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The Wives of Henry Oades    by Johanna Moran order for
Wives of Henry Oades
by Johanna Moran
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2010 (2010)
Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Johanna Moran's unusual debut novel, The Wives of Henry Oades, is based on a true legal case that her father came across as a law student, that of a man prosecuted for bigamy in late 1800s San Francisco. Moran has turned it into a gripping piece of fiction, presenting a fascinating and credible marital triangle and showing how relationships and feelings might evolve over time and through different experiences.

We first meet Henry Oades and his young family - his wife Margaret, eight-year-old John and six-year-old Josephine - in 1890 when Henry announces that he's accepted a two year stint as an accountant in New Zealand, replacing someone who died from a rabid bat bite. Three weeks later, with Meg still stunned by the turn of events and saddened over leaving her parents, they board ship. Though Henry is a loving husband, she wonders, 'What in god's name have we done?'

The journey is arduous, with its share of tragedy. They arrive to an unexpected summer with only winter clothing and to shabby lodgings, but they manage with help from newfound friends. They soon move to a remote but more salubrious location, a cottage by the water, vacated by a doctor and his wife. Meg bears twins, Martha and Mary, and counts the days until their return to England. Then disaster strikes.

After one of their royals is publicly flogged, and while Henry is at work in Wellington, the Maori attack, taking Meg and the children as slaves. They're treated brutally, though eventually Margaret gains favor with some of the women, whom she helps in childbirth. She and her surviving children manage to escape after smallpox ravages the tribe. Though devastated to find Henry gone from what was their home, Meg determines to follow him to America.

In the meantime, Henry finds the blackened remnants of their burned cottage and is in despair. Though he offers a reward and searches are made, no sign of his family is found. Half out of his mind, he takes ship for California. In Berkeley, Henry takes a job on a dairy farm, and later inherits it from its owner. In 1898, he meets Nancy Foreland, a young, pregnant widow, and they marry.

This is where the story really gets interesting as it explores different reactions to the evolving situation. Though Henry and Nancy don't hesitate to give refuge to his original, now destitute, family and a shocked Meg gradually adjusts to the new reality, the Berkeley community takes issue with their living together. There are accusations of bigamy, healthy cows are charged with consumption, local merchants refuse to serve the family, and worse. They are ultimately forced to leave the area.

Essentially, The Wives of Henry Oades portrays good people caught in an unconscionable situation, trying to make the best of it, but surrounded by prejudice and bigotry. It's an unusual tale, very well told, and not to be missed by fans of historical fiction.

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