When fifteen-year-old Minke van Aisma travels to Amsterdam to care for the dying wife of an older, wealthy man named Sander DeVries, she has no idea what awaits her. Within hours of his wife’s death, Sander proposes marriage, and within days the couple sets sail for the burgeoning oil fields of Argentina.
But the future that seemed so bright takes a dark turn the morning their son, Zef, is kidnapped. Dire circumstances dictate that Sander immigrate to New York at once, leaving Minke little choice but to wait for their new baby’s arrival, follow Sander to America, and abandon her firstborn.
What follows is a triumphant turn-of-the-century saga of love, betrayal, and redemption that takes readers from the opulent life in Amsterdam during the 1900s to rough life on the Argentine coast to the impoverished life of a recent immigrant in New York.
An indelible portrait of one woman’s struggle to steer her own fate, A Young Wife is a powerful journey that will stay with readers long past the final page.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||9.34(w) x 6.54(h) x 1.03(d)|
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A Young Wife
MINKE HEARD HIS velvety voice downstairs; the visitor from Amsterdam must have arrived. Sander DeVries was his name. A wealthy man, according to rumor, and a distant relative, although in the Netherlands everyone was a distant relative. He owned a ship or ships or something. He had children older than Minke and a wife who was dying. This was what she knew.
She lay on the floor peering down the ladder to the entry of the kitchen. Her mother’s high-pitched laugh betrayed nervousness. Her older sister, Fenna, who at sixteen had the most commanding voice, asked for his coat and scarf, inviting him to sit. Her father cleared his throat. In town, everyone would be talking about this visit. A stranger in Enkhuizen was an event.
She swung her feet around and descended the ladder to the middle rung, where she hung on, leaning forward to catch a glimpse of him. She was supposed to stay out of sight because Fenna had already laid claim to the position he was expected to offer. Fenna was the thicker, stronger of the two sisters. Fenna with her certainty and coarse sense of humor had the stomach for a dying woman.
In his lovely, smooth voice, Meneer* DeVries spoke of his automobile, the icy condition of the roads, and the stale smell of the sea here in Enkhuizen and his regret that over the years their families had not been closer. In that silken voice, he explained it was his Elisabeth’s idea that one of the van Aisma girls be asked to come. Elisabeth was, as they knew, of course, the daughter of Papa’s much older cousin, Klara, a name Minke recognized as that of the woman whose funeral she had attended in Leeuwarden five years earlier. Meneer’s voice became grave. “This is work for a person of great patience,” he said.
“I’m patient,” Fenna said quickly.
“And what of the other girl?” He was talking about her! She stepped quietly down the ladder to peek into the parlor. He sat at the family table, facing in her direction, his fingers drumming the wooden surface, surrounded by Fenna, Mama, and Papa.
“Well, here’s the other one!” Minke realized he was talking to her, that the conversation had stopped, that he’d caught her spying. Feeling her face redden, she entered the room. He stood, his chair scraping against the floor. He was as tall as her father, who was himself the tallest man in town. But where Papa was rail-thin, Meneer DeVries had the powerful look of an athlete. He had ginger-colored hair and mustache, and a chiseled, handsome face.
Why, Minke wondered, noticing for the first time, had their mother ever allowed Fenna to wear that outgrown dress for company? The dress was so tight at the waist and the bodice that Fenna’s breasts strained against the material. Fenna cared nothing for her looks. Her hair was the same white-blond as Minke’s but lacked luster. Her blue eyes bulged slightly, and her skin was ruddy from sunburn. She twitched with annoyance at Minke’s intrusion.
“Please.” Meneer DeVries pulled his chair from the table. He stared at Minke so intently that she thought something was expected from her, but she could not think what. “Do sit down,” he said, not taking his eyes from her. She glanced for permission at Mama, who shrugged in confusion. The visit was not going as Mama had expected.
“I’m going to Amsterdam with Meneer DeVries.” Fenna’s voice held an edge.
Mama laughed again from nerves. She badly wanted this job for Fenna, who was trouble in the household. In fact, Minke wanted her gone as well and felt guilty for it, but it had been difficult going through school in Fenna’s wake. Doing anything in Fenna’s wake. The boys expected Minke to be loose. The girls kept their distance. Better for Fenna to be far away in Amsterdam.
Minke slipped into the empty chair Meneer had offered, not knowing what else to do with herself.
“Thank our guest, Minke,” Mama said, and Minke tipped her face to him and said in a near whisper, “Thank you, Meneer DeVries.”
“So, Minke, is it?” he said. “That’s a very pretty name.”
She looked down at her lap. She had been told to stay out of the parlor today, and here she was drawing the attention.
“And you would be the elder sister?”
“She’s younger,” Fenna said.
He considered this a moment, then paced about the table, his hands locked behind his back. He stopped behind Fenna. “Fenna, you’re very like my Elisabeth. Two peas in a pod.” Fenna beamed. She could be cute in an impish way when she smiled. “But that is why I am now glad to meet your sister.”
No one said anything. It didn’t exactly make sense. Minke had nothing to do with this arrangement. Meneer DeVries shut his eyes and canted his face toward the ceiling. It was a complete change in mood, as though just the mention of his ill wife had overcome him. His massive hands landed on Fenna’s shoulders. “My wife is a strong-willed woman, and I suspect that you too are strong-willed.”
“I am,” Fenna said, and Minke wondered how he knew that so quickly.
He shook his head. “Such a combination won’t succeed. In the company of a strong-willed woman, my wife will fight, refuse medicine, disobey. In her final days, she needs a quieter soul. I see this quality in Minke; it is Minke who should come.”
Fenna whipped around and gripped his hands as if laying claim. “But that’s not fair,” she said. “It’s been decided!”
“That’s precisely right,” Meneer DeVries said. “I have decided.”
“Mama?” Minke felt utter confusion.
“Meneer DeVries, are we to understand this correctly? That you’ve decided against Fenna in favor of Minke to nurse your wife?” Mama asked.
Meneer DeVries nodded and withdrew his hands from Fenna’s grip.
“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d stayed upstairs like you were supposed to,” Fenna said.
“It’s not my fault,” Minke said.
“She gets everything she wants, and she always has,” Fenna said to Mama. “You and Papa always favor her over me.”
Oh, she could make Minke so angry with that old, utterly false complaint. Fenna had always ruled the roost with her demands and tantrums. Mama and Papa spent so much time worrying over her that Minke sometimes felt invisible.
“Fenna, we meant for you to have the post.” Mama was as red as a beet.
“And anyway, I don’t even—” Minke began but stopped herself. Want it, she was going to say. Taking care of a sick woman held no appeal for her. She addressed Meneer DeVries. “Fenna would do a very good job for you, Meneer.”
“She’s far too spirited for the work, as I suspected.”
“Papa, do something,” Fenna implored.
Papa opened his hands in resignation.
Meneer DeVries, still standing behind Fenna, patted her cheeks lightly with both hands. “There, there,” he said. “I am terribly sorry this upset you, but it’s such a delicate matter with Elisabeth.” Fenna was quiet from then on, following Meneer with her eyes as he discussed with Mama and Papa the payment arrangements.
MINKE MADE THE journey with Meneer DeVries in his shiny yellow car. “A Spijker,” he said. The car’s heater blasted against her feet, which swelled painfully in her tight boots. She stared straight ahead, excited by the terrific speed, terrified when Meneer DeVries slammed on the brakes behind horses and carts. He pulled levers and adjusted knobs. He spun the wheel, and she couldn’t take her eyes from his wonderful honey-colored gloves. Noticing that she was admiring them, he splayed the fingers of both hands and said, “Pigskin. The supplest of leathers.”
Just then the car slid sideways, tipped sharply to the right, and came to a heaving stop, followed by utter silence.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. It was her fault for distracting him. They’d gone off the road and landed in the drainage ditch at such an angle that outside her window she could see only snow and outside his window, only sky.
