Laurie Lowenstein's debut historical fiction novel, Unmentionables, is set in 1917-1918 weaving three diverse locations into the complicated plot: The small town of Emporia, Illinois; the Red Cross's involvement in World War I; and finally the high school valedictorian's misadventures in Chicago—all described in compassionate and vivid detail. Readers are kept on their toes absorbing all the events, with action weaving in and out between the characters. It is a strong story that stays with the reader long after reading the book.
The two protagonists are Deuce Garland and Marian Elliot Adams. Marian's direct manner disarmed her conservative Chautauqua audience as she began her speech: "I am here tonight to discuss the restrictive nature of women's undergarments." She knew she had their attention. Marian fell and severely sprained her ankle after her speech; she had to stay in town to recuperate. She made no secret of her dislike of small towns, believing her city background was superior to that of the country folk.
Deuce, an Emporia native, finds the courage to leave his wealthy father-in-law's paper and start his own newspaper, one that will challenge readers to think. Typhoid was killing at random, and he uses his investigative reporting skills discover the cause. Cultural prejudice is rampant, and Deuce attempts to change his reader's attitudes.
A few months later Marian finds herself on the front lines of the war in France with the American Red Cross. She experiences an epiphany as she observes villagers who lose nearly everything, yet maintain an air of discretion and dignity. She finds similarities in the community pride of the French villagers and the Midwestern town of Emporia.
An important second-tier character is Helen, the bright eighteen-year-old daughter of Deuce, who defies her controlling grandfather and takes the train to Chicago to make a life for herself. Marian gives her suffragist references and contacts. After a year of struggling as a trolley conductor, Helen pursues her dreams of writing for the suffragist paper, Woman's Weekly Gazette, where she quickly becomes the editor.
I learned many things about everyday American history and WWI from this superbly researched novel. I loved Lowenstein's depiction of the Chautauqua Speakers Circuit, their schedule lines, and their determination to reach the masses with timely educational lectures. The WWI time frame and women's issues combined to create a suspenseful and memorable novel. I was seduced by Unmentionables.
Laurie Loewenstein is a fifth generation Midwesterner. She has been a reporter and a feature and obituary writer for several small daily newspapers as well as a college writing tutor. She has master degrees in history from Syracuse University and in creative writing from Wilkes University. She currently lives in Rochester, New York. Visit her website or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.
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