History Mystery #12: Riddle of the Prairie Bride

Author: Kathryn Reiss

Illustrator: Paul Bachem

Publishing Year: 2001

Setting:  a frontier town near Fort Hayes, Kansas, spring 1878


Twelve-year-old Ida Kate Deming and her father are looking forward to meeting Caroline Fairchild, a widow from New England Mr. Deming has been corresponding with for several months. The two adults are going to marry. The train she's coming on seems to take forever. Ida Kate can hardly wait. Her mother died two and a half years ago after a lingering illness. Six months ago, Mr. Deming started looking for a new wife, and Mrs. Fairchild's letters paint a picture of a wonderful woman whose presence will be welcome in the lonely Deming house. Ida Kate is looking forward to having someone help with housework. It's been hard for her to do it on her own while her father works the farm, and it prevents her from going to school. Her friend Martha Rubenthal  is able to update her sometimes, and the teacher even came occasionally (until the teacher realized that Mr. Deming wasn't ready for romance again yet), but she can't quite keep up. Plus, Martha's stepmother is a mail-order bride too, and she's a wonderful woman. And Ida Kate will even get a new sibling, like Martha: Mrs. Fairchild has an baby boy!

Finally the train arrives. As the passengers file off, Ida Kate spies a woman with a baby. She looks nice enough, but she's not tall or red-headed like her letters said. The baby (who does have red hair) warms to the Demings right away, but the older people are a little stiff around each other. Mrs. Fairchild kindly introduces herself as Caroline to both Demings and her son as Hanky, an affectionate nickname for Henry (also Mr. Deming's first name). Still, Caroline seems to have forgotten some of the information the Demings have mentioned in letters. And when Hanky pats at Caroline's chest, clearly wanting to nurse (and obviously used to it, so likely not bottle-fed), Caroline gives him cow's milk. She doesn't seem to diaper that well, either. Odd. And another strange things: Caroline's letters mentioned an allergy to cats, so Ida Kate had put her favorite kitten out with the other barn cats. However, when the kitten slips inside and jumps on Caroline's lap, Caroline doesn't sneeze at all, and starts petting it. Ida Kate apologizes for letting the cat in but that just seems to confuse Caroline. Ida Kate asks about her allergy, and Caroline says that since the kitten doesn't seem to bother her, they should let it inside unless her allergy acts up. Still, despite the inconsistencies, Caroline is very nice and Hanky is very sweet. Ida Kate tries to put her nagging concerns out of her mind.

Over the next few days, the Demings get to know the Fairchilds. Everyone seems to like each other a lot, and Ida Kate is excited that her father is getting along well with Caroline. She thinks Caroline would be a wonderful stepmother, and Hanky is such a sweet little boy. But that nagging won't go away. Caroline doesn't act like the high society Southern belle her letters indicated, and once she even says she's from  South Carolina instead of North Carolina. And other details don't seem right: her late husband's name, and her father--a plantation owner--having been not only an admirer of Abraham Lincoln but an abolitionist. Her handwriting even looks vastly different.

Ida Kate confides her worries to Martha. Her best friend explains away some of them, like Caroline's not seeming to know Hanky well or nursing him being a result of him being in the 1878 version of daycare while she worked at her prior job in a factory. But Martha can't reconcile Caroline not knowing her late husband's name or her father's stance on slavery. Try as she might, neither can Ida Kate. Finally, Ida Kate can't ignore the mounting evidence any longer: the woman her father is courting is not Caroline Fairchild. And as she and Martha ponder the mystery, Ida Kate has a sickening thought: what if Hanky really is Caroline Fairchild's baby, but the real Caroline Fairchild is desperately searching for her baby...or worse, in a shallow grave, unable to look.

Determined to find out the truth, Ida Kate and Martha search through "Caroline's" things. They find a dagger hidden in her trunk. They also find a photo album. Most of the people in the pictures aren't recognizable, but there is one of two women next to each other, one "Caroline" and the other bearing a striking resemblance to how Mrs. Fairchild was described in the letters. There's an inscription on the back, in the same handwriting as the letters: "Lucy and Caroline, two working girls." And coiled inside a tin, a thick braid of red hair, just like one of the women in the photograph--the one who isn't in Kansas. Is the dagger related to the real Mrs. Fairchild missing her hair? Ida Kate finds more under the braid: the letters she and her father sent back east.

