I received an Advance Reader’s Edition of this book. All opinions are my own.
In recent weeks, I’ve been reading the Little House series with Pearl and Rose at bedtime. We’re currently reading On the Banks of Plum Creek, the fourth in the series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. So it was hard not to compare Wilder’s iconic series with Hardinger’s new book. While they are very different books, they take place in midwest America in the early twentieth century. They describe farmers and pioneers, families living on the edge of survival in a new world. Both have young girls as their main characters and narrators. However, All the Forgivenesses is far, far darker and the voices are very different.
Bertie is the narrator here, the eldest daughter in a poor family where her father trades horses and drinks too much. When he gets into trouble the family leaves everything they know and moves states to try their hand at farming. Pregnancy after pregnancy has left her mother ill and depressed and Bertie steps up to care for her family, which often includes protecting them from their father. (No caring, fiddle-playing, hard-working Pa Ingalls here.) Yet when their mother dies, Bertie is left even more adrift, fully responsible for her younger siblings. Including her sister Dacia who resents and rebels against Bertie at every turn.
The characterization here is strong and Bertie is likeable but realistic. She’s practical and resourceful but far from perfect. She cares for her siblings but doesn’t know how to express this and her whole life seems to consist of barely getting by. Eventually, she agrees to her older brothers’ plan and divides up her brothers and sisters and decides to get married to take care of her younger sisters. Eventually, this brings her to the early oil fields of Kansas.
Bertie is our narrator and the story is told in her voice. Uneducated and grammatically incorrect. While this is no doubt accurate to the time and place and reflects how a girl like Bertie would speak, it took me a while to get used to and throughout the book I was periodically jarred by a turn of phrase or word usage. As well, some of the developments of the story felt unrealistic. When Bertie decides to get married she just… goes out and finds a husband. And not just a husband but a truly caring one that she loves and loves her. How often is it that easy?
All told however, this is an interesting and readable book and it shines a light on a key part of American history and culture. For a reader interested in this period of American history, All the Forgivenesses would be a worthwhile read.