by Duncan W. Alderson
Published in 2014 by Kensington Publishing.
Reviewed by Tess Anderson
It’s not unusual to use Texas as a backdrop for a story about a strong southern woman, but in Duncan Alderson’s book Magnolia City, the state almost functions as a character—and it takes something as big as Texas to parallel the protagonist of the story, Hetty Allen. Born to a wealthy family in 1920s Houston, her feisty nature pits her against her sister, her parents, society, and even herself. Through the eyes of Hetty, we are treated to the picture of early twentieth-century Texas, and Houston in its golden age. The imagery is powerful, and sets the tone of the novel. As the escapades progress, the landscape evolves to echo not just the events at hand, but the internal fluctuations of our heroine.
At first, Hetty seems like an entertaining, spunky young woman. She’s got a lot of progressive ideas, such as trusting her romantic life to Darwinism. Her ambition is balanced by a very kind nature. However, she is somewhat spoiled by her sheltered life, and has also learned to take advantage of her femininity. Her confidence contrasts with her sister’s diffidence, and their rivalry is almost uncomfortably realistic. They are at odds over the affections of a wealthy man from a privileged family. He prefers Hetty, but she finds herself attracted to another man, who is mysterious, independent, and an outsider. To complicate the matter even further, Hetty’s feelings for both men run deep: “The human heart had four chambers, after all, each one spacious enough to house her passion for the right kind of man.” But are either of them really the right kind of man for her?
As a rebellious, liberated woman of the early 20th century, she naturally chooses the man who more strongly motivates her physically. Indecisive until the very last-minute, Hetty throws caution to the wind. Her life, and the book, pick up an exciting pace. She travels the Lone Star State, engaging in bootlegging, wild-catting, and mysticism. Shunned by her family and cut off from their support, Hetty learns to forge her own path. The trail, in turn, carves her into a woman with empathy, brave through misfortune and tragedy. She learns the hard way that the romance of adventure can wear thin when there is no one else footing the bill. Her marriage and motherhood test her, and simultaneously teach her to be less selfish and more self-reliant.
The journey leads her to the most unexpected place of all, her roots. Through Hetty’s aunt, she learns the true story of Nella, Hetty’s mother. The tale clarifies their family history, as well as the history of Texas. She embraces her heritage and calls on her mother to follow suit. Inspired by learning of her mother’s once-strong resolve, and moved by the beauty of her aunt’s Virgin of Guadalupe-themed art, Hetty decides to “learn how to love people.” A compassionate, fiery feminist ahead of her time, and yet so perfectly suited in her own time, Hetty made me feel proud to be a Texas woman.
Tess Anderson is technically a writer. A technical writer. She’s the mother of two teenagers and graduated from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas and now live in southwest Austin.