March 10, 2010

First-Class Wives

{Glenn Close and Christopher Walken in the film version of Sarah, Plain and Tall}

To this day, one of my favorite books is Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (as well as its sequels, Skylark, Caleb's Story, and More Perfect Than the Moon). Jacob Whiting, a Kansas farmer and a widower with two children, places an advertisement in the paper for a "good, kind woman to share a life with a widower and his two children. To make a difference" Sarah Wheaton, a single woman living in Maine, answers the notice and travels to Kansas to see if she can make that difference. I always thought it was so romantic and courageous for Sarah to travel to a new land to marry a man she had never met.

Sarah's character is strong-willed, intelligent, independent - almost as though she didn't need to marry but wanted a change in her life so she chose to embark on this journey of her own accord. MacLachlan's writing is beautiful on the page in its honest simplicity. Across the series, a family forms and the bond between Sarah and Jacob is particularly compelling as is the relationship develops into an incredible love. Though it's a children's book, I highly recommend it to those who haven't read it. It's a reminder of simpler, sweeter times.

Though the book certainly conveys the struggles Sarah, Jacob, and his two children, Anna and Caleb (my favorite boy's name), have as they get to know each other, it really romanticizes the whole mail-order bride experience. I realized the other day how incredibly scary it must have been for a single woman to travel to a strange land to live with a man she has never met.

Mail-order brides have been glorified and parodied on the page and on the screen for decades. In The Harvey Girls (1946), Judy Garland's character arrives in Sandrock, New Mexico, to meet the "man of her dreams," with whom she found in a newspaper advertisement and began corresponding with letters. In the film, the "man of her dreams" actually turns out to be a dud, so she joins the Harvey Girls, a troupe of women who traveled out west to work for a chain of restaurants owned by the Fred Harvey Company in the late nineteenth century.

{Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls}

As much as I love both of these stories, they are romantic versions of a business that, while lucrative, can sometimes extremely scary (not to detract from these wonderful stories). In the 1800s and early 1900s, mail-order brides were often women who left highly developed areas to marry men in underdeveloped areas such as those pioneers forging a new life on the western frontier of the United States.

Today, the reverse is true. Women from underdeveloped countries are traveling to the developed world to marry established, successful men. In particular, mail-order bride companies from the Ukraine and Russia have seen a booming business exporting willing ladies to the West, including the United States and parts of Europe. While the majority of the mail-order brides enter legitimate, prosperous marriages, but there have been a number of human trafficking cases, instances of marital abuse, and situations where the women are brought to marry a man under false pretenses like Nika, who traveled to Canada from the Philippines to marry a man only to discover that she would be his fifth wife and would be beaten and severely abused.

{An ad against Filipina mail-order bride abuse}

In this case, Canada's marriage laws relating to immigrants are much less stringent and there is little regulation of these overseas marriage agencies. The US has a better record of regulation around mail-order bride abuses, but it still remains a questionable practice and means of relocation for women in underprivileged situations. But sometimes it may be a woman's only option. We think we have come so far with women's rights (although it has been only 90 years since we've earned the right to vote in the US, a fact that still shocks me). Then we realize that the majority of the world's women still suffer in cultures who have either removed their rights or limit them so much that they are forced to marry men who may do more harm to them than good.

Images found here, here, and here.


  1. That is so disturbing. I can't imagine not having the free will to marry who I choose/chose. It's so sad. I do remember loving 'Sarah, Plain and Tall' that bad?? XO

  2. Can I just say, your blog is so fascinating.

    I think you might like to read My Antonia by Willa Cather and watch the film Sweet Land...both related in some ways to this topic.

    Now I'm going to go click on your links and do some reading.

  3. We've come so far, yet we've so far to go. It's maddening.


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