Until Kitchener Public Library’s supply of volumes of A Bride’s Story runs out, I am going to keep revisiting this series.
Unlike the previous two volumes, the focus in Volume Three isn’t on Amir, but someone previously a supporting character and info-dump facilitator: wandering ethnologist and linguist Henry Smith. In this volume the inquisitive Mr. Smith gains the answer to a question he never asked:
Just how much trouble can an Englishman traveling alone in Central Asia get into?
Not only does Smith fail to rendezvous with his new guide, he discovers the hard way why it is a bad idea to leave a horse and a pile of luggage unattended in an unfamiliar market. Fortunately the market chief looks very dimly on thieves, The affair also sets up the meet-cute with the other victim of marketplace horse thievery, the young widow Talas; Smith soon finds himself a guest of the pretty young woman and her mother-in-law.
Which brings its own problems…
As Talas’ mother-in-law explains to her guest, Talas has a tragic history; she is not just a widow, but a widow five times over, having married a succession of brothers, each more doomed to an early grave than the last. By the time Smith appears on the scene, there are no brothers left, and their father has died as well. It’s just Talas and her aging (and doting) mother-in-law, surviving as best they can on the unforgiving plains.
To complicate matters, Talas’ cruel uncle has his eye on her as an inexpensive second bride for his son, someone who can be worked like a slave once she is away from the watchful eye of her mother-in-law. The obvious solution is to marry Talas off before the uncle can bully her into an ill-fated marriage. Or at least it is obvious to Talas’ mother-in-law. It is an astounded Mr. Smith who hears Talas’ mother-in-law’s claim that Smith has asked for Talas’s hand in marriage.
As Mr. Smith realizes, Talas’ mother-in-law isn’t just exploiting a naive foreigner; she’s seen something obvious between Mr. Smith and Talas. Obvious to her, at any rate; Talas and Mr. Smith are a bit slower off the mark.
By trying to orchestrate Talas and Mr. Smith’s wedding, the doting mother-in-law has turned Smith into a target for the cruel uncle. The uncle attempts to remove him by embroiling him with the local authorities. The ethnologist, they are told, is no wandering scholar but a spy. And the peoples of Central Asia do not deal kindly with spies….
This was an interesting change of pace from the first two volumes. Their story line (Amir’s old family wants her back and her new one refuses to let her go) is set aside for at least this volume. Indeed, there’s a hint in this volume that Amir’s old family may have run afoul of the expansionistic Russians.
Speaking of geopolitics, both Britain and Russia had their eye on this part of Central Asia in the 19th century. The locals were aware of what was then called the Great Game and not at all interested in becoming the imperial possessions of far off powers. Even native surveyors had to be very circumspect in their quest for knowledge; someone like Smith, an obvious foreigner asking detailed questions, would be even more suspect. Although once he is arrested, his lengthy notes on women’s work baffle his male captors, as they can see no strategic value in weaving and cooking .
About the only thing keeping Smith in possession of his goods and his head is the fact that this is a fairly amiable series. As it is, this volume is one of the more melancholy episodes. Nobody dies (well, except for Talas’ five husbands and also her father-in-law and also maybe all of Amir’s birth clan) but nobody really gets what they want, either. Not all stories end happily.
1: The men are capable of cooking, as one long communal cooking episode proves. But it has to be manly cooking.