It’s hard to imagine such a tale as Lewis pens in A Young Wife, a novel inspired by the author’s grandmother’s diaries as an immigrant and the eventual desertion of the man who fathered her four children and whom she loved devotedly until his death. Viewed from this perspective, Minke van Aisma’s tale is both tragic and inspiring, if often frustrating, “scant on details but rich in intrigue.”
Only fifteen in 1912, Minke impulsively agrees to accompany an older gentleman, Sander DeVries, who hires her with her parents’ permission to tend his dying wife in Amsterdam. After the wife’s death, Sander proposes and the couple emigrate to Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, there to establish his business.
The worldly, more sophisticated Sander is an importer of morphine, forced to leave Amsterdam when laws are passed that prohibit its manufacture and sale; Argentina promises a more lucrative environment. Minke has no head for business, with a baby son and another on the way. Then her son is kidnapped, and the distraught Minke has no choice but to follow her husband to America after the birth of her second child and as the world edges closer to war. Immature and socially awkward, Minke can be forgiven for her naiveté, her dependence upon her husband’s guidance. While it is soon clear to the reader that Sander is a cad, his young wife has no inkling that this man has only his best interests at heart: “He was a man who never passed up an opportunity.”
The coast of Argentina is wild, untamed, oil plentiful and unregulated, world powers awakening to the immense value of such natural resources. While opportunists of very stripe, including Sander, gather in this remote coastline village, the newlywed Minke is fifteen, pregnant and impressionable, easily influenced by the those in her husband’s inner circle. Unlike Sander and his associates, however, Minke falls instinctively in love with the native people - especially the colorful gauchos, who gallop along the beaches in livery of red and silver on magnificent horses. Her affection is reciprocated, but not encouraged by her jealous spouse.
Minke’s life as an immigrant unfolds in a series of joys and tragedies, from Sander’s unpredictable and often illegal business practices to the shocking kidnapping of her baby son, the imminent birth of a daughter and an arduous ocean journey to Ellis Island and America, there to be faced with more daunting challenges when reunited with DeVries and her treacherous older sister. So much happens in the three short years of her marriage that Minke can barely cope with the wound of losing her son and the new baby needing protection from the chaos of New York’s unfriendly streets.
That Minke overcomes all, searches for her son and reclaims her life is the meat of the novel, one that often seems simple, even fantastic. But the world was a different place, opportunity plentiful for men of vision and crooks alike, women relegated to subservient roles.
Lewis fills her story with the vigor of Minke’s youth and the gradual loss of innocence. Minke may be foolish and inexperienced, but she adapts to each phase of her life, flourishing in spite of considerable obstacles. Though it sometimes reads like a dime novel limned with purple prose, Lewis adopts the language and cultural influences of her grandmother’s era, her story imbued with the particular poignancy of time past. Perhaps Minke could not thrive today - the world she inhabited has changed so much as to be almost unimaginable - but Lewis’s paean to her grandmother captures the spirit and courage of the women who endured, suffered and ultimately triumphed.