The podcast version of this review can be found here.
Bargain Bride by Evelyn Sibley Lampman is an exciting and fascinating story about a young bride in the Oregon Territory. What could have been a tragic or depressing story is instead charming, wholesome, and a little romantic. Elegantly written, it pleases the mind as well as the heart. And, because it is based on cultural events that were true, the story wrestles with some challenging topics but does so in a way that edifies the reader. This unique and lovely story feels a little like the books of Laura and Almonzo’s courting and early marriage from the Little House on the Prairie series.
“People used to say that she had Papa’s spunk, too, but Cousin Mattie had knocked that out of her.”
Ginny Claibourn was born in North Carolina. When she was ten years old, she and her parents joined a wagon train headed to Oregon Territory. Along the way, the family discovered cousins and joined up with them. When Ginny’s parents died of cholera at the Platte River, Cousin Beau and his wife Mattie took over the Claibourn wagon – Ginny, stock, furnishings, and all.
After the Platte River, Ginny’s folks had nothing but bad luck. By the time they reached Oregon, they had lost most of their goods to Indian attacks, and they could never find any money that Ginny’s parents may have been hiding. In the Oregon Territory, marriageable girls were scarce so, in order to pay for lodgings, Ginny’s cousins sold her to thirty-five-year-old Stephen Mayhew while she was still ten.
“They explained this to you, didn’t they, little lady? We may be married, but you’re still going to live with your folks till you’re fifteen. There won’t be no difference at all. It’s just because of the land. A married man can file a claim on six hundred and forty acres, but a single one, he only gets three hundred and twenty. Come fifteen, you’ll find I’ve made things nice and proper for you. You’ll have as good a house as I can build, maybe even planed lumber, not a cabin made of logs. I’ll treat you right, little lady.”
When the story opens, it is Ginny’s 15th birthday. And, it is the day on which she will leave her cousins’ home and move in with her husband, Stephen Mayhew.
On their wedding day, Stephen Mayhew promised Ginny that he would spend the next five years building her a home and a homestead that she would be proud of. Stephen Mayhew was not only a decent man but also a good one. He kept his word. Ginny left her cousins’ primitive log cabin with only one dress, her mother’s paisley shawl, and next to no possessions. When Ginny crossed the threshold of her new home, she noted that it was a beautiful two-room home with planed wood instead of logs, a brand new cast iron stove, a well-designed kitchen, a pantry full to the brim, and a neat and tidy farm with good stock and a bountiful harvest. Nervous and excited, Ginny began to believe that her luck was changing and that her cousins’ avarice may have actually turned out to her advantage. Minutes later, however, her husband staggered into the house from stabling the horses complaining of being unwell. Hours later, he died of a massive stroke.
Alone and terrified, Ginny was immediately taken into the loving care of a fantastic character, Aunt Lizzie Davis. As Stephen told Ginny on their drive home, Lizzie Davis was aunt to everyone. This lovely character reminds me of Montgomery’s Miss Stacy and Rachel Lynde rolled into one. She is an excellent blessing to Ginny and helps to put things right for the young widow. She, like any human, however, has her failings and prejudices.
Once Stephen Mayhew is buried and Ginny’s cousins return to their home, Ginny is faced with a long winter in her farmhouse entirely alone. Ginny’s nearest neighbor is a white man who had been married to a Molalla (Native American) woman, Nona. He rejected her, and their son, however, when he was ready to marry a white woman in a white church. Nona is hiding on Ginny’s property, unwilling to return to her tribe and admit that she was wrong to marry a white man. Nona and her baby son become Ginny’s housemates for the winter.
Aunt Lizzie instructs Ginny that even though she was hardly married, she should mourn a full year. Lizzie’s husband, Josiah, and her nephew Jeth, however, indicate that in Oregon Territory, six months is sufficient and that Ginny should anticipate that many bachelors in the area will come calling by spring. And they do. After a long and isolated winter, Ginny finds herself cooking for men every day as they work around her farm trying to earn her affection and goodwill. The pretty, young, rich widow Mayhew was a prize worth working for.
By the summer, Ginny has fallen in love and secured her future. It ends well, is wholesome throughout, and is a delightfully fun read.
