"A wonderful slice of history that animates mid-19th century Texas."– Kirkus Reviews
McIlvain’s (Stein House, 2013, etc.) immersive historical prequel portrays the birth of a Texas town through the eyes of a young immigrant.
Impulsive teacher Amelia Anton accompanies a wealthy family on a one-way voyage from Germany to Texas in the fall of 1845. Soon abandoned in a Galveston hotel, she works as a chambermaid until the ship’s doctor, Joseph Stein, returns to ask her to marry him. Although they’re barely acquainted, she agrees, mostly to escape the misery of “emptying chamber pots every day.” When she and Joseph arrive in Indian Point, Texas, they find boatloads of German immigrants who were swindled into buying American land “living in tents and…dying from disease and exposure.” Joseph, a dedicated doctor, and Amelia, a devoted English teacher, soon earn the burgeoning community’s approval, but as a couple, Amelia thinks, they “go about our parallel lives, wearing our pleasant, false faces.” As her husband tends the sick, builds a pier, and opens a store to serve locals and soldiers fighting the Mexican-American War, Amelia does her best to be a good wife, despite her constant disappointment in her childless marriage: “The store is like my child, I constantly think of how I can make it grow and be healthy.” McIlvain has a historian’s eye for detail, a good ear for dialogue, and a fascination with the political machinations that affect the tiny town’s growth, including unflinching engagement with the inhuman institution of slavery. Unfortunately, the passionless marriage at the book’s core, as well as weak character development, creates a sense of stasis. When Amelia meets a charming stranger in New Orleans who offers her “a chance to be a real woman,” the novel perks up. But the scenes in Indian Point tend to read like museum pieces—interesting but devoid of emotional investment. McIlvain’s novel ends as it begins, with a ship’s arrival, but it could have used another chapter to bring closure to Amelia’s experiences and to hint at her uncertain future.
A novel that vividly brings history to life, but its heroine’s development feels incomplete.
Historical fiction is anything but boring in McIlvain’s (Legacy, 2012, etc.) latest work.
The year is 1853; Helga Heinrich, a German immigrant, has just arrived at the port town of Indianola, Texas, with her four children. Her husband, Max, should have been there, too, but he leapt off the pier at the beginning of the voyage and drowned. Although Helga misses Max, she is secretly relieved that she no longer has to deal with his alcoholism. She hopes that with the help of her sister Amelia, who came to Indianola years ago and married a doctor, the children will have a better life. As history sweeps through Texas—including the Civil War, yellow fever, drought, hurricanes, and newfangled inventions like railroads and washing machines—Helga finds herself running Stein House, a prosperous boardinghouse with a diverse clientele that includes a fussy warehouse owner, an abolitionist sea captain and a freed slave. McIlvain faces the South’s history of slavery head-on, contrasting the Germans’ distaste for the practice with the pro-slavery land they now live in. It makes for a fascinating glimpse into a world that isn’t as black and white as it might seem, as the Heinrichs are vehemently against slavery yet still feel fierce pride in and loyalty to their new home of Texas when it secedes from the Union. When Reconstruction occurs, McIlvain skillfully illuminates the complex events that bred resentment in the South, showing everything from the unique points of view of Southerners who are also recent immigrants. Although the novel (which won first place for general fiction from the Texas Association of Authors in 2014) occasionally veers off into a bit of a history lesson, this is no dry textbook—Helga and her family’s successes, hardships and heartbreak show history from a personal perspective.
A wonderful slice of history that animates mid-19th century Texas.