on 15 December 2006
I'm an Englishwoman and I didn't know a thing about the great fire that destroyed Chicago in 1871 - didn't know there had been a fire at all. This book is set just before, during and five years after that monumental event and the build-up to it, the description of the wooden buildings, factories, straw and hay and all the other dangers contributing to that tragedy is very well described.
Our heroine, Lucy Hathaway, is a crusading woman working for the rights of women in society. She's nothing special to look at and generally ignored by men which isn't a great problem to her. Until she meets Randolph Higgins - although he disagrees with her revolutionary opinions she finds him incredibly attractive.
The fire sweeps through Chicago and Lucy finds herself looking after an orphan girl as her world collapses in the wake of the fire - she was from a rich family but all their money is lost after the fire. But five years on as the proud mother to Maggie she meets up with Randolph Higgins, still mourning the death of his daughter in the fire and having suffered a difficult divorce. Randolph wants his daughter back - what should Lucy do?
I've read one other book by Susan Wiggs (The Charm School) and that, too, was excellently written. Wiggs excels at painting a picture of a different time with different social expectations. Unlike so many historical novels, her characters don't think with 21st century minds, even if they are forward-thinkers in their own times. The description of life after the fire was very well done, as was the contrast between the rich and the poor in Chicago. She approaches the different emotions that each of the characters have very well - they slowly learn to understand each other. The descriptions of the decisions that Randolph has to take in accommodating to his wife's rather strident feminist views which affect his job are well written. My one quibble is that their love blossoms surprisingly quickly within a very argumentative and difficult relationship, but it's still a very enjoyable book to read.