Susannah Underhill has always been painfully shy and socially inept. She considers herself plain. She grew up in Detroit, the only child of a veterinary surgeon, in a household devoid of displays of affection or recognition of emotions. Susannah devoted herself to caring for her mother during her final illness and with both of her parents deceased, Susannah was taken in by her pastor and his wife.
The pastor’s older brother, Jesse, is a Dakota Territory homesteader with a desire to marry and start a family. The pastor and his wife believe Susannah will be a good match for Jesse. With no other prospects, Susannah reluctantly agrees to become a mail-order bride after corresponding for a period of time with Jesse. After she and Jesse are married by proxy, she boards a train in Detroit bound for her new home on the prairie.
Susannah is not prepared for any aspect of her new life and circumstances. In 1873, Dakota Territory was vast and unsettled, the winters brutally cold and the summers scorchingly hot. When Jesse meets her at the train depot, she is unsure of herself around him and, worse, completely shocked by the seemingly endless expanse of the flat prairie. Jesse’s sod hut is but one room, and seems dark, damp, and confining. Susannah is certain that she has made a terrible mistake by agreeing to the marriage, but with no suitors back home in Detroit and no dowry to offer another man, she determines to honor the vow she made to Jesse.
Having grown up in a family of ten children, Jesse is demonstrative, loving, and incredibly patient with his new bride. He is determined to turn his homestead into a successful working farm and live up to his promise to care for Susannah and keep her safe. Jesse is a Civil War veteran, however, suffering from periodic flashbacks that frighten Susannah; she is battling a few demons of her own.
Together they set about creating a home and family on the prairie. But will they survive the harsh winters and other challenges that come their way? Will they learn to trust and truly love each other?
When first offered the opportunity to read and review Catherine Richmond’s debut novel, I was delighted because I am a second-generation American. My great-grandparents emigrated to the Unites States from Norway and homesteaded in Dakota, initially living in a sod hut and later building the modest two-story house in which my mother grew up on the farm near Britton. So the subject matter of Spring for Susannah immediately intrigued me. And to my delight, Richmond included three important characters in the story, Norwegian immigrants Ivar and Marta Vold, and their little daughter Sara. She even mentioned lefse, Norwegian flat bread! Plainly, Richmond is an author after my heart. I shouldn’t have been surprised since Richmond is a Nebraska resident whose thorough research into her topic is evident on virtually every page of the book.
Poor Susannah has absolutely no idea what to expect when she leaves Detroit. She is unprepared for marriage, especially to a man with a big heart and eagerness to be her partner in every sense of the word. While she believes that her place is simply to defer to her husband, letting him make the decisions and give her directions, Jesse wants her to talk to him about her life, feelings, opinions, and dreams. Jesse has survived a couple of brutally long prairie winters with only his dog, Jake, to keep him company. He craves companionship and affection, while Susannah was taught to subvert her own feelings and desires. Her mother told her it was impolite for a woman to talk about herself. Jesse’s patience is tested, but he is tenaciously determined to cherish and care for the woman he believes is a flesh-and-blood answer to his prayers. Susannah recognizes that she is developing genuine feelings of affection and desire for Jesse. Will they or won’t they fall in love and turn their marriage by proxy into a real union? Readers will keep turning the pages in an effort to find out.
Dakota Territory has many unwelcome surprises for Susannah, and she must learn — often, the hard way — how to live miles from the nearest other homesteaders in rudimentary conditions, only venturing to the nearest actual town for supplies a couple of times per year. The isolation, drastic weather conditions, and constant effort to merely survive threaten to send Susannah back to Detroit on the next available train, but she is equally stubborn and wants to honor her commitment to Jesse and the marriage. Richmond’s descriptions of the couple’s trials are authentic and appropriately harrowing. When she heartbreakingly miscarries their first child, nearly bleeding to death, both she and Jesse are devastated, but in the aftermath of that tragedy, Susannah’s devotion to Jesse grows deeper when she realizes that he literally saved her life and cared for her for weeks while she recuperated.
Richmond injects humor and a sense of joy into an otherwise serious tale. Susannah learns to be playful with Jesse by watching Ivar and Marta’s ease with each other. Never having been teased before, she eventually learns to take Jesse’s loving banter in stride, and even give back a little. Susannah also grows in confidence and self-assurance as she finds strength she never knew she possessed. She learned much assisting her veterinarian father and her skills are invaluable. With Jesse’s encouragement, she gradually realizes her own self-worth and resilience.
Spring for Susannah is engrossing and exciting. Richmond’s writing style is crisp and her pacing perfection, her descriptions of the prairie so vivid that you will practically feel the winter ripping across the Prairie and smell the bacon frying in the pan in Susannah and Jesse’s little sod home. Susannah and Jesse are likable and endearing — readers will want them to have a happily-ever-after. In all, Spring for Susannah is an impressive first novel that will give Richmond’s readers a new appreciation of what our ancestors endured as they struggled to establish homes and communities in the vast expanse that would one day become North and South Dakota.