Unmentionables is a story of the transformative power of an open mind and an open heart. Small town intrigues, women’s suffrage, race relations, international aid, public health regulation and undergarments all figure in the mix.
Laurie Loewenstein’s novel opens in August 1917 under the Chautauqua tent in the Midwest town of Emporia. Marian Elliott Adams sweeps onto the stage wearing “a rippling striped silk caftan and red Moroccan sandals” to lecture on Barriers to the Betterment of Women. Not about the lack of female colleges or voting rights, as you might think. Rather, the barriers are “combination suit, petticoat, corset, corset cover, hose supporter, hose” – 25 pounds of invisibilities that drag women down. The nameless faces in the audience (they look the same in every Chautauqua town) listen politely. The Chautauqua lectures are offered and taken as entertainment. Nobody expects them to change the world.
But Marian’s words resonate with three listeners. When an accident forces her to recuperate in town for a week, she further questions the orthodoxies of the residents and throws the town into turmoil. She, in turn, faces the fact that people may act on her words with dire consequences. She atones by volunteering for the Fielding College Relief Unit and travelling to France to help displaced villagers rebuild their lives.
Loewenstein crafts likable characters with believable motivations. The historical details of the Midwest, Chicago and Picardy ring true. The deceptively breezy love story explores serious subjects with intelligence and insight.
In the acknowledgements, Loewenstein notes the influence of Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet. That is evident in details down to the nicknames of Marian’s companions in France. (Is the fictional Fielding College an homage to Dorothie Feilding, thought to be one of the inspirations for Tosh in NSQ?)
What I like best about Unmentionables is the descriptive sense of place:
“The breezes of Macomb County usually journeyed from the west, blowing past and moving quickly onward, for the county was just en route, not a final destination. On this particular night, the wind gusted inexplicably from the east, rushing over fields of bluestem grasses, which bent their seed heads like so many royal subjects.”
Those opening sentences drew me in to a memorable story.
October is Canadian Library Month. I love my public library! So does the foundation of our house, which could otherwise be at risk of buckling from the weight of our books. Compiling the Great War 100 Reads lists, I was happy to find most of the books available @opl_bpo … and probably at your library, too. Unmentionables is proving to be popular at my library. I suggested it for purchase several months ago, waited patiently for it to arrive, then discovered a waiting list ahead of me.