Thursday, May 9, 2024

Editorial Book Review: A Profitable Wife by Kat Christensen #HistoricalFiction #Pioneers #BookReview #TheCoffeePotBookClub

*Editorial Book Review*

A Profitable Wife

by Kat Christensen

Embark on a captivating journey with Kat Christensen’s novel—a narrative that breathes life into the pages of American history.

Set against the expansion of a nation, from the aftermath of the War of 1812 to the era preceding the Civil War, this story ushers you into a world teeming with romance, jealousy, murder, and the unyielding spirit of survival.

Meet Easter, a formidable young woman who carves her homestead from the 1830s American Northwest frontier. With the fires of Manifest Destiny as a backdrop, Easter’s tenacity and resilience are tested amidst a young nation’s political turmoil and societal upheavals.

This vivid tale transports you back to a time where the foundation stones of the modern United States were laid. Witness iconic historical figures such as Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Blackhawk, and many more, through Easter’s eyes—a testament to an era where politics, much like today, were intense and vehement.

As Easter navigates through the unrelenting trials of pioneer life, readers are pulled into a world of passion and peril. Easter’s journey from the Mohawk Valley to the American Northwest is one marked by love, betrayal, and the haunting echo of murder.

“All was quiet. It was likely the last time anyone there would see this place, at least for a very long time. The night before, as the moon rose above them, Elijah had danced alongside his new blood-brothers around a blazing bonfire. When everyone had exhausted their dancing, the Elders told ancient stories about how the world was formed and how the people came into being...”

A Profitable Wife is a fascinating, at times hard-hitting tale of early 19th-century pioneers who explored the west – leading a life of hard work, in often hostile territory, and experiencing unexpected events, both man-made and natural. These early settlers – men and women – had to be tough, used to tiring physical labour, and possess knowledge of how to defend themselves.

This novel follows the trails of several settlers who made their way west for a new life. The plot is fictional, but based on a real ancestor of the author. 

It also follows the political situation of the times, with powerful men of various backgrounds – army, exploration, investment – seeking the highest post in the land: the presidency. All the while, ordinary people were encouraged to follow the Manifest Destiny of the new United States, heading westward into unknown territory, to escape the depression and over-population of the eastern cities.

Esther 'Easter' Hackley was a young girl, when she began to stay with her Native mother at her uncle's house in the Mohawk Valley, New York. Philo Hackley had taken mother and child in after his brother's injuries had cost him his life. Easter grew up as part of a white Christian family, but she never forgot her native tongue her mother had secretly taught her.

As she grew into her teenage years, her sturdy frame and dark eyes hinted at her heritage, but her family was well respected. With a deep knowledge of maths and finance, she managed her uncle's store. Until Will Conklin, one of two brothers vying for her attention, asked her to marry him, and head west to found a homestead in Ohio with him.

Flattered, and in love, sixteen-year-old Easter sets out on the great adventure with her new husband. But not all is without challenge, and as their family grows steadily, they eventually relocate to Iowa, where they run a farm. Used to hard work, and highly intelligent, Easter runs the homestead with great efficiency, whilst Will and later their sons work the fields. She grows into a formidable farmer's wife, clever, reliable, and opinionated. 

Over the decades, Easter gives birth to fourteen children, losing only one girl as an infant. All other children grow into adulthood – and several end up living to a great age.

Years after their arrival in Otter Creek, Will becomes disillusioned with their growing brood, the monotonous but precarious life, and his bossy wife. Racked by insecurities and growing anger at Easter, their love turns sour. One day, things come to a head, and someone is killed.

What happened? Read the book!

A Profitable Wife is a riveting tale of the westward expansion during the 19th century, of personal happiness and tragedies, and of political upheaval. The author's personal family connection adds a highly personal touch.

Still a young nation, the political turbulences of the new United States are well portrayed by Ms Christensen. Her research into the different political movements, their main characters, their plans and their disagreements in particular, is impeccable. We read about Andrew Jackson, David Crockett, Henry Clay, John Tyler, and others, including on a more local level, and their personal ambitions, and those for their country, make for engrossing reading.