Despite this, Ida Kate finds herself still hoping there's some way it all makes sense, so that Hanky can stay--and "Caroline" too. And she can't ignore how kind "Caroline" has been. Surely she can't be a murderer. As the four huddle near the fire during a late blizzard (Ida Kate braved the snow to rescue "Caroline"), the truth comes out. Ida Kate sadly tells her father that the woman isn't really Caroline, and he says he's figured that out already. The woman fills in the details: she's Lucy Dotson, a farm girl from the North. She met and befriended Caroline Fairchild when they worked at the factory together. Caroline died there, not from murder, but in an explosion at the factory. Since Hanky was Caroline's only surviving family, Lucy took care of the baby, and sorted through Caroline's things, saving his father's dagger and his mother's beautiful hair. She read the letters from Ida Kate and her father (Caroline had shared the first one), and at first intended to write to them to explain what happened. But when she saw that there was a train ticket, she saw an opportunity to escape factory life and to give Hanky a better future. She told herself she'd explain everything when she arrived at the train station, but never found the right moment.

Now having confessed, Lucy prepares to leave. Mr. Deming stops her--Hanky and Ida Kate need two parents, and he needs a wife. One named Lucy. He proposes, and she accepts. Two weeks later, they wed, not without some gossip about the story. Ida Kate couldn't be happier. As she often does, she feels her mother's presence, and she knows her mother would also be pleased to see her husband and daughter happy. Ida Kate also feels that the real Caroline Fairchild is happy to see her son so well cared for.

A Peek into the Past

It might seem odd to agree to marry someone sight unseen, but in the nineteenth century marriage wasn't primarily about love. It was for companionship, security, and in some ways more of a business arrangement, although couples often grew to love each other as they learned about each other. Unmarried women had few options for employment, and they most often lived with their parents or unmarried siblings (for example, Mary Ingalls, the sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder, lived with her parents until their passing and then with her sister Grace--she was blind as well as single, very difficult in that time). Women who couldn't find work as seamstresses or teachers were pretty much limited to dangerous factories. Marriage was a far better option in most women's minds, and the frontier had sometimes up to ten times as many women as men. It was relatively easy for women to find a husband by answering newspaper ads and writing letters. And don't think it's just a thing of the past: one of my uncles met one of my aunt through a correspondence service--not really a mail-order bride since he traveled to meet her before they committed to marriage, but not far off. They've been happily married for over a decade now and their daughter, my second-youngest cousin, turned seven recently. I'm really glad my uncle met my aunt.


The King County Library System doesn't have any paper copies of this book. The only option is an audio book, which is read by Ruth Ann Phimister (she does a good job). It's four and a half hours long! The books only range from 130-170 pages. I know I'm a fast reader, but that seems like a long time for the book.

The audio book doesn't specify if there's a dedication.

This book takes place  about six years or so after the Laura Ingalls Wilder book about settling briefly on the Kansas frontier, Little House on the Prairie.

The book specifies that the late Mrs. Deming was sick for a long time, and generally in poor health (she bore two other children after Ida Kate, but neither the boy nor the girl lived longer than a few days). I'll bet that Ida Kate and her father were already mourning her before she died. A great-aunt of mine died from Alzheimer's a while back, and my great-uncle did a lot of his grieving before she died. She had given her blessing for him to find another woman to love before the illness took too much of her mind, and he has. I'm happy for him. He loved my great-aunt so much and cared for her so well. He deserves happiness.

Ida Kate and her father put an ad in the newspaper asking for a wife, and got some funny responses, like an elderly pair of sisters the age of Ida Kate's grandmother who suggest Mr. Deming pick one of them as a wife and the other will help out around the house--provided Mr. Deming build an aviary for their pet birds.

Mrs. Fairchild's late husband died from wounds suffered in the "War between the States" (i.e.; the Civil War). She's from North Carolina--which was a slave state. Mr. Deming fought for the Union in the Battle of Gettysburg.

At one point, Ida Kate sees a drool stain on Caroline's shoulder, from Hanky. I always try to have cloth diaper or something similar on my shoulder when I hold a baby. Especially with my younger daughter; she used to spit up so much that I had trouble believing she would gain any weight at all. It looked like she spit up everything she took in--but she went from a birth weight of 7 lb 3 oz to a one month weight of 10 lb 6 oz. Clearly no trouble with weight gain there!

Ida Kate temporarily gives up her room to Caroline and Hanky. Caroline will share the master bedroom after the wedding--so, no need to do a wedding in a week like Kristy's Big Day?

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