by Pat Williamsen

The characters in Unmentionables carry many unmentionable secrets—illicit lovers, suspect genealogy, furtive ambitions. Like unseen the undergarments everyone wears, it seems everyone in town knows these secrets.

Set in the years 1917 and 1918 against the backdrop of a small mid-western town in the midst of Chautauqua season, Unmentionables follows a women’s rights activist, a newspaper editor, and his stepdaughter. From the stage, Marian Elliot Adams advocates for sensible dress reform to enable women to be active citizens: “Beneath every dainty shirtwaist and skirt lie layer upon layer of restrictive undergarments.”  Nearly twenty-five pounds, she points out to the slightly scandalized audience.

Deuce Garland is in the audience to write a glowing review for the next day’s newspaper, a “small-town daily with modest ambitions and a mission of boosterism.” Yet Deuce “yearned to rise above being . . . the mouthpiece for Emporia’s prominent and powerful.” His stepdaughter, Helen, longs for enlightenment from the wider world beyond Emporia. To her mind, the only positive thing about living in a small town “was her role in nudging Deuce toward making the Clariona real newspaper.”

Ironically, even when not a clad in the respectable weight of needless unmentionable, Marian’s “sensible” dress trips her up. She is injured and must forgo her treasured independence to linger in Emporia for rest and recuperation.  

In those few days, suppressed passions bubble to the surface and the protagonists take courage from one another. Mutual infatuation leads to bold actions. The journalist throws off the censure of boosterism and publishes accounts of a public health hazard.  Helen escapes to Chicago where she joins the suffrage movement. Their flights toward freedom are not without consequences which offer contrasts to their lives before the fall. Days later, Marian’s speech about sensible dress prompts not reform, but death and heartache.

The second part of the novel finds Marian in France fleeing the self-doubt that prompted her to join a sorority ambulance unit providing aid in villages near the front lines of World War I. Letters flow back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, providing small comforts in the midst of turmoil. Weary and forlorn, Marian makes it home, but she is marked by invisible wounds from living too close to danger.

This is a story about upsetting the status quo—freeing Marian, Deuce, and Helen to seek higher truths. Straining against the corsets of convention, these characters yearn for meaningful lives. The novel’s ending is formulaic—the guy gets the girl and justice is served—but its descriptions of race relations, suffrage struggles, investigative journalism, and women’s relief contributions during World War One make the story compelling. After so much tragedy, the heroines and heroes of Unmentionablesdeserve the limelight of happy endings.