Loewenstein has the scenery and temperament of the rural Midwest down perfectly: the dairy farms, the storefronts lining each side of Main Street, the minutiae reported in the local newspapers, and the strong sense of community within a small place where everyone knows each other's background and business. In addition, she brings forth the sense of insularity, the wariness about outsiders, the long-entrenched bigotry which has no place in the modern age but refuses to go away.
When noted lecturer Marian Elliot Adams drives her dusty Packard into Emporia as part of the traveling Chautauqua assembly, she intends to educate and startle her audience with her keynote speech about how women's corsets are holding them back socially and economically. After she sprains her ankle stepping off the stage and is forced to recuperate in Emporia for a week, both she and many of its citizens are horrified. She doesn't for a minute think this nondescript, backward town has anything to teach her. However, narrow-mindedness runs both ways.
The plot begins with Marian but spreads out to encompass the individual, unique stories of the townspeople whose lives she touches. Widowed newspaper editor Deuce Garland needs some of Marian's courage; his gut tells him he needs to expose a local wrong, but he fears backlash. His stepdaughter Helen, an admirer of Marian's, wants to move to Chicago but is held back by her domineering grandfather, the paper's owner.
Emmett Shang, Marian's black driver, opens her eyes to the racism underlying the supposedly close-knit town. And Tula Lake, Deuce's next-door neighbor, who has been waiting for him to ask her out – her story is among the most gratifying. She may seem to be a secondary character, so it's a joyful surprise to see her blossom into the star of her own late-in-life romance.
In the second part, the focus shifts to Picardy, where Marian volunteers with a relief unit delivering supplies to villagers whose lives and homes were upended by the war. Here she continues her personal journey of self-discovery, developing close friendships with other women who don't know or care about her background. There are casualties both at home and abroad, and several especially poignant losses. Although novels about the Great War have become as common as Illinois cornfields these days, Loewenstein presents a new slant on the wartime experience.
This warmhearted, involving work, situated gracefully in its era, depicts a wide range of social concerns as people's minds are opened to new, previously hidden possibilities. What I appreciated most about Unmentionables is its determination to look deeply into issues and push beyond what readers and its characters expect. It offers a lot to think about, since many of the issues addressed are pertinent today. The title is perfect. I can see the book working very well as a discussion choice, both here in the Midwest and elsewhere.
Unmentionables was published by Akashic/Kaylie Jones Books in January ($15.95, trade pb, 320pp). Thanks to the author for giving me a review copy. You can also check out her earlier guest post about Circuit Chautauqua on this site.