When Easter and Will travelled west first, they encountered a young Irishman, Thomas Wallace, who follows them on their trail. Thomas had fled Ireland following a run-in with the Peelers, and was forced to seek refuge in the new world. He becomes a good friend of the family, and later a husband to their daughter, Elizabeth Anna. His fate hints at the plight of many Irish (and Scottish) migrants of the time.

Easter's children are a respectful bunch, learning early on to obey their parents – and her in particular. They also have to work hard. 

I liked Mahala best. Caring, yet determined, we see her seek clever revenge when her brother Billy upsets her. Young Elijah is a sensitive boy, good friends with Natives, until they are rounded up and sent away to a distant reservation. He defies his father on a number of occasions, and his silent bravery is upsetting, but completely realistic.

Billy comes across as a bully. Basking in his father's approval, he learns to seek his own advantage early, and often makes decisions against his siblings, even in adulthood. His actions do not endear him to readers.

There is a plethora of major and minor characters in A Profitable Wife, many of whom we barely meet, but it's probably as well, as I had to look up some of them in the list of characters the author provided. This is useful as a reminder of this growing, entangled family and their connections.

However, this large group of characters makes a close narrative in parts of this novel difficult. Events are relayed, often without much of a hint of a character's emotion, which makes for somewhat detached reading. This writing style suits the portrayal of the political protagonists very well, as it fits with their views and actions. We rarely see a glimpse of conscience. This is in stark contrast to the closer, more intimate narrative surrounding Easter, and her children, in particular. And it is they whose emotions matter to us.

Ms Christensen has written a remarkable tale of personal bravery, hardship, happiness, adventure, and loss. She describes the harsh realities of the times, which gives us modern readers a deep glimpse at what really happened, and how events shaped those men and women who headed west to an unknown future. She also shows the dangers one encountered on the route to your new home, either by flatboat or across hostile land, with bandits eyeing up potential victims.

The author does also not shy away from mentioning the plight of the Natives, particularly in showing us part of Elijah's boyhood friendship with young Mingan Gray Wolf, which I found incredibly moving. On the other side, Ms Christensen shows the arrogant views of senior Iowa representatives of the new encampment for the Natives. The Manifest Destiny gave settlers the right to found new places out west, and the previous occupants of those vast territories were merely collateral damage. A humbling reminder of the dark side of the aggressive expansion.

The plot about a family setting up a homestead could have been dull and long-winded, but as the story straddles several decades, and includes different characters and their views, we witness the reality of life in the new territories. And Ms Christensen shows us in great, intimate detail how that reality could change people over time. Not always for the better...

Family is the overarching theme of this novel, and we experience all the various emotions that run through families – all-encompassing love, obedience, faith, devotion to each other and to their own duties, but also petty jealousy and outright vindictiveness. We experience it all with the Conklins.

A Profitable Wife is expertly researched (with Notes at the back of the novel citing the author's sources) and masterfully narrated. Easter, Thomas, and several of the children are such memorable characters, who have been brought vividly to life – and deservedly so – by Ms Christensen. I think Easter would be incredibly proud of her descendant.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Cathie Dunn
The Coffee Pot Book Club

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Kat Christensen

Kat Christensen is a historical fiction author who is passionate about good reads.

Rooted in a diverse heritage tracing back to the Revolutionary era, she is driven by a deep-seated curiosity to uncover remarkable stories of female ancestors that shape our modern identity. Kat honed her skillset in corporate information technology which she now passionately transforms into the art of architecting stories.

Residing in the Pacific Northwest, she can often be found on urban and rural hiking trails, and of course, in cozy coffee shops.

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  1. Congratulations, Kat, you must be so please. Your book sounds absolutely amazing.

    1. It's a fascinating story indeed. Thank you for stopping by, Maddie. :-)