Interview: Mary Volmer Author of Reliance, Illinois

Richly rendered characters populate Reliance, Illinois, which examines the lives of women in the late 1800s. 

Shelf Unbound: How did you come up with the name of the imaginary town, Reliance, Illinois?

Mary Volmer: I titled the book Reliance after Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” I remember loving the essay in college. It still moves me. The problem is that the premise of the essay presupposes people are born with the freedom to take responsibility for their circumstances, which isn’t always the case. Slavery wasn’t abolished until decades after the essay was published, and for most of the nineteenth century (and well into the twentieth) a woman’s body, her belongings, even her children became property of her husband upon marriage. She might have wished for self-reliance, but barred from most professions and without the means to better herself, she was reduced to an ornament if she were rich, and a laborer if she were not.

The story explores these realities. Some female characters strive for, and some achieve, a measure of autonomy. To others, self-reliance remains a fantasy. All characters, men and women, rely in some way on one another and on their communities. In the second draft I named the town Reliance, too. I loved imagining “reliance” as a place you could travel to or away from. Later, my editor suggested we add “Illinois” to the title and I liked the balance of the two words together, how well they grounded the thematic concerns in the grit of the story. So the title became Reliance, Illinois.

Shelf Unbound: Why did you choose to make your character Madelyn disfigured?

Volmer: I first imagined Madelyn as a grown woman, a suffragette in Oakland, whose birthmark and appearance enhanced her fame. Then I wondered what kind of childhood she would have had to endure to prepare her for such a role? How did this woman come to be and would she trade her fame for an anonymous beauty? 

The questions became part of the main story line of the book. How will Madelyn come to terms with her appearance? Does she? What hardships does it impose? What assumptions will people have about her? How will she find love, or a husband? Marriage is, after all, one of few “careers” open to her. What effect will romance stories and women’s magazines have on a girl so hopelessly beyond the ideal? What hardships do women, like Madelyn’s mother, endure because of their beauty? 

In the book, these questions played out with a dramatic urgency that wouldn’t have translated if Madelyn had merely been plain or ugly. I had fun playing with masculine ideals, too. Mr. Dryfus’s limp and physical limitations and Hanley’s size affect the way they are perceived and how they encounter the world. In each case there is a difference between how a character is judged based on their appearance and who they are inside.      

Shelf Unbound: Miss Rose, the suffragette, is a tragic figure. Why did you decide to write her that way?

Volmer: Miss Rose is of a generation of suffragettes who died before achieving their goal. I find this tragic, but I don’t think that circumstance alone explains Miss Rose. She is an outsized personality—flamboyant, charismatic, self-aggrandizing—who spent her youth and middle years on the stage and championing women’s rights. In Reliance she continues to seek the respect and adoration she believes she deserves. She complains that she is “persecuted” wherever she goes, yet seems to welcome—even invite—persecution. Other characters criticize her because, they say, she champions causes for profit, and to bolster her waning reputation. The criticism is, at least in part, warranted. But, so what if she does profit? Must altruism always be selfless, self-sacrificial even?  

Miss Rose doesn’t think so. “Why should profit nullify the intent?” she says. “I tell you, if it were profitable to fight injustice, then injustice would become as scarce as gold.”  

She’s right, but how do we judge her motivation? How do we judge Miss Rose? Not even Miss French, and later Madelyn, who glimpse the woman beneath the persona, are entirely sure who that woman is. Her attempt to write her autobiography is an effort to leave a flattering record, but even she can’t decide what definitive image to leave behind. So she doesn’t, and, like so many other women, is lost to history.  

That’s the tragedy, I think. She’s not an enigma, exactly; we know her by the end of the story, even if we don’t completely understand her motivations or her history. But she’s impossible to fully champion, or to loath. She’d never fit nicely on a silver dollar.     

Shelf Unbound: What interested you in writing about women’s lives in the late 1800s?

Volmer: I didn’t think I’d write any more about the nineteenth century after finishing Crown of Dust. But while researching that novel I kept coming across references to female reformers I’d never heard of, like Victoria Woodhull, Myra Bradwell, Eliza Farnham, Olympia Brown, Mary Livermore. These were outspoken, idealistic, sometime scandalous women, well known in their own time for living outside the private sphere assigned them, yet largely missing from textbook history. Why? What became of well-known female reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony after the Civil War and through the end of the nineteenth century? Did they retire? What happened to the suffrage movement? Why a gap of more than fifty years after the passage of the fifteenth amendment before women won the vote?  

Well, they didn’t retire. Some of those reformers fought their whole lives for rights they never enjoyed. They fought for their daughters’ rights, and for mine. The epigraph by Susan B. Anthony at the beginning of my novel says, “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make them ungrateful so they keep going.” The funny thing is, after the first pulse of curiosity got me reading, it was a sense of gratitude to Stanton and company that motivated me to write. That and the parallels which emerged between their lives and times, and my own.  

Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.” I love that quote and probably repeat it too often, but it’s true. Reliance, Illinois is set ten years after the Civil War, a time when the country, still divided, was mired in a world-wide economic depression, brought on by real estate over speculation and insurance and bank fraud. Familiar? Women were fighting for economic and political freedoms, not to mention the right to govern their bodies. The definition of marriage and rights within that institution was being challenged in the courts. New federal morality laws made it illegal to transport through the mail any items deemed “obscene” (a purposely ill-defined and flexible category into which contraceptives were also cast). Then you have the rise of Jim Crow and the start of a systematic oppression that continues in place of slavery today.  

Shelf Unbound: There is much misfortune in the novel, yet you end on a note of optimism, with the last line in which Maddy says: “And I am filled again with a familiar, stubborn, and obligatory hope.” Why choose this ending?  

Volmer: There is misfortune in the book, but it was always a story about hope and optimism.  When you’re young, you hope for yourself. It’s naïve and fragile and easily lost. The sturdier kind is the obligatory hope you maintain for the next generation. Young Madelyn is the vessel into which Miss Rose and Mrs. French pour their hopes. Later, Madelyn hopes for her daughters. This naïve and obligatory hope lives side by side, and allows for a generational resilience, without which these slow social changes would not be impossible. It’s a powerful and necessary combination.   

The books ends in 1908, years before the passage of the nineteenth amendment. The narrator, an older Maddy, doesn’t know if her efforts to gain the vote will be successful in her lifetime. But we know better. We know the law did, finally, change. The optimism we feel at the end of the book should be our own.  

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