Two women have built their lives and families around the same man and the reverberating loss of his son. A novel of great elegance and piercing emotional insight, The Half Wives tracks the course of a single, momentous day, when these women find themselves moving toward each other, standing at the edge of a century, a continent, and an inevitable reckoning.
Over the course of one momentous day, two women who have built their lives around the same man find themselves moving toward an inevitable reckoning.
Former Lutheran minister Henry Plageman is a master secret keeper and a man wracked by grief. He and his wife, Marilyn, tragically lost their young son, Jack, many years ago. But he now has another child—a daughter, eight-year-old Blue—with Lucy, the woman he fell in love with after his marriage collapsed.
The Half Wives follows these interconnected characters on May 22, 1897, the anniversary of Jack’s birth. Marilyn distracts herself with charity work at an orphanage. Henry needs to wrangle his way out of the police station, where he has spent the night for disorderly conduct. Lucy must rescue and rein in the intrepid Blue, who has fallen in a saltwater well. But before long, these four will all be drawn on this day to the same destination: to the city cemetery on the outskirts of San Francisco, to the grave that means so much to all of them. The collision of lives and secrets that follows will leave no one unaltered.
Preface—Blue? Where’d you run off to?
The wind carries Ma’s voice. She’s outside the pump station.
?— ?I’m in here.
My reply isn’t loud enough. Overhead, gray sky glares through the broken skylight.
I kick again, until I’m floating on my back. How deep does this cistern go? Deep enough. I’m half floating, half paddling, glad now for those wretched swimming lessons she made me take.
The water in this well is moving. It gurgles and foams. It tugs at my shoes and skirt and sailor jacket. A man’s voice reaches my ears:
?— ?Hear something again. Swear I do.
?— ?I’m here, I call again.
Ma’ll have to pay for that broken skylight. She’ll have to stop her work, march me home, tell me to change out of my wet clothes and put on something presentable, and that will make her late. If I cause her to fall behind whatever she’s trying to do today, whatever task she’s trying to accomplish, she’ll grow not angry but sad, which is the worser of the two.
?— ?This is a day to remember, Blue, she said while serving my oatmeal this morning. She set the bowl down so hard, the oats slopped.
?— ?It’s a day for the record books. Your mother is finally going to be brave.
Then she turned and wrung out the dishtowel, wrung it until it was drier than dry, until her hands reddened.
Saturday, May 22, 1897
Waking is not the most accurate way to describe your current state. You’re leaving your bed. That’s it. That’s a fairer phrasing. Leaving this mattress, this flea trap, after eight hours.
The last fellow to stay here left behind a maroon robe. You’re now wearing it. You’re not proud. You’re cold. You’re cold, and you feel old. The robe ties with a sash around the waist. You’re still wearing last night’s suit beneath it. The robe turns you into a velveteen sultan. You’re double-dressed now.
Stand; pace the cell; that’s right ?— ?get the blood flowing. That’s the trick. The robe is too short, and your legs are too long. The police dragged you here last night. You’re in the park lodge, otherwise known as the Golden Gate Park police station. They arrested you after the so-called mass meeting.
If by mass meeting they mean fifty people, all right, fair enough. But Hubbs did not achieve a higher head count than that. Neighborhood consensus be damned. That’s what they tried to claim ?— ?consensus.
Not one soul except the officers of the cemetery associations has lifted a voice against it.
That was Hubbs’s line, Hubbs the attorney, leader of the Richmond Property Owners Protective Association. He spoke last night to the assembly at Simon’s Hall. Over three hundred thousand citizens of San Francisco are in favor of the removal of the graveyards. And again, in the same speech, stroking his handlebar mustache: You can’t make money and be successful alongside of a graveyard. And again, in conclusion: What use could a dead man have for a view?
So it’s Henry Plageman against three hundred thousand, then. Henry Plageman presently being held in the police station. Your odds could be better. That’s nothing new. The neighbors don’t know what to do with you. The improvement associations have declined to let you serve on their boards. You’re the thorn in their flesh, the pebble in their shoe, the cliché they overuse. He’s against progress. He’s against property ownership.
