Johanna Moran's father brought home an abstract he found in a law journal about a man in the early 1900's who was tried three times for bigamy, and Moran has spun the details of the abstract into a fast-paced novel that's very hard to put down.
Really, The Wives of Henry Oades is a strange, heart-wrenching tale (though if there were laws and precedents, maybe it wasn't so very strange at the time) about a man whose family is kidnapped by the Maori of New Zealand and he's compelled to presume them dead, so he moves to San Francisco and slowly starts a new life--which eventually includes a new wife. Except that his family isn't dead, just captive, and when the escape, they come to find him.
You can imagine the circumstances of his being charged with bigamy. In Moran's telling, Henry is a dairy farmer and when his first wife and their children show up, the self-righteous Bible-thumpers in town take up arms. And though I know of zealots of the time who would have persisted in their persecution of Henry and his wives with the same fervor with which they preached temperance, after all was said and done with the story, I did feel that something was missing. Henry was too likeable.
When I explained the premise of the story and the not-one-but-three bigamy charges and ensuing harassment of and threats against the family, he said, "Who do you suppose he pissed off?" Which totally makes sense to me--it's hard to believe that kind of relentlessness being pitched against the kind soul Moran describes.
I really enjoyed this book, but in the end it feels a bit sugar-coated. Things just couldn't have been that simple, and I wouldn't have minded a more complex book that detailed more of the setting and gave perhaps a less rosy presentation of the characters.
Many thanks to HarperCollins for this ARC.