The First Emma
By all accounts, Emma Koehler was an extraordinary woman. A prominent figure in the history of San Antonio, Texas, she was a German immigrant who ran the city’s Pearl Brewery, succeeding her late husband Otto in the role; she used her ingenuity to reinvent the business during Prohibition and keep it afloat during the Depression. It’s fair to say that she wouldn’t have attained such success if her personal life had been less traumatic. Following a traffic accident that left her a semi-invalid, Otto took her two German-born nurses – both also named Emma – as his mistresses, installing them in their own house, and one of them murdered him in 1914.
In Camille di Maio’s fifth novel, young Baltimore native Mabel Hartley is hired in 1943 to take down the elderly Emma Koehler’s memoirs. The two women’s interactions create an intriguing dynamic: while beer is Emma’s lifeblood, Mabel avoids alcohol after seeing how it destroyed her father’s life. Mabel is a realistic character for her time, but her storyline lacks conflict. Her developing romance with Emma’s nephew, Erik, is sweet but has few surprises, and his presence in her life feels too convenient. Emma’s story has more drama and bite – with the outline above, how could it not? Leaving her siblings behind to marry Otto at seventeen and move with him to San Antonio, Emma quickly discovers his workaholic nature. She also learns that to escape her loneliness, she must educate herself and meet Otto on his own ground: the brewery.
The lurid prologue depicting Otto’s murder feels somewhat misleading for the rest of the book, which isn’t a thriller. Comparatively few historical novels focus on successful businesswomen, however, and Emma Koehler is a deserving subject. Her position and attitude combine to create an admirable character that readers will root for.