One for the Black Bird, One for the Crow

Olivia Hawker

Lake Union  Publishing 2019


Olivia Hawker’s enchanting historical novel, One for the Black Bird, One for the Crow, takes place in rugged and isolated Wyoming in 1870 where the nearest town, Paintrock, lies miles away, unapproachable in winter except by sleigh. 

Based on Hawker’s family folklore and embellished with artistic liberty, she weaves a tale around two women, Cora Bemis and Nettie Mae Webber, who must come to terms with anger and anguish to survive a Wyoming winter. Cora, who grew up in St. Louis, surrounded by “society,” is desperate for companionship, other than her husband and four children. She’s caught in a compromising position with Nettie Mae’s husband, Substance. Cora’s husband, Ernest, in an “act of passion” kills Substance and is sent to jail for two years.  

Nettie Mae’s only child, sixteen-year-old Clyde, recognizes the fatal situation the Bemis family is in, so despite his mother’s objections, he decides to manage both homesteads, only to take ill with exhaustion. It becomes apparent to Nettie Mae that if she wants Clyde to survive, she must invite the Bemis family to move into her home during winter. Guilt-ridden Cora accepts blame for everyone’s plight, a fact made abundantly clear to her by Nettie Mae during those winter months.

Most difficult for Nettie is Cora’s daughter, Beulah, whom she considers “simple-witted,” but also “clear-eyed,” able to sense forthcoming events with a “placid acceptance in the place of where fear should have been.” She possesses grown-up strength and works side-by-side with Clyde, heightening Nettie Mae’s fears he would fall in love with the daughter of the woman who killed her husband. 

. . . a suspenseful female-survivor story . . .

There is sufficient suspense to make this book a page-turner: Cora’s toddler is caught in flash flood, and Nettie Mae’s house has a chimney fire. Then, there’s a mysterious set of china dishes, sent to Cora by President Ulysses S. Grant.

A skillful storyteller, Hawker serves up seemingly endless pages with vivid Wyoming descriptions, where “wilderness came right up the front door…caging you under the dome of an endless sky.” It’s a suspenseful female-survivor story, about hardship on the frontier.