He stared at the wheel as if in disbelief and, with great effort, pushed open the door, which fell back against him from gravity; he finally managed to squeeze through and trudged up the embankment, where she could see his bottom half pacing up and down the road. She never should have come. It was a mistake, and already he no doubt hated her for causing this accident. She didn’t even know if she’d have the strength to climb out as he had. Fenna would have been able to. Indeed, Fenna would already be outside doing something. Running down the road for help, shouting out orders even. Meneer DeVries’s face appeared in the open window. “You steer the car and I’ll push.”
Before she knew what was happening, he was reaching in through the window to pull her—drag her, really—from the passenger side into the driver’s seat while she scrambled to get her feet under her somehow, an almost impossible task given her heavy coat, the confined space, and levers that stuck out every which way.
When she was behind the wheel, he gave her a lesson, if you could call it that. He put a gloved hand first on her right leg. The pedal under that foot was for the gas, and gas was what moved the car. Everybody knew that much, even people without cars. Then he laid his hand on her left leg. That pedal was called the clutch, and she was supposed to let it out slowly while pushing down on the gas at the same time to engage the gear so the car would go forward.
It went forward all right, with a violent lurch and a terrible grinding sound before it stopped cold. Meneer turned the crank at the front of the car so she could try again. The exertion made his face glisten with sweat.
She tried again and again, tears running down her cheeks in frustration and feeling less capable each time. But on perhaps the sixth try, something felt different. Just as her feet passed each other on the pedals, there came a feeling both soft and solid, and she knew to push on the gas pedal just a hair at first, and a split second later, to press it to the floor. The car jumped up the embankment almost to the road before coming to a stop with the same awful grinding sound as before. But they were free. She’d done it. Meneer was still in the ditch, with an exultant smile on his face, his lovely camel-hair coat splattered, his gloves blackened from wet snow. For the remainder of the trip—even though he was sloppy with mud and the car stank of wet wool—he beamed at her. “Well, well,” he said. “I see I selected a very capable girl.”
SHE HAD BEEN to Amsterdam once as a child but had little memory of its many converging streets, or the wide canals that threaded the city, so much deeper and darker than the canals at home. The Spijker came to a stop next to a canal at a row of stone houses, twice as high as the houses at home and all with hoisting beams and splendid facades that came to high peaks decorated in scrollwork.
At home, the houses had only a front and a back door, and the front door stayed shut except for weddings and funerals. But this house had two doors side by side at the front. The door on the right gave onto storage for his imports, Meneer explained, opening the one on the left and ushering Minke inside. She found herself at the foot of a steep, curving staircase, illuminated by gaslight. She didn’t recognize the heavy odor but supposed it was the smell of illness.
She followed his broad back up to a landing where she could see quickly into a parlor before he hurried her on. The shades were pulled, the room was hot, and she had the impression of a great deal of cloth-covered furniture, too much for the room. The odor was more pronounced on the landing.
She hadn’t been afraid of what was to come until now; she didn’t know what illness his wife, Mevrouw DeVries, suffered from, what to expect or what to do. She’d heard stories of the grotesque deaths some people suffered, how they sometimes begged to die. When her uncle died, she’d seen him only afterward, tidy and sunken-faced in his coffin. And when her grandmother had become ill, she’d watched as Mama braided her hair and bathed her. Minke had never attended anyone except for Fenna, who took to her bed at the first sign of a cough.
Another staircase across the landing rose to a second landing, where there was a door ajar to a darkened room. Minke sensed movement inside and caught a quick glimpse of a woman’s pale face. After that the house was a warren of short staircases and landings zigzagging to a large room at the top, the sickroom, from the smell of it. It had two closet beds against the right-hand wall, both with the doors drawn. A small table and chair stood next to one of the beds, and on the table were bottles of medicine. Like the rest of the house, the room was dark, cluttered, and stuffy.
Meneer DeVries, in his soft voice, announced that he’d brought a wonderful girl to help. He pulled open the door to one of the closet beds and leaned in, blocking Minke’s view. When he stood back, Minke had a shock. The woman’s face seemed a skull covered in the palest translucent skin. Her eyes were unnaturally large. Her hair hung in dark strands, unwashed, but her gown was pure white, bleached and starched and ironed so stiffly that its collar came to painful-looking points against her wasting neck. Minke wanted to throw open a window. She was afraid she would gag.
“Come!” Meneer DeVries motioned Minke in with the enthusiasm of a man delivering a wonderful prize. “Elisabeth, this is Minke, your relative from Enkhuizen.” He patted the side of the bed, and Minke did as instructed, using the stepstool to climb up and sit on the side of the bed. She looked down on Mevrouw DeVries, whose large eyes took Minke in fully—her face, her clothing, her hands.
“I’m here to care for you.”
Meneer DeVries cleared his throat, and when Minke turned, she saw that two more people had entered the room. “My son, Willem. We all call him Pim. My daughter, Griet.”
Minke knew right away that Griet’s had been the face in the shadow. Griet was about Minke’s age, perhaps a year older. She had her father’s ginger-gold hair and a well-fed look about her. Her eyes darted from Minke to her father. Pim was smaller than his sister but seemed several years older.
“So, Enkhuizen, is it?” Griet looked her over, top to toe.
“Where is that, Papa?” Griet turned to her father. “I mean”—she waved a hand as if to take in the whole country—“I just can’t place it.”
“The Zuiderzee,” Pim answered. He had a wide forehead and stiff posture.
“Minke drove us out of a ditch!” Meneer DeVries beamed at her. “Did you hear that, Elisabeth? We veered off the road, and Minke saved the day.”
“You drove Papa’s car?” Griet turned to her father. “I want to drive the car. Why can’t I drive the car?”
Meneer DeVries shook his head with impatience. “We were stuck,” he said. He turned abruptly and pulled open the doors to the second bed, addressing Minke. “You’re to sleep here with the doors open in case my wife should need you. Dinner at half past.”
He ushered his children from the room, leaving Minke alone with her patient. In her whole life, she had never slept all by herself in a bed. She had shared a bed with Mama and Papa when she was little, and for the past six years, she’d shared a bed with Fenna.
“You must excuse them,” Mevrouw DeVries whispered. She was sitting up taller, propped by pillows. She raised her shoulders and dropped them. “Sander has let them do what they like.”
“It must be difficult for them to see you ill,” Minke said.
She looked beyond Minke to the window. “They’ll survive.”
“I only meant—”
Mevrouw winced briefly, in pain. “I should be turned twice a day,” she said quietly. “Bedsores.” She drifted off, eyes half shut, then open again. “When I need my medicine—” She took a quick breath. “Bring it immediately, no matter what. Anywhere in the house. Feel.” She guided Minke’s hand to the side of her abdomen. Minke’s hand lay on something hard and misshapen as a stone. She felt both revulsion and a determination not to take her hand away. If Elisabeth had to live with this, Minke could certainly bear to touch it. She shut her eyes, and when she opened them, Mevrouw DeVries had fallen asleep.
Very slowly, Minke removed her hand and tried to get her bearings. She missed home already. She wanted her mother. Mama would know how to proceed. Minke cracked open the window to breathe in the cold air and clear her head. Across the canal were more houses just like the one she was in—made of gray stone and with fancy carved scrolls at their peaks. She counted the stories: six. She’d never seen such tall buildings except for the Drommedaris—a large fortress—in Enkhuizen and the Westerkerk, of course. At home the houses were small, with the kitchen, parlor, and beds downstairs and storage in the attic.
She bit her lip. What would Mama do? She scanned the room. Mama would say, First things first. Before it grew dark, she must unpack. She slipped her few belongings into the drawers of the wardrobe and hung up her two dresses, keeping an eye on Mevrouw.
Moments after she was done, the door opened. Meneer DeVries entered carrying an oil lamp. Mevrouw DeVries did not stir. He raised the lamp to his wife’s face. “She was beautiful once, like you,” he said. Minke glanced quickly down at the floor, uncomfortable that he would say such a thing in front of his wife. “I’ve come to tell you it’s time for dinner.”
