Sophie Whalen is a young Irish immigrant so desperate to get out of a New York tenement that she answers a mail-order bride ad and agrees to marry a man she knows nothing about. San Francisco widower Martin Hocking proves to be as aloof as he is mesmerizingly handsome. Sophie quickly develops deep affection for Kat, Martin's silent five-year-old daughter, but Martin's odd behavior leaves her with the uneasy feeling that something about her newfound situation isn't right.
Then one early-spring evening, a stranger at the door sets in motion a transforming chain of events. Sophie discovers hidden ties to two other women. The first, pretty and pregnant, is standing on her doorstep. The second is hundreds of miles away in the American Southwest, grieving the loss of everything she once loved.
The fates of these three women intertwine on the eve of the devastating earthquake, thrusting them onto a perilous journey that will test their resiliency and resolve and, ultimately, their belief that love can overcome fear.
From the acclaimed author of The Last Year of the War and As Bright as Heaven comes a gripping novel about the bonds of friendship and mother love, and the power of female solidarity.
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INTERVIEW WITH MRS. SOPHIE HOCKING
CONDUCTED BY AMBROSE LOGAN, U.S. MARSHAL
CASE NUMBER 069308
San Francisco, CA
November 6, 1906
QUESTION: Thank you again for coming. Could you please state your full name, age, birth date, and the city where you were born, for the record, please?
ANSWER: Sophie Whalen Hocking. August 24, 1884. Donaghadee, County Down, Ireland. I'm twenty-two.
QUESTION: Whalen is your maiden name, correct?
ANSWER: It is.
QUESTION: Thank you. Now, if you don't mind, I've a few questions for the record, since you and I have not had an opportunity to speak before now. You emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1903 and spent your first two years in this country in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Is that correct?
ANSWER: Yes. Nearly the first two years. Not quite that.
QUESTION: So you were nineteen when you emigrated?
ANSWER: Yes. So why is it you and I have not spoken before? Has the other detective moved away?
QUESTION: No, Detective Morris is still on the case. I was brought in only recently. I'm a U.S. marshal.
ANSWER: I don't know what that is, sir.
QUESTION: United States marshals serve at the federal level of law enforcement rather than local.
ANSWER: Oh. So . . . so you are also a detective, then?
QUESTION: I investigate federal crimes, yes. May we continue?
QUESTION: Can you confirm for me that you married one Martin Hocking on March 10, 1905, at the courthouse here in San Francisco?
ANSWER: Yes. Yes, I did. Do you have news of my husband? Is that why you've called me in?
QUESTION: Possibly. Again, for the record, did you report your husband, Martin Hocking, missing six weeks after the earthquake that occurred on April 18 of this year?
ANSWER: I did, yes.
QUESTION: Can you tell me why you waited six weeks to notify the police that your husband was missing?
ANSWER: He travels for his job. I didn't know for sure he was missing at first.
QUESTION: You've stated previously you fled your home on Polk Street with your stepdaughter, Katharine Hocking, in the minutes following the earthquake. Is that correct?
QUESTION: And the house on Polk Street was still standing when you left?
ANSWER: It . . . everything was broken and shattered inside, and the chimney had fallen off, but, yes, it was still standing.
QUESTION: And when you returned six weeks later was it still standing then?
ANSWER: I told the police before. It had burned. Every house on the street had burned. Every house in our neighborhood burned. Beggin' your pardon, sir, but do you not know what happened in this city? Have you not looked around?
QUESTION: I assure you, I'm not here to mock the loss of your home, Mrs. Hocking. I am only establishing the facts for the record. My record. I apologize for asking questions you have already answered. But I must ask them. You returned to your home six weeks after the earthquake and found it had burned? There was nothing left of it?
ANSWER: Nothing but ashes.
QUESTION: And you would have no way of knowing if Mr. Hocking returned to the house after the earthquake but before it burned?
ANSWER: How could I? I was not there.
QUESTION: Yes. Now, if we may go back to the day of the earthquake. You have said that you and Katharine found your way to the refugee camp at Golden Gate Park when the fires began. Do I have that right?
QUESTION: And during your four days at the refugee camp you didn't hear from your husband, correct? He did not join you there?
ANSWER: No. As I said before, he was away on a business trip. He travels for a living.
QUESTION: So, to be clear, your husband left on his business trip before the earthquake and you have had no contact with him since?
ANSWER: I have not. Have you come by some new information about where he is? I think I have a right to know.
QUESTION: I believe I have come upon some new information, yes. But I'm not sure if this new intelligence aligns with what we know already. That is why I need to revisit some of the details you provided from the initial investigation into his disappearance, to see if what I've recently learned is consistent with the previously reported details. May we continue?
ANSWER: If this will assist you in finding my husband, then of course.
QUESTION: Thank you. Now, for the record, then, you married Martin Hocking the same day you met him, is that correct?
QUESTION: And can you tell me why you did that?
ANSWER: Why I did what?
QUESTION: Married Mr. Hocking the same day you met him.
