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.