GASLIGHTS BURNED IN the dining room. Pim and Griet stood side by side behind their chairs at a long table, waiting. Minke marveled at the furniture, which was large and strange, not at all what they had at home. And the walls had tapestries of Chinese men scowling out. Even the table service was bizarre, with a spinning island at the center that held colorful platters and bowls. The DeVrieses used beautifully decorated metal pots in all sizes and shapes, with fabulous designs of animals and women. She wondered who had cooked the meal. Certainly not Griet, who sat with her arms folded, looking sullen.
“Papa tells us you’re a nurse,” Pim said, tucking a linen napkin beneath his chin.
She eyed Meneer DeVries, who astonished her by nodding in affirmation. Well, best not contradict him, although why he would fib was a mystery to her.
“She’s too young to be a nurse,” Griet said, as if Minke weren’t present. “She’ll die, you know. The doctors have said. I’m sure Papa told you.”
The serving girl entered just then, and the cook came to the open door to peer from the steamy kitchen at Minke, who smiled and said hello.
“Did you hear what I said?” Griet asked.
“Of course,” Minke responded.
“I’ll care for her as if she were my own mother.”
“I’m very busy,” Griet said, pouting. “If that’s what you mean.”
“I only meant what I said.”
Meneer DeVries gave her an approving look that said she had passed a test of some sort. After that, the family talked with one another as if Minke weren’t present, which suited her fine. What she learned of them was this: Meneer DeVries was anxious about his business. In fact, all three of them were anxious. It had something to do with new laws from The Hague, with the possibility of war, rumors about the confiscation of ships sailing under Dutch colors. Minke understood none of it, only that Meneer was worried. It was easier for her to follow when the conversation turned to the children. Pim was a student at the university, studying the law, and Griet was delaying her marriage because of her mother’s illness. She was clearly unhappy about it, worried her fiancé wouldn’t wait. She complained about all there was to do—the mending and washing and so on. “I hope you sew,” she said to Minke after they’d finished dessert.
“I enjoy sewing a great deal,” Minke said. “I made this dress.” She opened her arms to show it off.
“She can help with the wedding dress, then,” Griet said to her father.
“First things first,” Meneer DeVries said. “Minke will have a great deal to do.”
IN THE MORNING, Minke washed at the basin. Should she wake Mevrouw DeVries? No. Let her sleep. It was her own decision, and no one was there to tell her otherwise. She opened the window to air the room, which smelled of urine. The chill air woke Mevrouw DeVries. “Lovely,” she said.
“Do you take breakfast, Mevrouw DeVries?”
The woman studied her. “You’re very young. Please call me Elisabeth.”
“I’m fifteen,” Minke said, confounded by the request. To call a grown woman by her given name was improper, but she would try. “Shall I bring tea?”
Elisabeth shut her eyes.
Minke went into the hall, intending to go to the kitchen, but a tray had been left at the door. Coffee, two poached eggs. Everything was cold. Tomorrow she would wake earlier.
A knock came as Minke was trying to spoon a tiny amount of egg between Mevrouw DeVries’s parched lips. “Yes?” she said.
Pim opened the door but seemed hesitant to enter.
“Ah, my sweet son, the advocate, is here,” Elisabeth said, smiling.
“Not yet,” Pim said, blushing. “I mean I’m not a lawyer yet. Not that I’m not here.”
“You’ve noticed our little Minke,” Elisabeth said, causing Pim to blush more deeply. Minke understood what it was that made Pim’s posture seem odd. He had the start of a hunchback; his curved spine had thrust his head permanently forward.
“Good morning, Mother.” Griet’s voice was shrill. She kissed her mother’s cheek, then picked up the bottle of morphine. “How much has she had, Minke?”
“Nothing,” Minke said. “She’s not had pain. When does the doctor come?”
“What can a doctor do?”
Minke was alarmed again at what this family said in front of Elisabeth, but the older woman seemed unfazed. “Who provides the morphine if not the doctor?”
“Papa gets it. We’ll inject it when she can no longer swallow. Right, Mother?”
“So I understand,” Elisabeth said. Minke was struck by the woman’s passivity, quite the opposite of what she had expected, given Meneer DeVries’s description to Fenna.
“How much do I give?” Minke asked.
“Mix it with sugar syrup, give a little. If it doesn’t work, give more. You’re the nurse,” Griet said.
After the children left, Minke could hear Griet calling out to the housekeeper and the cook, her voice plaintive at first, then rising to a shout when they didn’t come quickly enough. Elisabeth was sleeping again.
Now what to do? It was still early, and the day stretched out before her. She ran a finger along the decorative trim of the wardrobe and came up with a smudge of dust. She could hear people in the house. The bell ringing at the door, people coming and going downstairs. Visitors? But none for Elisabeth. Minke used her cloth to clean dust from tabletops and soot from the sill. She ran it over the photographs on the wall and the objects that adorned the surfaces. Such odd things Elisabeth had. Minke peeked into a small ornamental purse, dusty but colorful and thickly embroidered with the tiniest beads. Inside was a pot of rouge. On another table lay a brown object with a small opening at the top that was lined with a wide collar of dented silver. It surprised her with its lightness, and on closer inspection, she saw it was a gourd of some type, hollowed. A long silver straw with a porous silver bulb stuck out of the opening on top.
“Maté,” Elisabeth said, causing Minke to fumble with the item.
Elisabeth motioned her to the bed, took the silver straw in her mouth, and whispered, “The bombilla. To drink their special tea. Their yerba maté.”
“What are gauchos?”
“Horsemen in Argentina. Adorned in silver. Their saddles, their horses. Oh, how they ride.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“Once.” Elisabeth pointed to a small wooden statue on a shelf. It was of a man, roughly carved and painted, with a slouch hat, black beard, and wide red pantaloons stuffed into high black boots. Without warning, she threw back her head and let out a terrifying groan, more animal than human.
Hands trembling, Minke immediately mixed sugar and water together in a small dish and added the morphine from its dark brown bottle, a teaspoonful, as Griet had instructed. She pulled Elisabeth up as far as she dared—the woman was light in her arms—and slipped the spoon between her lips. Elisabeth sank back against the pillow, her face vacant.
Minke sat at the bedside, shaken. What if she’d given too much? She smoothed the woman’s forehead, pulled the covers over her, and was reassured by her steady breathing. She was shocked anew to see how clearly visible Elisabeth’s skull was beneath her skin, how atrocious her hair, which had been braided once but had grown out and was loose at the roots. Minke undid the clasp, meaning only to rebraid it, but found it incredibly dirty. “Shall I wash it?” she whispered.
The task took the afternoon. Minke washed one small section of hair at a time, then dried it with a towel to keep Elisabeth’s bed from becoming damp. Elisabeth’s hair, which had seemed the color of lead, was jet black, threaded with silver. When the hair was mostly dry, Minke spread it over the pillow and combed it smooth, and when that was done, she braided it back into its thin rope. Through it all, Elisabeth slept.
Meneer DeVries came into the room as Minke was finishing. He watched her with a fatherly pride. She felt very pleased with herself for her ingenuity, and this only the first day.
“Aha,” he said. “You’ve discovered the yerba maté cup!”
“It’s unusual,” Minke whispered.
“Then it’s yours,” he said.
“But it belongs to Mevrouw DeVries.”
He glanced at his wife and shrugged.
“DID I HEAR Mother cry out today?” Griet said at dinner. “I thought I did.” She looked from her brother to her father for corroboration.
“She had pain,” Minke said. “I administered the morphine immediately.”
“Do you have a beau?” Griet asked, flashing the shiny ring on her finger at Minke.
Minke blushed and shook her head. Griet kept her so off balance.
“There, Pim,” Griet said, smirking. “I’ve asked her. Now the field is yours.”
“Oh, Griet, for God’s sake,” Pim said, and then to Minke, “I apologize for my sister. It seems that’s all I do.”
“But you’re the one who wants to know,” Griet insisted.
“Your mother told me about the gauchos,” Minke said, changing the subject and sparing poor Pim.
“Did she now!” Meneer DeVries became alert. “Yes. She accompanied me once to Buenos Aires. We saw them on an outing to the countryside.”
