REVIEW: Widow 1881 by Sara Dahmen

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Proper Boston widow Jane Weber moves to the Dakota Territories under layers of lies to save her reputation. Stirring up controversy, Jane rooms with the last Blackfoot Sioux in town while navigating a mercurial friendship with the fiercely independent town grocer.

In Flats Junction, though, everyone has an untold story. Battling her shortcomings, falsehoods, and swallowing her inherent curiosity, Jane must choose how she will truly reinvent herself, and where she belongs.

CW – There is a miscarriage described in detail. There is racial prejudice against Native Americans. 

Dear Ms. Dahmen,

I liked the idea of this book – an older woman, fighting against the rules of society, trying to find her way in life and discover her future. I’m torn about how I feel about it though. Jane is a complex character as are many of the others in the book. But Jane is also an unreliable narrator though I’m not sure she was intended to be one.

Jane Weber needs to get out of town and also escape her life. She’s always been inquisitive and interested in reading and discovering things – something often not wanted or appreciated in a woman. Life in the west, she hopes, will offer her more freedom. Her marriage was more one of convenience though she and her husband grew more fond of each other during the course of their marriage. After his death, Jane allowed herself to explore for a week and satisfy her curiosity which led to why she needs to leave town in order to maintain her reputation. The reason why is not hard to guess.

Her family are bewildered about her choice. She has a small amount of money and could live carefully on it if she chose so her announcement comes as a shock. But as she is a slightly older widow, they can hardly make her stay. Her claims of nursing experience are a slight exaggeration but Jane hopes that her skill at running a home and her time spent nursing her late husband before his death will make her employer willing to keep her on. She also hopes that life in the Dakota Territories won’t be too crude and backwards compared to what she’s used to in Boston.

Flats Junction is better than Jane hoped and though she works hard physically, she enjoys making friends, and her employer is kind. He likes to talk with her so much that he even helps wipe the dishes as she washes them. But there are things Jane doesn’t know or understand about some of the other people of the town and which they – initially – don’t know about her. Will this turn out to be a place where she can make her future or are there some things that can’t be overlooked?    

The bits of illustrations scattered throughout the book were unexpected but I enjoyed them a lot. We see the want ads Jane was perusing, looking for an escape from her situation, as well as the Western Union telegram her potential employer sent to a friend to discuss job requirements with her. Later some of Dr. Kinney’s medical notes and another telegram appear.     

This is a more gritty, low key, and quiet style of women’s fiction, romance and western. Jane has plenty of mice to kill in the larder (Ewww) . The small town of Flats Junction comes alive through Jane’s observations. It’s not always pretty in either looks or the townspeople’s actions but it seems more realistic than books that have the characters described as looking like something from a photo shoot.  It isn’t all that long ago that Custer’s last stand occurred and there is a lot of racial prejudice against Sioux from the white settlers. Yes, it’s hard to read but again, this seems more realistic of the actual times. 

Even Jane begins the story a bit afraid of her new landlady, the Widow Hawks, as the only things Jane knows about Natives are what she’s read and heard about back East. The friendship they develop, though, is lovely to see and is based on reality rather than either woman faking a friendship. Widow Hawks and another woman in town have a strange relationship that Jane doesn’t understand – until Jane learns a bit more about them. Kate’s actions and reactions are painful for Jane to see but are related to how Kate uneasily fits into the racial structure of the town.   

Jane’s past marriage colors her viewpoints about what she wants in a relationship and she vacillates – a lot. Sweet Lord – both Jane and Patrick needed to have their heads knocked together about love. Jane especially needed it spelled out in flaming 10 foot high letters. Both characters did need to discover their true feelings and tie up some loose ends in their thinking but it got frustrating when Jane urged Patrick – yet again! – to court another woman. When they were finally on the same page, I was happy for them but was also mentally muttering “finally!” 

For all the things that bothered me about the book, I did like seeing the Old West more as it probably was. The book, I’d say, is more historical fiction with a romance than romance. It’s not pretty, it’s not reimagined, but it did hold my interest and made me want to find out what would happen next and how things would end. There is a previous book in the series and I’m debating about going back to read it, too. B-  


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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