In 1886 Philadelphia, Hanna Willer begins employment as a maid-of-all-work for Isabelle Martin, the pregnant wife of a prosperous shopkeeper. Hanna, fresh from her rural home, is a quietly observant and practical young woman. Isabelle is lonely and restless, dangerously disconted with her life and obsessed with her reckless pursuit of happiness. Yet despite their differences, the two forge an unconventional friendship.
But when Mr. Martin dies under suspicious circumstances, and the evidence points to Isabelle, Hanna finds herself thrust into the midst of a murder trial that becomes a touchstone for the shifting values of modern society. As she wrestles with her role, she confronts the attitudes that city life has bred in her--attitudes about what is possible between men and women; what is fair and not fair in the lives of her immigrant friends; and what one person can do in the face of large, powerful forces like the press, public opinion, and accepted wisdom.
From the rippling effects of the advent of electricity to labor strikes to the very beginnings of the women's movement, Noelle Sickels delivers an enthralling glimpse of the birthing of modern America and the lives that are forever changed in its wake.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||522 KB|
About the Author
Noëlle Sickels is the author of three historical novels. In Walking West, a cross-country wagon journey in 1852 is viewed through the eyes of the women emigrants. In The Shopkeeper’s Wife, a restless wife and her maid are caught up in a murder trial in 1886 Philadelphia. In The Medium, a young woman on the World War II home front struggles with her troublesome psychic abilities. In all these books, characters wrestle with being true to themselves while engaging in complicated relationships with friends, families, and lovers and responding to the demands of their time in history and their time of life. Sickels has published award-winning short stories in magazines and anthologies. A native of New Jersey, she is a retired teacher living in Los Angeles and Ojai, California with her husband and cat. Much of her non-writing time is happily taken up by her three-year-old granddaughter, who also likes good stories.
Read an Excerpt
THE TRAIN from the country had been late, and the progress of the crowded streetcar was maddeningly slow, traffic being busy and the horses decrepit. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals kept special watch on the street railway lines, but the sad pair pulling our car had escaped their vigilance. As we rattled through the press of trolleys, delivery wagons, omnibuses, and dashing pedestrians, I was repeatedly jostled against my neighbor on the overhead strap; he had had garlic for supper.
When, at last, I got off the streetcar, I still had a short distance to walk to reach the Delaware River piers. It was an area of wholesalers--teas, candles and lard oil, spices, wool--but I passed a few shopfronts, too, all closed for the night, their window displays only dimly visible in the light from the street-lamps. A dry goods window caught my eye nevertheless and was cunningly enough done to make me stop and study it a moment, late as I was.
A rolling landscape had been made all of fabrics, with folds of green and brown tarlatans for woodlands, hills of tulle, a blue satin river, and pale linens and muslins shirred into fields of spring growth. Mr. Edwin would have appreciated it. When Isabelle and I cleared out his desk, we found a leatherette box of sketches for merchandise displays, though none as fanciful as the fabric landscape.
There was nothing particularly private about those sketches, nor about anything else in Mr. Edwin's desk, but I didn't like emptying the drawers. I'd never had anything to do with the desk before, except to dust its surface, and there I was throwing away worn-down gum erasers and pen nibs, and his calendar diary and reading spectacles. It didn't help that it was all under Isabelle's supervision. I felt the same when she had me clear away other things that couldn't be sent to charity, like his shaving brush with its splayed bristles and the half-used bowl of shaving soap, and a dressing gown he so favored that the oft-darned cuffs and shawl collar were fraying again. It's things like that--ordinary things that show the wear of common use--that bring home to you that someone is really gone.
I sensed the presence of the river before I reached it. Of course, I knew it was there; I had lived quite near it for a year. But it was more than plain familiarity with the river's existence that informed me. There was a difference to the atmosphere, a coolness apart from the winter evening's chill, like a bassoon behind violins. There was, too, an opening up of space, a feeling that some large edge was close at hand. Lights were fewer ahead; sounds broke up, spread out, and died thin.
Perhaps, however, it was only my state of mind that made the approach to the river so suggestive. Isabelle Martin awaited me there, and the course our meeting might take was anything but clear. I could have said the "notorious" Isabelle Martin, for she had been called that and more--evil, conniving, immoral. (To be fair, there were those as well that called her better things, like tender and diligent.) It was her house near the river in which I'd lived that year, hers and her husband's. And more passed there for all three of us than some folks meet in the full of their lives. For though everyone encounters death somewhere along their way, few are acquainted with murder, and fewer still accused of it.
THEY TALK about the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence, but when was it people really started expecting that they ought to be happy? When was it they started thinking it was all right to do whatever it took to get personal happiness? It must have begun sometime while I was a child, for I know my parents never had such a notion, nor my grandparents, and yet, when I was grown, there it was, showing its face with greater and greater boldness in more and more places.
Isabelle Martin certainly considered she had a right to be happy. And she was clever enough and sure enough to use whatever came her way, including me. I remember her clearly on that last night in 1887, waiting on the pier at Philadelphia's waterfront, ready to set sail for a new life. She was going to France to revisit the places of her childhood, and then someplace else, where, I did not want to know. I had asked her not to tell me, and she had agreed to my request without question.
Isabelle's slight figure seemed even smaller in the shadow of the great ship, yet she stood straight and still, looking calmly out across the harbor as if she were viewing a rose garden on a fine summer's day. While I shivered despite my thick wool shawl, Isabelle, in her trim silk traveling suit, seemed not to feel the dampness in the fog curling around us carrying with it smells of wet rope, decaying fish, and sewage. Other passengers bustled past us, porters behind them dragging trunks on wheeled carts or hoisting cases on their shoulders. Rough seamen in threes and fours strode noisily by on their way south to the alehouses and oyster bars on Water Street; they eyed us openly, made curious by two lone women standing wordlessly and without apparent purpose. But Isabelle ignored the staring sailors and the busy travelers and porters forced to detour around us.
I'd wondered, at first, why she wanted me to see her off. But when I saw her so serene in the misted darkness, I knew. She wanted to show me she believed she had been right, that her conscience was clear. I also knew, as cold water seeped through the soles of my thin shoes, that I had come because I wished to see just that which she desired to show.
I wanted to witness Isabelle Martin on the verge of what she expected to be a happy life at last, if only to observe closely again her fierce impulse toward happiness, for though I was only a servant girl of twenty-four, it seemed to me that this was an impulse that would mark the movements of women and men in society more and more, and that it deserved careful watching.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a book you'll never want to put down! Sickels writes with such a warmth and an obvious passion that this wonderfully-complete story is enveloped in rich langauge with a poetic flare. The character development is superb and attention to detail in creating well-layered settings, plot lines, and characters is outstanding. Sickels is able to successfully pull off emotional scenes without falling into the trap of over-dramatization that many writers do. One of my favorite things about the book is the way she is able to intertwine different gender issues and social thought of the time without letting her writing or the story itself suffer. She has incredible restraint and control of langauge. This book has so much to offer -- mystery, suspense, drama, history, romance, friendship, beautiful writing, and a lot of issues that will leave you thinking about this book long after you've finished reading it...