Book Review: Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

Reliance, Illinois

Sometimes one discovers a novel that complements current events so perfectly that this literary serendipity only adds to the enjoyment of one’s reading experience. Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer is exactly that type of book. With its themes of women’s suffrage and reproductive rights, it’s a perfect read during this crazy election campaign.

It’s 1874 and politics are at the forefront of everyone’s mind in Reliance, Illinois. There’s an upcoming local election and the “woman question” (i.e., whether women should have the right to vote) is becoming part of many conversations in certain circles.

At 13 years old, Madelyn Branch knows all too well what it’s like to feel left out, unimportant and insignificant.  She arrives in Reliance with her single mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister who needed to accompany her at the last minute. (“Mama decided. We both agreed. Better to make explanations as they became necessary.”) Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame — another main theme of this historical fiction novel — as well as her mother’s betrayal, which never quite leaves her.

Almost immediately upon arriving at Mr. Dryfus’ home, Madelyn becomes smitten with William, a photographer and veteran of the Civil War who has some complicated issues of his own.  He becomes fond of Madelyn and soon arranges for her to live with Miss Rose Werner, the town’s wealthiest woman and strident suffragette who needs someone to read to her ailing father, Old Man. (Seriously, that’s what everyone calls him.)  In exchange for her service, Madelyn (like several others who live in Miss Rose’s mansion, including Madelyn’s arch-nemesis Violet) will also receive room, board, access to Miss Rose’s extensive library, and — most importantly — an education.

Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot in her sophomore novel, with the second half being a bit stronger,  and more faster-paced. One of the highlights — and among the most amusing portions of the story — includes a cameo appearance from Samuel Clemens (yes, the Samuel Clemens) who visits when he is traveling along the Mississippi River. As one might expect, his are some of the best lines and conversations in the book, as evidenced by this scene with Madelyn, William, and Miss Rose, who are discussing how life has changed since Samuel Clemens met Old Man in 1857 or 1858 and how the near-centenarian once envisioned the town of Reliance as “a metropolis rising out of the bluffs … with steamboats and goods heading all ways of the compass.

“He didn’t count on the war, I guess,” said William.

“Or the panic,” said Miss Rose.  

“Or the railroad,” said Clemens.

The war, the railroad, the panic.  It was odd to hear talk of a time before these things, like hearing of a time before the moon and the sun and the stars.

“Not every visionary is a prophet, Mr. Clemens,” said Miss Rose.  “This country’s full of visionaries believing themselves prophets and demanding of others a great deal of misplaced faith.” 

(No, we don’t have any modern day references for that, do we?)

Samuel Clemens also has some ideas about the upcoming election that could sound as if they were straight from today’s headlines (or The Onion).

“Here’s what I would do… . Give men of education, merit, and property — give such men five, maybe ten votes to every one of your ignorant Joes. As of now, Joe can be made to vote for any cause by anyone who can persuade him through fear or profit to make his mark on the line, even if that cause does damage to him and his family.” 

“And women?” said Mrs. French. “Do you include women in the class of educated worthies?” 

“Well, now, that’s another issue.” 

“It is the same issue, Sam!” said Mrs. French. 

I spotted Reliance, Illinois on the new releases (May 2016) shelf at the library and picked it up on a whim without knowing anything about it or author Mary Volmer.  It pulled me in from the very beginning and it didn’t let go until the very end — which, without giving away any spoilers, I absolutely loved, loved, loved. Seriously, it is one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever read.

Yes, the politics and social issues of this period in history are an intriguing and important part of the novel (and Mary Volmer gives her reader an addendum with sources and references for many of the historical events and happenings) but make no mistake: the brilliance of Reliance, Illinois and the reader’s joy is found in watching Madelyn’s confidence, self-acceptance, and — as the title suggests, her self-reliance. This is a narrator who you can’t help but root for, because there’s a little bit of Madelyn in all of us.  We all have some aspect of ourselves that we’re ashamed of; each of us keeps part of our true selves hidden from the world, as Madelyn does with “her stain” by covering it with her bonnet.  Each of us has someone who wants to sabotage our happiness. Each of us wants to feel beautiful and worthy of being loved and accepted.

Madelyn’s struggles — and those of her contemporaries — are as real and relevant and timeless as those in our lives, making Reliance, Illinois a wonderful, highly-recommended read.

Reliance, Illinois
by Mary Volmer
Soho Press, Inc.
2016
354 pages