ANSWER: It is not against the law to marry someone you've just met, is it?
QUESTION: Indeed, it is not. I am curious, you see.
ANSWER: I married Martin because he asked me.
QUESTION: You had answered a newspaper advertisement that he'd placed in the New York Times? For a wife and mother. He had advertised that he was a widower with a young child. Do I have that right?
QUESTION: And then you traveled to San Francisco from New York to marry Mr. Hocking, even though the two of you had not yet met?
ANSWER: I did.
ANSWER: Because, what?
QUESTION: Mrs. Hocking, are you declining to tell me why you married a man you'd only just met?
ANSWER: I am not declining, sir. I married him because I wanted to.
The sun is dissolving like an enchantment as I stand at the ferry railing and look out on the San Francisco horizon. The day will end jubilant. Jubilant. This is the word I chose this morning from Da's book of words, and I've been keen to use it since breakfast. My father wrote that jubilant means you feel as though you finally possess everything you've always wanted, you are that happy. I like the way the word rolls off my tongue when I say it. I want to believe the day will end on a jubilant note. I am counting on it.
Most of the ferry's passengers aren't on the deck watching the golden sun fold itself into the western rim of the sky. They are seated inside, out of the bracing wind, but I don't want to be tucked indoors after six long days on a train.
I close my eyes as the heady fragrance of the ocean transports me as if in a dream to Gram's cottage in Donaghadee above the slate Irish Sea. I can see the house in my mind's eye just as it was when I was young, back when life was simple. I can see Gram making me a cup of sugar tea in her kitchen while a harbor breeze tickles the lace curtains she made from her wedding dress. On the kitchen table are shortbread cookies arranged on the daisy plate, and still warm from the oven. She is humming an old Gaelic tune. . . .
I've spent too many hours pondering what I wouldn't do to go back in time to Gram's kitchen, what I'd be willing to give up. What I'd be willing to give. I open my eyes to behold again the nearness of the San Francisco docks.
Backward glances are of no use to me now.
I move away from the railing to the shelter of an overhang and tuck loose strands of hair back into place. I don't want to step off the ferry looking like a street urchin. Not today.
I look down at my skirt to see how bad the wrinkles are. Not too noticeable in the day's diminishing light. My journey from New York to California took place on a second-class seat, not in a private sleeping car, hence the creases. I'd not expected anything different, as Martin Hocking had written that he is in good financial standing, not that he is rich. That he has means of any amount is miracle enough. I would have ridden in the baggage car all the way to get out of the umbrella factory and the tenement, and especially away from young Irishwomen just like me who reminded me too frequently of what I left back home.
If my mother could see me now, she'd no doubt put me on the first train back to New York. But then, Mam doesn't know how bad it was. I didn't want to worry her, so she doesn't know that the room I was subletting with four flatmates was no bigger than a kitchen pantry and that a single spigot in the back alley provided the only water to drink, bathe, and cook with for the entire building. She doesn't know everyone dumped their chamber pots out their windows because there were no indoor toilets-despite city ordinances requiring them-and that the stink of human waste hung on the air like a drape. The tenement wasn't a place to come home to at the end of the workday. It was just a shared room with sagging mattresses, a place where dreams for a better life could unravel faster than your threadbare clothes, and where girls like me from Belfast and Armagh and Derry and other Irish towns laid their heads at night.
"I had a neighbor lady in Chicago when I was growing up who was from Ireland," a woman seated across from me said hours earlier, as our train chuffed through the Nevada desert. "She came to America as a young girl during that terrible time when there was nothing to eat in Ireland and nothing would grow. That was years ago. I wasn't even born yet, so that was long before you were alive. She told me it was something awful, that time. Whole families starved to death." The woman shook her head in pity.
There isn't a soul back home who hasn't heard of those long years of scarcity. Everyone in County Down called that time the Great Famine. Gram, who defiantly spoke Gaelic until her dying breath, called it An Gorta M—r. The Great Hunger, as if to say it wasn't the lack of food that is remembered but how that stretch of years made people feel. Ravenous and empty and wanting.
"Yes. I've been told 'twas a terrible time," I replied.
The woman then asked if I'd immigrated to America with my whole family.
I thought of Mason, my brother who came to America first and sponsored me, and who is now living somewhere in Canada with a woman he fell in love with. "No. Just me."
"You came all by yourself?" the woman said. "I think that's very brave. And you're so young!"
I smiled at this because some days I feel as though I've already lived several lifetimes and others as though I haven't lived any kind of life at all, that I'm still waiting for it to start. Or waiting for it to start over.
I answered I was twenty, nearly twenty-one.
"What lovely cheekbones you have, and such beautiful black hair," the woman continued. "I didn't know Irish had black hair. I thought you were all redheads and blonds and auburns."
And then the woman asked what was bringing me all the way from New York to San Francisco.
So many reasons. I gave her the easy one. "I'm getting married."
