Margaret Oades isn’t exactly thrilled that she has to move her entire family from England to New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, but she loves her husband and, as a woman with children, has few other options. And anyway, they will return in two years, or at least that’s the plan; her house is attacked by Maori, native New Zealanders, and she and her children are spirited into the night and enslaved for six years. In the meantime, Henry Oades, Margaret’s husband, is convinced that his family has perished, and moves to California, where he marries once again. When Margaret shows up on her doorstep, new wife Nancy Oades has no idea what to do – but the case of the two wives of Mr. Oades incites public scandal and personal difficulty that will impact the lives of all concerned in remarkable ways.
This was such an intriguing historical novel. First off, the initial setting of New Zealand in the late nineteenth century was fairly new to me in fiction, but New Zealand is one of the places I’ve had to write about at work, so I’ve done some research. This is the first time I can recall reading about it in fiction and it was marvelous to have it come to life, if only for a few pages before the horror happened. Throughout, through, I really enjoyed Johanna Moran’s writing, and I found the whole book smooth and atmospheric – the locations felt different and I appreciated each of them differently.
I also loved the characters here, mostly the wives. I immediately liked Margaret and found it hard to believe that I could like Nancy, too, but somehow I appreciated both wives and their difficulties while loving a single man. The novel conveys magnificently the strength of women; despite slurs again their reputations, physical violence, and simple jealousy, Nancy and Margaret remain admirable characters and hardly ever miss a step. While Mr. Oades, despite his seemingly kind and giving nature, remains just a shadow throughout the novel, even when he’s grief stricken about the deaths of his family members, the two women really come to life. If I couldn’t understand why they loved Henry, I could understand perfectly their reasons for staying with him; this is true of Margaret in particular. Nancy, it seems, could have easily left despite her recent marriage, but she is still in love with Henry.
The idea of this novel is great, too, in that it covers a little known lawsuit that actually existed in California. At this point, there appears to have been something of a hysteria against bigamy due to Mormons’ multiple marriages before reliable laws were enacted. I would find such censure in real life heartbreaking – as if Margaret Oades and her children hadn’t been through enough already – but sadly not unbelievable, especially not at this time. I was eager to know a few more details about the real life case and I wish someone would write an actual history about it.
Until then, though, The Wives of Henry Oades is a really engaging work of historical fiction – especially recommended if you’re interested in reading about strong women who make the best of what life hands them.
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