“They are such filthy creatures,” Griet said.
And so was your mother’s hair. Minke wished she had the nerve to say that aloud. It was a disgrace. “So you’ve seen them, too? The gauchos?”
“No, of course not, but how could they possibly be clean? They’re outdoors all the time, and they bed down with their horses. Right, Papa?”
Meneer DeVries gave his daughter an indulgent smile. “What did Elisabeth tell you about the gauchos, Minke?”
“They thunder across the fields on horses decked with silver.” Elisabeth hadn’t said exactly that, but it was how Minke pictured the scene.
“The pampas,” Griet said. “In Argentina they’re called the pampas. And anyway, they’re not fields. They’re much bigger. They’re pampas.”
“The pampas, then,” Minke said. “Even better.”
“It isn’t better or worse,” Griet said. “It’s just the correct word. That’s all.”
FROM THEN ON Minke took as many meals as she could in the room with Elisabeth. She’d lost her appetite because of the constant smell, her task of emptying the bedpan several times a day, and of doing for Elisabeth what she’d only ever done for herself. She grew bolder, bathing Elisabeth daily because it must be especially important to someone who spent all her days in bed. Not only that, but Elisabeth visibly relaxed into the warmth of Minke’s skin moving over hers.
The first time, the process took forever to figure out, but she finally devised a workable plan. She helped Elisabeth roll to the forward edge of the bed so she could slip a length of oilcloth under her and cover it with a towel. She then very gently placed Elisabeth on the towel. While she was being moved, Elisabeth wrapped her arms around Minke’s neck and hung on with surprising strength.
Minke washed one arm with warm water, then a warm rinse and a towel dry before moving on to the next, then each leg. Trying to appear confident in spite of her nervousness, she reached under the covers and washed Elisabeth’s breasts, watching her face for the slightest expression of shock or distaste; finding none, she gently pulled Elisabeth’s legs open to wash the area there. Elisabeth did not resist. Nor did she meet Minke’s eyes. With no experience in any of this, Minke acted on a single instinct: It was what she would want were she in Elisabeth’s condition. When she was finished, she removed the towel and oilcloth. She had never felt such intimacy with anyone. She knew Elisabeth’s body everywhere, the bones in particular, the way they connected with tendons and sinew, ball and socket, the spine like a row of knots.
WEEKS PASSED, BLENDING into one another. Outside Minke’s window, the canal sealed over with black ice, softened during a thaw, and froze solid again. People skated past the house during the deepest of the freezes, and Minke wished she could be with them, laughing and racing instead of sitting in the quiet room with its expectation of death.
Meneer began to make it a practice to come to the room at dusk after a day of work. He often seemed harried and paced the small room with his hands clasped behind his back, talking with Elisabeth or, it seemed, more at her than with her, as she said very little. He spoke of what he read in the newspapers, of rumors that abounded all over Amsterdam. A crackdown of some sort was expected. That’s all Minke could glean from what he said. When he’d calmed himself, he would take a chair and draw it to Elisabeth’s bed. For her part, Minke drew her own chair to the far corner of the room, near the window, to allow the DeVrieses some privacy.
If Elisabeth was fast asleep, and increasingly, this was the case, Meneer would kiss her tenderly, pull the covers up to her chin, close the cabinet door, and draw his chair close to Minke’s at the window. Sometimes he spoke a little, asking her about the day. Other times he sat in silence. One evening he seemed particularly upset. He didn’t even try to speak to Elisabeth but brought his chair to the window and sat, his leg quivering in agitation.
“What’s the matter?” It felt like an intrusion into Meneer’s private life to ask him such a thing, but it would be worse to say nothing when he was in such a terrible state.
“The damn government,” he said.
He seemed about to say something else but shook his head sharply as though to dislodge whatever thought was there. “I have too much on my mind,” he said.
“It must be so difficult,” she said. “You work so hard and your wife is so ill. I can’t imagine. And while I understand none of it, I hear you speak of problems having to do with your business. It’s a great deal for one person to carry.”
He gave her such a lovely sweet smile that she felt very drawn to him. “I don’t want to worry you.” He tipped her face to the light. “You’re doing a splendid job, the jewel in the household, if you ask me. Elisabeth adores you.” He looked long into her eyes. “And I as well.” He sat back in his chair. She could barely see him in the low light. “What do you think of us?”
The only answer was one she dared not utter—that it shocked her how little attention Elisabeth received from the children. But she had to say something. “You’re all quite different from one another.”
He burst out laughing. “A diplomat!” he said. “Did you hear that, Elisabeth?”
THE HARD SWELLING on Elisabeth’s abdomen grew. Her pain came more often, and when it did, it was severe, sudden, and caused her to scream out. Minke mixed the morphine, then raised Elisabeth up a bit so it would be easier to swallow. From the time Elisabeth asked for the morphine to the time Minke was able to pour it into a spoon and administer it—her hands steadier now that she was experienced—Elisabeth’s screams, Alstublieft, Alstublieft, please, please, became so loud she could be heard all along the street, or so Griet said. One of these times, Griet came into the room to ask why Minke couldn’t move more quickly to ease her mother’s suffering. “The neighbors will think we’re beating her,” Griet said. “She mustn’t shout so.”
Minke said she was sorry, that she knew how difficult it must be for Griet to hear her mother’s distress. She would try to do better in the future. She had learned to speak to Griet this way. To agree with her and mollify her, even when she was furious and knew there was nothing she could do better.
“I hope this doesn’t happen to me when I’m old. I’ll kill myself first,” Griet said to her.
Minke busied herself with the medicines. She liked to keep the table orderly, the spoon clean, the sugar already dissolved into a syrup.
“Is she asleep?” Griet asked.
Wasn’t it obvious?
Griet took up the bottle of morphine, poured some into the spoon, and swallowed it.
“Are you mad?”
“It’s lovely,” Griet said, her face relaxing into a far-off smile. “Have you tried it?”
“Of course not.” Minke snatched the bottle from the table. “Your mother needs this.”
“There’s plenty more, believe me,” Griet said vaguely. The effects of the morphine had been immediate. “Papa gets it from the Indies. Or the coca leaves or opium or something. I don’t know exactly. All I know is it feels divine.”
Minke looked Griet in the eye. “Then you must ask him for your own and not use your mother’s.”
Griet smiled sweetly at Minke. “Papa sails in three weeks, you know. Whether Mother is dead or alive.”
That did it. She took Griet by the arm and pulled her into the hall.
“What are you doing!” Griet squirmed clumsily, still giggling. “Who do you think you are?”
“What if she hears you?” Minke said. “Don’t say those things in her presence.”
“You can’t tell me how to behave, and I can say whatever I like.”
“But she’s your mother!”
“She’s as good as dead. Just look at her. I wish she’d hurry up and die.”
Minke hit Griet with the back of the fist that still contained the bottle of morphine, letting it smash to the floor. Griet grabbed at Minke for balance, and they both fell on the shards. Immediately, the housekeeper, Julianna, was there, dragging them both to their feet. She made them face each other and apologize. Minke crossed her fingers behind her back and did as she was told, just as she used to with Fenna. Griet got away with saying nothing.
“You, miss, come with me,” Julianna said to Minke.
“You’re in for it now,” Griet said.
Minke followed Julianna’s swaying bottom, dreading what was about to happen. She fully expected to be taken to Meneer, told on, and fired. But Julianna went down all the landings to the first floor, through the kitchen door, and once inside she wheeled around, a big smile across her face. “Slapped her, did you?” She threw back her head, laughing. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“She was saying terrible things, taking Elisabeth’s medicine.”
“I’m not allowed to lay a hand on either of them, not that the boy ever needed it.”
“You’re not angry?”
Julianna shook her head. “Quick. Come see.” She led the way through a door at the front of the kitchen, down a few steps to a crowded warehouse. She pulled back a curtain of heavy canvas and shone the lamp first on her own devilishly grinning face and then onto what was inside. Shelves and shelves of textiles, brocades, silks in beautiful green and gold. She lifted the lids off trunks that held more treasures, dusty but still beautiful—bronze statues, intricately carved wooden animals and ivory fans. Julianna beamed and pointed to a dozen or more boxes neatly stacked. “Open,” she said.
