Reviewed by JoAn Watson Martin
Ann Weisgarber grew up in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, and now lives in Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston and Galveston. Her fiction is marked by these settings and her familiarity with them is an important aspect of her work. A writer and an historian, she penned much of The Promise from the West End of Galveston Island, which becomes a setting for her novel. There she wrote at the Central Hotel near the train station that inspired a scene in the book. She wrote every day to maintain her rhythm and remained open to discoveries that her surroundings made possible.
The story involves a college-educated woman, Catherine, who is a professional pianist. She falls in love with her cousin’s husband, bringing scandal upon herself and causing her family as well as fashionable society to shun her. Her mother insists that she marry “someone.” She remembers a boy in Dayton, Ohio, who helped his father deliver coal to the houses in her neighborhood and who had stood under her window and admired her piano playing. That boy was named Oscar, and Catherine sets her sights on marrying him.
Catherine strikes up a correspondence with Oscar, hoping to keep her scandalous secrets from him. When he asks her to marry him, she takes the thousand mile train trip to Galveston Island as a condition of their union.
Oscar is in the dairy business at the west end of the island where the people depend on their physical strength to get by because they have no telephone, electricity, or schools. The year is 1900, and a devastating hurricane is about to make landfall.
Oscar has lost his wife and has a five-year-old son, Andre. Nan Ogden, Oscar’s housekeeper, has promised his late wife that she will care for Andre; she dutifully serves Oscar, hoping that he will turn to her in his loneliness. Oscar, however, seeks a wife with class—someone like Catherine.
Nan and Catherine become dual protagonists, each receiving alternate chapters as the plot unfolds regarding their lives together in Oscar’s house. According to Weisgarber, Catherine was the intended narrator, but Weisgarber decided that the narrative needed an insider’s point of view, the perspective of someone like Nan who was born and raised “down island.” (Weisgarber says that Nan’s voice was easier to write.) Although their backgrounds are different, Nan and Catherine see in each other characteristics they admire, but they have trouble living together on shared terms.
As for convenience, Oscar’s dairy farm isn’t comparable to Dayton. The location of the dairy farm becomes a character unto itself, as does the city of Galveston with its mansions, stately churches, opera house, and fine hotels. The contrast between these settings is so stark that it’s hard to imagine the two communities exist on the same island.
Weisgarber’s background and interest in history shape The Promise and lend it credibility that is often lacking in historical fiction. While writing the book, Weisgarber read several novels whose characters possessed distinctly Southern voices: Ellen Feldman’s Scottsboro, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Weisgarber believes that Southern literature should have a strong, distinctive voice and characters who carry the weight of their region’s history on their shoulders.
Asked what her advice is for beginning writers, she says, “Focus on crafting the best story you are capable of creating. Study the books you admire. Listen to feedback from a critique group and revise again and again. Write a story you believe in and believe in yourself.”
There you have it.
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