Author: Mary Volmer
Publisher: Soho Press
Release Date: May 10, 2016
Reviewer: Jen Roman
In 1874, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch and her mother, Rebecca, arrive in Reliance, Illinois from rural Kentucky so that Rebecca can meet and marry the man she chose via the Matrimonial Times. Rebecca has not mentioned Madelyn to Mr. Dryfus, so when she meets him, she explains Madelyn as her orphaned sister. Rebecca is beautiful and hardworking, so Mr. Dryfus decides to marry her despite her deception, and she persuades Mr. Dryfus to take in Madelyn as well. Mr. Dryfus is the businessman he has claimed to be, but he does not make as much money as leads Rebecca to believe, and he leads a very frugal lifestyle. Additionally, he has several friends and family members living with him. Soon after Rebecca and Mr. Dryfus marry, Rebecca announces she is pregnant. Knowing she will soon be replaced by a baby, Madelyn accepts a job caring for the failing town founder under his daughter’s supervision. His daughter, the dynamic Miss Rose, is a feminist and an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage and contraception. In exchange for Madelyn caring for Mr. Werner, Miss Rose offers to educate Madelyn and to teach her social convention.
Without giving away too much of the story, I will say that there are a lot of plot twists and turns, most involving Madelyn learning secrets about her friends and neighbors. Some pertain to her own family, but most relate to the townsfolk and to Miss Rose’s family as well. She becomes an excellent secret keeper while still maintaining relationships with these people. Her own personal downfall is that she has fallen for William, a photographer who is haunted by his Civil War experience. He is one of just a handful of people who don’t judge Madelyn by her port wine birthmark running halfway down her body, and she mistakes his kindness for interest in her. Her close circle of acquaintances finds out about her feelings for William and uses them to their advantage.
This story is chock full of romance, adventure, murder, deception, mystery, and secrets. Living with Miss Rose gives Madelyn access to everyone’s state of affairs; somehow Madelyn has to keep them to herself. The characters are spirited and fascinating; Mark Twain even makes a few appearances along with his signature humorous quips. Volmer has clearly spent a lot of time developing the characters of the town, and it pays off for the reader. The large group of people takes time to get to know, but it is a pleasant reward when that happens. Each character is someone who could be found in a small struggling town, and everybody has a story to tell.
The plot is so much more than what has been mentioned above; something different and interesting happens throughout the development of the book to keep the reader’s interest piqued. I thoroughly enjoyed both the story and the ending, although it may not be the happy ending that some may expect. It is, however, satisfying and appropriate to the entire book.
Reliance, Illinois contains profanity and coarse language that may not be appropriate for younger readers. Topics such as murder, abortion, domestic assault, and sexual themes come up several times. These are not gratuitous; they definitely lend to the book’s credibility and help to develop the story, but may not be appropriate for all. Because of this, I recommend this book for mature readers.