"The Lost Wife" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
“It is the summer of 1855, and you are free,” Sarah, the narrator of “The Lost Wife,” states with relief, at the beginning of a searing historical fiction novel by Susanna Moore. At age 25, Sarah embarks on a tumultuous multi-state journey from Rhode Island, seeking a new start, and freedom from her abusive husband.
Moore’s account focuses on the true story of Sarah F. Wakefield and her spouse Dr. John L. Wakefield. A couple embroiled in the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota in which Sarah and her two children were abducted by Native American warriors.
The fictional Sarah leaves her husband and child, knowing her spouse will kill her if she stays. She makes plans to travel to Shakopee, Minnesota to meet her childhood friend Maddie who has assured her they’ll be able to find respectable jobs there. The plan fails dismally when Sarah arrives and learns Maddie has died of cholera. With little money to her name, Sarah who has “…never been more than five miles from the center of Providence” faces insurmountable challenges.
With no moorings to anchor her, Sarah makes ruinous choices that could have upended her had she been less cunning. But Sarah is a survivor and does what needs to be done. Not divulging she’s already married, Sarah weds Dr. Brinton, a gentleman, later discovering he’s addicted to laudanum, and has “…surprising fits of temper,” neither of which she knew on her wedding night.
Dr. Brinton eventually takes a job at the Indian Agency in Yellow Medicine, Minnesota, where he’s the sole physician, taking care of the Sioux from a nearby reservation. Over the years, the Sioux interact with the family in friendly ways, peacefully cohabiting, even joining Sarah, the doctor and their two young children for meals. But the camaraderie ends when the federal government makes promise that aren’t kept, and the Native American’s food rations dwindle causing them to starve.
With shocking brutality, they attack. In the bedlam Sarah, her son and daughter are separated from Dr. Brinton, and taken prisoner, forced to endure mistreatment, neglect, and daily warnings of torture and death as they watch other captives succumb to heinous acts.
“The Lost Wife” is a compact, interesting book told in a unique voice. Sarah relates her story, often grim and fraught with violence, in a journalist style, as if reporting the facts, devoid of feelings. She’s a fascinating character, marked by scars from the past that toughen her for the rigors she endures—mistreatment that might have brought others down.