In August 1917, the traveling Chautauqua assembly is filling tents all over the Midwest with programs designed to edify and entertain small-town audiences. Marian Elliott Adams, a handsome 30-ish spinster, lectures on the insalubrious effects of corsets on women’s freedom while wearing a free-flowing gown – which always raises a few eyebrows. Marian speaks her mind.
A sprained ankle delays Marian in Emporia, Illinois, where her candor has unforeseen results. Newspaper editor Deuce Garland, his restless teenage daughter, their gravely ill neighbor, and others are exposed to Marian’s progressive thinking, which each interprets to suit his or her own needs. When a misinterpretation precedes a tragedy, Marian is blamed. When she befriends a black man, Marian is censured. When she falls in love with Deuce, Marian leaves Emporia, deterred by the local insularity.
The scene changes drastically with the U.S. at war. Deuce begins a long-overdue fight against censorship in Emporia. Marian, a volunteer in war-torn France, loses some of her self-assurance but none of her courage. Their letters describe a maturing relationship – and a growing gulf. Is it possible for Marian to settle down in a place like Emporia? Here Loewenstein accomplishes what novelists seldom do: she keeps the reader guessing until the end.
The little town of Emporia is a microcosm of American towns struggling with 20th-century social changes, the outlines of which were visible in 1917. Unmentionables is a love story and a journey of self-discovery, less frivolous than the title might suggest. Recommended for readers interested in the World War I years.