4 out of 4 stars
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Historical fiction is a fickle beast. Typically, books have either very little plot but immerse a reader in an amazing piece of history or they're heavy in plot but don't give the setting as much love as they should. It's a rare book that pulls off both, and I was incredibly pleased that Patty Dickson Pieczka's Finding the Raven is one such book. The story takes place in 1904 St. Louis, Missouri during the World's Fair and it masterfully captures the wonder of the amazing inventions on display, the societies and customs of the era and particularly the way women were treated just over 100 years ago. At the same time, it weaves the stories of two very different women - Julia, who was raised in a theater troupe and Rose, member of the wealthy Hillman Cereal family.
The book has a fantastic hook from the very first sentence: "No one knew death hid in the rafters of the Garrick Theater." By the end of chapter one, Julia's father is murdered in a way that everyone assumes is simply a horrific accident. She's then soon told that her father was awful with money and her inheritance is nonexistent, but she knows in her heart it's not true. Left with only $10, she must now fend for herself. She finds Mrs. McKinney's Boarding House For Ladies, spending $3.50 for her first week, leaving her only 2 weeks at $3 each before she's left homeless if she doesn't find a job. Unfortunately, the job market for women wasn't quite what it is today; after being groped and belittled at her first two interviews she finds herself lucky to be working a sewing machine at a factory. As someone who has had a factory job, I really felt bad for her when she seemed so excited, but even my experience would've been like getting paid to sit on a beach compared to her experience.
Meanwhile, through an adorable accident, Rose finds herself falling in love with a lowly bank teller who thought she worked at an ice cream parlor. Months later, still unwed, she ends up pregnant. When she goes to tell her family, her father drives all the way from St. Paul, Minnesota and drops her at Mrs. McKinney's Boarding House For Ladies (where Julia is!) with her room and board paid for a year and gives $60 spending money. In a year, he says, he'll return and accept her back if she's single and without child or married to someone wealthy. The worst part, to Rose, is that she's so far away from the man she loves and worries she's lost him forever. Despite their differences, the two become fast friends.
The book does a fantastic job of following these women through their trials and tribulations. Julia comes to find out that her father was murdered and there's a deep, sinister plot behind it that she must unravel. At the same time, she finds a better job and a love of her own in the form of the adventurous Monroe. Rose, on the other hand, tries and tries to contact Eric (her love and father of her child) but gives up and answers a matrimonial ad in the paper. Herman seems nice enough, and even says he's a partner at a law firm (they just haven't gotten around to adding his name to the sign), but he's dull and has a painful laugh. The other characters are equally interesting, with a mix of folks to love and folks to love to hate.
As this is a period piece, one of the absolutely coolest things is the way the book covers life in 1904 St. Louis. Automobiles and telephones are new and uncommon, the waffle cone was accidentally invented. Things like getting a newspaper for only a penny from a corner newsboy, using candles for light instead of their scent, electric trolleys, civil war veterans and so much more exist here, and I was amazed at how interesting of a time period it actually was! At the same time, it was an awful time for women - suffragettes were fighting for the right to vote, jobs were separated into "men's jobs" and "women's jobs" even in the newspaper, women were belittled as unintelligent at every turn and untrusted over the word of a man.
This was one of those books where nothing at all could be happening, but the wonderful writing would've kept me sucked in all the same. Luckily this wasn't the case. Between unexpected plot twists, revelations in the case of Julia's father's murder, Rose's attempts to find Eric or being with Herman it felt like something happened every few pages. It's no exaggeration that I was fully immersed and kept wanting more from the minute I started reading the book. I didn't even find any grammatical errors, something that's far too rare.
In the end, I found myself failing to come up with any flaws for the book, making it easy to give it 4 out of 4 stars. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction, mystery, romance and even some magic should definitely give Finding the Raven a read.
Finding the Raven
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