Set in Waukesha, Wis., at the turn of the 20th century, this is a gritty yet hopeful tale about a young woman determined to escape her family’s legacy of abuse.
Seventeen-year-old Marie Reehs has grown up enthralled by the folklore of Rügen, Germany, her parents’ birthplace, and its recurring theme: Although hope may end, hope will continue to survive. That hardly seems the case in their run-down home, where Herman Reehs returns each evening from his work at the local bar and lashes out at his wife and three daughters for any—or no—reason. Herman’s abusive behavior is as much a part of the Reehs household as the air they breathe; and when strangers carry her mother’s bloody and broken body into their home, and she dies, Marie knows that her father is responsible. Without her mother to protect her, Marie is sent to work at William Oliver’s laundry, where she spends long hours trying to avoid the owner's bold advances. She’s fallen in love with August Bethke, one of the men who carried her mother home after the beating, and is convinced he’s a kind, gentle man who will never harm her. After they eventually marry, Marie notices signs that August might not be perfect after all, but she does what other women have done for years—ignores her instincts and then hides evidence of abuse from prying eyes. Like others before her, she’s too ashamed to reach out for help. But before she ends up like her mother, strangers and a relative step in, and with their backing Marie decides she can no longer be a victim. Basing her story on true events, Davenport (The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes, 2010) employs court documents, oral histories and existing records to lend substance to a character who exemplifies the spirited determination of one young woman as she fights to overcome the belief that women are no more than chattel, to be treated as their menfolk see fit.
It’s an accurate commentary about the times that, sadly, may still apply behind the closed doors of many households today.