In the days of President Lincoln, homesteading was an appealing prospect. The Homestead Act opened up the opportunity to any head of a household, who could claim 160 acres free of cost save a nominal fee, with the only requirements being to build a home without delay and make improvements to the land. In just five years, the government would give it to you free and clear, and in only 50, the opportunity would be gone. So it's interesting to think about the concept behind this novel, of a few brave women who set off toward wild Nebraska territory that none of them has ever seen, lured by the prospect of becoming independent landowners. They're serious about starting working farms without relying on matrimony to do it and have left everything behind for that dream.
The Ladies Emigration Society has been gathered by a devious man named Hamilton Drake, who has been spreading propaganda about free passage to the frontier for single females who are claiming land. Many are young and attractive, but they're being called "The Ladies Desperation Society" where they're headed. When the train car of women reaches Plum Grove, Nebraska, half refuse to go any further. Those who stay find that homesteading opportunities exist in many places, and here there are no bachelors lined up to harass and pick through them, nor to rob them of their dreams of doing something important themselves. The question then becomes: How will they survive now?
Those who stay in Plum Grove are Caroline, a beautiful, cultured Southern belle; Ruth and Jackson, wife and son of a deceased general; Hettie, a sickly woman with medical expertise; Zita and Ella, a mother-daughter pair who have pursued independence after Ella's failed relationship; Sally, a rugged girl who lacks refinement and delicacy; and Mavis, the most disagreeable member of the group. These women initially board in the immigrant house until they're ready to establish a home and here befriend Will and Martha Haywood, husband-wife managers of the immigrant house and the mercantile store. The couple has kindly welcomed them into the town and offered work and help in establishing a homestead. Before long, each woman has sorted out who will stay in town and who is dedicated to the dream of homesteading.
The ladies form a coalition where several settle together and share the responsibilities. In this way, they can manage a variety of livestock as well as many acres of crops. They've come up with a plan where four can legally gain their own land and then begin work building a communal sod house with the help of the community. Some of the helpful locals include bachelors Jeb Cooper, Lucas Gray and Matthew Ransom. In getting to know these men, the women seek to be seen as independent and tough-minded, yet friendly. In the process, however, some of them discover that they like a certain man a lot. They're newly reveling in their own independence and so are hesitant to admit it. But the bachelors too have their obstacles to overcome. With the strength of the attractions floating between them, it becomes a foregone conclusion that both sides will eventually have to give in.
SIXTEEN BRIDES has a large cast of characters, so introductions in the beginning seem a little overwhelming. But they take on their own personalities, and by the time they've claimed homesteads, you'll feel more attached to them and recognize independent roles in the story. Life on the prairie is interesting, and little details on this are sprinkled throughout the book. The romantic tension is excellent, and the highest dramatic point is reached when the prairie itself threatens both livelihoods and the lives of newly formed families. By that time, these courageous young women have made some lasting friendships and worked very hard. They learn firsthand about living through faith, not sight, and the point is made that all the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating a working homestead are a big part of what makes it so valuable to people.
This is moving fiction that will leave readers cheering for women's independence, touched to see the community come together, eager and breathless when the ladies are being wooed by the handsome locals, and finally relieved as each finds her own particular happiness in a place she never expected to look for it.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on April 1, 2010