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Reliance, Illinois

Cover of Reliance, Illinois

Reliance, Illinois

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"Reliance, Illinois has it all—mystery, politics, war; love, death, and art. Every page is a pleasure."
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves


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 and purveyor of black market birth control 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 has it all—mystery, politics, war; love, death, and art. Every page is a pleasure."
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves


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 and purveyor of black market birth control 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.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Chapter 1

    I was three months from thirteen when Mama and I stepped off the carriage in the Mississippi River town of Reliance. We carried between us one tattered carpetbag and a hatbox of balding crushed velvet filled with lace-making and sewing notions. And we carried a marriage proposal from a Mr. Lyman Dryfus.
    Two other passengers, a consumptive old farmer and a woman in a foreign looking dress, heaved their trunks and disappeared into the arms and wagons of loved ones. The coachman hissed low obscenities to his team; then he, too, continued up Grafton Road, leaving Mama and me alone together on the outskirts of a brick-and-mortar town that looked ready to tumble from the limestone bluffs above. A white haze veiled the sun. Farmland yawned westward while the river pressing south seemed to me the source and end of all the changing colors quilting the Illinois shore.
    "Read it to me again," Mama said. Upriver, a cannon boomed from a trolling steamer, all but its twin stacks, hidden by a thin, treelined island. "Madelyn."
    "Said wait by the river road. Don't see no other river. No other road."
    "Don't be smart." Mama coiled a strand of hair around one finger, sucked the split ends to a point; she gave her skirts and petticoats a shake as one would freshen long-shelved linen, and then we both became conscious of the figure hulking in the shade of a nearby oak. He was wide through the eyes, his chin studded with soft blond whiskers and angry red blemishes, and his long arms and legs had a dumb restless look about them. I slipped behind Mama, pulled my bonnet low.
    "Miss Rebecca Branch?" he asked.
    Beautiful women, like Mama, only pretend to be unconscious of the effect their looks have upon men. On the train to Alton, her practiced scowl warded off uninvited attention, and the smile she gave this man—no, boy, a great big boy, slumping into the light—strained Mama's neck and shoulders. We had been expecting a man with a steady business and dependable income, so his age and the frayed legs of his trousers were suspect.
    The cannon boomed. The boy, recovering himself, nodded toward the steam trail. "A girl's gone missing."
    "That's terrible," she said. The boy shrugged.
    "If she drowned, they're looking too far up current." He deliberated, craning his neck to see me. "Isn't there only meant to be one of you?"
    But Mama, stepping quickly forward, captured his full attention. "And you are Mr—?"
    The boy blushed. "It's Hanley. Just Hanley. Mr. Dryfus's devil. Work for him. But I'm joining to fight out west, soon as I'm old enough."
    "Hanley, then," she said and taking him by the sleeve, left me to mind the bags. "Take us to Mr. Dryfus."


    Even with her humble trousseau, Mama maintained the entire journey a desperate, hopeful pride, which earned at once the slackjawed admiration of men and the denigration of women—and made her even more a mystery to me than normal. In the days that must surely precede her wedding, she planned to stitch every scrap of lace she'd made about the collar and cuffs of her Sunday dress, in the hope that Mr. Dryfus would find her attire frugal, as opposed to poor. For in correspondence with Mr. Dryfus, Mama (that is to say I, because Mama never learned to read or write well) led him to believe she stood to inherit a respectable sum and a modest estate from an aged aunt, who, unfortunately for all involved, did not exist. Except for her hands—square, and callused as a man's—Mama could pass for twenty. But there was no benevolent aunt, no money, no land.
    And of course, I did not exist in the mind of Mr. Dryfus.
    ...
About the Author-
  • Mary Volmer was born in Grass Valley, California, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary's College (CA) and masters' degree from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where she was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and now teaches at Saint Mary's College. She is also the author of Crown of Dust. Reliance, Illinois is her second novel.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 21, 2016
    Volmer’s lively second historical novel (after Crown of Dust) tracks the coming-of-age of 12-year-old Madelyn Branch, who in 1874 moves with her young unwed mother, Rebecca, from Kentucky to the Mississippi River town of the title. Rebecca, the mail-order bride of a German printer, pretends that Maddy is her little sister. Maddy, feeling neglected, develops a crush on erratic photographer and veteran William, who, in an underdeveloped subplot, may be involved in the death of a servant girl. The novel picks up steam when Maddy is taken in by glamorous, narcissistic Miss Rose Werner, heir to the town’s richest family and an outspoken proponent of women’s rights. In Rose’s mansion, Maddy takes lessons with bloomer-clad novelist Mrs. French, nurses Rose’s invalid father, and makes friends with the kitchen staff and enemies with Violet, Rose’s protégé. Cameo appearances by Samuel Clemens and suffragette Mary Livermore help establish historical context. Volmer tempers a tendency to didacticism with touches of humor. Although the plot sometimes lurches and rushes to tie up its loose ends, the novel has smart touches of humor and is well grounded in its place and time. This novel will appeal to readers curious about the lives of women in the post–Civil War Midwest.

  • The New York Times Book Review "There are subliminal echoes of L. Frank Baum in Volmer's mythmaking . . . But Volmer keeps whimsy in check with a terse present-tense voice that invests her pioneers piquant inner lives and a poker-faced lyricism."
  • The Washington Times "Any illusions about the glamour of digging for gold are totally shattered by Mary Volmer's Crown of Dust, a grim and carefully researched book about the California gold rush . . . Volmer, in her remarkable first novel, has recreated the reality of an era that few can even visualize now."
  • Publishers Weekly, Starred Review "Volmer's distinctive, beautifully written debut is set in the California gold rush country in the mid-19th century . . . [Her] prose is taut and restrained, moving the story along at a healthy clip as her hardscrabble characters rumble and stumble through their dusty domain. Volmer's found a fat vein of gold in some heavily mined territory."
  • Kirkus Reviews "Volmer paints a moving portrait of outcasts and nonconformists who build their own community . . . Evocative historical background and thoughtful social observation make this a promising debut."
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Reliance, Illinois
Reliance, Illinois
Mary Volmer
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