Abigail’s Exchange
by Kathryn Den Houter
Mission Point Press

"The Women’s Exchange was hailed as giving women the magic to turn tears into smiles and stones into bread."

Abigail is living a contented (though imperfect) life in Baltimore in the 1880s with her parents and sisters. She helps her father with his candy store and contends with a burgeoning independence that puts her at odds with her impending marriage to Avery, a strong-willed man prone to violent outbursts. Once married, she must make difficult decisions to maintain peace at home with her husband. When tragedy strikes, her financial life is left in ruin, and she turns to the Women's Exchange for support. Here, buoyed by enterprise and opportunity, she rediscovers her lost independence and regains her financial footing. The Women's Exchange, a philanthropic endeavor, has established a way for women to sell their sewing and embroidery and earn a living outside the home. Women who have so little autonomy apart from their fathers and husbands can support themselves through the organization when life takes unexpected turns. Abigail benefits from the second chance she finds through this community of women. With vivid historical detail, the post-Civil War era comes to life through Abigail's story.

A wonderfully written and detailed account of one woman's search for balance between domestic fulfillment and personal independence at a time when women had limited power to design their own lives, this novel features a vibrant heroine fully realized and with all the complexities that come with romantic longing and entrepreneurial aspirations. She weathers the storms of her life with resilience and thoughtful reflection. The result is a compelling portrait of a woman confronting the patriarchy with graceful resistance and subtle maneuvers. Emboldened by the Married Women's Property Act of 1860, Abigail deeply wants to maintain her financial independence, but she also longs for domestic bliss and contented peace with her husband. This conflict often rears its head as the story progresses, and tension builds inside the difficult marriage. Through Abigail's plight, the struggle to adapt and change during a time of social upheaval is explored.

The author has created a worthy character to represent women of the late 1800s as they lay the foundation for the women's movement to come with small victories designed to gain more freedom and independence. Abigail forges a path for herself that ultimately will open a way for other women to follow. Through Abigail's struggles, the author reveals how people's individual and seemingly ordinary life choices can be just as impactful on society as large-scale acts of rebellion and revolt. With care and delight, Den Houter captures a time and place as well as the life of an ordinary woman pushing past the limitations imposed on her by society.

The rich realism and historical detail make this a compelling story readers will savor. Den Houter includes interesting facts about Grover Cleveland's presidency, railroad expansion, and the candy-making industry, all of which contribute to an authentic rendering of Abigail's life and community. Above all, Den Houter shines a glorious light on the Women's Exchange which "was hailed as giving women the magic to turn tears into smiles and stones into bread." Historical fiction is at its best when writers open a portal to the past and invite readers to explore a new perspective and make connections that might reveal the universal truths of life. The author's book accomplishes this feat with strength and style.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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