Author Laurie Loewenstein sets up her story in a small Midwest town, at an epoch of change for the United States and the world – the Great War – and uses the tides and currents of these changes to drive her wonderful novel, Unmentionables. Characters open the story in opposition to each other and sometimes themselves, and the forces they encounter produce alterations along the way, and new characters result. This is the stuff of excellent fiction, and Unmentionables is excellent.
At story’s outset, the big tent swings into town and with it the Chautauqua lectures. The year is 1917, and the edifying lectures include one on women’s undergarment reform (the “unmentionables” of the title). A tall, statuesque divorcée delivers this lecture and the reception is predictably mixed. Agents for change, she and the local newspaper publisher encounter violent race prejudice and jingoism, dominant attitudes during World War I, and Ms. Loewenstein does a superb job of bringing these other unmentionables home to us. Besides the vivid scenes in small town America, we get unforgettable passages on the eastern front in France, and in the industrial relations trenches of Chicago. These chapters have a brightness, an immediacy. They remind us that dragging journalism into the 20th century didn’t come without a cost; that giving women the right to vote and to hold jobs in the marketplace, were wrenching changes, requiring sacrifice and dedication.
This book portrays the effect of sweeping social changes on a handful of individuals, but I want to make clear that Ms. Loewenstein’s characters have depth and nuance and are not cardboard cutouts by any stretch. The central players all benefit from the author’s skill at observing a mental state, or an emotional motivation. This is a gratifying, impressive debut for both the author and the publisher, thought-provoking on the social history, sympathetic on the human level. Well done!