San Francisco has a history of earthquakes, but perhaps the most famous of all happened in 1906, before building codes and a scientific understanding of the San Andreas Fault. The 1906 earthquake was one of the worst to hit northern Colorado, and it destroyed 80 percent of the city of San Francisco, and killed some-3,000 people.
The earthquake and its destructive aftermath is the stage for much of Susan Meissner’s interesting novel, The Nature of Fragile Things. The story starts off mysteriously, with what is clearly a hearing in which the main character, Sophie Whalen, is testifying.
Sophie left Ireland under mysterious circumstances, and lands in a New York City tenement where she is surrounded by filth and crime, hunger and loneliness. She is so desperate to escape her circumstances that she answers an ad placed in one of the NYC newspapers from a San Francisco man seeking a wife and mother for his 5-year-old child. The arrangement is made, and Sophie makes the long trip to San Francisco, knowing virtually nothing about her soon-to-husband.
He meets her at the station, and they immediately go to the justice of the peace to be married. He then takes her home to meet his little girl, Kat, who hasn’t spoken since her mother died. While Sophie wants to make her new arrangement work, it is clear that things aren’t what they should be. Martin Hocking is handsome and generous, and has bought a beautiful home in which the three can live. He travels extensively for his job, being gone weeks at a time. When he’s home, he has little to do with either his wife or his child.
Sophie comes to love Kat like she is her own child, and intends to make the best of things. That is, until one day, while Martin is out of town, Sophie gets a surprise visitor that changes everything. It so happens that is the day before the earthquake hits.
Sophie, Kat, and her visitor are left homeless following the earthquake, and struggle to make their way to someplace safe. They watch the city crumble around them and begin to burn. They fight to find safety.
The Nature of Fragile Things is a story about courage and resilience and friendship. The author offers realistic descriptions of a city under great duress, and the kindness — and lack of kindness — displayed by others in crisis.
The story took many twists and turns, leading to a surprise ending.
I enjoyed The Nature of Fragile Things very much.