'A clear-eyed and riveting account of one woman's journey into a so-called land of opportunity' Guardian
Summer, 1855. Sarah Brinton sets out from Rhode Island, leaving an abusive husband and child behind to head west across the country, until her journey ends in Minnesota Territory, on lands claimed both by white settlers and Native Americans. There she finds herself another husband, a Yale-educated doctor who works on the nearby Sioux reservation, and settles into a new life.
Sarah's days on the edge of the prairie are idyllic if tough, as she befriends and works with the Sioux women. But trouble is brewing. The Sioux tribes are wary of the white settlers and resent the rampant theft of their land.
When the Sioux take their fate into their own hands, Sarah 's loyalties are split between the Sioux and her fellow white settlers. As the conflict rages, she finds herself lost to both worlds.
The first novel in ten years from the author of In the Cut and Miss Aluminium, this is a story about freedom and oppression, intimacy and violence, and a woman caught in the crossfire of one of the most seminal and shameful moments in American history.
Release date: April 4, 2023
Print pages: 192
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The Lost Wife
I pretended to be asleep until Ank left the room. Florence was with Ank’s sister Viola in Kingstown, and the house was quiet. When I could hear Ank in the shop, I jumped from bed and dressed, stuffing two books, a penknife, a dress, a salami, a moth-eaten tartan cape, and Maddie’s letters into a cardboard suitcase. The letters are two years old, but I have read them so many times, I know every word by heart. She says there is work to be had in the West, not just saloon-girl work like in the penny weeklies, but work you wouldn’t be ashamed to do. I wonder if she will be surprised to see me. Surprised to see I am alone. She never believed I would do it. I counted the money I’d saved, which came to forty-two dollars. I kept thirty dollars for myself and wrapped the rest in a piece of butcher’s paper, sealed it in an envelope, and addressed it.
When I heard Mr. Lombardi in the alley, I invited him into the kitchen for coffee. He delivers a supply of colored glass stones to the shop on the last Monday of the month, and I was expecting him. I told him I needed to get to Boston, where my sister was ill. I have no sister, but he did not know that. If he would take me to the Fox Point station when he left, I could catch the afternoon train to Boston. When he agreed, I asked him not to tell Ank. I said I had been forbidden to see my sister, as she lived in sin with another woman. It was the worst lie I could devise.
My wrist is bandaged where my husband burned me with the soldering flame, and I saw Mr. Lombardi glance at it, but he said nothing. He knew Ank did it. Everyone in our street knows Ank likes to hurt me. Viola knows. My mother knew, although she never did anything to stop it. “It is only what you deserve,” she said. “Anyone with the name Aniketos cannot be a proper Christian and has to be a foreigner, maybe even a Greek. Or worse, a Turk.” How she determined that Greeks are not Christians is a mystery, but there is a long list of mysteries where my mother is concerned. Who, for instance, is my father? She refused to tell me. Maybe he, too, is Greek, which would account for my black eyes and hair, and the faint line of fuzz above my lip. She believed that during conception, the partner who had the strongest orgasm determined the looks of the child, which suggests that my father is Greek after all. Or a Turk. And that she is as cold as ice, but I knew that.
I met Mr. Lombardi on Eddy Street as we had planned. It was raining and we were soon wet through, despite the tarp he threw over us. He had a pint of whiskey in his pocket and now and then took a drink, but he did not offer me any. He dropped me at the Fox Point station, and I again reminded him that he was not to tell anyone he had seen me. When he handed down my suitcase, he slipped a half-dollar into my hand, which caused me to wonder if he believed my story after all. As I watched him turn the corner, I told myself that everything that happened from then on would be a sign. Even the rain was a sign. It would erase my footprints.
I mailed the envelope and ran into the station. I arrived too late to catch the train to Albany and spent the night in the waiting room. I thought the porters who wandered in and out might not like it if I sat on one of their benches in wet clothes, so I walked in circles to keep warm, eating the salami and shaking with cold. Every time a man came through the door, I was certain it was Ank and hid my face in my sleeve, but no one bothered me, except for one man who asked if I was free for the evening.
I read Maddie’s instructions for the hundredth time. Once I reach Albany, I will board an Erie Canal packet boat which will get me as far as Buffalo. In Buffalo, I am to take a lake steamer to Chicago. The fare in steerage will be three dollars. In Chicago, I am to find a place on a wagon traveling to a port on the Mississippi River called Galena. Then another steamboat from Galena to the town of Shakopee, Minnesota, where Maddie will be waiting for me.
I must have fallen asleep on the train to Albany, as I don’t remember leaving Boston. I was nudged awake by the conductor, surprised to see wheat fields and cows and barns. I asked if he knew how I might find the Erie Canal Navigation Company in Albany, which he said was a fifteen-minute walk from the station.
I made my way there as soon as we arrived and bought a ticket on what is called a line boat, departing in an hour. It is sixty feet long and ten feet wide, and used mainly for freight, which, the clerk warned me, meant not as select a company as I would find on a packet boat. As it is drawn by mules rather than horses, it is slower, but it is also cheaper. I am paying one cent a mile, which comes to $3.90. It will take five days to reach Buffalo.