Inside were dozens of tiny brown bottles just like the ones for Elisabeth’s morphine. Julianna’s head bobbed with expectation. “You see?”
“Yes, but what is all this?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Once I knew everything, but now Mevrouw is sick and I am no longer permitted to speak with her. What have you heard? What’s to become of things when she dies?”
“I don’t know,” Minke said. “Griet said Meneer sails in several weeks.” Immediately, she realized she should have kept her mouth shut. This was gossip of the lowest sort.
“This was one of the finest households in Amsterdam.”
“I think it’s quite grand,” Minke said.
Julianna shook her head adamantly. “A different house when the father was alive.”
“Pim and Griet’s.”
“He isn’t their father,” Julianna said, as though Minke should have known. “He came sniffing around before that poor man was cold in his grave. Him with his honey voice and his flowers.” She pointed to the stacks of boxes. “And that.”
“He loves Elisabeth very much.”
“Elisabeth, is it?”
“I wish the children came more often to see her.”
“Spoiled to the bone, that Griet is. And Pim. Poor little thing. He can’t bear it. He sobs and carries on. It’s not good for Elisabeth to see too much of him. It’s as though he were dying and not she. She’s the only decent one in the lot.”
“We mustn’t talk this way about them,” Minke said.
“What way? It’s the truth. They’ll both be gone soon enough. Her to her maker, and him? Who knows?”
“He has business interests around the world. He’s told me about it.”
Julianna rocked with laughter. “Right,” she said.
AT DINNER THAT night, Griet had a bruise on the side of her face. Minke was sure she would be fired for what she had done. And while she would be happy to be far away from Griet, who would tend to Elisabeth? She dreaded what Meneer DeVries would say, but if he fired her, she would tell him everything—what Griet had said and done.
But he said nothing. Didn’t he know? He couldn’t have failed to see the bruise. After dinner, Pim came to Elisabeth’s room. Minke, leaning on the windowsill, got up to leave, to let him be alone with his mother, but he stopped her. “It’s the way Griet is. She’s been indulged. No one blames you.”
“She hates me,” Minke whispered. “From the beginning.”
“Of course she does,” Pim said. “Why do you think you haven’t met the fiancé?”
“There really is a fiancé?”
Pim grinned. “Griet’s a brat, but she’s not stupid.” He glanced at his sleeping mother, and tears welled in his eyes, wetting his cheeks. He wiped them away and turned from her.
Just then Meneer DeVries entered the room, looking over the tops of his spectacles. “You mustn’t keep Minke from her work, Pim.”
“We were only chatting.”
“You’d do better to chat with your mother,” Meneer DeVries said.
Pim turned, bowed stiffly, and left.
“I hope he wasn’t bothering you,” Meneer DeVries said.
“Not at all, Meneer DeVries.”
“You must call me Sander.”
It was difficult enough to call Elisabeth by her first name, but another fish altogether with a man.
“You’re fatigued.” He placed his large hands gently on her shoulders, warming them.
“Yes,” she said. Every night, at the slightest noise from Elisabeth, Minke’s eyes opened wide. If a second sound came, she bolted from bed to check. When she went back to bed, there she’d be, fully awake, her mind racing.
“How can I help you?”
“It will pass, Meneer.”
He slipped his hands about her waist, smiling broadly and looking from Minke to Elisabeth in her closet bed, half sitting, her eyes slightly open. She could be awake or asleep. It was difficult to know lately. “Elisabeth’s waist was as slim as yours once.” Meneer DeVries squeezed his hands harder, thumb to thumb and pinkie to pinkie. Minke drew in her breath sharply, from surprise at what he was doing, and the effort made her waist even smaller. “There!” he said triumphantly. She placed her hands over his, intending to take them from her waist, but he held firm. “No need to be embarrassed, right, Elisabeth?”
Elisabeth lay quietly. “I must see to her,” Minke said.
“In a moment, but first, over there in the storage.” Meneer let go and pointed to the cupboard beneath the window. “Open it and remove the box, please.”
Minke swung up the lid, reached in, and found a long, heavy box made of lustrous dark wood.
“Look inside,” he instructed. She sat on her bed with the box on her lap and lifted the lid. Inside was a silver-handled blade in a sheath. “It’s called a facón.”
Minke lifted it, feeling a thrill pass through her. The sheath was beautiful, decorated and embossed with a tree design and a pair of clasped hands.
“Let me show you how it’s worn.” Meneer DeVries had her stand with her back to him. She jumped when he slid the cool knife, sheath and all, under the waistband of her skirt at the back. “You wear it in the back, this way, so if you’re thrown from your horse, you won’t fall upon your sword and die.”
The feel was extraordinary, cold against the thin fabric of her chemise and so terribly heavy that she had to widen her stance to support it.
“Tell her about the thunderstorms, Sander,” Elisabeth said, and Minke jumped again. So she was awake.
“You tell her, my dear.”
Elisabeth pushed wider the door to her bed. Her face looked lively. “One crash after the other. Lights up the whole earth. The sound roars for hours. Terrifying.” She fell back on her pillow and shut her eyes. “Magnificent.”
MINKE MARKED THE level of morphine in the bottle by tying a strand of her translucent hair around it. After giving Elisabeth each dose, she could adjust the hair in minuscule amounts, the better to see if Griet had slipped in and taken any of it. She didn’t care that Griet might take the morphine. But it mattered very much that there should be enough for Elisabeth. She didn’t believe there was an endless supply; if they ran out, Elisabeth would suffer.
As it was, Elisabeth had entered a new phase in which she mostly slept and had little use for the bedpan. Minke fed her sips of water and soup, but solid food was out of the question. At the same time, the house became more active, as though it had already transcended her death. Meneer DeVries’s trunks were packed and waiting in the hall downstairs. Griet could be heard traipsing up and down the stairs, calling out orders. She sometimes came into the room and stood beside her sleeping mother, staring down, saying nothing. Pim occasionally sat with his mother, racked with sobs. Early one morning, Meneer DeVries came to Elisabeth’s room and woke Minke. “I’m taking you home today,” he said. “No need to pack your things. I’ll have them sent along.” He was all business. All haste.
“But Elisabeth!” Minke said. She had a vision of Elisabeth abandoned in her room, dying alone.
“Griet can manage.”
It was the fight. He must have found out about the fight. Griet would have said Minke attacked her. Maybe Griet had accused Minke of stealing morphine. Minke waited for him to leave the room before she dressed, throwing her hair sloppily up with pins, weeping at the suddenness of her dismissal and feeling guilt over something she hadn’t done.
Elisabeth lay against the pillows, her neck stretched as if drawn to the light in the room. Minke took her carefully in her arms. “I’ll be thinking of you day and night.” Elisabeth made no sign of acknowledgment. Minke laid her back. “I’ll know when your time comes.”
MENEER DEVRIES WAS calling to her from the door. She practically flew down the half-flight of stairs leading to the first-level parlor and jumped in surprise when she saw a stranger sitting on the sofa there. He was a dark, tidy-looking man, clad in a black velvet jacket, his hands resting atop a walking stick. Meneer DeVries called again; she had time to say only a quick hello to the stranger before taking the next flight of stairs to the door, where Meneer DeVries paced anxiously. He helped Minke into the Spijker, hastened back into the house, and shut the door behind him. She waited, shivering with cold, watching people pass by the car and admire it. He was gone a long time, so long she wondered if he’d forgotten about her. Should she go back inside to call for him? Finally, the door opened and he came outside wiping his face with his handkerchief, turning back, turning again. In and out, back and forth. And then he was in the car without a word of explanation and they were on their way.
As suddenly as Minke had come to Amsterdam, she was leaving. Meneer DeVries was agitated behind the wheel. He spoke not a word, but when they were well out of Amsterdam, she finally got up the nerve to ask him, because she had to know. “Have I done something wrong?”
