“[I]f it were profitable to fight injustice, then injustice would become as scarce as gold.”
Set in a small town during the Reconstruction Era, Mary Volmer’s “Reliance, Illinois” is a novel of self-discovery and the assertion of feminine strength. Madelyn Branch and her mother Rebecca find themselves entering Reliance, Illinois in response to an advertisement placed in the “Matrimonial Times.” Rebecca, a savvy woman who has done whatever necessary to survive since finding herself pregnant at the age of 13, hopes to marry Lyman Dryfus, a man she has yet to meet and whom she intends to dupe by claiming her daughter as her orphaned younger sister. Madelyn grudgingly goes along with this plan.
Maddy’s relationship with her mother is relentlessly complicated. Jaded by the memory that her mother once abandoned her for several years after her birth, Maddy now justifiably feels betrayed once again, asked to participate in a deception which again strips her of her mother.
“Hate, that simple, stubbed toe of an emotion, which colors everything an explicable black and white, would have been so much easier than love. I loved her. Certainly not in the grateful, dependent manner I imagined girls were meant to love their mamas, but grudgingly, irrationally.”
Maddy, like so many daughters, loves and fears her mother; and, again like so many before her, the more she turns away from her mother, the more she finds herself understanding and, ultimately, emulating her.
Despite her prominent birthmark, which covers her from head to thigh on one whole side of her body, Maddy’s inner fire refuses to remain hidden. Unable to fade into the background as she sometimes wishes, her fighting spirit looms large and, incapable of biting her tongue, she tends to speak her mind no matter the consequences. How appropriate, then, that she is taken in by Miss Rose, daughter of the town’s founder and its most infamous resident.
“[Rose] was a radical, a nuisance, a countess, a blessing, a madam, a suffragette. All of these things, and none of them.”
Miss Rose seethes underneath her composed, “ladylike” facade. Rose schemes and plans for the betterment of women. Feeling that she and others like her were duped into delaying the fight for women’s rights in order to fight against slavery, now that slavery has been abolished, she is adamant that the fight for women’s rights be promptly and effectively resumed. Though her motives are frequently deceptive and often self-serving, she is, at heart, a true feminist unafraid to speak her mind.
“‘What else but a slave would you call a man with no right to represent his own wishes, to develop his God-given abilities, or to support himself by his own merit? What do you call a man with no right to govern the functions of his own body? I have described…the American Woman.”
Under Rose’s and her companion Mrs. French’s tutelage, Maddy is tumbled like a rough quarry stone, her sharp edges smoothed while her essence is polished until it shines through. She taps unsuspected depths of strength and knowledge, eventually embodying the feminism her mentors aspire to.
Despite its historical setting, “Reliance, Illinois” reads with a pace and sensibility that resonates for the modern reader. Though the mass of the story takes place between 1874 and 1876, it is an apt allegory for today, for the struggles women still face the world over for freedom and equality. Its messages are not subtle, but they are also not sanctimonious nor overbearing. Mary Volmer’s novel is wrought with precision and grace. “Reliance, Illinois” is a shining example of the importance of women’s voices and the beauty of their craft.
Thank you to Soho Press for the complimentary review copy.