In this historical novel, a woman fights against social conventions to win the man she loves, but the Galveston hurricane of 1900 sets her on a new path.
The book begins with its teenage narrator discovering her grandmother Clara’s memoir, written in 1964, just before Clara faced the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. The bulk of the novel is made up of this memoir, set in 1900, with occasional interjections by the unnamed granddaughter. Clara recounts her life as a 17-year-old in a wealthy family in the island city of Galveston, Texas, communing with her sister, Lydia, and fighting her mother’s demands for her presence at high teas and galas. Although Clara’s mother aspires for both daughters to marry well, the teenager’s heart is set on Grant Hambry, a young clerk working in the shipping industry. Grant’s heart is true and he wins over Clara’s father; his proposal is accepted and everything seems to be on track. All of them are, of course, unaware they’re about to face the deadliest natural disaster in United States history: a hurricane that will wash away the city and claim several thousand lives. In the last section of the novel, Clara struggles for survival, watches loved ones drown in devastating waves, and deals with the aftermath of loss. Walner effectively paints Clara as a sympathetic figure and portrays the teenager reading her diary with a sense of realism. However, attempts at historical accuracy are uneven—for example, it would have been scandalous for a young woman of Clara’s age and class to be seen meeting a man alone without a chaperone—and the dialogue alternates between stiltedness (“Did we not receive a report from Washington D.C. yesterday?”) and colloquialism, which makes the overall narrative feel unconvincing. Some characters, such as climatologist Isaac Cline, pop up suddenly, then drop out of view without meaningfully intersecting with Clara’s story. This, along with repetitive exposition, adversely affects the overall flow of the work.
A story of a historical tragedy with well-developed characters but uneven execution.