Mercer Girls, by Libbie Hawker

In the 1860s Seattle was starting a boom. Logging mills and fishing were growing industries, with the Puget Sound making a wonderful harbor. What the city lacked was women. A few married women had moved out with husbands. It was also a very profitable town for “night flowers”. With a population of 10 men for every woman, most of them prostitutes, they seldom lacked for customers.

In 1864 Asa Mercer headed to Lowell, Massachusetts, on a mission from the city of Seattle. He was to recruit women of good moral character to return to Seattle to become brides. While they courted they would be paid $75 per month as teachers. He chose Lowell because it was mostly a cotton mill town and it was being hit hard by the Civil War since southern cotton was no longer available. Mercer faced a great deal of suspicion regarding his motives and, finally was able to attract 11 women to go with him on this first trip.

Libbie Hawker was a resident of Seattle and heard about the story. She wrote this book using much of the history she’d learned. She did add three women, in part because descendents of the real Mercer girls still live in Seattle and are fairly touchy about how their ancestors are represented.

Hawker adds Josephine, a 32-year-old woman fleeing Lowell from something sinister that will haunt her throughout the book. Then there’s Dovey, the 16-year-old daughter of a now impoverished mill owner whose father is trying to marry her off to a well-to-do son of a local business owner. Finally there’s Sophronia, the daughter of Christian missionaries. Sophronia is beautiful but so strictly religious that she has sent away several suitors for the simple effrontery of kissing her on the cheek. She has a way of distancing nearly everyone she meets.

On their own funds they travel from New York City to Panama, across the isthmus by train, then on to San Francisco and Seattle.

It’s during the San Francisco stopover that we learn what Josephine is running from. It’s also where Dovey, as entrepreneurial as her father, begins to ponder the profitability of starting her own bawdy house and acting as madame.

They and the other women arrive in town and are immediately overwhelmed by lonely men and generally spurned by the married ladies of the town as potential strumpets.

There are lots of cute and romantic moments in the book, along with some terror when Josephine’s past catches up with her. There are even some feminist moments when Susan B. Anthony and a companion arrive to lobby the territorial legislature for women’s rights … also based on a historical moment.

The book is fast moving and, especially with ambitious Dovey, downright hilarious at times. If you’re a fan of happy endings this book certainly has one. For my tastes it nearly goes too far, turning into a “very special episode” level of sentimentality. But, considering how most books I’ve been reading end, that may be a welcome change of pace for a lot of readers.

Hawker closes the book with an interesting epilogue about the real history behind the book. It’s interesting enough that it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to read it before taking on the fiction. It certainly puts the hardships of the real Mercer Girls in perspective.