In A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner, Clara Woods is a nurse on Ellis Island in September of 1911. She describes it as something of an in-between place. Immigrants who come in are kept on the island for a time if they have been exposed to any kind of contagious disease. Clara is in her own in-between place as well. Some months earlier she had worked in Manhattan and encountered a man named Edward every day on the elevator. Their relationship had never progressed beyond mutual attraction, but she felt certain they were going to know each other better. But she lost him in the Triangle Factory Shirtwaist Fire. She moved to Ellis Island to work and hasn’t set foot in Manhattan since. She does her work well and is friends with her roommate, but never goes out, never pursues other friendships, has no future plans.
One day she notices one of the incoming immigrants has a colorful scarf, a woman’s scarf, around his neck. She learns that he lost his wife to scarlet fever on the voyage to America. Since he has been exposed, he is detained, and he indeed comes down with the fever. Clara is drawn to him in their mutual grief, and in trying to help him, gets herself embroiled in a dilemma that causes a crisis of conscious.
In September 2001, that same marigold scarf is brought into the heirloom fabric shop where Taryn Michaels works. It has been passed down through the customer’s family, and she and her sister both like it and wanted to see if the print could be found to make another one. Taryn is delayed in meeting her husband by the customer, but that ends up saving her life, as the 9/11 attacks occur while she is on her way. Unfortunately, her husband was in the Towers and could not escape. So for ten years she has been in her own in-between place, until the tenth anniversary of 9/11 causes a resurgence of photos from the event, one of which shows her with the scarf, the beginning of a chain of events
The author goes back and forth between the two women’s timelines to unfold their stories, their similarities, the history of the scarf, and how the women get out of their in-between places.
I loved the historical aspect of this book. I hadn’t known much about Ellis Island and nothing about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Taryn’s experiences on the streets of NYC just after the 9/11 attacks were gripping.
The two women’s journeys toward moving on were compelling and empathetic as well, except it was a little hard to account for the depth of Clara’s grief given that she had known Edward for only two weeks and only on the surface at that. Of course, she was dealing with not just the loss of the relationship, but the potential as well. There is an interview with the author at the end of the book in which she says, “I really do believe that the capacity to love is what gives meaning to our lives, even though we are never more vulnerable than when we let down our guard and trust our hearts to others. The world isn’t perfect; nor are other people. It’s quite possible that loving flawed people in an equally flawed world is going to subject you to the worst kind of heartache. But I like to think that the heart is capable of surviving the costs of loving because it was meant to. The heart is made of muscle; we are meant to exercise it. This is what Taryn and Clara come to realize. It seems to me the best kind of takeaway I could hope for.”
A few of my favorite quotes:
The person who completes your life is not so much the person who shares all the years of your existence, but rather the person who made your life worth living, no matter how long or short a time you were given to spend with them.
It should always make us happy to say that loving someone and being loved by someone is worth whatever price paid.
Everything beautiful has a story it wants to tell. But not every story is beautiful.
If the book was meant to be Christian fiction, I found it a little lacking in that department: I didn’t find much distinctly Christian about it except that the characters wonder sometimes whether God is at work behind their circumstances. But if it was meant as a clean, historical, inspirational novel, then it was very good.
Genre: Historical inspirational fiction
Objectionable elements: A couple of “damns”; God’s name used carelessly a few times.
My rating: 8 out of 10