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Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen

Iowa, the American Mid-west, rolling hills and cornfields, Amish and Mennonite farmers, and the setting of Thisbe Nissen’s new novel Our Lady of the Prairie.

Thisbe Nissen in an American author, in her mid 40s, she had two earlier novels, Osprey Island and The Good People of New York, published to much acclaim, and now Our Lady of the Prairie. When this book arrived in the store it went to the top of my “to read” pile and I read it over two days, not wanting to put it down for a moment except to catch my breath – to take a break from the emotional intensity.

This is the story of Phillipa Maakestad, her husband of 25 years, Michael, her adult daughter, Ginny – and Phillipa’s lover, Lucius. And Michael’s mother, Bernadette. Along with a great cast of secondary characters, friends and acquaintances, who enrich the lives of the Maakestad family and delight the reader.

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It is 2004, but in many ways it could be America 2018. George W is president and he is running for a second term. This past year Canadians have been watching a great deal more American news than usual, and we have become well aware that political loyalty makes for a deeply divided America. There is a scene in this novel of the night of George W’s re-election that might have seemed completely over the top before the Trump election – but it is entirely believable now.

Woven into the story of a passionate affair, the unraveling of a long marriage, and the deeply complicated relationship between a mother and her adult daughter, is a portrait of one small part of America and what one affluent woman discovers when she spends time in a small village during a year of personal and political upheaval. 

Phillipa, I thought, was a great character. Immature in many ways, but honest and passionate, and caring. When she embarks on this affair she knows that she is crossing a line, one that she may regret, but she does it. She loves Lucius; she wants a future with him. But, the reality is she has a husband to whom she has been married a long time, they have, together, managed to bring their very troubled daughter to adulthood, and now should be the time they enjoy less responsibility and more time together. Some way into the story Phillipa says to herself “my old life seemed to live just on the other side of a flimsy screen door” and we can see how she could open – or close – that door and simply step back into her old life – or not.

Our Lady of the Prairie is a novel I bet you will not want to put down once you’ve started reading, this writer’s imagining of events in the past are as wonderful as the present day story. And, I bet you will cry, for Phillipa, her daughter, her husband – and perhaps for yourself.

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