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April 18, 2022

Two Excellent Novels Highlight Women in the Progressive Era

by Donna Huber

The early twentieth century in the United States was a period of great change both in terms of technology/industry as well as social issues. The period of the 1890s up through WWI has been coined the Progressive Era with prohibition, segregation, women's suffrage, urbanization, and immigration all being hot topics of the time. Against the backdrop of these issues at home, a war began to rage in Europe that the U.S. would eventually be drawn into. I recently read two excellent novels that highlight these social issues through strong and determined female characters.

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Scarlet Carnation by Laila Ibrahim

book cover of historical fiction novel Scarlet Carnation by Laila Ibrahim
April 2022; Lake Union; 978-1542020756
audio, ebook, print (319 pages); historical fiction

I first discovered Ibrahim when I read her book Paper Wife which poignantly told the story of Chinese immigrants. I was ready for an emotional story that brought to life pieces of history that I know very little about when I picked up her latest novel Scarlet Carnation. While I thought it would be more about WWI, I was not disappointed.

The book opens in May of 1915 in Oakland, California. All I know about this period of time really is that WWI is going on. And I know little of California history beyond the gold rush. Through some of my other reading over the last few years, I know that women's suffrage and prohibition are ramping up as hot-button topics. The war is mentioned at the beginning of the story but you can tell that it is more to set the time period rather than be a major focus. 

The story focuses on two women and their families:

May is a twenty-something white woman who lives with her mother and grandmother. She has never known her father. Like most twenty-somethings, she has her life planned out. The young man she's seeing is about to complete his Ph.D. and as soon as he secures a professorship at a nearby university or college, he will propose and her life won't be a struggle like her mother's. She's so certain of their relationship that she is eager to get Margaret Sanger's pamphlet on preventing pregnancy from her cousin. Unfortunately, those methods aren't foolproof and when she finds herself pregnant, John doesn't propose and practically shoves her out the door.

Naomi is a forty-something black woman with three children who works as a nurse at home for unwed mothers. Her husband Willie and oldest son work for the railroad and are gone a lot. She is active in the local chapter of the NAACP and dreams of owning her own home though her husband is fine renting their dilapidated, too small, home (of course, he is - he's not home much!). Oakland is a progressive city and there are no prohibitions (yet!) on where blacks can live and own property. Also, women don't need a husband's signature to purchase a home or secure a loan.

Interestingly, these two women are related. May's grandmother and Willie's mother were half-sisters. May's grandmother grew up on a plantation in Virginia and witnessed the ugly truths of slavery. In this case, that plantation owners often raped their slaves. The two women, though, were close and sometime after the Civil War the two families reunited in California. They refer to one another as aunts, uncles, and cousins and can count on each other as family does.

The issues of racial injustice, pregnancy out of wedlock, children with disabilities, public health, and the war are all raised within the pages of this book, the heart of this beautiful story is family and how two women forge their own path to happiness.

The social issues are very subtly woven into the story of these two women so it doesn't feel preachy but natural. Having grown up mostly in the south, I knew about Jim Crow laws but they have always been in the context of life in the south and I've never given much thought to what it was like in the rest of the U.S and definitely not the West Coast. So I definitely found those parts of the story informative. 

Scarlet Carnation is a heart-warming story that touches on issues we still struggle with today. Motherhood is a central theme in this book and it would be a wonderful book to share with mothers and daughters.

Buy Scarlet Carnation at Amazon
(Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read the ebook for FREE)

Little Souls by Sandra Dallas

book cover of historical fiction audiobook Little Souls by Sandra Dallas
April 2022; Macmillan Audio; 9781250837011
audio (8h), ebook, print (304 pages); historical fiction

Pandemic fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. When we started living through our own pandemic, I went looking for books featuring the 1918 flu epidemic. I didn't find a lot but the few I did read left me wanting more. When I spotted Little Souls, I knew I had to read it. I listened to the audiobook and it was just wonderful. 

I immediately loved the kind-hearted sisters Helen and Lutie. I would have loved to be friends with Lutie who works as an advertising artist for a department store but who really enjoys repurposing bits and bobs and scraps of fabrics into hats and scarves (two of my favorite articles of clothing). 

Little Souls is filled with tragedy but the strength displayed by the characters makes it an uplifting story in many ways. 

While this story is set during the final months of WWI, the focus is on the tragedy ravishing the homefront - the Spanish flu. The reader will see some parallels to our own recent response to a fast-spreading, deadly disease. But the flu is just the backdrop for the true story.

Lutie and Helen take in a young child whose family lived in the basement apartment and did their laundry. Dorothy's mother dies from the flu, no one knows where her father has gone and it would be better for everyone if he never shows up again.

The story subtly reveals the plight of women during this time. While Helen and Lutie are independent women, it is still expected they will marry. While the sisters plan to adopt Dorothy as their sister, they know that it is likely Helen and Gil will be her parents when they marry as Lutie's fiance is serving overseas.

Little Souls also has a bit of a mystery. Dorothy's father ran with a rough crowd. When one of his associates claims to be her uncle and kidnaps her when Lutie refuses to hand her over, his dark dealings, as well as the unsavory treatment of women and children, come to light. 

There are also some passing references to the conditions of orphanages during this time (they weren't good) and that should Dorothy be sent to one she would be turned out at the age of 14 to fend for herself.

The story is set in Denver and I enjoyed getting a look at this time period from a part of the country that I hadn't really considered before. 

I loved the audiobook. Carly Roberts does a great job as narrator. I didn't want to stop listening to the book and I was surprised by how fast the book went by. 

I found the ending to be a little too convenient, but then I thought that it probably was pretty accurate for the time period. I would love to see how life continues for the characters. We get a glimpse of their future with an epilogue, but it just made me want to know more about how they got to that point.

Buy Little Souls at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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