The Lost Wife by Susanna Moore review – frontier journeys

Based on a true story, this is a riveting account of one woman’s quest during the Dakota uprising, from the author of In the Cut

In June 1855, Sarah Butts flees her abusive home in Rhode Island to find her friend Maddie in the west. Her wrist is bandaged where her husband, Ank, has burned her with a soldering iron. His treatment of her is no secret. “Everyone in the street knows Ank likes to hurt me. Viola knows. My mother knew, although she never did anything to stop it.” She will travel to Boston and Albany, along the Erie Canal to Buffalo, on a lake steamer to Chicago and then by wagon to Galena, on the Mississippi River. Like so many other European Americans, Sarah hopes that when she arrives in Shakopee, in the Minnesota Territory, she will find not only Maddie but a new life.

Susanna Moore remains best known for her stylish thriller In the Cut, published in 1995. Three years ago she published a striking memoir, Miss Aluminum, revealing in restrained yet electric prose the hardships of a brutal childhood and a seemingly glamorous young womanhood (a successful model, she worked in Hollywood and hung out with Joan Didion and Audrey Hepburn). In that book she demonstrated how the self can split under the weight of trauma: that as suffering is endured, some part of the sufferer is able to observe the awful events as if from afar.

It is a quality that connects her memoir to this new novel, a clear-eyed and riveting account of one woman’s journey into a so-called land of opportunity. Her narrative is loosely based on Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity by Sarah Wakefield, who along with her two young children was abducted by Mdewakanton warriors during the Sioux uprising of 1862. That uprising culminated in the hanging of 38 Dakota – the largest mass execution in American history, authorised by President Lincoln himself.

Sarah is a powerful narrator, utterly devoid of self-pity, a woman who observes herself and others with ruthless honesty. Her dreadful backstory is recounted early on in the novel: at 15, along with her mother – no source of comfort – she was sent to Dexter Asylum for “the insane and indigent”. But, as Sarah says plainly: “We were already two months behind in rent, and the landlord was relieved to be quit of us.” It’s within the walls of the asylum that she meets Maddie, a true friend.

But she will not be reunited with Maddie; as soon as she arrives in Minnesota she discovers that her friend died of cholera just as she arrived, her body thrown over the side of the steamer on which she was travelling. The clerk who imparts the news is frank. “‘Long gone,’ he said, closing the book with a loud clap. ‘You won’t want the river to drop too low this summer.’” It is after Maddie’s death – when Sarah must realign whatever hopes she has in another direction – that the novel truly begins. She makes a marriage with a Yale-educated doctor, John Brinton, who attends to the nearby Sioux reservation and is addicted to laudanum.

So she slips into the life of Mrs Brinton, served by the Indigenous women of the territory whose way of life is being fatally disrupted by colonial conquest. Her close observation of these women and their ways, her ability to learn their language, will hold her in good stead when she is caught up in the violence that resulted when the US government broke promises it had made to the Sioux, promises it never intended to keep.

It is a complex business, as a non-Indigenous writer, to write of Indigenous lives. Moore keeps her focus sharply on Sarah’s experience: Sarah Brinton is not – as happens too often in historical fiction – a modern woman in 19th-century dress; she is firmly located in place and time, and her personality is shaped by her trials. Her relationship with Chaska – We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee – the Dakota man who protects her and her children, resists definition. As far as possible, Moore allows Sarah to speak for herself, while Moore understands the limitations of that perspective. But her protagonist knows what lies in store for the people of the plains: “For the Sioux, victory was never the point. It was their burning, unquenchable rage and the honour that revenge would bring them, their wrathful understanding that they would soon be driven from the prairie, that compelled them to kill,” Sarah says.

Sarah knows that despite her own suffering and the hardships she has known she cannot but be on the side of the brutal victors. In the novel’s apparently peaceful ending there is the violence of oppression, the oppression that shapes the US to this day. This compact narrative is a brief, harsh glimpse of the bloody past that stains the present.

• The Lost Wife by Susanna Moore is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Erica Wagner

The GuardianTramp

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