He seemed shaken. “My sweet girl. Of course not.”
“Griet says you’re going to South America.”
“In three days’ time,” he said, making her wonder about her belongings. Would she truly get them back, or would Griet throw them out? And what of Elisabeth? It felt cruel to leave her to the care of that girl. Oh, who was she fooling? She was the outsider. She was the help. Elisabeth had made her feel important, but the truth was, she could be brought in and discharged by any one of them.
At her house in Enkhuizen, Meneer DeVries pulled his car to a stop. Mama came to the door and threw her arms around Minke. Papa had tears in his eyes.
“A word,” Meneer DeVries said to them brusquely. “Alone.”
Minke had no place to go but up to the attic like a scolded child. Her only solace was that Fenna wasn’t there or she’d have had to face her sister’s triumph over her obvious failure in Amsterdam. Meneer DeVries would be telling her parents about the fight with his daughter. She would tell her parents the truth, and they would believe her, not anyone else.
“Minke!” Her mother’s voice came from downstairs, the familiar nervous laughter floating along behind it.
Meneer DeVries sat where she’d seen him the first day. He was beaming with pleasure. Her father was standing before the stove, his hands tapping up and down his thin chest as if he didn’t know where to put them. He cleared his throat. “Minke,” he blurted out before she had the chance to sit, “Meneer DeVries has asked for your hand in marriage.”
* Meneer is the equivalent of the English Mr., Mevrouw is the equivalent of Mrs.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Young Wife includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Pam Lewis. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Amsterdam, 1912. When fifteen-year-old Minke Van Aisma travels to Amsterdam to care for the dying wife of a wealthy man, she has no idea what journey lies ahead. Only hours after his wife’s death, her employer, Sander DeVries, proposes marriage. Within days the couple has set sail for the oil fields of Argentina. They settle in the rough coastal town of Comodoro Rivadavia, where Minke eventually learns that her husband is not a successful trader, but a morphine producer. The future that seemed so bright takes an even darker turn the morning their toddler son, Zef, is kidnapped. Sander seeks murderous revenge for the kidnapping, and he must flee Comodoro and start over in another country. Already pregnant with their second child, Minke has little choice but to wait for the new baby’s arrival, then follow Sander to America, leaving their firstborn behind forever. But when she arrives in New York and discovers that Sander has betrayed her, she leaves him, finds works as a seamstress, and vows to find her son, no matter how long it takes.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- When we first meet Minke, she is a fifteen-year-old girl from a tiny Dutch town. How does Minke change over the course of the novel? What risks has she taken by the end of A Young Wife that she might not have seemed capable of at the beginning?
- Consider Minke’s relationship with Elisabeth DeVries, Sander’s dying wife. How do Minke and Elisabeth bond? Why does Elisabeth’s death haunt Minke? What lessons does Minke fail to learn from Sander and Elisabeth’s marriage?
- On the way to Comodoro, Cassian tells Minke, “Truth is a matter only what you put in and what you leave out…. Truth is in the selection of fact.” (p. 73) How does Minke learn about the flexibility of truth and lies? How does Cassian use selective truths to his own advantage?
- Discuss Minke and Sander’s relationship to the Dietzes, their fellow travelers to Argentina. What are Minke’s first impressions of the Dietz family? How do the Dietzes react to the death of their daughter, Astrid? Do you think they hold Minke and Sander responsible for Astrid’s death? Why or why not?
- What are Minke’s first impressions of Comodoro as she arrives by ship? What dangers and thrills await her in this “vast, colorless” land? (p. 124)
- Consider the gauchos of Argentina and their relationship to the settlers of Comodoro. Why is Minke fascinated with the gauchos’ traditions and lifestyle? How are the gauchos’ values different from the settlers’ values and what tensions exist between these two groups?
- After Cassian is attacked in Comodoro, Minke is “forced to see herself, her family, in a new light as corrupt, even evil, and protection as something that could vanish in the wink of an eye.” (p. 214) How does Cassian’s attack serve as a turning point in the novel? What other acts of violence and betrayal follow soon after? What does Minke realize about her role in Comodoro’s community?
- Compare the two scenes of immigration in the novel: Minke’s arrival in Comodoro with Sander, and her passage through Ellis Island with Cassian. What are Minke’s expectations during each scene of arrival? How are her expectations met or thwarted as she settles into a new life?
- After Sander’s infidelity, Minke “thought back over their years together, almost three now. Why hadn’t she seen his character before? The signs had been there.” (252) What signs of Sander’s true nature did Minke miss, and why did she ignore them? How did Sander deceive Minke? What motivates this complicated character?
- Trace Minke’s relationship with Pieps, from their first meeting on the Frisia to their unexpected reunion in Comodoro at the end of the novel. How does Pieps help Minke feel at home in a foreign land? What does Minke learn from Pieps? Do you think their friendship will evolve into something more?
- Discuss the relationship between Minke and Fenna. How are the sisters similar, and how are they different? Facing Fenna after her betrayal, Minke realizes, “She didn’t despise Fenna. That would have required passion. No, Fenna had shown her true colors and Minke was no longer interested.” (p. 335) What are Fenna’s “true colors,” and what price does Fenna pay for her deceptions?
- Minke’s mind clears when she realizes the conspiracy behind Zef’s kidnapping: “Like a fog lifting, a world comes newly into focus, she had to let go of one set of beliefs and make room for another.” (p. 302) Name another occasion when Minke learns to let go of her beliefs. What does she learn from others’ deceptions?
- Revisit the luncheon scene between the Wileys and the Dietzes. How is this scene funny as well as suspenseful? How do the Wiley siblings outsmart the Dietzes, and how does Minke prove that their little boy is Zef?
- A Young Wife ends with Minke’s return to Comodoro with Zef and Elly. “New York was not a place to raise her children. She has tasted better, far better. Comodoro is her gift to them.” (p. 346) What is it about Comodoro that draws Minke back, even when her children’s future seems more secure in New York? What opportunities await this small family in Comodoro?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Arriving at Ellis Island, Minke and other immigrants “could bring into the country only what you could carry yourself.” (p. 234) Brainstorm a list of what you would bring if you had to start your life over in a new country. What would you pack in your suitcase, and what would you leave behind?
- Minke speaks three languages: Dutch, Spanish, and English. Teach your book club how to greet each other in Spanish and Dutch. Start with some Dutch phrases here: http://www.omniglot.com/language/phrases/dutch.php.
- What is the history of morphine, the drug that Sander and Cassian produce? View a timeline of opium’s history, from 3300 B.C. to the present day: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/etc/history.html.
- A Young Wife is based on a true story from Pam Lewis’s family. If you could write a novel based on any story from your family’s history, what would it be? Write a paragraph or two about the most interesting story from your family—past or present, real, or imagined—and share it with your book group!
A CONVERSATION WITH PAM LEWIS
A Young Wife is based on your grandmother’s secret past. How did you come to learn this extraordinary family story?
We moved often when I was growing up, and my grandmother’s rare visits were highlights of my childhood. She told stories of a disaster at sea, a burning ship, circling sharks and a husband’s heroism. She spoke of her life as a new bride in a place called Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, of handsome gauchos who rode into town on fabulous horses decked in turquoise and silver and their thunderous races down the dusty main street.
There the story stopped. It picked up again with my grandmother’s serene life in California, her four daughters fully grown and a smattering of grandchildren.
After my mother died in 1984, information began to flow. I learned from relatives that at age fifteen, my grandmother had been hired to tend a dying relative in the home of my then thirty-five-year old grandfather. They fell in love, and, causing a scandal in the small town where they lived, sailed to Comodoro Rivadavia to start a sort of trading post there. He ultimately abandoned her in New York with four young daughters to begin another family with her own sister. Astonishingly, my grandmother continued to love him until the day she died.
This scant but rich information was a rare gift for a fiction writer. The exotic settings, the passion, and the devastating betrayal became the bones on which to build my story. I was glad not to know everything — virtually nothing of my grandfather to this day— so that my imagination was free to make up the rest.
