Second-novelist Sharratt (Summit Avenue, 2000) celebrates female grit as her three spirited protagonists challenge with courage—and a little firepower—the men and the society that wronged them.
The setting is 1920s Minnesota, where the characters are as shadeless as the prairies that stretch to the horizon beyond the small town of Minerva. Thirty-year-old Barbara Niebeck keeps house for the Hammond family, and she’s taken her 15-year-old daughter Penny out of school to help with the work. Bright and ambitious Penny resents being deprived of an education almost as much as she does her mother’s affair with Mr. Hammond, whose wife has been in a coma for four years. (Barbara has never told Penny that her grandfather is also her dad and tried to drown her at birth, so she doesn’t understand what her mother is up against.) When Barbara slaps Penny for criticizing her behavior, the girl runs away. Seeing an advertisement for a hired hand, Penny heads out to the Maagdenburgh farm to find the owner hemorrhaging badly after childbirth. She calls a doctor, cleans up the baby, and soon learns that Cora, a former socialite who dresses up as a man, has fled an abusive marriage and is terrified that husband Adam will come for her. Inspired by her new employer, Penny studies to become a nurse, cares for baby Phoebe, helps around the house, and learns to handle a gun. When Adam shows up, she acts to protect Cora, who then decides to flee to Mexico. Barbara is also in trouble, wounded by Hammond’s deranged daughter Irene, who also shoots her father. But this is a story about survival, so the three women must be tough and resilient enough to move on. Shucking off their notoriety, they head for new destinations where more manageable challenges await them.
Sort of tough women doing really tough stuff in a marshmallow sort of a story.