I used Mr. Lombardi’s half-dollar to buy peanuts and a ham sandwich and a bottle of cider, reckoning it an unexpected treat, and ate the peanuts while I waited on the landing. Alongside me was an elderly woman holding a small gilded cage with a white rabbit in it. Also a minister who asked if he might preach to us from the Bible. I didn’t know how I could refuse and said nothing, but the woman with the rabbit said, “I’d prefer not. I’m given to seizures.”
It is my second day on the line boat. I sit on a three-legged stool on the roof of the main cabin. There are two spindly chairs in the bow, occupied by the old lady and her rabbit. Barrels and crates line each side of the boat. I sleep belowdecks on a sacking mattress. The others sleep on cots packed into the main cabin at night, the men separated from the women by a serge curtain strung on a sagging wire.
I feel unaccountably pleased with myself. I haven’t felt this way in a long time, maybe never. I am on my way to Buffalo. No one has clapped his hands around my neck or burned me. Except for Mr. Lombardi, I haven’t told a lie in days. Now and then, I am frightened by my freedom, wondering what I am meant to do with it. In the past, that is a week ago, it was a relief when things remained merely themselves.
One of the boatmen, a slight Irish boy, high-shouldered and bony with a chipped front tooth, saw that I had no dinner last night and told me that I could eat each evening in the main cabin, provided I pay for it. “It will cost you twenty cents,” he said, taking a certain pride in what seemed to him an exorbitance. Tonight I sat at a long communal table with the boatmen and the old woman and ate baked beans and pork and green tomatoes. No one spoke, which was fine with me.
Later when I opened my suitcase, I saw that my penknife was missing.
The boy’s name is Dennis. He told me he was an orphan with a sister in a convent in Ottawa, which did not surprise me as I’d learned at Dexter to spot an orphan a mile away. He has a tin whistle, a Doolin whistle, he says, and when the teasing by his fellow hands goes too far (the outline of a large crucifix is clearly visible beneath his shirt), he plays his whistle until they settle down. When he saw a book in my lap, he said he was teaching himself to read and asked if he could borrow it from me. I gave him Ivanhoe, as I had finished it that morning and did not wish to carry it. He returned half an hour later, having noticed it was a library book, to ask if he was breaking the law as the book was long overdue, but I assured him it would be all right. When my hat blew away, he gave me his neckerchief to wear around my head.
Last night, I dreamed that Florence and I lived in Nova Scotia, and this morning I almost jumped from the boat to find my way home, even though I know Ank would kill me.
I neglected to bring certain necessities in my haste, not only food, but the means to wash myself. When I began to bleed, I had nothing to put between my legs. Dennis must have seen the blood on my skirt, but he said nothing, handing me a few dirty dishcloths with the tips of his fingers, as if I had already soiled them. He sits on the deck beside my chair when we stop for the night to practice his letters on the endpapers of Ivanhoe. I suspect that he would like to visit me later, but I do not fancy him. Besides, although I am not what you would call fat, I would flatten him.
It is his job to shout “Bridge!” when we are about to pass under one, as there is often scant headroom. Those of us sitting on the flat roof, usually only myself and a stout man in a red wig, throw ourselves onto the deck until it is safe to regain our seats. Dennis was severely reprimanded yesterday when his warning came too late and a drunk drummer and his blind dog were knocked into the canal. Today I left the boat at one of its many stops to walk along the towpath, avoiding the mud and dung as best I could. At each landing, a boy appears with a broom to sweep the dung into the canal.
Men jump on and off the boat all day, mainly quarreling and laughing in a loud way as they load and unload goods, or to hitch a ride to the next landing. As we slowly move west, there are more languages, people speaking what I think is Swedish or German, and there is more noise, as if people’s voices have to cover longer distances. There are more oxen and mules. More guns. More men than women. Ladies wear simple cloth sunbonnets, their skirts cut short to keep them from the dirt. A number of people are missing some part of themselves, eyes and whole rows of teeth and fingers and legs, and have added things, too, like glass eyes and hooks for hands. I saw a bargeman with shiny red streaks on his bald head, and I heard someone say he’d been scalped by Apaches in the Mexican war. That is the other thing. There are Indians.
One more day until we reach Buffalo. An elderly woman in mourning holding by the neck a boy with a black eye boarded the boat this morning, and a young clergyman who looked to be drunk. I saw him again, leaning against the railing at the stern of the boat, and I bid him good morning. His collar was stained with mud, and he smelled of piss. There was something false about him, not that priests do not drink or need a bath now and then. He seemed very pleased to be addressed. He said he was on his way to Niagara Falls, where he’d been appointed rector at a Methodist church. As I edged my way past him, he said, “Say, you couldn’t loan me a buck, could you?” “No,” I said, and he put out his foot and tripped me.
Maddie wrote that when I reached Buffalo, I was to find my way to the Steamboat Authority, and that is what I did. I paid three dollars for a place in steerage and was given a soiled pallet, a wooden stool, and a bucket without a handle. The clerk did not ask me my name. No one asked me my name.
It will take three days to reach Chicago. I bought a bag of plums, some pork rind, ...
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