A Young Wife is a new direction for you as a writer, after two books of suspense fiction. Was your writing process different this time? What elements of suspense were you able to incorporate into this turn-of-the-century saga?
My writing process didn’t vary much with this book. In all three, the suspense was added relatively late in the writing process. For A Young Wife, I knew the general shape of the story but surprised myself with the suspense. My grandmother lost a child in Comodoro when a nurse mixed water that hadn’t been boiled into his food. I loosely intended for this to happen in the novel but when the time came to write it, I couldn’t bear to see the child die and decided he should be kidnapped instead, which raised the far more interesting questions of who did it, why, where was the child taken and would he ever be seen again?
From gauchos’ traditions to Ellis Island medical exams to New York fashions, A Young Wife must have required a lot of research. How did you learn what Amsterdam, Comodoro, and New York looked and felt like a hundred years ago?
I was reading W.H. Hudson’s The Purple Land on the elliptical machine at the gym when I realized he was writing about the same part of the world where my grandmother had lived. This started a fury of reading. Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago and Idle Days in Patagonia, the novellas of Eduardo Mallea. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Incredibly, I was able to find a book of photographs of Comodoro from 1910 to 1915. There was the Almacén, the Explotaciòn and the Cerro Chenque. I was shocked at what a hardscrabble life my grandmother must have had there compared to what I had pictured, and I could only conclude that her memory of that time was so lustrous not because of the place but because of her intense love for her husband.
My sister, Gail Tobin, my aunt Winnie Schortman and I went to Enkhuizen which had barely changed since my grandmother’s time. I also Googled furiously to learn about everything from life on board ship, life in New York City, right down to the name of the school that little Woodrow DeVries would have attended.
A Young Wife features several morally-questionable characters, including Sander, Fenna, and the Dietzes. Which of them was the most fun to create, and why?
I often write with my eyes closed. That way, I can picture the scene unfolding in front of me and write what I see. I can’t do that so well with dialogue, but I love to do it when several people are in a scene, and I want to know what they look like, what they’re wearing, how they move and so on. Tessa Dietz really came to life when I saw her at the estancia with that big ratty blue parrot on her shoulder. She was hands-down my favorite morally-challenged character. I loved her outrageous sense of entitlement, so awful to the people who worked for her, and so completely narcissistic.
Minke proves to be a talented seamstress and dressmaker. Which fashions do you find more interesting: those of the 1910s or the 2010s?
In terms of construction, the fashions of the 1910s are more interesting because of the hand sewing. I live near Willimantic, aka “thread city.” Interestingly, when those mills started mass-producing thread, people started owning more that two sets of clothing. So the clothing of today is more interesting to me; there so much more of it and so much more varied than in Minke’s day.
In A Young Wife, morphine is a common drug, and its characters treat everything from broken legs to childbirth with a dose. How did you learn about morphine’s past uses, while keeping today’s knowledge of its dangers out of the plot?
The early twentieth century was a murky, semi-legal period for cocaine and its derivatives. For example, until 1903 Coca Cola contained significant amounts of cocaine. At the same time, morphine required a prescription and a bright red label with the word “poison” spelled out clearly in white letters, and it was used for everything from lesions to childbirth. In Europe, morphine production was not a crime until the Hague Conference of 1912, which meant that entrepreneurs like Sander and Cassian could no longer freely mix up batches. They would have had no choice but to leave The Netherlands and set up shop in a more tolerant place. The dangers of the drug were there, of course. We see Griet helping herself to her mother’s medicine just for the rush, and we see the young men who always lounge around Cassian. But morphine was still easy to get and I had the sense that although there were laws, they weren’t yet rigidly enforced.
This novel is refreshingly frank in its sexual attitudes—Minke’s passion for Sander, as well as Cassian’s sexuality, are important to the plot. Did you ever find it difficult to write these scenes? Was it ever challenging for you on a personal level, given that Minke’s character is based on your own grandmother?
I come from a long line of dishy women on my mother’s side, so these scenes were not at all difficult to write. I’m pretty sure my grandmother’s great love for her husband couldn’t have been prim Victorian admiration. She was an absolute lady when I knew her, always in stockings, heels and a dress, but photos of her as a young woman show a great spirit. And as far as Cassian was concerned, his homosexuality was secondary to his character but turned out to be essential to the plot. I hadn’t known it would be a problem until there was an entourage of young men who gravitated to him at the morphine works. In a small, predominantly Catholic, lawless setting this would not sit well.
Minke is a heroine with the great immigrant spirit of the early 20th century. What do you think it was like for a woman to start her life over—sometimes on her own—In those challenging times?
I’m awed by the number of people who left everything behind and started new lives in this country. Thousands went through Ellis Island every day. Women were not allowed to enter the country alone. They had to be part of a family who were already in the U.S. or on the ship with them. So Minke would have been able to enter, but without Sander’s support she’d have been truly on her own with an infant to support. It took grit. In my own family, my grandmother was hired by the Misses Wiley as a seamstress, just as Minke is in the book. In real life, Mr. Wiley found a job for my mother, then age 16, at the New York Times, and she supported the family, having to give up a full scholarship at Swarthmore to do so.
How did your family react when you told them you were writing a novel based on your grandmother? What details did you change as Minke DeVries became her own character?
My family was not only supportive, but they were also able to fill in many of the gaps. As with many secrets, the things I didn’t know were widely known by others. My second cousin told me about the dirt floors in my grandmother’s house in Comodoro and the ever-present howling wind. She said Momée was so naïve that once pregnant, she had no idea how the baby would come out.
Both Minke and Momée have a quiet strength and elegance, both are excellent seamstresses, and both are very wise. But I also gave Minke a hefty dose of my mother who was a purposeful and ambitious woman. Momée used to exasperate my mother with her reticence. Even as a young girl, my mother would have to ask store clerks for things because Momée was too shy to ask.
In searching records at Ellis Island I discovered that while Momée was quarantined in Holland with three little daughters during the war, her husband remained in New York and sailed first class to Cuba under the name Juan. He listed himself as Argentine and said his wife was my grandmother’s sister. He did such a disservice to his real wife and children that I had no qualms about creating a wretch of him even though I must say here that he never manufactured morphine and he never engineered a kidnapping.
All three of your novels are about secrets and lies, to some degree. What do you think attracts you this theme?
I’m attracted to secrets and lies because there were quite a few in my own family. From the reactions to my first books, I would say everyone has them. What fascinates me is the way children make up whole logical scenarios to fill in the gaps of information. As a child, I knew my grandfather was alive although my mother would not even give me his name. I always pictured him out there somewhere. I imagined the reasons for his not being in our lives had to be monumental. Maybe he was too busy for us. Maybe he didn’t like us. I never for a moment considered that he might be a bad man.
What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction?
JP Donleavy’s Ragtime stands out. There were so many wonderful surprises in that book, my favorite of which was the appearance of the Little Rascals. I also liked Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. I don’t read much historical fiction that predates the twentieth century, I realize now from considering this question.
What can your readers look forward to next? Will you return to historical fiction or suspense fiction, or try your hand at a new genre?