The woman offered me her congratulations and asked what my future husband's name was. As she did so, I realized I was itching to have someone older and wiser tell me I was making a sensible choice, an understandable one, considering how hard and complicated the world is.
"His name is Mr. Martin Hocking. Would you like to see his picture?"
The woman smiled and nodded.
I reached into my handbag and pulled out the photograph Martin had mailed to me. He was dressed in a vested pinstripe suit, his wavy hair gelled into place and his trimmed mustache partly covering his lips. He wore a fixed, charismatic gaze that I'd gotten lost in every time I looked at it. I'd had the photograph for less than two weeks but I knew its every inch.
"My, oh my! But he is handsome," the woman said. "Such striking eyes. He looks like he could see into your very soul."
"He's . . . he's a widower, newly arrived to San Francisco from Los Angeles. He has a little girl named Katharine. He calls her Kat. She's only five. Her mother died of consumption and the child has had a rough time of it."
"Oh, how sad! Aren't you a dear to take on the role of mother and wife all at once." The woman reached for my arm and laid her hand gently across it in astonishment, empathy, and maybe even admiration. And then she wished upon me every happiness and excused herself to find a porter to get a cup of tea.
I wanted the woman to ask how I met Martin so that I could gauge her response, but even after she came back with her cup, she didn't ask. While she was off to look for the porter, I imagined how I would've replied. I withdraw the photograph now from my handbag and remind myself of that answer as the pier grows ever nearer.
I've not met him yet, I would've said to the woman. I answered his newspaper advertisement. He was looking for a new wife for himself and a new mother for his little girl. He didn't want a woman from San Francisco. He wanted someone from the East, where he is from. Someone who doesn't need coddling. Someone who is ready to step into his late wife's role without fanfare. I wrote to him and told him I didn't need coddling. I wanted what he could offer me-a nice and cozy home, someone to care for, a child to love.
The woman, surely wide-eyed, might've replied, But . . . but what if you are unhappy with him? What if he is unkind to you?
And I would've told her that this is what I'd contemplated the longest in my tenement room before I left it, while rats scurried back and forth in the hall, while babies cried and men drank their sorrows and women wailed theirs, while the couple in the room above banged the walls while they fought and the couple in the room below banged the walls while they pleasured each other, and while my stomach clenched in hunger and I shivered in the damp.
It can't be worse than what I've already known, I would've said. Besides. He doesn't look like someone who would hurt people, does he?
I look at the portrait now, at this visage of a man who looks as near to perfection as a man could.
Reading Group Guide
The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner
Note to reader: Many spoilers lay ahead! Please consider reading the book before looking at this guide.
1. What do you think of Sophie’s decision to answer Martin’s newspaper advertisement? Do you think that her decision to move to San Francisco was foolishly risky, or was it in fact her best opportunity to get out of a tight spot in the tenements?
2. Talk for a moment about the relationship between Kat and Sophie. How would you describe the health of their relationship before the earthquake? How about afterward? How might Martin’s parenting styles affect the way Kat approaches new relationships?
3. A major theme in this story is the power of female solidarity. Sophie develops great affection for Belinda and Candace despite the unfortunate circumstances that bring them together. How does Libby’s shallow acquaintance with Sophie further outline the importance of genuine female friendships, especially considering the women’s circumstances at this point in history?
4. Do you think Kat is fully aware of the peculiar connection between Sophie, Belinda, and Candace? Why do you think she is instantly enamored of her infant half sister?
5. Beyond their ties to Martin, what else do Sophie, Belinda, and Candace have in common?
6. Sophie explains to Candace that Martin was moving to attack Belinda before Kat pushed him down the stairs. What do you think Martin’s plan was? What do you think was running through Kat’s mind in that moment?
7. In chapter 25, as Sophie surveys the rubble that was once their San Francisco home, she notes that “It is the nature of the earth to shift. It is the nature of fragile things to break. It is the nature of fire to burn.” What is she referring to when she says “fragile things”?
8. Sophie speaks twice about not saving either of her husbands when it had been in her power to do so. She believes Martin died inside the house where she left him unable to escape, and Colm drowned right in front of her after she hit him with an iron skillet. But she says killing a person and letting someone die aren’t the same thing. Is she right? What would you have done in her shoes?
9. Though Sophie and Candace both love Kat, they have very different relationships with her. How has this book changed your understanding of motherhood?
10. Near the end of the book, Sophie remarks, “What a beautiful family Martin has made of us, despite himself.” What is she saying here? How did it make you feel when she said that? What made the family she is talking about beautiful?
11. In chapter 32, Deputy Logan releases Sophie, and even allows her to keep the records from her sister’s death to protect her false identity. He says, “I believe in justice, too, but I know that sometimes it is not delivered in the way it should be. Sometimes it is not delivered at all, and the evil man walks free . . . I believe in justice, but I believe it is best administered by those commissioned by the rest of humanity to give it.” Discuss what this means to you.
12. Do you think that in the end, Sophie, Belinda, and Kat had happy lives? Why? How do you think each one was changed by what they collectively experienced?