1904, American West, book review, historical fiction, Jamie Harrison, literary fiction, masochism, Montana, over-the-top characterizations, sexual double standard, sociopathy
Review: The Widow Nash, by Jamie Harrison
Counterpoint, 2017. 373 pp. $26
It’s 1904, and Leda Cordelia Dulcinea Remfrey has just buried her grandmother in the East and wants nothing more than to retrieve her bearings. But a summons comes from Seattle, one she can’t ignore: Her father, Walton, is losing his mind to tertiary syphilis, likely dying. More importantly to the two men who send for her, Walton has misplaced or hidden or spent a fortune reaped from the sale of African mines, and part of that money is due them. Dulcy, as she’s known, is essential to the task of deciphering Walton’s notebooks and figuring out what he did with the money, for she’s traveled the world with him and knows his secrets. Or so they believe.
Their conviction brings much misery to Dulcy, and here lies the biggest flaw of this often splendid, engaging novel. Victor Maslingen, her former fiancé, imprisons Dulcy in Seattle, and his henchman, Henning Falk, immediately welches on the promises he made to keep Victor in check. Surprisingly, Dulcy never even protests, only sets out to care for her father, living up to her second name, Cordelia.
Moreover, if she’s ever regretted breaking her engagement, all you need to know is that Henning has furnished Victor’s office with objects that don’t break if they’re thrown. Unfortunately, people aren’t as sturdy; and Dulcy’s first name, Leda, suggests what Victor has done before and keeps threatening to do again. In fact, Victor is such a completely unappealing, unbalanced character, he could fill a page in the DSM by himself. And the strange part is, nobody who knows him (other than Henning) can understand why Dulcy threw him over. To a degree, her reticence to share the story is quite understandable. As Harrison shows, a woman may be the soul of virtue, but society will still condemn her for lodging such an accusation.
Nevertheless, the central conflict of this novel results from two clichéd characterizations, a masochist and a sociopath, and during the long Seattle narrative, little changes. We get Dulcy’s sufferings and discursions into Walton’s past life and travels with his daughter, some of which is interesting, much of it simply appalling, as when Walton carelessly and unconscionably passes his syphilis to his wife, killing the children she bears subsequently and later, herself. Meanwhile, the main narrative treads water while Dulcy works up the courage to escape, and you may be forgiven for wondering when she’s going to get it.
Yet The Widow Nash is about running away, and round about page 120, Dulcy manages to rescue herself and the novel. Unfortunately, Harrison wants you to believe that Victor will pursue Dulcy if he ever traces her — that’s why he has to be a sociopath, I suppose —and that Henning, who’s far more practical and therefore more dangerous, will help. Or maybe he won’t, because he has a soul and a conscience when the narrative absolutely requires. That’s the trouble with over-the-top characters; they can’t bend, so everyone else has to, even in illogical directions.
When Dulcy settles in a Montana town, assuming the name Mrs. Nash and declaring her widowhood, the novel settles in too. How she keeps her secret from the nosy matrons makes a wry, entertaining narrative, and though predators flourish here — most especially the chief of police — there’s good-heartedness that Dulcy drinks in and wonders whether she’s dreaming. Most fiction about the American prairie that I’ve read stresses how plain and boring life can be, but where Dulcy lives, there’s never a dull moment.
One reason Harrison can get away with a few mistakes and still come out with a good novel is that her prose evokes not just a setting, but a way of life:
Walton packed an India rubber bath, which liked to collapse suddenly, and his medicines often shattered, the fumes poisoning fellow travelers. Travel meant being wet and cold or dry and hot;… Pushy, mustachioed men in uniform, demanding imaginary paperwork at sudden borders; dusty telegraph offices and banks with wayward hours and false coinage; mysterious meat, leathery fruit.… insects skittering over mattresses or rappelling down at high speed from dark ceilings, the flutter of bats and whisper of mice.… He’d opened the wide world for her but sluiced away her joy.
And though the world of this novel is a very violent one, the people Dulcy meets in Montana have a zest for life, or many do, and that’s just what she needs, having been beaten down so long. I think that Harrison could have gotten to that point much sooner and more directly, and if that meant jettisoning discussions of Walton’s pseudoscientific theories about volcanoes and earthquakes and the interconnection of all human events, so much the better. I think the themes of The Widow Nash are well established without that. But if you can get past these excesses and the clunky narrative machinery before Dulcy’s escape, the novel offers rewards.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.