The next book will be about a group of sixty hikers encamped just outside Yellowstone who go in groups into the wilderness each day. There has been a mauling by a grizzly not far from the encampment. The story will revolve around three people—the director of the group, a young woman who has little experience with the out of doors and the man whom she is stalking.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have to tell you about a book I just finished. It is called A Young Wife and it is by Pam Lewis. This book I actually started about a week ago I though this is good and I had to take my time and read it in small doses( thanks to life) and I mean really small doses. Then it happened I woke up one night could not sleep. I opened the book and read about twenty pages and could not put it down. I was on a boat traveling. Pam Lewis writes so well that I could totally picture this boat (she does not over describe) and the goings on and about the boat with the passengers. I wanted to read more but the early hour of the morning caught up with me and no matter how much I willed my eyes to stay open I could not make it happen. But my dreams that night were being on that boat with Minke and Sander. I awoke thinking wow what a great story teller Pam Lewis is. That day I even looked forward to a trip with my father in law to the doctor because after all that would allow me plenty of reading time in the waiting room and as luck would have it the doctor was on time and we literally were there 15 minutes (I was so bummed I had a date with this book and when is a doctor ever on time?). I was so sad because I knew my adventure would have to wait longer. This book had its hold on me because I thought of the very young Minke (teenager) leaving her parents to go and live with another family to take care of the dying wife of Sander. My heart broke for how scared she must have been leaving all that she knew but it was a different time ( the year was 1912) and a different place (the Netherlands) and talk of war was about. The weekend was finally here and I was excited to see that it was to be another over 100 degree couple of days; what better way but to spend it but inside out of the heat reading the adventure that poured from the pages of this book? I started reading the book on Friday I went to bed a sat there thinking I wonder what happens and finally at 2am I snuck out of my room as to not awake my husband and read until 4:30am when I could not hold my eyes open again. My heart was breaking for Minke having to have a baby and have no clue as to where it came from or how it would arrive. I was sad she was far from home my heart broke that she married Sander who was much older who asked here to marry him the day his wife had passed. He was an established man with money she was poor and her family wanted it for her. In the beginning of the book the author said that she based this book loosely on her grandmother's life. I could not help but wonder just what parts was fact what parts were fiction. The doctor Minke traveled with and the one to deliver her babies he was such an odd person for his time and was a good person that offered a loyalty that is hard to come by. I wondered was this her grandma's friend or just a character I really do not want to give away the story but I will say I was sad that the book ended. I have not had one of those books in a while. This book is full of new beginnings, friendships, enemies, deceptions and victories with a little mix of history. I give this book five stars. This book was provided to me through good reads. This did not affect my review. The opinions in this review are my own.
In 1912 wealthy businessman Sander DeVries arrives in Enkhuzen, Netherlands and hires the younger of two sisters, fifteen years old Minke van Aisma over the angry objection of her sibling Fenna, to nurse his wife Elisabeth as she is dying. Sander selected her because he believed she had the quiet toughness Elisabeth will need. He escorts Minke to Amsterdam. A few hours after Elisabeth dies, Sander stuns Minke by proposing; he wants her to become his spouse and live with him in oil city Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. Although frightened, she accepts. They travel across the Atlantic as Minke grows mentally stronger and becomes buddies with her husband's friend Cassian and Pieps a ship steerage boy. In Comodoro Rivadavia, Minke gives birth to a son Zef. However, her idyllic life is dangerous as her son is abducted while she carries her second offspring. Zef forces them to flee to New York, leaving behind her kidnapped child. He underestimates the will of a mother when it comes to her cub. Based on the life of Pam Lewis' grandmother, A Young Wife is a superb early twentieth century thriller. Minke holds the story line together with her courage and caring. She and readers will be stunned once the truth is known as this vivid historical tale is a winning look at three continents in the first two decades of the previous century. Harriet Klausner
The author develops her story with an exciting crescendo. Reading groups looking for controversial discussion will certainly get their wishes. There is everything, exploitation of naive, innocent youth; bullying, stealth, mayhem and even murder, etc. Enjoy! A great read!
This was a great read. It held my interest and I finished it in 3 days. I have never heard of the author but I will be looking for more of her books.....
ADVENTUREOUS HISTORICAL FICTION Historical fiction - approx 1912-. Begins in Netherlands,15 year old main character Minke van Aisme, goes to Amsterdam to nurse a dying woman. It's all an adventure from there- a fast marriage to the widower, a relocation to Argentina, trade in the morphine business, a child, friends and enemies-the kidnapping(?)of the child, another relocation to America(NYC), betrayal,in several forms. It was a fast read and did keep my attention. Loosely based on the life of the author's grandmother.
I truly enjoyed this book!
I found the characters interesting although I was frustrated at their actions or lack there of but I found myself caring about what happened to them and that's what makes for a good read in my book.
When you first read the blurb for A Young Wife, you might think it is just another story, even though you are told it is based on the author's grandmother's past. And then you start reading. Even knowing that life was very different in other countries, it was still hard to comprehend that she was forced to leave home, to go to an unknown family and city, to care for a dying woman. I kept coming back to the fact that Minke was only 15 when she was experiencing these things. The surprises kept coming as the story unfolded. I think we are defined by how we handle ourselves when faced with difficult situations. The manner in which Minke faced issues of deceit, disloyalty, and infidelity, along with the other hardships, enabled her to grow into an exceptionally strong and loving woman. I found it difficult to put the book down because I wanted to see what would happen next, and there were a few twists. I liked that those who were disloyal or did bad things to Minke received their just desserts. I really liked this book. I was so proud of Minke for her accomplishments, I just wanted to applaud at the end. I found A Young Wife to be a very well written and enjoyable story. This is one I will read again.
This was a pretty interesting book. It says it is loosely based on a true story, and I'm curious just how loose it is. A lot of bad stuff happened, and I'm interested in how much of it was real. The book tells the story of a 15 year old Dutch girl who marries an older man she hardly knows. She is then whisked away to Argentina. The city in Argentina is a new world on several levels. Minke has to adjust to her new married life and to an entirely new way of life in Argentina. Through a series of events, Minke ends up immigrating to the United States. There, even more new things await her. The action proceeds at a fairly quick pace. In fact, there is so much going on, I didn't ever really get a feel for the characters. I like to know what's going on in their heads, and you don't really get any of that in this book. I never really understood why Minke married her husband in the first place. However, that was a pretty minor problem for me. I got engrossed in the book. I found that I had read half of it in one sitting without realizing it. I didn't want to stop without finding out what happened next. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I think it will serve people well who just want a quick, interesting read. If you really like to get into the characters' heads, you may not enjoy this book that much. It certainly kept my interest, and I felt compelled to keep reading until the end. Galley provided by publisher for review.
I recieved this book through a goodreads giveaway. This book defnitely has some interesting qualities about it. The story line was unique though the "twists" were not. Even though I felt I was ahead of Minke through most of her adventures I found myself reading this book rather intently. I connected well with Minke, she is around tha same age as me. however I don't think that was why I liked her so much I think it was due to the lack of other likable characters in the story. I felt like I was supposed to like the doctor, but I never really did. Overall the story has really good charater development (even though most of the characters are cruel. While the plot was easily guessed, the connection to the characters had me crying even though I knew everything turned out fine in the end.
"A Young Wife" is a beautifully crafted novel by a very talented and gifted writer, Pam Lewis. I enjoyed the storyline which is quite original. The book is about fifteen-year-old Minke, a Dutch girl who nurses a dying woman and after her death marries the husband, Sander, who is much older than herself and unfortunately turns out to be a gambler and unfaithful sort. There are many twists and turns that occur in Minke's life and I don't want to give the plot away, as it is really a page-turner, but i will say that the author captures the feelings of this young girl in such an authentic way. Minke's husband Sander and her sister Fenna are both instrumental in changing this woman's life by their conniving behavior and disloyalty. Minke and Sander leave Holland for Commodoro, the oil fields of Argentina. The descriptions of the boat ride, the immigration process, and their adjustment to life in this barely civilized area of Argentina are skillfully elaborated by the author, capturing the reader's imagination. We learn what drives someone like Sander, what motivates a young woman like Minke to follow a man like her husband, and ultimately what drives her to leave him. Minke's experiences meeting people in Argentina, giving birth and nuturing her children and surviving the anxst created by living in a mostly male environment are fascinating. It is when Minke leaves Argentina and arrives in New York City that her true grit is revealed and the pace of the novel moves even faster. Many things happen to the central character in this novel and the reader will be invested in Minke's outcome and that of her children as well. I've read this author's other novels "Speak Softly, She Can Hear" and "Perfect Family" and enjoyed both of them. However, this newest book I found to be her best so far as it is filled with drama, turbulence, passion and purpose dynamically creating a tapestry of emotion that travels brilliantly from one chapter to the next. Don't miss out on this wonderful new book by a remarkable author.