Reliance, Illinois

Reliance, Illinois

by Mary Volmer


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"Reliance, Illinois has it all—mystery, politics, war; love, death, and art. Every page is a pleasure."
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there. When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Deeply injured by her mother’s deceptions, Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragette and purveyor of black market birth control who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. Madelyn, though, wants to feel beautiful and loved, and she pins her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616956721
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Mary Volmer was born in Grass Valley, California, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College and a master’s degree from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where she was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and now teaches at Saint Mary’s College. She is also the author of Crown of Dust. Reliance, Illinois is her second novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I was three months from thirteen when Mama and I stepped off the carriage in the Mississippi River town of Reliance. We carried between us one tattered carpetbag and a hatbox of balding crushed velvet filled with lace-making and sewing notions. And we carried a marriage proposal from a Mr. Lyman Dryfus.
     Two other passengers, a consumptive old farmer and a woman in a foreign looking dress, heaved their trunks and disappeared into the arms and wagons of loved ones. The coachman hissed low obscenities to his team; then he, too, continued up Grafton Road, leaving Mama and me alone together on the outskirts of a brick-and-mortar town that looked ready to tumble from the limestone bluffs above. A white haze veiled the sun. Farmland yawned westward while the river pressing south seemed to me the source and end of all the changing colors quilting the Illinois shore.
    “Read it to me again,” Mama said. Upriver, a cannon boomed from a trolling steamer, all but its twin stacks, hidden by a thin, treelined island. “Madelyn.”
    “Said wait by the river road. Don’t see no other river. No other road.”
    “Don’t be smart.” Mama coiled a strand of hair around one finger, sucked the split ends to a point; she gave her skirts and petticoats a shake as one would freshen long-shelved linen, and then we both became conscious of the figure hulking in the shade of a nearby oak. He was wide through the eyes, his chin studded with soft blond whiskers and angry red blemishes, and his long arms and legs had a dumb restless look about them. I slipped behind Mama, pulled my bonnet low.
    “Miss Rebecca Branch?” he asked.
    Beautiful women, like Mama, only pretend to be unconscious of the effect their looks have upon men. On the train to Alton, her practiced scowl warded off uninvited attention, and the smile she gave this man—no, boy, a great big boy, slumping into the light—strained Mama’s neck and shoulders. We had been expecting a man with a steady business and dependable income, so his age and the frayed legs of his trousers were suspect.
    The cannon boomed. The boy, recovering himself, nodded toward the steam trail. “A girl’s gone missing.”
    “That’s terrible,” she said. The boy shrugged.
    “If she drowned, they’re looking too far up current.” He deliberated, craning his neck to see me. “Isn’t there only meant to be one of you?”
    But Mama, stepping quickly forward, captured his full attention. “And you are Mr—?”
    The boy blushed. “It’s Hanley. Just Hanley. Mr. Dryfus’s devil. Work for him. But I’m joining to fight out west, soon as I’m old enough.”
    “Hanley, then,” she said and taking him by the sleeve, left me to mind the bags. “Take us to Mr. Dryfus.”

Even with her humble trousseau, Mama maintained the entire journey a desperate, hopeful pride, which earned at once the slackjawed admiration of men and the denigration of women—and made her even more a mystery to me than normal. In the days that must surely precede her wedding, she planned to stitch every scrap of lace she’d made about the collar and cuffs of her Sunday dress, in the hope that Mr. Dryfus would find her attire frugal, as opposed to poor. For in correspondence with Mr. Dryfus, Mama (that is to say I, because Mama never learned to read or write well) led him to believe she stood to inherit a respectable sum and a modest estate from an aged aunt, who, unfortunately for all involved, did not exist. Except for her hands—square, and callused as a man’s—Mama could pass for twenty. But there was no benevolent aunt, no money, no land.
    And of course, I did not exist in the mind of Mr. Dryfus.
    No other advertisements in the Matrimonial Times featured mother with daughter, though plenty featured mutually attractive sisters, their hands full of daisies or knitting needles, sometimes a Bible. Mama decided. We both agreed. Better to make explanations as they became necessary. At the time, I’d thought little about omitting myself from the page, and nothing of the fact that Lyman Dryfus had included no photograph of himself when Mama had submitted two, a profile and portrait at great expense. His ad read simply:

254—A man of advancing age, adequate height, & weight, with a steady business and dependable income, seeks energetic wife, fit and healthy, with a strong physiognomy. No Catholics.

    He was a man. He owned a house, a business. I liked the sound of his name, Lyman Dryfus. Neither of us had known the meaning of the word physiognomy. Dot, the widow with whom we had been living—and very much a mother to us both—decided it must mean beauty, a “strong beauty,” especially since there had been no other mention of appearances. Her dying wish was that we stay this side of the Mississippi, as if that muddy gash separating East from West would prove, even for her spirit, insurmountable, farther away than the spirit realm where Dot’s husband, Sam, had waited with far more patience, she said, than he’d ever managed in life.
    Dot needn’t have worried. Ads from men living in the ethereal West promised riches with a brand of reckless confidence that made Mama wary. It was his letters, so passionate and generous next to that ad, which convinced me that Mama should, by all means, fall in love with Mr. Lyman Dryfus.
    I hope you too, he had written, might one day learn to care for the river, to love the current’s heavy pull, its murky unreflective face, hiding alike her deeps and shallows.
    And in another: After the first snow in Reliance, but few leaves stop the eye short of the horizon. Plucked cornfields reveal blackened, old-woman skin, flaking and fallow. Color drifts downriver and after the shallows have frozen, before ice locks the riverbanks, the eagles come. Such a curious contradiction, the ice-locked riverbank, and the fierce free flight of those eagles . . .
    He wrote about the sycamores in spring, the wind through the reeds, and I, who was then exceptionally sentimental, found it all terribly romantic—albeit unlike any of Dot’s yellow covered literature. I, nevertheless, felt confident in my reply.
    My Dear Mr. Dryfus, I wrote. My soul is sobbing and lamenting at the thought of our great distant and I have been praying our separation willn’t destroy my tinter hart.
    I tipped my nose for the scent of mud earth as Mr. Dryfus had described it, but smelled only the cannon’s sulfur leavings. I listened in vain for the soft whisper of his river reeds and could not differentiate sycamore from maple. I had expected the river to f it neatly into his descriptions, but his words had become no more than stacked stones, and the river—its changing colors, its breadth and constant motion—a living thing quite apart.
    It made me afraid to meet him.

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