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.
Victoria McQueen was born with a special gift; whenever she’s riding her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, a bridge will appear can transport her wherever she needs to go. Once there, she can find things that are lost. It starts out innocently enough, with Vic looking for things to keep her parents from fighting, but the temptation to do more with her trick is always there.
Meanwhile, Charles Talent Manx is out on the prowl for children. He has a special vehicle of his own, a Rolls Royce Wraith, which he uses to transport children to Christmasland, a ghoulish twilight zone of yuletide cheer where soulless children revere Manx unconditionally. Hundreds of children (and sometimes their parents) have mysteriously disappeared over the years, and when Vic figures out that she might be able to find them, she goes looking for trouble. She ends up barely escaping from Manx’s Sleigh House, the only child to ever have done so. In the process of her escape and subsequent rescue, Manx is caught and imprisoned for life, assumed to be a pedophile and serial killer.
Now Vic is an adult, and Manx has never stopped thinking about her. But rather than come for her when the opportunity arises, he decides to come for her son, Bruce. Meanwhile, Vic is convinced that she’s always been mentally ill; once would have to be schizophrenic to actually believe that magic bridges and places like Christmasland exist. Unless she can find a way to trust her instincts and her sanity, her son’s life is on the line.
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.
Nerdy D’aron Davenport has never truly felt like he belonged in his tiny hometown of Braggsville, Georgia. He bides his time in high school and sets his sights on getting as far from Braggsville as he can. He’s confident in his decision to attend UC Berkeley but quickly learns that being at the top of his class in Braggsville means little in a place like “Berzerkeley;” it’s a culture shock that leaves him feeling out of his element. Fortunately, he makes friends with three other students early on: Charlie, a Black teen from inner-city Chicago; Louis, a Malaysian comedian from San Francisco; and Candice, a hippie-ish white woman from Iowa who sometimes claims to be of Native American descent. After one of their earliest PC-policing encounters at Berkeley, the four end up calling themselves the “4 Little Indians.”
Coming from a tiny town in the South, the hyper-awareness with which liberal Berkeley students treat political correctness is at times mind-boggling to D’aron. Then, in a radical history class that’s been blowing his mind all semester, he volunteers some information that freaks everyone out: his town still holds Civil War reenactments every year. Suddenly, the 4 Little Indians have a class project on their hands. They’ll stage a “performative intervention” — aka a mock lynching, complete with slave costumes — at this year’s Braggsville reenactment. In their minds, it’s just the kind of protest that people need to see the error of their ways.