Post-Civil War life in Texas is notoriously lawless. Traveling the lonely stretches of road between towns, one might be attacked and killed by Native Americans or by bandits. Strangers pulling up to a town might be confronted by “the law:” men who have taken it upon themselves to keep out Yankee sympathizers by any means necessary. Such is the world that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd lives in. An elderly war hero, he now lives a mostly nomadic existence, traveling from town to town across North Texas to read the latest news of the world to paying audiences.
It is on one of these excursions that Captain Kidd is offered a $50 gold piece to take a young orphan girl from Wichita Falls to her surviving relatives San Antonio. Johanna was taken by the Kiowa Indians when she was six years old; now ten years old, Johanna has spent the last four years living as a Kiowa and it’s the only life she remembers. In her eyes, she has been kidnapped, not rescued.
Decades before Match, OkCupid, and Tinder, there existed the Marriage Bureau in London, offering the unorthodox — some might say scandalous — services of finding clients their future husband or wife. War loomed large and single young men were posted abroad in the British colonies; when they came home on leave, they didn’t have time to find a proper date — much less their future wife — before returning to duty. And though times were changing and more women were entering the workforce, a lot of young women still lived at home and lived under their parents’ rule. How would they ever find someone?
In The Marriage Bureau, Penrose Halson recounts the first ten years of the Bureau’s existence. A restless twenty-four-year-old named Mary Oliver visited her uncle in India. He told her that she should find a way to introduce the boys stationed there to some women when they went on leave; otherwise, they’d never find someone to marry. The idea stuck, and she brought it up with her friend Heather Jenner, a beautiful socialite who had already been divorced and was intrigued by the idea. They forged ahead with their eccentric plan and ended up charming the media in their favor. With the publicity, they suddenly found their “mating” services in high demand even through terrifying times like the London blitz.
Fereiba is dealt a cruel twist of fate at birth: her mother dies in labor, and although her father eventually remarries, Fereiba is never truly welcomed by her stepmother. It’s a bit of a Cinderella situation; her stepsisters are doted on and sent to school while Fereiba is kept at home and taught to serve. It’s only by her sheer force of will that moves up in the world, and then her fortunes truly turn when she meets the love of her life, Mahmoud, a man who treats her as his equal and whose family respects her.
While their family lives a comfortable middle-class life in Kabul, trouble is brewing in other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban is rising to power and people are fleeing the country in droves. Fereiba and Mahmoud don’t realize the error of staying until it’s too late, and their lives change drastically once the Taliban reaches Kabul and imposes their new fundamentalist regime. With two children and another baby on the way, they make plans to flee, but as a government employee, Mahmoud is targeted and murdered by the Taliban. Now, it’s up to Fereiba to escape and get her children safely to London. They manage to stay together part of the way but end up being separated in Greece; at that point, her oldest son must figure out how to get to London on his own.
Maeve Fanning and her mother, a widowed Irish immigrant, live in Boston’s impoverished North End. It’s the 1930s and jobs are scarce. Maeve’s mother works long hours as a seamstress and hopes that she’ll one day be promoted to saleswoman, but she knows that’s unlikely; no one would hire an Irish salesperson. As such, all of her hopes are pinned on Maeve to succeed.
A while back, Maeve left her beau and suddenly moved to New York City to start a new life. She tells her mother she’s working for an eccentric millionaire, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth: she relishes her newfound freedom, develops a taste for the nightlife…and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. She returns to Boston humiliated and determined to keep The Thing that happened in New York a secret.
With the Great Depression worsening, jobs have gotten even more scarce in the North End since Maeve first left. She hears of a job opening at an antiques shop, but she’s in a similar situation as her mother: a high-end shop that caters to Boston’s elite would never hire someone Irish, and Maeve’s name and beautiful red hair are dead giveaways. With a bottle of peroxide, some wardrobe finagling, and considerable pluck, May Fanning now passes herself off as a well-bred woman from Albany. She’s hired, and in the course of her work runs into Diana Van der Laar, a beautiful and troubled socialite who had also been hospitalized in New York. Maeve is terrified about her secret being revealed, but Diana is impishly thrilled. The two settle into a whirlwind friendship, but it’s a high stakes situation for Maeve, who is constantly trying to hide her impoverished Irish roots from her new acquaintances.
Given the current political climate — with a huge abortion access case before Supreme Court, a presidential candidate proposing women be punished for having abortions, and people still in a frenzy over last year’s “sting” videos that were doctored to make Planned Parenthood look as bad as possible — the publication of Ellen Feldman’s Terrible Virtue couldn’t be more timely.
The book is a fictional reimagining of Margaret Sanger’s life. Born into poverty, her father an outspoken atheist and her mother an Irish Catholic, Sanger saw firsthand the toll that constant childbearing had on families. Her own mother died at the age of 49, frail and aged beyond her years after eleven successful pregnancies; she also had several miscarriages. In Feldman’s book, Margaret and two of her sisters vow never to marry or have children. They do not want to end up like their mother.