In this touching historical novel, a long-distance couple works to keep their family together in the face of adversity.
In Gail S. Fraser’s historical novel Song for the Widowmaker, a Scottish emigrant to the US pursues mining work and nurtures a romance with a woman back home.
1895 is a rough year for William. He takes a string of short-lived jobs, with no more permanent prospects in sight. Then he receives a letter from his distant father, who’s been working in a mine in South Dakota. William makes plans to sail to the US and join his father. But just before he leaves, he meets Mary, a headstrong jute spinner with whom he spends his remaining time in Scotland. Their passion for each other is immediate.
When William finally arrives in South Dakota, he takes a shop position and awaits his father’s return. As the months pass, William learns that Mary is expecting his child. He races to save up money, hoping to provide a safe home for Mary and their child. Their relationship flourishes despite the distance that separates them.
In a story that’s full of trauma and obstacles, William and Mary’s romance has a centering force. Because she is Catholic and he is Protestant, their relationship is taboo, but they are both headstrong and determined to forge a life together regardless. The distance between them is a consistent source of tension: it sometimes takes weeks for their letters to arrive. And in Scotland, Mary begins to raise their child with minimal help from others, enduring sexism and repeated losses along the way.
The cast’s backgrounds are represented well in conversation, wherein accents are present and deployed in an authentic manner. Scottish turns of phrase and slang result in additional context. Instances of hesitation and pregnant pauses further enrich the dialogue, as when Mary says goodbye to her ailing sister, leaving much unsaid.
But the novel is slow to build to its final tragedy, using the presence of mining itself as a foreshadowing device, and following as William risks his life while working in the underground mines each day. William and Mary evade despair despite this tension, though. Instead of hardships, the novel focuses on their love for each other and their family, which keeps them strong, even through incidents that threaten to tear them apart. Their story is poignant as a result.
Song for the Widowmaker is a touching historical novel in which a young family, separated by an ocean, strives to stay together in the face of adversity.
John M. Murray
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