Knopf, May 2010, $26.95
Almost two decades ago in Missouri then eight year old Margaret Mayfield’s father committed suicide. Soon after her dad took his life; her brother dies in an accident and her other brother from measles. Their widowed mom informs her three daughters they must find a spouse.
In 1905, twenty-seven years old Margaret is still an unmarried spinster but she meets astronomer US Navy Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson and they soon marry. He takes his new wife to California where he works at an observatory. Her first shock about her husband is how he reacts to the death of his mom in the earthquake and three years later to their baby. Over the years as her resentment and ire grow, Margaret realizes her husband suffers from obsessive behavior until by 1942 she looks back in anguish that she subjugated her dreams for his and never received the slightest regard from her spouse while his sister becomes a polished reporter. Still she accepts her lot until he betrays a Japanese- American family that they have been friends of for years claiming they are spies with no supporting evidence and the Feds don’t need anything beyond his say so.
This is a subtle first half of the twentieth century epic that shows how far women have come in over a century. Margaret is superb as she holds the profound story line together yet by WWII regrets what she could have been while admiring her courageous sister-in-law, but she accepts her lot in life until her spouse betrays a neighbor. Jane Smiley writes a powerful yet low keyed brilliant saga of a woman’s role up until WWII when the Greatest Generation changes the dynamics.