The Promise by Ann Weisgarber, book review: 'A heartbreaking historical tale from the eye of the storm'


Click to follow

On Saturday 8 September 1900, Galveston, Texas, the island city in the Gulf of Mexico, then one of the largest ports in America, was devastated by a hurricane. It was the worst US natural disaster of the 20th century, with a death toll of 8,000 people. Present-day Galveston resident and Orange Prize longlistee Ann Weisgarber's novel comes to a head in the eye of this storm, the emotional battles between the members of one Galveston Island family played out against the backdrop of howling wind and rain, and the steady rush of flood water.

Catherine Wainwright, an educated, independent concert pianist of cultured tastes, finds herself ostracised by the residents of fashionable Dayton, Ohio, after her ill-judged affair with a married man comes to light. Salvation presents itself in the form of Oscar Williams, a dairy farmer in Galveston who has held a candle for Catherine ever since he listened to her playing piano while he delivered coal to her family's house as a boy. Recently widowed, and with his five-year-old son Andre to raise, Oscar asks Catherine to marry him, and, with no other option available, Catherine reluctantly accepts.

She arrives on the island, little more than "a narrow bar of dirt and sand, water on all sides", ill-prepared for the primitive life that awaits her – unable to cook or clean, she's equally out of her depth looking after Andre. Thank goodness for Oscar's housekeeper, Nan Ogden, a loyal and devoted friend of his dear departed wife, who made a promise to the dying woman that she'd look after her young son come what may.

But Catherine's arrival unsettles the entire household, no one more so than Nan, bitter that her position in the Williams's home is usurped by this "oddity" of an outsider, and jealous of Oscar's loving admiration for his new wife with her "city ways", "fine clothes" and "high-handed manners", a woman "so different" from plain, dependable Nan.

The narration is split between Catherine and Nan, Weisgarber doing an admirable job in distinguishing between the two, the voice of each ringing out clearly. So, too, her description of the storm itself is wonderfully atmospheric, the fear of her protagonists mounting minute by minute, the tension as thick as the heavy Texan summer air. Combine this with heartbreaking historical details, such as an entire orphanage swept away by the sea, and you have the perfect ingredients for vintage historical fiction.