?— ?I am a property owner, you reminded them.
When you took the stand at the front of Simon’s Hall, towering over the podium to say your two-minute piece, for a moment there, you felt on fire, suffused with that old sensation of arresting an audience. Then the members of the Point Lobos Improvement Club started whispering, and their wives started smirking. You lost your temper, banged your fist on the podium like an idiot, like a politician.
?— ?Have some respect for the dead, you said. ?— ?Of which I am not yet one.
Now you’re the sole occupant of this holding pen across from Golden Gate Park, this rat hole that shares a wall with the local sanatorium. A threadbare sheet covers your mattress. This police lodge serves the entire Richmond district, all of the Outside Lands. And it’s May 22, a day that comes but once a year and, when it comes, lasts as long as a year. Your timing couldn’t be worse. That’s nothing new either.
If your mind wanders toward the Cliff, toward the occupants of the black-and-white-tiled kitchen inside the cottage at Sutro Heights, pull on the reins and tell yourself: Stop.
Your watch has to be somewhere. It’s in your coat, the old Prince Albert slung over the chair next to your hat. Your head’s pounding. The policeman blessed you with his billy club last night. Your watch: nine o’clock. Christ. You slept later in this pen than you do in your own bed. You need to be long gone before this day takes over. Be ready, in place, prepared. Your small family has followed the drill for fourteen years, has perfected it. May 22. Marilyn’s day; your wife’s day. It will swing you from the rafters; it will wrap its limbs around your neck. This day will force you to carry it. You’ll do whatever it commands.
The police arrested a second man last night. He must be locked away in a backroom.
Thomas Kerr has to be close to seventy. Thomas Kerr, foreman of Odd Fellows’ Cemetery, arrested, like you, for disturbing the peace.
You don’t care for the cemetery foremen, not as a rule. But they’re your only allies left in this fight. They’re salesmen; they sell peace after death. They trade in burial plots, coffins short and long. They drive hearses, hire gravediggers, maintain grounds, chase vagrants off private property.
When you told them you couldn’t let the proposal to close the cemeteries reach the board of supervisors, when you declared you needed to kill the proposition before anyone called a vote, the foremen agreed to help.
The cemetery men want to protect the Big Four: Laurel Hill, Masonic, Odd Fellows’, and Calvary Cemeteries. All these reside within spitting distance of one another, blocking the Inner Richmond, with Odd Fellows’ touching the district boundary.
Your attention falls farther west. The city cemetery, also known as the Clement Street or Golden Gate Cemetery, contains the finest land in San Francisco, in all of California, if by finest one means wild terrain overlooking the Golden Gate strait, a windy
"[A] finely tuned novel about grief, interpersonal connections, and the long journey toward independence... The novel moves smoothly... between present-day events and people’s memories about their moments of happiness and heartache. Pelletier provides poignant insight into the odd dependent relationship between Lucy and Marilyn that directs their lives, even though they’ve never met, and Marilyn doesn’t know of Lucy’s existence."
—Reading the Past
"Pelletier sketches [her] characters in great detail to create a moving story of hope and loss."
"Pelletier’s writing is moving and enthralling and conveys the conflict at the heart of the book... [she] keeps readers hooked right up to the book’s satisfying conclusion."
"Pelletier's second novel unfolds a complex story in the span of 24 hours... [The author] expertly fills in the back story—introspection and memories mingle smoothly with the present... Well-crafted characters struggling alone with shared grief furnishes a coursing river on which this intriguing story effortlessly flows. Tough to put down."
"A a thought-provoking read."
—West Metro Mommy Reads
“The Half Wives is a profoundly hypnotic and mesmerizing work. The characters do not capture you as much as claim you, as the writing—languid, heartbreaking, and hopeful—pulls you deep into their world. The backdrop of Old San Francisco comes gloriously alive, as though the mist of the city itself rose from every page.”
—Kathy Hepinstall, author of Blue Asylum and others
“Stacia Pelletier’s The Half Wives is set in the past, but it is a story for any time: a poignant, sometimes heart-rending, beautifully crafted, always gripping tale of loss and love, and the human need to try to set things right. A great read.”
—Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd
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