Publisher description: Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there. When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Deeply injured by her mother’s deceptions, Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragette who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. Madelyn, though, wants to feel beautiful and loved, and she pins her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.
Reliance, Illinois appealed to me because it is set in a fictional small town in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi. The description on the back of the book made me laugh ("offers a large-hearted look at the stories animating a small town: gossip, murder, love and hate, lace making and drunken fist fights, sinners, saviors, and even an appearance by Mark Twain himself").
The book seems exhaustively researched. It exhausted me just reading all the details. There are many characters and I had some trouble keeping them straight. The narrative and the history are fine, but character development isn't one of the novel's strengths. The one part that didn't ring true to me was a section on the names of female private parts and a certain contraceptive device. While I'm sure there were women trying to spread the word about and the availability of contraception, it just seemed a little too forward to me.
If you enjoy historical fiction with a touch of humor and bigger than life colorful characters, you may enjoy Reliance, Illinois.
I read an advance reader copy of Reliance, Illinois. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library starting May 10.