A debut historical novel pays tribute to a woman who repeatedly defied 19th-century conventions to follow her own path.
Addie Bonney, Friedman’s great-grandmother, is born in 1857 in southeastern Michigan and learns to sew as a child. By age 14, she completes high school and is already a talented seamstress. It is during this time that she makes a fateful promise to a young man she has known since childhood. Charles Jerrells is joining Custer’s army, and he begs Addie to wait for him. Reluctantly, she agrees. For the next four years, Charles is away and the seamstress develops a substantial, devoted following; Addie opens her own millinery shop behind the General Store. Then Charles returns. One of the few survivors of the Battle of Little Big Horn, he arrives disabled by a wounded leg, drunk, coarse, and abusive, demanding that Addie honor her promise. The marriage is disastrous. In a breathtaking, vulgarity-laden, and emotion-filled section of the narrative, Charles beats and rapes her on the kitchen floor. She becomes pregnant and flees to her parents. Readers will likely gasp when they hear her loving parents say she must return to Charles after the baby is born. When Charles tries to kill her two years later, her father relents and arranges an immediate divorce, despite the scandal it will cause. Addie does marry again, but her arrangement with her husband, Elvin Ayres, is on her own terms. She has two more children—and rebuilds her business. Friedman’s prose is generally reportorial in nature. What readers know about her characters, even the protagonist, comes primarily from descriptions of their actions. The audience observes them rather than feels them. But the story itself, supplemented with a variety of family documents and newspaper clippings, offers a wealth of historical context. And Addie’s advice to her daughter (the author’s grandmother) vividly encapsulates a modus operandi that will be echoed by future women seeking to overturn society’s stifling rules: “Vera, you cannot depend on a man.…You need something to fall back on.”
Light on in-depth character development, but an engaging reminder of the quiet, determined heroines who advanced women’s rights.