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Review: Light Changes Everything, by Nancy E. Turner
St. Martin’s, 2020. 290 pp. $28

Mary Pearl Prine isn’t your average seventeen-year-old. She can ride, shoot, and rope, which, in the Arizona Territory of 1907, would seem pretty usual, except that few other young women of her acquaintance can do likewise, or care to. Mary Pearl can also speak her mind — sometimes — and can draw, which sets her even further apart. What’s more, she dreams of being an artist, and against her mother’s wishes, enrolls in Wheaton College in Chicago to study art.

Just before she leaves, however, Aubrey Hannah, a handsome, moneyed, citified lawyer, proposes marriage. Having read Jane Austen, Mary Pearl has heard that a woman needs a wealthy husband to succeed in life. Though Aubrey’s shotgun approach to betrothal — grab and kiss, importune for the rest — puts her off, she’s physically attracted. Still, she has just enough gumption to ask him, by letter, to wait until she’s finished her two-year course of study.

But college upends Mary Pearl’s world. She’s never before been the butt of snobbish humor for her manners, speech, dress, or frontier skills, which quickly become legend around campus. But she learns valuable lessons about growing up, not least how to exercise her nascent gift for standing up for herself, especially when she feels she’s being treated as a second-class citizen, whether as a Westerner or a woman. Still, though she finds nice dresses and urban conveniences seductive, at root, she suspects the city and its ways:

What a wagonload of nonsense was life in this big city. Not a speck of interest in where their water came from, nor whether there was enough for their neighbors to eat. Just busy with doing things and having things I wouldn’t even know I didn’t have, which included crystal punch bowls and harp lessons.

Turner’s storytelling range in this coming-of-age novel includes betrayal, sexual and armed violence, the pain of longing, and hilarious situations. From the start, you sense Mary Pearl’s spirit and confusion about asserting herself, and I like how the author refuses to let her rush into choices she must make, given the familial and societal pressures she feels as a woman. You also understand where Mary Pearl gets her feminism, from her Aunt Sarah, who’s a real rip, and who can trade fire in words or bullets with anybody, male or female. From her, Mary Pearl has learned she has a place in the world, and she holds that thought tenaciously, even if she can’t always express it to others.

Whether in spoken word or contained thought, however, Mary Pearl’s voice lets fly. When Mama says that only hussies go to college, Mary Pearl reflects on her well-used, hand-me-down clothes, ratty workboots, and ragged sunbonnet, “hardly the picture of a fallen woman, unless a person meant she’d fallen down a mine shaft.” Witnessing her first (and probably last) ballet in Chicago, “it was embarrassing watching all those men and women tromping around in their tightest underwear and spinning and leaping with their legs and arms held out peculiar. I expected any second that someone would split their britches and all kinds of buck-naked silliness could follow, but it didn’t happen.”

I’d have preferred the villain of this piece to show more depth. He’s so completely odious, convinced of his power to buy whatever he wants and have everything his own way, that he’s cardboard. I believe what he does; it’s not that. I just want nuance to him, maybe a window on why he behaves that way.

At times in Light Changes Everything, I wonder whether Turner’s indulging in reverse snobbery, depicting her city folk as less caring or more prejudiced than country folk, to a point approaching caricature. Except close to the end, the city characters generally seem superficial, selfish, or small-minded, with motives so very different from Mary Pearl’s that neither she nor anybody else can really grasp them. Rather, I’d have liked to see her find more to respect in them and vice versa, however awkward the culture clash. The narrative seldom allows them to view her as more than a bauble or an entertaining object of conversation, whereas they appear to exist purely as foils, when they might have worth in their own right.

But Light Changes Everything has enough humor, strength, and pure delight to power through, and the novel makes an excellent coming-of-age story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my connection to Historical Novels Review.