Monday, March 22, 2010
Based on the real life account of a 19th century bigamy case, The Wives of Henry Oades tells the story of a British accountant and his family in New Zealand. The family has relocated for Henry's temporary posting with a governmental job. Deciding that the cramped flat that they have been assigned is too small to house the family, Henry builds a cottage for his wife and children in the countryside. One morning while Henry is at work, a bloodthirsty group of Maori savages invades the house and takes Margaret and the children captive and burns their home. The Maori then march the family deep into the wilderness. They are held captive as slaves for six long years. When Henry discovers that his wife and children are missing, he presumes them dead and tortuously grieves his terrible loss. Henry decides to leave New Zealand for a fresh start and ends up in America where he is given a job as a dairyman. After some time, he meets and falls in love with Nancy, a beautiful pregnant widow, and begins his life anew. When his employer dies and leaves Henry the farm, the couple dreams of spending their quiet life together but are surprised one morning to discover Margaret Oades and her children on their doorstep. Mr. Oades' first family, having been released by the Maori, have made a grueling trip to return home to him, not knowing that he has a new family now. Henry, a kind and caring man, cannot stomach sending Margaret and his children away in poverty, so he decides to move them into the home he shares with Nancy and live his life as the husband and father to two separate families. This arrangement does not sit well with the local population, and soon Henry is imprisoned for bigamy. In this fast paced and riveting drama, Johanna Moran tells the unique story of Henry Oades and his two very different wives.
Imagine my surprise to discover that this book highlighted a culture that I have only recently become acquainted with, namely, the Maori population. This book dealt very differently with the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, but I found it very interesting to revisit this culture once again.
I really enjoyed this book for many reasons. One of the main reasons that this book was so engaging to me was because the writing style was very fluid and absorbing. There weren't a lot of wasted words and page space in this story and the intense and convivial quality of the writing made the grist of the plot seem to jump off the page. I also tend to enjoy stories that a have a good mix between plot elements and character elements, and this story fit that bill exactly. This was a story that had a wonderful human interest quality and one that didn't attempt to moralize Henry Oades' decisions. I fully understood his decision to not send Margaret away and felt that I might have made the same decision had I been in the same situation. The characters in this drama were all people that I could relate to and understand, which went a long way to further the believability of the story.
One of the most interesting things about this book was the relationship that Henry had with his wives. He did not remain romantically involved with both of them, instead choosing to focus his ardor on only one of the women. This brought a delicious tension to the narrative and made me feel very sorry for the woman who was not chosen to receive Henry's attention. The women at first reacted with anger and hurt at the situation, but as the story wound on, they manged to come to a sort of agreement between themselves and formed a close sister-like bond. Henry walked a fine line between the women, never making the outsider feel jealous, which put a lot of pressure on the favored wife. I found myself becoming very involved in the saga that the women faced and found myself liking both of them for very different reasons.
The reaction of the community to Henry's plight infuriated me. They never stopped harassing the women and children and found ways to make the blended family miserable, despite the fact that no one of either family did anything to enrage them. Henry and his wives were visited multiple times by the decency commission, and each time they forced their way into the home and tried to forcibly remove the women. They seemed to have no way of understanding the unusual situation and instead of trying to be enlightened and tolerant, chose to lambast and ostracize the Oades group. This went on time after time, and it was a constant source of heartache to both of the women and Mr. Oades.
The children of this blended family were also interesting to behold. The fact that they had two mothers only confused them initially. Once the situation in the house began to settle down, the children seemed to go on about their lives without much trouble. It was fascinating to see both of the women sharing the children and the responsibilities that they brought, and I marveled at the fact that neither woman was jealous with the fates of her own children. The only thing that seemed to mar the children's domestic tranquility was the interference from the outside community.
I would definitely recommend this book to other readers for a bevy of reasons. First of all the quality of the writing was not only outstanding, but captivating. The second reason for my recommendation is for the strange and compelling tale that it tells. I believe it would be very hard for a reader not to get caught up in the story of the two Mrs. Oades. Lastly, I think that this book has a lot to say about the society and lack of tolerance of the time that it attempts to capture. A very enjoyable and entertaining read. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.