Drawing from a little-known time in American history, Mercer Girls is the riveting story of three women looking to escape their pasts and reinvent their lives by settling in Seattle in the 1860s. At this time, Seattle was still just being built up, but the population was predominantly male. Asa Mercer, a businessman, traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts, a town that had faced economic collapse due to the war, with the hope of bringing back eligible women to serve as wives and pioneers of the land.
The three women in the book, Josephine, Dovey, and Sophronia, are as different as can be, in economic status, age, temperament, and religious beliefs, but each has her own reasons for wanting to become a “Mercer Girl.” Leaving behind everything they know, they take a chance and travel to Seattle with a dozen other women.
Once they arrive in Seattle, they begin the arduous process of trying to shake off their pasts and forge new identities in an uncertain world. Jo is clearly running from something—or someone—as is Dovey, while Sophronia’s staunch religious and moral beliefs have prevented her from finding a husband. The Mercer girls also play a predominant role in Seattle’s suffragist movement, while Seattle’s history of prostitution is explored as well.
The author does a superb job in crafting authentic backstories and personalities for the women. The first part of the book, with the voyages across several bodies of water, reads like an adventure story. Hawker’s descriptions of Seattle in its frontier days are vivid, and the supporting characters are equally multidimensional. The book is ambitious in scope, but my interest never strayed. This is an engaging and enlightening story featuring strong women who each made valuable contributions to an emerging society. Highly recommended.