Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Wives of Henry Oades: a novel by Johanna Moran

Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg
  • Tuesday, August 3, 11 a.m.
An English accountant and his two wives are the subject of this novel, based on a real-life 19th century California bigamy case. Henry Oades, assuring his wife that his New Zealand posting will be temporary, takes his wife and four children on this difficult journey. During a Maori uprising the wife and children are kidnapped and the home torched. Assuming they have been killed, Oades relocates to California and starts a new life with Nancy, a sad 20-year-old, pregnant widow. “ 

HW Readers Packet for The Wives of Henry Oades
Reviews from the NoveList Plus database

Publishers Weekly Review
An English accountant and his two wives are the subject of this intriguing and evocative debut novel based on a real-life 19th-century California bigamy case. A loving husband and attentive father, Henry Oades assures his wife, Margaret, that his posting to New Zealand will be temporary and the family makes the difficult journey. But during a Maori uprising, Margaret and her four children are kidnapped and the Oades's house is torched. Convinced his family is dead, Henry relocates to California and marries Nancy, a sad 20-year-old pregnant widow. When Margaret and the children escape, eventually making their way to California and Henry's doorstep, he does the decent thing by being a husband to both wives and father to all their offspring, a situation deemed indecent by the Berkeley Daughters of Decency. Moran presents Henry's story as if making a case in court, facts methodically revealed with just enough detail for the reader to form an independent opinion. But it's Margaret surviving the wilderness, Nancy overcoming grief and the two women bonding that give the book its heart and should make this a book group winner. (Mar.) --Staff (Reviewed October 26, 2009) (Publishers Weekly, vol 256, issue 43, p29)

Library Journal Review
When Henry Oades is posted to New Zealand in 1890, he considers the move a chance for adventure. Content with life in London, Margaret reluctantly accompanies him with their children. When their isolated cottage is attacked by the Maori, Margaret and the children are abducted and presumed dead. Fleeing from his memories, Henry resettles in California, where he marries Nancy, a young widow with a baby. Six years later, Margaret and her children, having finally escaped captivity, arrive at Henry's Berkeley farm. Weathering threats, harassment, and lawsuits, Nancy and Margaret slowly develop a supportive relationship that enables their blended family to survive. Told mainly from the wives' perspectives, the story hinges on readers' empathy with their unusual predicament. Other characters are somewhat flat. Even unflappable Henry remains a bit of an enigma. Still, Moran's debut, based on the true case of Henry Oades, acquitted of bigamy three times, will intrigue historical fiction fans and provide plenty of discussion points for book clubs.--Kathy Piehl (Reviewed November 15, 2009) (Library Journal, vol 134, issue 19, p61)

Kirkus Reviews
Two women discover they're both rightfully married to the same man. Serious, sometimes horrific developments are lightened by touches of understated, salty wit in Moran's fact-based historical, a fresh and unusual story that moves from New Zealand to California in the 1890s. British accountant Henry Oades, his wife Margaret and their two children leave England for a temporary posting in New Zealand, where Margaret gives birth to twins. Their domestic contentment is suddenly shattered when a band of Maori, in a revenge attack, burn down their home and abduct Margaret and the children. The distraught Henry plans pursuit but hurts himself badly in a fall. After a slow recovery he must accept the fact that his children cannot be traced and the bones found in the house's ashes were Margaret's (though readers already know they were not). Moving to America, he becomes a dairy farmer and six years after the catastrophe marries widowed Nancy Foreland. But Margaret has survived, as have all but one of the children. Freed from years of slavery, they make their way home and then to California, where they reunite with the surprised Henry and Nancy. Two wives and one husband living under the same roof attract the wrath of the Daughters of Decency; harassment follows, then a series of trials, but the curious family emerges even stronger. A beguiling, promising debut, combining clipped narration and capable technique with tender appreciation for the female characters in particular. (Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2009)

Further Information

Johanna Moran's website
Discussion Guide Questions at BookBrowse.com
Interview with Johanna Moran