Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson
The climax of The Promise comes with the massive Galveston hurricane of September 1900. The most deadly natural disaster ever to strike the United States, the storm left more than 6,000 people dead, flattened the city of Galveston, and permanently ended the city's status as Texas' most important seaport.
This novel imagines the lives of two women living on Galveston Island a few miles outside the city. Concert pianist Catherine Wainwright leaves Ohio after a disastrous scandal ends a love affair and drives her to accept a renewed proposal from Oscar Williams, the widowed dairy farmer who years ago asked her to marry him. Disoriented by shame and loss, shocked by the Texas heat and Galveston's rustic manners, Catherine struggles to keep her composure, an effort that makes her all the more awkward as Oscar's bride and as stepmother to his five-year-old son. Nan Ogden, a close friend of Oscar's first wife, has been keeping house for him and caring for his son, cherishing a hope that he would marry her once his grief faded. She resents Catherine's arrival, showing disdain for her lack of initiative and skill with domestic tasks, and irritation when Catherine does try to help with the housework.
The ominous signs of the impending hurricane are not well understood by the islanders, who have weathered milder storms by building their homes on stilts and trusting the "ridge" to shelter them. The storm tests all three characters, revealing unexpected strengths and weaknesses as tragedy descends. Despite the high drama of its storyline, The Promise is an understated novel told in clean, cool language. The characters feel thoroughly real; if this makes them less compellingly sympathetic than some readers might wish, it makes them all the more credible for readers looking for a believable story about one of history's deadliest storms. (2013; 309 pages, including an Author's Note about the history behind the story)More about The Promise at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository