Unsettled is Patricia Reis's debut novel of historical fiction. She uses a braided narrative to take the reader back and forth between present day and the 1870s world of German immigrants in Iowa.
Like other stories involving a modern and historic timeline, something has to trigger the modern-day protagonist to delve into the past. Here, Van Reinhardt is sent off on her historic quest when she finds message for her in her dead father’s desk. She sets out to fulfill her father's dying wish by tracking their ancestors' history. She searches through official records but only finds the key to her family’s secret when she discovers her Tante Kate’s diary.
While the framework may be familiar, Reis handles the story well. We feel like we are right there with Van, in a hot, humid Iowa summer, going through dusty archives. And Kate’s life as a new immigrant keep us glued to the page, especially when we begin to understand how her choices carried over to later generations.
A well-executed and highly readable debut.
FROM THE PUBLISHER'S DESCRIPTION
As Van Reinhardt clears out her father’s belongings, she comes across a request penned by her father prior to his death. Examining the family portrait of her German immigrant ancestors that he has left her, Van’s curiosity grows about one of the children portrayed there.
Meanwhile in the 1870s, Kate is a German immigrant newly arrived in America with only her brother as family. When she and her brother split, she eventually finds her way back to him, but with a secret.
Van revisits the town and the farm of her ancestors to discover calamitous events in probate records, farm auction lists, asylum records and lurid obituaries, hinting at a history far more complex and tumultuous than she had expected. But the mystery remains, until she chances upon a small book—sized for a pocket—that holds Tante Kate’s secret and provides the missing piece.