Book talk: “The Wives of Henry Oades,” by Johanna Moran (TLC Book Tour)

Disclosures: I received an Advance Readers Copy (ARC) of this book for review from the publisher, via TLC Book Tours. The book is currently available in stores. *Purchasing links in this review go through my Amazon Associates account.

Wives of Henry Oades

The Wives of Henry Oades: A Novel
Johanna Moran
Ballantine Books (2010), Paperback (ISBN 034551095X / 9780345510952)
Fiction (historical), 384 pages

Opening Lines: “A common bat on the other side of the world elects to sink its rabid fangs, and one’s cozy existence is finished.  

“Margaret Oades knew her husband was up to something the moment he came through the door with a bottle of wine. It was late. The children had gone up hours ago. ‘What’s the occasion?’ she asked, laying out a plain supper of shirred eggs and lardy cakes.”

Book description: When Henry Oades accepts an accountancy post in New Zealand, his wife, Margaret, and their children follow him to exotic Wellington. But while Henry is an adventurer, Margaret is not. Their new home is rougher and more rustic than they expected—and a single night of tragedy shatters the family when the native Maori stage an uprising, kidnapping Margaret and her children.

For months, Henry scours the surrounding wilderness, until all hope is lost and his wife and children are presumed dead. Grief-stricken, he books passage to California. There he marries Nancy Foreland, a young widow with a new baby, and it seems they’ve both found happiness in the midst of their mourning—until Henry’s first wife and children show up, alive and having finally escaped captivity.

Narrated primarily by the two wives, and based on a real-life legal case, The Wives of Henry Oades is the story of what happens when Henry, Margaret, and Nancy face persecution for bigamy.

Comments: 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.

Rating: 3.5/5

Buy The Wives of Henry Oades at

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:
Monday, February 15th:  Luxury Reading
Wednesday, February 17th:  Book Club Classics!
Thursday, February 18th:  My Friend Amy
Friday, February 19th:  Beth Fish Reads
Monday, February 22nd:  Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, February 24th:  Savvy Verse and Wit
Thursday, February 25th:  It’s All About Books
Friday, February 26th:  Thoughts of an Evil Overlord
Monday, March 1st:  Rundpinne
Tuesday, March 2nd:  Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, March 3rd:  A High and Hidden Place
Thursday, March 4th:  The Literate Housewife Review
Monday, March 8th:  Bibliofreak
Tuesday, March 9th: A Lifetime of Books
Wednesday, March 10th:  Starting Fresh

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  1. I guess I'm more of a inner life sort of girl because I really struggled with how easy it all seemed for them. I mean, I enjoyed the read, but it didn't feel realistic enough for me.

  2. Amy – I think you make a good point; I generally prefer more insight into the characters' inner lives too. That's one reason I read fiction – it's the chance to get inside someone else's head!
    And I agree I would have liked more of that here, but at the same time, I think Moran's emphasis was on the drama of the story itself, and given that, her approach worked for me.

  3. I've been fascinated with this book ever since I read that it's based on a true story. I don't think I would adapt well to a "sister-wife" relationship, so that intrigues me too. Great review!

  4. Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I think that if it weren't fact-based, the premise would seem a bit far-fetched, but it's a fascinating story regardless. You should read it :-)!

  5. Jennifer from Literate Housewife ( commented via e-mail:

    I enjoyed the novel. It certainly held my interest throughout. Amy's issue with them getting along too well and yours about bodily functions are understandable. I think the women got along the best they could because neither of them had any other options.

    Jennifer – That's entirely true, especially given the times; neither woman really had another place to go, and apparently they did find a way to live with their peculiar situation.