In her debut novel, Kelly O’Connor McNees imagined the life of Louisa May Alcott. It was “a compelling, heart-wrenching story about the difficult choices women face,” wrote reviewer Susan Schwartzman back in April 2010, and a “bittersweet, stirring debut.”
More than two years later, McNees is back with her second book, another historical novel about extraordinary women. Called In Need of a Good Wife, this book takes place in the American West of the 19th century and stars Clara Bixby, a woman who works as a broker of mail-order brides. (How’s that for an unusual profession?)
One of my favorite aspects of good historical fiction is that it drops us into situations and eras that seem very unusual to us today. Have you ever wondered why women from New York would have shipped off to Nebraska as mail-order brides? Here, McNees shares fives reasons why a woman would go down this path.
Five things mail-order brides hoped to find on the American frontier
by Kelly O’Connor McNees
Before match.com there was the Matrimonial News, where, for about a quarter, prospective brides could place an ad describing what they were looking for in a husband. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many young women had lost a sweetheart to the battlefield and others still waited for their first chance at love. For the starry-eyed, nothing was more romantic than the idea of a lovelorn man sending letters from the prairie. Of course, things didn’t always work out quite the way these young brides hoped.
Other brides were more practical. Women with few prospects for marriage in their own social circle had scant hope of financial security unless they found a way to make a match elsewhere. Many arranged marriages were little more than business compacts—a husband agreed to provide food and a place to live, and in exchange his wife would clean, cook, work the farm and give him children. Mr. and Mrs. aspired to be on friendly terms (there was the matter of producing those children, after all), but often love was a luxury neither of them could afford.
In 1867 the newly completed Union Pacific Railroad finally joined the east to the frontier and made rapid travel a real option for most Americans. Suddenly, places that had seemed impossibly far away were within a day’s journey. Women who had believed they had no choice but to spend the rest of their lives cooped up in the same old towns, trying to live up to the rigid standards of the day, found themselves with new prospects. They could escape and go west, in search of gold, in search of new vistas, in search of a new way of life.
These days people wear pajama pants to the grocery store, so it’s hard for us to imagine just how many rules governed the choices women made every day about their behavior and speech and dress in the well-established cities and towns of the east. But for women weary of these strictures, the frontier offered freedom. Homesteading required a great deal of back-breaking physical labor, and women worked right alongside men. They were dirty, calloused and sunburned, perhaps, but also free of stiff petticoats and corsets that kept them sitting uncomfortably on the edges of chairs back east. For those with the means to hire workers, the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed single women to claim land of their own, which meant they might not need a husband at all—a kind of freedom most women never dared to hope for.
Many of the men and women who traveled west to homestead hoped to leave the past behind and start again, or yet again. Failed businesses, blighted reputations, the unwanted destiny of a family name or a country or religion of origin—all of the disappointments of the past would stay there, in the past. These brave pioneers set out to write a new destiny for themselves, and for the nation, one hard-won page at a time.