’s. The author was inspired by a story she first learned of from her father who had studied the case as a law student.
The novel opens with Henry Oades accepting a position in Wellington, New Zealand in 1890. He arrives in Wellington with his wife and their small children. One night while he is away, Maori tribesman attack his family and their home is burned to the ground. The Maori take his wife, Margaret and their children and disappear into the wilds of New Zealand.
…”In the next instant the howling baby was wrenched from her arms and stuffed inside a grass sack. She fell on the sweating creature, clawing, drawing blood. He shoved her off. She staggered, knocking back Henry’s chair. Margaret shrieked, searing her throat. “Please, God! My baby!”…
Henry is frantic and tears off in search of them. He is badly injured in his attempt to find them, and during his recovery, other search parties are launched. Finding no sign, everyone believes them to be dead. Against all advice, he continues his search for years. Finally, heartbroken and unable to remain in New Zealand, he takes the first ship out of the country and immigrates to California. Henry begins a new life and remarries, only to have Margaret and his children show up at his door shortly after. They had managed to survive and escape their captors. The book is told primarily from the viewpoint of Henry’s two wives and is the story of a family facing criminal charges and persecution from an intolerant society.
I was a little…”meh”..about reading The Wives of Henry Oades. It had an interesting idea behind the story, but when it arrived, it had a romantic looking cover, with soft focus photography, flowers and a meadow. Now, I know I shouldn’t judge a book by the cover, but I’m thinking, “Hmm…this gives off the distinctly Romantic Mush vibe.” And I don’t like Romantic Mush. I opened it up to do a quick survey of the writing style and was just completely sucked in. Moran brings her people to life and gives the sense of time and place that is wonderful. The relationships between the main characters are fully formed and realistic. The narrow-minded townsfolk can seem almost over the top with their disapproval and the lengths that they go to in their personal attacks on the Oades family, but when we consider the era that the story unfolds in, it seems to be a viable response. Henry Oades is an admirable man, striving to do the best he can for everyone, his wives and children are good people, trapped by circumstance and facing adversity with grace.
This is a story of love, loss, courage, perseverance, adversity, kindness, character, pettiness and just about any other emotion you can think of. Johanna Moran has written a superb novel about impossible circumstances. As a reader, I look forward to many more novels by this wonderful new author.
(Quote taken from Advance Reader Edition and not checked against the final copy for accuracy)
(Review based on an Advance Reader edition provided by Random House Publishing for review)