Brought to you by OBS reviewer Jeanie
Not all journeys come to an end….
1867. Ruth Holtz has more blessings than she can count—a loving husband, an abundant farm, beautiful children, and the warm embrace of the Amish community. Then, the English arrive, spreading incredible stories of free land in the West and inspiring her husband to dream of a new life in Idaho.
Breaking the rules of their Order, Ruth’s husband packs up his pregnant wife and their four children and joins a wagon train heading west. Though Ruth is determined to keep separate from the English, as stricture demands, the harrowing journey soon compels her to accept help from two unlikely allies: Hortence, the preacher’s wife, and the tomboyish, teasing Sadie.
But as these new friendships lead to betrayal, what started as a quest for a brighter future ends with Ruth making unthinkable sacrifices, risking faith and family, and transforming into a woman she never imagined she’d become…. (from Goodreads)
An Unseemly Wife is written with excellence, a historical novel based on the lives of actual family members of the author. Aaron Holtz is a respected man in his Amish community until he takes heed of the English who convince him that there is amazing land, free for the taking, for those families who take the wagon train west to Idaho. Seeking this land of promise of the future for his family, Aaron proceeds, in spite of his wife Ruth’s concerns, to go against the Order and prepare for this westward journey. With his four children and pregnant wife, he sets out with promises to stay true to their faith, be religiously separate from the others on the journey, and be the leader his family desperately needs.
Ruth is afraid of leaving everything behind, envious of the younger family members moving into her home and using her former possessions. Her brother Dan’l and Aaron’s sister Anna and their families chose to remain in Pennsylvania, as did her best friend Delia, sister of one of the Elders. Ruth’s grandfather’s massive oak tree that was so much a part of her childhood and her years with her growing family – huge enough to climb and completely be hidden from the world in – had been cut down completely to make the wagon that cradled them and their remaining possessions safely on the journey. Choosing to be obedient to her faith and the husband she loves, Ruth gets into the box on wheels and heads toward her future.
E.B. Moore writes unflinchingly of life on the trail, which is certainly not the way we imagined when studying Manifest Destiny in school! It was interesting to learn how the men were established in various roles within the wagon train, and see how it really was a small community of people. There were some people whose opinion was revered as if it had come from God Himself, and the men and women treated their fellow travelers according to that person’s view. Heaven help everyone if that person were unbalanced in any way!
Imagine, if you will, what it was like to be in all kinds of weather including sleet and ice while living in a Conestoga. How it was for a woman, used working within a community of women, to keep herself separate as her religion demanded, especially when avoiding the weekly worship services led by the pastor and his wife on the trail. How to go through one’s pregnancy on the trail while raising and watching out for one’s children. There are joys and sorrows, hopes and losses.
The characters, based on real people, are very well defined. While we are primarily seeing through the eyes and heart of Ruth, she seems to have accurate assessments of those about her. Ruth definitely is a woman of courage and substance – not many women could live through what she did! Each man and woman is a believable, complex character who is described with compassion and clarity.
The storyline is interesting, a different way of seeing the westward journey. If one is looking for a traditional happily-ever-after, one would be disappointed. However, if one would choose to consider their own life in light of Ruth’s, one could question how we would respond to similar circumstances or what “happily-ever-after” would truly consist of if view of the multiple tragedies this woman endured. While I can wonder how Ruth made some of the choices she did, could I have done differently in the same circumstances? Ruth loved her husband dearly, and chose to obey him in this move to Idaho. Would this be enough in the endless hours on the trail? Will she be the same woman who left Pennsylvania, or become someone who is unacceptable to her God, her husband, even herself? One of the tragedies for this family is how they were treated as folks of a different faith within the wagon train, and we are reminded that prejudice has always existed in one form or another – and we see a grim reality of how terrible the results of prejudice can be. I appreciate that the account of E.B. Moore’s ancestor demonstrates a more realistic account of the journey than some authors might show. I will think of those who made the westward trip in a different light in the future, men and women made of even sturdier stuff than I thought before! And celebrate that there remains an open avenue of hope for Ruth and her loved ones.
I recommend An Unseemly Wife to adults of any age, particularly women, who appreciate well-written historical novels about westward travel.