Originally published: 11 June 2020
Author: Elizabeth Wetmore
Published by: 4th Estate
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Reading dates: 31 May – 4 June 2020
In the early hours of February 15th, 14 year old Gloria Ramírez escapes from a man who has spent the night raping and beating her. She manages to cross the desolate landscape full of dangers of its own and find refuge at the ranch house of Mary Rose Whitehead. When the man, Dale Strickland awakens and discovers Gloria has gone, he realises she must be in the only ranch house for miles around and arrives at Mary Rose’s house, demanding Gloria be sent out to him…that she is his girlfriend and they’d had a fight.
Despite having a young daughter and being heavily pregnant, Mary Rose stands her ground and refuses to let Dale enter, arming herself with a rifle that she is quite prepared to use if necessary. Luckily, the police arrive before he makes his move.
The repercussions of this day run deep for Mary Rose. Her husband is furious with her for getting involved, insisting she shouldn’t have opened the door. Mary Rose starts to fear for her family’s safety so moves into town but still continues to get threatening phone calls telling her she shouldn’t testify against Strickland. Even at a church meeting, the women are concerned about how Strickland’s mother is sleeping at night and that she must be so worried about her boy and all because of a misunderstanding. When Mary Rose assures them that it wasn’t a misunderstanding and that it was rape and she saw the state he left Gloria in, they say a man is innocent until proven guilty.
Another key character is Corinne Shepard, a retired teacher who has spent her whole life trying to fight for the girls of their town, to try and get them to aspire to more that getting pregnant at 17 and marrying the first man they meet. Her beloved husband has recently died and she is drinking herself into an early grave. A cantankerous old woman, we start to see a softer side to her as the story progresses. She is the sole support to Mary Rose in her belief that Strickland should pay for his crime.
This story has such a wonderful and memorable cast of female leads – all with distinct voices of their own, some who feature more than others. I initially thought the story was going to be more about the rape and the effects it had of the people of Odessa but it was more of a backdrop event that made little difference to most of the women’s lives.
As well as Gloria, Mary Anne and Corinne, we also hear from Debra Anne a ten year old girl whose mother has recently abandoned her, hoping to make a better life for them both. She spends a lot of time with Corinne (although she has little time for the girl) and generally just roams the neighbourhood while her dad is out at work. We also hear from Debra Anne’s mum and about her need to escape to make a better life for her and her daughter, Suzanne, the local Avon lady who cares very much about appearances but is essentially a pushy mum and Karla who works as a waitress and has her own run in with Strickland.
I read this as a buddy read with Kerrie over at I Loved Reading This and we had a couple of excellent discussions around the book. It is amazing to read a book with such a strong set of female leads but it also made me angry to see how these women were treated. How Gloria isn’t believed or supported because she is of Mexican descent (even though she was born in the USA}. How people believe Mary Rose should of turned away and not gotten involved.
Valentine is an amazing yet gritty debut from Elizbeth Wetmore. Highly recommended by me!
My thanks to 4th Estate Books for my gifted proof copy, which I picked up at the 4th Estate Live Event in November last year.
About the author:
Before devoting herself to writing, Elizabeth variously tended bar, taught English, drove a cab, edited psychology dissertations, and painted silos and cooling towers at a petrochemical plant. For a time, she lived in a one-room cabin in the woods outside of Flagstaff, Arizona while she worked as a classical music announcer. A native of West Texas, she is most at home in the desert, near the sea, or on the side of a mountain. She lives in Chicago, but she dreams of being bicoastal (Lake Michigan and Lake Travis).
She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council as well as a grant from the Barbara Deming Foundation. In addition, she was a Rona Jaffe Scholar in Fiction at Bread Loaf and a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. In the spring of 2015, she was one of six Writers in Residence at Hedgebrook.