There are some content considerations parents may wish to be aware of:
Bigotry Against Native Americans
“But they’re still Injuns. You can’t tell when they might take it in their heads to go on the warpath. You couldn’t make a servant out of a Injun, Ginny, not like you did with the coloreds back where you come from. It ain’t in their nature. And if you was to take one in your house, why the folks in this town would think there was something wrong with you. They’d call you a Injun-lover, and they wouldn’t have nothing to do with you. Just look at Jeb Hooker. He walks pigeon-toed, and he says he can’t help it, but even so, folks whisper that he’s likely got Injun blood somewhere back, because that’s the way the savages walk, with their feet turned in.”
On the wagon train out to Oregon Territory, Lizzie Davis saw her best friend killed by Indians in an all-too-common series of attacks. That incident, combined with local prejudice against Native Americans, has ingrained in Aunt Lizzie a distrust of Indians and a hatred for them. Her prejudice is more than mere commentary, as it causes Ginny to make some less-than-ideal decisions that have significant consequences. Ginny, however, is uncertain whether this attitude is warranted or appropriate. And, the author gives Ginny a friend who helps her resist this bigotry.
“I didn’t know you could speak her language,” said Ginny, when the conversation came to an end.“Where did you learn?” “Pa took up his claim on the Luckiamute,” Jeth told her. “He was one of the first ones out there, and there wasn’t anyone for me to play with but a couple of little Injun boys who lived in a shanty close by. I picked up jargon from them.”
“Didn’t your mother and father care that you were playing with them?” After the feelings of the townspeople this seemed hard to understand.
“Ma wasn’t too pleased,” he admitted grinning. “But Pa didn’t care. He said I had to have somebody close to my age. He didn’t want me to grow up to be a hermit. I don’t talk about it in front of Aunt Lizzie, but I’ve got some good friends who are Injuns.”
Despite her fear of Aunt Lizzie’s anger and rejection from other prejudiced townspeople, Ginny decides to keep Nona and her baby with her throughout the winter and spring. Lampman does a good job of helping us see that this was not an easy thing.
Nona is very much a Molalla. She speaks only broken English and has been rejected by a white man, therefore sees no point in trying to live as whites do. The cultural divide between Ginny and Nona is significant, and life together is uncomfortable and often disappointing. In the end, Nona calls Ginny, friend, but until Jeth was able to translate that for her, she had no inkling that Nona cared for her at all.
“You can’t figure Nona out, can you?” he asked curiously. “I was hoping you could. Maybe you never will, and it’s not your fault.”
Not only is Ginny hiding Nona from the suitors who come, but she is lying to Aunt Lizzie who has been so good to her. The feeling that she cannot trust Aunt Lizzie with the reality of her situation makes her feel isolated and profoundly lonely. But, Lampman gives us Jeth, who does know the truth, and who has a much healthier point of view, and this helps the reader to come to the right conclusions about what is at work in Aunt Lizzie’s heart, and how to best respond:
Ginny sighed helplessly. Aunt Lizzie was so good and kind, so quick to come to the aid of anyone who needed help. Why did she have to have this stubborn block about people of another race? No one would ever be able to change her mind either. Maybe her generation would always think that way. But Ginny resolved that her children, if she ever had any, would be different. She’d teach them to think more like Jeth, to realize that skin color had no bearing on what was inside a person.
As mentioned above, the custom of child brides in the West was common practice. In this book, it is all wholesome and sort of lovely. But, this was likely not the case for many or most. While none of that is alluded to in this book, parents may wish to discuss this topic with their younger readers.
Religion is a small feature of this story. Ginny attends Sunday services in town when the roads are passable. In North Carolina, Ginny was raised in a Christian home and attended a ladies’ school where she learned to read, write, cipher, and study the Bible. Out West, in the care of her cousins, religion was suppressed and considered nonsense. In her own home, Ginny wishes for a New Testament. And, at Christmas, Ginny works tirelessly to help Nona understand the Christ story. Nona, however, adheres to the Molalla god and doesn’t want Ginny’s Christ god. It is one small friction point between the housemates. When Nona’s white husband goes to the Molalla people and finds Nona a Molalla suitor (so that she will reintegrate with her tribe), Ginny will not let them leave her home until they are married by a Christian minister. This was a strange scene. If I were to have a book club on this book, it is one that I would want to try to unpack a little.
I read this story in one sitting on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I am handing this to my thirteen-year-old daughter with no reservations, and I hope to do a book club with it in the next year. It is a fairly unique storyline and, as you can see from above, has some substance to it that would benefit from hearty discussion. I am so glad that Purple House Press brought this lovely book back into print!
If you want to learn more about the details of this book, Biblioguides has done an excellent job with it, here. Also, if you would like to learn more about Evelyn Sibley Lampman, they have an author page for her, here.