These days we quite often end up talking about the books one or other of us has been reading as dinner time conversation. The Wives of Henry Oades was a great opportunity for a bit of ethical and moral debate, as well as an exercise in trying to see past the obvious and look at the circumstances under which certain stories come into public circulation.
The story is about a family who move very suddenly to New Zealand when a job needs to be filled for the husbands firm.? From the first page it is obvious that it is a done deal, a huge upheaval for the English family and that although Henry’s wife Margaret doesn’t want to go, she does because she knows what is expected of her. The liner passage out to their new life is described in grim detail and their arrival makes me quail at the very thought of doing anything so daring! Once there, they settle in quickly and the scene is set for the rest of the novel.
Margaret and their four children are taken hostage by Maori tribes people as retribution for a public whipping perpetrated on one of their number. Henry searches desperately for them, heartbroken to have lost his family, is injured, goes half mad and finds himself unsupported in his need to continue the search by the people of the area, who all conclude the family are dead. Eventually he moves to America, too broken to continue living in New Zealand without his wife and children.
The focus of the book is what happens when Margaret and the surviving children* arrive in? America to find him remarried (I’m not giving anything away here, it tells you on the back of the book that this happens!) They are accused of bigamy, fornication, of being Mormons and living in sin. The truth of course, is far more complex; what exactly is Henry to do with his previous family, having moved on and remarried in good faith? Who is it more morally appropriate to throw out?
Interestingly, the book is based on a newspaper article which may not be based in truth; it is possible it was a story created to expose a loophole in American law which would allow bigamy. It certainly makes for thought provoking reading.
*I’d say the BabyLost index is high on this one; there is a miscarriage, a stillborn boy and a dead baby inside the first few chapters, it is all about loss and there is more birth and miscarriage later on in the book.