Do you ever feel a sense of righteous indignation when a character in a story you are sympathetic towards is mistreated or comes up against a situation that is grossly unfair? I must admit that quite often I tend to get wrapped up in a character's life so immersed in a story I become. I know they aren't real even if the situations they find themselves in might mirror reality.
In this case I'm thinking of Beret Osmundsen in Fallen Women by Sandra Dallas. The story takes place in Denver, Colorado during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Typically to me 'Gilded Age' evokes stories by Edith Wharton set in monied New York or anywhere really, where High Society women wear elegant clothes, sit in well-appointed drawing rooms sipping tea from china cups so thin you can see through them as they gossip about their contemporaries. In this case, however, it's rough-hewn Denver we're talking about with muddy streets strewn with garbage, and omnibuses filled with workmen dressed in dirty clothes who don't give up their seats for a lady and then spit tobacco onto the floor without the least hesitation that it might soil a silk skirt. Setting aside, and Denver would have been pretty rough and tumble at the time, High Society would still have existed no matter how far west the drawing room happened to be.
The scene I'm thinking of, and one that comes near the end of the story--hence is so fresh in my mind, is when Beret arrives at the police station (without giving anything away) only to be accosted by a group of journalists. Keep in mind that the press at this time would have been quite sensational, 'muckrakers' is that what the worst of them would have been called? Without any sense of propriety that Beret is a lady of a good family, some wealth and quite dignified, they get in her face demanding answers to a crime only recently 'solved' of which she has some knowledge. They grasp her arms, they taunt her and no one comes to her rescue. At least not at first. And Beret is no empty-headed Society girl. What recourse does she have? And fitting to the time we're talking about, she simply tries to hold up her head and stare them down, but cannot or will not defend herself.
Beret is only lately come to Denver from her home in New York City. The daughter of Norwegian immigrants who began their own lives in the tenements but raised themselves out of poverty and then died far too young. Beret was left with a generous inheritance, an attractive but philandering husband and a much younger sister who she then raised. Beret is plain where her sister Lillie is beautiful. And she's serious and works in a mission in order to help those needy where Lillie is shrewd and a little wanton. Maybe not even a little. Wanton enough to cause a fracture between she and her sister so severe that she heads West to Denver where her aunt and uncle live.
Imagine only finding out that this younger sister has been murdered through the pages of one of those disreputable newspapers. And worse that this beautiful younger sister, for whom you feel responsible for--and feel as though you have let down--was found stabbed in a whorehouse. Lillie is one of those 'fallen women' (aka 'soiled dove') of the title and Denver would have been replete with them.
Too late to save her, but not too late to try and find out who killed her, Beret travels to Denver to try and discover what happened to her younger sister. Beret is no fool and is wise to the wicked ways of the world having met her share of the down-and-outs in her mission work, so her only thought is to take matters into her own hands. Plain though she may be, she is still a lady and knows how to comport herself as one, yet she has little patience for Society games. Her aunt and uncle move in the higher social circles of Denver's elite as they work towards getting him nominated to the Senate. It's tricky business. While they try and distance themselves from the dirty business of not just a niece who became a prostitute and then went and got herself murdered, Beret uses their social standing to finagle her way into the 'investigation' (such as it is).
Fallen Women is Sandra Dallas at her best, though I think she is always pretty good. One of those 'reliably good' writers I am so fond of. I went through a period (pre-blogging days) where I read all the books by her I could get my hands on, though it has been years since I picked up anything new. Dallas is a Denver native and often sets her stories in Colorado or at least in the Midwest, so she seemed the perfect choice for mood reading as I got ready for my own travels out 'West' (happily under far more propitious circumstances). The reader is always aware of the setting, but it is not in any way overpowering. And I love her books for that reason. I don't mind the bit of romance, of which this also has. I did figure out the mystery, but there is more to the story than just a twist at the end, if you know what I mean. I have a feeling I will always think of this book fondly since I was reading it when I had the perfect backdrop (literally) for it!
All in all this was a wonderfully satisfying read and it reminds me why I binged on her years ago. I had to scope out the books she has written in the interim and now have on my reading pile, Prayers for Sale, which is "a powerful novel about an unlikely friendship between two women and the secrets they've kept in order to survive life in a rugged Colorado mining town". In terms of setting it sounds like it is an even better fit for the places I saw and the views I had outside my window. I'm already looking forward to reading it.