Reading the West 5-10-10
Christian writer Stephanie Whitson brings another little-known historical story to readers in her latest novel, “Sixteen Brides.” While researching a different project at the Nebraska State Archives, Whitson saw a newspaper article about Civil War widows moving to Nebraska and claiming homesteads. This historical reference was enough to set this novelist on the path of writing “Sixteen Brides.”
Her characters are fictional, and although there are 16 brides who go West from St. Louis, the novel revolves around the lives of fewer than half that number.
The women have already experienced a certain amount of adversity in their lives, and they each have their own burdens to bear. Caroline Jamison, Southern-born but estranged from her family after her marriage to a Union man (who dies in the War), really seems too genteel to be suited to homesteading, but underneath the bonnets and bows is a woman ready for the challenge of the Plains.
Ella Barton and her Mama just want something better than they have had in St. Louis and Ella, who has never been the belle of the ball, will find that the opportunities in Nebraska can bring her happiness and a true measure of success.
Hettie Gates has trouble she’d just like to put behind her and she never really intended homesteading with the widows in Nebraska, but it is an opportunity for a new start that she cannot refuse. And she brings with her the skills of doctoring finding she has a ready way to help people and earn her keep.
Ruth Dow desires a way to create wealth so her son Jackson can attend a good college and prosper. This widowed military wife has more experience with frontier life than the other women and her skills and leadership will serve them all well. As for Jackson, there are attractions in Nebraska that will perhaps change the direction his life will take.
Sally Bates is the antithesis of Caroline Jamison. Rough-hewn, with limited education, it would seem that these two women could have nothing in common, yet they form a bond that survives the difficulties they face in their new lives as they make their own claims for land.
A Whitson novel is always about a Christian message, it is always based in a historical period, and it also always has a bit of romance. And in “Sixteen Brides” that comes with Lucas Gray, a prosperous rancher who runs his cattle on range near where they homestead, and Matthew Ransom, widowed father of a young girl who is struggling with moving his life forward and truly accepting the death of his wife.
In press information provided with my copy of “Sixteen Brides,” Whitson noted that the over-riding message she wanted to convey in the book, like the idea for the story itself, came from a historical reference. In her research she once saw reference to needlework from the homestead era that said, “Hope on, Hope ever.”
Whitson adds, “The minute I saw the note I realized that hope had fueled my characters’ heading west, and hope sustained them as they sought a new life, so the theme emerged out of what could be called a serendipity, although I prefer to think of it as God’s way of helping me write a book with an uplifting message.”
“Sixteen Brides” is published by Bethany House.