Sixteen Brides by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Last month, I reviewed O Pioneers! by Willa Cather for this blog.  I was especially interested in that novel – and in this one – sixteen bridesbecause both are set in Nebraska during pioneer days.  My grandfather’s family came to live in that state in 1878, when my grandfather was three years old – close to the time period depicted in the novels.  His family members, like many characters in the novel, were homesteaders living in a sod house.

This novel takes place in 1871.  At that time, the federal government would give 160 acres of public land to a head of household who would pay a registration fee, build a home and cultivate the land, and live there for five years.  In this story, some brave women, most widowed during the Civil War, arrive by train.  Some of them choose immediate marriage to strangers, while others prefer to establish their own homesteads.  The main female characters are shocked at the idea of marrying men whom they just met, and they help each other to farm their homesteads.  Caroline, a Southern belle, is the widow of a Yankee soldier; her parents rejected her for marrying a member of the enemy army.  Ella and her mother lost their farm during the war.  Ella is convinced that no man will ever want to marry her but believes that she can run a successful farm.  Ruth hopes to make a good life for her son, a young teenager who’s eager to see cowboys.  Sally wants a new start after a divorce.  Hetty’s medical skills are valuable, since there is no doctor in that area.  The women become friends and prove to be more courageous and capable than anyone, including them, would have believed.

Whitson says in the author’s note: “…research revealed that hundreds of single women successfully homesteaded in the west.”

I was impressed with the fact that the pioneers in the novel give so much assistance to one another.  This fits in with the words of my grandfather about his pioneer days: “There was love and kindness throughout the community and a seemingly sincere desire to help each other, and I know this was real.  It was true pioneer spirit, and it helped many to stand the hardships and sufferings that go with subduing the wilderness and making homes from scratch.”

The importance of the Christian faith in the lives of some of the novel’s characters will add a special appeal for some readers.

Whitson lives in Nebraska, has done graduate work in history, and worked closely with members of a historical society in the county she’s describing in the novel.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

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