The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap is set in a small town in Nevada called Red River Pass in the year 1895. The story begins the day a telegram arrives with the news that author Oscar Wilde has been sentenced to two years hard labour by a British court of law under the recently passed gross indecency law making it illegal for men to have sex with men. When the news arrives in Red River Pass, it sets into motion a series of events of racism, hatred, religious discrimination, vicious rumour, jealousy, and, finally, subtle, satisfying revenge. It reminded me a bit of Little House on the Prairie where Nellie and her mother were always stirring things up and starting rumours, except that here it’s carried to extremes. As in any community, there are people who bully others and indulge in malicious gossip and those who refuse to stand up to them, there are people who only crave their privacy and wish to get on with their lives and those who consistently pry where they don’t belong, and there are lonely people, good people, who try to reach out to others, protecting and valuing them.
Within this story we are presented with rather interesting literary and philosophical discussions based on books that the store-keeper, Gus, keeps on the shelves in his own room (upstairs from the store) because they are too controversial to be on the shelves in his store. So he reads them, and loans them to his friend Charley, and hence the discussions begin: do we take everything in the Bible as fact or do we think for ourselves? if church people can cause so much damage to other lives by their gossiping tongues, is there value in belonging to a church? Charley has just lost the love of his life, Emma, and has come close to losing the will to live. Gus, it seems, learned from his mother on her deathbed that their family heritage was Russian Jewish, a fact they kept a secret even from their son out of fear of discrimination.
Charley and Gus strike up a friendship, having the odd evening meal together and eventually, share a passion for ideas. Their discussions expand to include the two cousins who inherited most of the land around the town and have enough money to generously extend loans to neighbours who have fallen to illness or on hard times. Despite their many kindnesses, the two ladies are ridiculed by the townsfolk, and to an extent, ostracized. Mildred, in particular, dresses in mannish clothing, has a receding hairline, is overweight and unattractive. Edra hardly ever ventures far from the house. Mildred and Edra have cared for each other since they were young children growing up together after Edra’s parents died, and Mildred was the one who pulled 9-year-old Edra together after a drifter raped her in a nearby field. But their relationship is more than close, and with all the talk in town over the Oscar Wilde conviction, Mildred becomes frantic. She has to protect herself and Edra any way she can. Finally a plan comes to her, and with Edra’s reluctant agreement, Mildred puts it into action. She begins to show an interest in Charley just before his wife dies. But almost immediately, the plan begins to go awry and the town unease seems to escalate rather than settle down. The town gossips won’t let up, and Mildred’s health is endangered by the stress.
I think part of this story’s appeal is that we’ve seen this sort of thing before; it’s everywhere around us and despite what we know from history, these attitudes continue to flourish whether on a school playground, in the southern US, in African and European countries, or on the world stage in Hitler’s Germany. Here we have it in microcosm with a most satisfying ending. (Well, mostly, anyway.) * * * * *
Paulette Mahurin, an award-winning author, is a Nurse Practitioner who lives in Ojai, California with her husband Terry and their two dogs–Max and Bella. She practices women’s health in a rural clinic and writes in her spare time. All profits from this book are going to animal rescue (Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center, the first and only no-kill animal shelter in Ventura County, CA where Ms. Mahurin lives. Her books are available at Amazon and other fine bookstores.