I tend not to think of the 1950s as history. After all, I regularly spend many mental hours in the 1550s—or earlier—and I remember the second half of the 1950s, so how can it be the past, in the same way that Muscovite Russia is a time long gone? But as I read Sofia Grant’s new historical novel, Lies in White Dresses, I realized that indeed the world she portrays has ceased to exist, in the same way (if not perhaps to the same degree) as the court of Ivan the Terrible has ceased to be.
Most notable is the vast difference in our ideas of what must remain private, the shame associated with marriages that don’t work (and some of the reasons why at least one of those marriages doesn’t work) or with even such simple things as physical defects or mental imbalances. In a life before the Internet, never mind social media, views about sharing the details of one’s life were much stricter.
In some ways, that was a good thing. The endless scandals that bring down otherwise competent politicians and threaten the lives of princesses were less frequent then. But so were exposures of deeds that claimed real victims: spousal abuse, harassment at work. And women of talent and ability often felt compelled to follow the path of marriage and child-rearing, lest they face blame for their failure to get (or keep) a man. Even divorce carried a stigma, although by 1952 that had started to fade.
Sofia Grant and I explore these themes and more in our New Books Network interview. And don’t miss the Q&A I ran here on this blog when she published her first historical novel, The Dress in the Window.
As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Francie Meeker and her best friend, Vi Carothers, bought into the promise offered to middle-class, especially white, women in the mid-twentieth-century United States: find a man with a good career, marry young, stay at home, raise the children, keep house, and all will be well.
By 1952, despite some successes, reality has killed this dream. So at the beginning of Lies in White Dresses (William Morrow, 2019)—the sparkling new novel by Sofia Grant, who is also the author of The Dress in the Window and The Daisy Children—Francie and Vi are boarding a train to Reno, Nevada. There, after six weeks residency, they can file for divorce.
On the train they meet a young woman, June Samples, traveling with a small child. Unlike Francie and Vi, June has almost no means of support. Vi takes a liking to the younger woman and, when they reach Reno, she invites June to share her hotel suite.
The first night, a babysitting job brings the threesome to the attention of Virgie, the hotel keeper’s daughter and a self-styled detective. Then, not long after their arrival, the local police report that Vi has drowned. Virgie is convinced she knows what happened. But who will believe a twelve-year-old girl?
Compared to medieval Europe or Han Dynasty China, the 1940s and 1950s do not seem so long ago. But as Sofia Grant makes clear in this page-turning novel, in many respects the previous century was indeed a different world.
And on another note, if you missed my previous interview with Linnea Hartsuyker about her Viking saga, you can find more information about that and a link to the interview on the Literary Hub.