It's the stuff of soap opera - someone presumed dead turns up years later, in a different location, and shakes up the life of the person they left behind. In the case of Henry Oades, though, it actually happened, and the true story provides the framework for Johanna Moran's first novel.
A job offer too good to turn down brings Henry and Margaret Oades and their children from England to New Zealand. The family has begun to grow comfortable in their new home when tragedy strikes - on a night when Henry is away, Margaret and the children are kidnapped from their home by Maori natives, and their house is burned down. The family is presumed dead, but Henry spends several years trying to find some trace of them. After losing his home, job, and savings in fruitless efforts, he finally comes to accept that they're gone and decides he has no reason to stay in New Zealand. He sets sail for America with no particular plan; a shipboard encounter points him toward Berkeley, California, where he becomes foreman of a small dairy that he eventually inherits from its elderly owner.
Henry encounters Nancy Foreland when her young husband is killed in a house fire. As they get to know one another, Henry realizes that marriage might be beneficial to them both, and Nancy accepts. While it is a marriage of convenience at first, for both parties - Nancy addresses him as "Mr. Oades," and still dreams of her first husband, Francis - they grow to have stronger feelings for each other.
Meanwhile, six years after the Maori abruptly took Margaret and her children, they just as abruptly let them go. They find their way back to their old home to discover Henry gone. Once Margaret learns where he is, she arranges travel to California for herself and the children, and one day they arrive at the dairy farm. Word quickly gets around about the who the new arrivals are, and the discovery of bigamy sets off an upheaval in town - not to mention its effects on Henry and his family.
The Wives of Henry Oades was a quick read for me, holding my attention from the beginning. I found it to be primarily plot-driven (which usually means faster reading) - and it's certainly quite a story. There are a few holes that bothered me, chiefly pertaining to Margaret and the children's captivity among the Maoris; I understand why there wasn't more detail about that six-year (!) period - it's really not crucial to Moran's focus in telling this story - but I was curious nonetheless.
The book has quite a bit going on between the lines, though; it raises questions that it doesn't address directly, but that would certainly fuel book-group discussion. I think the relationship that develops between Margaret and Nancy definitely warrants exploration; as they find themselves accidentally living in a polygamous household, they do come to relate to one another as "sister-wives" - almost too neatly, I thought. Still, the concept continues to fascinate me. We get to know the characters more via their situation and their actions than by glimpsing their inner lives, and we get to know the wives better than we do the husband they share, but Moran's approach did effectively evoke my sympathy for all of them.
Aside from a few too many graphic details about hygiene and bodily functions for my taste (and, as I mentioned, not enough of some other details I wanted to know more about), I found Moran's writing served her story well, and I was genuinely intrigued by the story she was telling. The Wives of Henry Oades is both a page-turner and a thought-provoker, and would be an excellent book-group selection.