A historical novel about one woman’s troubled life in Nebraska in the early years of the 20th century.
After escaping a miserable childhood, Louise Morrissey yearns for and works hard at living a respectable life in Riverbend, Nebraska. But that life is seriously compromised by her extramarital affair with Dr. Benjamin Dewitt Foster. Their child, Marie Alouette, is born blind because of Foster’s gonorrhea, which infected Louise and resulted in the all-too-common ophthalmia neonatorum, known as “babies’ sore eyes.” Louise’s husband, Frank, is impotent, but she convinces him that he impregnated her during a bout of blackout drunkenness, setting the stage for decades of deception. Frank turns out to be a loving parent and Marie, a heroically cheerful little girl. Her father gets her on the Chautauqua lecture circuit as a child elocutionist, and she becomes a big hit. While on tour, a friend tells Frank that he’s likely not Marie’s father. In a drunken rage, Frank races home to confront Louise and the man that he wrongly suspects her of sleeping with, Yonder LaFontaine. Following a tragedy, the story shifts as Louise begins to lobby for laws mandating that newborns be immediately treated to prevent needless blindness. It’s hard, uphill work, and a contrite Foster becomes her ally. Through Chautauqua, she comes to know the famous Helen Keller, who pitches in for the cause. Englert’s novel intriguingly mixes fiction and real-life history. Along the way, the author highlights how guilt becomes both a gall and a goad for Louise; in a final cleansing, confessional speech, for example, she admits that Marie was the victim of Louise’s gonorrheal infection. Englert also effectively uses the idea of blindness literally and figuratively, showing how Victorian mores rule in Riverbend. Louise is even hectored for using the dreaded word “gonorrhea” during her lobbying effort, and the Ladies’ Home Journal loses subscribers in droves after running articles that warn of sexually transmitted diseases. The story also points out the society’s ugly, nativist bigotry, which claimed that only immigrants spread such infections.
A recommended historical novel that almost perfectly captures its time and place.